|This Week in History
March 28 - April 3, 1824
Lafayette Revives the Memory of the American Revolution
In the late summer of 1824, Gen. Gilbert Lafayette returned to America as the "Guest of the Nation," and embarked on an exhaustive and exhausting tour of all 24 states in the union. No longer known as "Marquis," for he had renounced his title during the battle for a French constitutional republic, Lafayette and his American collaborators, planned to rekindle the ideas of the American Revolution both at home and abroad. In America the progress of his tour was followed avidly, while in Europe, despite complete censorship in monarchist France, any news from Lafayette's tour gave hope to those who wanted to follow America's example.
Within a week of landing at New York City in August, Lafayette had set off for New England, and then, the Mid-Atlantic states. He visited Washington's tomb at Mount Vernon, and took part in the anniversary celebration of the British surrender at Yorktown, where he and Alexander Hamilton had led the successful night attacks on two redoubts which were located so close to General Cornwallis's lines that the British were forced to surrender.
Lafayette spent the winter in Washington City, but made frequent side trips to meet with friends from the days of the American Revolution. Then, at the first sign of early spring, he embarked on a 4,000-mile journey by carriage and steamboat in order to visit every southern and western state. His schedule was arranged so that he would reach Boston by June 17, where he was to lay the cornerstone for the Bunker Hill Monument on the 50th anniversary of the battle. He had always stated that it was the brave American challenge to the British Army at Bunker Hill in 1775 which became the "polestar" by which he had steered his course, and which had inspired him to come to America and offer his services to the Continental Army.
Lafayette took with him his son, George Washington Lafayette; his secretary, Auguste Levasseur; and Bastien, his valet and indispensable helper. With the aid of his son, who had been sent to safety in America during the Terror in France, and General Bernard of the Coastal Survey, Lafayette mapped out a daunting journey through the Carolinas to Raleigh, Charleston, and Savannah, and then, overland into the wilderness of western Georgia and Alabama, to Mobile and New Orleans. The tour continued up the Mississippi to St. Louis, then east on the Ohio River, and up through Pennsylvania and New York State to the Erie Canal, which would take him to Albany, and from there, overland to Boston.
Lafayette's party boarded a Potomac River steamship on Feb. 23, arrived in Norfolk, Va., three days later, and transferred to carriages for the journey through the Carolinas. Although his party was met at each town by an escort of local militia, they encountered such bad roads that their horses often became mired in mud, and in South Carolina, at one point, they became lost in the swamps. But each town they entered had been illuminated to greet him, and there were welcoming speeches, banquets, and balls. Continental Army veterans travelled for many miles to reach the towns where Lafayette would be staying, in order to see him again, and reminisce about the dangers and triumphs they had shared.
When he reached Columbia, S.C., Lafayette was joined by Col. Francis Huger, who, as a young medical student in Vienna, had tried to rescue him from the prison of Olmutz, and had himself been imprisoned when the attempt failed. Huger accompanied Lafayette to Charleston, where the troop of cavalry which greeted them was dressed in the uniform of Lafayette's former National Guard of Paris, and welcomed him with the old familiar phrase, "Vive Lafayette!" At the dinner given by the Society of the Cincinnati, George Lafayette honored Huger by proposing a toast to "the everlasting gratitude of all my father's children and grandchildren to his gallant deliverers at Olmutz!"
Charleston had been the first American city that Lafayette had seen when he arrived from France in 1777, and the Huger home on one of the coastal islands was the first place where he had stayed. Therefore, there was a special enthusiasm to the Charleston celebrations. Days of festivities culminated in a grand ball, where Lafayette was announced by a flourish of trumpets and entered to the strains of "Hail to the Chief."
According to accounts of the time, there were 1,800 ladies in the ballroom's boxes, all wearing long white gloves with "Lafayette" stamped on them. When they rose and applauded, Lafayette walked around the room bowing courteously, and at that point, decorum was thrown to the winds, and they "scrambled one over another from the back seats to get hold of his hand, some kissing it, often three or four having hold of him at once, some by the hand, some by the breast of his coat---Was virtue ever more nobly rewarded?"
After visiting Savannah to lay the cornerstones of monuments to his deceased friends Gen. Nathanael Green and Count Casimir Pulaski, Lafayette reached Milledgeville, Ga. on March 27. When he headed west, the scene and the welcomes changed dramatically. Lafayette's party travelled through virgin forests, on roads that were merely gullies or traces. A violent thunderstorm caused them to seek shelter in a cabin where the traders and Indians failed to recognize them. But when they reached the Chattahoochee River, Chief McIntosh and a full delegation of Creek Indians were there to greet them, along with the Alabama Committee on Arrangements.
Everyone fell silent as Lafayette appeared, and the Indians rushed to pick up his carriage and carry it a safe distance from shore. Then Chief McIntosh addressed Lafayette in English, saying that all his brethren were happy to be visited by one who had never made a distinction of blood and color; that Lafayette was the honored father of all the races of men dwelling on the continent. When the chief finished, all the Indian braves came forward, and in turn placed their right arm on that of Lafayette. At the Indian village, Lafayette witnessed a game of lacrosse and visited the Indian school.
Chief McIntosh asked to accompany Lafayette to Montgomery, as he wanted to take his ten-year-old brother there to be educated. During the trip, early spring rains had swollen a creek above the level of the bridge they had to cross, so a party of Indians lined up on either side and formed a human chain to mark the edge of the bridge for the carriages.
When Lafayette arrived at Line Creek, a group of warriors were waiting on their ponies, and he was addressed by an old chief who said, "Father, it will long be said among us that you came back to visit our forests and our cabins, you whom the Great Spirit had formerly sent from the other side of the great lake to drive out the enemies of men, the English in their blood-colored coats. The youngest among us will tell their grandchildren that they have touched your hand and seen your face; they will see you perhaps again, for you are the favorite of the Great Spirit and you never grow old."
On April 3, the travellers reached Montgomery, and Lafayette reluctantly parted with Chief McIntosh, who had become a good friend. At two in the morning the group boarded a steamer on the Alabama River, and headed for Mobile Bay, covering 300 miles in three days. The trip would have taken a month to six weeks without steam, but even though he was maintaining an almost breakneck pace, Lafayette still had thousands of miles to cover before his June 17 appointment in Boston.