Who was Marquis de Lafayette?
Marquis de Lafayette was a French aristocrat and soldier who heard about the Patriot Cause while attending a dinner in France in 1775. Soon after, he made arrangements to travel to America, where he volunteered to serve in the Continental Army, without pay. During the war, Lafayette became one of General George Washington’s most trusted officers and commanded troops during the Siege of Yorktown in 1781, which ended with the British surrender.
Marquis de Lafayette Quick Facts
- Full Name: Lafayette’s full name was Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roche Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, but he is commonly referred to as the “Marquis de Lafayette,” or simply as “Lafayette.”
- Date of Birth: He was born on September 6, 1757, at the Château de Chavaniac, in Chavaniac-Lafayette, near Le Puy-en-Velay, in the province of present-day Haute-Loire.
- Parents: His father was Michel Louis Christophe Roch Gilbert Paulette du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette, Colonel of Grenadiers, and his mother was Marie Louise Jolie de La Rivière.
- Died: Lafayette died on May 20, 1834, in Paris, France, at the age of 76.
- Buried: He is buried in Picpus Cemetery in Paris.
Early Life of Lafayette
Marquis de Lafayette was a key figure in two major historical events:
- The American Revolutionary War (1775–83)
- The early stages of the French Revolution (1789–99).
Lafayette was born in Chavaniac, France, in 1757. Before his second birthday, he lost his father, a Colonel of Grenadiers, who was killed at the Battle of Minden (August 1, 1759), during the Seven Years’ War. His mother died when he was 12 years old, and his grandfather died a few weeks later, leaving him as an orphan — but also very wealthy.
Lafayette Enters the French Military
Lafayette joined the French Royal Army when he was 14 as a musketeer on April 9, 1771. By all accounts, his dedication and skills were evident and he quickly rose through the ranks. He attained the rank of Second Lieutenant in the Noailles Regiment on April 7, 1773. A year later, on May 19, 1774, he was promoted to the rank of Captain.
When he was 16 he married his cousin, Marie Adrienne Francoise de Noailles, a relative of King Louis XVI, which strengthened his ties to one of the most powerful families in France.
Dinner with the Duke of Gloucester
Lafayette first learned about the American Revolution at a dinner he attended on August 8, 1775, when he was stationed at Metz. It was during this gathering that the Duke of Gloucester openly shared his candid and sympathetic perspective regarding the actions of the Americans and the Patriot Cause.
Lafayette Decides to Go to America
The Duke’s opinion influenced Lafayette’s decision to support the Americans, and he started to make plans to leave France and go to America — without the King’s permission.
He knew that both his family and the king would disapprove of him going to America. First, he would be putting his life at risk. Second, France was at peace with Great Britain. French support for the Patriot Cause could lead to war between France and Great Britain.
Lafayette quietly confided in the Comte de Broglie who introduced him to Johann de Kalb. De Kalb, who was also trying to make his way to America to join the fight, took Lafayette under his wing.
Lafayette Offers to Serve in the Continental Army Without Pay
After numerous delays, they embarked on their journey to America, armed with written agreements from Silas Deane assuring them of commissions as Major Generals in the Continental Army. Traveling with a group of French soldiers, Lafeyette and De Kalb arrived near Georgetown, South Carolina, on June 13, 1777. Over the next six weeks, they made their way to Philadelphia.
Their initial reception by the Continental Congress was not what Lafayette expected, as Congress was skeptical about the idea of a 19-year-old Major General. However, Lafayette offered to serve without pay and volunteered to begin as a simple soldier. On July 31, Congress granted him the rank of Major General but did not give him command of troops.
Washington and Lafayette
The next day, August 1, Lafayette met George Washington for the first time. At the start, Washington was cautious of Lafayette’s eagerness to assume a field command within the American forces. However, Lafayette joined his staff, marking the beginning of a lifelong friendship.
Lafayette’s First Action — the Battle of Brandywine
Lafayette’s commitment to his role and his actions during the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777, started to change Washington’s perception of him.
General William Howe, devised a plan for the British to capture Philadelphia, which involved transporting troops from New York by ship to Chesapeake Bay. This would allow them to bypass Delaware Bay, which was well-defended by American forces. After landing, the British would march to Philadelphia.
Following the Battle of Cooch’s Bridge (September 3, 1777), the British marched toward Philadelphia and Washington moved his army into position to block their path. Washington expected a direct attack on the front of his forces, but Howe decided to outflank the American forces.
As the British forces moved to flank him, Washington sent Lafayette to join forces with General John Sullivan. Lafayette joined the Third Pennsylvania Brigade under the command of General Thomas Conway. Lafayette tried to rally the brigade to face the advancing British forces. However, the British had superior numbers and were able to force the Americans to fall back.
During the fight, Lafayette suffered a gunshot wound to his left thigh. However, he remained to help ensure the orderly withdrawal of the brigade before he sought treatment for the wound. He was eventually taken to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where he was cared for by Moravians
Washington sent a letter to Congress and recommended Lafayette for the command of a division, praising his “bravery and military ardor.”
Soon after, the British captured Philadelphia, forcing Congress to evacuate the city.
After a two-month recovery period, Lafayette rejoined the army at White Marsh, following the Battle of Germantown (October 4, 1777).
Battle of Gloucester
On November 25, was given command of an expedition by General Nathanael Greene. The purpose of the mission was to scout the size and location of British forces at Gloucester, New Jersey, under the command of General Charles Cornwallis.
Lafayette had around 350 men under his command. He scouted the camp, gathered the information he needed, and then launched a surprise attack on a group of around 350-400 Hessian Jaegers — highly skilled riflemen.
The Americans took the Hessians by surprise and quickly routed them. Lafayette’s men inflicted heavy casualties on the Hessians, killing 20, wounding 20, and capturing another 20.
On December 1, 1777, Congress rewarded Lafayette by giving him command of a division of Virginia troops.
Valley Forge and the Conway Cabal
Lafayette returned to serve on Washington’s staff during the Winter at Valley Forge (1777–1778).
Following the British capture of Philadelphia, members of Congress and officers in the army conspired to replace Washington as Commander-in-Chief.
General Thomas Conway was one of the chief architects of the scheme, which is known as the “Conway Cabal.”
When it was uncovered, Conway was disgraced and General John Cadwalader challenged him to a duel. Cadwalader shot Conway through the mouth, but Conway survived and apologized to Washington for his conduct.
During this time, Lafayette was an unwavering supporter of Washington.
Second Invasion of Canada
In early 1778, General Horatio Gates, who served on the Board of War, gained support from Congress on a plan to invade Canada. He chose Lafayette to lead this expedition.
Lafayette set out for Albany, New York, in February. When he arrived, he found there were not enough men. Further, the men who were there were poorly equipped and short on supplies. They were also upset because they had not been paid for their service by Congress for several months.
Lafayette sent letters to General Washington and Congress, advising against continuing with the plan to invade Canada. As a result, Congress decided to abandon the plan and Lafayette rejoined Washington at Valley Forge in April.
British Forces Evacuate Philadelphia
British officials responded by deciding to evacuate Philadelphia and consolidating British forces in New York City. The evacuation started in May 1778.
Lafayette Leads Troops at the Battle of Barren Hill
On May 18, Washington sent Lafayette and 2,200 men, including militia, to scout British forces near Barren Hill, Pennsylvania. When General William Howe found out Lafayette was in the area, he gathered an army of around 11,000 men and went to engage the Americans. Howe fully intended to capture or kill Lafayette.
British forces tried to surround Lafayette’s camp on May 20. When Lafayette’s militia saw the British, they ran.
Lafayette remained calm and sent a small force forward to engage the British and delay their advance. Meanwhile, he evacuated the remainder of his men via a road that concealed them from the British. He also sent small patrols out to fire on the British, which tricked the British into thinking he had more men than he really did.
The maneuvers allowed Lafayette to successfully withdraw with minimal casualties, suffering just three men killed.
Lafayette at the Battle of Monmouth
After Barren Hill, the British Army continued its march to New York, under the command of General Henry Clinton. In June, it approached Monmouth Court House, New Jersey.
Lafayette and some other officers suggested to Washington that the Continental Army should attack the rear of the British Army in New Jersey, even though it could lead to a larger battle.
Washington agreed and initially offered the command to General Charles Lee. However, Lee did not agree with the plan — and did not like Washington — so he declined. Washington responded by giving the command to Lafayette.
In late June, Lafayette started his advance, but Lee changed his mind and decided to accept Washington’s offer. He met with Lafayette and encouraged him to step aside due to his inexperience. Lafayette agreed.
The battle took place on June 28, 1778. The American forces, led by General Lee attacked the rear of the British Army, which was under the command of General Charles Cornwallis.
During the fighting, Lee made tactical mistakes that allowed Cornwallis to gain the advantage.
Lafayette was in command of the reserve, and a portion of Lee’s men. When he saw Lee wavering, he sent a message to Washington, urging him to come to the front to see what was happening.
Washington arrived and rallied the Americans, gaining an advantage by placing artillery under the command of General Nathanael Greene on a hill. This allowed the Americans to fire on the British lines and kept the British from taking the right flank of the Continental Army. After a long day of fighting, hostilities ceased.
During the night, Clinton decided to pull the British out and resumed the march to New York City.
Lafayette at the Battle of Rhode Island
Following Monmouth, Washington sent Lafayette to Rhode Island to support an operation that was intended to force British forces out of Newport, Rhode Island. He went with General Nathanael Green and 3,000 men.
At Newport, the Americans, under the command of General John Sullivan, were laying siege to the city. Soon after, they were joined by French forces under the command of Admiral d’Estaing. Although the Allied leaders agreed to a plan, Sullivan made a tactical decision that altered the plan and upset the French officers.
The French responded by sailing out to the ocean where they engaged a fleet of British ships under the command of Admiral Richard Howe. As the two fleets started to battle, a violent storm blew in and scattered the fleets.
Deciding to sail to Boston for repairs, the French left the Americans to carry out the operation on their own. Outage over the French withdrawal, Lafayette and John Hancock went to Boston to try to ease tensions, which led to violence against some French soldiers while they were on shore.
Lafayette returned to Rhode Island as Sullivan was preparing to withdraw and give up the operation. However, British forces attacked on August 29. As seems to have been typical, Lafayette remained calm and helped maintain order in the American lines during the evacuation, which took place on August 30–31.
Congress commended him for his actions during the battle.
Trip to France
Following the conclusion of the 1778 campaign, Lafayette asked Congress for a leave of absence so he could return to France. He intended to do whatever he could to gain support for the Patriot Cause and to mend his damaged relationship with King Louis XVI.
Congress granted his request on October 21, appending a letter of recommendation to Louis XVI on Lafayette’s behalf.
On January 11, 1779, Lafayette embarked on his journey to France, arriving in Paris a month later. Upon his arrival, he was ignored for a week — apparently placed on house arrest — because he had left France against the King’s wishes.
However, when he was finally received, he was greeted enthusiastically at the Royal Court and appointed as Colonel of Dragoons. He was even invited to go hunting with the King.
Lafayette delivered his report of the situation in America, earning the trust of Charles Gravier, the Comte de Vergennes, the French foreign minister. This led to French officials discussing various options to help the Americans, including invasions of England, Ireland, or Canada, or securing part of the Swedish Navy for service in America.
At first, Lafayette supported an invasion of Britain, but the plan fell apart and he turned his attention to returning to America with French troops. He worked with Benjamin Franklin to acquire military support, including 6,000 troops under the command of General Jean-Baptiste de Rochambeau.
Lafayette Rejoins Washington
In March 1780, Lafayette returned to America. He would be followed by Rochambeau and 12 battalions of French troops. Lafayette was to serve as the liaison between Washington and Rochambeau. Lafayette rejoined Washington at Morristown, New Jersey on May 10, 1780, and delivered the news that French reinforcements were on the way.
While they waited for Rochambeau, Washington worked to gather troops and provisions and placed Lafayette in command of a division of troops.
Unfortunately, when Rochambeau arrived he did not have all the men and supplies that were expected. Rochambeau insisted on waiting for more to arrive before engaging the British. The situation upset Lafayette, who refused to wait, insisting on an attack against New York. Lafayette’s response upset Rochambeau, who refused to meet with him. In turn, Washington met with Lafayette, urged him to be patient, and convinced him to issue an apology to Rochambeau.
The British Southern Campaign
By then, British forces were working their way up through the South, taking control of key locations, starting with Savannah, Georgia. On August 16, 1780, American forces under the command of General Horatio Gates suffered a devastating defeat at the Battle of Camden. The Patriot Cause suffered a significant blow, as it appeared Britain had regained control of South Carolina.
The Treason of Benedict Arnold
Less than a month later, the Patriot Cause suffered another setback when it was discovered General Benedict Arnold was conspiring with Major John André and General Henry Clinton to turn the fort at West Point, New York over to the British. Up until that point, Washington considered Arnold one of his most able field commanders. Although André was captured and hanged, Arnold escaped and went on to serve in the British Army.
The Battle of Kings Mountain Turns the Tide in the South
Five days after André was executed for spying, American militia forces from western Virginia – present-day Kentucky and Tennessee — known as the Overmountain Men, defeated British forces at the Battle of Kings Mountain (October 7, 1780). It was a crucial victory that turned the tide of the war in the South, forcing General Cornwallis to abandon plans to invade North Carolina.
The Battle of Cowpens
On January 17, 1781, American forces under the command of General Daniel Morgan defeated the British who were led by Lieutenant Colonel Banastre Tarleton. The Battle of Cowpens took place near Chesnee, South Carolina.
The American victory was significant because Tarleton’s command was essentially destroyed.
Due to the loss, Cornwallis decided to turn his attention to the pursuit of the American forces under the command of General Nathanael Greene. By chasing after Greene, Cornwallis used up supplies and lost men he could not replace.
Lafayette and Siege of Yorktown
In the spring of 1781, Washington sent Lafayette to Virginia so he could join with General Friedrich von Steuben. After Arnold led British troops on raids in Virginia, Washington sent them after Arnold.
Their purpose was to find Arnold and his army, capture Arnold, and hang him. However, the plan never reached its fruition and only a portion of Lafayette’s men made it to Virginia.
Battle of Green Spring
During a significant portion of his time in the South, Lafayette’s role was mainly to observe and follow the British army in Virginia. He successfully evaded British forces and helped avoid disaster at the Battle of Green Spring on July 6, 1781.
During the battle, American forces, under the command of General Anthony Wayne, were caught in an ambush. Lafayette was observing the action from a ridge and saw the trap unfold. Although he was unable to warn Wayne, he took action and led his men into the fight.
As Wayne’s men retreated, Lafayette arrived, however, it was not enough to stop the British advance, under the command of General Cornwallis. The American retreat continued. Although the battle was lost, Cornwallis did not pursue the Americans.
Following the battle, Lafayette’s reports and letters indicated Cornwallis was in retreat.
Cornwallis Moves to Yorktown
Less than a month after Green Spring, on August 1, 1781, Cornwallis moved into Yorktown, Virginia. He intended to use it as a base to resupply his army and continue his campaign in Virginia.
Spies working for Lafayette found out about the British plan, which Lafayette sent to Washington. Washington responded by instructing Lafayette to use his 5,000 troops to block Cornwallis from escaping by land.
Washington and Rochambeau left New York and started to march south to Yorktown while a French fleet, under the command of Admiral de Grasse, sailed to the Chesapeake Bay. Meanwhile, Lafayette occupied Malvern Hill, northwest of Yorktown.
Battle of the Capes
On September 5, the French defeated the British in a naval battle in the Chesapeake Bay, off the coast of Maryland and Virginia. The victory at the Battle of the Chesapeake, also known as the Battle of the Capes, was strategic because it kept the British from reinforcing their troops in Yorktown or evacuating them. The British Navy was forced to return to New York and de Grasse resumed his blockade of the Chesapeake Bay.
Siege of Yorktown and Surrender of Cornwallis
On October 9, 1781, the bombardment of Yorktown started.
Five days later, on October 14, American and French forces attacked strategic British positions outside of Yorktown. Lieutenant Colonel Wilhelm Graf von Zweibrücken led 400 men and took Redoubt Number Nine. Colonel Alexander Hamilton led another 400 troops and took Redoubt Number Ten.
Cornwallis met with his officers on October 16 and they agreed they had no choice but to surrender. The terms of surrender were agreed to on October 18 and the Articles of Capitulation were signed the next day. Afterward, the official surrender ceremony took place.
With the main hostilities over, Congress granted Lafayette’s request to return to France.
Return to France
In December 1781, Lafayette returned to France on the Alliance, carrying commendations from the Continental Congress addressed to both Louis XVI and the U.S. ministers in France. He also carried instructions for the ministers to collaborate with him and make use of his skills.
When he arrived, he was promoted and worked with Admiral d’Estaing to assemble and prepare an army to engage the British. However, the Treaty of Paris was reached, ending the American Revolutionary War.
Advocate for Franco-American Relations and First Visit to America
After 1783, he supported various American causes in Europe and tirelessly worked to improve Franco-American relations. His efforts included expanding commercial ties between France and America, encouraging Nathanael Greene and Henry Knox to have their sons educated in France, supporting the Society of Cincinnati, and assisting Thomas Jefferson during his tenure as the U.S. Minister to France.
In the latter part of 1784, Lafayette accepted an invitation from George Washington and returned to America. During this visit, he spoke before the Virginia House of Delegates where he spoke of “liberty for all mankind” and the emancipation of slaves. He also traveled to New York where he participated in peace talks with the Iroquois Confederacy. Before he returned to France, he was granted citizenship in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Virginia.
Lafayette returned to France, where he was involved in the early stages of the French Revolution, as a member of the Assembly of Notables and the Estates General.
On July 11, 1789, he presented a draft of the “Declaration of the Rights of Mankind and the Citizen,” to the National Assembly. He wrote it with input from Thomas Jefferson.
Three days later, on July 14, French insurgents stormed the Bastille. Lafayette was placed in command of the Parisian National Guard the next day. The position put him in a difficult situation. He was viewed as a revolutionary by some and loyal to the king by others.
On October 5, a mob marched from Paris to the palace at Versailles. Lafayette and some members of the Parisian National Guard followed. When King Louis XVI refused to leave Versailles and go to Paris, the mob broke through the gates. Lafayette led the King, his wife, Queen Marie Antoinette, and their children, to the balcony and tried to restore order. After the mob shouted to shoot the Queen, Lafeyette took her hand and kissed it. The mob responded with cheers.
By August 1792, the French monarchy collapsed and the Reign of Terror started. Lafayette tried to escape to America. He fled to the Austrian Netherlands where he was captured, taken prisoner, and held until 1797.
American leaders, including Jefferson and William Short, tried to use political means to free Lafayette. However, the best that could be done was to raise funds to send him, so he and his wife could live comfortably. In 1797, Napoleon Bonaparte negotiated the release of prisoners in Austria, including Lafayette.
Return from Exile
In March 1800, Lafayette returned to France to discover that his property had been confiscated and his fortune was all but lost.
Despite being offered various prestigious positions and honors by Napoleon, including a senatorship, the Legion of Honor, and the role of Minister to the United States, Lafayette declined all of them, because did not want to support a government that was not democratic in nature.
In 1805, he also turned down an offer from President Thomas Jefferson to become the Governor of the Louisiana Territory.
For most of the next 15 years, Lafayette removed himself from politics and focused on tending to his estates at La Grange, which were located approximately 43 miles from Paris. In 1818, he took a seat in the Chamber of Deputies.
Following the Battle of Waterloo (June 18, 1815), Napoleon abdicated his position as emperor on June 22. Lafayette made arrangements for Napoleon to go to America. However, the British authorities intervened and prevented this plan from being implemented. Instead, Napoleon spent his remaining days in exile on the remote island of Saint Helena.
Soon after, Lafayette returned to LaGrange and his life as a private citizen. However, he earned a reputation for supporting various revolutionary movements throughout Europe, including the Greek Revolution.
Lafayette’s Tour of the United States
In 1824, President James Monroe invited Lafayette to visit the United States, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the independent nation.
He arrived in New York on August 15, 1824, accompanied by his son Georges Washington and his secretary Auguste Levasseur. He was greeted by a group of Revolutionary War veterans who had fought alongside him many years before. He was in New York for four days and nights, and the city celebrated the entire time.
Lafayette traveled the nation, visiting Boston and Philadelphia, and was celebrated everywhere he went. Along the way, he dined with John Adams, who was 89 years old, at Peacefield, his home near Boston. He visited Monroe at the White House and Washington’s grave at Mount Vernon.
He was at Yorktown on October 19, 1824, for the anniversary of the British surrender, and then traveled to Monticello Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. He spent the winter of 1824–1825 in Washington and witnessed the controversial Presidential Election of 1824. The election ended with John Quincy Adams being chosen President over Andrew Jackson by the House of Representatives.
In 1825, he traveled the Southern states, gave speeches, and visited Andrew Jackson at his home in Tennessee, The Hermitage. Lafayette visited Louisville, Kentucky, then went north to Niagara Falls and traveled on the Erie Canal. In June, he laid the cornerstone of the Bunker Hill Monument.
He departed for France on September 8, 1825, on the USS Brandywine, which was named for the battle in which he was wounded in the leg.
Support for Revolutionary Ideas
After returning to France, Lafayette opposed the restoration of the monarchy and led public opposition to King Charles X. Charles abdicated on August 2, 1830, and was replaced by Louis Phillippe I, who was also known as the “Citizen King.”
Lafayette played a role in helping secure the agreement for Louis Phillippe to take the throne because he promised to bring about political reforms. Louis Philippe’s assurances of a monarchy “with republican institutions” convinced Lafayette to accept the title of commander of the French National Guard.
However, Louis Phillippe failed to deliver to Lafayette’s satisfaction and he opposed him as early as 1832.
Death of Lafayette
Lafayette gave his last public speech on January 3, 1834. The next month, he was attending a funeral when he collapsed, suffering from pneumonia. He passed away in Paris on May 20, 1834. He was buried in Picpus Cemetery and his son, Georges, sprinkled dirt from Bunker Hill on his grave.
In America, President Andrew Jackson ordered the government to remember Lafayette with the same distinction as it gave George Washington upon his death. Members of Congress wore badges commemorating Lafayette for 30 days and all chambers of Congress were draped in black bunting.
Congressional Appreciation of Marquis de Lafayette
Lafayette’s dedication to the American Revolution included spending approximately $200,000 of his own money to support the Patriot Cause. In recognition of his contributions, Congress took steps to express its appreciation:
- In 1794, Congress passed a resolution to grant him approximately $24,500. It was intended amount was intended to cover the salary that Lafayette had voluntarily declined during the Revolutionary War, a symbolic gesture of appreciation for his service.
- In 1803 and 1825, Congress awarded him lands in the territories of Louisiana and Florida.
Throughout the remainder of his life, both his residences in Paris and in the countryside at La Grange served as destinations for American visitors who sought to pay their respects to him.
Marquis de Lafayette Significance
Marquis de Lafayette is important to United States history for the role he played in the American Revolutionary War, helping gain the nation’s independence from Great Britain. He went on to be an advocate for constitutional monarchies and the abolition of slavery.
Marquis de Lafayette APUSH, Review, Notes, Study Guide
Use the following links and videos to study the Marquis de Lafayette, the American Revolutionary War, and the Continental Army for the AP US History Exam. Also, be sure to look at our Guide to the AP US History Exam.
Marquis de Lafayette APUSH Definition
The Marquis de Lafayette, born Gilbert du Motier in 1757, was a French aristocrat who played a crucial role in the American Revolutionary War. Inspired by the American struggle for independence, Lafayette volunteered to serve in the Continental Army, becoming a close ally of George Washington. His military skill and dedication earned him a prominent position and made him a symbol of Franco-American cooperation. Lafayette’s support helped secure critical French assistance in the war. After the Revolution, he continued to advocate for liberty and played a significant role in the French Revolution, though his later career was marked by political challenges. He made a widely celebrated return to America in 1824–1825 for the 50th anniversary of the American Revolutionary War.
Marquis de Lafayette Video for APUSH Notes
This video from Daily Bellringer discusses the Marquis de Lafayette.