Lafayette at Sea 1824
Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette (1757 –1834) is remembered chiefly today, especially in the United States, as one of the heroes of the American Revolution. The popular image is of the dashing young French general who became an all but surrogate son to George Washington but this was at the very outset of his remarkable career. (Portrait on left, by Joseph-Désiré Court, shows him in 1791). He was to be one of those rare long-lived people who came to maturity in a world that was shortly to disappear forever and was to participate in – and barely survive – vast revolutionary turmoil thereafter, who was to spend seven years in an Austrian prison and who was to remain politically influential into his old age.
In the post-Waterloo period, in which the Bourbon monarchy had again been restored to France, Lafayette, out of sympathy with the regime, took no role in government. By the early 1820s he was the last surviving general of the American Revolution and his reputation was probably higher in the United States than in France itself. The heroes of the period were dying off, even as the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence was approaching – though John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were to survive to die simultaneously on the exact date, 4th July 1826. The time was never more appropriate for Lafayette to revisit the United States. He declined an offer of transport on a ship of the US Navy and instead took passage on a merchant ship, the Cadmus. The portrait below, on the right, shows the mature Lafayette of 1825, painted by Matthew Harris Jouett.
I recently found an account by an un-named British army-officer of his strange meeting with Lafayette in mid-Atlantic. It appeared in a book tantalising entitled Thrilling Narratives of Mutiny, Murder And Piracy, published in New York at an unspecified date in the 19th Century and it offers a pleasing insight to Lafayette’s character. I quote in full below:
“In June, 1824, I embarked at Liverpool on board the Vibelia transport with the head-quarters of my regiment, which was proceeding to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Our passage across the Atlantic was smooth, though long and tedious. After passing over the great bank of Newfoundland, catching large quantities of codfish and halibut, and encountering the usual fogs, we were one morning, about the end of July, completely becalmed. All who have performed a voyage, know the feeling of listlessness to which a landsman abandons himself during a calm. The morning was slowly passed in looking for appearances of a breeze—whistling for a wind, and the other idle pursuits usual on such occasions. Towards noon, a sailor from aloft pointed out to our observation a vessel at a distance, also, of course, becalmed. All eyes and glasses were immediately directed towards her, but she was too far off for the most experienced to determine whether she was English or foreign, man-of-war or merchantman. After a time it occurred to me, that it was a favourable opportunity for breaking in upon the monotony of the day. My influence with our captain obtained permission for the small cutter to be lowered, but he would not allow a single seaman to leave the ship. I therefore became coxswain of the boat, and, accompanied by four of my brother officers as rowers, we pushed off, determined to pay a visit to the strange sail. To our landsmen’s eyes and judgment, she had appeared to be about four miles from us, but we found ourselves very much out in our calculation — it was more than double that distance. The rowers, however, pulled on bravely — we neared the stranger, making her out to be a large American merchantman, and as he was approached, we observed a number of persons on deck reconnoitring us through glasses.
At length we were alongside, and I passed on board, followed by three of my companions, one remaining in charge of the boat. On reaching the deck, we found it crowded with men, who seemed to regard us with wondering looks. I stepped forward and was received by the Captain, who acquainted me that his vessel was the American ship Cadmus, on her passage from Havre-de-grace to New York, with General the Marquis de Lafayette and suite as passengers. A noble, venerable looking veteran advanced from the poop towards us, and offered his greetings with the courtesy of the old French school. He was Lafayette. My explanation of who we were, and the motive of our visit, appeared to excite his surprise. That five officers of the land service, unaccompanied by a single sailor, should leave their vessel on the open ocean, and from mere curiosity, visit a strange sail at such a distance, was, he declared, most extraordinary. He said they had observed our ship early in the morning—had been occupied (like ourselves) in vain endeavours to make us out—had remarked an object, a mere speck upon the sea, leave the vessel and move towards them, and when at length it was made out to be a boat, the probable cause of such a circumstance had given rise to many surmises. I told him in mitigation of what he deemed our rashness, that we were, as a nation, so essentially maritime, that every man in England was more or less a sailor. At all events, I ventured to add if we had encountered some little risk, we had been amply repaid in seeing a man so celebrated, and of whom we had all heard and read.
Our comrade being relieved by an American sailor in the care of the boat, we accepted the General’s offer of refreshment, proceeded to the cabin, and passed a most agreeable hour. The fast approach of evening and appearances of a breeze springing up induced us to take leave. We separated from the old chief, not as the acquaintance of an hour, but with all the warmth—the grasp and pressure of hand—of old friends. As I parted from him at the gangway, he mentioned having caused a case of claret to be lowered into our boat, which he begged us to present to our Colonel and the other officers of our mess. We pulled cheerily back, but it was not until long after dark that we reached the Vibelia, and which we perhaps could not have accomplished, but for their having exhibited blue lights every few minutes to point out her position. We found our comrades had been in great alarm for our safety. Various had been the surmises. That we had boarded a pirate, and been sacrificed, or made prisoners, was most prevalent, and a breeze was anxiously prayed for, that they might bear down, and release or revenge us. Half an hour after we returned to our ship, a light wind sprang up, which very shortly freshened into a gale, so that in the morning we had completely lost sight of the Cadmus.”
Souvenir plate commemorating Lafayette’s arrival at The Battery, New York, 1824
Lafayette’s subsequent tour of the United States, starting with his reception by vast enthusiastic crowds in New York, was to last 13 months. It took him all over the United States as it then was – essentially all east of the Mississippi and the endless round of parades, speeches, civic receptions and visits to battlefields he had fought on must have been exhausting. It was ironic that, having survived death in battle or by the guillotine, he was to have a narrow escape in peacetime when the steamboat carrying him up the Ohio River sank and he had to escape in a lifeboat. He was prevailed upon to accept passage home in an American warship – the aptly named USS Brandywine, called after the battle in Pennsylvania in which he had been wounded in 1777.
Though 68 when he returned to France, Lafayette was to play a significant political role in his final years. He was an outspoken critic of the Bourbon monarchy in the lead-up to the Revolution of 1830 and a strong advocate of American-type representative government. He played a leading role in this new revolution but shied away from establishing a republic, supporting instead a constitutional monarchy with the duc d’Orleans, as “The Citizen King”, Louis Philippe. Lafayette went into retirement thereafter and grew increasingly disillusioned with the regime he had helped set up. He died in 1834, the last senior military leader of America’s War of Independence. Even today, as it was at the time of his death, he is probably better known in the United States than in his native land.