July 31, 1777: 19-year-old Lafayette is commissioned Major General

Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, better known as the Marquis de Lafayette, was born into one of the wealthiest families in France. When he was only two years old his father was killed by a cannon ball while fighting the English during the Seven Years War. Lafayette inherited an intense dislike for the English and an immense fortune and when he came of age he started training to join the elite Musketeers of the Guard.

France was full of “enlightenment” in those days, and the young marquis, who had joined a “société de pensée,” was much taken by the notion lafayetteof Liberté and the American struggle for freedom from British rule. With encouragement from Silas Deane, the American agent in Paris, Lafayette sailed to South Carolina in 1777 to join the fight for American independence. He made his way to Philadelphia and graciously offered his services (unpaid) to the Continental Congress.

On July 31st he was commissioned Major General in the Continental Army. Many in Congress regarded this commission as merely honorary, but Benjamin Franklin wrote to George Washington recommending Lafayette to become his aide-de-camp, hoping it would influence France to commit more aid. Lafayette expected he would be appointed a full-fledged commander who would control of a division, but Washington reluctantly informed him that command of a division would not be possible as he was of foreign birth. However Washington said that he would be happy to hold him in confidence as “friend and father” and the two men formed a bond that would last a lifetime.

In September 1777, at the Battle of the Brandywine, Washington did not wish to see the young Frenchman exposed to harm, but Lafayette pushed hard to be involved in the fight. When things were not going well on the right flank, Washington sent him into the battle. Lafayette took a bullet in the leg but kept on fighting. He went on to spend the following dismal winter drilling the troops at Valley Forge and fought valiantly at the Battle of Monmouth the following June and forever gained Washington’s trust and affection.

gw lafayette sharplesLafayette returned to France in 1779 and secured additional French support for the American cause. When the French forces he procured arrived off Yorktown 1781, the ultimate victory of the Revolution was finally ensured.

After Yorktown, Lafayette returned to France to rejoin his family, where in 1779 his wife Adrienne bore him a son. He named the boy George Washington de La Fayette after the only father figure he ever knew.

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