Making it one of the most auspicious days in both American and world history , the Continental Congress passed a resolution this day in 1777 in which the services of “the very high and very mighty Monseigneur Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Montier de Lafayette be accepted, and that, in consideration of his zeal, illustrious family and connexions, he have the rank and commission of major-general of the United States.”
Born into wealth and power in 1757, his expansive name seems over-wrought until you consider the familial reasoning behind it — that nearly all of his male ancestors vigorously answered the call to arms and most of whom paid with their lives.
One such ancestor, the legendary Marechal de France Gilbert de La Lafayette III, fought side by side with Joan of Arc at the Battle of Orleans.
Owing to the propensity of all the males to place themselves at the sharp end of a sword, the family developed the habit of imputing their progeny with the names of multiple Saints in the fervent hope that by doing so God would shield them against harm on the battlefield.
The strategy was not often successful as his own father had been killed on such a field, having been struck by a cannonball in the Seven Years War, when Lafayette was but two.
However cumbersome his name, his affect on the fortunes of America was anything but.
When meeting George Washington for the first time and viewing the general’s tattered army, the young Marquis’ disappointment must have been evident as Washington, taking the facial queue, expressed his sincere embarrassment.
Lafayette, seeing Washington’s uncomfortableness quickly and humbly responded. “I have come here to learn, mon general, not to teach.”
And learn he did. Never having fought on the battlefield before, it was astounding to everyone how quickly he absorbed and excelled in the art of war.
Seeing the success of “The Swamp Fox” — Francis Marion, in the marshes and forests of South Carolina, where the bold Carolinian invented modern guerrilla warfare, the young General adopted his techniques to frustrate and eventually ensnare Lord Cornwallis’ army at Yorktown.
It was at Yorktown that the trap was sprung and would not have been effective without the aid of a French fleet which Lafayette had personally summoned.
What happened next illustrates perfectly why Lafayette was one of the most beloved figures in all of America during his lifetime.
The British army was bottled up with no where to go. Admiral De Grasse, in charge of the French flotilla urged Lafayette to press his advantage and attack, thereby insuring the glory for himself and all of France.
Lafayette refused. The glory, the Marquis insisted, was Washington’s and his American army alone. He would wait for his venerable mentor to arrive before pressing his advantage. His humility and loyalty in such moments was genuine and would reappear, again and again, throughout his life.
The victory at Yorktown was to be the turning point in the war and brought about America’s well-earned Independence. All that has transpired since would not have happened were it not for Lafayette and his bold dedication to the patriot cause. Americans of yesteryear and today owe to him their veneration, remembrance and most of all, their liberty.