In 1776 and early 1777, the US Ambassador to France, Silas Deane, was handing out promises of commission to any man with military experience who was willing to travel to America to join Washington’s Continental Army, which was in desperate need of trained and experienced officers. Unfortunately, most were long on resume and short on actual experience. However, in April 1777, two officers ran the British blockade in a private ship and arrived in Charlestown, South Carolina in late June.
The first was a giant bear of a man, the 56 year old Johann von Robais de Kalb, better known as Baron DeKalb. DeKalb was the son of a Bavarian shoemaker and a career soldier. At 16, he left home to join a German regiment in the French Army and served with distinction in the War of Austrian Succession and the Seven Years War, rising to the rank of lieutenant colonel and made a noble for his exploits. After 30 years of service, he retired in 1764, but found that civilian life in a small estate outside Versailles with his rich French wife didn’t suit him. In 1767, he traveled to America as part of a clandestine French mission to assess the possibility of the thirteen North American colonies rebelling against Great Britain. He was so impressed with the American people that he decided he would join their inevitable revolution. He got his chance in 1777, when he met a young man of similar ambitions — Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roche Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette.Lafayette was DeKalb’s opposite in every way. The slight Lafayette was just 18 in 1777. At the age of 14, just four years previously, he married a relative of the King of France, and was commissioned a sous-lieutenant in the King’s Musketeers, and soon a lieutenant in the dragoons. He was as deficient in military matters as DeKalb was experienced. But he was as dedicated to the American cause as DeKalb after a dinner party in which the disgruntled Duke of Gloucester, King George III’s brother, expressed support for the rebellion. However France was actively trying to stay out of the American Revolution and as a relative of the French king was forbidden to depart. So the extraordinarily wealthy teenage Lafayette just went to Spain with DeKalb and several other officers destined for service in America, and bought a ship.
The “Victorie” took the men across the Atlantic and Lafayette bought coaches to take them to Philadelphia, where they planned to collect Silas’ promised commissions as major generals. But Washington had been burned by adventurers with imaginary exploits who convinced Deane they were something they weren’t, and Continental Congress couldn’t afford to pay a general’s salary to someone who wasn’t. They refused to honor Deane’s promises.
The rich Lafayette offered to serve for no pay. This, and the timely intercession of Ben Franklin by correspondence, won over the Continental Congress, who was still debating the merits of turning away so well connected a Frenchman. On 31 July 1777, the 19 year old Marquis de Lafayette became the youngest major general in the history of the US Army, an accomplishment that still holds today. He received his commission exactly 18 years after his father, a colonel of grenadiers, was killed at the Battle of Minden fighting the Prussians in the Seven Years War. Lafayette departed to assume a position on Washington’s staff shortly thereafter.
Lafayette’s commission infuriated DeKalb. The proud and quiet, but equally competent German was much more qualified for a commission as a major general than the young Lafayette (and all of the Continental generals, and even Washington for that matter…) He had grown fond of the Frenchman, who looked to DeKalb as a mentor and great friend, but the slight couldn’t stand. He lobbied for a commission for a month before the large and thoroughly exasperated German burst into Congress and demanded his commission, laying out his extensive military career to the aghast assembly. Still they refused. The resigned DeKalb finally requested payment to return to France, which he implied was the least bit of recompense for a breach of trust between himself and the fledgling nation. On 17 September 1777, the ashamed Congress relented, and the next day, DeKalb left for Washington’s staff to eventually take command of two Massachusetts’ brigades on the left of the Continental Line.
MG DeKalb added much needed professionalism to the Continental Army. When Washington ordered the army into winter quarters at Valley Forge later that year, DeKalb was instrumental in the training and discipline of the Continental Army. Unfortunately, history would award his fellow German, Baron Von Steuben, the lion’s share of the credit for the professionalization of the Continental Army at Valley Forge, but it couldn’t have been done without DeKalb.
For the next two years DeKalb would be Washington’s most trusted and stalwart division commander, and always in the thick of the fighting. DeKalb was tragically killed during the disaster at Camden in 1780, fighting to the last with his regulars, as Horacio Gates’ militia fled the British and Tory bayonets.
MG Lafayette would follow a different course. Lafayette had come to America “not to teach, but to learn” and this greatly impressed Washington. He inserted himself wherever he was needed. The young man would become the son Washington never had. Despite his youth, Washington trusted Lafayette with his most difficult and sensitive commands and missions. For example, Washington entrusted the young 19 year old with an invasion of Canada in 1778, which was cancelled at Lafayette’s request due to lack of supplies and men. However, “The Fearsome Horseman” as he was known among the native tribes, brought the Oneida nation over to the American cause, whose support would be much needed in Sullivan’s Iroquois campaign the next year. Lafayette would be hugely influential in the delicate negotiations with France to coordinate a common strategy after France’s entry into the war. Lafayette would fight for America wherever and whenever needed for the rest of the war, and it was his independent command that maneuvered Cornwallis into a box at Yorktown.
After the war, Lafayette would return to France and continue his service in the name of Liberty. He would be one of the few nobles not exiled, or executed by the guillotine during the French Revolution. He stood firm for a representative government in France, and was one of Napoleon’s few political enemies after his rise to emperor. Lafayette continued his quest after the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. It was a 70 year old Lafayette at the barricades as head of the National Guard during the Revolution of 1830. Afterwards, he turned down an offer as dictator after the royalist troops were routed.
Lafayette died in 1834 a hero to both America and France. He was buried in a French cemetery, but underneath soil taken by his son, Georges Washington, from Bunker Hill, whose memorial Lafayette dedicated.
At a eulogy in America, former president John Quincy Adams said of Lafayette, he was, “high on the list of the pure and disinterested benefactors of mankind”