“Washington blushed like a fond father whose child is being praised. Tears fell from his eyes, he clasped by hand, and could hardly utter the words: ‘I do not know a nobler, finer soul, and I love him as my own son.’” (from the account of the Marquis de Barbé-Marbois, after he praised Lafayette at a dinner with Washington in September 1779)
General George Washington shivered involuntarily in the cool evening air. Although it was only early September, the nights, in contrast to the still quite pleasant days, could already be uncomfortably brisk. He, and probably every other man in the army had hoped for a mild, merciful winter after the disastrous months the army had spent encamped at Valley Forge two years ago. Almost five-thousand soldiers had either frozen to death in their pitiable, leaky huts, died of starvation or fallen victim to an illness. The army had lacked all kinds of supplies, ranging from blankets, shoes and clothes to food and medicine. Washington and the other generals had done everything in their power to try and move Congress to send more supplies, but their efforts had been futile. Congress had simply lacked the financial means to grant the forces some relief. Most of the few deliveries that had been sent had never reached camp, owing to attacks on the convoys, the weather conditions and human error in the logistical organization. Thus, the poor men had been left with no other option but to silently endure their suffering, clench their teeth and hope that the would still be alive to see the next sunrise. The memory of these months were still vivid in the mind of everyone who had been with the army at Valley Forge.
At the moment, the upcoming winter did not display any intention to fulfill Washington’s wish for bearable temperatures. The commander-in-chief felt cold after only half an hour spent on horseback and the autumn wind was already stinging in his face. Washington had spent the day at camp to inspect its defense status, converse with the officers and submit some orders personally. Now, in the early evening hours, he was making his way back to his headquarters at West Point. It was a six-mile ride from New Windsor, where major parts of the army where encamped, and Washington was glad when he saw the town appear in the distance. He was not used to the brisk temperatures yet, he told himself, it was not unusually cold for this time of the year. Yet the icy wind permeating his coat made him dread the following months. If there would not be a silver lining soon, promising aid for the harsh winter, the men would rather desert instead of living through another Valley Forge.
The army’s entire hope rested on France and its potential support for the next campaign. Unfortunately, owing to a lack of military success and mutual distrust between the French and the Continental forces, the alliance threatened to shatter before it had been able to achieve any major victories in this war. There were some unconfirmed reports that d’Estaing’s fleet had left the West Indies to join the American naval forces in an attempt to take back the city of Savannah, which was currently under enemy control. Still, the American generals feared that King Louis would not be in favor of sending any more troops and financial aids, if the Revolution continued to grow more and more hopeless.
Tonight, Washington would be meeting for dinner with the newly arrived French minister La Luzerne and his secretary, the Marquis de Barbé-Marbois, to discuss the current state of the alliance. The commander-in-chief hoped that the two Frenchmen would be able to offer him some pleasant news. Moreover, as Washington had to confess, he was anxious to learn of the whereabouts of the Marquis de Lafayette. More than nine months had passed since Lafayette had set sail for his native country and even though there was a regular flow of letters by his young friend, Washington longed to speak to someone who had seen the Marquis in person only weeks ago.
He knew that Lafayette was mobilizing all efforts he could to convince the court to continue and strengthen the French support for the United States. Together with John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, the American delegates to Paris, the Marquis spent day after day in rest- and endless pleading. Washington was convinced that there was not a single man in this world who stood a better chance of persuading the French to send more troops and supplies. Lafayette’s charm, his enthusiasm and unbreakable persistence was almost a guarantee that he would at least be able to achieve some concessions for the Americans. Washington could not have sent a better man to handle the negotiations.
Still, Lafayette’s absence grew more painful for the general with every day. Oh, how he missed him and how much he longed to see his young friend! He hoped that the dinner with the two French delegates would at least be able to lessen his constant worries about the Marquis. Who knew how he had been received in Paris, after his scandalous departure two and a half years ago? Maybe he had fallen in disgrace, and was too humiliated to mention such in his letters?
Washington shook his head, scolding himself for these irrational concerns. Lafayette was a competent man and very much able to look after himself. He would surely return soon, and good news would be accompanying him. In the meantime, Washington had reached West Point. It was nearly dark when he dismounted from his horse and led the animal to the stable close to the house of Colonel Stephen Moore, where he was staying since June. He could have called a servant to look after his horse, but a glance at his pocket watch had shown the general that almost an entire hour remained until he was to meet with La Luzerne.
Washington, who had the reputation of being an excellent horseman, did enjoy spending time with the animals in comfortable silence. Being the commander-in-chief, he was not often able to allow himself enough leisure time to care for his horses himself. Today, however, he was tempted to make an exception and eventually gave in. Luckily, nobody besides him was inside the barn at this hour and thus he was able to enjoy a few moments of solitude. He led his gray stallion into its stall and began to take off the horses’ tack. The sounds of the animals chewing their hay, interrupted by occasional snorts, never failed to calm him. The atmosphere in a stable always was strangely peaceful, even in the midst of a war. The horses did not care about troop movements, intelligence, traitors or the colonies’ independence. All that occupied their minds was the wish to stand in a safe stall, to have some hay and water and to be given a friendly pat on the neck from time to time. Sometimes, Washington wished he could live in a state of such untroubled obliviousness.
He banished that childish thought from his mind and began to brush his horse with a bundle of straw. The stallion was already fully occupied with eating his hay. After the passing of a few minutes, Washington reluctantly decided that it was time for him to make his way to the headquarters. The two guests would surely be arriving soon and Washington was not in any position to let the delegates of the United States’ only ally wait. He left his horses’ stall and put the tack away into the chamber where the saddles and snaffles for the officers’ horses were kept.
He was already on his way back out, when he heard steps approaching, accompanied by a voice talking in French. It was a young man speaking, with a melodic and elated voice, and Washington could not prevent his heart from taking a leap. Could it be…? He knew it was impossible, that his mind was playing tricks on him. Still, he did not let go of his irrational hope just yet. Stepping out of the saddle chamber, he turned in the direction the sounds had come from, only to experience a sting of bitter disappointment.
Only La Luzerne’s aides were inside the stable, feeding their superior’s horses. They saluted sharply when they saw the general on the alley and Washington nodded at them, concealing that he had hoped to encounter someone else instead of them. He left the barn, pulling his cloak closer around his shoulders to protect himself from the brisk wind. Ridiculous, he thought to himself. He should have known better. As if Lafayette would not notice him beforehand, if he was to return to America. Maybe the letter had been lost on the way, he had hoped, maybe his friend had wanted to surprise him. Washington knew he was being foolish, but God, how he missed this man. Nine months of separation were far too long.
Now, however, was not the time for pondering about his personal affections. He had a dinner to attend which would hopefully provide him with good news concerning the French-American alliance – and with a bit of luck with a report on Lafayette’s whereabouts. After he had assured himself that there was no straw or dirt remaining on his uniform, Washington entered the red brick building that currently served as his headquarters. He made his way to the first floor, where the smaller one of the houses’ two dining rooms was located. Since La Luzerne and his secretary were, at least for the time being, living at the headquarters as well, Washington assumed that the Frenchmen would already be awaiting his arrival.
When he entered the room, his assumption was proven right. Three men were standing next to the already laid table, making conversation while waiting for the commander-in-chief. Two of them Washington was not familiar with, and he presumed that they were La Luzerne and the Marquis. They were dressed in the attire of French noblemen, their wealth and status obvious to everyone who laid eyes upon them. Washington had learned over the course of the last two years, to overlook the fact that nearly every single one of the French allies was constantly dressed better than the highest ranking officers in the Continental Army. Their military support was of importance after all, not their outer appearance. The third man was Hamilton, Washington’s aide-de-camp, who would be translating. The newly arrived Frenchmen did know approximately as much English as Washington did know French.
The three of them turned around when they noticed that the door had been opened.
“Ah, here he is”, Hamilton commented with a smile and urged the two men to step forward.
“Le commandant général de la armeé continental, général George Washington”, he introduced Washington to the Frenchmen. It was merely a formality to do so - the general needed no introduction.
“The new minister from France, the Chevalier de la Luzerne and his secretary, the Marquis de Barbé-Marbois”, Hamilton presented the two men with a sweeping gesture. La Luzerne, a stocky, broad-shouldered man, bowed to Washington and spoke some words in French.
“The ambassador is delighted to finally see the famous General Washington in person, as he has heard many tales of your heroic conduct in battle”, Hamilton translated for Washington.
“Your Excellency.” The Marquis greeted Washington in English. Presumably, Hamilton had taught him the two words earlier. Washington took his efforts as a friendly gesture and smiled at the secretary. The Marquis was several inches taller than his superior, and also quite a few years younger. The smile he gave the general revealed that he had the well-practiced ability to charm people. Washington tried not to think of the man the secretary inevitably reminded him of.
“I am pleased to make your acquaintance, gentlemen.”, he said, “I hope you have already been able to recover from the fatiguing voyage.”
Hamilton translated for La Luzerne and the Marquis. The secretary replied something, with a smile still remaining on his lips.
“The Marquis says that in an environment as pleasant as these quarters the exhaustion is soon all but forgotten.”
Maybe it was the title of Marquis that gifted a man with an unlimited amount of disarming charm, Washington mused.
“Let us sit”, he then said, with a gesture toward the table, and the Frenchmen understood the meaning of his words without a translation. The four men sat down, with Washington at the head of the table and Hamilton to his right. La Luzerne and the Marquis took a seat on Washington's left. They exchanged the usual courtesies while some wine was brought for them. The ambassador complimented the friendliness with which he had been received in America, whereas his secretary once again emphasized how pleased he was with his accommodation.
Washington knew they were being polite. The Marquis, being an aristocrat, was used to lodgings much more noble and opulent than a redbrick-house on the American countryside. Still, the general smiled at his guests in response and did his duty in voicing his appreciation for the Frenchmen's efforts they had taken to travel to America. During the usual trivial conversations about the journey, the weather and the well-being of family members, Washington grew gradually more anxious. He knew that it was expected to have exchanges of that kind, but were there not more pressing matters at hand? The important questions, about the alliance, about the king’s opinion on sending more troops and supplies, about D'Estaing's fleet; those were the questions that demanded answers. Hoping he would not offend the Frenchmen, but at the same time unable to withhold his impatience, he terminated the conversation about American food customs and put down his glass of wine to signal the importance of his words.
“Now, let us talk about the matters that allow no further postponement, shall we?”
A frown appeared on La Luzerne’s features while he was listening to Hamilton’s translation. Washington felt the sudden desire to give himself a smack on the face. Could he not have waited for another five minutes? He should have known how easily the French were to feel insulted and now he had created unnecessary tensions that had the potential to endanger the whole alliance. He was already opening his mouth to offer an apology to the two men, when La Luzerne suddenly smiled and nodded at him. The ambassador and his secretary both put down their knives and forks to signal Washington their full attention. The general internally sighed with relief. He was walking on thin ice here.
“Ambassador, what news are there of His Majesty's position regarding the alliance? Can we expect troops and arms for the next campaign?”
How he hated that they needed a translator. Every conversation took twice as long as a normal one and at the moment he did not have the patience to wait thus long for an answer. He unconsciously tapped his foot underneath the table and put a hand onto his thigh when he finally became aware of it.
“The ambassador has to confess that he can give no definite answer as to the upcoming campaign yet”, Hamilton started to translate, and Washington’s heart sank. “The lack of military success has raised doubts at the court about the future of this alliance. His Majesty is yet to decide whether or not he will send more troops or if he will withdraw his forces entirely.”
Washington felt as if he had received a punch into his stomach. All the words he had prepared prior to this dinner had vanished from his mind. He had to struggle in order to stop tears of anger and despair burning in his eyes.
“Tell him, Hamilton, that if the French support for this cause ceases, there is no prospect of victory. All the losses the French troops had to suffer, they were senseless then”, he managed to say and by the look Hamilton gave him, his aide was equally as shaken as he was by La Luzerne's words. When he repeated in French what Washington had said, it was obvious that Hamilton was not only translating. His own emotions were entangled in the words which he, at the end of the sentence, almost shouted at the Frenchmen. Washington placed a hand on the young man's forearm in what he intended to be a calming gesture, but he only earned a furious glare from his aide. He was glad when an escalation was prevented by the Marquis, who was quick to respond. Washington watched Hamilton’s reaction to the secretary's words and allowed himself a small amount of hope when he saw the aide relax slightly.
“He says that there is no need to lose faith just yet. The court does not make its decisions easily and there remains some time until the next campaign is to begin. Also, he can confirm that Admiral D'Estaing is indeed taking his fleet up to Savannah, to support the American naval forces in their efforts of retaking the city.”
That was at least a glimpse of a future that promised more than a bitter defeat. As long as the influential Admiral kept on believing in the American cause, hope was not forsaken.
“I am pleased to hear of D'Estaing's decision. He is an able commander and I hold him in the highest regards”, Washington said, in the intention of calming the assembled men after his and Hamilton’s eruptions of anger. The Marquis smiled complaisantly when he heard Washington's words being translated into French. He replied in a calm tone, and Washington was watching Hamilton’s reactions instead of listening closely to the secretary, as he was unable to understand his words anyway. When, however, Barbé-Marbois mentioned the name “Lafayette", Washington's head jerked up instantly. He anxiously waited for the Marquis to finish talking and could almost not endure the short pause in which Hamilton decided which words to translate the French terms with. What had he been saying about Lafayette? Was his friend all right? In any danger? The look on his face was almost pleading when he turned toward Hamilton.
“The American delegates to France are doing everything they can to convince the court of the righteousness and the importance of the American cause.”, Hamilton began, “There passes not a day without a pamphlet being written, a speech being given or someone having an audience with the king. Especially the Marquis de Lafayette is absolutely restless in his efforts . If he will continue the way he currently does, he might be able to convince the court all by himself to send several thousand troops.” The aide smiled when he spoke these words. He himself was a close friend to Lafayette and it was a delight also to him, to hear from the young Frenchman. Washington felt a warm sensation spreading inside his chest.
“Lafayette”, he just said, quietly, as if talking to himself. He had to be careful not to grow too emotional in the presence of the ambassadors but the pain of his friend’s long absence eventually got the better of him.
“Did you get a chance to see him before you departed from France? Is he well?”, he asked, the urgency in his voice unconcealed. Washington saw the Marquis exchange a look with La Luzerne he could not quite read. He felt his anxiousness grow in an instant. The ambassador finally smiled slightly at his secretary and the Marquis began to speak again.
“He says he did not get the chance to speak to him in person, as Lafayette is a very busy man.”, Hamilton translated for the impatiently waiting general. “However, all that he hears people say about him is praise and words of the most sincere admiration. His merits in the American war have made him the hero of the French people and there is not a single person at the court who is not entirely taken with him. He appears to be charming the whole of France. His Majesty King Louis himself holds him in his highest regards, a position he is more than worthy of.”
Hamilton could obviously not help the grin spreading on his face as he repeated what the Frenchman had told him. For a moment, Washington lost all control over his facial expression. He stared at Hamilton and the Marquis, not noticing that his mouth was gaping slightly and that tears had started to gather in his eyes. What the secretary had just said was more than he could have ever hoped for. Not only had Lafayette re-gained his status as an honorable man in France, but now he appeared to be the most loved one in the whole country. Oh, the boy deserved nothing less, Washington thought, nothing less would ever be enough to do Lafayette's merits and his person justice. Washington could vividly imagine how his young friend was leaving no stone unturned in his efforts to convince the court of continuing France's support for the American cause. He knew that Lafayette was not going to cease his fight until he would be given what he demanded.
Pride was a word understating the overwhelming sensation spreading in Washington's chest. Lafayette, his dear Lafayette, the most loved man in the whole of France, fighting for America on the battlefield of diplomats as ferocious as on any other battlefield. How proud the young man would be upon his return to America! He already was considered a hero here, but he would be practically worshipped if he returned with troops, supplies and the guarantee that France would remain America's ally. And oh, how much Washington wished for the day of his return to come soon. He wanted to tell Lafayette how immensely proud and grateful he was, embrace him, and imagine for a moment how it would be if his friend would never leave for France again. The tears had returned into his eyes and now Washington also became aware that he was still looking at the secretary with a dumbfounded stare. He was quick to close his mouth and wipe over his cheek with the back of his hand.
Washington noticed that the Marquis spoke some words to Hamilton, to which the aide responded with a broad smile and a nod. With a questioning expression, Washington turned to Hamilton. He was quick to translate what the Frenchman had said.
“He says that it seems to him that you are very fond of the Marquis de Lafayette”, Hamilton said, a smile still tucking at the corners of his lips. Washington, still on the brink of tears, could not prevent his voice from shaking when he replied.
“Tell him, Hamilton, that he is right in that assumption. I do not know a finer, nobler soul in this world than our dear Lafayette, and-”, his voice threatened to falter for a moment, “and I love him as my own son.”
He could not help another tear leaving his eye and he had to take several deep breaths to calm himself. What impression would a general leave who started crying when his subordinate was praised? A good one, judging by the soft look that had appeared on both the ambassador's and the secretary’s features. La Luzerne kept this warm expression while he spoke to the general.
“He says, that he believes that affection to be mutual", Hamilton translated. “Lafayette is praising you at every opportunity given, calling you the greatest general to ever set foot on this earth. He seems to take an immense pride in being your friend and does not miss any chance to mention you. The ambassador believes that the separation is paining Lafayette quite a bit, from what he has heard.”
This time, Washington was able to retain at least some control over his face. On the inside, however, he was crying with joy and pride, and with the agonizing pain of missing his dear friend. His voice shaking with emotion, he reached over the table to place a hand on top of La Luzerne’s.
“Merci", he said, one of the few words he knew in French. The ambassador appeared a bit startled a first at Washington's emotional outburst, but then he gave the general a warm smile. Washington took another deep breath when he leaned back. He then reached for his glass.
“Let us drink to this alliance, to His Majesty King Louis, to friends near and far, and to our Marquis de Lafayette.”
He waited until Hamilton had finished translating his toast and received sounds of approval from the Frenchmen. The dinner went on quite a bit, with the four men discussing all kinds of topics related to the war and the alliance, and Washington felt more and more assured in his impression that the French court had chosen the right delegates to be sent to America.
When La Luzerne and the Marquis finally retired to their quarters, it was already close to midnight. Washington wished Hamilton a good night and crossed the hallway leading to his quarters. He felt the effects of the wine, a slight sensation of light-headedness but not enough for him to be called drunk. After he had closed the heavy wooden door of his quarters behind himself, he lit some candles on his desk and his nightstand. Usually, he went to bed way earlier than today, but right now his mind was too troubled to allow him to rest just yet. Although he had been able to contain his emotions for the rest of the dinner, he was unable to do so now. For too long he had been holding back the grief Lafayette’s absence caused him. God, how Washington missed him.
Who would have thought that this young French aristocrat would grow to be his closest friend and even more than that, his adopted son? He had expected another spoiled, naïve boy when he had first heard of Lafayette's arrival in America. Instead he had met a most honorable, sincere and noble young man, practically bursting with enthusiasm and zeal. It had not taken long until he had grown quite fond of the young Marquis. Evening after evening the two of them had spent in intimate conversation, regardless of Lafayette’s still limited abilities of talking in English. It had felt natural for Washington to confide in him his most private emotions and worries, and everything else that had occupied his mind. Lafayette had been listening, attentive, cunning, and never once Washington had had the impression that the young man felt obliged to speak to him because he was his superior officer. It had seemed that he genuinely enjoyed the older man's company.
Soon, the bond between the two men had grown to be inseparable. When Generals Gates and Conway had conspired against Washington during the winter months of Lafayette’s first year in America, the Frenchman had been one of the few generals to stand up for Washington. He had defended him and his position as commander-in-chief as ardently as if he were fighting on a battlefield. This had been the ultimate proof for the young man’s unwavering loyalty. Ever since these weeks, Washington had not had a single doubt that Lafayette would always stay by his side. He had even grown accustomed to addressing him with “son” in private – it felt like the most natural thing to do. Lafayette had proven to be one of the few men in camp Washington could trust without reservations. Without any exaggeration or hesitance he could say that he loved not a single person with the same tenderness and paternal devotion as he did love Lafayette. To not have his friend near him, caused Washington a great amount of pain, and since the first day of their separation he longed to be reunited with him.
Washington sat down at his desk, opening the top drawer in which he kept his personal correspondence. After a sort search, he found the stack of letters he was looking for. In the months of Lafayette’s absence, quite a number of letters had found their way to Washington and the general had kept every single one of them. He had avoided reading the letters too often, since he knew that he would not remain the master of his emotions if he was to read his friend’s words. Now, however, that he was already beyond what could be considered a stable mental state, what did it matter? He pulled out one letter at random. When he opened it, he knew which one is was in an instant. Of course. As if the pain had not been strong enough already. It was the note Lafayette had written him on board of the ship that had carried him to France, while it had still lain in the harbor of Boston. His last farewell before the Alliance had set sail. Tears gathered in Washington’s eyes before he had even started to read the letter.
There was barely a day Washington did not think of their painful farewell back in December and now that he was too upset already to keep his emotions at bay, the memory made him ache even more than usual. He remembered the lump in his throat and the sting in his eyes that had accompanied his every second on that day. How he and Lafayette had spent their last minutes together in silence, standing at the window, with their shoulders and arms touching, watching the snow fall outside. How he had tried and failed to hold back his tears at the thought of not seeing his friend for many months. The shaky breath he had heard from Lafayette, and the quick movement of his hand to wipe away a tear that had started to roll down his cheek. He remembered how he had finally pulled the young man into a tight embrace, which had been returned with equal force. Washington could almost still feel his hand gripping the fabric of Lafayette’s cloak, as if this would have prevented his friend from leaving. The boy had been shaking, with his face buried at Washington’s shoulder and mumbling something the general had not been able to comprehend. When they had eventually terminated their embrace, Washington had still been holding on to Lafayette’s upper arms. The obvious redness in his friend’s eyes had made the stinging pain in his heart even more violent than it had been before.
“I shall be back soon, mon général”, Lafayette had finally said and it had seemed quite an effort for him to keep his voice steady. There had been so many words Washington had wanted to say – that he would be dearly missed, that he and the whole of America would be counting the days until his return, that he wished him a safe journey. The lump in his throat had prevented him from speaking a single word. Instead, he had only nodded, not even bothering to hold back his tears anymore. After they had gone outside and Lafayette had mounted his horse, they had shared a long glance, and they both had been attempting to smile despite the tears in their eyes. Long after Lafayette and his aides had disappeared behind the slight hill near camp, Washington had been standing on the stairs outside of headquarters, shivering in the cold December air, and with his eyes burning with tears.
Now, after nine months had gone by since Lafayette had left America, Washington desired nothing more than to have the young man back at his side. Someone who would stay with him come what may, and brighten even the darkest hours. He longed for Lafayette to call him pére, father, in an affectionate tone, to talk to him all night when his hope was faltering, and to distract him when he felt as if he was trapped inside an endless maze. The words in front of Washington’s eyes began to blur.
“Do not forget an absent friend”, Lafayette had written to him, “Adieu, my dear and beloved general, adieu. I hope your French friend will ever be dear to you.”
The quote in the beginning is taken from David A. Clary's "Adopted Son". The quotes toward the end are real quotes from a letter Lafayette wrote to Washington before his ship set sail for France (I cried when I read the full letter). I made some slight changes to the wording because the excerpts are taken from different parts of the letter and it sounded quite repetitive that way, but the meaning remains the same.
Many historians and eyewitnesses write that Lafayette's absence was painful for Washington and that they both missed each other very much.
Don't hesitate to leave some feedback! The next part is in progress.
Chapter 2: Part II
Here is the second part, as promised from Lafayette's point of view. It was so much fun to write him, he is so different from Washington but the more stories I write the easier it gets for me.
Hope you will enjoy it, please leave some feedback!
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
“Hermione fired a thirteen-gun salute as she hove into Boston, a fort returned the favor, and state and local officials met Lafayette on the water front. They treated him to banquets, fireworks, parades and flattering speeches.” (Adopted Son, p.261)
By the time Lafayette had gotten used to being aboard a ship again, his journey to America was already nearing its end. More than three weeks he had spent mostly in his cabin, feeling miserable, as he already had the last two times he had crossed the Atlantic. As soon as the Hermione had left the French shore, he had felt the nausea rise in his throat. Secretly, Lafayette had hoped that after two long voyages on the sea, his stomach would have gotten used to the movements of the ship. He, however, had been gravely disappointed.
The first two weeks had been simply terrible, with him not being able to eat more than a piece of bread per day without the food leaving his body the same way half an hour later. To spare himself the shame of being seen in this state by the crew, Lafayette had spent his days with writing and reading letters and reports. This had at least kept his mind occupied and had distracted himself from his miserable condition. He had consoled himself with the thought that his return to America would repay him for every second of the fatiguing journey. Oh, how he longed to see the country he had grown to love with all his heart, and to be reunited with his friends and his men. He knew that they, as well, would be delighted by his return, especially by the news that travelled with him.
The third week had brought a slight betterment. He still had not spent much time on deck, but at least he had been able to eat properly and to regain some strength. He could not arrive in America looking like he had been starved in enemy captivity. At least his uniform would conceal how much weight he had lost in the weeks on the Hermione.
Now, at the beginning of the fifth week aboard the ship, he began to feel significantly better. The nausea had finally vanished and his legs did not feel any longer as if somebody had removed every single bone. Lafayette put on his cloak and stepped out of his cabin. His quarters lay under deck and lacked a window, but the sea appeared to be calm today, judging by the ship’s soft movements. Rays of sunshine fell through the wooden planks of the upper deck and Lafayette could not help but smile at the sight. He felt as if he was bursting with excitement and impatience. Only a week until he would see his beloved America! His steps were jaunty, energetic, when he approached the stairs leading up onto the ship’s deck. As soon as he felt the sun shining on his face and smelled the sea wind, he could no help the radiating grin appearing on his face. Oh, how wonderful this day was, no, this life!
“Good morning, Sir!”, a midshipman greeted him and Lafayette turned toward him, with his grin still remaining on his lips.
“A good morning to you!”, he replied and the young man felt visibly honored to be noticed by the Marquis. Lafayette crossed the deck, feeling that the men’s eyes were resting on him. It would have been a lie to claim he did not enjoy the attention. His cloak was flowing in the wind with his every step and he could feel the sea air blowing through his hair, loosening some strands from his braid. This was what happiness felt like, he thought, and he had to restrain himself not to embrace whoever was closest to him. He came to stand at the railing and looked down into the foaming water. How fast the ship was today! The Hermione was indeed doing her best to carry him to America as fast as possible. Lafayette closed his eyes and enjoyed the cool breeze caressing his face.
Just one more week, he thought to himself, one more week. He could already see the harbor of Boston, if he closed his eyes. There would be a reception in his honor, he knew, a celebration for the alliance, for it was alive and thriving. Six-thousand men had been promised by the French king, in addition to the troops already stationed in America, and six battleships would set sail for their journey across the Atlantic soon. Six-thousand men, that could mean the American victory. The Comte de Rochambeau would be the commander of the French troops while the overall command would remain in Washington’s able hands.
Lafayette could say with pride that he had played a key role in influencing the court’s decision to send the urgently needed support to America. Although he had spent one week in symbolic exile in a hotel in Paris by orders of the king – the punishment for disobeying the monarch by sailing to America two years ago – he had known since the day of his arrival back in France that he was now a famous and admired man. His status had changed from that of a naïve, rebellious country-boy to that of a heroic warrior. When he had departed from France, he had been only nineteen years of age, with no experience on the battlefield and with more money than reason. He had been shy, awkward, and had had the reputation of lacking manners appropriate for the court.
Upon his return, however, he had stood proud and tall, dashing in his uniform of a Major General in the Continental Army. He had developed a striking eloquence, and had been able to use his natural talent of charming people in a way that benefited his efforts of convincing the king of the righteousness of the American cause. The young men had adored him, worshiped him, as their hero. The ladies had swooned whenever he had entered a room. On the street of every city, the people had recognized him. They had cheered to him like they did not ever cheer to their king. The noble families had practically begged for the opportunity to host a dinner for the Marquis. It had not been without a great amount of pride that Lafayette had accepted the reputation of being the most loved man in France.
Week after week he had spent travelling between the French cities, giving speeches, attending dinners, writing letters – all that to advocate for the American cause. His heroic stories had left not a single person unimpressed and many of the nobles had expressed their desire to join the war either as officers or as sponsors. Lafayette had even achieved to become a favorite of his majesty King Louis. He had had the honor of going on private hunting tours with the king, and had spent many hours at the court, letting his charm win him the adoration of the rich and the noble. Together with John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, the American delegates to France, Lafayette had spent day after day in fatiguing work, scheming, plotting, doing everything that had come to their minds to talk the court into providing supplies and troops. They had worked for many sleepless nights, and even more restless days. Eventually, their efforts had paid off, when the court had announced the continuation and the increase of its support for America.
Lafayette could not wait for the Hermione to reach Boston, for he had been chosen to be to the one to tell the Americans of the happy news. Oh, he could imagine the joy on their faces, and the hope returning into their grief-stricken eyes. The soldiers would gain new courage and strength, and adore him even more than they had done before his departure to France. The generals would congratulate him on his success and thank him for his efforts. His friends, Hamilton and Laurens, and the other aides, would be absolutely delighted by the news he carried. Lafayette could already picture Hamilton’s grin, and the forceful embrace he would receive upon his return.
Most of all, however, Lafayette looked forward to telling Washington of the renewal of the French-American alliance. The General’s eyes would light up, he would smile brightly – a rare sight even to Lafayette – and it was not unlikely that more than one tear would be shed over the news. What a relief it would be for the commander-in-chief to learn that six-thousand men where on their way to America! He deserved it, after the years of constant worry and pressure, under the crushing weight of stirring the fate of an entire nation.
Lafayette’s heart grew heavy at the thought of his beloved general. Without exaggeration he could say that he missed Washington more than he had ever missed someone before in his life. Ever since their tearful separation at Fishkill, not a single day had gone by on which Lafayette had not thought of him. The memory of Washington crying because he had to let his young friend go, nearly made Lafayette tear up despite his cheerful mood. It had been the ultimate proof of the deep sentiments Washington entertained for him after the year and a half they had spent in close companionship.
Sometimes Lafayette asked himself what he had done to deserve the unrestrained affection Washington offered to him like he did to no one else. When he had first come to America, he had been merely a boy, with a voluntary rank, and to even speak to the great commander-in-chief had been an indescribably great honor. He could have never dared to dream of the deep connection that had formed between him and the General, two comrades-in-arms that were so unalike but yet their fates were so closely intertwined. It had not taken more than a few hours for the bond between the two men to grow. From the moment he had first lain eyes on Washington, Lafayette had been entirely taken by the general. He had been awestruck, to say the least, by his effortless authority, his quiet, reserved wisdom, his aura. Not even a week after their first encounter, Lafayette had already moved into the general’s headquarters, as a part of his military family.
Evening after evening they had spent in conversation, and Lafayette had been unable to comprehend how he had achieved to get the great General Washington to grow thus attached to him, a boy who had never seen a single fight. Washington, said by many to be cold, distant, detached, had offered him a sincere warmth from the first day on. The soft, attentive, even affectionate look in the general’s eyes during the first weeks they had spent together – Lafayette would never forget it in his lifetime. Valley Forge had been the ultimate test for their friendship. They had been surrounded by deserters, traitors and death and still their bond had emerged even stronger from it. Washington had begun to share his most private thoughts with Lafayette, as if they had known each other for decades, not for five months. He had even adopted the habit of addressing him with “son” in private. This had brought tears to Lafayette’s eyes for several weeks until he had grown accustomed to it. He, who had never had a father, had found one in midst of a raging war.
Oh, how much he had missed Washington during his long leave to France. Yes, he had enjoyed being back in his home country, reunited with his wife and his children. He had longed for France during his time in America and he had been excited to return home. Nevertheless, the separation and the distance was painful. He had grown so attached to the country, the people, and especially to Washington, that his stay in France had been of a bitter-sweet nature. Although he had many friends back home with whom he could converse at length, Lafayette had learned that none of them could come close to the role Washington had played during his time in America. He had lacked a wise, trusted friend who would give him paternal advice whenever his certainty faltered, who would calm him when his hot temper got the better of his rationality and who would comfort him if the vulnerable, shy boy he had once been threatened to come to the surface again. The frequent stream of letters the two of them had exchanged had not been able to replace their intimate conversations, even though they had given proof to Lafayette that his beloved general had not forgotten him during his absence.
Sometimes, he had been haunted by the peculiar thought that Washington would cease to care about him as soon as he left for France and as soon as he was not of an immediate use to America. What if he had only imagined the affection Washington offered him?, he had asked himself on several occasions. But always, another letter had arrived, assuring him of his friend’s unaltered attachment and telling him that Washington was impatiently waiting for his return. The letters had never failed to calm Lafayette’s anxieties and had filled his heart with warmth and joy. At the same time, however, they had always reminded him of how far he was from his adoptive father and how painful the distance was for both of them.
Lafayette stopped his train of thought when he felt himself grow too sentimental. This was not the time to shed a single tear. He was on his way to America, with him travelled the greatest news the whole country had received in over a year and soon he would be reunited with everyone who had grown dear to him in his adoptive country. He smiled at the mental image he had of his arrival in Boston. Only a few more days and he would be home. He closed his eyes and held his head up high, feeling the cool wind on his face and the pleasant warmth of the sun. The radiating grin returned to his lips in no time. He could have hugged the whole world today.
Lafayette spent the following week in absolute restlessness. His nausea and light-headedness had vanished almost completely and now nothing kept him from pacing forth and back on the ship’s deck. After two days, the captain had politely asked him to cease his incessant walking since it was making the crew nervous. Lafayette had managed to sit down for half an hour, before he had resumed wandering around. He was bursting with energy and excitement, and the thought of being on this ship for just another day made him feel trapped. He longed for solid ground underneath his feet, for proper food, for a bed that did not sway underneath him.
But all of these things were just superficial desires, of minor importance. Much more did he long to be back in the country that was so dear to his heart and that his whole soul wished to return to. He did not sleep much, not more than three or four hours per night. He woke up every other hour, his heart beating fast with almost unbearable excitement. His dreams were filled with what he imagined his return to America to be like. The correspondence and the books he tried to read to pass the time, proved not interesting enough to keep his mind occupied. Thus, his main activity was to pace on the main deck, stand on the ship’s bow and stare into the distance, in hope of catching a first glimpse of land. He watched the horizon until his eyes started to burn from the wind and until his mind played tricks on him.
One morning, on the 27th of April, a midshipman in the mast yelled the words Lafayette had anticipated for weeks.
“Land in sight!”
The midshipman’s excited call was repeated numerous times on the deck. Lafayette, however, had heard it the first time already and had rushed to the railing in the blink of an eye. And indeed, there, in the distance, almost not visible through the light fog that lay over the water, he could make out a thin, brown line. His heart skipped several beats at this sight. A radiating grin returned to his face when he realized that the day of his arrival had come. Only hours separated him from his beloved America now.
It was hard to avert his eyes from the dark line, but eventually, Lafayette returned to his cabin to collect his belongings. He did not care about packing them orderly, but stowed everything that was not in danger of breaking in his bags as fast as possible. He was slightly more careful with the letters and quills splayed out on his table, but still he nearly knocked over an open pot of ink. Biting back a swear word, he caught the pot just in time before the ink could do any damage to his cloak that was lying on a chair, dangerously close to the table. When he had finished collecting his belongings on his bed where his aide would pick them up later, he hurried back up onto the deck. Lafayette had the impression that with every time he blinked, the line on the horizon grew bigger. He only noticed that he was biting his lips in excitement when they started to bleed. He did not mind the slight pain. He could have received a bullet in the leg right now and he would not have cared.
The Hermione would anchor in Marblehead first to take a pilot on board who could safely guide the massive frigate into the crowded harbor of Boston. Since it was still not past noon, they would most likely be able to reach Boston in the evening hours. Lafayette hoped the stop at Marblehead would only be of a short duration. He could barely wait for the reception in Boston.
Time seemed to pass excruciatingly slow, but eventually the shore came closer and closer, until the anchor was dropped. Some crewmembers were getting ready to row ashore in a boat to meet the pilot and bring him on board. Initially, Lafayette had wanted to wait on the ship for their return, but the excitement that had taken possession of him at the sight of the land was too great for him to stay here. He crossed the deck and ordered the crew to take him ashore with them. When the boat was let down into the water and the men started to row, he had to bite back the plea toward them to row faster. He nervously tapped a rhythm onto the boat’s side, barely withstanding the urge to just jump into the water and swim the rest of the way.
Lafayette got up before the boat even touched the shore. His boots and breeches were drenched when he flanked over the boat’s edge and landed in the water that reached up to his thighs. He did not care. All that mattered right now was that his feet touched solid ground – American soil. Lafayette waded ashore, and, overcome by emotions, sank down onto his knees, with tears of joy in his eyes. Taking a deep breath, he raised his face into the sky. He could not help a laugh escaping his mouth and he did not care that the whole crew was watching him. He was here at last. Oh, how much he had longed for this moment for over a year! How often he had dreamed of this!
He took several minutes to recollect himself. Eventually, he got up onto his legs again, brushing the dirt off his breeches and taking another deep breath.
When the crewmembers had finally arrived as well, Lafayette followed them into the town. The streets began to fill with curious people, who had taken notice of the big ship laying close to the shore. When some of them recognized Lafayette, they started clapping and cheering. Whispers followed the men through the whole town until they came to halt in front of the house that, according to the captain's orders, belonged to the pilot they were supposed to pick up here. The man, however, was nowhere to be seen.
“I will go inside and ask for him”, a crewmember announced and ascended the stairs. He was not gone for more than a minute but that was enough for Lafayette and the other Frenchmen to be surrounded by people. They all wanted to see him, talk to him, compliment him. He was busy shaking hands and smiling at the crowd, when the man who had been searching for the pilot returned.
“The pilot is inside, Sir. He will take ten minutes, and then he will be ready to go”, he reported and Lafayette nodded.
That was enough time to write a quick note to Washington that he had arrived. He just had to tell his beloved general of his return, for if he did not, he would burst with happiness before his arrival in camp. Quickly he ascended the stairs, asking the first person he encountered for paper and a quill. The elderly woman was quick to bring him what he had wished for. His hand was shaking from the excited tension that had taken hold if his body, when he scribbled a few lines directed at Washington, telling him that he had arrived and begging him to wait for him before moving camp.
Not even two minutes later, Lafayette was already on his way out again.
“I need a courier!”
He looked around searchingly for someone with a horse who seemed able to quickly bring a message to the army's camp. He did not have to wait long. A young man approached him, raising his hand in a gesture intended to win the Marquis' attention.
“Sir, let me do it! I ride to camp quite often, my brother is stationed there”, he said, the excitement and nervousness audible in his voice. Lafayette hesitated for a moment, since it was a message of great importance he needed to get to camp. Then, however, when he saw the pleading look in the young man’s eyes, he gave in.
“Take good care of it”, he told him when he handed him the note and some money to pay him for his efforts. “What is your name?”
“Jasper Bennet, Sir. Thank you so much Sir, it is an honor”, the man stammered, indicating a bow. Lafayette smiled at him and watched as he mounted his horse and rode off in a fast gallop.
When the boat arrived back at the main ship, Lafayette’s nerves had somewhat calmed since he had set foot in the land now, but still he was impatient. He wanted to depart from here as soon as possible, since they could not maneuver in Boston Harbor at night. Suppressing the urge to ask the captain to set sail, Lafayette leaned against the rail, watching the nearby shore. He had already annoyed the poor man enough on this journey, with his constant jitteriness and impatience.
After approximately half an hour, the Hermione set sail for Boston. A glance at his pocket watch showed Lafayette that the whole stop at Marblehead had not taken longer than three hours. The wind was being merciful today and thus it could be expected that the ship would reach the city in the evening. The only thing left to do for Lafayette now was to wait.
By the time the silhouette of Boston grew clearly visible, Lafayette was shaking with excitement. Tears gathered in his eyes, but he did not mind that the crew saw him cry. He was not ashamed of how happy he was to return to America. The pilot they had picked up at Marblehead had sent a courier to the city to announce the Marquis’ arrival and thus it was to be expected that half of Boston’s population would be crowding the shore by now. The Hermione slowed down to rank into the harbor. She was not even close to the dock when Lafayette could already hear the voices of hundreds, no, thousands of people. They were cheering, cheering for him. If he had not already been crying, he would have started to do so now.
“Give them a thirteen-gun salute!”, he ordered the ship’s crew and they were quick to follow his wish. Only a minute later, the Hermione’s canon fired their greeting to the people of Boston, the ship’s entire body vibrating with the force of the guns. The cheering grew even louder. It did not take long for the nearby harbor fort to return the greeting with its canons. The smoke swirled around the ship, but even this smell appeared heavenly to Lafayette. The setting sun bathed the city of Boston into warm tones of yellow and orange. Church bells were ringing, their sound being carried over toward Lafayette by the soft wind blowing.
When the smoke had cleared, Lafayette was able to see the masses of people that had assembled on the shore. They were waving flags, most of them the stars and stripes of America, but also many French flags, blue and yellow. In this moment, Lafayette could have sworn that it was the most beautiful sight that had ever been offered to his eyes. A shiver ran down his spine. This reception made him forget every single second of the fatiguing journey in an instant. He saw some people pointing at him when they recognized him standing at the railing and he raised one arm in a welcoming gesture.
Lafayette’s heart leaped in his chest when he felt the ship come to a halt. A landing stage was let down onto the dock. Lafayette was so captured by the emotions overcoming him at the sight of the masses cheering for him that he nearly missed the captain’s gesture, signaling him that he was given the honor to step ashore first. When he finally noticed that the crew was waiting for him, he quickly crossed the deck and proceeded to walk down the wooden stage. Another shiver ran down his spine when he was able to comprehend what the people assembled on the shore were shouting.
“Vive Lafayette!”, they were chanting, “Vive Lafayette!”
All those people, their voices as excited as Lafayette had barely ever heard them, and all of them were cheering for him, for him alone. And they did not even know of the great news he would reveal to them soon. Oh, how he loved this country and these people! Deeply moved, Lafayette waved to the crowd while descending from the Hermione, with both tears and a radiating grin upon his face. If he had been able to, he would have stopped time right here to relive this moment over and over again. This was everything he could have ever hoped for in his boldest dreams and everything he had longed for since he had been a little boy, running wild on the fields of Chavaniac. The admiration and love of so many people, fame, close ties to the population. It would by no means have been exaggerated to say that he was the hero of the American people.
On the dock, Lafayette could recognize several high ranking officers, citizens and city officials, among them John Hancock and Samuel Adams, whose acquaintance Lafayette had already made two years ago. Hancock stepped forward when Lafayette had stepped ashore and offered his hand in a greeting gesture. He smiled, broadly and genuinely, and Lafayette reciprocated it when he took the American's hand.
“Marquis! What a pleasure to have you with us again", Hancock said, with his hand still gripping Lafayette's.
“The pleasure is mine. I counted the days until my return. If I could I would thank every single one of these honest and brave people who came to receive me thus warmly.”, Lafayette replied and indicated a bow. He still had not bothered to wipe away his tears. There was not shame in being emotional about returning to one’s adoptive country and being given a hero's welcome.
Adams was the next one to greet Lafayette.
“Come”, he said after the two men had exchanged their courtesies, “we shall celebrate your return with a dinner that will pay you back for all the pains of your fatiguing voyage.”
“Oh, I assure you, sir, this welcome has already compensated for two crossings”, Lafayette replied, which caused Adams' smile to grow even wider.
“Which does not mean I would ever decline such a generous offer”, he added and followed Hancock and Adams toward the buildings close to the dock. Still, the crowd’s cheering had not calmed down. Flanked by the officers and politicians, Lafayette made his way through the masses, waving, smiling, trembling with excitement.
“Vive Lafayette!”, the people were still calling out and in this moment, Lafayette could have sworn that it was the most beautiful sound he had ever heard.
“Here I am, my dear general. […] I beg you will wait for me until I join by beloved and respected friend and general.” (from Lafayette’s note to Washington, informing him about his arrival in America)
Some notes about the historical accuracy:
- this takes place before the French Revolution, therefore the French flag was not the tricolor yet but blue with three yellow heraldic lilies (I tripped over that)
- I could not find a source on the exact date Lafayette arrived, it was either the 26th or 27th of April when he arrived at Marblehead to pick up the pilot and from where he sent the note to Washington, and I'm not sure if he reached Boston the same day, but for this story I just assumed that he did.
“Lafayette rode into Morristown on the tenth [of May]. Washington went out to meet him and, Hamilton remembered, his ‘eyes were filled with tears of joy, a certain proof of a truly paternal love.’ The young man threw his arms around his adoptive father and kissed him on both cheeks.” (Adopted Son, p.261)
Five days after his glorious arrival at Boston Harbor, Lafayette found himself on the road again. This time, his destination was a small city called Morristown near New York. There, the main army had spent the winter months and Washington had established his headquarters close to the encampment. Lafayette was to rejoin the army and resume the command over his division – a task he looked very much forward to. He had missed having a field command during his absence. The longing to be back in uniform and to lead his men into battle had grown stronger with every day he had spent at the French court, so far from any military action. He missed his men, and, no doubt, they missed their general. Lafayette was extremely popular among the ranks, owing to his natural enthusiasm and charm, and to the selfless devotion he had shown by purchasing clothing and food for his men from his own purse when almost every other division had suffered from starvation and the merciless cold. He had involved his officers in the development of strategies, showing them that their opinion was valuable and respected. This gesture of trust had paid off for the young general. No unit had lower numbers of deserters than his, and his men were devoted to him with absolute loyalty.
Lafayette could barely await to be reunited with these honest, brave men he had grown so fond of. Even more, however, he anticipated his reunion with Washington. He did not know if his note he had sent from Marblehead had already reached the commander-in-chief and thus there was no way for him to learn if Washington knew that he was on his way. Lafayette hoped the letter had arrived, for he did not want to keep his friend waiting just one day longer. He had already imagined countless times how delighted the General was going to be by his return and how much more happiness and relief the news of the promised French support were to bring.
The journey to Morristown would take Lafayette approximately one week. Under better conditions, he would have been able to cover the over two-hundred miles in less than that. There were, however, several obstacles preventing him from reaching camp faster. The most pleasant one was that in every town he passed, he was received with parades, banquets, dinners and speeches in his honor. The people took immense pride in hosting festivities for the Marquis and there seemed to be no greater goal than to have Lafayette staying at one’s town for the night. Lafayette, flattered by the attention and the praise he was given, did nothing to diminish the Americans’ excitement. In contrary, he willingly participated in every single event taking place to celebrate his return. He talked to the people, shared their dinner tables and proclaimed his eternal gratefulness for the efforts that were made to honor him. He and the men accompanying him on his way to Morristown went to bed slightly tipsy every night and had their difficulties every morning to get the town’s people to let them continue their journey.
An obstacle way less enjoyable was that the roads were in extraordinarily bad condition. It rained almost every day, and it had done so apparently for the past few weeks, since the roads had transformed into a mass of mud and puddles. Oftentimes, the men were unable to even trot their horses, for that would have posed a too high risk to the health of their mounts and also to the men’s safety.
It was hazardous to travel this slow, Lafayette knew. They were only five men and against an enemy patrol they would not stand a chance. In addition, he was one of the highest-ranking officers in the Continental forces and a symbol for the American cause – his capture could conceivably mean the British victory in this war. The tensions among the men were accordingly high. Whereas Lafayette’s aide urged the group to travel as fast as possible and risk injuries in the horses in order to get the Marquis to safety, others argued that it was best to keep a steady and calm pace and to closely watch the surrounding woods at all times.
Lafayette himself would have preferred the first option since he did not want to waste another day on the road. He, however, knew that it was impossible for them to travel faster without endangering the entire company. Thus, he spent his days on horseback, in growing frustration and impatience.
On the eighth day on the road, in midst of a heavy rainfall, Lafayette was finally granted a bright ray of hope. The group had stopped to give their horses a short break when they heard a familiar sound, coming closer rapidly.
“Do you hear that?”, Lafayette’s aide asked, looking at the other men with an alarmed expression. Lafayette put down the bag he had been holding in his hand and nodded. His hand slowly moved toward the pistol he carried on his hip-
“That sounds like cavalry”, he said, his voice sounding calm although his heart was pounding in his chest. Five men with exhausted horses and wet gunpowder – if that was an enemy unit, they would not live to see the next ten minutes. He nodded at his men, a gesture for them to ready their weapons. At least they would not go down without a fight, then. They readied their arms, aiming in the distance at nothing particular since the rain was too heavy for them to see whoever was approaching them from this distance. Lafayette squinted his eyes in an attempt to make out at least some silhouettes. The rain water was dripping from his tricorn and ran down his face, causing him to wipe the wetness away with an angry gesture. The British must have known of their position and now they were using the weather to their advantage, he thought.
He heard his aide’s shallow, quick breath beside him. The man was nervous, Lafayette knew, and it would have been a lie to claim that he himself was not. When he was finally able to see a movement in the distance, he could not help but laugh in relief. His aide, who had apparently not yet seen as much as Lafayette had, looked at the Marquis in utter confusion.
“Sir, this is hardly the time-”, he started slowly, but Lafayette interrupted him with a radiating grin on his face.
“Do you not see their uniforms? They are blue! These are our men!”, he said, his voice growing loud with excitement. He signaled his men to lower their weapons. A collective sigh of relief could be heard from the other Frenchmen, when they as well made out the patches of blue through the rain. The unit was approaching fast and soon the men were able to see that it was indeed cavalry, at least fifty men. Lafayette’s heart was still pounding, but now for a wholly different reason. The fact that they had encountered these troops here, in a storm on a deserted road in the woods, could only mean one thing – Washington had received his note and had sent men to escort him into camp. This alone would have been enough for Lafayette to erupt in relieved and joyful laughter. When he, however, recognized the man riding in front, he was unable to withhold his emotions.
“Hamilton!”, he exclaimed his friend’s name and approached the aide in a few quick strides before Hamilton had even been able to stop his horse. He had to suppress the urge to hug his friend while he was still on top of his mount. Instead, he looked up to Hamilton, grinning broadly, his breath quickened due to the overwhelming excitement pervading him.
“Mon ami”, Hamilton returned the greeting, with an equally broad grin on his features. He dismounted quickly and, not even bothering to hold on to his horses’ reins, pulled the much taller Frenchman into a bone-shattering embrace. Lafayette returned it with equal force, his hand gripping Hamilton’s cloak and pulling him closer. Oh, how he had missed his friend! The jokes, the late-night conversations, the playful arguments. There could not have been a better surprise for Lafayette this day than encountering a unit under Hamilton’s command.
“We received your note yesterday”, Hamilton said once the two friends had separated, “You should have seen the men. It was quite a party, I can assure you.”
Lafayette laughed at his friend’s words. His heart leaped at the thought of the men being delighted by his return and he had seen enough celebrations in camp to be able to imagine what Hamilton was referring to.
“Washington ordered this escort to move out the moment he opened the letter. The old fox is probably running in circles ever since we left camp”, the aide added with a cocky grin. Lafayette chuckled. The image of Washington getting all excited of the prospect of seeing him soon warmed his heart. At the same time, however, it made his heart grow heavy again. He had kept his dear friend waiting for far too long.
“Washington, how is he?”, he asked, the urgency strongly audible in his voice. Hamilton gestured toward his horse. It was just now that Lafayette noticed that the aide and also the other men seemed tense, on edge, as if they were expecting an attack any second. The dragoons were watching the tree line very closely, some of them even with their hands on their pistols and sabers.
“Let us get moving. We can talk on the way”, Hamilton said, and mounted his horse. “It is not far to camp from here. We merely took so long because we had to avoid an enemy patrol. If we keep up a good pace, we will be able to reach Morristown in the later afternoon. It is still quite early, fortunately.”
Lafayette nodded and got back onto his horse as well. “You made enemy contact, then?”, he asked when they had urged their mounts into a fast walk. Hamilton hummed in confirmation.
“Unfortunately we did. There is British cavalry everywhere. Luckily they did not see us since they were still two miles or so away from us when our vanguard spotted them.” He leaned closer to Lafayette. “They are on a hunt for you, my friend.”
An involuntary shiver ran down Lafayette's spine. He had been right in his assumption that he had become the most precious prey in enemy territory. What they would do to him, were he captured, he did not want to imagine. Maybe they would ship him to England, a symbol of the inevitable defeat of both France and the unruly colonies. Maybe they would have him hanged or shot to break the Continentals' spirit. The worst possibility Lafayette was able to think of was that the British would use him as an instrument to blackmail Washington. It was well know to the enemy how close the commander-in-chief and his Marquis were. Should the British threaten to kill Lafayette – he did not want to imagine what sacrifices Washington would make to save his life.
“He is going to be delighted to see you.”, Hamilton ended Lafayette's dark contemplations. He did not have to ask who the aide was referring to. Lafayette gladly accepted the distraction from the constant threat of an attack.
“I shall hope so”, he said with a chuckle and Hamilton smiled at him.
“You should have seen him when he received your note. I do not recall seeing him grinning this broadly ever before. He almost started tearing up over the news.”
“So he really did miss me", Lafayette said quietly, more to himself than directed at someone else. Hamilton responded nevertheless.
“Oh, that is a great understatement. He was practically grieving after you left. For two weeks he would yell at everyone who did the slightest thing to irritate him and he would not attend a single dinner. When he finally ate with us again, he forbid that anyone sat on your usual place. And-", Hamilton smiled to himself at the thought, “he has a little portrait of you on his desk, it goes with him whenever he moves headquarters. I always felt your eyes on me when I entered his office.”
Although the mental image was quite amusing, Lafayette felt a lump build up in his throat at Hamilton’s words. The guilt about taking what felt like an eternity to return to America and letting Washington wait for thus long grew even stronger now that he had the confirmation that his friend had been affected by his absence as much as he had anticipated. On the other hand, Lafayette’s heart filled with affection and he could not help finding Washington’s behavior quite touching and endearing. “Then I do better not to make him wait even longer”, he said and urged his horse into a light trot.
They rode on without taking another break and luckily without making enemy contact again. The roads close to camp were slightly better than out in the woods and therefore, the dragoons and the Frenchmen reached Morristown in the late afternoon, just as Hamilton had said earlier. The rain had stopped, and although the sky was still grey and cloudy, the mood among the men grew more light-hearted with every yard. Lafayette could feel his heart pound in his chest when they approached the outer areas of the camp, rows of white tents, one after another, all the way up the slight hill on which the bigger tents and huts belonging to the officers were located. The soldiers in camp had already become aware of the cavalry approaching and began to assemble outside of their tents, curiously watching as the group came closer.
“The headquarters are on the other side of the camp”, Hamilton told Lafayette, “I will make sure they let you pass, there is time for a reception later.” Lafayette nodded in response. He was relieved that his friend had recognized the urgency with which he needed to get to Washington. Of course he looked forward to being received by his men, but his reunion with his adopted father was of the highest priority right now. As soon as the dragoons were close enough to camp for the soldiers to recognize who was accompanying them, the assembled men erupted in loud cheering. Lafayette grinned broadly, raising a hand in a greeting gesture. The dragoons made way for him to let him ride at the front of the unit. Hamilton, as promised, stayed close by Lafayette’s side, having an eye in the men, should they in their excitement hinder the Marquis from making his way to the headquarters.
“Welcome back, Sir!”, Lafayette heard a man say, some others bowed before him or even sank down onto their knees to signal their admiration and reverence. He nodded to them, expressing his gratitude, and he knew that the men were aware that it was genuine. Both whispers and calls followed him through the entire camp.
“It is him, it is really him.”
“Lafayette is back!”
Lafayette loved the attention the men were giving him and did nothing to hide that. He did not cease waving and smiling the entire way through the hundreds of tents. Slowly, they approached the red brick building serving as Washington’s headquarters and that of his staff. Owing to the masses of soldiers surrounding him, Lafayette was not able to see more than the house's roof yet. He could, however, feel his chest clench with anticipation and nervous tension. It was quite plausible that Washington was already waiting in front of the building since there was no way he had not heard the noise the troops were making. When even sitting up straighter in his saddle did not allow Lafayette to catch a glimpse of the headquarters, he felt himself grow impatient.
He urged his horse to walk faster and was glad that the men made way for him when they realized he was in a hurry. Finally, the masses of soldiers parted. Lafayette did not need more than a second to recognize the tall, broad figure in front of the house. He noticed how Washington immediately stepped forward as soon as he saw Lafayette, as if it were an instinctive reaction. He then stopped, however, and remained standing on the top of the stairs. His Excellency could not allow himself to overreact, Lafayette knew, he had to keep a certain amount of composure in front of the troops. For Lafayette himself, at least in this moment, etiquette and formality was not of even the smallest importance.
He urged his horse into a trot, leaving the dragoons and the other men behind him. His fingers were shaking and he had to be careful not to let the reins, still wet from the rain earlier, slip through his fingers. It was a odd state Lafayette found himself in, but not an unknown one. He was on the brink of tears, his eyes burning and his vision partly clouded, but still, his heart leaped with joy and the grin on his face almost started to grow painful. When he came close enough to see Washington's face, he noticed that his friend was pressing his lips together in a thin line. Lafayette was slightly irritated by that since it made Washington appear angry at the first glance. Then, however, he noticed that the General was blinking rapidly, with a deep crest appearing on his forehead. Lafayette knew this expression. Washington was attempting not to cry.
He dismounted before his horse had even come to a halt in front of the stairs. Someone would look after the animal, he was sure, but that thought was of minor importance now. Taking two steps at a time and nearly tripping in the process, he ascended the stairs. He saw that Washington was extending his arms hesitantly, seeming unsure about how to welcome his friend after an absence of that duration. Lafayette, however, did not need to contemplate about their greeting at all. Not even bothering to slow down, he threw himself into Washington's arms, pulling the General into a vigorous embrace. The force of their collision caused Washington to stumble backward to prevent himself from being knocked over – a quite amusing image since the General was seemingly twice as massive as the young Marquis. Lafayette felt Washington's arms close around him with equal force.
Despite the firmness of their embrace, Lafayette did not fail to notice the slight tremor running through Washington’s body. The General exhaled shakily when he lowered his head, his forehead now hovering over Lafayette’s shoulder. Lafayette knew his friend was contemplating about how intimate he could let their greeting become in public and this was already more than he had expected beforehand. He felt Washington's hand gripping his cloak, as if he was afraid Lafayette was going to vanish, were he to not hold on to him tightly enough. Despite the tears in his eyes, Lafayette could not cease to smile. Many months he had longed for this moment of their reunion and it felt even better than he had imagined it.
When they finally separated, Lafayette saw that Washington’s eyes were rimmed red and shimmering with tears. The General's lips were still pressed together tightly, but now there was a smile upon them, and that, Lafayette knew, was his friend's equivalent to his radiating grin. His heart both ached and rejoiced at this sight. Washington’s reaction was yet another proof of the unaltered nature of his affections for Lafayette, but also for the massive amount of pain his friend's absence had caused him.
“Marquis”, Washington finally said, raising his hands to take hold of Lafayette’s upper arms. The warm expression in his eyes spoke of deep fondness and joy, and this alone would have been enough for Lafayette to tear up, had his eyes not been stinging already.
“Mon général", he returned their familiar greeting and leaned forward to kiss Washington on both cheeks. He saw a slight blush appearing on the General's cheeks and Lafayette could not help finding this sight quite endearing. Even after all the French greetings, the American generals were often flustered when the French welcomed them in their traditional way, and that did not exclude Washington.
“Let us go inside”, Lafayette suggested, “I have come with news that will make this reunion even happier.”
He saw the questioning expression on Washington's face but chose to wait until they could speak in private. Washington should hear the news of France’s renewed support first and he would be the one to decide how the troops would learn of it. Lafayette turned toward the men. They were still clapping and cheering. He waved to them and smiled, before Washington placed a hand on his shoulder to lead him inside the building. They walked down the hallway in silence, both still too overwhelmed to make casual conversation.
Washington opened at a door to their right and signaled Lafayette to enter. It was a quite big room, the General's office, judging by the dark wooden desk near the window, on which papers and books were piling en masse. There was a fireplace to the left, with several chairs and a small table in front of it. The light falling in through the window was dim, owing to the late hour. Washington quickly lightened some candles to keep the darkness at bay, while Lafayette remained standing in the middle of the room, taking in the view.
“Please, take a seat”, Washington said and Lafayette did as told. The General sat down in the chair next to him and looked at him with an expression of tense expectancy. It still felt so unreal to Lafayette to find himself face to face with his friend again. He could not help but let his eyes roam over Washington's features over and over again, until he had assured himself that this was not a dream, but wonderful reality. He, however, could not let Washington wait any longer. He cleared his throat and sat up straight.
“I have the honor to tell you that les monsieurs Adams and Franklin, and also myself, have been quite successful in their efforts to win France’s heart for the American cause once again. We worked for more than a year, every hour we could. I lost count how many audiences we had and how many speeches we gave.”
Lafayette realized that he was stretching out his narrative for too long. Washington was already leaning forward, his fingers unconsciously tapping a rhythm on the chair’s arm lean.
“To make it short, we convinced King Louis to send six-thousand additional troops and a fleet of six ships, all under the command of the Comte de Rochambeau. He is a very able General and I insisted that he be placed under your order, thus making you the commander of both the American and the French troops.”
Lafayette was able to see how Washington's composure gradually deserted him with every word he spoke. The General’s mouth fell open, his eyes growing wide. He blinked rapidly, but even that could not hide the tears had had returned into his eyes. For once, His Excellency seemed at a loss for words. Lafayette smiled at him, warm affection filling his heart at this sight. Washington seemed absolutely shaken, since he did not even reciprocate the smile. Instead, he just stared at Lafayette for several more seconds, before he buried his face in his hands, his shoulders trembling with silent sobs. Lafayette froze. This was not at all the reaction he had hoped for. He knew that Washington could be a very emotional man and he had expected that the news would be met with powerful sentiments. Lafayette, however, was not prepared for a reaction like that and thus found himself quite overstrained with the situation.
“Mon dieu, non”, he murmured. Unsure of what to do, he got up and stepped closer to Washington. Hesitantly, he sank down on one knee in front his friend's chair. He placed one hand on Washington's knee, very slowly and carefully, since he knew that the General did normally not like to be touched. Lafayette was one of the few whom Washington allowed to touch him without asking, and, at least in his first year in America, Lafayette had been the only one Washington, in turn, had been touching voluntarily. Still, Lafayette thought it better to be careful now, since he did not want to cause an even bigger eruption of Washington's temper. He did not receive a reaction whatsoever. Thus, he placed his other hand on Washington's forearm, gently applying pressure in an attempt to stop his friend from covering his face with his hands.
“Mon général, Sir", he addressed Washington, hoping that his voice would get him the General’s attention. When he did not succeed, he was only able to think of one more option.
“Father”, he said, his voice quiet, pleading. The word felt strange on his lip, after over a year of not using it. Still, it revoked a feeling of comfort, security, home. It simply felt right. The tremor in Washington's shoulders ceased in an instant. Lafayette tensed and considered a retreat, in fear of having angered his friend by being so forward. Before he could fully rise and step back, however, he felt Washington's hand on top of his own, which was still resting on the General’s knee; a firm grip holding him in place. He relaxed a bit and kneeled back down. In the meantime, Washington had raised his face from where he had been hiding it behind his hands. His eyes were rimmed red and Lafayette could still see traces of tears upon his friend's cheeks. The expression on his features made Lafayette's chest tighten with both fondness and grief. Washington looked at him as if he could not believe that he was truly here and not the image of a dream or wishful thinking. His eyes roamed over Lafayette’s face, over and over again. Lafayette smiled at him, through the tears that were threatening to roll down his cheeks once again. When Washington finally reciprocated it, Lafayette let out a breath of relief.
“Thank you”, Washington whispered, apparently not trusting his voice enough to talk louder. His eyes had found Lafayette’s and had ceased their restless wandering. Hesitantly, he raised his other hand to gently place it on Lafayette’s cheek – just as if he needed a final proof for the Marquis’ presence. Lafayette was startled at first by this intimate gesture, but then he allowed himself to slightly lean into the touch.
“Sixteen months are far to long”, he heard Washington say, in the same quiet tone as earlier. Lafayette knew that his friend was not a man to talk much. Others might have rambled on about how much they had missed him, how glad they were to have him back. He did not need to hear these words from Washington. The look in his eyes, his gentle touch and his tearful smile were more than enough.
They talked until the late evening hours. The sun set and the room went dark, with only a few candles providing some light, but neither of them did care to sleep just yet. After Washington had calmed down again, Lafayette had returned to his chair and they had resumed discussing the details of the renewed French support for the American cause. Washington had called in an aide and had told him to inform the troops of the good news. When they had finished their discussion on the alliance, their conversation had shifted to more personal matters, with Lafayette speaking of his time in France, of his wife, his new privileged position at the court. Washington, in turn, briefed Lafayette on everything that had happened during his absence, concerning both the army and their personal acquaintances. It was as if the long months of separation had never existed. They talked without a pause, at ease, not even noticing how fast time was passing. It was only when they heard a cannon being fired outside that they became aware of the absence of sunlight and the length of their conversation.
“There seems to be quite a party going on outside”, Lafayette remarked. Washington chuckled.
“The men are delighted to have their General back with them.” He rose from his chair and gestured toward the door. “Shall we?”
Lafayette nodded and rose as well. He felt nervous all of the sudden, at the thought of stepping in front of the troops again – an odd feeling, considering they had already been cheering for him when he had arrived. The two of them walked down the hallway together in silence. When they reached the front door, Lafayette stopped, leaving Washington the privilege to step outside first, as appropriate for the commander-in-chief. Washington shook his head.
“It is you they are cheering for, son, not me ”, he said in a calm tone, smiling reassuringly at Lafayette. When Lafayette still hesitated, contemplating about whether or not no accept the offer, Washington made a decision for him. He pulled the door open and laid one hand into the small of Lafayette’s back, pushing gently. Lafayette was trembling with excitement and nervous tension when he finally gave in and stepped outside first.
The noise hit him like a giant wave. He stumbled back a step, overwhelmed for several seconds. It had to be the entire army present at Morristown that had assembled that late to celebrate his return and France's decision. Cannons were being fired, and it was only then that Lafayette was unable to hear the men’s shouts.
“Vive Lafayette! Vive la France!”
A shiver ran down his spine and he felt his eyes fill up with tears for what felt like the hundredth time this week. Finally, he achieved to collect himself enough to step forward again, raise one arm in a greeting gesture and allow a broad smile to return to his face. The cheering grew even louder. Fireworks lit up, brightening the sky with their colorful lights. It was almost painful to look at them in contrast to the dark night sky, but Lafayette could not have cared less. The overwhelming joy inside him would have been strong enough to numb even the most agonizing pain.
Lafayette felt a hand being placed on his shoulder. He did not need to turn around to know who it belonged to, but he did so anyway. Washington had stepped next to him, his glance roaming over the assembled troops with obvious pride. His features were illuminated by the fireworks when he turned his head toward Lafayette, a soft, affectionate expression in his eyes.
He spoke, but the noise of the fireworks was too loud for Lafayette to hear what his friend was saying. From the expression in his eyes and the movement of his lips, however, he could tell nevertheless.
Hope you enjoyed this story! Don't hesitate to leave some feedback, I answer to every comment and appreciate every kudos.
The next weeks will be quite busy so I don't know when the next story will come, but stay tuned, there's still a lot to come!