“Schweikart Tadeusz Kosciuszko” by Karl Gottlieb Schweikart – www.wilanow-palac.art.pl licensed under public domain via Wikimedia Commons
“Gilbert du Motier Marquis de Lafayette” by Joseph-Désiré Court licensed under public domain via Wikimedia Commons
With a name like Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roche Gilbert du Motier, it’s clear that blue blood ran in the veins of the Marquis de Lafayette. He could have sat in his French chateau drinking fine French wine his whole life (at least until the French Revolution rocked the nation). Instead, he supported revolutions against his own class on two continents and became known as “the Hero of Two Worlds.”
Born into a noble military family in Chavaniac, France, in 1757, his parents and grandmother all died by the time he was 13, leaving him a large inheritance. He joined the French Army at 14 and got married at 15, to a 14-year-old of similar nobility. At age 19, he set sail to the nascent United States of America to join the fight.
The young man wasted no time rising to prominence. He was commissioned a major general and was shot in the leg in his first fight, the Battle of Brandywine. General George Washington took a liking to the teenage rebel and asked doctors to take good care of Lafayette. The fondness was mutual, and lasted throughout their lifetimes. “They had more like a father-son kind of relationship, which you don’t see with Kosciuszko,” Ackermann says. “Washington had more of a business relationship with Kosciuszko, and a more personal relationship with Lafayette.”
Lafayette’s imprint was felt nearly everywhere during the war. In 1778, he escaped British capture at Bunker Hill — now called Lafayette Hill. He led the Continental attack at Monmouth Courthouse and served in the Battle of Rhode Island. He also returned to France to lobby King Louis XVI for the support that helped the Colonials win the war. Before he got there, though, he fell gravely ill and spent several weeks in Fishkill recovering.
He returned to fight in 1780, and led the forces that held off the British until the American and French armies were well positioned to win the Battle of Yorktown and, effectively, independence.
“Washington had great pride in Lafayette,” Ackermann says. “For Washington to give him command showed great trust and confidence. He commanded a valuable elite force in the Continental Army, considered the Special Forces of its day. He was a critical element of Washington’s army.”
At age 24 he returned to France. When the French Revolution broke out in 1789, he sided with the underclass and helped draft the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. But as a nobleman, he was ordered arrested, and fled. Caught by Austrian troops, he spent more than five years in prison. After Napoleon Bonaparte ordered his release in 1797, he lay low, but returned to government after Bonaparte was deposed and remained active in French politics for most of the rest of his life.
He was not forgotten in the States, and in 1824 President James Monroe invited him back as the nation’s guest. He visited all 24 states, including a triumphal ride up the Hudson River from New York to Albany. ““He was the living embodiment of the Revolution,” says Ackermann.
He died in 1834, leaving behind two daughters and a son, named George Washington. He is buried in Paris, covered in part from soil from Bunker Hill, befitting his position as a hero of two worlds.
Another foreign-born supporter also helped win American independence. Friedrich Wilhelm August Heinrich Ferdinand Steuben, which morphed from his birth name, Friedrich Wilhelm Ludolf Gerhard Augustin von Steuben — names were names back then — was born in Prussia in 1730 but earned eternal fame as a major general of the Continental Army. He was a low-level aristocrat but a true military man, and helped teach the rag-tag army how to drill, how to plan, and how to fight.
In fact, he wrote “Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States,” which became the standard drill manual of the U.S. Army until the War of 1812, some drills remaining in effect until the Mexican War in 1846. Prior to that, his bayonet tactics training played a major role in the American victory at the Battle of Stony Point. He served with Washington at Valley Forge and with General Nathanael Greene in Yorktown, and was Washington’s chief of staff in the final years of the war, even though his English was poor. (He reportedly often yelled for his translator to swear at men in English for him.)
Known here as Baron Von Steuben, he also sat on the court-martial of John André, the British officer who plotted with Benedict Arnold, which was held in Tappan. He made Mount Gulian in Beacon his headquarters, and became one of the founders of the Society of the Cincinnati, the nation’s first fraternal veterans organization. Given American citizenship by the Pennsylvania legislature in 1784 (and by New York in 1786), he lived after the war in Manhattan and New Jersey before settling near Rome, New York, on land given to him for his military service. He died in 1794 and is buried at what is now the Steuben Memorial Historic Site in Steuben, New York — one of scores of towns, counties, bridges, boats, festival days, buildings, football fields, and whatnot named in his honor.