31 March 2006

A 'reenactment' of Major General, the Marquis de Lafayette's first visit to Mount Vernon took place on Friday, 31 March 2006. The original, historic visit occured on 30 or 31 March 1781, and occured at the closing of Lafayette's personal advance reconnaissance in to Virginia in March 1781. This was prior to the Marquis leading his American troops back into the colony in April, to begin his summer-long Virginia Campaign of 1781. Martha Washington was away at General Washington's New Windsor Headquarters in New York; and there is no record of the Marquis meeting any of the family or household staff. It was a simple, brief first look at the home of the young French nobleman's hero and mentor, George Washington. This would be the first of many visits Lafayette would make to Mount Vernon.
The reenactor Mark Schneider portrayed the Marquis de Lafayette.

Primary reference is in Izerda's Selected Letters and Papers, 1776-1790 of Lafayette, volume IV: Lafayette's 8 April 1781 letter to GW mentions that the Marquis made the visit, but gives not a specific date. Gottschalk's Lafayette in America (Chicago, 1975) is one of the few works to describe the event. The visit is also noted in a work complied by J. Bennett Nolan for the American Friends of Lafayette: Lafayette In America Day by Day (John Hopkins Press, Baltimore, 1934).

Lafayette to George Washington, written from Head of Elk, dated 8 April 1781:

"My Dear General .... When the Return [at the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay] of the British fleet put it out of Doubt that Nothing Could Be undertaken for the present Against Porsmouth, I Sent pressing orders to Annapolis in order to Have Every thing in Readiness and even to move the troops By Land to the Head of Elk. I myself Hastened Back to Maryland, But I Confess Could Not Resist the Ardent desire I Had long Ago of Seeing Your Relations And Above All your Mother at Frederisk Burg. For that purpose I went Some miles out of the way, and in order to Conciliate My Private Happiness to duties of a Public Nature, I Recovered By Riding in the Night those few Hours Which I Had Consecrated to My Satisfaction. I Had Also the Pleasure of Seeing Mount Vernon, And was very Unhappy that My Duty and My Anxiety for the execution of Your Orders Prevented My paying A Visit to Mr. Custis." [John Parke Custis, Washington's stepson]

to explain the context of
Lafayette's First, But Brief, Visit to Mount Vernon on 30 or 31 March 1781.

Since November 1780, Baron Steuben was in Virginia to take charge of the small militia force and to try and raise some Continental recruits to assist the American army in the south. Beginning in January 1781, Benedict Arnold, now a British Major General, began a series of destructive raids with a small British military and naval force in the Chesapeake and Richmond regions of Virginia. Virginia lacked the military forces to adequately resist and sought help from George Washington's main American army, which was in endeavoring, with the French military expedition under Rochambeau, to launch an allied offensive against the major British held positions in New York City. The American forces in the Southern Department, under Nathanael Greene, were fully occupied contending with British army under Cornwallis in the Carolinas.
Washington strongly desired to capture Arnold, whose treason had made his operations in Virginia especially irksome. In February 1781, responding to pleas from Virginia, Washington deployed the American Major General, the Marquis de Lafayette, to Virginia with a small force of 1,200 men in an effort get Arnold. Washington's plan called for Lafayette's force to join up with a French division, under Vioménil. The French division was to be delivered in Virginia by a French naval squadron, under Destouches, from Newport, RI.

[Following text is taken from Lafayette in America,'Book III', by Louis Gottschalk (Chicago, 1975) pp.200-206. The narrative picks up where Lafayette had taken his US troops overland to as far as Head of Elk, MD, in early March 1781.]

Consequently, he [Lafayette] determined, even without being sure that the English vessels in the bay might not prevent him, to send his force to Annapolis "under God's protection." [52] There they would await a French frigate to escort them farther down the bay, while he himself went out to seek Destouches and Vioménil in order to persuade them not to proceed without full co-operation with the Americans. He announced his intentions to Washington, assuring his chief that "whatever determination I take, great deal must be personally risked, but I hope to manage things so as to commit no imprudence with the excellent detachment whose glory is as dear and whose safety much dearer to me than my own." [53]
Lafayette's plan was immediately carried into action. On March 8 he moved his men down the river to Plum's Point and Cecil's Ferry and spent that day and the next in embarking them. He had expected to have to act as "admiral" to his fleet, but fortunately Commodore James Nicholson of the Continental Navy had responded to Lafayette's requests and consented to take command. Nicholson promised to get them to Annapolis sooner than Lafayette had thought possible. Against an unfavorable wind the armada set sail on the ninth toward Turkey Point at the mouth of the river. There Lafayette left them to proceed on his self-appointed mission. The next day Nicholson's fleet anchored at Pool's Island, about fifteen miles out in the bay, and they arrived at Annapolis two days later, having been delayed by a storm which had scattered them [54]
Lafayette had meanwhile dropped down the bay in the "Dolphin," a sloop armed with only swivels and carrying thirty soldiers besides himself and Charlus. Charlus owed distinction to the fact that he was his father's son. "I have clapped on board my boat," Lafayette candidly informed Washington, [55] "the only son of the minister of the French navy, whom I shall take out [to the French fleet] to speak if circumstances require it." [*]
The marquis was in Annapolis on the tenth, pushing the Maryland council on to still greater efforts. [56] In order better to elude the enemy, he and his party left Annapolis in a small, open barge, intending to be picked up lower down the bay by the "Dolphin," which was to follow them at a distance. The precaution turned out to be wise. Lafayette had hoped to reach the the mouth of the Chesapeake no later than the eleventh. But wind and weather once more proved hostile to youthful fervor, and he got no farther by that date than Herring Bay. There he found that the "Dolphin" for some reason had gone back to Annapolis. He could only conjecture that it was the possibility of attack by a superior English force that had led to her retreat. [57] The conjecture was right. As Lafayette and his men proceeded in their barge, they soon discovered British vessels sailing toward Annapolis to blockade his armada there. Sending warning to Commodore Nicholson, he nevertheless continued on his way. [58]
It was not until the afternoon of March 14 that Lafayette's open boat, carefully hugging the shore, reached Yorktown. He immediately sent an express to General von Steuben, who had been waiting for him for two days at Williamsburg and Yorktown, with an invitation to meet him. [59] Steuben found it a little hard to have bottled up Arnold at Portsmouth only to have a much younger general come to preside at Arnold's capture. But he played his part nobly. The two foreign generals, who had not met since 1778, now began to concert plans for the safety of Virginia. In going back and forth from his boat, Lafayette narrowly escaped drowning. Shallow water had obliged his heavy launch to anchor some distance off shore. On one occasion, Lafayette drove his horse into the water. The animal stepped into a hole and threw his rider, who could not swim, into deep water. The soldiers in the boat jumped in and pulled him aboard. [60] It looked as if the sea, in its stubborn preference for British rule, had reached out to get him.
Since the "Dolphin" had not come down to pick him up and since no one at Yorktown knew where to look for the French fleet, it seemed foolish even to the energetic Lafayette to go on. He determined to stay at Yorktown until he and Charlus might with more point start out to find Vioménil. Realizing the delicacy of Steuben's position, he refused to take command in Virginia and, in reporting to Washington what he had done, asked the commander-in-chief to compliment Steuben upon the excellent preparations around Portsmouth. Lafayette was certain that Arnold would be captured as soon as the French fleet came up the river; in fact, Steuben's militia and his own Continentals might be able to take Arnold without the aid of Vioménil's men. [61]
Having learned that his men were safe in Annapolis [62] the marquis felt free to go upon a reconnoitering tour of the enemy's posts. On March 16 he went to Williamsburg. There he communicated with Governor Thomas Jefferson regarding the needs of the forces opposing Arnold. [63] Jefferson had frequently reminded him in earlier letters that it would be no simple task to equip his army in Virginia. That was due, Jefferson admitted, not only to the exhaustion of Virginia after the several invasions it had recently had to endure but also to "mild laws" and "a people not used to prompt obedience. " [64] Lafayette, protesting his determination to "conquer or die" in "our noble contest" (as befitted one who had the honor to address the author of the Declaration of Independence), nevertheless with equal candor confessed: "Long since have I been used to these inconveniences that are so far compensated by the numberless blessings of a popular government." [65] As if to indicate that he set greater store by the blessings than by the inconveniences, he made it clear that he would not hesitate to call upon Virginia's exertions. And, indeed, he soon began again the persistent demands for supplies which had met with such good results in Maryland, this time insisting upon a measure which he had been content to leave to the civil authorities in Maryland – the impressment of military necessities. "A people not used to prompt obedience" and unable to provide the horses he needed for his artillery found that two hundred of their oxen were impressed instead. The marquis apologized obligingly, however: "It is with the greatest reluctance that I sign any impressing warrants, but I hope my delicacy in this matter will be such as to render me worthy of the approbation of the state." Jefferson approved. [66]
A short jaunt across the James River brought Lafayette to Suffolk, south of Portsmouth, and thence he proceeded to the camp near Sleepy Hole, where General Peter Muhlenburg and some Virginia militia were situated. Here, out of deference to Muhlenburg, Lafayette again refused to assume command. [67] With a detachment of the few men he could find who had cartridges, he went out on reconnaissance. On the way his party met and cut up a small patrol of Hessian yagers. The Americans lost one man killed and two wounded and took four prisoners. [68] It was the first time in three years that Lafayette had been under fire. Lack of ammunition made it imprudent to push this advantage, and he complained to the governor and Brigadier-General George Weedon, of the Virginia militia, at the carelessness which had robbed him of a more striking victory. [69] But even a small victory was welcome. More welcome still was the news, received soon after, that the French fleet had actually sailed from Newport on March 8 and could not now be far away. Rejoicing, however, was somewhat tempered by the information that reinforcements from New York were coming to Arnold's relief. [70]
Then came the report that the French squadron had actually been sighted. Great bustle and high hopes spread through the several camps around Portsmouth. Lafayette took up his post at Williamsburg to be within easier communication of them all. Now the traitor would surely be caught, and American honor would be redeemed. Rumors of confusion in Arnold's ranks only increased the joy in the American camps. But hope was soon dashed. The vessels that had been sighted turned out to be the British under Admiral Arbuthnot. [71] He had met Destouches on March 16, and, though the French fleet had inflicted some serious damage on him and claimed the victory, he had succeeded in sailing to the Chesapeake while Destouches returned to Newport. Arbuthnot thus snatched victory from under Lafayette's nose. For Arnold's forces were short of provisions and could not have lasted much longer. [72]
Lafayette did not know of Destouches' retreat. He still hoped the French fleet might come and challenge Arbuthnot. For greater security, meanwhile, Muhlenburg's militia retreated to Suffolk, and Steuben took every precaution against surprise; and all continued to look for Destouches and Vioménil. Nevertheless, Lafayette sent word to his officers in Annapolis to be ready to move northward at a moment's notice to rejoin Washington. [73] It was only on March 25 that Lafayette learned of what had happened in the sea battle off the Capes of Virginia.[74] He did not know, however, that the French fleet had retreated was only one day's sailing from Newport by that time; and, when the English fleet once more left its moorings and a three hours' cannonading was heard in the distance, he felt certain French had again challenged the British for supremacy bay. In the end the cannonading turned out to be only distant thunder, for no action took place that day. When the English fleet returned, the reason for their having sailed became clear; they had gone out to meet and escort to Portsmouth transports sent from New York with reinforcements for Arnold. [75] That news definitely "destroys every prospect of an operation against Arnold," Lafayette reluctantly admitted, although "never has an operation be[en] more ready (on our side) conquest more certain ." [76]
Lafayette's pride now made him cling to the hope that the French fleet had gone to Greene's aid instead of retreating. He determined, nevertheless, to return to Annapolis and to lead his disappointed division back to headquarters again. That seemed the wisest course to pursue, especially since, in reinforcing Arnold at Portsmouth, Clinton must have weakened the garrison at New York and Washington might thus be induced to begin action in that quarter. He was ready to admit that he had made a mistake in sending his men to Annapolis, as it had resulted only in their having to retrace their steps for a longer stretch. And he was also ready to apologize to Jefferson for having caused so much fruitless expense to the state of Virginia. "How much the disappointment is felt by me, Your Excellency will better judge than I can express." [77]
Before leaving Williamsburg, Lafayette approved of a scheme proposed by Steuben for catching Cornwallis between two fires. The siege of Portsmouth would be abandoned (since there was small prospect of success against the increased British forces), and the Virginia militia would march quickly (before their brief terms of enlistment should expire) into North Carolina. The scheme would not only have aided the hard-pressed Greene, who had just lost an important battle at Guilford Courthouse, but might have relieved Virginia of her invaders, since they would have felt obliged to follow Steuben into North Carolina. But the civil authorities of Virginia felt that their men, and particularly their arms, ought to stay at home for the protection of their own state. And so nothing came of the proposal, though Greene sent an aide to beg Lafayette to move southward. [78]
It fell to Steuben to tell Greene's aide of the unfortunate decision of the Virginia council. [79] For by that time Lafayette was well on the road back to Maryland. Proceeding overland, he went several miles out of his way to Fredericksburg and Mount Vernon. This deliberate detour, he apologized to Washington, was due to "an ardent desire I had long ago of seeing your relations and above all your mother." "In order to conciliate my private happiness to duties of a public nature, I recovered by riding in the night those few hours which I had consecrated to my satisfaction." Unhappily, he confessed to his commander-in-chief, "my duty and my anxiety for the execution of your orders" prevented meeting more of Washington's family. No act on Lafayette's part could have been better proof of youthful devotion to his chief. [80] There was no motive but loyalty for his taking a roundabout route, though on urgent military business, merely to make the acquaintance of his beloved general's family.
Lafayette rejoined his detachment at Annapolis on April 3.

Lafayette's Advance Reconnaissance in to Virginia, March 1781.

52 Ibid. [March 8, AHR, XX (1915), 595.]
53 Lafayette to Washington, March 8, 1781, 1oc. cit.
54 Ibid.; "Wild's journal," pp. 132-33; Lafayette to Lee, March 8, 1781, NYPL; McHenry to Lee, March 9, 1781, Shriver, p. 57; Lafayette to Washington, March 9, 1781 (two letters), Mémoires (Amer. ed.), pp. 390-91 and 496-97.
55 March 9, 1781, Mémoires (Amer. ed.), p. 391.
56 Shriver, pp. 58-59.
57 Lafayette to Lee, March 11, 1781, Sparks MSS XXIX, fol. 523.
58 McHenry to Lee, March 14, 1781, Shriver, pp. 62-63.
59 Claiborne to Jefferson, March 13, 1781, W. P. Palmer et al. (eds), Calendar of Virginia state papers and other manuscripts (11 vols.; Richmond, 1875-93), I, 569 Lafayette to Steuben, [March] 14, 1781, Tower, 11, 243.
60 Sparks MSS XXXII, p. 131.
61 March 15, 1781, LC, Washington papers, no. 47, fol. 156.
62 Cf. Lafayette to McLane, March 16, 1781, New York Historical Society, McLane papers, Vol. II.
63 Chinard, Lafayette and Jefferson, pp. 24-26; see also pp. 2-24.
64 Jefferson to Lafayette, March 10, 1781, ibid., p. 20.
65 Chinard, Lafayette and Jefferson, pp. 24-25.
66 Lafayette to Jefferson, March 17, 1'781, ibid., pp. 26-27.
67 Lafayette to Weedon, March 20, 1781, collection of A. K. Ford, Minneapolis, Minn.; cf. H. A. Muhlenburg, Life of Major-General Peter Muhlenburg of the Revolutionary Army (Philadelphia, 1849), p.239.
68 Ibid.; Simcoe, p. 18S; Max von Eelking, Die deutschen Hülfstruppen in nordamerikanischen Befreiungskriege, 1776 bis 1783 (Hanover, 1863), pp. 107-8.
69 Lafayette to Jefferson, March 2o, 1781, Chinard, Lafayette and Jefferson, pp. 30-31.
70 Smith to Steuben, March 21, 1781, K. M. Roof, Colonel William Smith and Lady (Boston, 1929), facsimile between pp. 28 and 29.
71 Lafayette to Jefferson, March 23, 1781, New York Historical Society, mist. Lafayette to Washington, March 23, 1781, Mémoires (Amer. ed.), pp. 391-95.
72 Arbuthnot to Stephens, March 20, 1781, Gazette de Leyde, May 4, 178 1.
73 Cf. Lafayette to Washington, March 23, 1781, loc. cit., pp. 393-94; to La Luzerne, March 23, 1781, AHR, XX (1915), 595-96; to Jefferson, March 23, 1781, loc. cit.; to Jefferson, March 24, 1781, Chinard, Lafayette and Jefferson, p. 33.
74 Lafayette to Washington, March 25, 1781, LC, Washington papers, no. 47, fol. 231; Tower, 11, 246-47.
75 Lafayette to Washington, March 26, 1781 (two letters), LC, Washington papers, no. 47, fols. 233 and 235; to Jefferson, March 27, 1781, Jackson Collection.
76 Lafayette to Washington, March 26, 1781, loc. cit., fol. 235. 77 March 27, 1781, loc. cit.
77 March 27, 1781, loc cit.
78 Memorandum of Steuben, endorsed by Lafayette and Gouvion, March 27, 1781, Historical Society of Pennsylvania; Lee to Jefferson, March 27, 1781. J. C. Ballagh, Letters of Richard Henry Lee (2 vols.; New York, 1914), II,217; Greene to Washington March 29, 1781, Sparks, Correspondence of the American Revolution, 111, 278; Steuben to Lafayette, March 29, 1781, New York Historical Society, Steuben papers, Vol. IX, no. 145; J. M. Palmer, General von Steuben (New Haven, 1937), pp. 259-60.
79 Steuben to Lafayette, March 29, 1781, loc. cit.
80 Lafayette to Washington, April 8, 1781, Mémoires (Amer. ed.), p.397.
* Comte de Charlus [Second colonel, Saintonge Regiment] was the son of the Marquis de Castries, who became minister of the navy, replacing the Comte de Sartine, in October 1780. This note is not in Gottschalk's text.
LINKS to related websites:

Lafayette's Virginia Campaign of 1781

Mark Schneider reenactor for the Marquis de Lafayette.

Mount Vernon's museum and educational center opened in October 2006 with aspecial exhibition devoted to the close "father-son" relationship between George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette. The exhibition was the principal celebratory event in America to mark the 250th anniversary of Lafayette's birth. The exhibition continued through early August 2007. See more at:

It is hoped that in 2009, Mount Vernon will be the scene of a commemoration of the 225th ANNIVERSARY of MARQUIS DE LAFAYETTE's First Visit to The United States After the American Revolution, and His Second Visit to Mount Vernon – The Only Time When Lafayette and George Washington were at Mount Vernon Together

For historical background, see special webpage at "Lafayette's 1784 Visit to the United States and Mount Vernon."

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Page posted 31 March 2006; revised 15 November 2008.