Marquis de Lafayette was a French aristocrat serving in the French army, and recently married, when the Revolution broke out in America. He followed events with interst, and was motivated to come and fight with the Americans.
He arrived in March, 1777, nineteen years old and eager. He immediately formed a friendship with Washington, and was an aide on his staff. In the meantime British forces had invaded Pennsylvania, intent on capturing Philadelphia. Washington’s army took a position behind Brandywine Creek, and the British attacked on September 11, 1777. British troops had flanked the Americans, and reinforcements were rushed to the threatened sector, making a stand on Birmingham Hill.
Eager to get to the fighting, Lafayette and a group of French officers rode to the unfolding battle at Birmingham Hill, arriving as the action was at its hottest. Approaching from the south, they rode up the Birmingham Road, and turned to the left, coming in behind the brown-coated troops of General Thomas Conway’s Pennsylvania brigade.
Chevalier Dubuysson, an aide with Lafayette, wrote of joining Conway’s troops: “The Marquis de Lafayette joined the later, where there were some Frenchmen. He dismounted and did his utmost to make the men charge with fixed bayonets.” Losses were mounting and some of the troops were breaking, but Lafayette “pushed them in the back to make them charge.”
Lafayette, endeavoring to rally the troops and lead counterattacks, wrote that eventually order broke down among the Pennsylvanians, and “confusion became extreme.” The young Frenchman tried to prevent them from breaking when a ball “passed through his leg.” Then, “the remaining forces gave way, and [he] was fortunate to be able to mount a horse, thanks to Gimat . . .” (his aide). With no other choice, Lafayette then joined in the withdrawal to the southeast.
Seventeen year-old Sergeant Andrew Wallace, a native of Chester County serving in the 9th Pennsylvania Regiment, came to the aid of Lafayette and assisted him off the field. Near Lafayette, another French officer, Captain Francois Louis de Fleury, has his horse shot from under him.
Royal Lockett, serving with the Virginia troops to the east, recalled later that he saw Lafayette wounded. Lockett must have been looking that way at the right moment to see the incident on the other side of Birmingham Road.
After the army retreated that evening, Lafayette made his way to the Moravian town of Bethlehem, where many of the wounded had been sent. It was thought to be out of reach of the British, and the civilians were willing to care for the wounded. Here he recuperated in the Beckel House. He rejoined the army two months later at Valley Forge.
Brandywine was Lafayette’s first battle and he always looked back fondly on his experiences there. He visited the site briefly in 1780 while on his way south. In his 1824 visit to the United States, he visited again and indicated where he was wounded along the crest of the hill.
Local interest grew in marking the battlefield, and on September 11, 1895, Chester County schoolchildren dedicated a marble monument to Lafayette, with five thousand attending the ceremony. Placed along Birmingham Road, it is not in the spot where he was actually wounded.
Why it was placed over a quarter mile away from the actual spot? Perhaps because the wounding site was in a farmer’s field, and along the road it was visible to people. An article about the dedication notes that it is the highest spot on the battlefield, and “visible from every part of the compass.”
Brandywine Day, September 11, 1895 was commemorated with speeches and an unveiling of the monument by the French consul. Local dignitaries, militia units, bands, and the governor all turned out along with throngs of people.
Another monument to Lafayette, and Polish General Casimir Pulaski, was dedicated at the nearby Lafayette Cemetery in 1900. Located next to the wartime Birmingham Meeting House, the cemetery was named in his honor. This monument was funded by local banker John G. Taylor, who had an ancestor in the battle and took a personal interest in commemorating it.
Readers wishing to know more about Brandywine should turn to the most exhaustive book on the battle, Michael Harris’ book, Brandywine.