The Post Script

At 3:00 in the afternoon on April 21, 1781 Virginia militia Colonel James Innes sat down to write a letter near Hickory Neck Church, just shy of the halfway point between Virginia’s old colonial capitol at Williamsburg and its new capitol at Richmond. Perhaps with a heavy heart and a weary hand, Innes picked up his pen to scrawl a letter to Governor Thomas Jefferson. The situation in Virginia was bleak. It had only been a year since, in apprehension of a British attack, the Virginia Assembly voted to move the seat of government from the Peninsula west to Richmond, and along with it the public stores for outfitting, equipping, and otherwise supporting Virginia’s patriot forces in the fifth and sixth years of the war with the British. The gamble hadn’t paid off. January 1781 saw Benedict Arnold’s forces sacking Richmond. Everywhere they went, it seems, a new combined force of British, Hessian, and Loyalist forces left destruction in its wake.

he approximate landing site of the the main body of British soldiers with Col. Simcoe’s detachment landing further downstream in an effort to catch the Virginians by surprise. “…On a signal given, they all, except the gun-boat turned and rowed rapidly towards the point where the landing was to take place…” (author collection)
Continue reading “The Post Script”

Lafayette—I Was There!

…at Lafayette College, that is. Last February I had the opportunity to join fellow members of51AZox6paLL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_ the American Friends of Lafayette (yes, that’s a thing, and you can—and should—join by visiting this website) in the “reserved seating” section (that’s the second row, folks) of the absolutely packed Colton Chapel on the campus of Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania. We were settled into the pews to hear Sarah Vowell discuss her New York Times bestseller, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States.

Lafayette College is, obviously, an apt place to hear someone expound upon the merits of Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette (say that five times fast). The college was founded in 1826 on the heels of the Marquis’ “Farewell Tour” of the United States, and aptly named for him “in memory and out of respect for the signal services rendered by General Lafayette in the great cause of freedom” (from the Charter of Lafayette College, Article I). Lafayette College isn’t the only place in the United States named for or out of respect of the Marquis—in her book, Vowell notes that “nowadays, Lafayette is a place, not a person,” and she makes an appropriate observation.  According to Lafayette scholar (and AFofL president) Alan Hoffman, over 80 localities in the United States have been named in honor of the Marquis, with Fayetteville, North Carolina being the very first in 1783.

Place and landscape are interesting lenses through which to examine Lafayette’s relationship with the United States. Though his final resting place is in Paris, Lafayette  is even buried in American soil–from Bunker Hill, as a matter of fact–collected in 1825.

Lafayette first ventured to the somewhat-not-yet-but-might-actually-be-if-Washington-can-keep-it-together United States in 1777. Lafayette’s first daybreak view was when he awoke in his bedchamber at Major Benjamin Huger’s home near Georgetown, South Carolina, after stepping off of the ship Victory the previous evening. Lafayette surveyed what was to him, a new world:

The next morning was beautiful. Everything around me was new to me, the room, the bed draped in delicate mosquito curtains…the strange new beauty of the landscape outside my windows, the luxuriant  vegetation—all combined to produce a magical effect.

Vowell describes how Lafayette, in 1777, in his enthusiasm and naiveté, wasn’t entirely sure what he was looking at, but loved it. Lafayette surveyed scenes outside of his window that were, true to Vowell’s title, somewhat the United States—Congress declared independence from Great Britain a year earlier, but Parliament had yet to recognized it. Similarly, the very physical landscape Lafayette described was, well, schizophrenic. Huger’s Georgian-inspired South Carolina home where the ultimate patriot awoke that morning was nestled near a town named after—who else–King George III, yet Georgetown was a hotbed of patriotism that contributed to the infamy of everyone’s favorite Revolutionary rascal Mel Gibson Francis Marion.

Vowell’s text weaves us through the rest of Lafayette’s tenure in the somewhat-but-becoming-ever-closer-to-actually-being United States, all the way to up to Lafayette’s participation in the Siege of Yorktown, the somewhat-last-battle of the American Revolution.

But Lafayette’s relationship with the somewhat United States didn’t end there. In 1824 at the invitation of President James Monroe, the Marquis, now the last surviving general of the American Revolution, embarked on a “Farewell Tour” of the country he so passionately helped establish. A bona fide rock star, Lafayette arrived in New York to an estimated 80,000 screaming fans.

Let’s take a break for some quantitative population analysis:



1824 1964
Population of New York: 123,000 7,000,000
Number of Screaming Fans: 80,000 4,000
Percentage of Population: 65.04% 0.06%

The Marquis de Lafayette by Ary Scheffer, 1824.

You know how these guys are. 1964



Who’s the rockstar now?! A-hem…as I was saying…

Lafayette’s Farewell Tour of the United States included visits to the very places named in his honor—Fayetteville, North Carolina received him in March 1825—and places were renamed because of the tour (further proof that Lafayette had a powerful impact on the physical landscape of the United States, somewhat or otherwise). And just as he did in 1777, in 1824 Lafayette reemerged as a hero of the American cause. As Vowell pointed out in her talk at Lafayette College, the Marquis was an apolitical unifier who ushered in a new era of patriotism when the (somewhat) United States needed it the most. When Lafayette arrived, the country was in the midst of a heated election season—one that many felt would either break the young nation or peacefully transition it into a new phase of her existence without living vestiges of the original Revolutionary population to guide it. As Vowell argues, an anxious American populous united in a rally around the hero, and both Lafayette’s visit and the election of 1824 highlight what historian Robert Hay called “the desperate desire of the American people to maintain for as long as possible some physical and spiritual connection with the Revolutionary generation.”

All of this is to say nothing about Lafayette’s influential views on abolition, women’s rights, and other important reforms that, if he didn’t support directly, he was eventually called down to support (e.g., Evelyn Wotherspoon Wainwright’s 1920 pleading to a statue of Lafayette in D.C.’s Lafayette Square to “Speak, Lafayette, dead these hundred years but still living in the hearts of the American people.”) As Vowell argues in Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, the American people, and the rights and liberties they enjoy, would not be ours without a little help from our friends (see what I did there?)–one friend, specifically—the Marquis de Lafayette, and his constant contributions to the somewhat, ever growing, ever discoursing, ever revolutionary United States. I encourage you to check out Sarah Vowell’s book, and learn more about why Lafayette is permanently fixed on the landscape of the United States of America—and in the hearts and minds of its citizens. No somewhat about it.

Read More!

Robert P. Hay, “The American Revolution Twice Recalled: Lafayette’s Visit and the Election of 1824,” Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 69, Issue 1, pp 43-62.

Sarah Vowell, Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, New York: Riverhead Books, 2015.


The Last and Crowning Battle

Yorktown Day Patriotic Exercises in front of the Victory Monument in Yorktown, Virginia, Colonial National Historic Park Photo.
Yorktown Day Patriotic Exercises in front of the Victory Monument in Yorktown, Virginia.   Photo: Colonial National Historic Park

Today marks the ultimate “this day in history.” It’s Yorktown Day!

On October 19, 1781, General Cornwallis surrendered his army to General Washington at Yorktown, Virginia, after a long and debilitating siege. The very first Yorktown Day, however, actually saw Cornwallis absent from the event. On the morning of the 19th Cornwallis signed capitulation documents and sent them back to Washington. That afternoon, when the official surrender ceremony was to take place, Cornwallis failed to show. On the very first Yorktown Day, British General Charles O’Hara surrendered his sword to General Benjamin Lincoln.

Nevertheless, it was with zeal and jubilation that the news of the British surrender reached Congress, who immediately agreed that the date and the site should be memorialized for posterity. Just ten days after the surrender, on October 29, 1781 Congress passed a resolution “that the United States, in Congress assembled, will cause to be erected at York, in Virginia, a marble column, adorned with the emblems of the alliance…and inscribed with a succinct narrative of the surrender of Earl Cornwallis to his excellency, General Washington, Commander-in-Chief of the combined forces of America and France…”[1]

Time passed however, and Congress failed to make good on their resolution to erect a formal monument at the site. When the Marquis de Lafayette visited the site of the siege on Yorktown Day 1824, it was not a grand marble column that greeted him, but a grouping of wooden obelisks marking locations of redoubts and the scene of the British surrender. Lafayette’s experience of Yorktown Day was a grand jubilee of remembrance, reflection, and pomp and circumstance, and the real monument to American liberty on display that day was Lafayette himself, along with the throng of veterans who turned out to greet him.[2]

As the first centennial celebration of Yorktown Day loomed in the hearts and minds of Americans, attention returned to Congress’s 100-year old promise of erecting a permanent memorial at Yorktown. The renewed cries came from Boston, another revolutionary city, when in 1875 the mayor supported a unanimous petition “asking that Congress (will) fulfill its pledge to erect at Yorktown, Virginia, a marble column commemorative of the last and crowning battle of the Revolution.”[3] In 1880 Congress again took up the mantle, and

Original architectural drawing showing the Yorktown Monument nearing completion, with scaffolding still in place. Richard Morris Hunt, 1884. Library of Congress.
Original architectural drawing showing the Yorktown Monument nearing completion, with scaffolding still in place. Richard Morris Hunt, 1884. Library of Congress.

accepted a design by architects R. M. Hunt and Henry Van Brunt and sculptor J.Q.A. Ward, who endeavored to remain true to the original century old stipulation that the monument be a column, and surrounded it in classical symbolism. The cornerstone for the monument was laid during Yorktown Day festivities in 1881—the centennial Yorktown Day commemoration.

Yorktown Day is as robust and ceremonial today as it was in 1781, 1824, and 1881. The day often includes wreath laying and commemorations, visits from dignitaries and special guests, and a throng of enthusiastic history buffs, veterans, and families from far and wide celebrating “the last and crowning battle” of the American Revolution.

How are you celebrating Yorktown Day?

Artillery firing at the Yorktown Victory Center, a museum of the American Revolution administered by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation photo.
Artillery firing at the Yorktown Victory Center, a museum of the American Revolution administered by the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation. Photo: Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation

[1] As quoted in A Full History of the Monument Erected by the U.S. Government to Commemorate the Close of the Revolutionary War, At Yorktown, October 19th, 1781. Being a Narrative of its Inception, Construction, Completion, and Official Examination (Philadelphia, 1890), pg 15.

[2] For more on Lafayette’s visit to Yorktown in October 1824, see Thomas A. Chambers, Memories of War: Visiting Battlegrounds and Bonefields in the Early American Republic (Ithaca, 2012).

[3] Congressional Record: Containing the Proceedings and Debates of the Forty-Fourth Congress, First Session; Also Special Session of the Senate, Volume IV (Washington, D.C., 1876), pg. 401.