Recently, during a school visit to the French Library, one of the teachers from the visiting high school told me about a French war memorial located in their hometown of Hull, MA. The war memorial can be found within Fort Revere Park, formerly known as Fort Independence, which was built to protect Boston Harbor against the British fleet during the Revolutionary War. This memorial is dedicated to French soldiers who died from smallpox while stationed at the fort. They were laid to rest here by their compatriots from one of the French Naval fleets who were integral to victory over the British.

Our conversation reminded me that I had wanted to investigate the history of French involvement in the Boston area during the fight for independence from the British crown. I had also been curious to know more about Lafayette and why so many places in America are named after him, not to mention the statues and plaques erected in his honor. While the name “Lafayette” is well known here, I wonder how much people really know about the French aristocrat, Marie-Joseph Yves Roche Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, and why he is remembered and celebrated here as General Lafayette, not only because it is easier to say! I had assumed that the Frenchman had crossed the Atlantic in pursuit of military glory and in the interests of his home country – If Great Britain no longer had control of the American colonies, this was advantageous for France in their 18th century battle for supremacy. However, as I read more, I realized that Lafayette was indeed a man driven by his belief in the ideals of the causes for which he fought both in France and here in the young America.

About Lafayette


Lafayette was born in the Auvergne region of France in September 1757 into one of the oldest noble families in France. His ancestors are thought to have fought in the Crusades and alongside Joan of Arc. Before the young Marquis’ second birthday, his father was killed in the Seven Years’ War. Orphaned after the death of his mother when he was 12 years old, he became a very wealthy, young aristocrat. Marriage at 16 years old to Adrienne de Noailles, from an even wealthier family, secured his position as one of the richest aristocrats in the country.

He had joined the French Royal Army as a young teenager but did not further his military career at home. It was during a dinner he attended with the Duke of Gloucester, the brother of King George III, that influenced his future. The Duke talked with disdain about the American colonists who were threatening to revolt against British rule, and he belittled their belief in the right to rule themselves and in equality for all men. It was during this dinner that Lafayette first learned of General George Washington who was organizing a Continental Army to fight against the British.

Meanwhile, the young Marquis was also listening to American colonists, specifically representatives of the Continental Congress who were in France courting the French for support against their common adversary, Britain. Lafayette was interested in their philosophy and in their revolutionary ideals. In early 1777, defying his own King, Louis XVI, Lafayette accepted a commission to join the army of George Washington. His wealth, connections back home and genuine support for the cause secured his appointment as a Major-General, surprising given his lack of military experience.

Lafayette soon proved his loyalty to General Washington and the fight for independence. After being injured at the Battle of Brandywine Creek in September 1777, he became close to Washington and indeed one of his most trusted generals, even uncovering a conspiracy to topple Washington as commander of the Continental Army. Lafayette traveled back to France in 1778 securing financial support for the American cause, as well as more French troops to join those already fighting on the side of the Americans - Count de Rochambeau sailed for America in 1779 with 7,000 troops, headed for Rhode Island. Lafayette returned to America in 1780 and was integral in forcing the retreat and eventual defeat of the British.

On returning to France in 1781 Lafayette was welcomed as a hero. He walked a fine line between his privileged status as an aristocrat and his ideals that supported the French Revolution of 1789. Serving in the National Assembly and in consultation with his friend, Thomas Jefferson, Lafayette prepared the first draft of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which stated the values of the French Revolution. He survived the guillotine, unlike many of his relatives, but he later became unpopular with Napoleon who did not invite Lafayette to the memorial held for George Washington at Les Invalides after the first President's death.

Lafayette made two return visits to the United States later in his life. On his extensive 'farewell tour' 1824-25 he was received by adoring crowds at his numerous stops all around the country. This included a visit to the grave of his good friend George Washington, with an aging Thomas Jefferson, at Monticello. During his visit to the Boston area, Lafayette laid the cornerstone of the Bunker Hill Monument in Charlestown to mark the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill. Together with his son, who he named Georges Washington de Lafayette, he collected soil from Bunker Hill which according to his wishes was buried with him when he died in 1834.

Lafayette's Legacy


Lafayette laying the cornerstone of the Bunker Hill Monument. (The Reading Post)

In 2002 Lafayette became the fifth person in history to be granted honorary citizenship of the United States. Did you know that Massachusetts just marked the 89th Lafayette Day on May 20th? Celebrations took place on May 19th, in Boston, you can find more information at the Massachusetts Lafayette Society here.

Next year marks the bi-centennial of Lafayette's farewell tour, if you are curious about how this will be celebrated, check this out: Lafayette 200 – Bicentennial of Lafayette’s Farewell Tour 2024–2025 the Nation’s Guest.

If you are interested in finding out more about Fort Independence you can do so here: Fort Revere History Page.

We love to welcome schools to visit the French Library! If you would like to come and see us in the fall with your school, contact us at youthprograms@frenchlibrary.org

Elizabeth Beckett

Education Administrator

Liz grew up in England and spent many summers traveling in France with her family, which sparked a lifelong love of languages and travel. She has a degree in modern languages and international studies for which she also studied in France and Spain. Working in international sports marketing while living in Hong Kong and London meant extensive travel, particularly in Asia. A new chapter began after moving to New York and then settling in the Boston area. Liz enjoys traveling, experiencing different cultures and spending time with friends and family.

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