Loving Lafayette by Selene Castrovilla
As an author who has spent over fifteen years researching the American Revolution in the hopes of bringing it alive for readers (particularly young ones), I’m thrilled with — and, yes, even a little jealous of — the attention and interest the hit Broadway musical Hamilton has brought my beloved subject. At the Queens Book Fair this summer, I was so happy to notice a surge in sales of my picture book Revolutionary Friends: General George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette and my hunch was confirmed when several of the people who purchased my book specifically said they’d learned about Lafayette in Hamilton.
Accidentally in love
I’m an accidental Lafayette lover, myself. I’d never heard of him in school, and the revolutionary people I did know of seemed boring and remote. How many times could I endure tales of George Washington’s wooden teeth, and that darned cherry tree?
The revolution was a bunch of battle dates I’d memorized for tests and promptly forgotten. If you’d told me I’d be writing about it enthusiastically, I would’ve said, “You’re nuts!”
My opinion of our patriots changed sixteen years ago, when a friend mentioned casually that George Washington had spies on Long Island (where I grew up and still live.) Spies! On Long Island! I didn’t even know we were involved in the revolution.
That day was the spark that lit my revolutionary flame. I went home and started researching the Culper Spy Ring — ordinary citizens who risked hanging to bring George Washington vital information. There was even a mother involved, hanging her petticoats as a signal. I wondered if I would take that risk.
I realized, when we learn about people in history we learn about ourselves. What’s in our hearts never changes.
Some French kid
Fueled with passion, I wrote two picture books: By the Sword, an intimate account of Washington’s miraculous retreat from the Battle of Long Island (he orchestrated the passage of 10,000 men on 10 small boats in one night) and Upon Secrecy, about the Culper Spy Ring. My meticulous research took years, and one name popped up frequently: the Marquis de Lafayette. Who was this French kid (19 when he came) and why the heck was he here?
Lafayette was often by Washington’s side, which I thought odd — but not enough to steer my research efforts toward him. Until the day I read about Benedict Arnold’s betrayal of Washington.
Funny enough, it was Alexander Hamilton who said that someone needed to fetch Lafayette — for only Lafayette could comfort Washington.
Whoa. That hit me hard. All these guys, and only a young Frenchman could comfort Washington?
What was up with that?
And so I embarked on a second accidental journey. I fell for this young foreigner, who had no reason to be here other than a burning desire to help us.
“As soon as I heard of American independence my heart was enlisted,
and I thought only of joining my colors to those of the revolutionaries.”
– Marquis de Lafayette
Meet the marquis
Lafayette arrived on the shore of South Carolina on June 13, 1777. He paid for his boat and voyage out of his own funds, defying his king, who threatened Lafayette with imprisonment upon his return. He left his pregnant wife and young child behind, spending his 54-day voyage writing apologetic, gushing love letters to his wife — despite being violently seasick. He also managed to teach himself English, a fact which endeared him to George Washington later.
Lafayette trekked hundreds of miles to Philadelphia, only to be rejected by Congress. They didn’t want any more interfering, bossy foreigners. When he persisted, they finally accepted him as a volunteer — he became an honorary general without a command.
All of Lafayette’s troubles faded the moment he met the George Washington. And Washington found Lafayette’s adoration a welcome respite from beleaguering Continental Congress members, who expected him to defend them from an impending British attack without enough men or ammunition. Plus, Lafayette had learned English! Washington invited Lafayette to live at his quarters.
“Treat him as my son, for I love him the same.”
— General George Washington about Lafayette
At the Battle of Brandywine, Washington allowed Lafayette to enter the battle and rally the troops who were deserting. His passion convinced the soldiers to stay, although defeated. When he finally dropped from a cannon ball wound in his leg, he was carried back to headquarters. Washington told the doctor: “Treat him as my son, for I love him the same.”
Lafayette Saves America
Lafayette returned to France and convinced his king (who had previously refused him permission to leave the country) to send us troops, weapons and money. Without this help, we never could have won our fight.
Lafayette remained an American general even when his native country joined our fight. He cornering British General Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, then waited for Washington to arrive and begin our final battle. American victory was inevitable. The French fleet blocked the harbor; Cornwallis and his men could not be evacuated by British ships.
A Revolutionary Relationship
When I learned about this beautiful and important relationship in our history, my heart was enlisted to write about Washington and Lafayette. Important for us to know about as Americans — and as humans. This is a story that teaches us not only about history, but also about the power of love.
Music to my ears
Maybe they’ll make a Broadway show about Lafayette next. Heck, maybe I’ll write the words! (Hit me up if you’ll do melody.) In the meantime, perhaps you’ll try my book Revolutionary Friends in your classroom. It reveals the tender side of George Washington, and introduces a most revolutionary French fellow your students will love.
Selene Castrovilla is an award-winning children’s nonfiction author and young adult novelist. Revolutionary Friends: General George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette (Highlights Press) was a Booklist Top Ten Biography for Youth (+ starred review), an International School Librarians’ Honor Book, a Eureka! California Reading Association Honor Book, a Bank Street College Best Children’s Book of the Year and recommended American Revolution elementary school-level reading by the ILA. Selene offers in-person and Skype school visits about the American Revolution and the writing life. She holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from The New School and a B.A. in English from New York University. www.SeleneCastrovilla.com.