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Palmetto Past & Present: A VIP Arrives In South Carolina

“The hero of two worlds …”

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The young man bounded down the gangplank and onto the wharf with the energetic exuberance only a teenager can muster. Getting there, they say, is half the fun – and his long trans-Atlantic journey had been an adventure in and of itself. 

And get this: He was disembarking on Friday the 13th.

But this was no tourist on vacation. This visitor had come to wage war.

The 19-year-old was none other than Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier. For those of you not inclined to commit such a mouthful to memory, he’s better known to us today by his title: The Marquis de La Fayette. Or more commonly, “Lafayette.”

The young soldier’s timing was fortuitous not just for him – but for the floundering Patriot cause in the seemingly doomed Revolutionary War. But before we get too deep into that story, it’s worth revisiting how this French nobleman arrived on our shores.



Lafayette was, like so many young men then and now, an idealist. Born into a wealthy family, he followed in his ancestors’ footsteps by enlisting in the French army when he was just thirteen. His father and uncle both fell in battle, and the boy yearned for glory on the battlefield.

Commissioned as an officer before his fourteenth birthday, his duties were mostly ceremonial, allowing him to continue his education on the side. Both parents had died by that time, making him independently wealthy. An arranged wedding at age sixteen to a young bride from an aristocratic family beat the odds and produced a happy marriage that lasted 33 years. A daughter, Henriette, arrived the following year.

The marriage also endowed Lafayette with a captaincy in the Noailles Dragoons – a decorated French cavalry unit.

By then, the young soldier had found — and fallen in love with — his life’s mission: The Patriot cause. The more he learned about the American colonists’ bid for independence from England, the more he grew to like it. Historians differ over the reasons why it appealed to him so strongly. Perhaps it was because Britain was France’s traditional rival, and thus, “my enemy’s enemy is my friend,” as the old adage goes. Maybe it was because his father died battling the Brits. Then again, it could have simply been that he was drawn to the idea of people living in freedom, making their own decisions and government themselves. Others feel Lafayette’s Masonic conversion fueled his support for the cause.

Most likely, it was a combination of all of the above.


“My heart is dedicated.”


Whatever the reason, Lafayette decided to cast his lot with the Patriot cause. “My heart is dedicated,” he said late in the momentous year 1776. So dedicated, in fact, he decided to take up arms alongside the Patriots.

That meant going to where the war was being fought – which took some doing.

“Britannia, rule the waves” was more than just a nifty line in a song at that time. It was a statement of fact. Britain’s navy was a powerhouse in the Atlantic, and it took an especially dim view of ships heading toward its antagonists in the American colonies.

Plus, King Louis XVI had banned French officers from serving with the Americans. But Lafayette had the head-strong sincerity of youth — and a family fortune to boot. When he learned the Continental Congress didn’t have money to pay for French offices’ passage, he shelled out 112,000 pounds of his own money and bought his own ship, the Victoire. It set sail from Pauillac – a town on the shores of the Gironde estuary on March 25, 1777. However, at that point on its journey Lafayette was not yet aboard.



Eager to evade British spies, the young nobleman and his fellow officers snuck onto the vessel a few weeks later as it was moored in Spain, bringing 5,000 desperately needed muskets with them.

They passed their two-month voyage by battling seasickness and studying English, a language few of them spoke. When it came time to unload the ship’s cargo in the West Indies, Lafayette was afraid the group’s secret mission would be discovered. Once again, his money came to the rescue – he impulsively purchased the ship’s contents lock, stock, and barrel to avoid having to make the stop.

The Victoire finally landed at North Island near Georgetown, S.C. on June 13, 1777. It was the safest port available at the time. His journey was far from over, but before continuing it Lafayette took a two-week break as the guest of South Carolina’s major Benjamin Huger.

The officers eventually made the long trip to Philadelphia, although the timing of their arrival was decidedly rotten. The Continental Congress had been overrun by French military personnel craving commissions. And it especially didn’t know what to make of the young dandy who could barely bumble his way through a complete sentence of English.


Portrait of Marquis de LaFayette, Getty Images.


When congressional leaders tried to beg off by insisting they couldn’t pay him, Lafayette persisted. He hadn’t spent 90 days traveling 7,200 miles only to be rejected at the very end. He offered to serve the Continental Army without pay.

“Free” had a sweet ring to the ears of cash-strapped continental officials, and the 19-year-old ultimately headed off to join Washington’s army with a major general’s commission. The two met for the first time on August 5, 1777 and “bonded almost immediately,” according to historians of the time.

The rest, as they say, was history. Both Masons, Washington and Lafayette soon became inseparable – with the French nobleman becoming a member of the general’s staff and a surrogate son to the childless Father of Our Country. In fact, the future president called himself a “friend and father” to Lafayette.

Lafayette went on to serve at Washington’s side as a staff officer, even being badly wounded in the leg in the Battle of Brandywine. He shared the miserable winter of 1777-78 at Valley Forge – and celebrated when France officially recognized American independence in the spring of 1778.

With the exception of a short leave to visit his family back home in 1779 – where he was given a here’s welcome – Lafayette returned in time to command in the field during the victorious 1781 Yorktown campaign that secured America’s independence.

Lafayette went on to play an important role in the French Revolution, earning him the nickname the “Hero of Two Worlds.” Imprisoned for more than five years in Austria, his American allies assisted Napoleon in securing his release – and Lafayette later attempted to assist Napoleon in finding exile in America. (The defeated general was exiled to Saint Helena instead, however).

In 1824, he returned to America at the invitation of president James Monroe – embarking on a nationwide tour to commemorate the upcoming fiftieth anniversary of the revolution. On that trip, he collected soil from Bunker Hill which was sprinkled on his gravesite in Paris when he died ten years later in 1834. That occasion was marked by a eulogy from former president John Quincy Adams and the draping of both chambers of the U.S. congress in black bunting.

And it all started with a trip to Georgetown, S.C. exactly 247 years ago today …



Mark Powell (Provided)

J. Mark Powell is an award-winning former TV journalist, government communications veteran, and a political consultant. He is also an author and an avid Civil War enthusiast. Got a tip or a story idea for Mark? Email him at



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The Colonel Top fan June 13, 2024 at 10:39 am

Great piece!

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Commonman Top fan June 13, 2024 at 11:03 am

Excellent recounting of a great man’s passion for liberty. Now if we could just get our schools to teach our real history and about our real heroes, we may turn this mess around.

Dum Spiro Spero Top fan June 14, 2024 at 4:00 pm

Since he first set foot on American soil in our state, why no mention of Lafayette’s visit to South Carolina when he was invited back to the U.S. in 1824-25? There are some good stories and I know of several “Lafayette Slept Here” signs sprinkled around the state. (Ones in Cheraw and Columbia come to mind.) It would have added a nice and interesting conclusion to an already good piece.


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