The Last of His Kind

I’ve always been fascinated by the Marquis de Lafayette, the French nobleman who came to what were then colonies in rebellion in 1777.  He was just 20 years old and had defied his king’s wishes in coming.

Lafayette was not the only European nobleman to take an interest in the American rebellion. So many had come to offer their help that the Continental Congress initially turned down Lafayette’s offer, having wearied of ambitious foreigners looking for glory.  The young marquis persisted, though, and was eventually made a major general.  He became one of George Washington’s closest confidantes.

He was not the only foreign nobleman to find a place in the American forces.  Lafayette was the youngest, though, and that made him, to my adolescent mind when I first read about him, the most dashing. He survived the war and returned to France, initially supporting the French Revolution but later turning against its violence.  He lost most of his fortune and many of his relatives and was imprisoned for several years in Austria.

SavGa_R-O-ThosHouseIn 1824-25, at the invitation of President James Monroe, he made a final visit to the nation he had helped launch. The itinerary for this visit took him to Savannah, Georgia, where he stayed at the Richardson-Owens-Thomas House, which was then a boarding house.  It’s a beautiful house, designed in the English Regency style.  The dh and I toured it on a recent visit to Savannah.

Visiting the house spurred me to do a bit of research–in part because I wanted to be sure, with our limited time, that we were planning to tour the correct house. I learned that Lafayette’s visit to the city included laying the cornerstones for monuments to General Nathaniel Greene and General Casimir Pulaski.

SavGa_GreeneMonument_apr14These men are historical figures to me, but I don’t have any idea what kind of men they were–what they liked to do when they weren’t plotting campaigns, whether they liked music or art, or what their relationships with their families were.  Lafayette, though, would’ve known all those things.  Their names as well as those of George Washington, Baron von Steuben, and others would’ve evoked not only military deeds but personal details.  Memories there was no longer anyone to share.

The Mount Vernon website says that Lafayette visited Washington’s grave on that last trip, returning to his carriage with tears in his eyes.  In Camden, South Carolina, the marquis laid yet another cornerstone, this one to commemorate de Kalb, who had served with him but was killed at Camden. Once again, he must’ve been reminded of days gone by.

LafayetteBalconyLafayette is said to have spoken to the citizens of Savannah from this balcony.  It opens off of a large, beautiful bedroom, the master bedroom during the time the Owens and Thomas families occupied the house.  It must’ve been an elegant room in 1825, too, or the city officials surely would not have housed their distinguished guest there.

Looking around that room and, later, looking at the balcony, I wondered what the 68-year-old nobleman was thinking and feeling.  Was he proud of the nation he helped make possible, or was he disappointed?  Was he lonely for the men who had ridden at his side when he’d last visited this continent?  Was he saying farewell to them as well as to their great joint achievement?

I’ve always thought being the last anything must be difficult.  My uncle was the second eldest of his generation but the last to pass on.  He had no one left who remembered his childhood or knew what his parents were like when they were young.

Telling someone about something isn’t the same as dropping back into a joint memory.  Lafayette’s son, who was named after George Washington, accompanied him on this trip, and the marquis had other friends in his party.  There doesn’t seem to have been anyone, though, who could nudge him and say “Do you remember when…?”

The evening after the dh and I took our tour, I took this picture of the sunset from the balcony of our hotel room.  And I wondered whether Lafayette and his comrades would ever, in their wildest imaginings, have visualized the Port of Savannah looking like this.  What would they think if they saw it now?

SavGa_SunsetSep14

 

According to the History Channel website, there is American soil in Lafayette’s grave in Paris at his request.  The website also says that American troops who had recently arrived in France during World War I marched through the city to the grave on July 4, 1917.  There, one of the American officers announced, “Lafayette, we are here.”

Before the United States entered that war, a group of American pilots volunteered to fight in France.  They became known as The Lafayette Escadrille.  So maybe I’m not the only American who has a soft spot for this particular Frenchman.

Was there a character in a book or movie you liked who was the last of his or her kind?  If so tell us about it.  Do you know someone who was?  

If you’re interested in Revolutionary War America, what draws you to the subject?

 

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Comments

31 Comments

  • flchen1 says:

    Wow, Nancy–how cool! I haven’t read too much about Revolutionary War America except the basics in history class. It’s neat when visits or books make that era come alive and I realize that this is more than dates to memorize!

    Hmm… as for the last of his or her kind? That makes me think of dinosaurs or scifi movies, for some reason! I’m drawing a blank on some real people 😉 (Although I have say that those of us who don’t own smartphones seem to be a dying breed…)

    • Fedora, you got the rooster! Congrats.

      Glad you liked the blog. I think the problem with the way history is usually taught is the focus on events to the exclusion of people. How did the events in question affect the people involved, either directly or indirectly? Why did particular individuals make the choices they did? How did people live in a particular era? To me, these are more interesting than just who fought whom, where, when, and how? Why often gets kind of short shrift except at the big-picture level.

      LOL on the smart phone! I have one only because the charger for my flip phone died and is no longer made. And the dh still doesn’t have one either.

  • ki pha says:

    Awww I should look up Lafayette. He sounds like a great man of history.

    • Ki, he seems to have made some serious political missteps in France while remaining true to his ideal of representative government. Apparently some if his military suggestions in our revolution were not the soundest and were overruled by Washington. He comes across to me as someone ideally suited to be an executive officer but not a captain, though he repeatedly proved his courage under fire.

  • Helen says:

    Nancy

    That was very interesting I don’t know a lot about this era only what I have read in the historical romance books but I have really enjoyed reading these and I am coming up a blank on anyone of importance that was the last in their line

    Have Fun
    Helen

  • Shannon says:

    He wasn’t the last of his kind, but Lafayette’s French compatriots was Pierre L’Enfant. After the Revolutionary War, he took on the task of laying out Washington, DC as the new capital of the United States of America. He wanted to manage traffic better, so he created a grid of north-south/east-west streets with diagonal streets and then used the circle from Europe to manage intersections.

    The mall stretching from Congress to the White House to the Potomac was his creation. (The Lincoln memorial at the Potomac came much later. What tourists don’t see of the mall is green space from the Watergate to the Jefferson memorial.

    Even today from the Pentagon, I can enjoy the skyline with just a few monuments: Jefferson Memorial, Post Office Tower, Smithsonian Castle, the Washington monument, and on the hill the National Cathedral. I see it almost every day, and some days it takes my breath away. I live in this city.

    • Shannon, I’ve never been able to spend the kind of time I would like to in DC. I would love to visit all those monuments and have time to think about the people they honor. My visit to the Vietnam Wall this summer was something I’ve long wanted to do.

      What L’Enfant did with DC seems analogous to what Christopher Wren did with London after the Great Fire, except that L’Enfant had to go down to the level of laying out the streets. In that, the French architect seems to have had no peers. That’s probably a lot like being the last, though maybe not as sad.

  • Laurie G says:

    I didn’t know that much about General Lafayette.

    I know that Lafayette, Indiana is named after him.

    Character in a movie-
    Is Superman the last of his kind?

    • Laurie, Fayetteville, NC, was also named for the marquis. It’s home to Fort Bragg, the largest US military base in the world (according to this week’s Restaurant Impossible) and home base for the 82nd Airborne.

      Yes, Superman is the last of his kind, the “Last Son of Krypton.” When Supergirl arrived in the continuity, she kind of diluted that, but not totally because they hadn’t grown up together.

  • Hellion says:

    My Dad was the last of his kind. He was in the middle of the brood, but the last of the siblings to die. He had a best friend cousin who was a few years younger that died two years ago–and after that, I don’t think Dad cared much anymore. He had me to tell stories to, but as you say, it’s not the same as knowing the story with him. (Dad just recently died–and I comfort myself that he’s now with all of them, finally exchanging the stories he wants with people who remember.)

    General Lafayette…I didn’t think I’d ever learn of a Frenchman I ever liked (being I have the imprinted feeling they all think they’re better than me, what with being able to speak more than one language and all.) But I love the Revolutionary War period; I love the stories; I love the RISK of it all. I love the IDEAL they are fighting for and eventually won, through luck and perhaps a bit of destiny as well as some skill. I love the variety of people who make up the patriots–how different they all were and how passionate they were, but united under the same cause: liberty.

    • Hellion, I’m sorry for the loss of your father. I also like to envision my parents reunited with their siblings.

      I also love the Revolutionary War period, for much the same reasons that you do. The ideals it offered were great, even though the new nation didn’t entirely live up to them (3/5 of a person, etc.). We’re still a work in progress, but I like the goals we’re trying to live up to.

  • Cassondra says:

    Nancy I love this blog–made me feel for the man Lafayette was. It’s so seldom we get that sense in any kind of history study–it takes more digging than the average class allows. Unless you go to a museum that’s particularly well done, or read a biography that’s better than most, you just don’t get that.

    To be honest, were I Lafayette, I’m not sure I would’ve wanted to return, knowing my friends were all gone and nobody around me would remember our exploits. It seems to me that would be mostly melancholy. I’m not sure why he cared so much about our fledgling country, but that’s a nice tie to have, and I love the story about marching to his grave and saying, “Lafayette, we are here.” Love it.

    • Thanks, Cassondra. I like reading about events and forces that shape them, but I hate it when the people involved get overlooked.

      Maybe Lafayette came because he was so disillusioned with the way things had gone in France. Maybe he wanted to see that what he’d worked so hard for here was still growing.

      In addition to going to Mt. Vernon, he met with John Adams in Massachusetts and Thomas Jefferson at Monticello. He would’ve known members of the Continental Congress, but not in the same way he would’ve known the men who served with him.

      He’d probably traveled some of those routes he covered in 1824-25 earlier, during the war, but on horseback as a young man with an army at his back. Revisiting those scenes, maybe he felt he’d done something right even if he hadn’t been able to effect the kind of change he wanted in France.

      Lafayette was among those instrumental in getting French aid for the rebellious colonies. The French blockade at Yorktown kept the world’s most powerful navy from reinforcing or evacuating Cornwallis and may well have held the key to victory.

      Even though American doughboys went to France in 1917 to stop Germany from overrunning it, not specifically to repay the marquis, I like that they acknowledged the old debt.

      You may know that both Jefferson and John Adams died on July 4, 1826. Adams’s last words were something like “Jefferson still lives.” He had no way to know that, hundreds of miles to the south, Jefferson had died some hours earlier. I’ve always inferred from that quote that these two were the last of the key players in the Continental Congress. I don’t think they were exactly friends, either, but I’d have to go look it up and see.

      • Cassondra says:

        Whatever the relationship between Jefferson and Adams, I have to wonder if Adams might have been thinking that one of the stalwart who stood for the principles they fought for still lived to stand in the gap, regardless of individual differences. There is a respect for one another that is often forged, I think, when people have fought for a cause side by side, even if individual differences still stand. Such a trust in the other’s fundamental integrity is irreplaceable and highly valued. At least, I’ve found this to be so in my own experience. I wonder if Adams was thinking of that?

        • Cassondra, that may well be. It makes sense to me. The Declaration of Independence ends with the delegates pledging to the cause and to each other, “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”

          And they weren’t kidding. Had Britain won, a lot of the men whose names come below those words would’ve been executed for treason. It’s like the bond the military heroes in books develop. They’ve stood together and risked everything.

          As Ben Frankling so flippantly put it, “we must all hang together or assuredly we will all hang separately.”

          Now thinking about all this makes me want to go back to Monticello. I haven’t been since I was in college.

  • catslady says:

    I do find that I enjoy history as an adult much more than when in school. I want to hear the stories and about the people themselves and not the dry facts (not always true or very subjective) and dates that we had to memorize.

    • Catslady, I don’t see a lot of benefit to memorizing a bunch of dates. Some key ones, sure, like July 4, 1776, but I think it’s more important to understand why and how things happened, and the sequence of events, than it is to know the exact date of something. I’ve taught the 1920s several times, and I couldn’t tell you the exact date women won the right to vote or the exact date Prohibition went into effect.

  • Heathercm2001 says:

    Great blog Nancy! I have forgotten so much from the history classes of my school days. If it were presented like this, perhaps I would be able to recall more. I feel like when I learned it in school it was just something someone babbled on about. It was easy to just forget it. However, to have it really explained, and not just read, makes a huge difference. The people and places seem more real, and it is easy to see the impact they had. I love learning about this kind of stuff. You did a fantastic job of telling his story. Thank you!

    • Cassondra says:

      I agree, Heather. Seeing the person in this way will make me remember him. Now I want to visit that house in Savannah, and I want to read about Washington’s relationship with Lafayette. It makes me wonder why they hit it off and became such good friends. I would not have guessed they would be, so this sparks all kinds of questions for me.

    • Heather, thanks! I was a history major in college, and one of the three sequences I took was American. Textbooks are all too often dry, and the verbose writing style so many academics seem to favor just makes it worse. I enjoy good biographies and cultural histories a lot more.

      The dh got me a great book on espionage in the reign of Charles II for Christmas one year (back when I believed that might be a marketable time period). It’s loaded with great stuff. But some of the sentences are half a page long, seriously. I hate slogging through that.

      If you want to read more, the Mount Vernon website has articles written in a much more accessible way. And that link should be active.

  • Becke says:

    Nancy,
    I love to wonder about people in other times–who they were, what they were thinking, what was it like during their lifetime?

    I also love Savannah–the feel of the city with it’s squares and history.

    What about Little Big Man–Dustin Hoffman? I thought that was an interesting perspective of Native Americans.

    Very thought provoking blog.
    b

    • Becke, thanks! Savannah is also a very walkable city. We checked into the hotel, parked the car, and didn’t need it again until we left.

      Little Big Man is a great example. Do you know whether that’s a true story?

  • Amazing blog, Nancy! Lafayette has always been a larger than life sort of character in my mind.

    My Mom and her baby brother are the last of nine siblings and I know they both feel the pain of that, especially at our annual family reunion. My Mom is especially close to my father’s baby sister for the same reason. My Aunt Peg and her brother are the last of six siblings.

    Recently Debo, the last of the Mitford girls and Dowager Duchess of Devonshire passed away. I would imagine she knew exactly what it was to be last of a long line.

    • Thanks, Louisa! I think it would be very hard, at a reunion full of sibling groups, to have your own group so diminished by time.

      I saw the duchess’s obit, and I think she’s a great example.

  • Cassondra says:

    OH…the question about the last of his kind…I didn’t even think of The Last of The Mohicans–one of my all-time favorite movies, but one which I cannot watch because it makes me so depressed…

    One of the reasons that film is so depressing to me is that the elder Mohican warrior walks away at the end of the film, knowing he is the last of his kind. His white son still lives, and now has a woman of his own, but his Mohican son went over the cliff in the battle, and so there are no more.

    Becke’s comment about Little Big Man made me think of it.

    A very poignant film about the last of a race, I think.

    • Cassondra, that’s a perfect example. I first read that story as a Classics Illustrated comic book (I”ve never read the JF Cooper original), and it was just so sad at the end.

      The area of South Georgia where my mage books are set was once inhabited, along with a big chunk of Florida, by a loose confederation of Native American tribes known as the Timucua. The last speaker of their language died in, I think, the 1700s, in a Spanish mission. That must’ve been so sad, to be the last person who spoke the language of his people.

  • Nancy –

    What a lovely moving post. There is definitely a melancholy when one realized they are one of a dying breed. So many lost memories. At least, men of that generation wrote letters, journals, etc. which means we can recover some of the memories. Today, it wouldn’t be that easy.