Updated: Apr 10, 2021
As I may have mentioned before, I got my start as a tour guide working for a ghost tour pub crawl company, Nightly Spirits. Their DC route takes you from the Willard Intercontinental and around Lafayette Square. Before giving these tours I didn’t take much notice of the square, even though I’d walked through it several times over the years. Then one night I finally looked up and took a good look at the four statues that adorn each corner. I only recognized the name of one of them, which was the Marquis de Lafayette. The others were a mystery. So I decided to find out the stories behind the people these statues and what they have in common: They each represent foreign-born generals who distinguished themselves during the American War for Independence. And their stories are FASCINATING. This is a long post, but read to the end, where I have an important announcement! Here we go.
In the SE corner, the MARQUIS DE LAFAYETTE:
Gilbert du Motier Marquis de Lafayette was born in 1757, and his lineage can be traced back to the year 1000, when his ancestor Pons Motier became lord of Villa Faye, or Lafayette. The family would spawn generations of warriors. Following in the steps of his ancestors, Gilbert joined the Black Musketeers, a military group for boys, at only twelve years old and would continue in military training throughout his teens. In the 1770s he was monitoring news of the events happening overseas in the American colonies. The stories of the patriots who were fighting off the tyrannical British, the old enemy of the French, stirred his chivalric heart.
In 1776, he decided his calling was to join the Continental Army. So against his family’s and King Louis the XVI’s wishes (King Louis explicitly instructed him NOT to join the fight at risk of agitating the British when he wasn’t ready to get drawn into a war), the Marquis commissioned a ship to sail across the Atlantic, and landed in New York. He was held up there for one year until he was finally called upon by George Washington to join other foreign volunteers in the Northern Army. He fought valiantly in several key battles, notably Yorktown. It was his fierce bravery and fighting spirit rather than his military acumen that inspired the American troops and he became a favorite of the generals. General George Washington looked at him as another son and the Marquis’ regard for Washington is well documented in letters to his wife, the French court, and to the Continental Congress. In fact, it was the Marquis who saved Washington’s career when a conspiracy to unseat him as the General of the Continental Armies was underway. Lafayette was instrumental in dismantling the cabal and ensuring Washington’s primacy. After he helped lead troops to victory in the battle of Yorktown, the last land battle of the Revolutionary War, he remained as a military advisor to Washington until the Treaty of Paris, which ended the conflict between the British and the United States of America.
After the war was over the Marquis travelled back to France as a firm believer in the democratic ideals that he had fought for with his American compatriots, and was a proponent of the values of the Age of Enlightenment. He urged for an end to slavery and even wrote to Washington on the topic. He was also made an honorary American citizen, per the Constitution that was ratified in 1789. In recognition of his distinguished service and a credit to his own country, King Louis XVI made him the Captain of the National Guard. That same year, as France was moving towards its own revolution, the Marquis drafted a “Declaration for the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” with input from Jefferson. However, Monarchic loyalists locked up the political activists who attempted to form a national assembly. In response, rebels stormed the Bastille and a crowd led by women fishmongers marched on Versailles to demand answers from King Louis and Queen Marie Antoinette. The French Revolution was officially underway. The entire time, Lafayette was walking a fine line between maintaining order and preventing the beheading of the King, and also ensuring that the royalty was answering to the common peoples’ demands. Eventually the common people turned against the Marquis and he stepped down from his captainship of the National Guard. He would go on to still be active in the French military, even being imprisoned during French conflicts with Prussia. But his divided loyalties earned him animosity by the aristocracy as well as the common people, and even after his release was secured he reentered a country that didn’t appreciate him.
He returned to the United States in 1824 for a grand tour that was to last a couple of years and honor the country’s 50th anniversary. To throngs of screaming crowds he travelled from state to state. He called upon President James Monroe, former Presidents Adams, Jefferson, and Madison, and visited the grave of his dear friend, George Washington. He visited the sites of the battles he had fought for his adopted country.
After he returned back to France he lived outside of Paris until he passed away in 1834 of health issues related to a bout of pneumonia. His death was greatly mourned in both France and the United States, where then-President Andrew Jackson ordered that black bunting be draped in congress for 30 days.
The statue honoring him in Lafayette Square was the first of the four, erected in the SE corner in 1891 after some debate about the location. Some thought it should go in the middle, but the statue of Andrew Jackson was already there. Some thought directly between the Jackson Statue and the White House, but then it would obstruct the view between the two. The SE was finally settled as the location, and the statue was designed and sculpted by two Frenchmen, Alexandre Falgueire and Antonin Mercie.
In the SW corner: COMTE DE ROCHAMBEAU:
The Marquis de Lafayette was one of many Frenchmen who offered their services to the cause of the American colonists. Another was Marshal Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau. Rochambeau was already a seasoned military commander when he joined the Continental Army at 55 years old, unlike the young and energetic Lafayette. His military career had already lasted 40 years, having fought battles all over Europe, including during the 7 Years War. His experience gave him well-earned skill in battle, whereas Lafayette had passion and fearlessness.
Rochambeau disembarked in Rhode Island in 1780, where he remained in charge of 7,000 troops going nowhere while the British blockaded Naraganssett Bay. He finally was able to join General George Washington in New York in 1781, and was with Washington and Lafayette at Valley Forge. Together they would all lead troops to Virginia to defend Yorktown from General Cornwallis. Rochambeau and Lafayette are largely credited with the strategy that defeated Cornwallis, securing redoubts 9 and 10 and beating back the British troops. Cornwallis surrendered on October 19th after twenty-seven straight days of battle engagements between Yorktown and the Battle of the Chesapeake. These battles led to the ultimate end of the Revolutionary War.
After he returned to France, he received honors by King Louis XVI. When the French Revolution hit, he clearly supported the King, unlike Lafayette. He was almost arrested during the Reign of Terror, when most noblemen such as himself were ushered to the guillotine. However, he managed to survive. He retired under the reign of Napoleon the 1st and died under his rule.
His statue was erected in Lafayette Square in 1901, due to efforts by the French Chancellor to the United States Jules Boeufve. It was modeled after another Rochambeau statue in the Place Vendome in Paris, and was created by the same sculptor, Jean-Jacques Frenand Hamar.
NW corner, GENERAL FRIEDRICH WILHELM VON STEUBEN:
The French were not the only foreigners who joined in the American Revolution. The Baron Friedrich Wilhelm Von Steuben, was a Prussian military strategy genius who left a permanent impression on how the American military trains its soldiers. He was born in Magdeburg to a family that was famous for its military prowess. He spent his youth in Russia and Prussia (pre-1874 Germany +Poland), and his father served the Empress Anna of Russia. Friedrich himself entered the Prussian military service when he turned 17 years old. He attained the rank of Captain by the age of 32 and became the aide-de-damp for Frederick the Great.
His reputation as a military man spread throughout Europe, and was even recognized by the French. In 1777, Friedrich was introduced to Benjamin Franklin by the French Minister of War, Claude Louis, Compte de Saint Germaine. While the Continental Army was in need of more military leaders (Washington couldn’t be everywhere at once after all) they couldn’t pay the foreign generals right away (Lafayette and Rochambeau didn’t need the money so they didn’t demand payment up front). Congress was already struggling to pay what little money they had to the American-born troops. At first, Von Steuben refused to volunteer. However, when he returned to Prussia after a short stay in France he was faced with charges of homosexual conduct in the military. Whether it was true or not, to escape the scandal he returned to France and was offered letters of introduction to George Washington. This time, he accepted a second offer to volunteer as a military lead in the Continental Army, with a promise that he would be paid upon the end of the war if the rebels won.
He arrived first in New Hampshire, and then travelled to Boston where he was celebrated as one of the most experienced foreign military men to join the cause. He had a flare for the dramatic and his own military uniform, as well as dressings for his horse and a very large gun. He himself was a man of considerable size, so he struck quite the figure. After New York he travelled to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania and was given the duty of Inspector General. He quickly surmised that there was not much rhyme, reason, or discipline to these troops who came from thirteen different colonies, and very little to unite them except the desire to throw off the yolk of British oppression. So, using his extensive Prussian training he drilled them into order, creating a disciplined military corps. He also developed the very first training manual of the US military, “Regulations for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States”. However, he wrote it in German so it had to be translated from German to French by his aide-de-camp, and then from French to English by an officer under General Washington. The Blue Guide, as it came to be known, was the basis for training for the US military until 1812 and is still referenced in training guides today.
His sculpture was erected in 1910, with the funds appropriated by Congress. The bronze statue cost $50,000 and was sculpted by Albert Jaegers. However, this wasn’t the first sculpture raised in DC in honor of Steuben. That distinction goes to another smaller monument that was sculpted by Jacques Juvenale in 1870, with funds raised by the local DC German-American community. The statue used to sit in Schuetzen Park, which had been on Kenyon and Georgia Avenue. The park is no longer there, but the original monument is on the grounds of the old German Orphans Asylum in Anacostia’s Good Hope Hill. Prost.
NE Corner – GENERAL ANDRZEJ TADEUSZ BONAWENTURA KOSCIUSZKO
Finally, we get to the statue in the NE corner, that of a Polish General Andrzej Tadeusz Bonawentura Kościuszko. Tadeusz (Thaddeus) was one of the earliest foreigners to join the Revolutionary War on behalf of the colonists, his application being accepted by the Second Continental Congress in August 1776, not long after we declared our independence. Thaddeus was from an aristocratic Polish family that had mixed fortunes based on the various political disputes happening between Poland, Lithuania, and Russia. He left Poland in 1768 when a civil war broke out in the Poland-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and his loyalties were divided between the common folk and his own aristocratic roots. He sought military training in Saxony (modern day east Germany) and was turned down. He then became a tutor for a wealthy Polish family and fell in love with their daughter. Her father disapproved of the match, and Thaddeus finally had to leave the country for good to avoid punishment. That’s when he crossed the Atlantic and applied to fight with the Continental Army.
Thaddeus had training as an engineer, as well as a military tactician, and it would be the former skill that would earn him acclaim in the Revolutionary War. It was he who led the building of fortifications at Saratoga, as well as barricades along the route the British were taking from Fort Ticonderoga. This slowed the British advance, allowing the Continental forces to build up their own defenses and give them the advantage that would eventually win them the battle.
Kościuszko would then be assigned to West Point, where he would go on to improve the structure and strengthen its defenses in ways that were hailed as being innovative for their time. The new defenses even thwarted Benedict Arnold when he attempted to surrender West Point to the British, after he went turncoat. Kosciuzsko spent the rest of his time serving in the Continental Army helping to develop intelligence networks and building fortifications for the Southern Army in the Carolinas. After the war he remained in the United States for a few years while waiting for his backpay from Congress (7 years worth!) When Thaddeus received his pay, with the promise of interest payments to come, he booked a ship back to Poland.
Most importantly about Thaddeus Kosciuzko was that he was an ardent believer in equal rights. He disapproved of slavery, something he and Jefferson disagreed about even though they became close friends. He spoke out agains the treatment of the Native Americans by the American government, and back in his home country he fought for the rights of Jews. He was instrumental in establishing a Constitution for Poland, which was soon after overthrown by Tsarina Catherine II (the Great) with support from a monarchist faction in Poland. Russia would invade Poland in 1792, and Thaddeus would spend the next four years fighting to throw off the Russian yoke. When Catherine the Great died in 1796, the Russian policy towards Poland changed, they released their Polish prisoners. Thaddeus returned to the US to spend quieter days in Philadelphia, where he established an estate. Eventually he returned to Europe, however, when he got word that his family had become involved in military affairs regarding Napoleon Bonaparte. After a sojourn in France he would finally return to Poland where he would spend the rest of his days. Before he died, he emancipated the servants he had left on what land he still owned. He wrote in his will that his wish was for his dear friend Jefferson to manumit his slaves and give them their freedom. Jefferson ignored the request.
The statue of Kosciusko was the last to be erected, going up in 1910 just after the Steuben statue. The funds were raised by the Polish Alliance, and the commemoration given by President Taft. The sculptor was Polish Antoni Popiel. The statue earned some attention when it was vandalized during the protests that erupted in the summer of 2020 after the murder of George Floyd. Reactions were mixed, with some pointing out that the statue was an odd target considering that Kosciusko was a fighter for black rights.
So there you have it. Now you know some of the history behind those four statues, and the significance each of them represents. We have much to thank for these foreign-born fighters, who would go on to become promoters of American ideals in their home countries, or go on to adopt the US as their own. They serve as a reminder that America owes its freedom as much to foreigners as it does to people who were born and died on its soil.
FINALLY - An Announcement
After all that, now for the announcement. I’ll be debuting a NEW TOUR at the end of April: French Connections!! DC has strong ties with the French, and so do I. So I wanted to dedicate a tour to calling out the significant contributions of les Francais to our great city. This tour will take you around the Lafayette Square area and end at a surprise location for a cocktail. It’s a shorter, more concentrated tour. I just hope they eventually take down those fences around Lafayette Square. In the meantime, keep a lookout for dates and don’t forget to follow me on Facebook, or sign up to my website. A bien tot mes amis!!