Baltimore fell in love with a French nobleman

Way Back When

Hero: He wasn't the greatest soldier or statesman, just a generous spirit who crossed a sea to fight for America and won the heart of a nation.

September 04, 1999|By Frederick N. Rasmussen | Frederick N. Rasmussen,SUN STAFF

Gilbert du Motier, the Revolutionary War hero who received the most tumultuous welcome ever in Baltimore's history, is better known by his title of the Marquis de Lafayette.

Today, he is remembered in Baltimore for Fayette Street, Lafayette Avenue and Lafayette Square, all named for him.

He made his first visit to the city in 1781, when he camped on what are today's Cathedral grounds with his troops, who were marching south. During a banquet given by Mrs. Davis Poe, he appeared distant and preoccupied. Asked what was the trouble, Lafayette reportedly told his hostess it was difficult to enjoy the festivities while his men were ill-nourished and dressed in rags.

Poe recruited her own army of seamstresses the next morning and over the next few days produced hundreds of new uniforms while merchants donated quantities of pork, beef and flour.

Lafayette returned to Baltimore in 1784, before returning to Europe where he was jailed on and off for the next 30 years for his political activities.

"In reality," said an article in The Sunday Sun Magazine, "the Frenchman who joined Washington's forces as a 19-year-old major-general was not an outstanding soldier or statesman by any stretch of the imagination. But the fact that he was a nobleman from a great foreign land who came voluntarily to aid America in its dark hours gave him a lofty stature in the eyes of the new nation."

In 1785, the Maryland General Assembly awarded Maryland citizenship and therefore American citizenship to Lafayette.

His triumphal return to America occurred in 1824 after he was invited by President James Monroe for a year-long tour of the nation.

"Never before had Americans shown such enthusiasm for a man, either foreign or native, as they showed for the Marquis on his year-long tour," observed the newspaper.

He arrived in Baltimore on Oct. 7, 1824, aboard the steamboat United States. The vessel was greeted by the sound of booming cannons at Fort McHenry while a flotilla of gaily decorated vessels conveyed him up the Patapsco.

Barges put out to meet the steamer, anchoring off the fort, and convey the official party ashore. Lafayette, 67, stepped into the first one.

"On his entering the star fort two infantry regiments standing at attention divided and revealed in the opening George Washington's tent. The sight of this old and familiar relic greatly moved the Marquis who barely had recovered himself before Gov. Samuel Stevens stepped forth to extend another official welcome," said a 1957 article in The Sun.

"The distinguished guest was invited inside to be greeted ... by Col. John Eager Howard and Charles Carroll of Carrollton heading the members of the Society of the Cincinnati. To each greeting the Marquis made a touching response.

"Old newspapers tell that on seeing some of Washington's equipment that had been replaced in the tent, he whispered emotionally: `I remember.' There was not a dry eye among the gathering," said the newspaper.

After a luncheon, Lafayette boarded an open carriage and commenced his triumphal entry into the city along a route lined with militia and cheering Baltimoreans. Lafayette was conveyed up Charles Street to Baltimore Street, passing under an enormous floral arch, and then on to Fells Point. Ten thousand soldiers and 100,000 civilians observed the procession that featured militia units from as far away as Annapolis, Princes Georges County and York, Pa.

Lafayette retired to the Fountain Inn, where he spent four days. He was followed by crowds wherever he went when they spotted his cream and green barouche making its way through the streets.

One visit took Lafayette to the University of Maryland at Lombard and Greene streets, where he was presented with the university's first honorary degree.

His secretary, Augustus Levasseur, who traveled with him, published a record of the visit in his two-volume journal published in Paris in 1829.

He wrote, "Every moment of our stay was marked by the most brilliant entertainment and the most delicate attentions. It is difficult to do justice to the elegance and manners of the inhabitants of that city in which one finds a happy combination of American kindness and French grace."

Lafayette, largely supported by money from American benefactors, lived to the age of 77. He died in 1834.

Fayette Street was first recorded on Baltimore city maps in 1792 and in 1857, Lafayette Square was created. The former Townsend Street was renamed Lafayette Avenue in 1869.

Irish-American sculptor Andrew O'Connor's Lafayette Monument, which stands in Mount Vernon Place, facing north on Charles Street, was dedicated in 1924 by President Calvin Coolidge.

The dedication came seven years after the United States had entered World War I, in part to help Lafayette's native land fight the Germans. By that time, The Sun wrote, Lafayette's name, "long forgotten in his own country, was still potent ..., furnishing sentimental aid to hasten America into the war on the side of the ally of Revolutionary days."

Pub Date: 9/04/99

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