by Tom Clavin
A dramatic and poignant story within the story of Valley Forge is about George Washington and his surrogate sons. He did not have children of his own, and turning 46 and married to Martha Washington, he would not. But at Valley Forge he was surrounded by three very young men totally devoted to him—one of them the Founding Father you never heard of.
Marquis de Lafayette
Let’s start with Marquis de Lafayette, all of 19 when he snuck out of his noble family in France, sailed to America, and presented himself to George Washington. George Washington was impressed by the young man, one reason being he could look him in the eye. Washington was 6’4”. The average male height at that time was 5’5”, 5’6”; Marquis de Lafayette was 6’3”. He was an idealistic, energetic young man, looking at Washington and saying “I want to join your army.” The two met when the 19-year-old, sporting a major general’s sash, brashly introduced himself to Washington in Philadelphia’s City Tavern on the last evening of July 1777. Elegant and slim, with full lips, an upturned nose, and a prematurely receding hairline, Lafayette charmed Washington with his youthful brio for poetic pronouncements as well as his ability to segue from diffident self-abasement to fervent ambition in mid-sentence. Adding to this was the cache of his physical stature. Washington invited Lafayette to join him the following morning for a tour of the Continental defenses along the Delaware River.
The American general was certainly not blind to the diplomatic advantages of befriending a well-connected French nobleman. Yet Washington, whose own youth was rife with romantic paeans to justice and fair play, also saw something deeper in Lafayette’s earnest devotion to American liberty.
“The happiness of America is intimately connected to the happiness of all mankind,” the marquis had written to his wife upon making landfall in the United States. Even if Washington expressed such sentiments less floridly, they were very similar to his own. By the fall of 1777, the courageous and reckless 20-year-old was a major general in the Continental Army and Washington doted on the coltish French nobleman. In the Battle of Brandywine, Lafayette was wounded. When Washington heard this, he sent a surgeon to the front with the instructions “treat him like you would treat my own son.”
Washington was reluctant to let Lafayette go when he was ordered to invade Canada. In the middle of winter 1777-1778, the French nobleman was told to go to Albany where an army would await him to go to Canada. He got as far as Albany, saw there was no army, and came back. His position back at Valley Forge helped secure the alliance with France, which made a difference to the American cause. At the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse that June, the pivotal battle of the Revolutionary War, Lafayette, George Washington, and Greene slept on their cloaks with their men, ready to resume battle. Lafayette would remain Washington’s loyal general and friend for decades, and his son would be named George Washington Lafayette. He was one of the three surrogate sons with Washington at Valley Forge.