The Marquis de Lafayette, who joined the Continental Army at age nineteen in the summer of 1777 as a volunteer Major General, spent most of December 1777 and January 1778 with George Washington and his Continental Army troops at their winter quarters at Valley Forge. During that long, harsh winter, the ill-equipped Americans suffered in many ways. Some went barefoot. Many did not have blankets to sleep under. Food was sometimes scarce and sufficient supplies rarely made it to the camp. Hundreds died after suffering from diseases such as influenza, typhus, typhoid fever, and dysentery.
Lafayette experienced his first action at the Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777, where he showed extreme courage under fire in leading an orderly retreat. The Frenchman was shot through the calf during the battle. After he recovered, Lafayette was given command of a division of troops.
At Valley Forge, Lafayette basked in his elevation to the post of commander of a division of troops. Lafayette freely spent his own money to buy uniforms and muskets for his men—and lived among them during the coldest part of the winter. And despite pleas from his young wife and her family to return to France, Lafayette remained committed to the American cause as well as to the man he would come to consider his all-but-adopted father, George Washington. Lafayette demonstrated his unwavering loyalty to Washington during the Valley Forge encampment by helping Washington face down the so-called Conway Cabal, a never-hatched military-political plot aimed at forcing Washington to give up command of the Continental Army.
The aborted Conway Cabal included a plan to move Lafayette far away from Valley Forge. The Continental Congress’s Board of War on January 28 ordered Lafayette to take the newly created Northern Army of the United States north, invade Canada, and return that territory to France. Lafayette discussed the idea with Washington in Valley Forge. Neither man liked the situation; both only agreed reluctantly.
Lafayette asked for and received a series of concessions from Congress before he would accept the order to go north. He insisted that all of his orders come directly from George Washington, not through Congress via the Board of War. Lafayette also chose twenty French officers for his staff. Among those in the group: the French engineer Captain Pierre L'Enfant, who in 1791 would go on to design the city of Washington, D.C.
Lafayette headed north in the dead of winter, leaving York on February 3. Six days later he wrote to Washington from Flemington, New Jersey, describing what was becoming a very difficult mission: "I go on very slowly sometimes pierced by rain, sometimes covered with snow, and not thinking many handsome thoughts about the projected incursion into Canada."1 En route, Lafayette and his men ran into other weather-related obstacles, including the wide and deep Susquehanna River which Lafayette said in his memoirs, was crossed "not without some danger" since it was "filled with floating masses of ice."2
The men arrived at Albany, New York on February 17, where the group "experienced some disappointments." Instead of a force of 2,500 men as was promised, Lafayette found fewer than 1,200. In addition, promised supplies were not available. The troops, moreover, complained openly and bitterly about not being paid or clothed and provisioned properly.
The trip turned into a fiasco. Lafayette wrote a letter to Congress on February 20 stating that he was abandoning the mission. On March 13, Congress issued orders returning the young Frenchman to the main army in Pennsylvania. Washington wrote to Lafayette a week later saying it was his desire that Lafayette "will without loss of time return to camp, to resume the command of a division of this Army."3
Lafayette left Albany for Valley Forge on March 31, 1778. He arrived late in April and learned that on February 6 the United States and France had signed a Treaty of Alliance, which created a formal military alliance between the two nations.
Author, Lafayette: Lessons in Leadership from the Idealist General
1. "Marqus de Lafayette to George Washington, 9 February 1778," Lafayette and the Age of the American Revolution: Selected Letters and Papers, 1776-1790, Vol. I, Stanley J. Idzerda et al., eds. (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1977), 287.