October 24, 2019
The European Heroes of America’s Independence
The success of the Revolution was driven by American ideals, but also with some European help. Whether it was a belief in democratic ambitions or the desire to weaken their continental rival, assistance from Europe played a pivotal role in America gaining its independence from Great Britain. And a few of those men who fought for freedom would be immortalized in stone.
The President’s Park, laid out by George Washington and Pierre L’Enfant in 1791, was key to their plans for a majestic nation’s capital. The Park would include the White House and parks to the north (Lafayette Park) and the south (the Ellipse). In addition to serving as a construction staging area for the White House, the Park land had previously been used as a racetrack, graveyard, zoo, slave market, and a military camp during the War of 1812. It’s also where four bronze sculptures were unveiled to honor these unexpected Revolutionary War heroes.
General Marquis Gilbert de Lafayette
The first statue, erected in 1891, was of the French military leader, the Marquis de Lafayette, for which the northern park is named. Although wealthy, Lafayette was orphaned, served in the Army, and married into one of France’s richest families by age 16. As the young officer learned more about the situation in America, he arranged to meet Silas Deane, one of the American Commissioners, in Paris, to see how he could help. Lafayette arrived in Philadelphia in 1777 to join the revolutionary cause. His wealth afforded him a commission as a Major General, and he was soon introduced to his commander-in-chief, General George Washington, who would become a lifelong friend. For the next several years, Lafayette loyally served Washington in battle, earning repeated praise from the Continental Congress. Still aiding the American cause after his return to France, Lafayette secured support from the French government and personally purchased a large amount of supplies for his troops in America. The 7,000 troops and French navy with which Lafayette returned proved critical in defeating Cornwallis at Yorktown, preventing his escape by sea.
Major General Comte Jean de Rochambeau
Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, the Comte de Rochambeau, was already an accomplished military officer when the American Revolution erupted. Lafayette had managed to convince the French King to support the American cause. In 1780, France gave Rochambeau the rank of Lieutenant General and command of some 7,000 French troops designated to join the Continental Army under George Washington. The small size of his force made him initially reluctant to lead the expedition. Rochambeau and his troops arrived in Rhode Island, but remained there for a year as not to abandon the nearby French fleet blockaded by the British. Rochambeau finally joined Washington in upstate New York and marched their combined forces to the siege at Yorktown and the Battle of the Chesapeake. Along with Lafayette’s troops, Washington and Rochambeau were able to defeat Cornwallis and secure his surrender. Congress presented Rochambeau with two British cannons in recognition of his service. His statue in Lafayette Park was erected in 1902.
General Tadeusz Kościuszko
Kosciuszko came from a noble, but modest family in Poland. He excelled in his military studies at the Royal Military Academy of Warsaw and became an accomplished engineer. After spending several years studying in France, the young Kosciuszko found his family fortune had been squandered by his brother, and Poland was in increasing political disarray. Unable to purchase an officer’s commission, Kosciuszko became a tutor to a wealthy family of a provincial governor. He fell in love with the governor’s daughter, but their elopement was prevented and Kosciuszko was beaten. He then fled to France where he learned of the revolution brewing in America. It’s said that Kosciuszko was so moved after reading the Declaration of Independence in 1776, that he sought a meeting with Thomas Jefferson in Paris. (The two later became close friends and corresponded for more than 20 years until Kosciuszko’s death.) His education and experiences made him sympathetic to the cause, so Kosciuszko offered his services. The Continental Congress appointed him as a colonel of engineers, and he initially worked to build fortifications to protect Philadelphia from British attack. Next in New York, Kosciuszko masterminded an important British defeat at Saratoga and was in charge of the design and construction of military fortifications at West Point. By the end of the war, Kosciuszko had earned the rank of brigadier general and received U.S. citizenship, along with a medal for his service to the Continental Army. His statue was erected in 1910.
Major General Baron Frederich Wilhelm von Steuben
Von Steuben came from a military family and enlisted in the Prussian Army at age 17. After serving with distinction in the Seven Years War and at Frederick the Great’s headquarters, he was discharged after the Treaties of Paris in 1763. His experiences as a General Staff member in the Prussian Army gave him a wealth of knowledge beyond those of the British and French armies of the period. His training would eventually bring to the American soldiers the technical knowledge necessary to transform their militia into an army. After his discharge, von Steuben received his “Baron” title when he became chamberlain at the Petty Court of Hohenzollern-Hechingen. Despite this title, he remained poor and sought work with Europe’s armies. After hearing that he could find work in the Continental Army, he met with Silas Deane and Benjamin Franklin in Paris. The American Commissioners couldn’t offer von Steuben rank or pay, and he initially declined volunteering. But with no other options, he accepted and made his way to America in 1777. Von Steuben reported to General George Washington in Valley Forge in 1778 and was appointed as the temporary Inspector General to observe the American soldiers, equipment, skills, and living conditions. The Prussian soldier was so dismayed at the state of the Continental Army, that he wrote the Revolutionary War Drill Manual, on which he personally trained troops through a translator. Von Steuben next wrote Regulation for the Order and Discipline of the Troops of the United States, which was a standard U.S. military manual until 1814. (He also organized how camps were laid out, so kitchens and latrines weren’t next to each other.) Von Steuben next served as General Nathanael Greene’s instructor and supply officer and was present at the Battle of Yorktown. Achieving the rank of Major General and receiving U.S. citizenship, Steuben assisted Washington in demobilizing the army in 1783 and in the new country’s defense plan. His statue was also erected in 1910.
Did You Know …
There is a fifth statue in the middle of Lafayette Park? Sculpted in 1853 by Clark Mills, the equestrian statue of General Andrew Jackson was actually the first statue in the park. It was also the first bronze statue cast in the country, and the first equestrian statue in the world to feature a horse rearing up on its two hind legs.