Lafayette’s Life: Decide What To Be And Go Be It


The Marquis de Lafayette is a living example of the lyrics to one of my favorite songs by my favorite band, the Avett Brothers. The Avetts sing the simple yet powerful line “decide what to be and go be it” in Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise. Lafayette did exactly that when he decided to leave his family, fortune, and home to come fight for liberty in the American Revolution. What prompted Lafayette to leave everything to come to America? Why would a French nobleman want to fight for liberty against the very royal aristocracy that sustained his own way of life?

According to Lafayette, his life transforming decision came while attending a dinner to honor the Duke of Gloucester in Metz, France on August 8, 1775. The Duke of Gloucester was the brother to King George III, king of England. Despite being the King of England’s brother, the Duke of Gloucester spoke out openly against the king’s handling of the war in America. This surprised and intrigued Lafayette who knew very little about the fighting in the colonies. To Lafayette the idea of a people fighting for liberty and independence was captivating. In Lafayette’s own words, “[w]hen I first heard of [the colonists’] quarrel, my heart was enlisted, and I thought only of joining my colors to those of the revolutionaries.” Then and there Lafayette decided, against what many would consider rational thought, to leave everything in France to fight in the Revolution. Lafayette was seventeen-years-old when he committed to joining America’s fight for freedom.

Despite having made his decision to join the fight for liberty, Lafayette could not simply pack up and leave, at least not yet. Lafayette sought counsel from his former commanding officer the comte Charles-Francois de Broglie, who had hosted the dinner at Metz. Broglie had his own ambition to join the American fight, and even sought to supplant Washington as commander in chief. Broglie discouraged Lafayette from leaving France. Lafayette would not be dissuaded. With the help of fellow French officer, Baron de Kalb, Lafayette was able to meet with Silas Deane, the secret American envoy to France, who was there to garner French support for the Revolution. De Kalb was a self-made baron who invented his tile to become a French officer and happily introduced Lafayette to Deane. Silas Deane was eager to enlist French officers and readily handed out the rank of major general to Lafayette.


Lafayette’s introduction to Silas Deane

Lafayette now had his officer’s commission to present before the American Congress, but the obstacles continued to mount against Lafayette’s dream of heading to America. The primary obstruction was Lafayette’s father-in-law the Duc d’Ayen. Lafayette had married the Duc d’Ayen’s daughter, Adrienne, less than two years earlier on April 11, 1774. Adrienne was fourteen-years-old when married. Lafayette and Adrienne had a infant daughter and another child on the way. Needless to say, Adrienne’s father was not supportive of Lafayette’s departure to America. The Duc d’Ayen went so far as to obtain a written decree from French King Louis XVI to prohibit French officers from leaving France for America. Lafayette hesitated on carrying out his dream when he learned of the King’s edict.

Marie Adrienne Francoise de Noailles

Lafayette’s wife, Marie Adrienne Francoise de Noailles

However, Lafayette was independently wealthy. Wealth can open a multitude of doors even when the ruling king shuts them all. Lafayette’s inherited estates yielded an annual income of 150,000 livres, or $1,500,000 in today’s dollars. With this vast wealth at his disposal, Lafayette, with new determination, sought to secretly buy a merchant sailing ship and have it refitted with cannon and provisions for a voyage to America. The ship, La Bonne M`ere, cost Lafayette 112,000 livres, almost three quarters of his annual income. Lafayette renamed the vessel La Victoire. Lafayette also changed his coat of arms at this time from Vis sat contra fatum (Determination is enough to overcome destiny) to the simpler, Cur non? (Why not?). Lafayette had La Victoire secretly sailed from Bordeaux, France to a small Spanish port. Dodging King Louis XVI’s orders to prevent French officers from leaving, Lafayette boarded La Victoire on April 20, 1777 and set to sea bound for America. Lafayette was so sure of the rightness of his decision that he wrote to one friend. “Don’t worry, once I am victorious everyone will applaud my enterprise.”

We now know that Lafayette’s decision was right. As with so many young talented officers, Washington immediately saw something special in Lafayette when he arrived in Philadelphia to claim his rank of major general. The rest they say is history. But to Lafayette at the time he left France the future was far from certain. Uncertainty did not matter to Lafayette. He had decided what to be, and he was going to be it.

For more information about the life of the Marquis de Lafayette take a look at:

For Liberty and Glory: Washington, Lafayette, and Their Revolutionsby James R. Gaines

The True La Fayetteby George Morgan

Lafayette, by Harlow Giles Unger

Home Makeover: Loyalist Estate Turned Patriot Headquarters


In July 1775, George Washington chose a house on Watertown Road near the Charles River as his headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It was a stately manor owned by loyalist John Vassall. John and Elizabeth Vassall, and their six children ages 12 – infancy, left their Cambridge estate in September 1774 to seek the protection of British soldiers stationed in Boston. John Vassall’s Cambridge estate of nearly 90 acres was the largest and most elegant in the area. Vassall’s wealth was inherited and came primarily from farms in Jamaica where slaves tended vast plantations. The Vassalls also owned slaves that worked in the home and gardens at their Cambridge estate. At first glance, Washington and Vassall don’t seem all that different. Both were plantation and slave owners. Both had inherited substantial sums of money, Washington’s wealth coming from his marriage to Martha. Perhaps these similarities are what drew Washington to pick this recently abandoned estate as his military headquarters.


Cambridge Map

Map of Cambridge showing Col. Vassall’s home along Watertown road

Despite their social similarities, the time had come in the colonies to pick sides. Washington chose the patriot cause. Vassall chose the King. John Vassall did not declare his loyalty to the Crown until 1774, when it became apparent that he could not remain neutral. He was a prominent member of the Anglican church, relied heavily on British trade to support his family’s wealth, and was well-connected in London. As most loyalists, Vassall was trying to preserve his way of life by siding with the British. As a prominent member of society, Vassall’s declaration to side with the Crown, put his family in danger. The danger primarily rose from the potential for patriot mobs to storm loyalist homes suspected of providing British General Gage with intelligence. Thus, as loyalists John and his family left their Cambridge estate in the hands of their slaves, and traveled into Boston where British soldiers controlled the city. It’s clear that John Vassall believed he would simply return to his Cambridge home after the British put down the tumultuous behavior of the patriots. How wrong he was. John Vassal never set foot in his Cambridge home again. In March 1775, he left with the British fleet as it fled Boston. He and his family went to England where he remained the rest of his life.


John Vassall’s Uncle William (seated) and Nephew Leonard Vassall

It’s hard to imagine George Washington being anything other than the leader of the American Revolution. However, had things gone just a little bit differently in Washington’s life he, like John Vassall, would have likely sided with the British. In his early military career many years prior to the Revolution, Washington’s great ambition was to become a commissioned British officer. Time and again Washington was rejected by the British Royal Government. This rejection fueled Washington’s resentment of the establishment that shunned those unconnected in British Royal circles. We will never know what might have been, but most commissioned British officers stood by their King in the Revolution. Fortunately, Washington sided with the rebels and transformed the loyalist Vassall home into his headquarters.

Washington’s arrival at the Vassall house would have brought a whirlwind of activity. Many of the Revolution’s key figures would have stepped through the door to the beautiful home on Watertown road: Nathaniel Greene, Charles Lee, Horatio Gates, Benedict Arnold, Israel Putnam, Artemas Ward, Henry Knox, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin to name a few. Washington’s “makeover” of the Vassall home turned a quiet English gentleman’s estate into the brain center of the rebellion.


The front stairs in Washington’s headquarters. Many of the Revolution’s finest would have stood here.


The room used by Washington as his office. The decor is from Longfellow’s era in the mid-1800’s

Washington’s headquarters has been preserved and now stands as part of the National Park Service. We visited this spring while on my book tour for The Drum of Destiny. Washington’s headquarters later became the home of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in the mid-1800’s. Most of the furnishings and decor currently in the home are part of the Longfellow Trust. Longfellow knew the home’s history and loved the fact that so many key revolutionary characters had been inside his home. To stand inside looking into the room where Washington kept his office is like stepping back in time. What Washington accomplished in this home, taking it from loyalist estate to patriot headquarters is truly amazing.

For more about the Vassalls and Washington’s early days as the commanding general you can read the Historic Resource Study by J.L. Bell published by the National Park Service.


Death by Duel – The Irony of Hamilton’s Death


The duel that left Alexander Hamilton dead happened on this day, July 11, 1804. Aaron Burr killed Hamilton with a shot to the lower abdomen just above the right hip. Hamilton shot high into the air over Burr’s head, likely on purpose, although there is some debate among historians as to whether Hamilton intentionally aimed high. Regardless of Hamilton’s intentions, the best way to survive a duel is to not get into one in the first place. Hamilton died to protect his honor. While our modern sensibilities tend to think of honor as synonymous with integrity and good character, historically speaking, duels involved a very different type of honor.


The honor of the duel was tied to nobility. Only nobles had honor. Honor was given at birth. A person couldn’t earn honor, you could only lose it. The worst way for a noble to lose honor was to be considered a coward. The best way to show one’s self brave was to challenge the offending party to a duel and hope you didn’t die in the process. Make’s perfect sense, right?

It is ironic that Hamilton died as a participant in a system based on monarchical principles, when he had spent all of his life fighting against this noble/class based society. Hamilton’s death brought to light the senselessness that surrounded the duel and it’s list of rules that must be followed. The Code Duello laid out twenty-five rules for dueling. The Code involved the use of “Seconds”, usually friends of the dueling participants, to try to negotiate a resolution to the dispute. The Code also set out rules on when an apology could be accepted and when a duel must proceed. Many challenges to duel were just for show with no shots ever being fired. The Seconds would work things out. However, one could not back down from a duel without losing honor, case in point Hamilton and Burr. Thus, some duels ended in bloodshed and death. The Hamilton-Burr duel left many realizing that as an “enlightened” people duels were archaic forms of brutality that should be cast off just like the monarchical forms of government that had inspired them. The practice of dueling nevertheless lingered on throughout the Civil War and into the western frontier.


Hamilton was a brilliant man, yet he failed to see the sheer stupidity of throwing his life away in the class-based and unenlightened practice of dueling. It is a true loss that he was not able to continue to shape the Republic that he had worked so hard to establish.

What I Love About The Guy Who Didn’t Write The Declaration of Independence


John Adams was a member of the Congressional committee assigned to write the Declaration of Independence. All the members of the committee, including Thomas Jefferson, thought Adams should write the first draft. Needless to say, the author of a document declaring independence from the British Empire would have instant worldwide fame. Adams could have easily seized this opportunity to solidify a position of power in Congress and around the world. Adams, however, refused to write the first draft. He insisted that Jefferson write it.


John Adams

Adams gave three reasons why Jefferson should write the Declaration. Each reason shows how Adams put his love of country above his own self-interests. If only more of our current governmental leaders could follow in Adams’ footsteps.

Reason 1:  Jefferson was a Virginian. Adams recognized that for all the colonies to support such a declaration the words must come from the pen of a Virginian. Virginia was the largest, wealthiest, and most influential colony. If Adams, a New Englander, was to write the declaration, it might not get the support needed from the southern colonies. Adams told Jefferson “you are a Virginian, and a Virginian ought to appear at the head of this business.”

Reason 2: Jefferson was more popular than Adams. John Adams had a way of stirring up conflict. As a result, many fellow congressmen didn’t like him. Adams knew this. Rather than trying to use the Declaration as a tool to gain some popularity among his peers, he instead told Jefferson that he must write it because Jefferson was more popular. Adams gave up an opportunity for self-advancement because again, above all else, he wanted all the colonies to support the Declaration of Independence. Adams told Jefferson, “I am obnoxious, suspected, and unpopular. You are very much otherwise.”

Reason 3: Jefferson was a better writer that AdamsThomas Jefferson was an amazing writer. Adams was not. Adams knew that the document which was about to be drafted had to be able to convince the colonies, and the entire world, that these colonies were now independent from the British Empire. Not only that, but it had to explain why these colonies must declare their independence. The declaration had to succinctly and eloquently send a message to King George III that the colonies were serious about breaking away from his empire. Adams told Jefferson, “you can write ten times better than I.”


Thomas Jefferson

From Adams’ three reasons it’s clear that he held the advancement of his country above the advancement of his own political career. Jefferson and Adams would later become political enemies. While not enemies at the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson and Adams had many opposing ideologies. Slavery being one of the most contentious differences. Adams abhorred slavery. Jefferson was a slave owner. These differences didn’t prevent Adams from recognizing that Jefferson was the better man when it came to drafting one of the most important documents ever written, The Declaration of Independence. Adams willingly put his own self-interest aside, and in an act of astonishing humility, told Jefferson to draft what would become the document that set democracy in motion. For this, I love the guy that didn’t write the Declaration of Independence.

You can read Adams’ letter to Timothy Pickering where he recounts the drafting of the Declaration of Independence here.

The Battle of Bunker Hill


On this day June 17, 1775, the patriot militia battled the British atop Breed’s Hill and Bunker Hill. These two hills are part of the Charlestown Peninsula just to the north of Boston. While the militia eventually lost the ground, retreating to Cambridge, they inflicted heavy casualties on the British Regulars. The British killed and wounded totaled just over 1,000, while the Patriot’s lost only 400 men to death or wounds.

In the weeks leading up to the battle, the patriot militia surrounding Boston feared that the Regulars would mount another march out of the city just as they had done at Lexington and Concord. To keep the British from leaving the city by the narrow stretch of water to the north of Boston, the militia decided to secretly move part of their army to the hills on the Charlestown Peninsula. On the night of June 16th, the patriot army began their secret maneuver. William Prescott led the men along with Israel Putnam. The original plan had been to set up a small fort atop Bunker Hill. However, in the dark night Prescott led his men further out onto the peninsula and mistook Breed’s Hill for Bunker Hill. He didn’t realize his mistake until light began to dawn. By then it was too late as the men had already thrown up earthen walls and redoubts atop Breeds Hill. As the morning dawned, Prescott would have looked out and realized that his decision to fortify Breed’s Hill would be sure to draw the British out of Boston. Since the patriot’s cannon, few as they were, could now hurl balls down on Boston from Breed’s Hill, the British had to remove the militia from the hill.


Joshua stands beside Prescott’s statue at the Bunker Hill Memorial


Prescott’s view of Boston to the south of Breed’s Hill has changed a little.  

Led mainly by General William Howe, the British believed that the patriots would turn and run when faced with the might of the British army. Without a clear leader (George Washington had not yet joined the army at Cambridge), confusion and disorder was a problem as many patriot soldiers had no idea what they were to do. Some stayed on Bunker Hill, while others made their way to Breed’s Hill. While there was no one clear leader, the men were ready to fight. Many were still angered over the loss of loved ones at the Battles of Lexington and Concord. The men’s resolve to fight was strengthened when the British began their assault by setting fire to the village of Charlestown.


The Battle of Bunker Hill, by Howard Pyle 1897

The British army made three assaults on Breed’s Hill. With each assault, Prescott and Putnam instructed their men to not fire “until you see the whites of their eyes.” With muskets only having an effective range of 50 to 100 yards, the militia had to wait for the Regulars to get close before firing. The patriots were deadly marksmen, purposefully picking off British officers and sending devastating musket volleys into the British ranks. At one point in the battle, General Howe, having just led a group of men up the hill, found himself standing nearly alone within yards of the patriot fort. All of the men surrounding him had been cut down by musket fire. Howe miraculously escaped harm as he retreated back down the hill. On the third assault, the patriot’s began to run out of gun powder. The British, with bayonets fixed, stormed over the earthen walls. Patriots were forced to either flee or fight with their bare hands. Many used their musket stocks as clubs attempting to beat away the British. The carnage as the British stormed the walls atop Breed’s Hill is difficult to imagine.

Today, a memorial sits atop Bunker Hill to commemorate the battle. Visitors can climb the 294 steps of the spiral staircase to reach the top of the monument and catch some amazing views. To learn much more about this battle where the fledgling patriot army found the courage to stand up to the might of the British Regulars, check out Bunker Hill: A City, A Siege, A Revolution, by Nathaniel Philbrick.


View of the Bunker Hill Monument from the Charlestown ferry boat.

Colonial Post Riders


Sitting on the back of a horse, meandering through a wooded trail, has a way of soothing the soul. The bits of nature that go unnoticed in our fast paced world come to life when riding a horse. I often find myself wondering if some of the giant oaks I pass by are old enough to remember life without cars, planes, and trains. What was it like when horses were the only way to get to town, to go the neighbors, or to plow a field?


Debbie and I enjoying a trail ride near our home

New England colonists lived in a vast wilderness with towns connected only by narrow Indian trails. Walking was the primary means of travel as there were very few horses in the colonies up until the mid-1600s. Horse breeding became a more important focus as colonial economics developed. Trade to the West Indies brought the need for more and better horses to haul goods to and from docks. In 1687, William Penn decreed that any horse more than eighteen months old and less than thirteen hands high had to be gelded. This was to promote a larger, stouter horse population. As horses became more common the need for better roads began to emerge.

It became apparent that a road was desperately needed between New York and Boston. In 1673, New York Governor, Francis Lovelace, began work on developing what would later be called the Boston Post Road. Francis was appointed Royal Governor of New York by the Duke of York.


After England’s King Charles II seized the land from the Dutch he gave it to his brother, the Duke of York, who promptly changed the name from New Amsterdam to New York. Royal Governor Francis was to encourage colonial development, but at the same time ensure the Dutch did not retake the area. Governor Francis proposed that a post road be established that would allow for post riders on horseback to deliver mail once a month between New York and Boston.  The post rider would leave New York the first Monday of every month and, stopping at villages along the route, would return from Boston within the month.

While Francis succeeded in advancing new and better roads for travel between New York and Boston, he did not fair as well in protecting the small settlement of New York from the Dutch. While Governor Francis was visiting John Winthrop the Younger, Governor of Connecticut, to discuss his idea for a postal service, the Dutch sent war ships to New York and recaptured the settlement. The Duke of York was not happy with Francis. Francis Lovelace was ordered back to England and imprisoned in the Tower of London. He died not long after his imprisonment.

Francis Lovelace never got to see the fruits of his work. New York was eventually retaken by the English, and the Boston Post Road became the first primary road with post riders in the colonies. Gabriel Cooper, in my book The Drum of Destiny, walked the Boston Post Road to reach Cambridge where the patriot army was headquartered at the beginning of the American Revolution. While the landscape has changed since Gabriel’s travels, the Boston Post Road still exists.

Pages from Drum_interior

Of course the Boston Post Road is not the only landscape to have drastically changed through the years. Our horseback rides through the Indiana countryside include paved roads and electric poles. Still, it is fun to think back to what the early post riders of New England would have experienced. In my view, one of the best ways to look back is from the back of a horse.


Levi enjoying a ride with me on George

For more information on the Boston Post Road, check out The King’s Best Highway, by Eric Jaffe.

Boston’s Granary Burying Ground


You have to be a certified history nut to enjoy visiting an old cemetery like Boston’s Granary Burying Ground, but this place oozes with history, sometimes literally. Built on what was once a lowland swamp, the graves are particularly shallow, many only 20 inches below the surface. Graves were not dug any deeper due to the high water table. Over the cemetery’s long history there have been occasions where human remains have popped up above the surface. Our own Freedom Trail tour guide relayed a story where a boy pulled a skull from the ground and chased him around the cemetery. In January 2009 the ground gave way under one poor tourist who fell hip deep into a previously undiscovered crypt.


It’s no wonder that bones surface from time to time as 4,610 bodies were buried in the small cemetery prior to 1831. As seen in the picture above most tombs in the Granary are below ground. Tombs held multiple bodies, sometimes with different families agreeing to share one tomb.

The Granary dates back to 1660, and was once part of the Boston Common. It got the name “Granary” due to the granary (storehouse for threshed grain) located near the graveyard. What makes the Granary Burying Ground special is the number of Revolutionary War icons that are buried within. John Hancock, famous for leading the colonies to revolt against Great Britain and signing the Declaration of Independence, is buried in the Granary.


Hancock’s grave marker dedicated in 1896

While Benjamin Franklin is buried in Philadelphia, his father and mother are buried in the Granary. Josiah and Abiah Franklin’s grave was found and marked long after their deaths in 1744 and 1752.


Benjamin Franklin’s parents’ grave, marked in 1827, can be found under the large obelisk monument near the middle of the Granary

Paul Revere also is buried in the Granary along with much of his family. Paul was twice married and had fourteen children, nine of which lived into adulthood. Revere died in May of 1818.


Our Freedom Trail tour guide, Jeremiah, standing by Revere’s grave marker

Samuel Adams is also buried in the Granary as well as the five victims of the Boston Massacre. Other notable Revolutionary figures laid to rest in the Granary include James Otis, Jeremiah Gridley, and Robert Treat Paine.

The Granary Burying Grounds is maintained through the City of Boston’s Historic Burying Grounds Initiative (HBGI). Boston has done an amazing job of preserving these historic cemeteries and is home to sixteen historic burial grounds. Much more can be learned about these cemeteries’ history and the people buried there through the HBGI’s website and monthly newsletter.


Minute Man Historic National Park


Our Revolutionary tour continued with a stop at Minute Man Historic National Park. There is always something special about being present on an actual battlefield. Having read multiple books about what happened along the British Regular’s march from Boston to Concord, there is simply no substitute for seeing a battlefield in person. Visiting the North Bridge at Concord provided particular insight into the confusion that reigned on that day, April 19, 1775.


View Provincial militia had as they marched toward the British holding the North Bridge

It’s a common thought that the battle at the North Bridge was spurred by the patriot militia’s desire to retaliate for what had occurred earlier that day on Lexington Green. In reality the militia had taken high ground north of the North Bridge and waited, unsure what to do. Seeing, in person, the militia’s distant position from the bridge, helped me understand just how tentative the militia’s approach to the battle really was. The orders of the day truly were “don’t fire, unless fired upon,” which is why the militia took the high ground and waited. The group of British Regulars holding the bridge similarly were not looking for a fight.


Caleb and Josh help mark the British Regular’s position at the North Bridge

However, when the militia saw smoke rising up from where the village of Concord lay beyond the bridge, they believed that the British were burning their homes. In reality, the British were only burning cannon carriages. When a spark from the fire began to catch one of the houses on fire, British regulars grabbed buckets of water to douse the flame. Thinking that their town was burning, the militia then made the decision to march to the bridge. As seen in the photo above, the militia followed the road down from the high ground that curves in front of the marshy area next to the river. With their flank exposed, it would have been easy for the British stationed on the bridge to open fire. They didn’t fire, but instead pulled back to the other side of the bridge. This quick change in position added to the confusion on the British side. Were they to hold the bridge, or let the militia pass? The British waited until the head of the militia column was directly across the bridge. A British regular then fired. The patriot militia fired back with a deadly volley that sent the British regulars in full retreat. Clearly, this was not what the militia was expecting. Seeing the British regulars run gave the militia a confidence it had lacked a few minutes before.

From there the day unfolded into a bloody British retreat back to Boston. As more and more Minute Men from the surrounding countryside joined the fight, the British casualties continued to mount. The militia eventually outnumbered the British force 2 to 1 and tirelessly pursued the British as they marched back to Boston. Outnumbered and exhausted, the British army fled back to Boston. After Concord, there was no going back. Full out war between the Colonies and Britain was now a certainty. What had started as a confused and hesitant path to battle, ended in a clear road to war.

Living History at Old Sturbridge Village


We spent the day at Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts. I love places like this that bring history to life. Being able to talk to people in historical character in everyday settings has a special way of making history real.


Caleb and Josh learning about cooking in the early 1800s


Tiny houses with beds in the living room

The village has some unique buildings. There is a carding mill that takes raw wool and turns it into textile that is ready to be run through a spinning wheel. Similar to a grist mill, the carding machine runs off of water power.


The carding mill still works even though it’s about 250 years old

There are hundreds of amazing artifacts from the era. Of special interest to us were the collection of rifles, muskets, and even a blunderbuss. We also came across a drum.


We found Gabriel Cooper’s drum, or at least one similar to what Gabriel might have had in my book, The Drum of Destiny

Old Sturbridge Village is a great place to visit. They also have a wonderful bookstore where you can find The Drum of Destiny. It was a pleasure signing books and spending time learning more about New England history. Never stop learning!


History Fun in Connecticut at Bethlehem Elementary


These kids were great.  So many good questions about the book.

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