This Day in History — May 16

On May 16, 1825, the Marquis de Lafayette, hero of the American Revolution, visited Lexington as part of a national tour at the invitation of President James Monroe. General Lafayette was heralded as a hero of the American Revolution and was exalted by Lexingtonians who said “Lafayette helped to light our torch of liberty.” As a general in the war for Independence, Lafayette served in the Continental Army under George Washington. After the Battle of Brandywine, Washington cited him for “bravery and military ardour” and, recommended him for the command of a division in a letter to Congress.

Following two trips back to France, Lafayette returned to America in May 1781 and was sent to Virginia to defend against Benedict Arnold and to replace Baron von Steuben. Lafayette evaded Cornwallis’ attempts to capture him in Richmond. On 4 July, the British decamped at Williamsburg and prepared to cross the James River. Cornwallis sent only an advance guard across the river, with intentions to trap, should Lafayette attack. Lafayette ordered Wayne to strike on 6 July with roughly 800 soldiers. Wayne found himself vastly outnumbered against the full British force and, instead of retreating, led a bayonet charge. The charge bought time for the Americans, and Lafayette ordered the retreat. The British did not pursue. The result was a victory for Cornwallis, but the American army was bolstered from the display of courage by the men.

On 14 September 1781, Washington’s forces joined Lafayette’s, which had succeeded in containing the British until supplies and reinforcements arrived. On 28 September, with the French fleet blockading the British, the combined forces attacked in what became known as the Siege of Yorktown. Lafayette’s detail formed the right end of the American wing, the 400 men of which took redoubt 10, in hand-to-hand combat. After a failed British counter-attack, Cornwallis surrendered on 19 October 1781.

President James Monroe invited Lafayette to visit the United States from August 1824 to September 1825, in part to celebrate the nation’s 50th anniversary. The county of Fayette, of which Lexington is the county seat, was named for him. The program from Lexington’s sesquicentennial celebration (100 years after Lafayette’s visit) chronicled his journey through Kentucky.

“The procession came from the Versailles Road to High Street, from High to Broadway, and from Broadway east on Main to Mrs. Keene’s tavern. His first visit was made to Transylvania University which was then in Gratz Park, where he was greeted by the president of the college, Horace Holley, and given a ‘Literary Repast.’” Celebrations of Lafayette’s visit continued through the day and that evening, the Clay family hosted him at Ashland. After Breakfast the next morning, Lafayette sat for a portrait painted by Matthew Jouett, son of Jack Jouett, who was also a hero of the American Revolution. Having spent two days in Lexington, Lafayette mounted and was escorted out of town. “The memory of his visit still lingers and Fayette County is proud to bear his name.”

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