His name was Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier. He was born in 1757 into a wealthy family of France. He was an orphan by the age of two. Following the death of his father, Marie inherited a large estate. Like his father, he was a soldier. He trained at a military academy and became a captain in the French army. When the teenager heard that the American colonies had declared their independence from England, he acquired a boat and sailed to South Carolina, where he arrived in 1777. In four short but eventful years, the young man became the greatest foreign-born American soldier in history. Marie is more commonly known as the Marquis de Lafayette. Dozens of American cities and counties are named in his honor. The city of LaGrange is named in honor of his home in France. One hundred and seventy five years ago, the boy hero, but then an elderly man, toured the United States on a reunion tour. His travels throughout the country brought him to Milledgeville, the state capital of Georgia, where he was greeted by thousands, including several Laurens Countians.
Lafayette returned to America in 1824, forty years after the end of the American Revolution. Upon the news of his arrival, Georgia governor George M. Troup of Laurens County invited the French hero to visit Georgia on his tour. Lafayette responded from the national capital in January of 1825 stating that he would like to visit Georgia. However, he would have to cover four thousand miles between February and June and that his time in Georgia might be limited. In anticipation of his arrival, Gov. Troup invited any surviving soldier of the Continental armies and militia to assemble in convenient places along the General's route. On March 19th, Lafayette arrived at Yamacraw Bluff in Savannah, the same place where General James Oglethorpe first landed in 1733. Lafayette and his escorts were greeted by Governor Troup, who praised Lafayette in the presence of four thousand greeters by saying, "O, sir, what a consolation for a man, who has passed through such seas of trouble, that the millions of bayonets which guard the blessings we enjoy, stand between you and them."
After a large celebration in Savannah, Lafayette traveled to Augusta, another of Georgia's colonial capitals. From Augusta, the General and his party followed the old road to Milledgeville through Warrenton and Sparta. Gov. Troup meticulously planned LaFayette's itinerary for his eleven-day stay in Georgia. Troup appointed thirteen gentlemen, including John Clark, former governor of Georgia, and Everard Hamilton, brother of Mrs. David Blackshear of Dublin, as managers of the glorious event. Gen. LaFayette was escorted from Sparta by General Abecrombie and the Hancock Cavalry. Just before the column reached the Oconee River on Sunday morning, the 27th of March, they were met by the Baldwin Cavalry. When the procession reached the east bank of the Oconee, a cannon salute was fired from the statehouse grounds. Another round of cannon fire was sent skyward when LaFayette and his entourage reached the west bank of the river. The bells at the Market House and the State House were ringing. Crowds were cheering.
LaFayette dismounted and boarded a barouche, drawn by four handsome bay horses. Lafayette led the procession up Hancock Street to Wayne Street and and on to Wayne Street to Greene Street and the State House. Following LaFayette were Gov. Troup, soldiers of the Continental army, and various government officials. Along the route, which was lined with thousands of people. There were little girls laying flowers along the path and welcoming the beloved General. After a brief rest, the Marquis came out to greet his fellow soldiers in the war for American independence. Gov. Troup accompanied LaFayette to a service at the Methodist Church, which was filled with worshipers who stood in absolute reverence until the General was seated. After returning to his quarters, the General spent five pleasant, but obviously arduous, hours greeting well wishers until ten o'clock in the evening. Another volley of cannon fire was set off at sunset and a fireworks show lit up the early Spring sky.
As the second day of LaFayette's stay in Milledgeville dawned, the men of the Wilkinson Volunteers, Twiggs Volunteers, Milledgeville Volunteers, Clinton Blues, Baldwin Cavalry, and the Hancock Cavalry fired artillery and musketry salutes. They formed a line for a ten o'clock inspection by the General. After an address to the members of the Masonic Lodge, LaFayette was escorted to the State House for a reception. Accolade after accolade was heaped upon the French hero, who humbly responded, thanking the citizens for their praise and regretting that he had no longer to stay in the city. By mid-afternoon, LaFayette finally had time to eat dinner. Gov. Troup and his staff and committees sat down with the General and discussed the arrangements for the remainder of the day. A hot air balloon was sent up during the meal. The feast was spread over seven hundred feet of tables, which were covered with barbecue, roast beef, breads, and other fine foods. A band was playing. General LaFayette was seated at the upper end of the center table, flanked by Gov. Troup on one side and Col. Seaborn Jones on the other. Jones was one of Troup's chief aides and a former Laurens County landowner. Many of Georgia's political leaders were in attendance, including former governor John Clark, Troup's chief political nemesis. Col. Jones called for a toast to liberty. Cheers rang out. The band struck up, "Hail to the Chief." Gov. Troup rose and saluted the General by toasting, " A union of all hearts to honor the 'Nation's Guest' - a union of all heads for our country's good." Once again cheers erupted. Cannons fired. The band played a national march. Gov. Clark followed with a toast to Count Casimir Pulaski, the foreign born defender of Savannah. LaFayette, who rose in gratitude for the fine hospitality he have been given, toasted the Georgia veterans of the Revolution. The grand event was not without unfortunate incidents. A gang of pick pockets, one of whom relieved Maj. James Smith of Clinton of four thousand dollars, moved throughout the crowd. The thieves were caught within a few weeks and sentenced to four years in the penitentiary. One of the cannoneers, not knowing that his shirt sleeve was burning, reached into a box of cartridges and caused an explosion which cost him his life and serious injuries to two others.
The culmination of LaFayette's visit was the Grand Ball at the State House. The rooms were beautifully decorated by the ladies of Milledgeville. Nearly six hundred invited guests danced in two rooms until ten in the evening. Supper was served - the women eating first, followed by the gentlemen. LaFayette and his escort headed out the next morning for Macon, where a similar reception followed. The General's stay in Georgia ended with a visit to Fort Mitchell.
No single military hero has ever been given such a welcome in the history of our state. The gratitude for LaFayette's services to our infant country and the French king's support of the Colonial armies lasted well into the next century, when it became a common expression for our country's soldiers to proclaim upon their arrival in France, "LaFayette, we are here!"