This Month in North Carolina History
Early 19th-century North Carolina was not a place that international celebrities were likely to visit. Lacking large and cosmopolitan cities and with a primarily agricultural economy, North Carolina was well on its way to earning the nickname, “the Rip Van Winkle state.” So it was no small thing when North Carolinians learned, in November 1824, about the impending visit of an aging Frenchman with the impressive name of Marie Joseph Paul Yves Roche Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette.
Lafayette’s story would have been known to most Americans in 1824. Lafayette was a young officer in the French Royal Army when he first learned of the American Revolution in 1775. He was so inspired by the rebellion of the colonists against what he saw as the tyrannical oppression of the British that he left France to join the Continental Army. Lafayette began as a volunteer on George Washington’s staff and soon developed a close friendship with the American General. With Washington’s help and counsel, Lafayette rose to the rank of Major-General, leading Continental forces in the successful battle at Yorktown in 1781.
For the remainder of his life, Lafayette continued to fight and argue for the principles of freedom and liberty that were behind the American Revolution. When Lafayette accepted President James Monroe’s invitation to return to the United States for the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the American Revolution, he was the oldest living Revolutionary War Major-General.
After spending time in New England and Washington, D.C., Lafayette began his long tour through the states, bringing him south through Virginia and eventually to North Carolina. He stopped in Halifax, where the North Carolina delegation that endorsed a declaration of independence from England met in 1776, and then went to Raleigh, where he was received by Governor Hutchins Gordon Burton and attended several dinners and balls in his honor. But by far the largest reception for Lafayette awaited him in Fayetteville.
At the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783, the citizens of Campbellton, in Cumberland County, decided to show their appreciation to General Lafayette by changing the name of their town to Fayetteville. It was the first of many American towns to do so. There are now towns or cities named Fayetteville in eight states, ten Lafayettes, and still others named LaGrange in honor of Lafayette’s home in France (including LaGrange, North Carolina, in Lenoir County). The weather was horrible when Lafayette and his entourage neared Fayetteville in early March 1825, but the rain did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of the crowds. Lafayette’s secretary remembered the scene:
“On the 4th of March, we reached the pleasant little town of Fayetteville, situated on the western shore of Cape Fear river. The weather was excessively bad; the rain fell in torrents, yet the road for several miles before we reached the place was crowded with men and boys on horseback, and militia on foot; the streets of the town were filled with a throng of ladies, in full dress, hastening across the little streams of water, to approach the General’s carriage, and so much occupied with the pleasure of seeing him that they appeared almost insensible of the deluge which threatened almost to swallow them up. This enthusiasm may be more readily imagined, when it is recollected that it was expressed by the inhabitants of a town founded, about forty years ago, to perpetuate the remembrance of the services rendered by him whom they honored on that day.”
Although he stayed in Fayetteville for only about 24 hours, Lafayette was honored by several banquets and receptions, reviewed countless militia and state troops, and had time to inspect the brand new Lafayette Hotel, hurried to completion in time for his visit. As he prepared to depart for South Carolina, Lafayette offered a toast to the town: “Fayetteville. – May it receive all the encouragements and attain all the prosperity which are anticipated by the fond and grateful wishes of its affectionate and respectful namesake.”
Stanley J. Idzerda, “Marquis de Lafayette.” In American National Biography, edited by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. Volume 13. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Marian Klamkin, The Return of Lafayette, 1824-1825. New York: Scribner’s, 1975.
Auguste Levasseur, Lafayette in America in 1824 and 1825; or, Journal of Travels, in the United States. New York: White, Gallaher & White, 1829, vol. 2, p. 44. Levasseur was Lafayette’s secretary during his American trip.
Marshall DeLancey Haywood, “The Visit of General Lafayette to North Carolina in 1825.” The American Historical Register, May 1897.
John MacRae, “This Plate of the Town of Fayetteville North Carolina so called in honor of that distinguished Patriot and Philanthropist Genl. La Fayette is respectfully dedicated to him by the Publisher.” Fayetteville, N.C.: . Detail. North Carolina Collection.