Enfant à Courtier (1757-1772)
[Child to Courtier]
The Year of 1759
In North America, the French and Indian War (the Seven Years’ War in Europe) reaches a high point as Britain captures Fort Ticonderoga and conquers Canada with the fall of Quebec. Earlier, in January, 27 year old George Washington marries the 28 year old wealthy widow Martha Dandridge Custis, becoming one of the wealthiest land owners in Virginia. They will have no children, but will raise her two children and many children of near relations. This year Washington has resigned from his military command, upset at the poor showing of the militias, but more aggrieved that he has been turned down from his request to become an officer in the British Army. At this time, Gilbert du Motier de La Fayette is two years old.
Elsewhere, in Europe, near the Weser River, the Electorate of Hanover [modern western Germany]
“Captain, their guns are tearing into our men,” cried the artilleryman. “For the sake of God Almighty, we must open fire!”
“Brace yourself, man,” replied Captain Phillips. “Our boys will reform, and quick step soon enough. It is our cannon and cold steel which shall break the Frenchy’s back.” The rank of soldiers, marching in battle formation, far in front of their supporting battery, had twice beaten back French cavalry charging in on their flanks.
Captain William Phillips moved down the firing line of the 12th Royal Artillery Battery which he commanded, reviewing the field elevations on each gun piece for he alone had chosen their range to target. Through his spyglass he had noted one particular company of French soldiers in the distance, the Grenadiers de France themselves, he presumed, by their brightly colored uniforms of the King’s own. They were too prominent, too full of themselves, he considered. These French soldiers stood in ranks, seeming impervious to fallen shot, ignoring the man next to them suddenly a corpse on the bloody ground, standing brave to hold position on the command of their officer who waved his sword to invoke courage. Well, that will end, soon enough, thought the Captain as he peered into the fog of battle set upon the crowded plain before the village of Minden.
It should be an equal match, I hear tell, considered the Captain, removing his cockade hat to wipe the sweat from his forehead, to make sure that the red rose he had plucked from a German garden the night before, lay tight in the band. 50,000 of French and Saxony troops against we, the British with our allies, the Hanovorian army, all total fielding 40,000 men. 180 cannon of theirs to our 170 field ordinance. Nearly equal in numbers but we have the skill, and the desire for comeuppance after that poor showing at Hastenbeck two years back; indeed we can do better, affirmed Captain Phillips, hearing the drum-beat cadence in the distance. Today, my only concern is to give protection to the brigades of Waldegrave and Kingsley as they close distance to the enemy’s center.
A staff officer, courier from divisional headquarters, raced his horse to a stumbling lurch, its mouth frothing. Williams knew the young 19 year old, two years new to the army. He had only recently made his acquaintance on the march to this open plain with the French standards before them. The Captain’s first appraisal: If this boy officer survives the day he has the makings of a good soldier.
“The order to march upon the enemy has been given. Marshall Brunswick pays his respect and requests your support.”
“Thank you, Lieutenant Cornwallis. We shall do our duty.”
“Very good, Captain. Excuse me, sir.” And with a hasty salute, Lt. Cornwallis wheeled his mount and tore away down the left of the line which would end at the Waser River, making certain other waiting artillery batteries and troop regiments had spied and read the signal flags hoisted to hear…the drum roll.
The distant drums pounded out the affirmation command to his received orders the artillery officer had been expecting. Advance to the drums. Martial music of the regimental bands started the step cadence for the moving mass of soldiers.
“Fire,” shouted Captain Williams, and his subordinates echoed his shout—“Fire!”--. And the eighteen cannon of the field artillery battery of twelve pounders consisting of ball and canister belched with fatal fury.
The French Army lost the battle that day with the cost of 11,000 men dead and wounded.
The 2nd Duc de Broglie, Marshall of France, as leader of the Army’s Reserve, never received orders to bring up his troops which might have turned the tide of battle. But that was in the past, and in the early evening hours, with the smell of gunpowder still heavy upon the air, he rode his horse, accompanied by his brother, the Marquis de Ruffec, and followed by several of his staff officers to observe the retreat, to see if a rear-guard would be required to stave off the victors.
Amongst the dispirited and weary survivors he noted a stretcher carried by four soldiers, each wounded in some fashion, yet still mobile in slow trudging motion.
“Who have you there, men” questioned the Duc, his voice gentle to the sorry bier they carried. He looked down at the epaulet jacket of an officer spread across a stilled body, a jacket dark stained as if it were fresh dyed by tanners, still in crimson wetness. The form underneath looked odd, strangely angled.
“It is the Marquis of the Grenadiers, your Lordship,” said one mournful soldier, as he shifted for better hefting position. “Torn in two by a ball just before they attacked and broke our formation.”
“Mon Dieu,” cried Marshall de Broglie, “Tell me it is not so. I saw him this morning and he showed me a miniature of his wife and child, so proud he was. So alive then, now to be here laid so low.” The Duc de Broglie began to shed tears at the loss of this fellow brother-in-arms, not so familiar but a general acquaintance from the Court, such a young man, who had great promise of future high rank, and barely twenty five years old. The Marquis de Ruffec looked on with a wry expression wondering why his brother would display such emotion to a dead officer, one he personally knew was from the provinces and not of the Versailles Court. I guess, concluded the Marquis, A dead hero had better value for morale than an army in retreat.
“Your Eminence,” spoke up another soldier with his own dirt-stained tears, bowing his head as he spoke through his bandages. “There shall be better days, will there not? We all heard him shout, just before he was slain, “I shall make my son proud--Glory to France!”
Wiping away his tears, as much at the battle’s loss as for one soldier’s unkindly death, the Duc de Broglie was ready to move on to give new commands and set dispositions of troops towards an uncertain morrow. As a parting thought, he said to those within earshot, “Indeed it is a sad day for us all, but yes, like our beloved country, the Marquis’s son shall grow to know the rekindled glory of France!”
Nine years later, 1767
Events of the year: Where the Colonies are pleased the Stamp Act has been repealed the year before they will again become angered upon learning the British Parliament has passed the Townsend Act placing duties on American imports. Upon hearing the news, George Washington, a plantation owner and member of the Virginia House of Burgess, states he will not buy any British taxed goods [“paper only excepted”]. Benjamin Franklin, agent to the Pennsylvania Colony, is in France where, recognized for his experiments in electricity, he is presented at court to King Louis XV and Queen Marie.
The Seeding of Purpose
True war on a battlefield must be extremely tiring. He considered this truism quite seriously as his sword flailed against his enemies and time and time again his blows smote down a threatening soldier, then subjugated a platoon, no, an entire battalion fell to mortal wounds. Around and around he sallied, lunging with hacking swipes, side stepping in riposte parries and in blistering demonstration he held the line, yelling to his comrades to mount the parapet and stand beside him to seize the castle.
Finally, in panted victory, he lowered his wooden sword and observed that such pounding against the aged oak had made but a few notches in the gnarled bark.
He, alone, with no allied army at his back, no evil horde before him, sat exhausted, leaning against his sole opponent, the stalwart tree. He wiped perspiration from his eyes with a ruffled shirt sleeve. Only now, his eyes dilated by his body’s watered salt did he blink for clarity. He saw the prospect before him, the sharpness of the Auvergne country morning -- fresh flowered smells, the honking of farm geese. From where he rested on the raised prospect of the Châteaux Chavaniac, his home, he watched his grandmother’s tenants, to be his tenants in the future, tilling the rich soil. Heavy in labor their hoes dug out weeds among new growth rows of corn stalks. Drifting up to him he heard their rasping, grunted sing-song cadence with each blow at Mother Earth:
Marlbrook the Prince of Commanders [their hoe strikes the ground]
Is gone to war in Flanders, [strike, dig]
His fame is like Alexander’s, [strike, dig]
But when will he ever come home? [strike, dig]
Mironton, mironton, mirontaine. [strike, dig, dig]
Milady in her watch-tower
Spends many a pensive hour,
Not knowing why or how her
Dear lord from England stays.
Mironton, mironton, mirontaine.
Away from the workers in their field, below the chateau was the small pond half covered with a mantle of green coated algae where the boy swam on hot summer days. Above the still water a rainbow of the late morning rose and shimmered with the mist. This moment struck him.
That could be an omen, he considered, where such a symbol might lead me to accomplish great things. He recalled his lessons: Like Constantine and his vision at the Milivani Bridge--In hoc signo vinces [‘with this sign you will conquer’]. He knew his Latin phrases well, so said his tutor, Abbé Fayon.
There the rainbow was, then gone, --poof—destroyed when behind a silver fluffed cloud a ray of sunlight struck and robbed the pond of its floral spectrum. Perhaps not the best allusion and symbol to his fate, he now concluded, but the mystery of nature had already left its imprint upon a young mind’s imagination. He was a boy of the outdoors.
Craack! A breaking branch within the wooded grove caused the boy to jump reflexively, quick fear into a readiness to use his sword as a true weapon, then relaxed when he spied the old village woodcutter, his back crippled heavy, bent with a tied load of forest kindling, making his daily delivery to the chateau’s kitchen cooking hearth.
Looking up from under his burden, the ancient man said with a phlegmatic rattle. “Have you killed more of the English, today, my lord?”
“Do not jest with me, sir,” said the boy, his voice at first high pitched moved to seek a deep bass, masking his childish trill. “This is my daily practice if I am to be a good solider…” he paused, and reaffirmed his devotion, “as good as my father.”
“My comment means no offense, your grace. It is a noble calling to bear arms for the king. I too, many years back, served well with pike and in good service it was, in the army of our beloved King Louis. Perhaps you noticed my limp. At Fontenoy, in the heat of battle, a bayonet thrust in the back of this leg ended my marching days.” The old man held silence with a distant memory, and the boy, looked upon him admiringly as if this peasant-soldier was once Achilles of ancient. He sought his own thoughts to wonder what this savage ‘heat of battle’ must be like, and indeed if men must sweat torrents as they fought and died. A fear hit him. Perhaps such soldiers might expire without glory, more from the sun’s blaze than the blade thrust or musket ball. I cannot die bare of fame.
The woodcutter shifted his load with a groan, “So much blood a triumph on that day cost us all. But not to be for you, young lord, if you to be a general or a warrior duke. I hear great things about your adventures from the children in the village. The children, I mean, sire, those troops that you command. It is said the master of the Château Chavaniac knows, by God’s curse, the English are his sworn enemies.”
“Indeed, it is so. My father, a colonel in the Grenadiers, was slain by the English artillery at Minden. It is my duty to uphold his honor.” He threw his frail sword of cut wood to the ground in disgust, as if realizing only hard metal could accomplish such blooded obligation. “I shall revenge him on the field of battle.” That sentiment expressed with true feeling for it was one of the few emotions he held in his early life with a certainty of purpose, tradition drilled into him by his tutor and by his family.
A light smile broke through the woodcutter’s scarred, wrinkled face. “A worthy enemy are those heretics, and indeed a quest I am sure you will no doubt succeed to. But before I join you, and, as a loyal subject to you and your grandmother, I would most surely march to your command, I first must take my faggots to your house so that there may be light for your evening prayers and boiling heat to your meals. Adieu, mon general.”
And what he said was true of the boy’s playmates. He did command a small squad of younger children, who took his orders, seeing him as the leader of his imaginary adventures. They knew he must be important because of the large fortress manor he came from, understood he was the grandson of the landlord of all the property and tenants for miles around. These playmates were the very young of the scattered village hovels situated around the central estate house, Chavaniac, where those others of his age, those children six to ten years old, and he being the latter at ten years, were daily, except the Sabbath, hard at work in the fields or apprenticed out in crafts of the nearby village. In such games of play, Gilbert du Motier, was the accepted leader over the smaller boys, if not for rank then for exuberance, and in variety of their amusements, he became the Christian knight, el Cid, fighting the Moors, or Vercinetorix spilling the imaginary blood of Caesar’s legions within the forests of Gaul. This neighborhood within the province of Auvergne, 400 kilometers from Paris, bore such embattled histories and Gilbert had been raised in their story-telling.
The young boy found himself again alone, as he had been most of his life. The woodcutter had disappeared into a tangled path of wild roses climbing towards the back of the châteaux, the entry for all servants and vendors.
Gilbert picked up his sword and with an en garde salute to the tree, his implacable and immovable foe, he began a new battle, refreshed with purpose. I shall revenge my father, he swore, yet not so sure how that was to be accomplished in these times of peace.