In the second installment in our miniseries on the heroes of Valley Forge, we learn about Washington's surrogate sons and the impact they had on the American Revolution, and on Washington himself.
A dramatic and poignant story within the story of Valley Forge is about George Washington and his surrogate sons. He did not have children of his own, and turning 46 and married to Martha Washington, he would not. But at Valley Forge he was surrounded by three very young men totally devoted to him—one of them the Founding Father you never heard of.
Marquis de Lafayette
Let’s start with Marquis de Lafayette, all of 19 when he snuck out of his noble family in France, sailed to America, and presented himself to George Washington. George Washington was impressed by the young man, one reason being he could look him in the eye. Washington was 6'4''. The average male height at that time was 5'5'', 5'6''; Marquis de Lafayette was 6'3''. He was an idealistic, energetic young man, looking at Washington and saying “I want to join your army.” The two met when the 19-year-old, sporting a major general’s sash, brashly introduced himself to Washington in Philadelphia's City Tavern on the last evening of July 1777. Elegant and slim, with full lips, an upturned nose, and a prematurely receding hairline, Lafayette charmed Washington with his youthful brio for poetic pronouncements as well as his ability to segue from diffident self-abasement to fervent ambition in mid-sentence. Adding to this was the cache of his physical stature. Washington invited Lafayette to join him the following morning for a tour of the Continental defenses along the Delaware River.
The American general was certainly not blind to the diplomatic advantages of befriending a well-connected French nobleman. Yet Washington, whose own youth was rife with romantic paeans to justice and fair play, also saw something deeper in Lafayette’s earnest devotion to American liberty.
“The happiness of America is intimately connected to the happiness of all mankind,” the marquis had written to his wife upon making landfall in the United States. Even if Washington expressed such sentiments less floridly, they were very similar to his own. By the fall of 1777, the courageous and reckless 20-year-old was a major general in the Continental Army and Washington doted on the coltish French nobleman. In the Battle of Brandywine, Lafayette was wounded. When Washington heard this, he sent a surgeon to the front with the instructions “treat him like you would treat my own son.”
Washington was reluctant to let Lafayette go when he was ordered to invade Canada. In the middle of winter 1777-1778, the French nobleman was told to go to Albany where an army would await him to go to Canada. He got as far as Albany, saw there was no army, and came back. His position back at Valley Forge helped secure the alliance with France, which made a difference to the American cause. At the Battle of Monmouth Courthouse that June, the pivotal battle of the Revolutionary War, Lafayette, George Washington, and Greene slept on their cloaks with their men, ready to resume battle. Lafayette would remain Washington’s loyal general and friend for decades, and his son would be named George Washington Lafayette. He was one of the three surrogate sons with Washington at Valley Forge.
The next was Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton was only 22 years old. He was born in the Caribbean and made his way to America. Washington first noticed him leading an artillery unit during the Battle of Harlem Heights. Washington was so impressed that he turned to his aids and asked who the young man was, and asked to meet him. When he did, he was impressed by his eagerness, intelligence, and passion for the American Revolution.
He became Washington’s right-hand aide. Though aching to return to the battlefield, he was His Excellency’s scribe, able to finish Washington’s sentences and generating hundreds of documents in Washington’s name with the general’s full approval. Hamilton seemed to know what Washington was thinking in the same time Washington was thinking it. Every day during the Valley Forge encampment, Hamilton was there for Washington, being his supporter and confidante, even sometimes his crutch when Washington would come close to giving into despair. It was Hamilton who composed the 13,000-word manifesto in late January 1778 that would transform both the Continental Army and the Continental Congress when Washington delivered it.
As Hamilton and John Laurens stood off to the side of Moore Hall’s great room, taking in their imposing commander in chief’s oration, it surely must have dawned on them that they were witnessing history writ large. Washington—as always, the tallest man in the room—was declaring his own colonial army obsolete, ineffective, and doomed to failure. And though neither aide left personal reminiscences about the meeting, it is easy to imagine the excitable Laurens barely able to contain himself during the scene he was witnessing, and to envision the more cerebral Hamilton calmly fixing his gaze on one delegate after another as the powerful message he had composed struck home: America needs a new modern, effective army. Hamilton played a crucial role during Washington’s presidency, including creating the nation’s financial system, until killed at 49 by Aaron Burr. He may have been president himself one day—but we’ll never know that.