Lafayette, We Are Here, Again

Nearly 250 years old, a Mensan's link in the chain that binds the U.S. and France

World War I: The fight of the U.S. Marines in Belleau Wood. From the painting by the French artist Georges Scott.
At the World War I Battle of Belleau Wood in June 1918, U.S. forces led by Gen. John Pershing proved to their French and British Counterparts that American soldiers could fight. Georges Scott

Last summer, at a small cemetery in France, I was privileged to complete an arc of military history that began in 1776 and stretches from Frederick, Md., all the way to Paris.

It began with my sixth great grandfather, Capt. Michael McGuire, once a deputy sheriff of Frederick County. There, during the American Revolution, he formed and outfitted a militia company to support the war effort. Almost 250 years later, in August, our story came full circle with my visit to a grave in the French capital containing soil from Bunker Hill.

The great relationship between the U.S. and France spanning this period, while forged by great men, has been bolstered by the extraordinary efforts of more ordinary ones.

A painting of Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette
Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette Wikimedia Commons

Unquestionably, Gen. George Washington and Gen. Marquis de Lafayette were principal figures of the American Revolution. Their collaboration not only culminated in the decisive victory at Yorktown in 1781, but it marked the start of an alliance between the United States and France that persevered through two world wars. It persisted through 1973-74, when I served in Marseille as part of my duties as a NATO liaison officer from the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment. It exists to the present day, as our nations have supported each other in a wide range of world affairs.

The careers and exploits of militiamen who fought during the Revolution are harder to chronicle than those of regular Continental Army troops and high-ranking commissioned officers. Instead of serving long terms of active duty, militiamen enlisted for shorter periods of time. This enabled them to periodically return to their home states to prevent the seizure and occupation of their land and allow them time to work on their farms and care for their families.

Fortunately, state records and pension applications by subordinates can often fill in the blanks, indicating the service periods of noncommissioned militia officers, who often did not have federal military records. In the case of my ancestor, Capt. McGuire, pension requests by John Baum and George Lingenfelder placed him during the war with Washington in Morristown, N.J., and at the Battles of Brandywine and Germantown. Furthermore, the pension records of Richard Nagle confirmed Frederick militia were at Yorktown. Local tradition holds Capt. McGuire personally captured a British officer during the Battle of Yorktown. Although no official records documented the event, a captured sword does lend credence to the account.

In 1788, after the Revolutionary War, Capt. McGuire mounted an expedition into Pennsylvania’s Allegheny Highlands to an area now known as Cambria County. Under the names of three of his sons and several others, he had acquired 4,000 acres. It was a location McGuire knew well. Prior to the war he had frequented the area on hunting trips, despite a colonial mandate prohibiting the activity. The small town of Chest Springs was the site of his original hunting camp. Naturally, the place he established was named McGuire’s Settlement. It later became known as Loretto. In an attempt to populate his new settlement, he sold land under highly agreeable terms to relatives and war veterans.

McGuire was a man of strong religious conviction. He donated 200 acres to the Catholic Church. (A Catholic school, basilica, and cemetery occupy the space to this day.) One of his daughters joined the Sisters of Saint Joseph. McGuire became a patron and the Sisters’ order dedicated a room of its motherhouse in Baden, Pa., to him. For approximately 200 years, the sword captured by Capt. McGuire and used by his son, Capt. Richard McGuire, a veteran of the War of 1812, was displayed there. As a child I often visited the facility to see my aunt, Frances Brown (Sister Columban), a member of the Sisters of Saint Joseph.

The elder McGuire’s grave was placed in a prominent position at the Saint Michael the Archangel Cemetery, in present-day Loretto. He is buried there along with two of his sons and their wives. One of them is his oldest son, Luke McGuire, my fifth great grandfather. A nearby park commemorates Capt. Michael McGuire’s role during the Revolution and the early settlement of Cambria County. Ebensburg, the county seat, has a park honoring its veterans of U.S. wars. For the Revolutionary War there are only two names, Capt. Michael McGuire and his son Capt. Richard McGuire.

In 1917, when the American Expeditionary Force arrived in Europe under the command of Gen. John J. Pershing, French troops greeted them with great relief. In a formal ceremony at Lafayette’s gravesite, Lt. Col. Charles Stanton commemorated French assistance to our beleaguered colonies during the Revolutionary War. He assured the French the American Forces were there to assist their cause in the Great War. In recognition of Lafayette’s role in the American Revolution, Lt. Col. Stanton notably ended his speech by stating, “Lafayette, we are here.”

Within the American Expeditionary Force, the 4th Brigade consisted of the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments, as well as the 6th Machine Gun Battalion. In June 1918 during action near Château-Thierry at Belleau Wood, the Marines faced entrenched German soldiers armed with machine guns and artillery support. Across open wheat fields the Marines attacked with such ferocity and bravery the Germans were alleged to have referred to them as “teufel hunden” — devil dogs.

The veracity of this labeling has been hotly debated; however, official records show the Germans clearly respected the Marines’ tenacity and fighting ability. Their assessment was shared by Gen. Pershing, who said, “The deadliest weapon in the world is a United States Marine and his rifle.” The term devil dog became a nickname for a Marine, a moniker earned from brave exploits such as those by 1st Sgt. Daniel Daly, a two-time recipient of the Medal of Honor, who during the aforementioned Battle of Belleau Wood famously shouted, “Come on you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?”

The 5th and 6th Marine Regiments were ultimately awarded the French Fourragère, an honor coming in the form of a green braided cord that wraps around the left shoulder of a uniform. The fourragère was often officially given and worn as a unit award, but the 5th and 6th Marines were also honored for individual valiancy. On three occasions, soldiers from those regiments were awarded the distinguished French Croix de Guerre.

A Marine appends a French Fourragère to a fellow Marine's uniform.
The French Fourragère is part of the history of the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments dating back to World War I and has been worn as part of the uniform ever since. Cpl.James Gulliber; Wikimedia Commons

Members of the 5th and 6th Regiments are even today entitled to wear the fourragère, serving as a reminder of the valor of the men who preceded them in the regiment. Because this was a regimental award, service members could wear the decoration only for as long as they were in those units.

In January 1972, I began my 26 years of active and reserve service in the Marine Corps. After completing nine months’ training in Officer Candidate School and The Basic School at Marine Corps Base Quantico (Va.), I was ordered to Camp Lejeune in North Carolina. There I joined India Company, 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment (3/6). During the next two years while assigned to 3/6, I was authorized to wear the French fourragère. This included service in Marseille, France, as a NATO liaison officer. Later, when assigned to other units, I was no longer authorized to wear the award, but I was permitted to keep it.

Aug. 2 was sunny with welcome gusts of cooling wind. Near the outskirts of Paris, my wife, Melodee, and I visited the grave of Lafayette at Picpus Cemetery. Only descendants of those buried in individual graves can be buried there now. There was a funeral that day, and the cemetery’s caretaker initially denied us entry. However, our professional guide, Milan, who was a nearby resident and frequent visitor, intervened on our behalf. After making a small donation, we were granted entry.

Picpus Cemetery remains the largest private graveyard in Paris. It has never garnered nearly as much attention as the more illustrious, tourist-heavy Père Lachaise Cemetery, where Doors frontman Jim Morrison is buried. The more understated Picpus Cemetery otherwise distinguishes itself in two interrelated ways. It contains the grave of Lafayette. It also houses two mass graves containing 1,306 bodies of French citizens who were guillotined during the summer of 1794. Among those murdered in the Great Terror were the sister, mother, and grandmother of Lafayette’s wife, Adrienne de Noailles. There is little doubt why Lafayette, who died in 1834 at 76, was buried at Picpus.

Behind a small chapel, there is a long gravel walkway flanked on both sides by mature trees providing an impressive canopy. To one side there is a small cemetery enclosed by an old wall. At the rear, tucked into the farthest corner of the cemetery, is the grave of Lafayette and his wife. An American flag dominates the site. This is not a function of the flag’s size but rather the contrast between its vivid red, white, and blue colors and the muted gray of the stone walls.

Sheehan laying his French Fourragère on Lafayette's grave.
Laying my French Fourragère on Lafayette’s grave. Melodee Sheehan

I placed my fourragère upon the General’s grave with considerable satisfaction. To me it felt like I was completing a great circle of military service and international solidarity. This small act exemplified the reoccurring nature of the mutual support between two great nations. It was emblematic of how interrelated the United States and France truly are.

I wonder what the current world order would be without the collaboration between Washington and Lafayette during the Revolutionary War. What would have happened to France if the Germans had prevailed during the World Wars?

Not unlike other Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution, I have enjoyed the added pleasure of studying American history within the context of my personal lineage. I have also sensed the great pride of my 3/6 regimental predecessors when they were able to repay France’s essential part in the climactic battle of Yorktown with heroic deeds at Belleau Wood in 1918.

In placing the French Fourragère on Lafayette’s grave I completed a chain of events started by a patriotic militiaman who spilled blood with Lafayette at the Battle of Brandywine. He stood with Washington at Yorktown. The arc of history continued with the bravery of the 6th Marines, within which a fortunate group of us became the spiritual heirs of those counterparts who came before us. In these turbulent times when many challenges threaten the stability and security of our respective nations, I said what we Americans will always say, “Lafayette, we are here, again!”

Donald C. Sheehan headshotDon is happily retired from twin careers in the FBI and the Marine Corps Reserve. The roots of his patriotic commitment to law enforcement and military service can be found in the American Revolution. In addition to frequent worldwide travels with his wife, Melodee, Don enjoys flying his light-sport aircraft and restoring the 1974 British Triumph TR-6 he has owned and driven for 45 years.
Metropolitan Washington Mensa | Life Member, Joined 1983