The man of the house read my mind. “Let’s find that battlefield,” he said.
I’d been itching to see it for days, since the park ranger’s offhand remark at Valley Forge. As we toured the historic encampment site where Gen. George Washington and his shivering, malnourished Continental Army spent the miserable winter of 1777-78, our guide mentioned, in passing, that Lafayette had been at Valley Forge, too, recovering after “being wounded at Chadds Ford.”
My eyes had widened, and I immediately felt a sense of mission. The fabled French hero of the American Revolution, the very marquis whose statue adorns our square and whose home, LaGrange, gave our town its name, had taken a bullet for my country just miles from where I stood. How could I not go to see the spot?
My intentions were sincere, but time was working against the excursion. There’s history behind every bush in Pennsylvania, and we had several “bucket list” destinations on our itinerary. I wasn’t tempted to pass up Amish country or Gettysburg for a look at the cornfield where Lafayette almost bought the farm.
Still, the pull was strong, and so was my feeling of anticipation when the man of the house finally turned the rental car toward Chadds Ford and the historic site memorializing the Sept. 11, 1777, conflict now known as the Battle of Brandywine, for the river that flows nearby.
First impressions were discouraging. After the majestic solemnity and ghostly splendor of Gettysburg, the Brandywine park looked less like a landmark and more like a slightly seedy rest area. Dubiously, we trooped into the tiny, no-frills visitor center, where a fresh-faced young man explained our options.
There was a small museum “if you want to take time for that,” he said, none too encouragingly, and a $5 audiotape tour, “if you want to spend that much.” There was also a crude map and Xeroxed driving instructions for 50 cents.
“What would Ben Franklin do?” I teased as the man of the house pulled out two quarters. We buzzed past the old stone house that had been Washington’s battle headquarters and set out through wildly scenic back roads, past picturesque old inns and country stores, field-stone farmhouses and ancient barns, in search of tour stop 21.
“Here, Lafayette was wounded in the left thigh,” the print-out said, “as he rallied troops.”
I gazed out over a gently rolling expanse that, in 1777, had been Farmer Bennett’s cornfield. It was hard to imagine that the dusty farm lane, dubbed Sandy Gap, had been “fiercely defended at bayonet point” with heavy casualties on both sides. Despite valiant fighting and Lafayette’s considerable gallantry, the Americans got the worst of it and Washington’s hopes of keeping Gen. William Howe and the British out of Philadelphia faded with the loss.
Back up the road a bit, we found Birmingham Friends Meeting, a still-active Quaker meeting house that dates to 1763. The Americans made a desperate last-ditch stand in its old walled cemetery, now called Birmingham-Lafayette Cemetery.
We pulled into the old burial ground, struggling to comprehend the irony of a bloody battle fought in such a graceful place dedicated to peace. I felt an odd but instant kinship to the spot. Somehow it spoke to me of home. It felt right to be there.
The guide had told us what to look for.
Near the cemetery entrance, a tall granite monument, blackened with age, soars toward the Pennsylvania sky. It commemorates Lafayette and Pulaski, the Polish count who also saw his first American battle action at Brandywine, plus two Pennsylvania heroes of the conflict.
We lingered, but not for long. Our mission was accomplished. The towering column had placed an exclamation point at the end of our trip.
As I turned to go, I thought of what an aide to Gen. John J. Pershing said during World War I, at ceremonies marking the arrival of leading elements of the U.S. Army in beleaguered Paris on July 4, 1917.
“Nous voila, Lafayette!” Col. Charles Stanton said.
“Lafayette, we are here!”
My sentiments exactly.