Saga of the Watch that Washington presented to Lafayette

Experience the Marquis de Lafayette sailing to America

Illustration of Inscription Side of Watch presented to Lafayette by Washington (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Illustration of Inscription Side of Watch presented to Lafayette by Washington (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

The siege of Yorktown, Virginia, reached a crescendo on Wednesday October 17th, 1781. The American and French Troops had been systematically closing in on the enemy, until, at last, the last two major British defensive earthwork fortifications fell; one to troops commanded by General Lafayette. At ten o’clock in the morning, with the fury of the cannonading continuing to rain down upon the trapped British, an officer appeared in the lines waving a white handkerchief. He carried a letter from General Lord Cornwallis to General Washington, asking for terms of capitulation.

Washington sent the officer back with a refusal and demanded total surrender. When an immediate reply was not forthcoming, the firing upon Yorktown resumed. At four o’clock in the afternoon, Cornwallis’ letter of surrender ended the fighting. The formal surrender occurred two days later, on Friday October 19th, 1781.

Before returning to France, Lafayette was presented a watch by Washington. It was inscribed, “G. Washington to Gilbert Mottiers de Lafayette; Lord Cornwallis Capitulation (Yorktown) Oct’ 17th 1781.” On December 23rd, 1781, Lafayette set sail for France and within ten years is a key figure in the French Revolution.

In 1824, President James Monroe invited Lafayette to visit the United States. Lafayette arrived in New York Harbor on August 15th, 1824. His son George Washington Lafayette and his secretary Auguste Levasseur accompanied Lafayette. The trip was originally planned as a four-month visit through the original thirteen states.

The celebrations honoring Lafayette were so enthusiastic, he extended his stay to over a year; visiting all twenty-four states that were in the union at that time. Lafayette sailed home, for the final time, on September 7th, 1825.

Nashville, Tennessee was one of the stops as Lafayette toured the United States; he arrived there on May 4th, 1825. While there, the watch given to him by George Washington was stolen. This illustration of the decorated side of the watch is from the Library of Congress. The illustrations of both sides of the watch are from a print off a wood engraving; used to print the January 23rd, 1875 issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.

Illustration of Decorated Side of Watch presented to Lafayette by Washington (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

Illustration of Decorated Side of Watch presented to Lafayette by Washington (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

The 1875 illustration was made from the recovered watch. The June 20th, 1874 issue of The New York Times provides the details:

The [United States] House [of Representatives] went into the business of collecting historical antiquities by adopting a resolution giving the Secretary of State $300 with which to purchase a watch, believed to be the one given to Lafayette by Gen. Washington. The watch, presented to Lafayette by Washington at the capitulation of Cornwallis, was subsequently stolen from Lafayette upon his visit to this country in 1825, at Nashville, Tenn. Although large rewards were offered, the watch was not heard of until four years ago, when a gentleman from Texas accidentally discovered it at a pawnbroker’s sale in Louisville.

However that is not the end of the saga. Congress adopted a further resolution in June of 1874; the outcome was reported in the December 10th, 1874 issue of The New York Times:

Paris, Dec. 9.—In conformity with the resolution adopted by the American Congress on the 22d of June last, Mr. Washburne, the United States Minister, to-day handed to M. Oscar de Lafayette, Deputy in the National Assembly from the Seine-et-Marne, and grandson of the Marquis de Lafayette, the watch Washington presented to the latter as a souvenir of the capitulation of Lord Cornwallis.

Links to related posts include:

Reading the HEADLINES; A Quick Index to ALL YorksPast Posts

About Stephen H. Smith

Stephen H. Smith is a design engineer who worked at York International Corp. for 33 years before retiring several years ago to research and write books full time; his second career. The initial emphasis was on family history when he won a national award during 2002 for his first book “Barshingers in America.” Positive feedback and that award were influential in his decision to retire early from engineering and start a retirement career.

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