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History's Headlines: Bethlehem played host to Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette in 1777

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Jul 18 2013 07:09:06 PM CDT
Updated On: Jul 22 2013 05:45:02 PM CDT

A handsome soldier on the mend. A young nursemaid at his side. Sounds like the makings of a romance novel.

BETHLEHEM, Pa. -

In 1824 there was only one subject that Americans seemed to care about: the return visit of the Marquis de Lafayette to the United States for the first time since the American Revolution. And even though “The Hero Of Two Worlds,” as he was known, had no plans to come to the Lehigh Valley, Allentown, Bethlehem and Easton were going to celebrate along with the rest of the country.

As Lafayette, a French nobleman, had once been in Bethlehem, the still solidly Moravian community regarded him as a fellow citizen. The occupants of the Widows House were particularly glad that their place had been chosen for the local celebration. But two of its members who should have been the most excited, Barbara Beckel and her daughter Liesel, were standing quietly apart from the group.

Finally the exasperated widow Beckel had enough. “When the Marquis lay wounded in our house,” she said firmly, “there was no such fuss over him.” Her daughter chose to remain silent.

A lot has changed in Bethlehem since 1824. Today it is thronged with tourists patronizing fine restaurants and stylish shops. And across the Lehigh River a gambling casino attracts its share of “high rollers.”

But there was a different sort of visitor in 1777: soldiers from around the world drawn by the ideals of the American Revolution. Poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow even wrote a highly romantic poem, “Hymn of the Moravian Nuns at Bethlehem,” dedicated to one of them- Poland’ s Casmir Pulaski. But the most famous of these was the dashing young noble Lafayette.

The arrival on September 21, 1777 in Bethlehem of the handsome 19-year-old was not a joyful one. “The young Marquis de Lafayette with a suite of French officers” wrote the official keeper of the Moravian Dairy (the town’s record of events), “having been disabled by a wound received at the battle of the Brandywine has come here for medical treatment.”

Washington had given directions that Lafayette was to be treated “as if he were my son.” And as the Sun Inn and just about every other floor space in Bethlehem was being used to treat wounded soldiers, there was almost no place but a private dwelling that was thought suitable.

Finally the family of George Frederick Beckel agreed to take Lafayette into their home. Beckel was the superintendent of Bethlehem’s farms. This was a highly important post as at that time Bethlehem’s farms provided food for the town’s inhabitants. The chief task of caring for Lafayette would be borne by the women of the family, his wife Barbara and daughter Liesel.

For over 200 years there has been a question about the relationship between Liesel Beckel and Lafayette. Here the subject leaves the solid ground of history and, like that of Abe Lincoln and Ann Rutledge, enters the realm of romance.

Tales of Romeo and Juliet type meetings, of a passionate love that could never be, have been around for a long time. But apparently there was never as much as a line on a piece of paper, to either confirm or deny the gossip of the “good wives” of the town. Even the big gabled house on whose second floor Lafayette lived and where Liesel was said to have attended him was torn down in 1872, although an historical marker was erected by the Pennsylvania Historical Museum Commission in 1987 at the site- 534 Main St.

What is known is that throughout his stay Lafayette spent a lot of time in that second floor room writing letters, many of them to his wife. About his wound he noted “messieurs the English paid me the compliment of wounding me slightly in the leg.” He added that the doctors “are astonished at the rapidity with which it heals …pretend it is the rarest thing in the world. For my part I think it most disagreeable, painful wearisome; but tastes often differ.”

To a young man who was used to the hustle and bustle of Paris and Versailles, his current location offered a different and not totally unpleasant change. “At present I am in the solitude of Bethlehem,” he noted. “This establishment is a very interesting one; the fraternity lead a very agreeable and tranquil life; but we will talk over all this when I return.” It is interesting to imagine Lafayette sitting with his wife before a roaring fire on a winter evening in France discussing the way of life of the Moravians.

When he was not writing personal letters the young soldier was full of military ideas, which he was not at all shy about sharing with the French authorities.

France was missing an opportunity if it did not at once launch a sneak attack on the British West Indies, he wrote the governor of the French West Indies. Then he wrote to a French governor in Africa that now would be the perfect moment to catch England off guard and make a grab for India.

The fact that England and France were still technically at peace in 1777 didn’t slow the passionate Frenchman down any. One noble recipient of these letters suggested that Lafayette would gladly sell all the furniture in Versailles to aid “his American cause.”

One 19th century Moravian source states that when he was not writing letters Lafayette spent his time reading accounts of the Moravian missionaries in Greenland. But perhaps the charms of the quiet little village were wearing thin by October 18th 1777 when, after a brief tour of the Sisters House, he mounted his horse and rode out of Bethlehem forever.

In 1831 Liesel Beckel died and was buried in a simple ceremony in Bethlehem taking whatever memories she may have had of Lafayette with her. She never married. In 1834 Lafayette, surviving two French Revolutions and Napoleon, was buried in Paris following a huge funeral. A ton of earth from the field of the battle of Bunker Hill was said to have been buried with him.