Nearly 200 years ago, French military officer and friend of the American Revolution Marquis de Lafayette spent three days in Milledgeville as part of his tour of the United States of America.
Now, with the bicentennial anniversary of Lafayette’s famous trek through the states approaching in 2024, France has shown interest in creating a 24-state journey that would allow tourists and locals alike to follow in the historical figure’s footsteps by highlighting his stops along the way with special signage. The Lafayette Trail, as it’s being called, would include Milledgeville, the city that served as Georgia’s capital at the time of Lafayette’s visit.
France native Julien Icher is the manager and researcher for The Lafayette Trail, and he spent last week in Georgia’s Old Capital looking into historical leads and checking them against local records. Icher sat down with The Union-Recorder to discuss his work and explain why Lafayette’s tour of the states is so historically significant.
“I try to raise awareness across so many American communities about what Lafayette did and how important his visit in 1824 is,” Icher said. “I’m always amazed at the imprint he left in these communities, and Milledgeville is no exception.”
Icher’s involvement with the project started when he first came to America in 2015 as he was conducting a research project for his master’s degree at The College of William & Mary in Virginia. He later joined The American Friends of Lafayette, a historical society dedicated to Lafayette’s memory formed in Pennsylvania, and later met with the French consul for the states of New England at the organization’s annual meeting. Icher sold the consul on the idea for The Lafayette Trail, and that set the project in motion. Through an endorsement of French President Emmanuel Macron, The Lafayette Trail has been expanded from just the New England states to include all 24 visited by Lafayette. Interspersed between the traveling and researching, Icher’s stops also include visits with local elected representatives where he works on persuading them to consider adding signage to mark the trail.
“When I come to a new town like Milledgeville, what I want to do is cross-reference the data I already have by connecting with the local historical society, library, or museum and make connections with the legislature so we can move forward,” said Icher.
Icher told The Union-Recorder he was scheduled to meet with elected officials in Atlanta this week.
Marquis de Lafayette first came to America in June 1777 to aid the states in their war for independence from Great Britain, and did so against the French monarchy’s orders. Lafayette’s status as a Mason helped give him an in with many American higher-ups, including then Gen. George Washington, who Lafayette would later name his son after. The French general combined his forces with Washington’s in 1781 to lay siege to Yorktown, which would eventually lead to British General Lord Cornwallis’ surrender.
Lafayette returned to France later in 1781, and his celebrity grew. In 1824 with the country’s 50th anniversary approaching, President James Monroe and U.S. Congress extended Lafayette an invitation to come back to the States and celebrate the milestone. The Frenchman landed in New York in August 1824 and was welcomed by a massive celebration. This would become a recurring theme as he made his way to Boston and Philadelphia, and the South was no different. He arrived in Savannah March 19, 1825, before sailing to Augusta where he then split his time between horseback and riding in a carriage. Lafayette and his entourage proceeded onward to Warrenton and then Sparta before arriving in Milledgeville for his three-day stay on March 27.
Auguste Levasseur, one of Lafayette’s aides, kept a very detailed accounting of the party’s famous tour of America. That journal has since been translated by author Alan R. Hoffman to create the work “Lafayette in America in 1824 and 1825,” where Milledgeville and the state at large are discussed prominently. He attended a ball at the state house where although there was music, no one was dancing according to Levasseur’s account. One passage reads: “…but at this ball there was neither possibility nor wish for any one to dance; each, anxious to entertain or hear the nation’s guest, kept near him, and seized with avidity the occasion to testify gratitude and attachment.” A carved boulder serves as a historical landmark for the ball. It sits on Greene Street right next to the GMC North Gate and was erected by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1925.
Lafayette and his party departed Milledgeville the day after the ball as they were to head west through Macon on their way to Alabama.
During his stay locally Icher was based out of the Milledgeville-Baldwin County Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB), where officials hope the implementation of The Lafayette Trail will help increase French tourism in the area.
“While Milledgeville currently sees a large contingent of UK and German travelers, we are hopeful that our promotion of Julien's work on The Lafayette Trail will increase our share of the French travel market,” said Rebekah Snider, executive director of the local CVB. “We are looking forward to being one of the communities along the trail and welcoming a new tourism product to the community.”
Icher said The Lafayette Trail isn’t just about increasing tourism and educating the public though, its goal is also to prolong the positive relationship between France and the United States.
“That’s where the uniqueness of our bilateral relationship was nurtured — through a man like Lafayette,” he said. “It still resonates to this day.”
Although he was not welcomed to town with elegant balls or massive celebrations, Icher did say he has felt a similar level of hospitality experienced by his fellow countryman almost 200 years past.
“I’ve found folks to be very responsive and very interested. People here are genuinely trying to help out,” he said. “I introduce myself, describe what I'm doing, and they want to help. I think it’s proof of friendship. I don’t know them and they don’t really know me, so it also tells me they value the commitment of the French. I feel very welcomed here in Milledgeville.”
For more information on The Lafayette Trail, visit www.thelafayettetrail.com.