General John J. Pershing and Lafayette
When the United States declared war on Germany in 1917 the American Expeditionary Force was sent to France under the command of General John J. Pershing, one of the most experienced and respected officers to ever lead an American force. Pershing quickly learned that the post carried as many political responsibilities as it did military. One of these was the desire by the French commanders to insert the American regiments into the line piecemeal, plugging gaps and reinforcing areas of the trenches where the French and British troops were all but exhausted. To the French, the plan made sense since the Americans were to be equipped with French artillery, tanks, and other equipment.
To Pershing the plan was unacceptable, and the Americans were to remain a cohesive command under his control, operating alongside the French and British Allies, but under independent American command. Pershing made several trips to Paris to discuss the situation with the Allied high command. During one of these trips, in July 1917, he was apprised of the growing concern of the French citizenry that the American units, still arriving in France in a trickle compared to what would soon come, were not up to the task. Pershing took the opportunity to visit the tomb of the Marquis de Lafayette, and during brief remarks uttered the line, “Lafayette, we are here.” Except that he did not.
Lafayette was a hero of the American and French Revolutions, though controversial in both. In the American Revolution, he served with honor and distinction, earning the gratitude of the American people who honored him in many ways. It cost him significant amounts of his own money and lands. During the French Revolution, he went from being a hero to an exile to a hero again, though the remainder of his estates and most of his wealth was gone by the beginning of the Napoleonic Wars. Napoleon offered him positions in his government, but Lafayette despised the Emperor and declined. So it was fitting that Pershing remind the French people of the sacrifices made by the Marquis and that the Americans were there to repay the longstanding debt.
But Pershing didn’t utter the line, though he did deliver some remarks to the crowd gathered to watch the American 16th Regiment march by the Tomb and deliver a salute. Before he did so he paid his respects at the tomb, accompanied by some of his staff. One of these was the disbursing officer for the American Expeditionary Force, Lt. Colonel Charles E. Stanton, who was given the opportunity to make brief remarks before Pershing spoke. In his remarks he said, “…with loving pride we drape the colors in tribute of respect to this citizen of your great republic…Lafayette, we are here.”
Reporters quickly attributed the line to Pershing and despite his correcting them and requesting that they attribute the line to his aide, headlines in France and the United States published the quote as coming from Pershing. It became one of the most well-known lines of the war and has ever since been attributed to Pershing. Stanton retired from the Army in 1921, having achieved the rank of Colonel during the war. Pershing remained in the Army for a time following the war, and created the Pershing Map, a plan of interconnecting highways across the United States which was used as a guideline when designing the Interstate Highway System half a century later.