52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks – Week 2: Family Legend
Prompt: Is there a tale that’s been passed down in your family? Have you proven (or maybe disproven) it? Perhaps you have an ancestor who was legendary (or should have been.)
Long before Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier ever came to the shores of America or met Alexander Hamilton or had been given the title of Marquis, he had been studying and preparing for his role in the American Revolution. He did so in consort with a close friend: my fifth great-grandfather*.
Michael Antoine Garoutte did not find his way into the Broadway smash hit “Hamilton” nor the annals of the American Revolution, at least as a major actor. And perhaps he should have. But in the words of George Washington, singing in the musical’s number History Has Its Eyes On You, “You have no con- trol who lives, who dies, who tells your sto- ry.”
…an argument could me made that [my fifth great-grandfather] be added to the ensemble My Shot, adding another voice to the refrain, “Hey yo, I’m just like my coun- try, I’m young, scrap- py and hun- gry, and I’m not throw- ing a- way my shot.”
Lafayette and Michael Garoutte grew up in great privilege, each of their families being members of the French nobility. Although Garoutte prepared for the priesthood, the death of a sibling caused him to change his career plans. Garoutte joined Lafayette at military school.
The two young men read with great interest news of the growing insurrection across the Atlantic. They enthusiastically joined fellow countrymen, and signed up to fight on the Colonists’ behalf. Barely out of their teens, I can vividly imagine these impassioned, starry-eyed youths eagerly and somewhat naively yearning to go into battle, much like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s personifications of the exuberant, ambitious Lafayette and the idealistic, head-strong title character.
In the show’s number Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down), Lafayette and Hamilton reference their shared status as industrious foreigners, declaring, “Immigrants: We get the job done.” That same assiduous zeal is heard in the number My Shot. A case could be made for adding the character of Michael Garoutte to this ensemble with its repeated refrain “Hey yo, I’m just like my coun- try, I’m young, scrap- py and hu- ngry, and I’m not throw- ing a- way my shot.”
Born April 12, 1750, in Marseilles, Michael Garoutte was the son of Sir Antoine Garoutte–an Admiral in the French Navy–and his wife, Lady Anne de Lascours. The Garouttes were related to both King Louis XVI and to Marie Antoinette. Additionally, members of the Lascours family served in the King’s court. Michael’s family must have been supportive of their son’s decision to join his friend and go to America: his father provided three of his own ships for Michael’s journey as well as $90,000 in gold to contribute to the Continental government.
Perhaps I’m predisposed to this imagery because of having seen “Hamilton” numerous times, but I’m imagining a scenario something like this: Two filthy rich men of royal lineage, neither burdened with responsibilities, both feeling footloose and fancy free and ready to take on the world. The world is their oyster, essentially. It’s easy for me to imagine them exclaiming, “Yo, let’s DO THIS! “Let’s go join the REVOLUTION!” and high-fiving each other.
After arriving in America, Garoutte set to work using his fleet to overtake British Merchant vessels and British Navy vessels. He subsequently took the seized goods to Little Egg Harbor, in southern New Jersey, and from there the goods were transported over seventy miles—across New Jersey, across the Delaware River and into Pennsylvania, finally reaching their destination: Valley Forge. Garoutte also secured artillery for the Continental military.
For his part, Lafayette made his way to Philadelphia, making connections and coming to the attention of both Benjamin Franklin and George Washington. Not long after his arrival, Lafayette was made a member of Washington’s staff.
It was not at sea but on land that Garoutte sustained a war injury. On October 6, 1778, the Battle of Chestnut Creek (near present-day Port Republic, New Jersey) took place. Shortly thereafter, Garoutte and a band of British and French members of the Colonial Army set out to rescue a colleague who had hidden in an inn there following the battle. On the way, Garoutte and his comrades were ambushed by enemy soldiers. (Some reports say the soldiers were Hessians–Germans who fought for the British. Other reports say that they were a mixture of British and French sympathizers.)
A sword fight ensued, leaving Garoutte with a severe head wound and toppling him from his horse. His comrades presumed he was dead and they fled, leaving the body.
Some time later, James Smith, a Quaker innkeeper, happened upon the body of Garoutte. Smith was returning from Valley Forge, having taken supplies to General Washington. Upon further examination, Smith determined that the Frenchman was still alive and proceeded to gingerly load the wounded man into his cart. Smith took him home with him, and his daughter nursed Garoutte back to health.
On October 26, 1778, in Pleasant Mills, New Jersey, Michael Garoutte married his caretaker: Sophie Smith.
Michael “married a strong-minded Quakeress who denied even one of his twelve children to the church of his fathers.”
While Michael’s family approved of his military pursuits, one wonders if his marriage had their blessing. Notes in the original church records state that Michael “married a strong-minded Quakeress who denied even one of his twelve children to the church of his fathers.”
Michael Garoutte’s and Lafayette’s paths diverged after the war. Lafayette returned to his native country; Sophie and Michael Garoutte remained in southern New Jersey for the rest of their lives. They had thirteen children. Michael ran a tavern–The Lafayette.
Sophia Smith Garoutte passed away in 1817. As a widower, Michael travelled by foot many miles–to Tennessee and back–staying with various daughters and their families until, it would appear, he had worn out his welcome. His writings express a bitterness toward his children’s families, and he appears to have departed their homes feeling disgruntled about his treatment. Tales passed down through the generations by his descendants describe the elderly Garoutte as moody and volatile. He supposedly dismissed family members on occasion, telling them that he was “talking with Lafayette.” These anecdotal stories might suggest that he suffered what we now refer to as Traumatic Brain Injury.
Michael Garoutte continued to receive money from his estate until 1820, but he never received a pension for fighting in the war nor payment for the money he had loaned the Continental Government. The records of his loans were lost to fire, and Pension Bureau records show that his pension request had been denied because his service had been on his own private ships and not those of the Continental Government.
Born into great wealth and social stature, Michael Garoutte died penniless, ostracized from family, and perhaps suffering with some form of dementia.
As sad as it might be to contemplate the poverty, isolation, and health issues that Michael Garoutte experienced late in life, it is likely that his parents, siblings, and their descendants met an even worse fate as nobility during the Révolution Française.
*Note for members of my family:
The Garoutte family figures into our family in the following way: Michael Garoutte’s granddaughter Sophia Garoutte (1823-1863) married John Laney (1817-1894) who is my father’s great-great-grandfather.
As Americans, we view the American Revolution with two hundred forty-four years’ hindsight and easy access to countless and diverse accounts of this entire period of our young country’s history. I personally suspect that Lafayette’s and Garoutte’s motives in backing the Colonists were altruistic ones. After all, France stood to benefit at least indirectly should Britain’s status and power be diminished at the hands of the Americans. That said, several considerations–their families’ and their country’s support, their extreme wealth and royal pedigree, their luxury of time absent of any obligations to dependents–compel me to at least acknowledge that the two could be seen as poster boys for white privilege.
I mention this not to disparage the Colonists nor the subjects of this post, but in the interest of impartiality.
Allow me to explain.
As I was writing this post, I found it impossible not to think about the recent insurgency at the United States Capitol building. While so much of what I saw disgusted and horrified me, one particular aspect kept haunting me: the jarring disparity between how officials and law enforcement have recently responded to peaceful protestors of color versus how officials and law enforcement responded to the violent, destructive, murderous actions of largely white male perpetrators that took over the Capitol last week. Many journalists have also pointed out the privilege on display.
I had intended to write only the addendum above to openly acknowledge the privilege of both the subjects of my post and of last week’s insurgents.
As far as I am concerned, that is where any similarity ends.
But then I saw this:
I find it deeply disturbing to find it necessary to rebut parallels drawn between last week’s acts of sedition and the American Revolution.
Last Wednesday, we watched hour upon hour of live television coverage of myopic, delusional Trump supporters–many wearing clothing with racist and anti-Semitic references–savagely beat and hurl weapons (including a fire extinguisher) at police and journalists, chant in unison their objective to hang the Vice President, erect a noose and gallows, and trespass and defecate upon and desecrate the residence of our first branch of government.
This was no peaceful protest that “got out of hand.” The action was premeditated, carefully planned and synchronized. The actors came wearing tactical paramilitary clothing, vests, and gas masks. They came with guns, pipe bombs, flash cans, bear spray and mace, zip ties, and other crude weapons. They came to Washington, D.C.–as they pointed out–at the invitation of the President. And, once there, they marched to the Capitol building with a mandate from the President and his minions to show no weakness. Further, they came with the intent to “capture and assassinate” elected officials, calling this a “test run” for more insidious and sinister activity planned for the future.
These people were not interested in dialogue or discourse. Their intentions were to scare and intimidate and, in some cases, to kidnap and murder.
Their collective grievance? A “fraudulent election”: a myth that those at the very highest level of government knew to be untrue. A lie that would have gotten no traction had the President and spineless, self-interested, cowardly members of Congress publicly and unequivocally contradicted it. A fabrication that had been successfully debunked and about which far more time than was necessary was spent discrediting.
Each of these “patriots” had the privilege of voting in November. They just didn’t like the fact that their candidate lost.
In contrast, the Colonists were subject to the self-serving whims and arbitrary decrees of a King. The early Americans respectfully made entreaties to the Crown expressing their desire for self-rule. When diplomacy did not work, those voiceless and powerless subjects of a monarchy rebelled.
Lafayette and Garoutte had beaucoup bucks, their fathers’ sailing vessels, and they came to the fight with fistfuls of cash. Similarly, the thousands of participants in last week’s sedition had the luxury of time and disposable income. This was evident in their ability to spend time and money traveling to Washington, D.C., staying in hotels, taking taxis, paying for paramilitary gear, weaponry, flags and souvenirs, using expensive smartphones to take selfies and videos of themselves, and taking days off from work to participate.
They brought their privilege to Washington, and they left Washington with the same privilege. They had not been openly fired upon, injured, and–at least at the time–were allowed to walk away from their spree of terror unscathed.
Lafayette and Garoutte and the Capitol seditionists demonstrated their privilege by their very participation in the American Revolution by the former and the “Save America” activity by the latter. Said another way, each group essentially participated in what was–for them–a “boutique” cause.
It is my opinion that any other similarities drawn between the events of 1776 and those of January 6, 2021, constitute a gross false equivalency.