TRAVEL with pat and lew

* Vive l’Amérique, vive la France … At Picpus Cemetery on July 4, 2011

Posted by Lew Weinstein on July 6, 2011


Changing the flag at La Fayette's grave ... U.S. Ambassador to France Charles Rivkin speaking at gravesite


The sound of a French military band playing the Star Spangled Banner on the 4th of July brought tears to our eyes. My wife Pat and I were among those assembled, along with a substantial French military presence, many French dignitaries, and Charles Rivkin, the American Ambassador to France, at an obscure cemetery in a far corner of Paris. We were there to pay homage to the contribution of the Marquis de La Fayette to our American War of Independence against the British. The place is Picpus Cemetery in Paris’ 12th arrondissement, where General La Fayette, his wife Adrienne de Noailles, and his son George Washington La Fayette are buried.

The ceremony began in the courtyard of a chapel built on the spot where a previous chapel had been destroyed in the fury of the French Revolution on the 1790s. Ambassador Rivkin, precisely on schedule, was the last to arrive. He stood at attention as the French band played the Star Spangled Banner and then the La Marseillaise, the French national anthem, both very moving as perhaps only military bands can be. We could not help but think of that famous scene in the movie Casablanca, where the stirring rendition of La Marseillaise so irritated the Nazis.


a portion of the French military attending the ceremony


From the courtyard, the band, the Ambassador, military representatives of both France and the U.S., and the crowd of perhaps 50 onlookers, including us, marched rather briskly a distance of approximately 100 yards through a beautiful tree-shaded lawn to a small cemetery enclosed by a wall in the far right corner of the small park. The La Fayette graves are in a corner of the cemetery, enclosed by a low gate. Pat and I had been there two years ago, all alone that day, and earlier on this day, when we spoke to the five members of the U.S. military contingent (Army and Marines) who were now standing at attention alongside the Marquis’ gravesite.

The ceremony began with the annual formal exchange of the American flag, which has flown over the gravesite for many years, including the period of the Nazi occupation of Paris in WWII. The flag which had flown for a year was lowered from the flagpole and carefully folded into the required triangle by Lt. Colonels Griggs and Pollard, U.S. Marines. A new flag was the raised in its place. At this point, the French military band again played the Star Spangled Banner. All of the U.S. military saluted, other Americans placed their hands over their hearts, and the French military, surprising and moving to us, also saluted. America is indeed indebted to France for its assistance in our War of Independence, and the French are indebted to us for our assistance in both of the 20th century’s world wars. Each country does well when they remember the assistance rendered by the other.

Then came the placement of flowers, beautiful arrangements all, presented by representatives of the Sons of the American Revolution, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the Society of the Cincinnati, the Friends of La Fayette, the Mayor of Paris, the President of France, the French Legislature, and the American government represented by Ambassador Rivkin.


La Fayette's grave with new flag and flowers


Charles H. Rivkin is the youngest Ambassador in nearly 60 years to serve as his country’s senior representative in France.  He is a handsome man with a powerful presence. Dressed in a dark suit with a red tie, wearing a lapel pin featuring both U.S. and French flags, he spoke in fluent French as he described the contributions Marquis de La Fayette made to the struggling American republic over 200 years ago. He sounded so natural in French that it was surprising, jarring almost, whenever he spoke the name of an American – George Washington, Benjamin Franklin – to hear the words in English, devoid of any French accent. He concluded with a ringing “Vive l’Amérique, vive la France.” When I spoke with the Ambassador at the conclusion of the ceremony, he offered to send a translation of his speech as soon as one is made.

After the service, Ambassador Rivkin met with a group of young American students who had attended the service under the auspices of a group called People to People, founded by President Eisenhower in 1956, as part of their Student Ambassador program designed to make young Americans more aware of the world. The Ambassador told the students they were the “best ambassadors America could send to make the world more aware of who we are and to show that we care about those in other countries.”


Edward Moran ... La Fayette in battle


At the center of this story is La Fayettes’ contribution to America’s independence. The Marquis was but 19 years old when he purchased a ship and violated the specific direction of the French King to sail to America carrying with him the recommendation of Benjamin Franklin. He first met General Washington in Bucks County, Pennsylvania on August 10, 1777. He impressed Washington with his manner, intelligence and enthusiasm, and participated bravely in the battles of Brandywine and Monmouth. Many reports indicate that Washington came to look on La Fayette as the son he never had.

La Fayette returned to France in 1779, where he received two weeks house arrest for disobeying his King. Undeterred, he lobbied for more French aid for America. In the following year, he returned with the news that he had arranged for 6,000 French troops and  a French fleet to come to America, assets which subsequently proved of critical value in the decisive battle of Yorktown.

But why a gravesite in this tiny cemetery on the edge of Paris? After Yorktown, Marquis de La Fayette returned to a France soon to be embroiled in its own revolution. He was a hero to some and a targeted villain for others, a member of the now hated aristocracy. La Fayette escaped, but the family of his wife was not so lucky. La Fayette’s mother-in-law, her mother and one of her daughters were among the thousands whose heads were separated from their bodies by the infamous machine of Dr. Joseph-Ignace  Guillotine. Over a six week period in 1794, 1300 victims of the French terror were murdered in the nearby square now known as Place de la Nation, including 16 Carmelite nuns. Those bodies were taken away by carts and surreptitiously buried in the dark of night, eight deep in a common grave, heads thrown in on top, at what was not yet known as the Picpus Cemetery.



In the early 1800s, French nobles returned to Paris and began a search for the gravesites of their relatives. Among these was Adrienne de Lafayette, the Marquis’ wife, who found someone who had followed the carts and was herself led to the site. Adrienne arranged the purchase of the property and invited nuns to establish a new convent and build a new church over the ruins of the old, where nuns of the Order of the Sacred Heart still maintain a permanent vigil. Madame La Fayette set aside a small corner of the property as a private cemetery for the La Fayette family, and when she died in 1807, she was buried there.

President James Monroe invited Lafayette to visit the United States in 1824, as part of the celebration related to the nation’s 50th anniversary. During his trip, he acquired soil from Bunker Hill in Boston and expressed a desire to be buried in this American soil. When he passed away in 1834 at the age of 77, his wish was fulfilled when the Bunker Hill soil was sprinkled on his grave by his son George Washington La Fayette. Even then, the public was prohibited from attending, and crowds formed to protest their exclusion from Lafayette’s funeral.

We were fortunate and privileged to receive a special invitation to this private ceremony from the Sons of the American Revolution in France, and are very grateful to have been included in as memorable a 4th of July as we could have imagined.


Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de La Fayette



4 Responses to “* Vive l’Amérique, vive la France … At Picpus Cemetery on July 4, 2011”

  1. Bernadette Skelding said

    We visited Picpus Cemetery in April of 2015 but were unaware of what sounds like a beautiful ceremony held on July 4th. I’m wondering if you can tell me if the ceremony is open to the public? If not, how were you able to attend and how is that done? My daughter is just mad about both Alexander Hamilton and The Marquis de Lafayette and we were moved almost to tears when we made our visit. We would love to attend the ceremony but I have read other places on line that the cemetery is closed on July 4th because of the ceremony. Any information that you could give me would be appreciated. Thank you.

    • Lew Weinstein said

      It was very difficult to get into what you correctly identify as a closed event. We have a friend in the State Department who made the arrangements for us.

  2. What a touching (and interesting) story! I wish I could have been there with my students.

    It’s too bad that so many Americans are unaware of what a long and lasting friendship it has been between the French and the Americans, and what a debt of gratitude we owe the French and particularly–as you have explained so well in this story– particularly La Fayette, for their role in our struggle for independence.

    There is so much careless talk about how “the French hate Americans.” (A statement that I think most French people would find puzzling.) Yes, we have our ups and downs, as happens in any long relationship. But France really is our oldest and truest friend.

    • Lew Weinstein said

      JANET …

      Thank you for your kind comment. It seems to me that we Americans are sorely deficient in teaching our children history of any kind, This has been true for a long time, and is especially true now that there is so much pressure to “teach for the test.” It sounds like your classes may be a welcome exception. Good for you.

      We spend a great deal of time in France and have found the French people … in Paris and elsewhere … to be very friendly and helpful.

      … LEW

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