Lafayette and Liesel June 19, 1943
Writers of historic fiction, searching for a tender love story involving American household names and set in a colonial Pennsylvania background, would do well to build a tale around the romance which developed between Marquis de Lafayette and the Pennsylvania German maiden, Liesel Beckel. In adopting such a setting the writers would, at least, abide by tradition and be consistent with local lore, as it affects Bethlehem, PA.
In September, 1777, the Continental Army, commanded by General Washington, placed itself between Philadelphia and Baltimore, hoping to intercept the British under General Howe, as the enemy advanced upon the colonial capitol at Philadelphia. The armies met at Brandywine Creek and a fierce battle ensued. A young French nobleman whom we have come to know as Lafayette was commanding a detachment of American troops in the thick of the conflict. In order to rally the flagging spirits of his men, Lafayette dismounted from his horse to shout words of challenge to his soldiers. While thus engaged the young Frenchman was severely wounded in the leg.
The wounded officer was carried to Chester, PA, and hospitalized in a private home near the Delaware River, meanwhile, Washington’s army was defeated and the forces retired to positions northward while the British occupied Philadelphia. With the capitol in enemy hands, Chester was insecure as a place of refuge for the wounded. Efforts were made to transport the injured to points north from Philadelphia, where they could be protected by the armies under Washington. Accordingly, Lafayette, along with other casualties of the battle of Brandywine, or Chadd’s Ford as it is sometimes called, were moved to Bethlehem along the Lehigh River.
Most of the wounded were quartered in the “Brother’s House” of the Moravian Economy, in this small peaceful community of 50 houses. Lafayette was shown the especial distinction, however, of being housed in the Famous Sun Inn, an ancient landmark of early Pennsylvania still serving as a hostelry today. After a few days at the inn, the French nobleman decided to take a room at the home of Mrs. Barbara Beckel, a resident of Bethlehem.
There the young nobleman was waited upon by Mrs. Beckel and her fair young daughter, Liesel. So far this story is woven out of facts. There is a persistent tradition current even today in eastern Pennsylvania, that the close association of Lafayette and the Beckel daughter ripened into a serious romance which was rudely interrupted when the young officer was recalled to active service in October, 1777, when fully recovered from his wounds. We do know that the Marquis did not marry the German girl; that he returned to his native France and married a woman of his own class, as one would have said in the days of pre-revolutionary France.
What an opportunity this tale presents to an author whose stock in trade is passionate love confronting impossible barriers and the pangs of frustration in the classic unhappy endings. But then, there are some writers who can make every tale end happily, even when they must distort the facts.