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On this date in 1781, a joint operation of French and American soldiers captured two small forts in the Virginia Tidewater area that determined the course of the Revolutionary War -- and world history.

"This devil Cornwallis is much wiser than the other generals with whom I have dealt. He inspires me with a sincere fear, and his name has greatly troubled my sleep. This campaign is a good school for me. God grant that the public does not pay for my lessons."

So wrote Gilbert du Motier, or the Marquis de Lafayette, on July 9, 1781, in a letter to a friend.

By October, however, an even wiser general (George Washington) and the officers and men under his command -- including Lafayette -- had set a trap for the renowned British general that would bring the long war to an end.

In France, Lafayette had rallied to the patriots' cause in 1776. The following year, he set sail for the colonies with a small warship he purchased, along with a contingent of freedom fighters, to join the American Revolution. He was not yet 20.

He wintered with George Washington at Valley Forge, saw combat at Monmouth, and was wounded in the Battle of Brandywine. In the middle of the war, he returned home for a time, but this was no ordinary furlough: Lafayette was determined to persuade his government to enter the war on the side of the Americans. His entreaties were successful, and so as the battle lines formed at the Virginia port city of Yorktown, a French fleet sailed from Haiti into the southern mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

Even as he fortified Yorktown, Cornwallis and the 8,300 troops under his command found themselves surrounded by a joint Franco-American force twice that size. To hold off the siege, the British built earthen fort-like defenses, called redoubts, to try and stave off the advancing attackers. On Oct. 14, 1781, 400 French soldiers captured Redoubt No. 9. Moments later, 400 Americans led by Lafayette and Alexander Hamilton overran Redoubt No. 10.

The redcoats tried to evacuate Yorktown by water, but a sudden autumn storm left them trapped, and Cornwallis surrendered his army. The British still had some 26,000 troops in the colonies, but Lord Cornwallis' mystique had been broken. So had the will of the British public.

Forty-three years later, at President James Monroe 's invitation, Lafayette embarked on a tour of the country he helped bring into existence. He was 67, and life in Europe had in many ways passed him by. The marquis had participated in the French Revolution and then had nearly been devoured by it, as had his wife, Adrienne. (She escaped the guillotine, but her sister, mother, and grandmother did not.) After escaping The Reign of Terror by fleeing to Belgium, Lafayette was imprisoned by European monarchs.

After Adrienne joined him, George Washington urged Emperor Franz II to free them as a humanitarian gesture. Eventually this was done, but Adrienne died in 1807. Deprived in childhood of his parents' love, Lafayette in old age was denied his wife's company. He lived until May 20, 1834, his passing scarcely mourned in France.

This was not the case across the ocean. "In America," wrote Laura Auricchio in her superb 2015 biography, "Lafayette's death reignited the outpouring of affection that had greeted the living man ten years earlier. President Jackson declared a national state of mourning, flags flew at half-mast, government buildings were draped with crepe."

On Capitol Hill, a special joint session of Congress was convened. Former U.S. President John Quincy Adams delivered a three-hour eulogy. When I think of the marquis, however, it is his own words that come to mind, contained in a letter he wrote as a young man to his wife while on the high seas sailing to an unknown land.

"I offer my service to that interesting republic from motives of the purest kind," Lafayette wrote. "The happiness of America is intimately connected with the happiness of all mankind; she will become the safe and respected asylum of virtue, integrity, tolerance, equality, and tranquil happiness." 

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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