One day my journey turned towards a seaport in France where tradesmen were proudly rebuilding Lafayette's grand ship, l'Hermione. Actually it was not his ship, but it does carry a significant piece of history linking Lafayette to the United States...and hence, the mention of his name in our school textbooks.
Lafayette was orphaned at a young age, inheriting great wealth and a family title. He married well as a teenager. Then one day he heard the story of liberty which impassioned him. Although he had everything he could ever want as a French aristocrat...he was fervent about helping others gain their freedoms. The American Revolution enamored him enough to flee his country in secrecy. He purchased a ship that he names La Victoire. Setting sail April 20, 1777, Lafayette arrives in America on the shores of South Carolina 52 days later. After traveling to Philadelphia, he becomes major general of the Continental Army...without pay. The need for secrecy was because the king of France would not support Lafayette fighting against their age old enemy, Britain. In fact, would Lafayette ever be able to safely return to France? The king's ire was against this teenage hot head who flew the French Army to join the American forces. (Lafayette was merely 19 years of age. For more of the story, listen to this great podcast from Colonial Williamsburg.)
Though the king of France was now angry with Lafayette, the young Marquis had gained favor from General Washington, himself. As Lafayette served faithfully under Washington's command, the generally stoic Washington began to regard the exuberant youth as his own son. Lafayette, in turn, looked to Washington as his own father. (A great book on their friendship is Adopted Son: Washington, Lafayette, and the Friendship that Saved a Revolution.)
In January 1779 Lafayette boards another ship, fitting called The Alliance. Lafayette's mission is to sail to France to personally convince the king and the French government to fully support America in her quest for independence from Britain...requesting not only money but also troops. How would the king receive Lafayette? By this time Lafayette had proved himself faithful to the great General Washington. Although the Continental Army was struggling, they had achieved a major victory in Saratoga. While Lafayette was home arguing for French intervention in the American cause, he and his wife have a boy affectionately named George Washington Lafayette.
On March 17, 1780, Lafayette boards ship again...this time with the blessing of the king. With the king's blessing came one of the finest ships in the newly rebuilt French navy, l'Hermione, a sleek sailing vessel that can cut through the ocean with great efficiency and speed. After all, an important message must be delivered to General Washington. Time is of the essence. France has fully and openly entered the war against Britain! French troops and ships are on the way!
On April 28, 1780, l'Hermione arrives in Boston to great fanfare! Lafayette then continued his journey by land, to meet with General Washington and his troops in New Jersey.
In Octobere 1781, America effectively won the American Revolution at Yorktown, Virginia where Lafayette and his dragoons cornered Cornwallis and his troops. Upon receiving word from Lafayette, the American General Washington and the French General Rochambeau and their troops traveled from New York to Williamsburg, and then on to Yorktown where about 17,600 Americans and French forces laid seige against about 8300 British. After 8 days of seige, Cornwallis surrendered. This was the last major battle of the American Revolution. A war weary Britain formally ended the war in September 1783.
Meanwhile, l'Hermione, which was originally built in 1779, continued with many adventures after speedily delivering Lafayette to America. With 26 guns (cannons) many battles lay in her future. With her speed and agility, escape was always an option. One day the British caught a French ship called the Concorde, that was a sister ship to l'Hermione in how it was built. Knowing they had a prize, the British analyzed every detail of the Concorde, jotting every little note into their books, so they could build a prize of their own.
Time passed. Much history has happened. Many wars in France led to rebuilding, especially after WWII. In the 1980's...in Rochefort, France...history began to relive as the shipyards were rebuilt. Since France desired to recreate one of their tall ships from history, a special ship with a special history was chosen. In July 1997, the rebuilding of l'Hermione where it had first been built, in Rochefort, began a new page in history. Those English books that detailed the schematics of the sister ship Concorde proved invaluable.
- 210' long
- 16,000 square feet of sail
- 3 masts
- 32 guns (cannons) (or 26...different official websites say different things)
- Original rendering of l'Hermione here
Here are the pictures that we took in Yorktown. However there were a few ships docked in front of l'Hermione. The brown ship you see is the Godspeed which is based in nearby Jamestown. The hull of l'Hermione is a stunning azure blue. The huge flags and the tallest of the masts are of l'Hermione.
For more information on how you might possibly tour l'Hermione, here is their website.