On June 5, like a vision from the past, the distant shadow of an 18th century French frigate slowly made its way into view on a hazy, misty day off the Virginia shore. As she got closer, her 26 cannons blasted one at a time and fireworks erupted from the shore and nearby ships.
There she was! L’Hermione, an authentic replica of the three-mast ship that brought the Marquis de Lafayette from France to America in 1780. As she made her way to the port of Yorktown, hundreds of people cheered her arrival and welcomed the replica of the frigate from 235 years ago.
[For more on the incredibly ambitious reconstruction project, see this feature story published in France Today magazine.]
French General Jean-Paul Palomeros, who watched the Hermione arrive from the pier, exclaimed, “C’est magnifique! All these men and women have worked together on this amazing project. The ship is a symbol of the past.”
Yes, another time when the esprit of liberty, friendship and possibilities brought the young Marquis de Lafayette to these exact shores with France’s promise of reinforcement troops and fleets to aid the impoverished American army.
Among the awaiting crowd were Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe; Ségolène Royal, the French Minister of Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy (and former Presidential candidate); and French ambassador to the U.S., Géraud Araud.
After the ship was moored and security did a sweep of the inside, several sailors descended the steep 18th century style ladder, among them the “Marquis de Lafayette.” From the pier, as if from another time, a uniformed “General George Washington” walked toward the frigate to meet Lafayette and shake his hand. The crew of 57 passionate volunteers stayed on board singing songs of goodwill while the crowd witnessed this symbol of Franco-American friendship and liberty.
Feeling the pull of history and of my direct ancestor, Lafayette, I climbed the steep wobbly wooden ladder and held on tightly to the thick cordes (over 16 miles of rope are on this ship) to get onboard. With each step I felt closer to that time when Lafayette, a Frenchman who became an American general and hero, had helped Washington ultimately win the revolution.
Onboard this prefectly recreated 18th century warship, which was carrying two 250-litre barrels of specially blended Hennessey Cognac, I could feel the sense of possibilities and liberty that Lafayette touted all his life. L’Hermione was then and is today more than a symbol of friendship between France and America. 17 years in the making, she’s a stunning showcase of artisanal craftsmanship and maritime savoir faire. Six schools and 30 companies from the Poitou-Charentes region of France teamed up to complete the 213 foot frigate built with the same materials and techniques available in Lafayette’s time, with a few modern adjustments to make the crew’s voyage comfortable and safe.
The modern “George Washington” told me, “most of the credit for the Franco-American alliance is given to Franklin, when in fact it was the Marquis de Lafayette who played a key role in their relation at the time. He was a hero.”
After the welcoming ceremony and our tour, I spoke to Loic from Angers, France, one of the gabiers who sailed on the ship. “Nice to see so many people waiting for us on the shore. After 50 days of the same faces every day, it’s incredible to see this huge crowd of new faces. I believe I can speak for everyone when I say this was an amazing adventure for all of us.”
An amazing adventure to honor the past and our hero Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de LaFayette. History is alive and the spirit and glory of Lafayette lives on.
You too can see the Hermione! The ship will continue up the eastern coast to visit Mount Vernon, Alexandria/Washington D..C., Annapolis, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City, Greenport, Newport, Boston, Maine and Nova Scotia before returning to Rochefort, France. She will be a part of the People’s Parade of Ships in New York Harbor, sailing up and down the Hudson River on July 4. For more information, visit www.hermione2015.com.
Vive La France et L’Amerique!