In Past Life, Hermione Made Legendary Journey and Fought in Several Battles

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The 18th-century French ship L'Hermione is on its way to Yorktown, its first port-of-call, where it will stay today through Sunday. (Courtesy Friends of the Hermione)
The 18th-century French ship L’Hermione is on its way to Yorktown, its first port-of-call, where it will stay today through Sunday. (Courtesy Friends of the Hermione)

The French tall ship L’Hermione will arrive in Yorktown today to a dock packed with people interested in seeing the ship, just like in 1780 when the replica’s namesake ship arrived in Boston bearing a message of hope.

The original ship first visited North America in 1780, when it ferried the Marquis de Lafayette to Boston so he could share the news with George Washington and other revolutionary leaders that King Louis XVI was committing ships and more than 5,000 troops to the war.

A replica of the ship is set to make its first port of call in the U.S. today at Yorktown. Its three-day visit is projected to draw thousands to the historic village. Check out WYDaily’s visitors’ guide for the ship to plan your visit.

The original ship’s visit to the U.S. was its first official voyage. It was built in the late 1770s at Rochefort, a shipyard located along the La Charente River near the western coast of France.

While the ship was under construction, Lafayette was busy serving in the American military. In 1779, he returned to France to visit his family and gin up support for the American cause among French leadership. He lobbied hard for troops and ships and eventually secured the commitment from Louis XVI.

“Of course, it doesn’t always take a lot to get the French to fight the English,” said Diane Shaw, a Lafayette scholar who serves as the director of special collections and the college archivist for Lafayette College in Pennsylvania.

After the king committed the troops, L’Hermione made the journey to North America in six weeks instead of the usual two months the trip took at the time. Lafayette famously said the ship “sails like a bird” during its trip to America.

“Word had spread of [Hermione’s] arrival, the docks were lined with people [at Boston],” Shaw said. “Lafayette received a hero’s welcome because he was bringing fresh energy to an American campaign that hadn’t been going particularly well.”

The people gathered to see the arrival of the L’Hermione did not know the French were about to greatly amplify their involvement in the conflict, but that did not stop them from turning out. Lafayette went off to tell Washington the news, ending his formal relationship with the vessel.

The French frigate was built to serve as a supporting vessel rather than a mainline combat ship, but the 32-gun frigate saw plenty of combat anyway. Soon after dropping Lafayette off, the ship became involved in a one-on-one fight with a British frigate off Long Island. The two ships exchanged fire for about 90 minutes, damaging L’Hermione.

L’Hermione was a 32-gun frigate, said Ron Lewis, a regular speaker at the Mariners’ Museum who has studied the ship. Frigates were typically used to ferry information throughout fleets of larger ships and pick up stragglers. A larger ship of the line would often have more than 100 guns.

After the Long Island fight, L’Hermione was involved in a battle off the coast of Nova Scotia in July 1781 where together with another French frigate it damaged two British warships. After that fight, the ship appeared in Philadelphia, where the Continental Congress honored it for its involvement in the war.

The ship was also involved in the Siege of Yorktown in October 1781. It brought supplies and ammunition to the French blockade. That blockade was especially valuable to the revolution, because the American military did not have any major ships of the line to use against the British.

“The French navy was a huge part of the success of the American Revolution,” Lewis said.

After the war ended, L’Hermione sailed back to France in February 1782. Lewis said L’Hermione’s status as a frigate means details of its actions are spottier than would be if it were a larger ship of the line with a greater value to the French Navy.

The ship is known to have sailed to India as part of a squadron of vessels sometime after returning to France, but hostilities with the British ended before it had a chance to see combat.

In 1793, L’Hermione was involved in a renewed fight against British warships off the coast of France. The fight took place near Le Croisic, whose coast is notoriously rocky.  The ship rammed into rocks, and was subsequently battered to pieces by seawater.

That battle marked the end of the original Hermione. During its life, the ship had a crew of between 250 and 300 people. The ship required plenty of hands to take care of heavy masts and ropes, while each of its 32 cannons required four to six people to operate.

The replica vessel, while built of historical plans, does not feature the banks of cannons. It also uses synthetic sails, which weigh far less than the traditional sails on the original L’Hermione. Consequently, it has a much smaller crew.

The replica ship will dock in Yorktown on Friday morning and remain in place until Sunday afternoon.

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