2015-07-02 / Front Page

Newport Ready to Say Bonjour to L’Hermione

By Pat Blakeley

An authentic replica of the French frigate L'Hermione will visit Newport July 8-9. An authentic replica of the French frigate L'Hermione will visit Newport July 8-9. Plans are in the air to welcome the French to Newport again, but this time, unlike in 1780 when the colonists were leery following the three year occupation by British forces, they will be met with open arms.

L’Hermione, an almost exact replica of the 210’ ship that carried the Marquis de Lafayette to America with news of French support for the revolution, will sail into Newport Harbor July 8. Two days of festivities are planned to mark the occasion, with U.S. and French dignitaries set to officially launch the celebration. Events will be held across town to honor France’s contribution to the war effort, and the public is invited to tour the ship, meet with soldiers and sailors, and learn about the revolutionary partnership in activities designed for the whole family.

The reconstructed French frigate took almost 20 years and $30 million to build. The Hermione was the fastest ship of its day, and the replica was constructed to original specifications in Rochefort, France, where the first ship was built. Lafayette’s motto “Cur Non?” (“Why Not?”) reflected his can-do philosophy and was embraced by the project managers when taking on the herculean task of rebuilding L’Hermione.

The original vessel took 11 months to build; her namesake took 17 years. Craftsmen used 18th century building techniques to re-create the three-masted frigate, and the replica is among the most authentic in the world. The L’Hermione project is a source of immense national pride in France, and President François Hollande personally bid the ship bon voyage when she set sail this spring.

Two thousand oak trees were selected for their size and curvature to make the hull, and the 26 cannons were cast by the same foundry that had supplied armament for the first L'Hermione. More than 15 miles of rigging was needed to outfit the vessel, and 19 linen sails, encompassing more than 2,200 square yards, were hand stitched.

Modifications were made for safety and hygiene, and two engines were added, but “externally, you would not know the difference,” reports Prof. John Jackson, of the U.S. Naval War College.

Funded primarily by private monies, the effort was also helped in large part by tourists who paid to see the ship being built, tracking its progress through the years, Jackson said. Pedestrian walkways were erected adjacent to the hull so that visitors could watch the shipwrights at work; the Rochefort shipyard welcomed more than 4 million visitors during the construction.

The ship left France in April, arriving in Yorktown, Va., June 5. She has been traveling up the Eastern Seaboard, stopping in Mt. Vernon, Va., Alexandria, Va., Annapolis, Baltimore, Philadelphia and New York City, and will be in Newport July 8-9. She will cast off July 10 for Boston.

The international crew of 72 professionals and volunteers is headed by Capt. Yann Cariou, a 30-year veteran of the French Navy, and his second, former navy lieutenant Charlene Gicquel. Approximately one third of the sailors are female.

The project not only honors the importance of the French in the success of the American Revolution, it also recognizes the pivotal role the Marquis de Lafayette played during the war.

Lafayette was an enigma.

Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, was born in 1757 to one of France's oldest families. His ancestors served in the Crusades and alongside Joan of Arc. Orphaned at 11, he inherited one of his nation's largest fortunes, but Lafayette was not impressed with status or riches, longing instead for military glory. He joined the army at age 14 and at 19 secured a commission from a representative of the Continental Congress sent to France to recruit officers. King Louis XVI ordered Lafayette to remain in France, but the defiant young nobleman ignored him and set sail for America in 1777 to volunteer. He was commissioned a major general.

Even though he had no combat experience, the “boy general’s” humility, bravery, and enthusiasm for the revolution quickly won the hearts of Washington and the pa- triots, and he became known as “our marquis.”

The bond between Washington and Lafayette grew so strong that they were more like a father and son than a commanding general and top officer. Lafayette proved himself invaluable in combat time and time again. In 1779 he returned to France to lobby for the cause, and less than a year later returned to America, this time by the king’s order and as the representative of France. The marquis landed in Boston on L’Hermione to thunderous acclaim, bringing the news that a significant well-equipped military force would soon be arriving to aid in the fight for freedom, along with much-needed supplies of arms and ammunition.

In July 1780, a French flotilla commanded by Admiral Chevalier de Ternay arrived in Newport carrying General Comte de Rochambeau and 6,000 soldiers. This began a yearlong sojourn in the city that lasted until June 1781, when the troops began the historic march to Yorktown with Washington, augmenting American forces to defeat Cornwallis.

For more information on the project, visit hermione2015.org.

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