The sun was sparkling off the Bay of Biscay and a light breeze barely ruffled the sails as the three-masted frigate l’Hermione headed out from La Rochelle for sea trials one morning last October. It was a beautiful day, dammit! This would be one of the new ship’s first times out in open water, and the captain, a Breton sea dog named Yann Cariou, was eager to see what it and its crew of 18 seasoned sailors and 54 volunteers could do. The balmy weather would test neither.
Cariou fired up the two 400-horsepower Italian engines and motored north looking for wind. At dinner in the galley, he made a show of peeking under the tables, as if he were playing a children’s game. “No wind here,” he says with mock gravity. But there was good news, meaning bad news, on the radar. A big storm off Iceland was generating nasty low-pressure systems as far south as Brittany, so that’s where we headed.
Many people had waited a long time for this moment. The French spent 17 years and $28 million replicating the Hermione down to the last detail, from its gilded-lion figurehead to the fleur-de-lis painted on its stern. When the original Hermione was built in 1779, it was the pride of a newly re-energized French Navy: a 216-foot, 32-gun barracuda that could take a real bite out of the arrogant English, who not only ruled the waves but concocted an in-your-face anthem about it—“Rule, Britannia!”—in 1740.
With a sleek, copper-bottomed hull, the Hermione could out-sail almost any ship it couldn’t out-shoot. Even the English recognized the Hermione’s excellence when they captured its sister ship, the Concorde. They promptly reverse-engineered their prize, drawing detailed schematics to help recreate the vessel for their own fleet.
This proved a stroke of luck 200 years later when France decided it was tired of being the only great seagoing nation without a replicated tall ship of its own. “In the 1980s, we restored the shipyards at Rochefort, where l’Hermione was built, and made them a cultural monument,” says Benedict Donnelly, who heads France’s Hermione project, the Association Hermione-La Fayette, supported by public funds and private donations. “But then in the ’90s we said, we’re missing something. A recreated tall ship. France is really the poor relation among nations in this department. The Hermione was the jewel of the navy from a glorious moment in French maritime history—which hasn’t always been glorious, thanks to our friends the English. Happily, our English friends had captured the Hermione’s sister ship and left us the plans.”
There’s another reason that the Hermione sails again—it possesses a particular transatlantic back story and cachet. In March 1780, the Hermione set out from Rochefort bound for Boston. Its speed and agility suited it ideally to the task of carrying Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, back to America. He was charged with giving George Washington the nation-saving news that France would soon be sending an infusion of arms, ships and men.
That life support was due in no small part to Lafayette’s tireless cheerleading. His earlier efforts had helped nudge King Louis XVI into recognizing the United States and signing a defensive alliance with it in 1778 (just how big a nudge is open to debate, since French policy was already strongly inclined in this direction for reasons of pure realpolitik). Now, Lafayette, the public face of France in the United States, was returning to deliver the goods.
Surely Lafayette’s name could work the same fund-raising magic for a recreated Hermione, this time in the America-to-France direction. The connection with Lafayette has brought in U.S. donors under the auspices of the Friends of Hermione-Lafayette in America, a nonprofit that has helped to raise roughly one-quarter the $4.5 million it is costing to send the replicated Hermione from Rochefort voyaging to America and back. Donnelly, whose own background seems tailor-made for overseeing the Hermione project since 1992—his mother is French and his American father participated in the D-Day invasion at Normandy—says that was never a consideration. “Choosing to rebuild Lafayette’s boat was not a question of marketing,” he insists.
Still, a project that has often been as cash-strapped as Washington’s Continentals has benefited from a brisk American tail wind. After crossing the Atlantic this month, the ship will dock in many of the ports that figured in the Revolution, to welcome the curious aboard to discover a ship lost to history and the young marquis who is a misunderstood American icon.
‘unknown’ works here. Hermione will be unknown to Americans And in Manhattan, the New-York Historical Society is mounting the exhibition “Lafayette’s Hermione: Voyage 2015,” on view May 29 through August 16.
Pretty much everyone in the United States has heard of Lafayette. Scores of towns around the U.S. are named for him, from Fayetteville, North Carolina, to Fayette, Maine, to Lafayette, Oregon (to this list must be added every town named La Grange, after Lafayette’s manse, the Château de la Grange-Bleneau). But the man himself has been swallowed up in a hazy myth surrounding his general helpfulness.
He turns out to be more interesting than his myth, not to mention a good deal quirkier. “Americans don’t in the least know who Lafayette was. The story has been lost in the telling,” says Laura Auricchio, author of a new biography, The Marquis: Lafayette Reconsidered.
The Marquis de Lafayette who first arrived on U.S. soil in South Carolina on June 13, 1777, was an unformed, untested youth of 19. In a way, he had nowhere else to go. He had been orphaned young—his father was killed when the English crushed the French at Minden in 1759, during the Seven Years’ War. The early death of his parents left him a very rich young man.
In 1774, Lafayette, then 16, was married off to 14-year-old Adrienne de Noailles, who came from one of France’s best-born and most powerful families. The marriage made the provincial Lafayette an instant player at court, but his door pass did him little good. For one thing, he was a lousy dancer. Lafayette himself confessed in his memoirs that he made a clumsy courtier, undone “by the gaucheness of my manners which...never yielded to the graces of the court or to the charms of supper in the capital.”
The match with Adrienne also brought Lafayette a lieutenant’s commission in the Noailles Dragoons, and with it the promise of an army career. But here, too, he hit an unexpected wall. A broad military reorganization in 1775 affected many of France’s existing regiments, Lafayette’s among them. He and many others like him suddenly found themselves sidelined with little hope of advancement.
It was in this context that Lafayette took up America’s fight for freedom. So did many of his frustrated compatriots, whose motives ran the gamut from high-minded to mercenary. “I am well nigh harassed to death with applications of officers to go out to America,” wrote the American diplomat Silas Deane, who worked alongside Benjamin Franklin in Paris to drum up French aid.
Deane and Franklin were pretty picky, and many who asked to fight were turned away. In Lafayette, however, they recognized a pearl of great value—that is to say, great promotional value. In his signed agreement accepting Lafayette’s services and commissioning him an (unpaid) major general, Deane enumerates an unusual list of qualifications for a commanding officer: “high birth, alliances, the great dignities which his family holds at this court, his considerable estates in this realm...and above all, his zeal for the liberty of our provinces.” Thus recommended, the marquis first set sail for America in April 1777.
Lafayette never fully understood that his real job was to help get France into the war, not to fight it himself. Politically, he could be obtuse. “He was an ingénu and quite naive,” says Auricchio. “The opposite of someone like Talleyrand.”
I met with the historian Laurence Chatel de Brancion—who with co-author Patrick Villiers published the French-language biography La Fayette: Rêver la gloire (Dreaming of Glory) in 2013—at her grand apartment near Parc Monceau in Paris. On her father’s side of the family (an ancestor helped found Newport, Rhode Island), Chatel de Brancion is a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Through the French branch of the DAR, she oversaw a donation to the Hermione re-creation project. But when it comes to Lafayette the man, she takes the cold-eyed view often found on her side of the Atlantic. The man often called a “citizen of two worlds” turns out to be a hero in only one of them.
“Lafayette is just an image. He’s the portrait of the terrible inconsequence of the French elite of that period,” Chatel de Brancion tells me. “Franklin used Lafayette, purely and simply. He said, ‘Cover this guy with glory, don’t let him go too near the fighting, and send him back to France full of enthusiasm.’” Moreover, she adds dryly, “Everything the U.S. thanks Lafayette for, it should be thanking Franklin for.”
Maybe so, but nobody will deny that Lafayette played his assigned part perfectly. After an initial chilly reception, he stepped quickly into the role of America’s BFF—Best French Friend. This required a lot more than just showing up. Many of the Frenchmen Silas Deane sent over managed to make themselves deeply unpopular with their haughty manners and their prickly sense of entitlement (Deane later took considerable heat for this).
“These people think of nothing but their incessant intrigues and backbitings,” wrote the German-born French officer Johann de Kalb, the brilliant soldier who came over with Lafayette on the 1777 voyage. “Lafayette is the sole exception....He is an excellent young man.”
The very qualities that made Lafayette a dud at Versailles made him a hit in Boston, Philadelphia and Valley Forge. He was straightforward and enthusiastic. He said what he meant, and then he said it again, and then he said it again. His stubborn optimism in the face of hardship rivaled Candide’s. He was, well, a lot like us. “He had a certain self-deprecating charm, and the ability to make fun of himself, which is not the French style of humor,” says Auricchio.
Crucially, Lafayette won over George Washington, a commander-in-chief with a marked distaste for intimacy and a hostility to the French officer class. In explaining how Lafayette broke the ice, Chatel de Brancion makes much of the fact that Lafayette fought in the blue uniform of a major general in the Continental Army. “We’ve lost the subtlety of that gesture today. Washington was honored that a foreign aristocrat would fight in that uniform—it did him, Washington, enormous credit.”
But clothing alone can’t explain the unusually affectionate bond that sprang up between the two men. Lafayette spent much of the war at Washington’s side and at one point pretty much moved into his house. He named his own son George Washington. By all accounts, the relationship was a bright spot in both their lives. It has withstood the full Freudian treatment over the years; history has yet to find a dark underside to it.
It didn’t hurt that Lafayette happened to be the truest of true believers. Auricchio quotes a French comrade who tries to convince Lafayette to stop being such a sap by believing Americans “are unified by the love of virtue, of liberty...that they are simple, good hospitable people who prefer beneficence to all our vain pleasures.” But that is what he believed, and nothing could convince him otherwise. Lafayette’s American bubble remained unburst to the end.
It must be said that battlefield heroics contribute little to Lafayette’s legacy, even though he sought to win glory through force of arms at every opportunity. Whether by circumstance or design—Chatel de Brancion says some of both—Lafayette was rarely put in a position to risk serious harm. Lafayette’s physical courage was beyond question, but his ardor often outweighed his military judgment.