The Marquis de Lafayette Sails Again

Now that the ship that the Frenchman took on his 1780 trip to America has been rebuilt, its time to revisit his role in history

The Hermione, 17 years in the making, replicates the original wartime frigate that ferried the Marquis de Lafayette to America in 1780. (Association Hermione La Fayette)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

Moreover, as Franklin counseled, it was prudent to protect such a valuable political chess piece. No one wanted Lafayette to meet the fate of his friend de Kalb (DeKalb Avenue, Brooklyn). He was shot and bayoneted repeatedly at the Battle of Camden, dying of his wounds three days later.

Lafayette’s brush with death came at the disastrous Battle of Brandywine on September 11, 1777, when a musket ball passed through the fleshy part of his lower leg. In this, as in so many things, Lafayette had luck on his side. The wound did him little harm (he was treated by Washington’s personal physician) and made him an instant hero.

Another exploit burnished Lafayette’s reputation as a fighting man. On May 20, 1778, Lafayette and his small detachment of Pennsylvania militiamen, at their camp outside Philadelphia, found that they were surrounded by 5,000 redcoats advancing from several directions. Lafayette’s coolness in organizing a retreat in which only nine of his men were killed is nothing short of “miraculous,” writes Auricchio.

In January 1779, with a lull in the fighting, Lafayette sailed back to France, where he continued to knock himself out seeking crucial additional assistance on America’s behalf. (“It is fortunate for the king that Lafayette does not take it into his head to strip Versailles of its furniture, to send to his dear Americans,” the Count de Maurepas remarked in the royal council.)

What Lafayette wanted above all was to return to America in a French uniform at the head of the French expeditionary force forming in early 1780. Instead, the job was given to the battle-hardened Count de Rochambeau. Lafayette’s mission to Washington aboard the Hermione was given to him as a consolation prize.

Capt. Yann Cariou finally found the rough weather he was looking for. Two days after setting out from La Rochelle, he moored the Hermione in a bay off the Crozon peninsula near the northwestern tip of France, almost within sight of where he was born on the Pointe du Raz. These are notoriously angry waters, and they lived up to their billing. All hands welcomed the foul, blustery morning that greeted us the following day.

We sailed out of the bay under a sharp breeze, the Hermione skimming along at ten knots and Mozart’s Symphony No. 25 in G minor cranking on the PA. Everybody was elated. The volunteer crew of men and women mainly in their 20s—French, Swedish, Belgian, German and one American—strained to hoist more sail, eight or ten of them on each line (there were no winches in 1779; the Swedish bosun noted that if a time machine sent him back to the original Hermione, he would make sure to bring a portable winch with him). As instructed, everybody grunted, “Oh! hisse!” in cadence as they pulled. It’s French for “heave ho,” pronounced oh eese; the bosun tells me that you get demonstrably better pulling power if you sing out while you pull.

Before long the wind picked up to Force 8, a gale. The Hermione was slicing through the high swells at 12 or so knots, very fast and close to its top speed. Captain Cariou was smiling broadly as the swells knocked the ship from side to side.

“I’m astonished at what she can do,” says Cariou shaking his head appreciatively. Before he took over as the Hermione’s skipper in 2012, Cariou served as captain of the 167-foot Belem, the French merchant marine’s three-masted training barque. The sluggish Belem was built in 1896 to haul sugar from the West Indies back to France. Cariou was amazed by the difference. “The hull is perfect! She pushes very little water ahead of her, and she chews up very little wake behind.”

The swells had picked up now, and the wind was whistling through the rigging. Some 60 feet up, the crew in yellow slickers was working fast to reef the mainsail while balancing shakily on a slender rope. Looking up I feared for them all, but particularly for the lone American, Adam Hodges-LeClaire from Lincoln, Massachusetts. Adam is a college student obsessed with Revolutionary War history to the point that he sews his own period clothes. He wore nothing else on board, including skimpy leather shoes loosely tied with cord—not the best for keeping a foothold on a madly swaying line. “Please don’t say I’m crazy,” Adam asks me politely. “Say I’m...passionate.”

Several sailors got seasick. “If you can’t handle this, you’re in the wrong business,” says Charlène Gicquel, the pint-size first mate from the English Channel port of Cancale who came over with Cariou from the Belem. “But then,” she adds, “we’re all masochists.”

This was the same kind of weather that the Hermione ran into near the beginning of its 38-day journey across the Atlantic in 1780. The ship’s captain, Louis-René-Madeleine Le Vassor, Comte de Latouche-Tréville, noted the worsening conditions in his log. March 26: “Hermione pitching violently.” March 30: “Wind turns to northwest with strong swells. I note with concern that the ship is straining.”

Poor Lafayette. He was an unhappy sailor even in a calm sea—“I believe we sadden each other, [the sea] and I,” he wrote during his first trip over. Rough water made him violently ill. Laurence Chatel de Brancion envisions Lafayette most likely on deck during the gale, hugging the Hermione’s main mast. That’s what the German charlatan Franz Anton Mesmer recommended as a cure for seasickness. Lafayette was mesmerized—that’s where we get the word—by Mesmer’s crackpot theory of animal magnetism (in fairness, so was half of Europe). Even after Mesmer’s claims had been thoroughly debunked (by Benjamin Franklin, among others) Lafayette may never have stopped believing. “When it came to matters scientific, Lafayette’s enthusiasm sometimes trumped his good sense,” Auricchio writes with some delicacy.

The destinies of Lafayette and the Hermione diverged after Lafayette debarked in Boston on April 28, 1780; he then traveled overland to join Washington at his headquarters in Morristown, New Jersey. The Hermione’s 34-year-old Capt. Latouche-Tréville sailed off to win great renown of his own against the English.

Little more than a month after dropping off Lafayette, Latouche-Tréville sighted the 32-gun English frigate Iris off Long Island. The two warships pounded each other at murderously close range for an hour and a half. Finally, the Iris withdrew, apparently in no shape to continue. The Hermione was badly damaged, and counted 10 dead and 37 wounded. The two captains subsequently argued in the press about who had actually won. But for the current Hermione’s captain, Yann Cariou, the question doesn’t even arise: “We won,” he tells me with a look that made me drop any follow-up questions.

Latouche-Tréville continued to reel off naval victories, often against great odds, in the Hermione and in other ships, during the American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. On two occasions in 1801, he bloodied the nose of the invincible Lord Nelson. He was supposed to command at Trafalgar, but, alas for France, he died the year before the battle. “If we had had him at Trafalgar, everything would have been different,” insists Cariou, sounding like a die-hard Brooklyn Dodgers fan replaying some of the World Series they lost to the Yankees before 1955.

Lafayette, for his part, wrote to his wife shortly after debarking the Hermione in Massachusetts. “It is to the roar of cannon that I arrive or depart; the principal residents mount their horses to accompany me,” Lafayette reported. “In short, my love, my reception here is greater than anything that I could describe to you.” Did all this adulation go to his head? Yes, it did. An exasperated John Adams, no great fan, wrote in his diary that Lafayette “would be thought the unum necessarium in everything.”

Upon joining Washington in Morristown, Lafayette began agitating for a joint invasion of New York, where the British were strongly entrenched. Rochambeau had to slap him down, more than once. “He forgets that there is still a left flank in a landing, which the whole English Navy will exterminate,” he wrote to another officer.

Rochambeau, along with Washington and the Count de Grasse, commander of the French fleet, opted for bottling up Cornwallis in Yorktown, allowing France to deploy the weight of both its army and its navy in support of Washington’s Continental Army. The outcome speaks for itself. Yorktown briefly reunited Lafayette and the Hermione for the last time: He led 1,200 light infantry to keep Cornwallis busy in Virginia while the French tightened the noose around Yorktown from the sea; the Hermione was part of that noose. The way Laurence Chatel de Brancion sees it, Rochambeau never really got the credit he was due.

History dies hard. “The French still think the Americans should be grateful, because without us, they would never have won the war, which is true,” says Bruno Gravellier, a former naval officer who is the superintendent aboard the Hermione. “It was a long time ago, but I still get a sense of friction between the U.S. and the French sides of the association.”

The remainder of Lafayette’s long life—he died in 1834 at age 76—belongs to the history of France. He unfailingly demonstrated a willingness to rise above the factionalism that gripped France as it headed toward its own revolution.

It sounds good and helps make Lafayette an emotionally sympathetic character, seen from here. But, like many of Lafayette’s best qualities, it earned him little credit in his native land. An aristocratic liberal in the late 1700s and early 1800s was like a Rockefeller Republican today—a chimerical creature unbeloved by those whose differences he tries to split. Even Thomas Jefferson, in 1789, warned Lafayette against attempting to “trim between two sides,” but Lafayette didn’t listen.

When thinking of Lafayette, Americans will always see the fiery youth at Washington’s side, doing his damnedest for our country. Everything else is commentary, and maybe that’s a fair way for an American to look at him.

In the turbulent history of France after Lafayette’s return from America—a period that saw the French Revolution, the rise and fall of Napoleon and the restoration of the monarchy—Lafayette, a son of the Enlightenment and the American Revolution, in public life or private, steadfastly articulated his devotion to one principle: the pursuit of liberty.

Yet the French retain a different image. On July 17, 1791, a large crowd demonstrated on the Champ de Mars in Paris. Lafayette, commander in chief of the new National Guard, brought his troops to maintain order. A thrown rock, a dragoon down, and suddenly the troops opened fire, killing perhaps 100. There were twists and turns to come, but the massacre did incalculable damage to Lafayette’s reputation. “He was catastrophic,” is Chatel de Brancion’s unappealable verdict. Lafayette did remain in the French Army until 1792 and later held office as deputy to the National Convention after the fall of Napoleon in 1815.

As the Hermione at last enters the Gironde estuary, headed for Bordeaux at the end of a week of sea trials, we are suddenly surrounded by dozens of small motor craft and sailboats. The vessels weave in and out, their occupants waving, and blasting their air horns. It’s heady stuff, and it inflated all our spirits.

This must have been something like what Lafayette witnessed as the Hermione sailed into Boston Harbor in 1780. He must have been fairly drunk on it, too, given what Jefferson called his “canine appetite for fame.” But maybe he can be forgiven. In such a moment, you don’t ask yourself what you’ve done to deserve such fanfare. You just smile broadly and think, All this? For me?


Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus