Does the name Hermione ring a bell?
… Melrose resident doles out early American history
by Serge Angeric
L'Hermione is guided in to Boston Harbor, under the direction of Captain
Tim Peters and his 7 year old daughter, Ella.
photo courtesy of Captain Rick Hagan of TowboatU.S. , 2015
Does the name Hermione ring a bell?
Maybe not. But if we add to it the name of Lafayette , it surely should
bring back memories of the American Revolution where that young man
played such a significant role. And last month, on July 11, we saw a
replica of the frigate Hermione sail into Boston as its predecessor had
done on April 27, 1780, with the news that Louis XVI, King of France,
would soon supply important financial and military help to Washington
and his rebels.
The story of the present Hermione goes back some 20 years ago when a
group of enlightened people from France and America decided they
would rebuild the ship and make it cross the Atlantic to come to Boston
to commemorate its illustrious namesake.
And they did. Not without many problems, of course. As a strictly private
endeavor, it encountered many obstacles, the principal one being how
and where to build such a complicated project. Each piece, however
small, had to be rebuilt according to ancient craft methods now long
forgotten. Fortunately, the city of Rochefort, a small port on the coast of
France, not far from Bordeaux, and which was one of the navy yards of
the eighteenth century epoch, decided to help in rebuilding the dry dock
as well as the ropewalk building in order to start a revival of the ancient
harbor. (I would not be surprised if Mystic Seaport, in Connecticut, had
not been the great example to follow as it was heralded as an illustration
of what can be done in restoring ancient maritime sites)
In the summer of 1997, a few volunteers assembled and started work on
building the ship. My wife and I were fortunate to visit the site in 2002 and
2006, but in spite of the fact that work was indeed going on, the likelihood
of ever seeing that ship in America always felt like a nice pipe dream without
the slightest chance of it becoming a reality. What we failed to realize then is
that this vessel ended up being the largest and most authentically built Tall
Ship in the last 150 years. And although it incorporated many new features
like motors, electric generators and even bathrooms, all the other elements
like masts, sails, ropes and guns were recreated using wood, cloth, twine and
iron of eighteenth century workmanship.
So it was with great surprise that we learned last year that the ship had
been built and would undertake its crossing over the Atlantic Ocean to
America this spring and summer. This triggered the need to learn more
about the beloved Lafayette. So strong is his memory in the USA that his
name can be found on many places, cities, streets (in New York city there
are 5 Lafayette streets, one in each borough), parks, ships, even a
mountain, with examples all across the country. (Even the first job this
writer held when he emigrated from France, was at a firm called Lafayette
Radio in New York City. (The firm has long disappeared, as well as Radio
Row, one of the streets that were demolished to make room for the
building of the Twin Towers).
One can say it is for good reasons. Without Lafayette, there might not
have been the America as we know it today. Though this is not the place
to write extensively about that man, let’s simply look at some simple
facts about him. He was barely 19 years old when he arrived the first
time in 1777 to join the fight in spite of strong warnings not to do so (by
no other than the French King himself). Then, having met Washington and
fought under him (he was even wounded) the two developed a strong
father-son relationship in which Washington thought of him as the son
he never had and Lafayette found a father figure since his own father had
died when he was an infant. This relationship was further nurtured by
Lafayette who would later name his son George Washington La Fayette.
So strong was his conviction about the righteousness of the fight for
freedom of the American colonies (and also a little bit to avenge his
father’s death at the hands of the British) that he managed to convince
Louis XVI and his ministers to provide significant financial and military
aid to the insurgents across the sea. Having succeeded, he embarked on
a recently built frigate, the Hermione, and rushed to Boston to inform
Washington of the large French force soon to arrive. There he resumed
his position as a major general of some American forces and eventually
the troops under his command defeated Cornwallis at the siege of
Yorktown on October 19, 1781.
The following year, some 6,000 men led by general Rochambeau and 26
ships under admiral de Grasse contributed to the victories of Yorktown
and the Chesapeake Bay. By all accounts, this became the decisive
moment which convinced the British Parliament to stop the war and sign
the peace treaty of Paris in 1783 which, among other things, granted
independence to the American colonies.
Lafayette’s contributions did not stop then. Few people seem to be aware
that our states’ National Guard are also one of his gifts to this country as
being the originator, in France, of the “Garde Nationale,” from which our
own guards are derived.
In a nutshell, the replica’s trip was to commemorate the arrival of the ship in
Boston in 1780 and its various involvements during the revolution.
For one who followed the journey every day I can say that the trip has
been a huge success, both on the welcome it has received everywhere it
went and also of the near perfection of its handling by a very competent
captain and crew. The trip, which started on April 18, ended on August
29 with its return to Rochefort, its port of call.
As we will see briefly, the Hermione made 11 stops in the United States,
starting with Yorktown, Virginia on June 5, where it was saluted by the
destroyer USS Mitscher as she entered the territorial waters.
What is most remarkable is the careful historical study of that period by the
people who planned the trip. They were attentive to many details like which
flag was flown where during the early years. Thus, the Hermione flew no less
than three different American flags during her trip.
Where to call was also carefully chosen as it always involved a passage of
the Hermione at some critical times in the past, as we will now see.
Regardless of which town or city was involved, the reception was always
warm and friendly to the delight of the crew who had not always
anticipated such cheerful and colorful greetings. The local historical
societies went all out for the occasion.
Here we see Andrew Ronemus, a 43-year-old professor of history in
Yorktown, deeply moved at the sight of this historical ghost of the past,
or a reenactment of George Washington welcoming today’s captain, both
in the regalia of an American Revolution general.
Very often, too, during the trip, there were other expression of friendliness
such as a parade of ships, fireworks, an accompaniment of Tall Ships as was
the case in Philadelphia, in Greenport and Newport, or an all-night officers’
ball, with costumes and music of the period, in Alexandria. In fact, perhaps
because of the non-official character of the tour, it seems that the receptions
were best when happening in small places. I must say that I was personally
disappointed that, insofar as Boston was concerned, only a rather modest
celebration took place. I have not quite understood why a parade of ships
which had been scheduled to occur for the arrival of the ship was suddenly
cancelled. As a photographer I had carefully planned where to go to place my
equipment, in fact, twice to make sure I would be in a perfect spot to capture
the event. On the day of the arrival I was surprised to see the Hermione
arriving not from the south as she was supposed to, but from a northern
approach. (That mystery was resolved when we learn that the captain had
seized the opportunity to go see the whales to the amazement of his crew,
which, after all, was a creative change of route). But, as soon as the schedule
was published we made reservations to go to see her at the last call in the
United States, at Castine, Maine. And how glad we were to have done so. For
even though it was probably the smallest port of the visit, it delivered
possibly the most intense and sincere welcome of them all. We had never
heard of this remote place, with barely 300 inhabitants in the winter time.
But, as we soon found out, it is also where the Maine Maritime Academy is
located. As an additional incentive to make a stop here, there is the fact that
Acadia had been a French possession. And to top it all, soon after her arrival
in 1780, the original Hermione had been sent on a mission to spy upon a
British fleet then anchored in Castine. And what enthusiasm there was.
The crowds were so large that all cars had to park
outside of the town and, somehow, manage on foot the rest of the trip.
Apparently the whole population of the surrounding area had been preparing
for the arrival date which, by careful coincidence, also fell on Bastille Day,
As one of the examples of the planning, you can see how the local high
school students worked the whole year to build a mockup of the ship for
their parade in the streets of the town. We did manage to visit the ship and
talk to many crew members who, to our surprise, were 30 per cent female,
and often from other places than France, such as Sweden and Spain. One of
the amazing feats of that enterprise was in fact to train over 400 sailors of
the 18th century, with all that it entails. The crew was composed of 76
sailors (the original ship needed 200 of them) who were replaced at various
times during the trip, all being volunteers, many not able to free themselves
from other responsibilities for a 4-month time period. Oh, and I almost
forgot, there is another thing we were able to achieve, take some great
pictures of the ship as can be ascertained right here.
September 4, 2015