L’Hermione in America: A French Frigate in Colonial and Modern America

By Dyllan Cecil

Strengthening A Bond

From the fringes of obscurity to the limelight, the Hermione came to dazzle American and French citizens alike. The original Hermione, built in the late 1700s, was a French frigate that saw military action during the American War of Independence. Because of the American Revolution, France and America developed a strong relationship that has lasted for over two centuries. This bond has been strengthened by the recent production of a replica of the Hermione, which sailed from France to America in the spring of 2015, like the original had in the late 18th century. The journey of the replicated Hermione revived interest in the American Revolution as well as in the French involvement in American independence. This interest was obvious when the French frigate arrived at its first stop in the U.S.: Yorktown. Thousands clamored to Yorktown from all over America, and even from all over the world, for the chance to experience not only the French connection but also living history. So what was the history behind this frigate that captivated the minds of so many people?

The Hermione assisted in the 1781 Battle of the Chesapeake. Due to its size, it was not part of the battle line, but was a messenger, using signal flags to relay battle orders. Following the battle, George Washington traveled out to the Bay with the intention of asking Admiral de Grasse for reinforcement while the land forces handled Yorktown. De Grasse agreed, and the French, including the Hermione, blockaded the Chesapeake Bay. Although not on the front lines, the Hermione helped tremendously in the victory at Yorktown. If Lafayette had not returned to America aboard the Hermione, then Lafayette would not have been able to lead thousands of troops to Yorktown to surround Cornwallis by land. The Hermione, through minor skirmishes, helped in the weakening of the British navy throughout the war. Finally, the Hermione was a member of the blockade that prevented British assistance from reaching Cornwallis at Yorktown.

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L’Hermione in American Newspapers

One of the best sources of events, both in former and modern times, was newspapers. American newspapers were no different, as they illustrated the role of the Hermione during the American Revolution. During the 18th century, many ships were named “Hermione”, with allegiance ranging from the French, British, and Spanish. There was even a French frigate called Hermione that participated in the Seven Year’s War. But the frigate which was recently replicated was the Hermione that carried Marquis de Lafayette to America in 1780. Soon after its production was completed, the Hermione was given the important task of carrying Lafayette to America, where he would be essential in America’s success in the American Revolution. Lafayette was returning to America to announce that a French force would be deployed under Comte de Rochambeau, who was the Lieutenant General of French forces and worked closely with George Washington. Lafayette’s first objective after descending the Hermione was finding Washington, who was at his headquarters at Morristown. Lafayette arrived in Morristown on May 14, 1780.

Following the June 7 battle, the Hermione took on transporting duties. Newport, Rhode Island became the base of French forces in America, thus the area required much maintenance. The Hermione carried flour from Chester, Pennsylvania to Newport, assisting the fleet stationed there, which would later participate in the Battle of the Chesapeake. For the duration of the American War of Independence, the Hermione performed many tasks similar to this, like transporting supplies and supporting the battle line in naval skirmishes.

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After safely carrying Marquis de Lafayette to Boston, the Hermione had many adventures all along the East Coast, including some battles. Hermione encountered the British frigate called Iris on June 7, 1780. Near Long Island, New York, the two vessels quickly exchanged fire and suffered damage. As 3 smaller ships had accompanied the Iris, the battle was deemed successful to the French, as the Hermione held its own against four British ships. But the press made this battle unique, as the captains of both frigates debated the details of the battle by publishing in newspapers. While publicly arguing with British Captain Hawker, Captain La Touche privately recovered, as both he and the Hermione had sustained significant damage due to the skirmish.

her 4Following the June 7 battle, the Hermione took on transporting duties. Newport, Rhode Island became the base of French forces in America, thus the area required much maintenance. The Hermione carried flour from Chester, Pennsylvania to Newport, assisting the fleet stationed there, which would later participate in the Battle of the Chesapeake. For the duration of the American War of Independence, the Hermione performed many tasks similar to this, like transporting supplies and supporting the battle line in naval skirmishes.

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A few months prior to the Battle of the Chesapeake and the Surrender at Yorktown, the Hermione participated in a successful battle against the British. On July 21,1781, the Hermione fought against the British Royal Navy near the Spanish River of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. The British sailed from Halifax with the intention of visiting the Cape Breton coal mines. But the four British ships were attacked by two French ships, one of which was the Hermione. The Hermione and the Astree (or Astrea) caused considerable damage to the British ships and crew. This battle demonstrated the growing weakness of the British navy as they were not able to block the French in European waters as they had in years past. The Hermione, yet again, brought pride to the French through success in battle. This was also one of the last significant battles that the Hermione was involved in before Yorktown, where the Hermione assisted the fleet of Admiral de Barras in the blockade in the Chesapeake Bay.

 

What You Need to Know About L’Hermione

 

Tougher Than It Looks

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The Hermione was able to pack a punch while in battle, like at the Battle of Louisbourg seen above, as it had 26 cannons that shot 12 pound cannonballs, as well as 6 guns that shot 6 pound cannonballs.

 

Do As the Romans Do

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Greek and Latin were very popular during the 18th century, influencing all aspects of life, including books, government policies, and even the names of ships like the Hermione. But America had a particularly deep interest in Classical Antiquity. George Washington admired Roman figures like Cato the Younger; Thomas Jefferson used classical structures as influences for his architectural projects like the Virginia State Capitol and the University of Virginia.

 

What Exactly Was L’Hermione?

The Hermione was a 32-gun French frigate with a copper-bottomed hull. The copper prevented corrosion of the hull; the use of copper was relatively new at the time of the Hermione‘s construction. A frigate was a medium-sized warship with 3 masts, and was intended to bridge the gap between the smaller ships and the ships of the line, as the gap was increasing with the growing size of the ships of the line. Compared to British frigates, the French frigates had a lighter design, which allowed them greater speed but made them more vulnerable, as they were not as sturdy.

 

What Does “Hermione” Mean?

The Hermione received its name from Greek mythology. “Hermione” was the female version of the Greek messenger god Hermes, who was also the protector of travelers. Hermione was also a figure in mythology, being the daughter of Menelaus of Sparta and Helen of Troy, who were big figures in the Trojan War. The character appeared in Homer’s Odyssey and Ovid’s Heroides.

 

What Did the Hermione Do?

Besides transporting Lafayette to America, the Hermione provided naval support to the East Coast through hauling supplies as well as battling the British. Once Lafayette was safely in Boston, the Hermione continued moving, encountering the British ship Iris in Long Island, New York; they quickly exchanged fire, both sustaining substantial damage. After transporting flour from Pennsylvania to Rhode Island, the Hermione once again battled, and defeated, the British in Nova Scotia. Two French frigates, Hermione and Astree, defeated Charlestown, Vulture, Allegiance, and Vernon. A few months after this success, the Hermione traveled south to provide assistance in Yorktown. The 22 – 44 gun warships were used as convoy escorts or for scouting, thus the Hermione continued transporting duties.

The Hermione and the French fleet directed by Admiral de Barras arrived last to Yorktown, coming from Newport, Rhode Island. De Barras’ fleet traveled south to assist Admiral de Grasse against Admiral Graves and the British Royal Navy. The blockade was essential to the victory, as it allowed neither land nor sea escape for Lord Cornwallis.

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HMS Concorde was captured by the British in February of 1783. The British took detailed records of La Concorde, because of its representation of the French Navy and its advancement in naval technology. The British had been surpassed by the French, and were desperate to regain their former strength, particularly after the defeat in America.

 

How was the Hermione Created?

The original Hermione was built over the course of 11 months in Rochefort, France, where 3 other frigates also were built. Compared to British, this was quite impressive, as construction for British ships typically took 4-10 years. The construction of this type of vessel required 4,000-6,000 loads of oak, equal to 120 acres. The reconstructed Hermione was based on designs of La Concorde, a sister ship of the Hermione. La Concorde had been captured by the British, who took detailed notes of its construction. The port in which the original Hermione was built had been abandoned in 1927, thus was available for use in the creation of the replica. The replicated Hermione was built over the course of 17 years.

 

Major Players in the Battle of the Chesapeake

 

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Francois Joseph Paul de Grasse

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Comte de Grasse was a French Admiral who commanded the French fleet that arrived in the Chesapeake Bay in the fall of 1781. Having a nearly non-existent navy, America relied heavily on French naval support, as displayed by de Grasse. Before Yorktown, de Grasse first had to sail to Matanzas, Cuba to retrieve money from Francisco Saavedra de Sangronis, a Spanish government official. Both the French and Americans were losing money, thus the money was essential to the victory at Yorktown. De Grasse then sailed to Virginia and effectively blocked the Bay, and unloaded 3,000 French men on the James River to assist Lafayette. On September 13, Grasse defeated British Admiral Graves and returned to the Chesapeake, where reinforcements from the French Admiral de Barras had arrived from Newport, Rhode Island.

Thomas Graves

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Thomas Graves was a British Admiral who was active during both the Seven Years’ War and the American War of Independence. In July of 1781, Graves was appointed to Vice-Admiral, replacing the experienced Marriot Arbuthnot. On September 5, mere months after his appointment to Vice-Admiral, Graves arrived to the Virginia coast from New York, and some of de Grasse’s fleet that were blockading the York River sailed out to meet him. The two fleets exchanged fire for days. Having sustained more damage and casualties, Graves and his fleet were defeated on September 13, when de Grasse returned to the Bay to meet reinforcements from French Admiral de Barras; Admiral Graves returned to New York for repairs. Graves’ defeat demonstrated the growing strength of the French navy, whereas the British were weakening.

Jacques-Melchior Saint-Laurent, Comte de Barras

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Comte de Barras was a French Admiral during the American Revolution. In 1780, he had been assigned to Newport, Rhode Island to replace deceased Admiral de Ternay, where he remained until the end of August 1781. After a request from Rochambeau, de Barras agreed to sail for the Chesapeake bringing siege artillery, troops, and supplies. The support of Comte de Barras ensured the Franco-American victory, as de Barras reinforced the blockade while the fleet of de Grasse battled Graves and the British fleet.

Sir Henry Clinton

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Clinton became Commander-in-Chief of British Forces in American in 1778. Instead of Cornwallis, Clinton took the fall for the British failure at Yorktown. Yorktown and the Chesapeake Bay had been deemed of high importance due to the commerce of the area. After being torn between New York and Virginia, Clinton decided to reinforce Virginia and to house a fortified harbor there for the British fleet in America, which would connect the Army and Navy. Yet Clinton kept much of the troops in New York up to the end, even after promising to send reinforcements by sea to Cornwallis. If Clinton had followed through with his promise of supporting Cornwallis in Yorktown, Cornwallis would have been able to put up a fight and could have avoided surrender.

 

How Has the Past Influenced Today’s Yorktown?

Why the Chesapeake Bay?

The Chesapeake Bay seemed like the ideal location for a naval base for all participants, as it was judged a midway point between New York and the Southern campaign (particularly South Carolina). The British became very invested in the Bay, believing it to be a great operation center for interrupting Washington’s communications between the North and South campaigns. A base in the Bay would also secure the army, as British land campaigns were less secure without naval assistance.  In 1780, Lord Cornwallis, successful in the land campaign of South Carolina, desired to continue northward. Clinton and other British officials determined that a diversion in Virginia would allow Cornwallis to take North Carolina and shift the focus away from New York, where the British had been for some time. After the French Navy had landed in Newport, Rhode Island and word had spread that they intended to sail for the Chesapeake next, the British orchestrated campaigns in Virginia that ended unsuccessfully. When Cornwallis was unsuccessful in North Carolina and began losing control of South Carolina, he started moving to Virginia to support the campaigns to take Richmond and Petersburg and the mission to set up a naval base in the Bay.

The Focus on Yorktown

Clinton instructed Cornwallis to set up a base in the Chesapeake Bay, at either Old Point Comfort or Yorktown, although Portsmouth was also suggested. But Major General William Phillips disagreed with Portsmouth as a prime location, encouraging Cornwallis to make the final decision. Cornwallis decided on Yorktown because he believed the Old Point Comfort did not allow him to control the entrance to the James River or to protect a British fleet in Hampton Rhodes. He felt that ships of the line could be effectively protected at Yorktown. As Cornwallis began the establishment of the base, Lafayette noticed the increase in activity of the area, and began moving his troops south after notifying Washington. Yorktown became the center of activity, and eventually the location of success.

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Yorktown 2015

Nearly 250 years later, the Hermione returned to Yorktown, this time bringing excitement and knowledge instead of military support. Thousands flocked to Yorktown between June 5 and 7 with the hope of boarding a piece of history. The voyage of the replicated Hermione revived interest in not only the American Revolution, but even in history itself. From the life of Lafayette to the role of black troops in 18th century France, the visitors craved information on a variety of topics as encouraged by the Hermione. The project sparked the interest from all over, including local residents and even French citizens who came to Yorktown from France just for the Hermione. Yorktown was yet again seized by people by land and by sea.

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Dozens of volunteers were needed to support the massive amount of visitors. Christopher Newport students distributed tickets, organized the boarding line, circulated surveys to visitors about their experience, and provided local and historical information, including the panels that are featured at the end of this post.

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Having spent months supporting this project, I was able to board the Hermione as well as meet those aboard the frigate. Assisting with this moving piece of history and seeing the revived excitement in the historical field has been an experience like no other.

The Lasting Effect

The Hermione represents the lasting bond between America and France, a bond created during the American War of Independence and one that is still thriving nearly 250 years later. Neither country would be where it is today without the benefit of the other. The Hermione project has increased interest in the history and culture of both countries as well as of Yorktown. In Yorktown alone, thousands of people had the benefit of conversing with those of a different background, be it volunteers aboard the Hermione or visiting French dignitaries. This project has illustrated the importance of Yorktown and the Hampton Roads area in the 18th century fight for independence, reminding residents of the wonderfully historic area that they live in. America has been lucky enough to welcome the Hermione to its shores yet again, as the hearts and minds of its citizens are invigorated by a piece of history.

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Historical Panels on Display

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These Panels were featured at the Hermione’s First Port of Call at Yorktown, where over 20,000 visitors, both American and international, had the chance to view them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Baker, William S. “Itinerary of General Washington from June 15, 1775 to December 23, 1783.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 15 (1891):41 – 87.

Brown, John S. “The Marquis de Lafayette at 250.” Army 57.9 (2007): 108.

Dull, Jonathan Romer. “The French Navy and American Independence: Naval Factors in French Diplomacy and War Strategy, 1774 – 1780.” PhD, diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1972.

Entick, John. The General History of the Late War: Containing Its Rise, Progress, and Event, in Europe, Asia, Africa, and America.London: Edward and Charles Dilly, 1766.

Guerin, Leon. Histoire Maritime de France. Paris: Dufour et Mulat, Editeurs, 1851.

Gwyn, Julian. Frigates and Foremasts: the North American Squadron in Nova Scotia Waters, 1745 – 1815. Toronto: University of British Columbia Press, 2003.

Rochefort Official Website, http://www.ville-rochefort.fr/decouvrir/histoire.

Sands, John Ogilby. “Sea Power at Yorktown: The Archaeology of the Captive Fleet.” PhD, diss., The George Washington University, 1980.

Willcox, William B. “The British Road to Yorktown: A Study in Divided Command.” The American Historical Review 52.1 (1946) 1 – 35.

“An Impartial Narrative of the Engagement between His Majesty’s Ship Vulture, Charlestown, and the Africa and Hermione French Frigates.” The Royal Gazette, December 8, 1781.

“Extract of a Letter from M. De La Perouse to M. De Barras, Dated July 23.” The Freeman’s Journal: or, The North-American Intelligencer, September 12, 1781.

“From His Britannic Majesty’s Frigate Iris, July 20, 1780.” The American Journal and General Advertiser, September 20, 1780.

“New-York, April 23.” The New York Gazette; and the Weekly Mercury, April 23, 1781.

PLEASE NOTE: Unless specified here, all images were provided by Dyllan Cecil or CNU Publicity.

L’Hermione in American Newspapers:

September 20, 1780: The American Journal And General Advertiser; Providence, Rhode Island

April 23, 1781: The New-York Gazette; and The Weekly Mercury; New York, New York

September 12, 1781: The Freeman’s Journal: or, The North-American Intelligencer; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

December 8, 1781: The Royal Gazette; New York, New York

What You Need to Know About L’Hermione:

French Frigate “L’Hermione” in Combat, Auguste-Louis de Rossel de Cercy, before 1804.

Hermione, costume for ‘Andromaque’, from Research on the Costumes and Theatre of All Nations, Philippe Chery, 19th Century.

A Representation of His Majesty’s Frigate La Concorde Engageing Two French Frigates The L’ Engageante and La Resolve on the 23d April 1794 off the Isle of Bas, John Fairburn, 1795.

Major Players of the Battle of the Chesapeake:

A Part of Virginia showing Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown, Robert Ball, 1939.

Francois Joseph Paul 1723-88 Count of Grasse, Jean Baptiste Mauzaisse, 1842.

Admiral Thomas Graves, James Northcote, 1801.

Surrender of Lord Cornwallis, John Trumbull, 1820.

General Sir Henry Clinton, Andrea Soldi, 1760-1770.

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