Editor’s Note: As the French tall ship replica L’Hermione makes her way up the East Coast to celebrate the relationship between France and the United States, a series of blogs will discuss four topics: the Marquis de Lafayette; the ship that brought him to America the second time in 1780, L’Hermione; the critical Battle of the Virginia Capes on Sept. 5, 1781, and the Franco-American relationship as it has grown over the past years.
From Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
It took 11 months to build the Concorde-class frigate L’Hermione at Rochefort, France. Shipwright Henri Chevillard designed the light frigate to be fast and maneuverable while carrying 12-pound guns. Under the command of Lt. Louis-René Levassor de Latouche Tréville, she completed sea trials in 1779 in the Gulf of Gascony. Neither would know at the time the ship would be best known for her service to America and the Frenchmen she sailed to America, rather than France.
On Friday, March 10, 1780, Latouche’s journal made note of the arrival of L’Hermione’s “precious” passenger who was returning to America with the news he had secured 5,500 French troops and a squadron of frigates to bolster American forces fighting for their independence against the British.
“At 10 in the morning, the Marquis de La Fayette, colonel of the king’s Dragoons regiment and major general in the service of the United States of America, accompanied by two officers, his secretary and six servants, boarded the ship that I was ordered by the Court to sail to North America. At 11 in the evening, I set sail from the Barques harbor in the direction of the Ile d’Aix, and was accompanied by the king’s frigate, the Cerès, under the command of the Baron de Bombelles, the captain of the king’s warships.”
The frigate sailed into Boston harbor around 4:30 a.m. on April 28, 1780. When Lafayette disembarked, Latouche honored the French nobleman with 13 canon blasts and three shouts of “Long Live the King.”
The captain commented on the people he saw and noted how the new government was forming in the colonies: “The people are, in general, healthy and robust. The women have a certain vitality, but it does not last long. A twenty-five-year-old woman is considered old. Boston is the seat of government of the Province of Massachusetts Bay. At this moment, work is being done on the creation of a new constitution, according to which the state government will be in the hands of a governor, who will change every year. He will be assisted by a council of his choosing. Messieurs Beaudwin, Samuel Adams and Hancock are in the running. It is generally believed that the first candidate will be chosen. He will be the general and admiral of the State. The city of Boston sends four representatives from the Province of Massachusetts Bay to the Congress.”
A few days later, after Lafayette left for Morristown, the L’Herimone hosted several Boston officials on May 4: “I received the principal members of the Council of this State to dinner as well as General Heath, Messieurs Samuel Adams, Hancock, Doctor Cooper, Beaudwin, and other guests who represent the city’s most distinguished individuals.”
He honored the guests with salvos of artillery fire “in accordance with the orders I received from the (French) Court”: 21 blasts for the King of France, the 13 United States, Queen of France, Congress, and King of Spain; 17 for Gen. Washington; 13 each to the American Army, Council of Boston, permanent alliance between France and America, the success of the campaign, in memory of those who were killed in support of the American cause; to the success of the American Navy, and to the Marquis de Lafayette.
The frigate then sailed north to Penobscot Bay to do surveillance on the British garrison at Fort George, Maine. Following the week-long trip, the frigate installed additional artillery in Rhode Island, and then returned to cruising the New York shipping lanes.
On June 7, 1780, a 90-minute battle occurred between the 32-gun L’Hermione and the 32-gun British frigate HMS Iris about 15 miles off Long Island. During the fight, Latouche suffered a shot through his arm, although he continued to command his ship. When Iris reduced the topsail of her foremast to sail away, L’Hermione was unable to chase due to damaged rigging.
The skirmish continued, however, in the press, after Iris’ commanding officer, Capt. James Hawker, claimed L’Hermione left the battle, while Latouche published his response to Hawker claiming L’Hermione’s rigging kept her from the chase and Hawker could have re-engaged rather than retreating. According to Latouche, his ship tallied 10 dead and 37 wounded during the engagement, compared to seven killed and nine wounded on Iris.
The following year, to combat British Gen. Benedict Arnold’s troops in Virginia, the French squadron, including L’Hermione, sailed to Hampton Roads carrying 1,200 troops. A British commander got wind of squadron and sailed in pursuit, arriving before the French squadron about 40 miles east, northeast of Cape of Henry on March 16, 1781. Each side had eight ships of line. Despite the British having superior firepower, three of her ships suffered severe damage to the rigs and sails. Yet the French couldn’t claim victory since the British were able to sail into the Chesapeake Bay to provide supplies and reinforcements to Arnold’s troops. L’Hermione and the rest of the French squad returned to Newport.
On April 30, L’Hermione “navigated toward the city of Philadelphia,” where Latouche anchored “in front of the open-air market at Drawbridge.” Following the Philadelphia ceremonies, L’Hermione was back at duty protecting shipping lanes, paired with another French ship, Astrée. Patrolling off Nova Scotia, the French frigates attacked a British convoy of nine coal transports and four supply ships escorted by the frigate Charlestown, two sloops, an armed transport and another smaller armed ship, Jack. When the naval Battle of Louisbourg ended at nightfall on July 21, 1781, Charlestown was severely damaged, but rejoined the convoy that still managed to collect its load of coal and deliver it to Halifax. The French ships took Jack as a prize and later captured another British ship and three merchantmen.
L’Hermione crossed paths with Lafayette once again during the Siege of Yorktown. The French fleet, under the command of Adm. Comte de Grasse, held off the British fleet during the Battle of the Virginia Capes Sept. 5, 1781, and now controlled the Chesapeake Bay. Lafayette’s army division was soon joined with troops from Gen. George Washington and French Gen. Comte de Rochambeau in Williamsburg, while the British army under the command of Lt. Gen. Lord Charles Cornwallis camped out at Yorktown.
L’Hermione and her squadron sailed from Rhode Island to the Chesapeake Bay, arriving Sept. 22, 1781. The frigate patrolled entrances to the James and York River.
On Sept. 28, 1781, while Gen. Washington was leading his division of more than 18,000 combined French and American troops out of Williamsburg to surround Yorktown, Latouche wrote of seeing French ships on the horizon: “I displayed my number. Soon thereafter, they posted theirs. I knew by this method that these frigates were the Concorde and the Surveillante. At 6 o’clock, I joined them. I put my dinghy into the sea and I came on board the Concorde. I learned … Lord Cornwallis had taken refuge in Yorktown that we were about to attack; and the Navy was in the bay of the York River. I entered the bay with these frigates. At 9 o’clock, they left the coast in order to perform surveillance. I anchored the ship and waited for daylight. I logged in at the point NW of Cape Henry to SSE at a distance of 2/3rds of a league.”
With no hope of supplies getting through the French fleet blockade, and surrounded by the American and French armies, Cornwallis surrendered nearly 8,000 soldiers on Oct. 19, 1781.
L’Hermione returned to France in 1782. She sailed in India against the British in 1783, and returned back to France the following year. On Sept. 20, 1793, the frigate ran aground off the rocky coast of Croisic in western France and was wrecked by heavy seas. The pilot was court-martialed for her loss.