March 1780: The marquis de Lafayette is entrusted by his king with a message for George Washington. It is a message the American commander-in-chief has been hoping to receive for nearly five years—that France will send troops to America’s aid. The twenty-two-year-old Frenchman boards a French navy vessel bound for the United States and sets off on a fateful voyage.
In the summer of 2015, a replica of this very ship, the Hermione, arrived in Yorktown, Virginia, for a tour of the East Coast of the United States, celebrating the conclusion of a twenty-year effort to rebuild the ship that brought Lafayette to America. The Hermione project brought together naval architects, historical restoration experts, maritime historians, sailors and artisans. Based on original ships’ plans and technical treatises from the period, the reconstruction combined traditional shipbuilding techniques and modern technologies. The modern Hermione was built at the Arsenal in Rochefort, France—the same shipyard where the original was launched.
Lafayette’s voyage marked a turning point in our War for Independence—the moment when the futures of the United States and France were tied together. The modern Hermione honors the continuing friendship between France and the United States while celebrating the impressive tradition of French naval architecture. The Hermione is a monument of craftsmanship, a tribute to the greatness of the French sailing navy of the eighteenth century, and above all, a reminder of the historic relationship between France and the United States.
This exhibition explored Lafayette’s contributions to American independence as well as the history of the Hermione and French naval architecture of the eighteenth century using rare books, maps, engravings, manuscripts and other artifacts in the Institute’s collections. The exhibition also looked at the construction of the modern frigate, displaying examples of resources instrumental to developing the reconstruction plan, materials used in construction and a model of the Hermione.