It was a rare and moving moment in modern American politics—politicians on both sides of the aisle were touting the long and storied relationship between the U.S. and France in the aftermath of the gruesome Charle Hebdo attack.
Conservative firebrand Ted Cruz tweeted, “The US stands in solidarity w/ our long-standing NATO ally France in this ongoing battle w/ radical Islamic terror.” Senate hawk Lindsey Graham wrote, “Our thoughts and prayers are with the victims, the families, and the French people in the wake of this horrendous attack.” House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s declared, “France is one of America’s oldest & truest allies. Our prayers are with the people of Paris & all who stand for a world free from terror.”
And while the White House inexplicably failed to send either the president or vice president to the march in Paris, this spring the U.S. will get a second chance to reminisce on our shared history with the upcoming transatlantic crossing of L’Hermione, a replica of the ship that brought the Marquis de Lafayette to the aid of the colonies. She will depart from the charming French town of Rochefort in southwestern France, stopping at Yorktown, Mount Vernon, Alexandria, Annapolis, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City, Greenport, Newport, Boston, Castine, and Lunenburg.
In 1778 the French crown ordered the construction of four fast frigates at the naval dockyard in Rochefort. Just 11 months later, they were completed—and one of the four was L’Hermione, whose task would be to ferry Gilbert Motier, also known as the Marquis de Lafayette, across the Atlantic. The Marquis at the time was just 21 years of age. At 19 he had already volunteered in the colonial armed forces, and upon his return to France he was part of a successful lobbying effort to get Louis XVI to support the rebel cause. He arrived in Boston on L’Hermione 38 days after his departure, bringing with him the news of the French commitment.
In just a short span of time—the ship ran aground during the French Revolution in 1793 in Brittany— L’Hermione had quite the distinguished career. She fought in several naval battles, including a duel with the Iris off the coast of Long Island. Off of Coast Breton in Nova Scotia, L’Hermione and and L’Astree were victorious over a convoy of 18 British ships. She was also part of the blockade in the decisive battle of Yorktown. Members of the Continental Congress dined aboard when she was in Philadelphia.
Hidden within L’Hermione’s renaissance is a valiant story that should particularly resonate with Americans—that of a small town struggling to find its place in the 21st century.
Founded in 1666, Rochefort was one of three main sites (along with Brest and Toulon) of Louis XIV’s push to build up a permanent navy. While the 20th century would not be so kind, for over 250 years, the town would churn out 550 ships along the Charente River.
Its story is a veritable highlight reel of French naval history.
It includes the ship that carried De La Salle to explore the Gulf of Mexico. The town today is still filled with remnants of the botanical expeditions the navy led.
La Méduse, which was involved in perhaps the most famous naval disaster in French history, was launched from Rochefort. Immortalized in the iconic Théodore Géricault Raft of Medusa, she was a frigate that ran aground in Mauritania in 1816, during the start of the Bourbon Restoration. Her passengers, 186 men and one woman, were put on a 20-meter long raft to be towed by the boats manned by the crew. Instead, the raft was abandoned by the captain, and those on board died by the dozens from suicide, cannibalism, perilous waves, and being thrown overboard because they were weak and people needed more room. After an account from a survivor was leaked to an opposition paper, the scandal and the attempted coverup became a giant stain for the recently re-empowered monarchs.
Rochefort was also the site of France’s first submarine, La Plongeur. Although it was not a success, according to historians at the fantastic naval museum in Rochefort, when Jules Verne saw it at a Paris exposition years later, it inspired the craft in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.
Rochefort was an odd site, however, for a naval dockyard. It is situated a few miles up the Charente River, and the river is nearly unnavigable in parts due to mud. In fact, the rope factory built along its banks had to be constructed on a raft because of the mud. When ships were completed, they had to be hauled along part of the river, sometimes taking a week to go a few miles. Convict labor was used to haul them.
At the start of the 20th century, Rochefort also became the site for the production of zeppelins used in World War I.
However, Rochefort’s physical location rendered it useless in the new age of gigantic steel ships. The Charente, with its shallow waters and endless mud, would never be able to handle what the navy now required. In 1927, the dockyard was shut down.
As could be expected, the town built around a navy struggled when the navy left town.
After being largely forgotten for much of the 20th century, the town began a process of renewal in the 1970s and 80s with the restoration of its iconic rope factory, the Corderie Royal, which literally had trees growing in its ruins. However, in France, a charming town and a rope factory does not make a must-see for tourism.
Fast forward to July 4, 1997, when construction commenced on L’Hermione. The original hull had been found off the coast of Brittany, as well as designs for a sister ship, the Concorde, in Greenwich, England. Over the next decade and a half, enticed by both the story of the ship as well as the engrossing process by which a ship of this magnitude was built, roughly 4 million people visited the site. Those visitors, along with a fundraising drive, raised the roughly $32 million it cost to build the replica.
When visiting the construction site, it’s not hard to see why the crowds have come back to Rochefort. The ship itself is impressive—unlike the always deflating puny Mayflower replica—and the process is engrossing, from the construction of the skeletal-like hull, to placing the masts and rigging (there are 25 km of rope alone). The inside is a mix of the traditional (there is still a confessional for the priest), and the modern (it has engine for safety requirements). The volunteer sailors (54 of them, versus just 18 professionals) who did a trial run earlier this year are infectious with their enthusiasm. Many are students who saw the transatlantic sailing to be of such a historic nature that they put off work to sign up.
That enthusiasm, the town hopes, along with the hordes of Americans expected at each stop, will put Rochefort on the map for the millions of Americans that visit France each year. And for Americans, long obsessed both with military history as well as underdog stories, it doesn’t seem far-fetched.