Yorktown, Virginia announced that public parking in town on June 5 was being reserved for VIPs. We, the unwashed masses, would need to park at Endview Plantation, a museum owned by the neighboring town of Newport News, and take a shuttle bus.
I’m always leery of putting the fate of my well laid plans in the hands of others, especially a governmental entity. And I was right to be concerned. The first shuttle bus was supposed to leave Endview for Yorktown at 7 am. 7 am came and went. There were no signs of a bus. I was going to miss the arrival of the Hermione.
In 1780, Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette, sailed to America on the French frigate, Hermione. He’d been here before, arriving in 1777 as a 19-year-old, speaking what English he had learned on the ship during his crossing. He had a letter of support from Benjamin Franklin and membership in the Masons and with that, and his offer to serve in the Continental Army without pay, Congress made him a major general. He and George Washington became a tightly bonded pair, he became a great general, and rest is text book American history.
What’s less known is that his biggest achievement came toward the end of the war. In 1779 he returned to France and, working with Benjamin Franklin, convinced the French king to send 6000 soldiers and 5 frigates to fight for the colonists’ cause in America. Then he returned to America on one of those frigates, the Hermione.
In April, a reproduction of the Hermione set sail from Rochefort, France, on a two month transatlantic voyage to the US. Her purpose was several-fold, but the one that resonates with me the most is (of course): “To demonstrate the inestimable value of history.” Her first port-of-call in the States would be on June 5, at Yorktown, and I was determined to be there at 8 am when she sailed into Yorktown’s harbor.
So there I was, waiting at Endview with about 50 others when someone who had been monitoring the Yorktown Hermione website said, “The information on the Yorktown website just change. They say that they’re not picking us up here. We have to go to the sports complex.” About 20 miles away.
It was like a road rally — we all jumped into our cars and sped away. I had no idea where I was going, but Patricia, my travel companion, furiously worked her GPS. Long story short, we got to the right place, got the bus, and got to Yorktown just in time to see the Hermione off shore, exchanging cannon salutes with venues on shore.
There were French flags waving everywhere and I heard just as much French spoken as English. It was rather gratifying to see that they were just as excited about this whole thing as the Americans. The Hermione had sent out a call for reenactors to hang out in costume at the ports “to make the 18th century come alive.” So there were lots of people just doing their tourist thing, but in 18th century dress. Is it hypocritical of me to want to take their photos while at the same time thinking that its more than a little weird? I thought so.
Tickets to tour the Hermione were being distributed to the unwashed masses on a first come, first served basis. About a half an hour before the appointed time, we went to stand in the general area where we thought ticket distribution was to take place. Nothing was particularly well organized and information was inconsistent. Suddenly, someone put a table directly in front of us. Then someone sat down at the table. Then someone pulled out a roll of tickets and handed one to me. Mission accomplished with no effort whatsoever: I was in the first group to tour the Hermione (the first of the unwashed masses, that is – VIPs had been going on and off all morning).
My favorite part of the Hermione tour: climbing the narrow, steep gangplank to get on board. I know that I’m weird, but it was fun. My favorite part of the landing ceremony: the crew of the Hermione serenaded us with several French seafaring songs. They were very good.
The 18th century Hermione saw battle during the Revolutionary War, then returned to France. She was wrecked and lost in 1793, during a battle against the British off the coast of France.
The 21st century Hermione leaves Yorktown tonight for northern Virginia. She’ll anchor in the Potomac near Mount Vernon tomorrow, then head for Alexandria for a 3 day stay. Then she’s off to Annapolis, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York City, Boston and Nova Scotia before heading home to France in July. It’s definitely worth making the trip to see her, if you live near the east coast of the US or Canada. Or even if you don’t. The people next to us in line to board the Hermione had come from Texas just for the occasion.