​A friend of the American Revolution is reborn

"Freedom's Frigate" is the nickname of a sailing ship now on its way to America. It's a replica of the French vessel that helped our country win the war of independence. Before its departure, Mark Phillips went aboard:

As memorials to American wars go, this one goes right back to the first one -- the Revolutionary War. And it is certainly among the most handsome and most intricate history lessons ever built.

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The replica of the Hermione set sail from Rochefort, France (where the original ship was built), on April 19, destination America. CBS News

A newly-launched replica of the French frigate, Hermione, is now in mid-Atlantic, ploughing her way westward toward the U.S. East Coast. She's retracing the voyage of the original Hermione, whose mission was so crucial in the American War of Independence that she may be one of the most important warships in U.S. naval history, and the most forgotten.

The original was built for speed, and so, according to her crew, is the copy.

"Lafayette said she sails like a bird, and that's true," said Marc Jensen.

Lafayette is the point of this story. The French aristocrat and great friend of George Washington's, the Marquis de Lafayette, was returning to the revolutionary battle aboard Hermione on that 1780 voyage, and he was bringing good news -- that French troops and more fighting ships were also coming to America to support the cause.

They would prove decisive.

French ground troops played a major role in the final defeat of the British at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781. That victory would not have happened if French warships hadn't beaten off a British fleet in the Battle of the Virginia Capes.

The replica of the 216-foot French frigate Hermione, built using the same materials and many of the samemethods as the original, requires 16,000sq. feet of sail. CBS News

A lot of that has been forgotten as water has passed under the keel of history. The new Hermione was built to refresh peoples' memories.

And stepping aboard is like stepping back 250 years -- pretty fab!

Marc Jensen, a 57-year-old medical publisher from New York and one of several Americans on the mostly French crew, thinks it's pretty fabulous, too. Jensen was smitten by the ship and the history the first time he saw her.

"As an American I knew about Lafayette," he told Phillips, "but I knew nothing about how he got to the States and what age he was, and I found the human part of the story really fascinating."

What started as a love of history has become a love of this re-creation of it.

"I think on some levels we forget and we look at it as an old ship," Jensen said. "We think of her as very slow and ploddish. In fact, at the time she was a racecar, she was a Formula One at the time, and it impressed the other sailors to no end."

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The crew - many volunteers - of the Hermione. CBS News

And she's still impressing sailors, including her captain, Yann Cariou. He expected to be handed a lumbering antique, or the reproduction of one. But he found something else.