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"French founding father" honored with replica warship

America's Revolutionary War was raging 235 years ago when Marquis de Lafayette sailed from France aboard the Navy frigate Hermione to deliver good news to his friend George Washington
America's Revolutionary War was raging 235 ye... 06:04

Fireworks announced the arrival of the French frigate Hermione into New York Harbor this week, just in time for the Fourth of July.

This stop was 17 years in the making, reports CBS News' David Begnaud.

To the red, white and blue, the sailors are modern-day ambassadors for a historical hero: Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier de Lafayette, the Frenchman credited with helping to secure American independence.

The New-York Historical Society museum and library is remembering Marquis de Lafayette's legacy in a new exhibition.

Lafayette was 19 years old when he first sailed to America to volunteer for Gen. George Washington's army. A year later, he returned to France, lobbying the king to send French forces. He won the king's favor, and in 1780, Lafayette, at the age 22, sailed back to America aboard Hermione.

There is a story that Lafayette got out in Boston, took a horse to New Jersey to tell George Washington that the French were there to help him and Washington shed a tear.

"That's true. That's true," said Miles Young, president of the Friends of Hermione-Lafayette in America. "That message was the turning point in the whole war because it gave Washington the assurance that help was coming. And then help came, and the rest is history."

Young calls Lafayette "a French founding father."

The original Hermione was part of the blockade at the Battle of the Virginia Capes that led to the British surrender, ending the American Revolution.

"It's one of the most exciting stories in world history," said former U.S. Ambassador to France Craig Stapleton. "I hope schoolkids in America know this story of Lafayette because it's inspirational. We have all these athletes and movie stars who are heroes. This guy was a real hero. He did it all by himself."

Stapleton said it makes him emotional because "I'd like my kids to be like Lafayette," he said.

To celebrate Lafayette, a group of Frenchmen in the early '90s envisioned building a replica of Hermione. But the drawings were lost, so the French had to rely on the British.

Inside the British Admiralty archive were the exact drawings of Hermione's sister ship, the Concorde.

After 17 years of work and more than $20 million raised, Hermione set sail for America on what the French president called a "historic journey of friendship." It arrived in Yorktown, Virginia, in June and has been traveling up the Eastern Seaboard to historic cities like Baltimore and Philadelphia. From New York, it will head to New England, on its way to Canada and then back to France.

When Young was asked why the ship was making this trip, he responded, "Why not?"

"That's the motto of Lafayette: Why not?" Young said. "Why not build a ship that is an exact replica of an 18th century frigate? Why not sail it to America? I think in life we have to ask that question and do things which seem crazy and impossible, otherwise there is something missing in the human spirit."

Young said the ship is almost exactly like the original.

"There are some requirements of coast guards. You have to have an engine. And she came in here with an engine," Young said. "You have to have modern latrines, for instance. But you can more or less stop there. Everything else is authentic from the ropes -- you can smell the tar, that's because the ropes are tarred -- the ropes, the sails and the oaks and thousands of French oaks. In order to get those French oaks you have to find oak trees that are bent so they can form a hull."

One other thing different about this ship -- women.

Chief Mate Charlene Gicquel leads a crew of 74, a third of whom are women. She is the second-in-command on the ship.

Aside from wind, it is French pride powering this frigate, a ship celebrated in the 18th century for its firepower and maneuverability.

Twenty-two-year-old Adam Hodges-Leclair is one of three Americans onboard.

"You're looking at the equivalent of a modern destroyer, for instance, top of the line," Hodges-Leclair said.

Lafayette said of Hermione that she sails like a bird. And as such, she will sail past the Statue of Liberty before leaving New York. Lady Liberty was France's second gift to America. Hermione and Lafayette were the first.

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