As Folly Beach renourishment takes place, France watches for signs of Lafayette shipwreck
FOLLY BEACH - France will be closely watching the renourishment dredging here and the Charleston Harbor dredging about to take place. That's because somebody rooting through trash in Paris found a scrawled, historic link:
Folly renourishment workshop
WHAT: A public workshop on the Folly Beach renourishment project.
WHEN: 4-7 p.m., Feb. 19
WHERE: Tides Folly Beach Hotel, 1 Center St.
"The ... La Victoire, of and for Bordeaux," the document reads, "commanded by Jean Baptiste Le Boursier (who some time ago brought over the Marquis de LaFayette with other French noblemen and others) on the 14th unfortunately struck upon the bar, where the vessel and cargo were entirely lost, but none of the people."
The bar might well have been off Folly Beach. La Victoire was departing Charleston on June 14, 1777, after carrying Lafayette to the Colonies and a fabled place in the American Revolution. It evidently grounded trying to clear the channel, which at the time wound south along Morris Island and the north end of Folly.
Since the documents' discovery tied Lafayette to Bordeaux, France, French journalist Jean-Michel Selva, of Sud Ouest, and others in Bordeaux have hoped to find some remnant of the ship lost more than two centuries ago. The dredgings might be their best chance.
"It's possible the workers will find one of two cannons or the bell of the ship," he wrote in an email.
There's not much possibility. The harbor channel has been dredged several times since it was first dug, and any remnants likely are far gone.
But there is a tantalizing chance, at least, with the Folly Beach dredging.
The Lafayette story is a curious but often overlooked bit of Lowcountry lore. As a 19-year-old French junior officer, he defied orders, sneaking out of France aboard the ship to join the Revolution with some like-minded troops. They sailed for Charleston but feared they would be seized by British ships offshore, so they landed at North Island, today's Yawkey Preserve, in the Santee Delta.
Guided by slaves, Lafayette sludged through the swamps for 75 miles to Charleston and sought out Maj. Benjamin Huger. Muddy, bugbitten and worn out from the voyage and trek, the Frenchman had a hard time convincing anyone he was serious, until a pilot sent to North Island by Huger snuck the ship into the Charleston port past the blockade.
From Charleston, Lafayette made his way overland through the swamps to Philadelphia, where he persuaded Gen. George Washington to give him a role and was commissioned, without pay, as the young American army's youngest major general.
The ship was laded with rice, loosed its Charleston moorings and set out for Bordeaux. It never made it past Coffin Island, the name of Folly Beach at the time.
And that's where a thread of hope may lie. Any amount of jetsam could be buried in shifting sand out there, and dredgings do pull it up. In 2008, during a Wild Dunes renourishment, a 128-pound cast iron cannonball racketed up through the dredge pipes, likely fired from a 10-inch Columbiad cannon during the Civil War.
Even more tantalizing, during the 2005 Folly dredging, the remains of a wooden ship were discovered in one of the offshore borrows, or sand bars. The area was buffered off and not dug, said Glenn Jeffries of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Charleston district.
That borrow isn't being used this time, but nearby borrows are.
"The dredge does pull up shark's teeth and shells regularly," Jeffries said. "If they did happen to pull up a cannon ball, then we would coordinate with Charleston County bomb squad to ensure safety for all. If it was not explosive hazard, then we would coordinate with the State Historic Preservation Office as to what they would want to do with it."
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