(This guest post is by intern R. Grant Kleiser, European Reading Room. Part 2 concentrates on French military action on behalf of the American Revolution. Click here for Part 1.)
During American independence celebrations, it is easy to forget the extent of French involvement in the revolutionary struggle, and particularly the battle of Yorktown, but as we look to France on Bastille Day, it seems fitting to acknowledge their role in American Independence.
Part 1 described American diplomatic efforts in France to gain support for the Americans in their Revolution against the British. The Treaty of Alliance promised that France would establish a formal military alliance with the United States should Britain declare war on France due to its now official economic support of the American rebels. It committed the United States and France to a joint military and no separate peace should Britain declare war (which they soon did).
After the 1778 Treaty of Alliance, the French sent both economic aid as well as land and naval forces to assist the U.S. in combating the British military. French ships engaged British vessels almost immediately after Britain declared war on France in March of 1778, and the Comte de Rochambeau arrived in Newport, Rhode Island in 1780 with 6,000 soldiers (the so-called “French Special Expedition” or “Expédition Particulière.”)
The next year, Rochambeau suggested to Washington that they deploy some of their forces south to combat the British army invading Virginia, as a February 3, 1781 letter indicates. After a series of conferences in May and July, Washington was convinced to change his initial plan of attacking British-held New York in favor of besieging General Charles Cornwallis’ southern British army of around 7,500 troops encamped in Yorktown, Virginia. While Rochambeau deferred to Washington’s authority, he personally directed most of the logistics of the march to and siege of Yorktown.
This Franco-American land force would not have been able to successfully defeat Cornwallis’ troops at Yorktown without the help of the French navy. Controlling the sea route from Yorktown was essential to cut off British troops from supply, reinforcement or escape during the siege. Rochambeau and Washington were able to coordinate with Admiral François Joseph Paul de Grasse and his fleet located in the Caribbean to sail to Virginia in August. On September 5, 1781, De Grasse won a major victory at the Battle of the Capes against the British fleet under Thomas Graves, eliminating the British naval presence near Yorktown and thus fully encircling Cornwallis’ troops.
As a result of these collective land and sea efforts, and through constant Franco-American correspondence such as this letter between De Grasse and Washington on October 6, Cornwallis’ forces surrendered on October 19, 1781. The cost of so many troops and hundreds of artillery pieces forced England to enter into peace negotiations with the United States, thus ending major hostilities in North America. France’s role had proved decisive. More French than Americans had lost their lives in the sea and land engagements to secure this victory, and King Louis XVI praised Rochambeau for his role at Yorktown, noting the exuberant celebrations occurring in Paris on account of the news of the hard-fought triumph.
Finally, the French helped the cause of American independence, as well as their own foreign policy aims, by launching a widespread war effort against the British Empire, primarily in the Caribbean, which diverted British troops, resources, and attention from North America. In the 18th century, the Caribbean was the site of arguably the most profitable colonial economic production. Both the French (in colonies like Saint-Domingue, Martinique and Guadeloupe) and the British (on islands like Jamaica, Dominica, Tobago and Barbados) conducted a brutal plantation regime of especially sugar (as well as coffee, indigo, and cotton) production. Mostly enslaved people of African descent provided the labor that would fill the coffers of London and Paris.
Upon France’s entry into the war against Britain, the French decided almost immediately to increase their naval presence in the Caribbean to disrupt British commerce and conquer valuable British sugar islands. French warships and marines under Admiral De Grasse were able to conquer the British islands of Dominica, Grenada, St. Vincent, Tobago and St. Kitts between 1778 and 1782 while re-capturing between 1781 and 1782 the islands of St. Martin and Saba and the mainland colonies of Essequibo, Demera and Berbice (modern-day Guyana) that the British had taken from the Dutch. This success stunned British colonial officers to the point of almost complete despair. In the late spring of 1782, Admiral De Grasse launched an expedition to conquer the British crown jewel of Jamaica, an almost unthinkable event for Britons. Even though British Admiral George Brydges Rodney defeated De Grasse at the Battle of the Saintes in April of 1782, thus ending the threat to Jamaica, De Grasse posed a real threat to the British Caribbean and caused serious damage to the British navy, as this report indicates.
As French Caribbean victories and threats mounted, combined with the Yorktown debacle, many in Britain thought that the war was becoming too costly, too dangerous, and too expansive, convincing many British officials to abandon North America and focus on preserving other parts of the empire, especially the West Indies. On September 3, 1783, British and American diplomats signed the Treaty of Paris, ending hostilities between these two powers and recognizing American independence. The peace negotiations were hosted by the U.S. ally, France.
While the United States War of Independence may have begun in the little town of Lexington, Massachusetts, in 1775, it soon turned into a far-reaching conflict. Combatants eventually took up arms against each other from India to South America, Guadeloupe to Gibraltar, and the Senegambia to the St. Lawrence River, with the Spanish and Dutch also playing instrumental roles. But at the center of this “world war” were the French—the first, most-invested, and essential allies of the young United States. Without them, American independence might not have succeeded. Furthermore, the American Revolutionary impulse spread to France, helping to inspire the French Revolution of 1789. From the beginning, the United States of America has been inextricably linked to France. And the Library of Congress is a great place to investigate this vast, complex, and intertwined history.
The Library of Congress contains microform reels of the letter between De Grasse and Washington on October 6.
The Library of Congress houses multiple records relating to military engineers like Louis Duportail, François Fleury, and Maudit du Plessis, which are searchable via the library catalog.
Vergennes and Gérard’s correspondence has been published and is available via the Library of Congress.
The Library of Congress holds thousands of items related to the Comte de Rochambeau, which researchers can peruse using this finding aid. The catalog record of his 1777-94 papers are particularly useful for his activities in the American Revolution in general, while the smaller 1781-82 collection contains correspondence with Washington during the Yorktown campaign. Fully digitized and accessible online, the Rochambeau Map Collection holds 40 manuscript and 26 printed maps which highlight many of Rochambeau’s military actions, including those related to the Yorktown campaign.
Admiral De Grasse often tried to coordinate his military actions with those of Washington through various letters, which are available online in Hathitrust by searching, e.g., “Admiral De Grasse” and “letters.”
The “France in America” collection explored the history of the French presence in North America from the first decades of the 16th century to the end of the 19th century.
For questions, contact Library of Congress reference staff through Ask a Librarian.
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