Sunday, February 28, 2021

ARP190 French Arrive in America

Weeks after the British evacuated Philadelphia, the French fleet arrived in the Delaware Bay.  On July 6, 1778, Charles Henri Hector, the comte d’Estaing dropped anchor of his flagship, the Languedoc.  The massive ship was armed with 90 cannons and had a crew of 900 sailors.  Passengers aboard the ship included Conrad Alexandre Gérard, the new French minister to America, as well as returning American minister Silas Deane.

Following Deane’s recall, the French government had offered Deane accommodation with the French fleet.  Congress had demanded Deane return to Philadelphia to answer questions about suspicious financial transactions, mostly the results of lies propagated by his fellow commissioner Arthur Lee.  French foreign minister Vergennes hoped that Deane’s return to America aboard a massive French military vessel, along with a fleet, and at the side of the new French Minister to America, would underscore just how well the French government thought of Deane’s diplomatic work and that it would help to impress the members of Congress.

Upon arrival, the French commander, d’Estaing, received word that the British fleet had evacuated to New York.  The British ships in New York Harbor were inferior to his fleet of seventeen massive ships of war, armed with over 1000 cannons and supported by nearly 10,000 sailors.  Rather than allowing Dean and Gérard to make an impressive entry into Philadelphia aboard the French fleet, d’Estaing dropped off his passengers at the shore in the Delaware Bay, and then set sail for New York to do battle.  Deane and Gérard had to make their way to Philadelphia aboard far less impressive local transport ships.  Despite a quiet entry, the arrival of the first foreign ambassador in the newly-recaptured seat of Congress was cause for celebration.

Conrad Alexandre Gérard

The new French Minister, Conrad Alexandre Gérard de Rayneval, was a lifelong diplomat.  He did not come from nobility.  He was the eldest son of the secretary to a French noble family.  Gérard attended college and studied law at the University of Strasbourg.  By 1754, at the age of 24, he had entered the diplomatic service.

Conrad Alexandre Gérard
His duties sent him throughout Europe and introduced him to much of the political leadership on the continent. The life of a career diplomat can be delicate and tricky, if not terribly exciting.  Gérard developed a good reputation within the diplomatic corps.  His career grew, along with his responsibilities.  During and after the Seven Years War, he served in the French Embassy at Vienna.  Among his duties was ensuring proper protocol during the engagement and marriage of the Austrian Archduchess Marie Antoinette to the Dauphin of France, the future King Louis XVI.

After Louis XVI ascended to the throne in 1774, the comte de Vergennes took over French foreign affairs.  Vergennes appointed Gérard to increasingly important positions within the ministry.  The two men developed a close friendship and mutual trust. When Vergennes entered into treaty negotiations with the American delegation, it was Gérard who conducted those negotiations.  When it came time to send a diplomatic delegation to America, Gérard received the appointment as Minister Plenipotentiary to America.

French Strategy in America

With France having committed to an alliance with America and war with Britain, the diplomatic tables between France and America had somewhat turned.  For the past few years, America had done everything it could to bring France into the war.  At the same time, France was comfortable watching events from the sidelines, taking its time to decide whether war was in its best interests.

Once it entered the war, France became much more dependent on America to stay in the war.  If Britain managed to establish a peace with its colonies, it could then turn its full wrath against France and likely capture more French colonies.  It would drive France deeper into debt, fighting a losing war that it could not well afford.

When French officials learned that Britain had repealed many of the laws that had started the rebellion in the first place, and had sent a peace commission with real negotiating power to end the hostilities, France knew that it would have to make sure the Continental Congress did not back out of the new treaty of alliance and leave France to face the British alone.  Americans were already exhausted from fighting several years of war.  They had age-old social, political, and cultural ties to Britain, and a long history of hostility with France.  It would not be hard to imagine the Americans accepting the generous terms offered by London and throwing their new ally under the bus.

comte de Vergennes
(from Wikimedia)

Gérard’s mission was to cement the Franco-American alliance.  He needed to make sure the US remained independent and at war with Britain.  Despite Gérard’s decades of diplomatic experience, navigating the political waters of a republic required a different set of skills from those used in Europe.  There was no foreign sovereign, nor any individual who could set policy for the United States.  The Continental Congress was an unstable mix of state representatives who came and went.  It was not even clear if all of the states would adhere to the same policies and remain united.

A diplomat usually focuses on establishing some personal relations with leaders of the foreign power.  There was no prior relationship of French nobility who had intermarried with Americans in order to establish some sort of connection.  The US itself had never received a diplomatic party before.  Differences of language, religion, and customs all created potential hazards for France in making this relationship work.

Despite these potential problems, Gérard arrived in Philadelphia on July 12, 1778 to find the alliance strong.  Delegates showed no interest in any peace that would return them to colonial status.  Gerard found that the Americans were still very much willing to fight, and needed France’s active support if they had any hope of keeping the war going.

When the new minister entered Philadelphia, Congress had only just returned to the city days earlier.  It was still cleaning up the mess left by the British less than a month prior.  Even so, Philadelphia received the new minister with great enthusiasm.  A committee of members of Congress rode to Chester, to escort Gérard into the city.  An honorary guard of Continental dragoons accompanied them.  They honored him with a 15-gun salute, one for each state, plus the King of France and the King of Spain.

In a report written a week later, Gérard told Vergennes that people had cheered him from the banks of the Delaware River as he made his way to the city.  Once there, members of Congress paid him calls, even before he had presented his credentials to Congress.  They invited him to a banquet and celebrated the new alliance between France and the Americans.

French Cartoon d'Estaing bringing
supplies to America
While receiving a warm welcome, Gérard had his concerns about the new alliance.  His traditional European view was that there was no way these people could govern themselves.  At some point, they would either return to British rule, or permit French rule over them.  Perhaps it would not be a blatant colonial relationship, but the Americans would need the continuing support, guidance, and protection of a European power.  The notion of a truly independent United States that could remain neutral in European affairs simply did not seem possible to Gérard.

Gérard sent a series of candid reports back to France.  He reported his enthusiastic welcome and the apparent resolve of Americans to remain independent at all costs.  At the same time, he noted that some of Congress’ best delegates from its first years had left for various reasons, and that their replacements were not really of the same caliber.  Gérard also made note of the divisions between supporters of George Washington and Horatio Gates, observing that northerners generally preferred Gates, while southerners backed Washington.  This, he noted, was a possible source of future rupture between the new union of states.

Gérard also mentioned, with regret, that several French officers had taken sides in this dispute.  Although his report did not name names, we know that General Conway was a key backer of Gates, while General Lafayette outspokenly supported Washington.  As a diplomat, this concerned Gérard as he did not want France supporting one American faction over another.  Backing the wrong faction could prematurely end the alliance.

Throughout his tenure in America, Gérard remained focused on maintaining the alliance at all costs.  He simply could not allow a pro-British faction or peace faction to seek a negotiated settlement between American and Britain, leaving France to fight a dangerous and undistracted British military.  Gérard had to make sure that the war in America continued.  Even an American victory with independence at this time went against French interests.

During his first few months in Philadelphia, the Carlisle Commission, which I discussed a few weeks ago, was still trying to negotiate an acceptable peace, one that would permit Britain to focus on France.  The Commission had retreated to New York, along with the British Army, but remained hopeful in its mission to end hostilities. 

Gérard worked to ensure that the Americans did not settle with Britain. He strongly advocated that Congress should settle for nothing less than full independence, something he was pretty sure Britain would not accept. Most members of Congress did not need much convincing on that point, but Gérard had to make sure the situation did not change.  If Britain won a few military victories, American hopes might falter. Assuring the Americans of French military support to help continue the war effort kept American morale high and away from talk of political compromise with Britain. 

Beyond that, Gérard hoped to forge a more durable political alliance between France and the United States.  This proved more frustrating.  A great many Americans still distrusted France.  While they needed France’s assistance in the war effort, France was the traditional enemy of the former British colonists.  They viewed the absolute monarchy in France as worse than the constitutional monarchy of Britain.  

Just because the Americans did not want a closer military alliance with France than they already had, that did not mean they wanted to submit to Britain again either. They wanted no political entanglements. Gérard, however, took their reluctance to form a closer political alliance with France as an indication that some faction in Congress wanted to return to a relationship with Britain.

Privately, Gérard viewed the American experiment in republicanism as doomed.  Without a unifying leadership of a monarch, he did not see how the government could remain united. Legislators who were regularly replaced in office, offered no consistency of policy or alliance.  Gérard was confident that the American states would eventually fall under either the political control of Britain or France.  He wanted to make sure that it was the latter.

Gérard would remain in Philadelphia as the French minister for about 15 months, helping to establish the new alliance and doing what he could to create more political connections between the two countries.  He returned to France in October 1779.

Admiral d’Estaing

Even before France had signed the treaties of alliance and commerce, Paris had been planning its own military strategy.  One reason France had delayed any sort of alliance was that they had needed a few years to build up the French navy to a point where it could compete with the British.  By 1778, France had a new fleet of warships that it thought was ready to compete with the British.

As early as January, French leaders had been organizing a fleet under the comte d’Estaing to send to America.  Admiral d’Estaing, who brought Gérard to America, was an accomplished officer with connections to the highest offices of French government.  He had only joined the navy sixteen years earlier in 1762.  

Admiral d'Estaing
d’Estaing’s father had been a lieutenant general in the French Army. The wealthy and powerful family was close to the crown.  d’Estaing and the future King Louis XVI were about the same age and attended school together.  They became lifelong friends.

At age nine, d’Estaing joined the army as a musketeer.  Influential families often helped their young children receive commissions so that they would have some seniority by the time they were actually old enough to do any real military work.  By age 16, he was a lieutenant.  That same year, he married the daughter of a French field marshal. During the War of Austrian Succession, he served as an aide to Field Marshal Maurice de Saxe. d’Estaing did see combat and was wounded in battle. By the war’s end, he had risen to colonel.  

After the war, the twenty year old colonel oversaw a military reform commission that the King had wanted.  The commission’s goal was to emulate some of the successes of the Prussian Army.

During the Seven Years War, d’Estaing wanted to go to serve in Canada under General Montcalm.  However, his family discouraged that.  Instead, they helped him receive a promotion to general with service in India. During the siege of Madras in 1758, a British attack wounded d’Estaing and left him a prisoner.  As a captured general, d’Estaing was held by British Governor George Pigot, brother of British General Robert Pigot, who I have discussed in earlier episodes. As was common for captured officers, d’Estaing received parole and returned to France.

While still on parole, d’Estaing took up service as the captain of a privateer ship working for the French East India Company.  He spent nearly a year attacking British ships and outposts in India.  As he was returning to France, the British captured his ship and imprisoned him in London for violating the terms of his parole.  He eventually returned to France near the end of the war.

In 1762 d’Estaing received promotion to lieutenant general.  He also took a commission as rear admiral in the French navy that same year.  If it seems strange today that one person could hold commands in both the army and navy, it did at that time too.  The king eventually had to remove him from office in the army, leading to his career exclusively in the navy, starting at the rank of admiral.

Admiral d'Estaing then spent several years as governor general of the French Leeward Islands in the Caribbean.  By 1772, he was naval inspector of France, living in Brest, and by 1777 he was the Vice Admiral of the Asian and American seas.  

French Fleet in America

In 1778, even before the treaties with the Americans were made public, d’Estang organized his fleet at Toulon in preparation for a voyage to America.  In April, the fleet departed France.

When d’Estaing led the first French fleet to America, he received pretty broad discretion to take advantage of whatever opportunities he found.  The general plan was to attack British ships and bases in North America during the summer and fall.  Later in the year, after hurricane season had passed, d’Estaing had orders to sail down to the West Indies and look for targets among the British island colonies there.

As I said, the French fleet landed in Delaware Bay where the Admiral learned that the British fleet was in New York Harbor.  After dropping off his VIP charges, d’Estaing sailed his fleet to New York to confront the British.

New York Harbor

On July 11, 1778, d’Estaing’s fleet of twelve ships of the line and five frigates arrived just off of Sandy Hook at the southern end of New York Harbor.  The remainder of Admiral Howe’s fleet in the harbor found itself vastly outgunned and was in no mood for a fight.

French Map of NY Harbor, 1778
Howe’s fleet had arrived in New York Harbor only about two weeks prior. They had returned with the last of the ships from the evacuation of Philadelphia.  As soon as Admiral Howe arrived, he received notice from General Clinton that the army had just fought the battle of Monmouth and then retreated to Sandy Hook, New Jersey.  The navy then had to ferry the entire army and all of its baggage across the harbor to Manhattan Island, as well as Staten Island and Long Island.  They completed all that by July 5, only six days before the arrival of the French fleet.  

While sailing from Philadelphia to New York, Admiral Howe had received intelligence that a French fleet under d’Estaing was on its way to America, but did not have much more details.  He did not even know if d’Estaing was headed for Philadelphia, New York, Newport, or Halifax.  A few days before the arrival of the French fleet, Howe received word that it had been spotted off the coast of Virginia and then sailed up to the Delaware Bay.  Howe had only twelve small frigates and six ships of the line in New York, including his flagship, the Eagle.

The outnumbered British scrambled to put their ships into a defensive line off of Sandy Hook, New Jersey. The army deployed 1400 men with artillery at Sandy Hook as well.  They feared the French might capture the hook, then force the fleet to withdraw.  If they did that, the French would have time to work their way over the sandbar and take New York Harbor.  If the French took the harbor, and if the Continentals continued their advance from Monmouth, the British might have to abandon New York entirely and escape to Halifax.  If escape was impossible, and British Naval reinforcements could not arrive in time, General Clinton might be looking at the need to surrender his army.

This worst case scenario for the British, of course, never happened.  The depth of the water over the sandbar at Sandy Hook would have prevented the two largest French ships from entering the harbor at low tide. The others would have had to enter one at a time, and be subject to attack from shore, and from the British ships of the line in place to oppose them.  You might ask, why not enter at high tide? The concern there was you could not know how long the battle would last.  The French might find their fleet stuck and unable to withdraw. The risk of losing the fleet for this fight was just not worth it. 

The French fleet remained just outside the harbor for eleven days.  During that time, d’Estaing evaluated the situation in the harbor and the British defenses. He also conferred with General Washington via messenger about other options.  In the end, they decided the British had a much better defensive position and that they would look for a battle elsewhere. On July 22, the French Navy hoisted its sails and moved north toward Newport, Rhode Island.  The potential battle for New York was averted and the British breathed a sigh of relief. 

I’ll take up the story with the attack on Newport in a future episode.

In the meantime, next week we head south to Florida for the Battle of Alligator Bridge.

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Next Episode 191 Battle of Alligator Bridge 

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Further Reading


“John Thaxter to Abigail Adams, 17 July 1778,” Founders Online, National Archives, 

Kite, Elizabeth S. “CONRAD ALEXANDRE GERARD AND AMERICAN INDEPENDENCE.” Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia, vol. 32, no. 4, 1921, pp. 274–294. JSTOR,

Adelberg, Michael "Almost Yorktown" Journal of the American Revolution, March 14, 2014:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Challice, Annie Emma Armstrong Heroes, Philosophers, and Courtiers of the Time of Louis XVI, Vol. 1 & Vol. 2 London: Hurst and Blackett, 1863.  

Kite, Elizabeth S. "Conrad Alexandre Gérard and American Independence" Records of the American Catholic Historical Society of Philadelphia, vol. 32, no. 4, 1921, pp. 274–294

Perkins, James Breck France in the American Revolution, Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1911. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Dull, Jonathan R. The French Navy and American Independence: A Study of Arms and Diplomacy, 1774-1787, Princeton Univ. Press, 1976. 

Hardman, John The Life of Louis XVI, Yale Univ. Press, 2016. 

Hudson, Ruth Strong The Minister from France: Conrad-Alexandre Gerard, 1729-1790, Lutz, 1994 (book recommendation of the week).

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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