Revolution: European Participation

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Revolution: European Participation

Both individual foreigners and foreign governments aided the Patriot cause during the Revolutionary War. The individuals who served were motivated by a wide range of factors, including idealism, the desire for professional military experience, and personal financial gain. Those who came to America to assist in the fight against Britain include some of the most important figures in the Continental Army.

Four Europeans stand out for their notable contributions to the Patriot cause. Marie-Joseph-Paul-Yves-Roch-Gilbert du Motier de Lafayette, the Marquis de Lafayette, came from one of the most prominent noble families of France. He rose to became one of the Continental Army's major field commanders as a major general and virtually an adopted son of army commander General George Washington. Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben was neither a baron nor a general as he claimed when he arrived at Valley Forge from Prussia in February 1778, but he had served as a junior officer on the staff of Frederick II (the Great) of Prussia. Washington immediately recognized his value and appointed Steuben as the drill master of the Continental Army and then its inspector general. Steuben played an important role in training the army. He greatly simplified the Prussian drill, and he produced the first drill manual for the army. Thaddeus Kosciusko of Poland was the first major foreign volunteer for the American cause. Congress made him a colonel of engineers. In this capacity he provided great assistance to the Continental Army, especially in the construction of defensive works, including the design and fortification of West Point on the Hudson. Promoted to brigadier general at the end of the war, Kosciusko played an important role in subsequent Polish history, as did Lafayette in France. Kosciusko's fellow Pole, Count Casimir Pulaski, was a fearless leader who as a brigadier general helped develop cavalry in the Continental Army. He died in the cause of American independence at Savannah in October 1779. Johann de Kalb (also not a baron, nor authorized to place the "de" before his name), born in Bavaria, retired from the French army in 1763. As a Continental Army major general and highly effective commander in the field, Kalb was mortally wounded in the August 1780 Battle of Camden. There were of course many other foreigners serving in the Continental Army in lesser capacities, many of whom gave their lives for the cause of American independence.

Among foreign governments supporting the Patriot cause, France was far and away the most important. As early as September 1775 French agents were in America to assess the rebellion and its course. American privateers operating against Britain soon found welcome in French ports, and, beginning in March 1776, the French government extended financial assistance to the rebels. That same year the French government ordered the shipment of weapons and munitions to the West Indies for transshipment to North America. In the process, France became the chief source of arms supplies for the Patriot cause.

France did not aid the rebels out of interest in the ideals of the American Revolution. Louis XVI could hardly be expected to favor rebellion by a people against their sovereign. Rather, French support was prompted by French foreign minister Charles Gravier, the Comte de Vergennes, who sought to weaken Britain internationally, advance France's interests abroad, and secure revenge for the humiliating defeat suffered by France in the Seven Years' War (1756–1763).

The French aid was handled by the well-known playwright Pierre de Beaumarchais, who came up with a scheme of a bogus trading firm known as Hortalez and Co. Ultimately Beaumarchais dispensed twenty-one million livres in French government funds during the years 1776 to 1783. He secured, mostly from government arsenals, more than two hundred cannon and twenty-five thousand small arms. The latter included the excellent .69 caliber "Charleville" musket, named for the principal French arsenal producing it. The Charleville was an excellent weapon and remained the standard American infantry weapon well after the Revolutionary War. The French also provided 100 tons of gunpowder, 20 to 30 brass mortars, and clothing and tents sufficient for 25,000 men. This was a tremendous amount of aid, and its importance cannot be overstated. Its impact was clear in the September and October 1777 Battle of Saratoga in New York. One source estimates that nine-tenths of the arms used by the Americans there came from France.

The surprising Continental Army victory and surrender of British forces at Saratoga convinced French government leaders at Versailles that the Americans had a chance of winning, and they now decided to bring France into the war openly. In February 1778 France concluded with the United States both a Treaty of Amity and Commerce and a Treaty of Alliance. In the latter, both parties agreed to fight on until American independence was "formally or tacitly assured." Neither power was to conclude a separate peace. In June 1778 hostilities began between France and Britain.

The entry of France in the war was a threat to every part of the British Empire, including India and especially the West Indies. The war now ceased to be wholly a land operation and became largely a contest of sea power. From 1778, except in North America itself, Britain was on the defensive, compelled to surrender the initiative. This change was further accentuated in 1779 when Spain declared war on Britain. In December 1780 rising tensions over its claim to search Dutch shipping led the British government to declare war on the kingdom of the Netherlands. Although the Royal Navy was adequate to secure the Atlantic sailing lanes, it was not sufficiently dominant to meet all possibilities, the most worrisome of which was that France might actually invade the British Isles.

On paper the Royal Navy was in 1778 still more powerful than the French navy, but the latter was more efficient. In that year the Royal Navy had seventy-three ships of the line at sea or in good repair. France had some sixty ships of the line, but many of these were better ships than those of the British. When Spain entered the war in alliance with France in 1779, it added another forty-nine ships of the line. In 1780 the Dutch added another fourteen. The British weathered the threat of a Bourbon invasion in 1779, but this was more from poor allied leadership and disease than any action by the Royal Navy. Spain's interest was chiefly in securing Gibraltar. Although the British managed to hold on to that important possession and indeed maintain their empire outside America, it meant that fewer resources would be available for major offensive operations in North America.

French support was crucial and marked the turning point in the war. In July 1781 a French navy squadron arrived at Newport, Rhode Island, bringing four thousand French troops under the command of Lieutenant General Jean-Baptiste-Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau. It was the participation of regiments of the French army in conjunction with squadrons of a powerful French fleet that made possible the defeat of Britain in the war. French troops took the leading role in the critical siege operations at Yorktown in September and October of 1781. Indeed, that land victory was made possible by a brief period of French naval supremacy and success in the Battle of the Chesapeake the month before. In all, some 44,000 Frenchmen took part in the war: 31,500 in the navy and 12,700 in the army. Of these, 5,040 died in the cause of American independence: 3,420 in the navy and 1,620 in the army.

The irony of French support is obvious. The vast sums necessary to fight the war, especially in the naval sphere (total expenditures estimated at some forty million livres), bankrupted France and led directly to the government's decision to tax the nobles. Their resistance to this decision triggered the calling of the Estates General and the French Revolution of 1789.

Some have argued that the United States would not have won its independence without French intervention. Perhaps if the states had been forced to rely entirely on their own means, they would have voted to approve the allocation of the resources necessary to continue the war. But without this, the Continental Army sooner or later would have disbanded. Resistance would have been possible only by guerrilla warfare. Because a large percentage of the population was either opposed to or indifferent to independence, it is doubtful that resistance could have been continued for very long.

Following the British defeat in the Battle of Yorktown, London adopted a policy of cutting its losses and treating both the United States and Spain generously so as to wean them from France. London ceded Florida to Spain, along with the island of Minorca, but it kept Gibraltar, which the British had successfully defended during the war. United States leaders ignored their treaty with France and concluded a separate peace with Britain. In the settlement of 1783, the new Republic obtained territory as far west as the Mississippi. For all its efforts, France secured only the Island of Tobago in the West Indies and Senegal in Africa.

See alsoBritish Army in North America; Continental Army; French; Lafayette, Marie-Joseph, Marquis de; London; Yorktown, Battle of .


Dull, Jonathan R. The French Navy and American Independence: A Study of Arms and Diplomacy, 1774–1787. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975.

Kennett, Lee. The French Forces in America, 1780–1783. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977.

Rice, Howard C., and Anne S. K. Brown, eds. The American Campaigns of Rochambeau's Army. 2 vols. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1972.

Ross, Maurice. Louis XVI, America's Forgotten Founding Father: With a Survey of the Franco-American Alliance of the Revolutionary Period. New York: Vantage Press, 1976.

Spencer C. Tucker

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Revolution: European Participation

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