France is sometime called America’s oldest friend because of the role it played in the American Revolution. But the history of that period is not a simple story about Lafayette’s heroics and French aid at Yorktown. French motives were suspect (King Louis XVI did not believe “all men are created equal”), their behavior ultimately was treacherous (at the peace talks ending the war), and much of their military assistance of dubious value (read on).
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The British reacted to the Franco-American alliance by consolidating their positions. They pulled out of the capital, Philadelphia, to concentrate their forces in New York. As they marched across New Jersey, Washington struck at their rear. The two armies clashed at Monmouth, where a confused battle took place on a June day that was so hot many men died from heat exhaustion. The Americans prevailed, but the redcoats managed to slip away during the night. Five days later, they were safely deposited in New York City.
Within a few days, a French fleet arrived on the scene under the command of Charles-Hector d’Estaing, a headstrong and pompous nobleman who claimed the last king of the Visigoths as an ancestor. Had d’Estaing turned up in American waters just a little bit sooner, he might have thwarted the British retreat to New York. But it had taken him a full 85 days to cross the ocean, a long while even by the standards of the day. D’Estaing was no gritty veteran of naval operations–in fact, his knowledge of seafaring was rather poor; he had joined the army at the age of nine and had become an admiral only because of the unusual (and questionable) French practice of permitting officers of high rank to switch branches of military service and still retain large commands. On his way to America, he had wasted valuable time by insisting that his ships chase merchant vessels and hold training exercises. Thus Washington lost a chance to deliver a fatal blow to the British more than three years before Yorktown. D’Estaing’s tardiness gave the Americans their first lesson in French military aid: It came with no guarantees of French military competence.
With New York securely in enemy hands, Washington and d’Estaing turned their attention to Newport, Rhode Island. Although several thousand British soldiers protected the city’s excellent harbor, Washington hoped for a victory even greater than Saratoga–”the finishing blow to British pretensions of sovereignty over this country,” as he put it. With so many redcoats pinned down in New York, Washington sent reinforcements to Providence, where General John Sullivan had raised a large militia. By the first part of August, Sullivan had some 10,000 men under his command and the French fleet planned to unload an additional 4,000 troops nearby. Lafayette was given command of a detachment.
The Franco-American force planned a coordinated attack on Newport for August 10, though it was clear from the start that they would face serious problems working together. The aristocrat D’Estaing did not believe that a social inferior like Sullivan, whose parents had been indentured servants from Ireland, had any right to issue him orders. The two men spent as much time bickering with each other as they did organizing their efforts. Lafayette tried to intervene, but at first his presence only complicated matters. Because there was still an order out for his arrest, d’Estaing did not know how to receive him. The admiral expressed “political anxiety about receiving a French officer who had violated the king’s orders not to leave for America.” After a round of vacillation, d’Estaing decided that his country’s new treaty obligations nullified Lafayette’s criminal status.
Even then, Lafayette’s mediation failed. A professional military man, d’Estaing regarded the Americans as untrustworthy provincials: “I was forced to show an austere firmness to make the allies understand that while their troops were good for a defensive, they had no qualities necessary for attack.” When the Americans attacked a weakness in the British defenses without first consulting d’Estaing, the admiral was furious. “The French officers sounded like women disputing precedence in a country dance,” said one of Sullivan’s colonels, “instead of men engaged in pursuing the common interest of two great nations.”
The assault on Newport might have succeeded if the British fleet had stayed put in New York. On the afternoon of August 9, however, a lookout spotted the enemy ships approaching. D’Estaing had not anticipated this possibility. “The surprise was complete,” he admitted. The admiral could have denied them an engagement and continued supporting the attack on Newport by seeking refuge in Narragansett Bay, where the royal navy would have had a hard time challenging him. Instead, he sailed out to meet the enemy with his soldiers still onboard. For two days, the French and British fleets probed each other, seeking advantage. Few shots had been fired when a violent storm rolled in with tremendous force, damaging and scattering the ships of both countries.
As the British sailed for the repair docks of New York, Sullivan decided that his attack had been delayed long enough. Assuming that d’Estaing would soon be landing his soldiers, he struck at Newport on August 14. But the Frenchman had other plans. Anxious to patch up his own ships, d’Estaing retreated to Boston without putting any troops ashore.
Sullivan was furious: “I confess that I do most cordially resent the conduct of the Count, or rather the conduct of his officers, who have it seems, compelled him to go to Boston and leave us on an island without any certain means of retreat.” Another American commander, John Laurens, complained in a letter to Washington: “The honor of the French Nation, the honor of the Admiral, the safety of the fleet, and a regard for the new alliance required a different conduct.”
The alliance that had been born half a year earlier was now in full crisis as d’Estaing considered sailing back to France and urging his king to forsake the vulgar Americans.
–The story continues in Our Oldest Enemy: A History of America’s Disastrous Relationship with France, by John J. Miller and Mark Molesky. All week, NRO will feature excerpts from the book.