Image courtesy of Colonial National Historical Park, Yorktown.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Meeting Notes: July 18, 2018

"Brothers in Arms: American Independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It," Larrie Ferreiro

While most American history textbooks mention America’s official alliance with France which began shortly after the Saratoga Campaign, America actually depended on France and to a lesser extent Spain for military assistance throughout the entire eight-year war for its independence. 

“When the war started in 1775, America had only a few thousand gunsmiths, no cannon forges, very little gunpowder and no navy, said historian and author Larrie D. Ferreiro at the July 18, 2018 meeting of the American Revolution Round Table of Richmond. “The American Colonies were dependent on foreign powers from the beginning in their fight for independence from Great Britain.”

Ferreiro is the author of the recently published book entitled Brothers at Arms: American Independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It. The book is a Pulitzer Prize finalist.  

“How did we know that France and Spain would fight with us? After the Seven Years’ War (also known as the French and Indian War) ended in 1763 with the loss of French and Spanish territory to the British, they wanted a rematch with Great Britain. The American Colonies really pushed this idea,” said Ferreiro. 

It didn’t take long after the ink was dry on the 1763 Treaty of Paris for France and Spain to begin plotting their revenge. Both countries began major shipbuilding projects to expand their navies and to look for opportunities to take advantage of any perceived weaknesses in the British Empire. French and Spanish merchants and smugglers served as “front men” to challenge Great Britain with the behind-the-scenes blessings of the French and Spanish governments.

“France and Spain wanted to use America to weaken Britain,” said Ferreiro. “They sent spies to America to take America’s temperature regarding movements toward independence. They didn’t want to challenge Britain too early and then have the American Colonies reconcile with Britain.”

The Declaration of Independence showed to the world America’s intentions to form a sovereign nation. 

“The Declaration wasn’t written for King George III in order to express America’s grievances. He had already gotten the memo. The Declaration of Independence was written for one goal---an engraved invitation to the Kings of France and Spain to fight with us,” said Ferreiro. “We needed their alliance but they wouldn’t get involved in a civil war---only in a war with America as a sovereign nation.”

The chief architect of France’s foreign policy was Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes---France’s minister for foreign affairs. He was an experienced diplomat who wanted France to weaken Great Britain in order to restore the balance of power in Europe. 

“Vergennes was the most important character in this whole affair,” said Ferreiro. “He couldn’t allow a reunited America with Great Britain, which would then threaten France’s sugar colonies in the Caribbean.”

During the early months of the war, both French and Spanish merchants supplied the American government with arms and other supplies. One of the leading French merchants was Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. In addition to his successful career as a merchant, Beaumarchais wrote and produced plays which included The Barber of Seville and the famous character named Figaro. 

Beaumarchais’ ships arrived in New England during the Spring of 1777 with abundant rifles, artillery, ammunition and other military supplies which the American troops put to good use during the Saratoga Campaign later that year. As a result of America’s stunning victory at Saratoga and the surrender of British General John Burgoyne’s army, Vergennes used the occasion to commit France to an official alliance with America in February 1778. 

The Treaty of Alliance paid nearly instant dividends for the Americans in that it brought the French navy into the war. The British feared the possibility of a French fleet bottling up the Delaware River and Delaware Bay, which would cut off supplies to the British army occupying Philadelphia. As a result of this fear, the British marched their army out of Philadelphia and back to New York City in June 1778.

When France formed its official alliance with America, Spain opted to stay officially neutral. The chief reason was Spain’s insistence on waiting for the arrival of two large Spanish convoys from Central and South America. One of them carried a huge amount of silver which was worth approximately $50 billion in today’s dollars. The other convoy carried a large number of Spanish troops who were returning home. 

Spain’s chief minister and minister of foreign affairs was Jose Monino y Redondo, Conde de Floridablanca. His goals for Spain against Great Britain were to win back Gibraltar and Florida, which Spain had lost to Britain during the French & Indian War. Spain officially joined an alliance with France and declared war on Great Britain in April 1779. 

“Floridablanca wanted to eliminate Great Britain’s presence in the Gulf of Mexico and basically turn it into a Spanish lake,” said Ferreiro. 

In August 1779 France and Spain assembled an armada with approximately 150 ships in order to attack Great Britain itself via the English Channel. However the proposed invasion was aborted due to a severe outbreak of dysentery which left most of the French and Spanish ships undermanned. The armada also had serious problems with supplying their ships with food and drinking water. 

The Spanish had better luck in fighting the British in North America. Bernardo de Galvez, the Spanish governor of Louisiana, eagerly fought the British and captured Mobile, Natchez and Pensacola in what was called West Florida. This campaign basically isolated the British in the Gulf of Mexico to the island of Jamaica.

While Galvez made plans with French Admiral Francois Joseph Paul, Comte de Grasse to attack Jamaica, de Grasse received an urgent request in mid-July 1781 from the commander of French troops in North America. General Jean-Baptiste-Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau urged de Grasse to sail his fleet immediately from the Gulf of Mexico to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. The Spanish and French postponed their attack on Jamaica, which allowed de Grasse to sail his entire fleet to the Virginia waters while four Spanish ships guarded Cap Francois, a French port located in Haiti. 

Rochambeau had requested the assistance of de Grasse’s fleet as part of a plan to trap the British army under the command of General Charles Cornwallis in the Virginia port of Yorktown. Although George Washington preferred a joint attack by the American and French armies against Sir Henry Clinton’s British army occupying New York City, Rochambeau gently persuaded Washington to support a joint American/French attack against the British troops in Yorktown. However the American and French armies needed the assistance of the French navy in order to block the British navy from assisting Cornwallis.

On the evening of August 29, 1781 de Grasse’s fleet reached the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, and the next morning it sailed past Cape Henry and anchored in Lynnhaven Bay. A few days later a British fleet under the command of Admiral Thomas Graves sailed to the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay as well, and attacked the French fleet on September 5. In what is now called the Battle of the Chesapeake or the Battle of the Capes, the French fleet held its defensive position and prevented the British fleet from entering the Chesapeake Bay and reinforcing Cornwallis’ army, trapped in nearby Yorktown. 

“Thanks to the Spanish navy guarding French possessions in the Caribbean, de Grasse was able to sail his entire French fleet to Virginia. This contribution by the Spanish is ignored in virtually all American history books, said Ferreiro. “The British navy was second to none but the combined navies of the French and Spanish could overwhelm British ships in terms of numbers.”

For the next six weeks the French and American armies tightened the noose around Cornwallis’ besieged army. Using classic siege tactics which French armies practiced in earlier European wars, the French and American armies relentlessly bombarded the British and captured two strategic redoubts which led to the British surrender on October 19, 1781.

“When France chose Rochambeau to command their army in North America, they chose very well,” said Ferreiro. “ He was a great general.”

General Charles O’Hara, Cornwallis’ second-in-command, tried to surrender the British army to Rochambeau who declined O’Hara’s sword and pointed him to George Washington. The American army commander also declined the sword and pointed O’Hara to General Benjamin Lincoln, Washington’s second-in-command.

The surrender at Yorktown ended most of the fighting in North America. However the fighting continued for two more years in the Caribbean, at Gibraltar and even as far away as India. 

“Great Britain was fighting five nations by the time the war officially ended in 1783,” said Ferreiro. “They fought America, France, Spain, Holland and the Kingdom of Mysore in India. Britain was getting overwhelmed and knew if they kept fighting, they would lose.” 

The 1783 Treaty of Paris was signed by America, France and Spain on September 3, approximately two years after the French fleet stopped the British fleet at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay.

“France and Spain were as invested in this war as America,” said Ferreiro. “The United States didn’t achieve its independence by itself.”

Larrie D. Ferreiro teaches history and engineering at George Mason University in Virginia and at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. He has served for over 35 years in the Navy, the Coast Guard and at the Department of Defense. He was once an exchange engineer in the French navy. 

In addition to Brothers at Arms, Ferreiro is the author of the following books:

1. Measure of the Earth: The Enlightenment Expedition That Reshaped Our World 

2. Ships and Science: The Birth of Naval Architecture in the Scientific Revolution, 1600-1800

Prior to the speaker’s presentation the American Revolution Round Table of Richmond discussed the following topic:

1. President Bill Welsch said that four non-profit organizations have been nominated by ARRT-Richmond members to serve as the 2018 Preservation Partner. President Welsch said he would soon send an email to all dues-paying members, requesting them to reply with their votes via email for this year’s preservation finalist. This year’s nominees are the Battersea Foundation, the Menokin Foundation, the St. John’s Church Foundation and the Revolutionary War Trust, specifically for the Yorktown Campaign.  

 --Bill Seward

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