The court of Versailles followed closely the events leading up to the American Revolution. When, in 1776, the Thirteen Colonies proclaimed their independance, Vergennes, the Foreign Affairs Secretary, saw a perfect opportunity to take revenge on Britain, and thus advised the King to support the rebels. Fearing a war with the British, Turgot, the Minister of Finance, was less enthusiastic. King Louis XVI was not inclined to assist a rebellion which undermined another monarch. Despite popular opinion in favor of the Revolutionaries, France’s support was far from certain when Benjamin Franklin arrived in Paris on December 27,1776. He joined Silas Deane as American Minister to France. Deane was a wealthy Connecticut businessman, who, chosen in haste, had produced no concrete results. Franklin’s reputation as a man of great learning, who lived modestly, greatly pleased the Court. Franklin soon had French support for the Revolutionary cause. Official aid was at first discreet. But the number of volunteers offering to help the Revolutionaries grew rapidly. There was a great deal to draw young Frenchmen to America: the attraction of new ideas, a thirst to fight their hereditary British enemy, a desire for adventure and the chance for exotic travel in the New World. Several months later, Silas Deane wrote, "the rage to sign up to serve with the Americans is continually growing. As a consequence I am inundated with offers, many from persons of consequential rank…" The King himself had to intervene when members of distinguished families wanted to leave for the New World. The count of Noaille and the count of Ségur, two of the most important names in the French kingdom, wanted to leave with the young Marquis de La Fayette. It was feared that these young men would compromise the neutral position of France. Noailles and Ségur bowed to the pressure, but La Fayette stole onto the boat La Victoire which sailed first to Bordeaux, then to Spain, and finally on to Georgetown, where he arrived in June 1777.
Many of the volunteers were greatly disappointed in the New World. Most of them did not speak English and they did not understand how the Revolutionary Army, unlike anything in Europe, could function on a battlefield. Furthermore, their social background made it difficult for them to adapt to the democratic style of George Washington’s soldiers. Welcomed with great enthusiasm in Philadelphia, La Fayette even offered to serve in the army as a foot soldier, and to pay his own way. Franklin, however, explained to the Continental Congress that it would be politically advantageous to enlist foreign soldiers whose families could influence the court at Versailles. La Fayette was finally appointed to the rank of General. Returning to the front just as the English General Howe marched on Philidelphia, he was injured at the battle of Brandywine. Soon after, he followed Washington to his headquarters at Valley Forge. The winter of 1777-1778 was a particularly tough one. Badly clothed, badly nourished and badly armed, Washington’s army was on the verge of collapse. At this point, an attack by the English would almost certainly have changed the course of the war. In Paris, Franklin did his best to convince the court to adopt the American cause officially through a formal alliance with the United States.
The French to the Rescue
The resulting Treaty of Commerce and Friendship was signed on February 6, 1778. The Revolutionaries’ situation was such that the French could have made any demand in the treaty, taking advantage of the vulnerable United States. Instead the French policy looked far into the future. Vergennes wrote to his ambassador in London on March 17, 1778: ’We did not want to procure any commercial favors that might make other nations jealous, such that the United States might one day accuse us of taking advantage of them." One week later he stated, "The authorized American deputies were open to giving us any exclusive rights of trade we might have demanded. We were aware of that. But through the recognition of the United States as a member of the family of nations, the King wanted to create a bond that would serve posterity and be as solid and enduring as is possible in human affairs.’ The French policy prompted Benjamin Franklin, a great student of human nature, to say, "The truth is that this nation loves glory and loves to protect the oppressed." Back on the battlefields of North America, the British began to realize that time was against them. After taking Philidelphia they prepared themselves to deliver the death blow to the Revolutionaries. They wanted to quickly exploit tensions within the Revolutionary ranks, notably the rivalry between Washington and Gates, the victor of the battle of Saratoga. General Clinton took command of the British troops after Howe’s resignation. Fearing a French blockade of the Delaware and an attack on the city by the Continental Army, Clinton moved towards New York.
Washington followed behind and launched an attack at Monmouth - an audacious military manoeuvre that would have been a decisive victory if Charles Lee, the commander of the vanguard, had not inexplicably disobeyed orders and retreated from ground he had captured and held. Court martialled, Lee, accused by some of treason, was finally released. The error had been commited. Washington was forced to stop his offensive, and instead set up headquarters in New Brunswick while Clinton went on to New York. Arriving in July 1778, the French fleet under Admiral d’Estaing came to the aid of the Revolutionaries, for the first time in force. A siege was planned ; Estaing would move in by sea, while the American General Sullivan would arrive by land to take Newport, Rhode Island. Unfortunately a violent storm arose, putting an end to this first attempt at military cooperation between the new allies. Estaing headed south to the West Indies for the winter. This setback did not bode well for the Americans. Paris would not look kindly on a failed military operation; but the Revolutionaries were very much in need of assistance and reinforcements. At the end of 1778, La Fayette obtained permission from the Continental Congress to go to Versailles. He was well received, and knew how to convince Vergennes and Maurepas to throw the weight of France into the battle. Among the plans that had been envisaged was a large-scale landing in Britain. Ships had been prepared for this purpose. The Project never saw the light of day. But the fleet gathered in Saint Malo and Le Havre made it technically possible to send an expeditionary force to the New World as La Fayette requested. Louis XVI was still worried about dissent among the Revolutionaries and feared that Spain’s Charles III, although allied with France against England, would dislike to decisive an Amerlcan victory next door to his overseas empire. Still, France eventually sent to General Washington 5,000 men chosen from their best troops. La Fayette was too young to command the expeditionary force. He was sent back to America to announce the imminent arrival of the long-awaited re-enforcements under the command of Rochambeau.
America, we are here
Leaving Brest, the convoy sighted land at Newport, Rhode Island, on July 11, 1780. Among the officers, were some of the most important names in France : Montmorency, Custine, Chartres, Noailles, Lauzun… The hopes raised by the arrival of the French were short-lived : soon after, a large British fleet was sighted. It was under the command of Admirals Arbuth-not and Rodney. It spoiled the plans for a quick attack on New York. The Hartford meeting, organized by La Fayette between Rochambeau and Washington, resulted in another request for more French reenforcements. Only a full-sized naval force could save the situation. To make matters worse, when Washington returned to his camp at West Point, he learned of Benedict Arnold’s treason. One of the Colonels’ most brilliant military minds had gone over to the enemy. Becoming chief counsellor to General Clinton, Arnold pushed for quick action to exploit the weakness of the Continental Army. Victims of the naval blockade, the American soldiers were neither paid, nor fed, nor clothed. Rochambeau began to worry, quite legitimately, about the effectiveness of these 11 men pushed to the limits of their resources." Once more Louis XVI and Vergennes responded to the needs of the Revolutionaries. On May 16, 1781, despite the terrible state of French finances, the ship La Concorde brought six million pounds to Washington. The American General wanted to attack New York. Rochambeau, however, thought it more prudent to head South, where the English General Cornwallis had not yet managed to win a decisive victory against the American fighter Greene, who used guerilla tactics. Clinton ordered Cornwallis to keep a minimal force in Yorktown, on the Chesapeake Bay, where they had the support of the Navy ; he would then send the remaining troops to reinforce the garrison in New York, where they thought the major battle would take place. Cornwallis was thus left vulnerable and Washington, knowing that de Grasse’s fleet was en-route, was readily convinced to attack Yorktown. Moreover, de Grasse, who was sailing back to the continent after a series of victories in the West Indies, had sent a message to George Washington, telling him that he preferred fighting in the Chesapeake Bay because it was deeper than the Hudson River, and allowed for greater manoeuvrability.
On August 19th, crossing New Jersey, the Franco-American troops headed toward Virginia. On August 30th, Washington and Rochambeau triumphantly entered Philadelphia. From there they marched on Yorktown with an army of 18,000 men. There were 9,000 Americans and 5,000 French to which were added 3,300 more when the Marquis de Saint Simon arrived from Saint-Domingue with de Grasse’s fleet. Cornered with a mere 7,000 Redcoats, Cornwallis was in a desperate situation. Hope appeared on September 5th, when 22 ships were sighted on the horizon. The fleet, commanded by Admiral Graves, had left New York two days earlier to rescue Yorktown. The tide seemed to be turning against the Revolutionaries, but de Grasse saved the day. In the Bay, the French ships were sitting ducks. De Grasse manoeuvered brilliantly; he slipped his fleet around Cape Henry and set up in formation around the Ville de Paris, the largest vessel of that period. When the battle began in the open seas, the English had already lost. When the canons stopped, one British ship had sunk and five more were seriously damaged. No French ships were destroyed and only two were damaged. Graves retreated ; the French victory was complete. Cornwallis had counted on the naval re-enforcements to back him up so he hadn’t bothered to protect his positions. On September 28th, the Revolutionaries deployed their forces : the French on the left next to the Americans followed by La Fayette’s Franco-American corps General Washington’s troops ; and finally the troops under the command of Prussian General von Steuben (who had fought with the Revolutionaries since 1777). The fate of the British was sealed. On October 17th, the anniversary of the surrender of Burgoyne at Saratoga, the Star Spangled Banner flew over Yorktown. The defeated British garrison marched between two rows of the victors - the French on the left, the Americans on the right. The officer representing Cornwallis, who claimed to be ill, wanted to surrender his sword to Rochambeau. But the French General, gestured toward Washington, who respectfully refused the sword. The fall of Yorktown, which had been their stronghold, forced the British to negociate. The Treaty of Versailles, signed September 3, 1783, ended the American War of Independence. The official birth certificate of a new nation, this treaty was also a symbol of the friendship between France and the United States. It was a friendship for which the two countries would time and again pay for with their lives.