Role of France in the American Revolutionary War of Independence

During the period of the British Colonies of North America and the eventual founding of the Thirteen States, in the period of 1775 – 1783, a close tie developed between the French Government and the colonists. This included other nations in Europe who joined the French, Holland and Spain who were affected by the Holy Roman Empire and its alliances.

Assisting the Continental army during the American Revolutionary War of Independence, with such a seemingly powerful alliance, French hopes became optimistic of a British defeat and a new West Indies French colonial hegemony.

Role of France in the American Revolutionary War of Independence

France would become a direct ally of the British Colonists in military and economic terms. The period between 1775 to 1783 would create both positive associations but put negative financial and diplomatic strain on the French government, during a time which would eventually lead France into internal financial, political and social strife.

The outcome would be freedom for a new nation but continued added belligerence between central European nations with further conflicts during the continuing Seven Wars of the Coalition.


Central Europe

France and England were enemies during the last years of the Holy Roman Empire at the time of England’s control of the North American colonies. The settlers had embarked on a course of resistance to king George III of Great Britain’s rule. Armed resistance in Boston Massachusetts against the British occupation administration and its supporting military authority, met at first with armed resistance from militia groups. The move was not great in numbers, but the resistance had started and would soon spread into civil conflict and a war of Independence, which would be lost by England, and would gain the Independence of North America.


The Seven Years War(1756-1763)

Britain, France, and other Great European Powers had been at war in the North Americas, Europe and the Pacific-Asia Rim during the conflict. The wars were fought with differing objectives and influences at a global level. Colonial expansion and influence were the major causes.

Britain and France fought to gain dominance, one over the other in North America while central European alliances, such as Prussia and Britain formed an alliance with Hanover/Hessians, in the so-called Diplomatic Revolution of 1756.

Prussia wishing to gain further territory and maintain its influences, particularly against the dominance of France, would side with Britain. The domination of France in Europe was very active with the French looking for effective means to expand in Central Europe and putting monarchs on thrones that were sympathetic to a French alliance, thus trying to dominate and dismantle the Empires states to expand France’s power, during the remaining years of the Holy Roman Empire.

The Empire experienced a basic reversal of longer standing alliances between Prussia and Great Britain, and the previous alliance that had been between Austria and Britain, now reverted between France and Austria in conflict with Great Britain, and Austrian concern over Prussian expansionist ambitions.

Spain would join France against Britain, and in so doing would assist France with the American colonies, opposed to British rule. Britain stood almost alone during the American Revolutionary conflict except for the Prussia/Hessian (German) ties during the conflict.

The Anglo-Spanish War of 1762-1763, fought as part of the Seven Years War, where French attempts at enticing another European power, namely Spain involving both on the Portuguese mainland. Several enticements from France failed to budge Spanish interest. King Charles III having noticed French losses against the England-Portugal alliances and the lack of French success, feared for Spain’s vulnerable position and late in the day Charles III decided to join the French for a new campaign on Portugal.

Three attempts were made by the Franco Spanish to destroy the England Portugal alliance and annex the Iberian Peninsula without success and with significant losses. The venture reverting to a costly failure. With the wasted time, expense and the humiliation of their loss, the Franco-Spanish agreed to end further efforts and signed the Treaty of Paris in 1763 thus ending the war. On agreement, Spain would hand over Florida and Minorca, whilst England returned territories in Portugal and Brazil.

France and Austria would fight Britain in central Europe and the Franco-Dutch with some Spanish became involved in North America with the Continental army. The war was not limited to the North but with long standing colonial rivalries fought on a grand scale on land and at sea, in the West Indies islands, a conflict which would have larger consequences.

Austria in supporting France, would end the conflicts between the Bourbon-Habsburg families, with Austria’s growing ties to France. France having lost the Seven-year War would have to strengthen their ties elsewhere, the option with North America was ideal. The French were keen to co-ordinate support for the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War, another opportunity to weaken Britain’s position.


The American Revolutionary War 

French involvement with the British colonists started in 1778, with a purely naval involvement. There was some strategic military uncertainty by the French command, without an effective ground force with support from naval units with a battlefleet and supportive militia, the British would easily overcome an unprepared and inexperienced enemy assault force.

The effectiveness of the first operation was disastrous. The attack at Newport Rhode Island and a little later at the British held, Savannah, Georgia under the command of the French General and Admiral, Charles Henri Hector, comte d’Estaing, was defeated with heavy losses.

The British Royal Navy observed the French fleet from New York and from their position at East of Long Island. Uncertainty dragged somewhat with the coalition until 1780, when 6000 French troops under commander Rochambeau were landed in Newport, abandoned by the British in 1779, building a naval base there.

Further delays dragged mired the Continental and French forces with no further conclusive movement, and by 1781, French commanders decided that more extensive operations would be needed on land to change the Revolutionaries fortunes under George Washington, in order to bring a decisive end to the war.

George Washington, as the senior commissioned officer, wanted the British cleared from New York city and Virginia. The French naval commander, the comte de Grasse, was to use his West Indies fleet under specific orders to follow up, on a new plan to meet and destroy the British military presence under the leadership of General Charles Cornwallis, Brigadier Phillips and later Benedict Arnold who fought against the British Army with distinction in the Continental army, but had turned completely over to Cornwallis’s general staff.

Comte de Grasse would consolidate his naval force at the Battle of The Chesapeake in 1781, operations from there would also be conducted in short order for an available naval force to clear Virginia, covering both locations. Rochambeau coordinated with de Grasse that he would be at Chesapeake with land forces by September, Washington and Rochambeau meeting at Wethersfield, Connecticut to review their options.

De Grasse’s fleet would hold out the Royal Navy from providing support to Cornwallis’s command after the Chesapeake victory which would leave Cornwallis’s force isolated at York Town. Rochambeau moved his forces to New York and handed over command to General Washington, at White Plains, New York.

The French fleet and ground forces with the French-Spanish military ground coalition forces, could only stay until mid-October. Rochambeau with George Washington, moved their forces onto Virginia. The French forces under de Grasse and General Lafayette blockaded Cornwallis’s forces in the meantime. The plan succeeded as Cornwallis’s command could not get direct naval support, the British-Hanover Hessian force could not contain the French-Continental army assault from separate flanks, their defences breaking down.

The final Siege of Yorktown completed the Franco-American campaign and the surrender of Cornwallis’s forces, was accepted by George Washington and Lafayette, giving General Cornwallis no further option but to surrender his forces and submit his sword to Washington in surrender.


Further Operations World wide : The Anglo-French Wars

At the time of the Siege of Yorktown, the French fleet were dominant in the West Indies initially. The islands of Dominica, Tobago and Saint Vincent had been annexed, but St. Lucía had been lost to the British fleet. Before De Grasse orders for the Yorktown siege in September 1781, French naval operations against the Royal Navy in the West Indies, expanded, also taking the island of St. Kitts, although not a naval victory for the French.

The island of Montserrat and Demerara and Essequibo, both Dutch colonies, were attacked by a French naval and military force during the American Revolutionary war. A Franco-Spanish force planned an invasion of Jamaica, but their plans were abandoned with the decisive French naval defeat during the Battle of The Saintes in 1782.

In Europe, a joint Franco-Spanish invasion of Britain was planned, the Armada of 1779, in an attempt to divide Royal Naval forces in the North sea and the Mediterranean, weakening Britain’s position, whilst the American Revolutionary War was in progress, but their plans became impractical on several levels, ending interest in the operation. French naval power and strategic positioning in the West Indies weakened as they were pushed into increasingly unsuccessful battles with the Royal Navy.

The Franco-Spanish alliance went further in the Mediterranean, planning a campaign to recapture Gibraltar on the tip of Spain in 1779, remaining there  until 1783 without capturing ‘the Rock’.

The Treaty of Aranjuez signed between France and Spain in 1779, was primarily to capture Menorca from the British, but Gibraltar was key in Spanish plans to recapture the outpost and reclaim it permanently for Spain. Menorca was traditionally tied to Spain, but it was lost to them after Frances’s defeat in the Seven Years War and would not be regained at the time of the Paris Peace Treaty signing.


The French and British in India 

The Franco-Spanish Alliance was less successful in India. French outposts in Indian 1778-79, were taken by British forces sparking the Kingdom of Mysore a long-term ally of France, to support French attacks, for a while the Mysoreans were able to threaten British positions.

A series of engagements by the French admiral Bailli de Suffren engaging in several largely inconclusive battles with Sir Edward Hughes, Royal Navy Fleet, and the only land battle,  the Siege of Cuddalore in 1783, was a combined French-Mylorean force against the British. The conflicts ending when French forces withdrew as the preliminary Paris Peace Treaty was about to be signed between the 13 States of North America and London, in Paris.

The French failed to regain any influence in India and the new British-Mysorean association ensured that any French military excursions were heavily repulsed.

France’s position during and after the success of the Franco-Continental armies  in North America and General Cornwallis’s surrender at York Town had  strengthened Frances International excursion sufficiently, leading up to the planned Peace Treaty, but French dismay at the losses of their fleet during the Battle of the Saintes in 1782, by Admiral Rodney of the Royal Navy, strengthened Britain’s changed the balance of power on the oceans for the British at the time of the signing in Paris. Britain would use the conditions to leverage more concessions from the Franco-American alliance.

The Battle of the Saintes had been a military and financial disaster for France, emptying their state coffers and leaving Paris with few loan options. The war on the American continent, in support of the continental armies, had also cost over 1 million livres, a crucial factor that weakened the French economy, conditions that would stoke the French Revolution a few years later.


The Franco-US Alliance

After the Battle of the Saintes, French American relations would sour. Benjamin Franklin saw fit not to inform Paris of a covert meeting and treaty signed between the US representative, John Jay, and London.

Britain and John Jay would sign a lucrative trade treaty, including the resolution of remaining territorial disputes generated on behalf of Franklin with the British. Franklin and Jay having both attended the initial Paris Peace Treaty.

The US Government under George Washington would declare US neutrality in European and world affairs in future, due very much to the negative effect of the monarchies in Europe and the ongoing conflicts in the Holy Roman Empire.



French alliances in North America and elsewhere in the world would induce Paris into ambitious expansionist decisions and expectations. The reality would prove that the French and Spanish navies did not have total mastery of the Mediterranean Sea, Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Economically Paris would not or did not consider the financial implications of far off extensive overseas operations, the size of the forces required to complete the route of the British in North and South America, and any economic spin offs that could be gained from British territorial withdrawals.

The Paris Peace Treaty was a great milestone and beginning for the fledgling United States democracy, but France would be plunged into internal turmoil for the next 25 years, eventually losing the 7th and final War of the Coalitions in 1815. The capabilities of Britain’s Royal Navy alone, would be a key factor in dismantling French military and political ambitions.

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