He maneuvers around the British commander sent to intercept him: "Sir, We cast off at 5am with a light northerly wind which we hope will strengthen.".
The Declaration of Independence in July 1776 meant for the Americans that there was no turning back in the revolt against Britain. It was obvious to the Continental Congress that to beat the world's most powerful nation, the Americans would need foreign aid (such as loans to procure munitions and other necessities),...
The Declaration of Independence in July 1776 meant for the Americans that there was no turning back in the revolt against Britain. It was obvious to the Continental Congress that to beat the world's most powerful nation, the Americans would need foreign aid (such as loans to procure munitions and other necessities), and foreign alliances (to strengthen its diplomatic position). The obvious nation to look to for support was France, which was the traditional foe of Britain. France was still smarting from the disaster of its loss in the French and Indian War just over a decade earlier, which resulted in its loss of Canada and virtual ejection from the Americas. Humbling the arrogant British would be sweet revenge, and weakening them would have the practical advantage of strengthening the French position all around the world. It would also tend to even out the balance of power in Europe.
The Americans sent Benjamin Franklin to Paris to promote a French-American alliance. The French foreign minister, the Count de Vergennes, saw the potential advantages of aiding the American rebels, but at the same time he was concerned that supporting them would risk the possibility of a new and potentially disastrous war with Britain. Differences of opinion within the French government also inclined him to caution, as King Louis XVI was dubious about helping enemies of a monarch with whom he was at peace, and the Comptroller General of Finances, Baron Turgot, declared that a war with Britain would push France into bankruptcy. Vergennes persuaded the King and his fellow ministers to agree to a policy that he considered both practical and safe: provide covert assistance to the Americans. But this subterfuge fooled no one, least of all the British, nor did it provide sufficient aid to matter to the Americans. Vergennes realized that French intervention was required to guarantee an American victory; he closely followed the course of the war in America, looking for an opportunity. The prospects for French intervention rose or fell with American fortunes on the battlefield, as Vergennes could only carry the King and his ministers into war if it seemed certain that the United States would survive.
In the wake of the American victory at Saratoga in 1777, the British offered conciliatory terms to the Americans if they would resume their allegiance to the Crown. Franklin met with a British representative in Paris, and then shrewdly let the French know. Vergennes did not want to lose what now seemed a golden opportunity to strike a heavy blow against Britain. He had come to believe that war was inevitable with France's ancient foe, and it was better to fight while the British army and navy were tied down in America. On December 17, 1777, Vergennes told the American commissioners that France would recognize the United States. On February 6, 1778, an alliance was signed between the United States and France. Now the big question was what help would come, and when it would come. Success would probably hinge on that.
The Americans were hoping for speedy assistance, in the form not merely of war materials, but of French military forces. They expected the French Navy to show up, and to encounter and take on the Royal Navy. They expected troops, regiments that would combine with the Continental Army to shift the balance of military power in the Americans' direction. They expected British defeats on both land and sea. But that is not what they got. Later in 1778, a French fleet appeared off Newport, RI, which was then occupied by the British. The French landed some troops that were to help Maj. Gen. John Sullivan’s American force seize that city, but when a storm began to gather and a small British fleet approached, the French recalled their troops and departed unceremoniously. A year later the French landed a few thousand troops to join the American siege of Savannah, Georgia. After an ineffectual bombardment of the city, the combined forces assaulted the entrenched British positions and were repulsed in one of the bloodiest defeats of the war. In November 1779, the French boarded their ships and departed. This was a bitter disappointment, and some felt that the French would never play a significant role in the conflict. Meanwhile, the American cause was at low ebb. Washington felt too weak to move against the British in the north, and in the South Charleston fell to the British on May 12, 1780. The momentum was all in Britain's favor, and even Washington began to lose confidence in ultimate victory, as he indicated in a letter to a relative.
The French also saw the dire situation and were determined to play a role in the outcome of the American War, and not let the opportunity pass. They planned to send a significant number of troops and ships to join Washington for the next summer's campaign, and by the beginning of 1780 were gathering a strong force. In March 1780, the French Minister of War, the Prince de Montbarey, prevailed upon King Louis XVI to select the Comte de Rochambeau to lead the French Expeditionary Force, and the appointment was made. This showed that the French were serious about assisting the Americans, as Rochambeau, a wounded battle veteran of the Seven Year's War who had been promoted to general on merit rather than because of connections, had a reputation as a fine leader, administrator, and strategist. Washington learned of all this with both excitement and trepidation. He had been disappointed by the French before, and had no idea when the French would arrive, nor in what numbers, nor with what instructions, nor indeed if they would arrive at all. But he planned a 1780 Campaign – an ambitious joint Franco-American late-summer assault against British-held New York. Washington believed that the fate of the Revolution could in large part hinge on French participation, and now it was a game of waiting and hoping; as he wrote, "We have every reason to expect that an armament composed of Land & Sea forces will soon arrive from France in these States, to cooperate with us against the common Enemy."
The British were well aware of the plan to sail the French army to America. Admiral Sir Thomas Graves was given the responsibility of intercepting Rochambeau's force on the high seas, destroying it or obstructing its course, and perhaps preventing its arrival in America. Once in Americans water, Graves was to meet up with Admiral Mariot Arbuthnot, commander-in-chief of the Royal Navy in the American theater of war. Their combined force would be one with which the French would have to contend.
The French forces gathered at Brest where Rochambeau found that the ships assigned to his fleet were not as numerous as expected, so that only the first division of his army could embark; a second division would have to follow later. Their departure was beset with frustrating difficulties. Heavy rains and contrary winds caused delays, and there were mishaps; two ships, the Comtesse de Noailles and the Conquérant, collided and had to be repaired. “Luckily,” wrote Rochambeau to Montbarey, with his usual good humor, “It rains also on Plymouth.” But despite the humor, it was important for the French to get away as soon as possible, before Graves had time to complete his preparations and take to sea. This, in fact, was the main goal of the naval contingent's commander, Admiral Chevalier de Ternay. At last, on the 2d of May, 1780, the French fleet of seven ships of the line, two frigates, and thirty-six transport ships carrying some 5,500 men, weighed anchor.
On board ship and ready to embark on this great mission, Rochambeau reported to the Minister of War that the French Expeditionary Force was leaving port bound for America. On the other side of the Atlantic, this is the very event for which George Washington has been anxiously hoping and waiting. Autograph letter signed, "On board the Duc de Borgogne", Brest, France, May 2, 1780, to Prince de Montbarey, being Rochambeau's official report of this historic moment. "Sir, We cast off at 5am with a light northerly wind which we hope will strengthen. We will be ahead of Graves, who will have to sail with the same wind to leave Portsmouth. Once he unites wth Arbuthnot, we will wait at port until the arrival of a second division, which will give us our naval superiority and bring us the increase in troops we so need. He [Graves] goes without convoy and will arrive earlier than we in New York." Rochambeau added, with a touch of emotion at this solemn moment, personally complimenting de Montbarey who had selected him for this command, "I place the fate of this expedition in the hands of the friendship of my dear and old friend and the zeal of my minister for the good of the state." This letter appears in the "Correspondence of the Count de Rochambeau," and is also quoted and commented upon in Jean Jules Jusserand's "With Americans of Past and Present Days," which contains a history of this event. Jusserand was the French ambassador to the United States during World War I.
Jusserand writes that Graves, whose task it was to intercept Rochambeau and his slow and heavy convoy, missed his opportunity by just 24 hours, reaching New York, where he joined forces with Arbuthnot, just as the French ships were safe at Newport. Thus did the expedition have fortune on its side. Rochambeau arrived at Newport, RI on July 11, 1780. Rochambeau came ashore the next day. In the end, there was no time to coordinate and initiate a 1780 campaign in the north, but the next year Washington’s vision of the Franco-American juggernaut finally took shape. In September 1781, the combined armies with the French fleet – some 16,000 troops – arrived in Virginia and set up camp outside the British defenses at Yorktown. Just three weeks later, the siege of Yorktown ended with the complete surrender of the British. As a result of this catastrophe to their arms, Britain sued for peace; the war was over. So Washington’s dream that the arrival of the French would make the difference and secure American independence, launched in this letter, became a reality.
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