"The French Are Coming!"

This page is a 2009 revision of a synopsis of a 4 October 2005 talk given to the Kate Waller Barrett Chapter, National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, in Virginia. The speaker, Albert D. McJoynt had previously talked to this Chapter on the Yorktown 1781 victory and addressed its context as part of a global war between England and France. On this occasion, the speaker focused on the strategic decision to deploy an expeditionary contingent of French troops to the American theater.
The 2009 revision further addresses the essential, and following complementary strategic decision to send a large French naval force with the option to participate in the North American theater; and notes that these strategic desicions made at Versailles required two important, later operational decisions -- one by a French admiral and the other by an American general -- to effect the successful Allied Yorktown Campaign of 1781.

A serious examination of the Yorktown Campaign and siege must acknowledge the essential contribution of the presence of French army troops � their siege artillery, siege engineers and large number of regular land army professionals cannot be discounted. Nor can one omit the essential role of the French navy in the successful execution of this remarkable joint and combined operation. However, the presence of French troops on American soil was a very contentious issue in the American Revolution.
The average American is exposed to Anglophone published histories that often ignore this factor. Understandably, this may be attributed to minimizing the essential role �foreign' elements had in the great � and arguably �pinnacle' -- victory in the war. Given the prevailing Anglo bias in North American culture, the fact that the �foreigner' is �French' can exacerbate issue.
Without adequate familiarity with the historical background, it is easy for the casual examination of general published articles and books to see General Washington � with some assistance by the other Patriots of the time � as the overall director of the war as it was conducted in the North American colonies in 1779-1781. While Washington certainly made the command decisions governing Allied operations in North America, he was not empowered to summon the fundamental resources that enabled the Allies to execute their winning scheme. This power was in the hands of foreigners � more precisely, the Foreign Minister of France at the time.


It was during 1779 that significant strategic decisions were made, which had more impact on the final outcome of the armed struggle than any of the other �so called turning points' in the American Revolution. Much of the unexamined mantra expressed in popular military history of the Revolution employs miss-leading, and selective, use of the expression �turning points'. This expression is often applied to American tactical victories, or several costly British phyrric victories, and obscures the fact that these colonists' �victories' were basically events that, at best, prevented � one my say 'postponed' � the ultimate defeat of the Rebels. In reality, there were a series of potential �turning points' that sea-sawed in either direction; and by 1779, the situation was no longer looking good for the Rebels, who were emotionally strained by the long, drawn out war. The British were confronted with much of the same frustration, but they had the governmental institutions and resources to forge ahead; and their homeland citizenry were less affected than the American population by a growing dissatisfaction with the draining burden of the war.
Many popular narratives usually focus on �turning points' in the war: events usually that took place in the North American theater, putting aside that the America War for Independence was a global war, and the American fight for Independence was being pursued by an allied coalition that provided (1) extensive financial aid to pay and equip the Continental army; (2) a naval force to stand up to the leading world naval power, (3) and deployed to North America in 1780-83 a well commanded, world-class professional military land expedition with the finest artillery siege equipment and personnel to use it. While one can look back with objectivity and appreciate this, we have to be reminded that of all the assistance provided to the Americans, none was more controversial and challenging than the 1780-83 deployment of French Troops to the United States. Prior to 1779, the deployment of French troops to fight along side the American rebels was almost unthinkable.


This decision to send a large French naval force to participate in North American theater was made in early 1780 by the French foreign Minister Vergennes. It was a complex decision that requires examination of the broader context of the war outside just that taking place in the American colonies, and it means introducing incidents which are not addressed in most of the narratives to which the American public is exposed. However, published academic studies by American historians like Lee Kennett and Johathan Dull [see references as end of this page] address the key factors fomenting in 1779 that played in the early 1780 decision.
For the most part, French motives described in the general Anglophone narrative histories repeat presumptions expressed in the mass of secondary source publications. Sometimes there is reference to perceptions reported by bystanders, extracted from journals and letters of individuals who had no access to the decisions being assessed and having been made at Versailles and in Paris. It is important to realize that the decisions that sent French naval and army resources to North America in 1780 and 1781 were the product largely of a single individual who �called the shots' � the French Foreign Minister Charles Gravier, comte de Vergnennes. He was certainly assisted by the eager suggestions of French volunteers who served in the American ranks, and supported by the French king, Louis XVI. The other French ministers and court advisors deferred to the energetic and experienced Minister of State. For the most part, the Americans were not fully aware of Vergennes' power or of his real motives. The one American who probably knew the French Foreign Minister's position the best was Franklin, and even he played a passive role in this decision. While American leaders had early called for French money, a few military officers with engineering experience, and naval support, they were did not promote the idea of deploying French troops to North America.
Popular American lore is that the French entered the war for revenge. Such a naive purpose � while relevant as an emotion in obtaining popular support in France � was not the way the very experienced and worldly French Foreign Minister behaved. It was Vergennes who was the official expression of France's policies. He dominated all the other ministers with his energy and recognized brilliance; and he had the full confidence of King Louis XVI. Vergennes had a more far reaching and global perspective. He was looking to Eastern Europe, to a future strategic relationship with Britain, to the protection of French possessions in North America [fishing rights off Newfoundland and commercially valuable Caribbean islands], and to the need to keep the Spanish in the Alliance during the on-going war. In the North American colonies, it was important for the French that the Americans win their �Independence' [read �political and military separation'] from Britain � not for the purpose of individual freedom from monarchical rule, or for the individual's freedom from oppressive government. Expressions of admiration for the abstract declarations of �democracy' and �rights of men' aside, France saw in its own interest � security of its West Indian islands and fishing rights off Newfoundland � the need to separate the manpower of the British North American colonies, that had proven to be so significant in military land operations during the preceding colonial wars, and the powerful British navy, which France could not hope to equal in size.
Another often erroneous assertion in general Anglophone writings is that France was seeking to regain some North American territory lost in the previous Seven Years' War. This was a popular suspicion held by many of the American Rebels who had no access to the written documents generated by French authorities at the time and terms as stated clearly in the Alliance Treaty of February 1778 with the US. Today, the knowledgeable historians dismiss such myths, but unfortunately many historical narratives are repeatedly ginned out by writers who prefer not to be encumbered by serious research.
During the early part of the Revolution, France had hoped to see the North American part of the war resolved by the success of the American rebel's own land forces, assisted by French money and arms. Meanwhile, French naval forces [that included naval troops] would prosecute the war on a global basis; and, thereby, more directly serve its interests in India, Africa, and the West Indies, as well as contribute to the dispersal of British military and naval resources. The latter aim being what was hoped would be sufficient to assist the Rebel cause in North America as well as in the global struggle.
In April 1778, a French naval fleet, under comte d'Estaing, deployed from Toulon to assist the American land operations. Anticipating the arrival of the French fleet, that included transport of Army regiments, the British abandoned Philadelphia and concentrated their army in New York City. D'Estaing reached the Delaware Bay in July 1778 and then trailed the British to New York. Unable to develop a feasible plan to attack the British fortifications around the city, d'Estaing diverted to Newport, Rhode Island, with the intent to participate in an allied assault on the British positions there. This late August 1778 Newport Campaign was marred by poor coordination between d'Estaing and Major General John Sullivan, the rather erratic commander of the American ground forces. This first allied operation was terminated with the approach of British naval reinforcements and a hurricane forced d'Estaing to take his fleet to Boston for ship repairs. In November 1778, d'Estaing departed Boston for the West Indies, where he succeeded in capturing some British held islands.
In July 1779, d'Estaing returned to the North American mainland to participate in another allied campaign. D'Estaing joined with an American Army commanded by General Benjamin Lincoln, outside Savannah, GA, on 16 September. The early October 1779 allied siege of Savannah culminated in a costly, failed frontal assault on the fortified city. D'Estaing, was wounded in one of the charges, and withdrew his force. He returned with his fleet to France in December 1779. There is an irony that the failed 1779 siege of Savannah instigated the British evacuation of Newport (RI), which had been the objective of the failed allied July-August 1778 campaign, to consolidate further their position in New York. The failures at Newport and Savannah inflicted doubts as to the effectiveness of any further combined French-American military ventures. Nevertheless, the British evacuations of Philadelphia and Newport aside, by the end of 1779, the war in North America was going badly as attested to in Washington's own correspondence at the time.
By mid 1779, Vergennes had already sensed a need to shift the strategic deployment of French naval and military resources for better effect. He accepted the fact that the French-Spanish attack on England was not going to happen � it was a scheme he did not like in the first place. At the same time, the unfavorable trend of events in North America had to be faced, and Vergennes began seriously considering a more robust French military commitment to directly assist the American Rebel army. This need was re enforced in appeals made to the French court by some French volunteers (such as Lafayette and Fleury) in the American army who had returned as popular heroes to France.
A significant factor inhibiting more pronounced French assistance in the form of French troops was the well recognized aversion the American Rebels had to the presence of foreign troops � and especially those of a former enemy, France � in the colonies. From 1775 to sometime in mid 1779, this latter perception was expressed by many leading American Rebel leaders, and was well known in Paris by the French government � which had long been measuring the sentiment even before war broke out � and the American representative to the French, Benjamin Franklin. So how did it come about that a French military expedition came in July 1780, and a large French fleet appeared in the Chesapeake Bay in late August of 1781? Both of which were the undisputable components of the successful Yorktown Campaign. The scheme evolved from various circumstances coming together in 1779, influencing critical strategic decisions to be made at Versailles in late 1779 and early 1780; and then a particularly crucial operational decision made by a French naval commander at the Caribbean port of Cape Fran�ais [Cap-Ha�tien] in mid Summer of 1781.


First, there was the July 1779 cancellation of a French-Spanish attack on England that left a large, well equipped French army assembled free for alternative uses. Vergennes asked Lafayette for suggestions that would pertain to deploying a French military expedition to North America. While there is no evidence that Lafayette, upon returning to France in early 1779, initially advocated deployment of a French military expedition to America, when asked to comment, the marquis did provide a valuable memorandum demonstrating his personal familiarity with the situation in North America. Having witnessed the failure of the attempted French naval participation in the Rhode Island campaign of 1778, Lafayette stressed not only that the French force be made up of the best regiments but most importantly that the expedition be "well led," [Lafayette to Vergennes 18 July 1779]. No doubt, Lafayette's initially thought of himself as the ideal commander of the expedition, but his lack of seniority in the French army made fantasy of such a thought. However, the emphasis on selecting an appropriate commander was strongly echoed by all French who had experience with the American army.
Second, it was necessary to address the major imponderable as to how would the Americans react? The American representative in Paris was not much help. As late as 16 October 1779, Franklin wrote Lafayette that he had "no orders for troops, but large ones for supplies, and I dare not take any further steps..." Franklin's documents at the time do not evidence that he was perusing this aspect, and suggest that he was not active in preparing the expedition. Some historians suspect that Franklin had to have been involved, but was being �canny' �" keeping the project at arm's length, and letting Lafayette's soaring enthusiasm take the lead." Although the scheme was militarily desirable � if not even necessary � no one could predict American public reaction. Such direct military intervention could tilt the balance in North America, or end as a fiasco. In the case of, failure, Franklin did not want the authorship laid at his door." [Kennett pp.7-9] Vergennes noted that by the end of 1779 no requests for French troops had come from Philadelphia. 1 However, the French Minister felt well enough informed that he knew the crucial opinion would be what George Washington thought.
Vergennes had not waited upon Franklin or normal diplomatic channels to work this �intelligence' issue. Rather, the French Minister directed the French representative in the US to sound out the latest sensitivities of the American leaders toward receiving a French military expedition. Adams had already begun to change his mind when he witnessed the British so swiftly drive the American from New York in 1777. However, Adams' fundamental anti-French bias discouraged him from openly espousing the controversial option.
In the meantime, the issue was breeched in an exchange of letters during June and September of 1779 between Washington and Lafayette. Lafayette wrote, in a 12 June 1779 letter, to Washington that he would be "the happiest of men" if he could return at the head of a small French army. In a 12 Sep 1779 reply, Washington assured the marquis that he could expect a cordial welcome if he landed at the head of "a corps of gallant French ." These letters were the only support the Marquis could offer the French authorities that, at least, this the key American leader would now be receptive to the idea. However, there was no serious possibility that the French would deploy a force under Lafayette � who had volunteered his service to the American cause as a non-combat experienced French army captain. He was made a colonel in the French army upon his return in 1779 mainly based on praise of his performance in America expressed by Washington and Franklin.
As part of Vergennes' initiative, the newly appointed French emmassary to the American Congress, Chevalier de la Luzerne, confronted Washington directly. Interestingly, la Luzerne (whose career had been mostly in the military rather than in diplomatic service) proved to be highly effective in his new assignment. Before even reporting to the US Congress in Philadelphia, la Luzerne visited George Washington at West Point. Notes taken by Hamilton at the conference between the French representative and George Washington on 16 September 1779 indicated Washington's acceptance of the French offer to send troops � though the General continued to place emphasis on more money, military material as well as naval forces. Very early in the war, Washington had to accept that the American army was being sustained largely by funds and materials from, or indirectly provided by, France; and that joint support of a sizable naval force would be essential for the American army to launch any significant offensive against the British professional armies ensconced in the major commercial seaport cities such as New York, Charleston, and others that the British had occupied � and could do so again, at will, due to the unmatched strength of their naval arm.
Vergennes made his decision in January 1780, and directed the project be planned by the army and naval staffs. On 2 February, the king's concil formally approved the plan, which was given the code name �Exp�dition Particuli�re'. Military units were largely taken from select and well equipped forces already assembled from regiments that were to be in the English campaign. Adhering to advice from Lafayette and others who had personal experience of conditions in America, the military expedition was to take the maximum amount of supplies possible. Precautions were taken not to offend American pride and French troops were to be clearly identified as �auxiliaries', with their French commander placing himself under Washington's orders. Particular care was given to selecting the commander of the expedition. Appointing Rochambeau, who was nominated by the French minister of war, Prince de Montbarrey, was probably the most important part of French ministers' decisions.
From this point, the fundamental first component for what would later take form as �the Yorktown Campaign' had been cast. What followed was the implementation of the design. Lafayette was directed to return to the American army and to facilitate the task of receiving the French forces. A French commissary agent arrived in New England in the spring of 1780 to prepare medical facilities before the expedition's arrival. Rochambeau's expedition arrived in July 1780. The initial reception of the French troops was cool, but Rochambeau's leadership over his well disciplined troops soon subdued many American suspicions.
However, not all American doubts about the coming of the French army were removed. Interestingly, in October of 1780 Benedict Arnold published his �Letter to the Inhabitants of America'. [Arnold's statement is available at http://xenophongroup.com/mcjoynt/arnltr.htm] This is another item often absent in popular narratives on the war, which suggest different motives for the traitor's defection other than the long ingrained anti-French bias that he expresses. �Why'Arnold defected my not be as important as the fact that he presumed his expressed resentment of the French would be a very convincing argument' to the American public at the time.
The outcome of Vergennes' strategic decisions in 1780 was that by the Spring of the following year, Rochambeau's professional army joined with Washington's Continental Army. As this allied land army was forming in North America, Vergennes launched the next phase of his grand scheme in early 1781, when he directed the large French fleet under admiral comte de Grasse be deployed to the Caribbean. The decision to provide a significant naval presence, with the potential to operate in conjunction with the allied land armies, in North America was the second fundamental component for what would later take form as �the Yorktown Campaign'. De Grasse's mission was primarily to support French and Spanish interests in The West Indies, but his instructions also included assisting the allied land armies in North America where, and when, possible. Such alternative operational opportunities were quite conceivable given the practice of large naval forces to move away from the Caribbean waters during hurricane season � occurring largely during August and September. Mindful of his instructions, de Grasse wrote a 29 March 1781 dispatch to Rochambeau, even before the French fleet reached the West Indies, requesting to be informed as to the strength and position of the English armies in North America, in anticipation of being able to divert to that theater in late July for a month or two. Such dispatches were sent on ahead by fast sailing packet ships, this one did not reach Boston until 10 June 1781.
Rochambeau had been aware of de Grasse's deployment, but was cautioned by the French authorities to keep it a secret to lessen the risk of the British intercepting his convoy. The topic of a French naval force coming to North America was discussed in only theoretical terms at the 1781 May Wethersfield conference with George Washington. Immediately after that conference, Rochambeau sent a 28 May dispatch to de Grasse -- these were followed by 31 May and 6 June dispatches. Rochambeau informed de Grasse that the admiral's arrival "may save the situation" and listed badly needed resources of money to pay troops and more land forces in addition to the naval superiority which the French fleet can furnish. Rochambeau went on to state: "There are two points where the enemy can be attacked: the Chesapeake, and New York. . . . You will probably prefer Chesapeake Bay, and it is there we think you can render the greatest service."
De Grasse arrived at Cap-Ha�tien (formerly Cape Fran�ais) on 16 July, where he found awaiting him dispatches from Washington, Rochambeau, and the highly respected chevalier de la Luzerne, which mostly suggested the benefits of the French fleet going to the Chesapeake. However, it must be stressed that there was no anticipation that there would be found a lucrative target of a British army to be trapped at the town of York -- Cornwallis, himself, would not think of going there until early August. Nevertheless, with no specific tactical siege plan involved, De Grasse aggressively gathered money and more French forces stationed in the West Indies, and came to the Chesapeake in late August 1781. This operational decision made by de Grasse in mid July set in motion the still evolving 'Yorktown Campaign'
Certainly the final operational direction of this last decisive campaign in North America was the work of Washington � wisely assisted by Rochambeau [supported with a professional siege artillery and engineer staff] and de Grasse. The fact that it geographically focused upon the little tobacco port town of York in Virginia was purely due to the whim of Cornwallis, who surrendered less than one-third of the British army in North America to the Allies on 19 October 1781. Specific locations and tactical events could have been very different, but without the decisions made in Versailles in late 1779 and early 1780 there would not have been the October 1781 Allied victory � nor the eventual American Independence in the late eighteenth-century. How the Yorktown Campaign evolved has been described as a near "Miracle" by some [see reference to Lee Kennett's comments at end of this page]; and the how the world War for American Independence ended in 1783 is another, broader story. If interested, one might to visit After Yorktown 1781: The War Beyond the Horizon'


  1. 1. At the end of 1778, while still in America, Lafayette pondered the concept of French forces employed in concert with American forces. He was well aware that the presence of French forces in America was a volatile question. However, the marquis was approached by a US Congressional committee examining possible French-American military and naval operations against Halifax, Newfoundland, and Quebec. As Lafayette prepared to depart for France, the Congressional committee asked him to carry Congress' interests in this new scheme to Franklin, the newly appointed American minister to the French court. The scheme was limited to operations in Canada, the plan for combined [French and American forces] operations, involved sending French warships and 4,000-5,000 troops. On January 1, 1779 Congress changed its mind, but the word did not reach Lafayette prior to his 11 January 1779 departure from Boston. Lafayette arrived back in France in early February 1779, and quickly raised this Congressional scheme for combined operations with both Franklin and Adams who were in Paris. Lafayette and the American envoys in Paris would not learn of Congress' turn about until May 1779. In the meantime, there were some communiques from the American envoys to Vergennes that proposed the deployment of French forces to North America � some, of which, were not carefully restrict to geography outside the 13 colonies. However, such proposals were promptly dropped from American envoys' discussions when informed of Congress' changed interest. This is discussed in more detail in professor "Lafayette, Franklin, And The Coming of Rochambeau's Army" that can be viewed as a webpage, linked below. [Return to narrative]


The French Forces in America 1780-1783. Lee Kennett, Greenwood Press, Westport, Connecticut,1977; Concise presentation of the strategy and challenges of allied military collaboration.

"L'expedition Rochambreau-Ternay: un succes diplomatique". Lee Kennett Revue Historique des Armees, 1976, 3(4 Special), pp.86-105. Describes one of the most critical decisions made in the war. It was the French government's careful appointment of leaders of the expeditionary force in light of many of the former English colonists perception of the French traditional enemies.

The French Navy and American Independence, A Study of Arms and Diplomacy, 1774-1787. Jonathan R. Dull. (Princeton University Press, NJ, 1975). As the author states up front, the work does not dwell on naval combat engagements [See Jenkins and Mahan for such], but rather Dull explores the diplomacy and background associated with French naval organization and deployments. One of the best Anglophone works that has made use of modern access to French archives. Very good on European motives and interactions during the war, as they most all centered around the French policies.

A Diplomatic History of the American Revolution . Jonathan R. Dull. (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1985). The author examines international aspects of the American War for Independence more broadly than did his earlier 1975 work relating to the French navy and diplomacy. In this study, Dull describes the complex, late eighteenth-century European political structure and dynamics are rarely reported in the general histories of the war. In particular, Dull's account places in context the sometimes labeled �international' support for the American struggle and clearly describes France's dominant role. Dull's examination dispels many simplistic clich�s used in so many Anglophone works to describe the motives of French leaders or to portray the balance of power in Europe in 1775-1783. His annotated bibliography is especially valuable.

The French Navy and the Seven Years' War . Jonathan R. Dull. (University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, 2005). This scholar continues to contribute important insight in understanding the conflict between eighteenth-century France and Great Britain. In this latest work, Dr. Dull examines how the French naval experience prepared France for its effective participation in the American War for Independence. The final chapter, �Epilogue Toward a New War, 1763-1774' is a critical �Prologue' to the American Revolution.


If you are interested in more on this topic, you should inspect "Lafayette, Franklin, And The Coming of Rochambeau's Army" speech by Dr. Jonathan R. Dull. His presentation, delivered to the Washington Association of New Jersey, at Morristown in April 1980, can be viewed at: http://xenophongroup.com/mcjoynt/dulltlk.htm

If you have not already visited "YORKTOWN CAMPAIGN (August-October 1781)" webpage, or you wish to return to it, please use the following link: http://www.xenophongroup.com/mcjoynt/yrkcam-z.htm

Comments concerning a legend promoted about what, who influenced de Grasse's operational decision to go to the Chesapeake. See "De Grasse's Decision to Go to the Chesapeake"

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Page posted 4 February, revised 10 July 2010.