When Friend Becomes Foe – A Young America Slugs It Out With France

The USS Constellation i action again the French warship Insurgente.

The USS Constellation in action again the French warship L’Insurgente.

“Known as the Quasi War… the seeds of this strange and often forgotten struggle were actually sown a generation earlier.”

BARELY 15 YEARS after winning independence from Great Britain, the United States found itself in a brand new war. And ironically, America’s new enemy had up until that moment been its among its staunchest allies – France.

The two-year conflict, which would primarily be fought along America’s east coast and the Caribbean between 1798 and 1800, would be waged between French privateers and the newly established United States Navy.

America might not have won its independence were it not for the assistance of France. (Image source: WikiCommons)

America might not have won its independence were it not for the assistance of France. (Image source: WikiCommons)

America’s First Ally

Known as the Quasi War, due to the fact that it was never formally declared, the seeds of this strange and often forgotten struggle were actually sown a generation earlier.

In 1776, France was still stinging from the loss of Canada to Great Britain during the Seven Years War a decade and a half earlier. So when rebellion broke out in the 13 Colonies, Versailles looked at the American Revolution as the perfect opportunity to stick it to its age-old adversary England. As the conflict in America widened, France waited for just the right moment to leap into the fray. That time came in the autumn of 1777 with the British defeat at the Battle of Saratoga. The Continental Army’s victory against the redcoats gave France the confidence to formally recognize the fledging American republic, while simultaneously pledging both financial aid and military assistance to the cause of independence. The Franco-American Treaty of Alliance of 1778 cemented this relationship.

Over the next five years, more than 8,000 French troops streamed into America from Europe and the West Indies to fight along side the patriots. King Louis also provided the then astronomical sum of $6 million to the Continental Congress to help pay for the war. More money soon would follow.

Eventually, the American War of Independence would draw in both Spain and Holland and swell into a global conflict against Britain, with fighting taking place in the Caribbean, Europe, the Mediterranean and even far off India.

France is plunged into revolution in 1789. The cash-strapped new regime presses America to repay its war debt. (Image source: WikiCommons)

France is plunged into revolution in 1789. The cash-strapped new regime presses America to repay its war debt. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Jealousy

By 1783, America had won its independence, due in no small part to French assistance. But France had accrued so much debt helping to defeat the British, it touched off a fiscal crisis that toppled the Bourbon monarchy and transformed the ancient kingdom into a republic.

When in 1794 the United States worked to normalize trade with Great Britain, the revolutionary regime in France cried foul. Seeing American merchant vessels supplying the British with materiel made the French leaders’ blood boil. To add insult to injury, Congress reneged on the repayment of all those wartime loans from the King of France arguing that since Louis no longer ruled, the debts were forfeit. The French were quick to retaliate.

First, Paris broke off diplomatic ties with the U.S. “refusing to receive” America’s new ambassador, Charles Cotesworth Pinckney. [1] Worse, the French commissioned privateers to seize American merchant ships on the high seas. In fact by the summer of 1797, more than 300 U.S. trade vessels had been captured. French warships cruised the eastern seaboard with impunity and trans-Atlantic crossings became so risky for American merchantmen, insurance companies refused to underwrite their voyages. The fledgling U.S. economy was being strangled.

When Push Comes to Shove

John Adams: America's first 'wartime president'? (Image source: WikiCommons)

John Adams: America’s first ‘wartime president’? (Image source: WikiCommons)

For America, the last straw came when French agents secretly promised to restore diplomatic ties with the U.S. only if Congress would agree to pay a gratuity (or bribe) worth $250,000.

Details of the sordid overture, known as the XYZ Affair, were made public and American voters demanded revenge. Unfortunately for the Adams Administration, the country had only a token army and its puny navy had been disbanded years earlier following the end of the rebellion. If the United States wanted to safeguard its maritime interests (and punish France), it would need to build a new navy from scratch. To that end, Congress authorized the establishment of a 12-ship fleet. By July of 1898 America had assembled both vessels and crews and was ready to hit back.

In actions up and down the eastern seaboard and Caribbean, the new U.S. Navy enjoyed a string of victories. Ships with the now familiar names of Constellation, Enterprise and Constitution hammered French privateers in one engagement after another, while recapturing American-owned craft that had been taken as prizes.

The USS Constellation in battle with the French warship L'Insurgente. (Image source: WikiCommons)

U.S. and French warships in battle on the high seas. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Trading Blows

Isaac Hull was the toast of the new United States after scoring . (Image source: WikiCommons)

Isaac Hull was the toast of the new United States for his heroism at the Battle of Puerto Plata. (Image source: WikiCommons)

It wasn’t only warships that were made famous in the Quasi War. America was soon toasting a number of naval heroes that emerged during the struggle. A 26-year-old lieutenant from the Constitution by the name of Isaac Hull made headlines in 1800 when he commanded a shore party against a French privateer holed up in Puerto Plata harbour in Santo Domingo. In order to cut the vessel out, which he did successfully, Hull ordered his team of crewmen and marines to capture and knock out a French shore battery guarding the port. Hull would later go on to command the Constitution during the War of 1812 and win the United States a string of victories at sea.

While the U.S. only lost a single warship during the two-year Quasi War (while meting out dozens of losses on the enemy), French privateers continued to prey on American merchant vessels throughout the conflict. More than 2,000 trade ships would eventually fall victim to the freebooters. [2]

Ironically, one of America’s allies in the Quasi War was its former arch foe, Great Britain. While the U.S. Navy and the Royal Navy never conducted a single joint operation, both were driven by the desire to rid the seas of French privateers. To that end, Britain supplied American warships with materiel during the conflict and each nation invited merchant vessels from the other to join in its protected convoys. This amity wouldn’t last however. As Britain’s war with France intensified in the coming years, the Royal Navy would begin to press American sailors into service of the Crown. This policy would rapidly sour relations between the two powers and eventually led to the War of 1812.

French and American diplomats negotiate the 1800 Treaty of Mortefontain. (Image source: WikiCommons)

French and American diplomats negotiate the 1800 Treaty of Mortefontain. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Mending Fences

By late 1800, First Consul of Republican France, Napoleon Bonaparte sought a peace settlement with the United Staes. In the subsequent Treaty of Mortefontaine, France agreed to return all seized ships, but stopped short of compensating American shipping firms for their losses. Those who suffered at the hands of French privateers instead had to seek recompense from Congress, which in many cases wasn’t granted until as late as 1915. [3] America would soon mend fences with France. The two powers would never fight again.

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