The American War of Independence was more than just a struggle in the New World between Redcoats and Patriots. England’s long-time enemies soon leapt into the fray in hopes of bringing the British Empire to its knees. The resulting struggle was a global one. (Image source: WikiCommons)
“Most of the stories of the Revolutionary War focus on the American land campaigns, but in fact it was a global war.”
AMERICANS REMEMBER the War of Independence as a classic tale of David and Goliath — a saga of how a ragged band of citizen soldiers led by George Washington defied the odds and stood up to the vast military might of Great Britain, eventually winning their freedom and forging a new nation. At least that’s what we are taught in grade school. Yet according to historian Larrie D. Ferreiro, author of the new book Brothers at Arms: American Independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It, that’s only a part of of the story. What started as a small rebellion in the New World by colonists against the crown soon widened, drawing in Britain’s European enemies. From there, the fighting rapidly escalated into a global struggle with action taking place in theatres far from America’s shores.
MilitaryHistoryNow.com recently caught up with Ferreiro, whose book hits stores Tuesday, to discuss this larger world war, where it was fought, and how, without the contribution of France and Spain, the United States might very well have never been established.
Q: Why did you decide to write a book about France and Spain’s crucial role in the War of American Independence?
A: My children’s schoolbooks barely mentioned the French participation during the American Revolution, except for Lafayette and the Battle of Yorktown, and made no mention at all of Spain. The same was true for popular movies and television series about the Revolution. Now, I knew from my own research on navies during that era that both France and Spain had worked together and alongside the United States to defeat Great Britain, so I began wondering why there was a such a disconnect. What I found was that less than 1 per cent of the books written about the revolution dealt directly with either France or Spain, and none had placed their alliance front and center. I spent several years dragging my family to dozens of battlefields and encampments, while I pored through archives in the United States and Europe. I learned that, a decade before the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord, France and Spain had been planning for a war with Britain, and had already foreseen the coming American Revolution as a means to weaken their common enemy. But before they could aid that insurgency, America had to be seen as an independent nation fighting a war, and not simply engaged in a civil dispute with its mother country.
less than 1 per cent of the books written about the revolution dealt directly with either France or Spain, and none had placed their alliance front and center
The Declaration of Independence was an appeal to Britain’s European adversaries to enter the war on the site of the rebellion. (Image source: WikiCommons)
Q: Most people think that the Declaration of Independence was written as a message to King George III and the colonists to announce that America was now a sovereign nation. You argue that it was instead written to garner French and Spanish support for the American Revolution. Can you explain?
A: The writings of the Founding Fathers make it very clear that the Continental Congress authorized the Declaration of Independence to be a call for help to France and Spain. Before the United States broke from Britain, no other nation which had achieved independence had bothered to announce it with a formal document; winning the war was proclamation enough. The declaration wasn’t addressed to King George III; he had already acknowledged that the rebellion was carried out in order to “establish an independent empire.” And it wasn’t addressed to the colonists, who by early 1776 were already convinced that it was time to separate from their mother country. However, the Americans also knew that they could never win the ensuing war against Britain by themselves. They had no navy, almost no artillery, and a ragtag army and militia that were bereft of even gunpowder. Only France and Spain, historical enemies of Britain, had both the motive and the naval and military strength to defeat the British, and the Americans knew they would first have to be seen as a sovereign nation before they would come to our aid. Thomas Jefferson stated that “A declaration of independence alone could [allow] European powers to treat with us”, while John Adams admitted, “foreign powers could not be expected to acknowledge us, till we had acknowledged ourselves… as an independent nation.” That’s why I say that the document was not just the Declaration of Independence, but also a “Declaration that We Depend on France (and Spain, too).”
The Americans knew that they could never win the ensuing war against Britain by themselves. Only France and Spain… had both the motive and the naval and military strength to defeat the British
The opening volleys at Lexington and Concord truly were the shots “heard ’round the world.” The conflict they’d touch off would eventually be fought in the West Indies, Asia and Europe. (Image source: WikiCommons)
Q: What were the key events that led to France and Spain to aid the colonies? What did they hope to gain by providing military and financial aid?
A: Americans knew that France and Spain had long been spoiling for a rematch with Great Britain. They had come out badly in the Seven Years’ War against Britain, which ended in 1763 with France losing Canada and Spain losing Florida. France and Spain were already closely allied by family and military ties – their alliance was called the Bourbon Family Compact – and both wanted to redress what they saw as humiliating defeats. France wanted to dethrone Britain and regain its position as the dominant power in Europe, while Spain wanted to drive the British from the Gulf of Mexico and finally regain Gibraltar. When the War of American Independence broke out in 1775, both France and Spain provided arms to the Americans in order to keep British forces fighting there, so as to prevent them from destabilizing the European continent. By late 1777, it seemed likely that without additional French help, Britain would put down the rebellion in America, thereby posing an enormous danger to the economically crucial Caribbean sugar colonies of France and Spain. The surprise American victory at Saratoga gave France the pretext to form an alliance with the United States in 1778. Spain entered the war alongside France the following year, but did not ally directly with the United States.
By late 1777, it seemed likely that without additional French help, Britain would put down the rebellion in America, thereby posing an enormous danger to the economically crucial Caribbean sugar colonies of France and Spain.
France’s Comte de Rochambeau and George Washington jointly plan the attack on the British at Yorktown. (Image source: WikiCommons)
Q: Who are some of the “brothers at arms” mentioned in the book and what were their motivations?
A: The most important thing to remember is that these “brothers,” although helping the Americans in their war against Britain, were always acting in the interests of their own nation. The French foreign minister, the Comte de Vergennes, was the architect of many of the key decisions during the war, like providing arms and munitions to America, and sending the French navy and army there, but he did all of this in order to tilt the European balance of power in France’s favor. His Spanish counterpart, the Conde de Floridablanca, wanted to regain Gibraltar and the Gulf of Mexico. Spanish and French merchants, notably Diego de Gardoqui and Pierre Caron de Beaumarchais, funneled arms and supplies to the Americans with their governments’ secret support. Most volunteers who came to the United States did so to fight their longtime enemy, the British, but along the way they made the American cause their own. The most famous of these was of course the Marquis de Lafayette, but George Washington relied heavily on the talents of Louis Lebègue Duportail and Friedrich Wilhelm von Steuben to create a professional army that could carry out European-style campaigns. Sailors like the Comte d’Estaing and Luis de Córdova took the fight to the British Navy on the high seas. When the endgame finally coalesced in 1781, Bernardo de Gálvez captured Pensacola, which freed up the French commander the Comte de Grasse to take all of his ships from the Caribbean to blockade the Chesapeake Bay. This enabled Washington and France’s Marshal Comte de Rochambeau to surround and defeat Cornwallis at Yorktown, which effectively ended the war.
Most volunteers who came to the United States did so to fight their longtime enemy, the British, but along the way they made the American cause their own. The most famous of these was of course the Marquis de Lafayette.
John Paul Jones’s ship Bonhomme Richard takes on HMS Serapis, Sept. 23, 1779… and wins. Of course, the victory would not have been possible without the French. (Image source: WikiCommons)
Q: John Paul Jones is often cited as the most important naval hero of the American Revolution; yet you downplay his role in the conflict. Can you explain what actually happened?
John Paul Jones. (Image source: WikiCommons)
A: In 1779 the French and Spanish navies formed an immense fleet of 150 ships and 30,000 troops – larger even than the famous Spanish Armada – that was intended to invade Britain, capture its major port cities, wreak havoc on the economy and potentially bring Britain to the peace table. The French navy assigned John Paul Jones to create a diversion by cruising around the British Isles with a small squadron, led by the frigate Bonhomme Richard. Jones’s diversion was largely ignored and played no part in the outcome of the invasion scheme – which actually failed because of a massive epidemic that broke out across the fleet – but his victory over the larger British warship Serapis that symbolized the larger America-versus-Britain contest.
Of particular interest, however, is the story of Antoine Félix Wuibert, the French leader of Jones’s marine contingent that had turned the tide of the battle. He had actually come to America in 1776 as one of the very first volunteers, even before the United States had declared independence. He was captured when the British overran New York City, and after being released two years later, immediately volunteered to fight with John Paul Jones. He was seriously wounded in the naval battle but begged to return to America to rejoin the fight. On his way back he was captured, imprisoned and released twice more by the British, finally returning to serve at Fort Pitt. After the war he became an American citizen and a staunch abolitionist.
Lafayette and Washington at Valley Forge.
Q: What was Lafayette’s role in the conflict, and how did he become the embodiment of French assistance to the new nation?
A: Like many of his countrymen, Lafayette wanted to achieve honour by fighting against Great Britain, and the United States was the place to do that. But when he arrived in 1777, Washington and the Congress were already inundated with foreign volunteers and had no way to pay them. Lafayette was already rich, well-connected in France and volunteered without pay, so they commissioned him as a major general. He and the other French volunteers had their trial by fire just weeks later at the Battle of Brandywine, where they acquitted themselves very well. Congress now more openly accepted foreign troops and they served with distinction. Washington was well known for being stiff and formal with his own men, but he was somehow much less reserved with the French officers, even allowing them to openly embrace him on several occasions. With Lafayette this was especially true, and they came to see each other as almost family. Lafayette turned out to be an effective leader in the American campaigns, but despite the claim in the Broadway musical Hamilton that he got “guns and ships” for the Americans, in actual fact he had almost no influence on the French court — Vergennes called the shots at every turn, with or without Lafayette’s counsel. Lafayette entered the revolutionary mythology when he made a triumphal return to America a half-century later in 1824, one of the last remaining veterans of the conflict. He visited dozens of towns and cities and drew crowds of thousands in every state, cementing him as the symbol of the French alliance.
Lafayette entered the revolutionary mythology when he made a triumphal return to America a half-century later in 1824, one of the last remaining veterans of the conflict.
Spain used the war in America as a pretext to wrest control of Gibraltar from British hands in 1779. The failed siege lasted nearly four years. (Image source: WikiCommons)
Q: Why were the battles in the Caribbean, Europe and Asia so important to the narrative of the Revolutionary War?
A: Most of the stories of the Revolutionary War focus on the American land campaigns, but in fact it was a global war. The key to the British Empire was not its army but rather its navy, by far the most powerful in the world at the time. That navy resupplied the British troops in America and moved them unmolested wherever they were needed. The Americans knew this, which is why they specifically asked for help from France and Spain, the only two nations which together could challenge the British at sea. When France entered the war in 1778, the biggest strategic effect was to deny the British navy free rein in American waters, which is why they immediately evacuated Philadelphia to consolidate in New York City. But the game-changer was when Spain entered the war alongside France in 1779. Suddenly, the combined Bourbon fleet outnumbered the British and challenged them everywhere in the world, from the economically vital Caribbean, to an attempted invasion of the British homeland, and even to the increasingly important Asian colonies in India and today’s Sri Lanka. By the time of the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, Britain was at war across three continents and its navy was spread so thin that it couldn’t be effective in any one area. It was simply unable to muster the military and political support needed to keep up the fight.
By the time of the Battle of Yorktown in 1781, Britain was at war across three continents and its navy was spread so thin that it couldn’t be effective in any one area.
The British surrender to the American and French army at Yorktown. While the fighting in the colonies would soon end, Britain continued to battle France and Spain for two more years. (Image source: WikiCommons)
Q: Today, we as Americans still hold true to the belief in “American Exceptionalism.” How does your book revise that belief? Why does this matter today?
A: The notion of American exceptionalism has changed considerably over time. During the 19th century, it was founded on the idea that we were unique in our national character, having been born in freedom and independence. In that highly individualistic narrative, America had needed no outside help, especially from the monarchies of France and Spain, to liberate itself from Britain. In the 20th century, as the United States became the dominant world power, American exceptionalism evolved to include the concept that our military and political power has made us the single, unique force for good in the world. But these narratives were never correct and never were a good fit. What I hope to convey to the reader is that, instead of the myth of heroic self-sufficiency, the real story of the Revolution is that the American nation was born as the centerpiece of an international coalition, which together worked to defeat a common adversary. In fact, the United States has always been exceptional when it returns to those roots and leads a coalition of nations in pursuit of a common good.
What I hope to convey to the reader is that, instead of the myth of heroic self-sufficiency, the real story of the Revolution is that the American nation was born as the centerpiece of an international coalition.
Arrie D. Ferreiro has a doctorate of history from the Imperial College London. He teaches history and engineering at George Mason University in Virginia and the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey. He has served for over thirty-five years in the U.S. Navy, U.S. Coast Guard and Department of Defense, and was an exchange engineer in the French Navy. He is the author of Measure of the Earth: The Enlightenment Expedition That Reshaped Our World and Ships and Science: The Birth of Naval Architecture in the Scientific Revolution, 1600-1800 and most recently, Brothers at Arms American Independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It. He lives with his wife and their sons in Virginia.