Chapter 14 – The French Fleet | France in the Revolution


    About the author

    James Breck Perkins headshot.
    James Breck Perkins

    James Breck Perkins (1847–1910) was an American historian notable for his works on French history. Educated at the University of Rochester, he initially practiced law before shifting to writing and public service. Perkins is best known for his comprehensive studies on the French Regency period, particularly in “France Under the Regency,” which examined Philippe d’Orléans’ governance post-Louis XIV. His other significant works include “France Under Louis XV” and “France in the American Revolution.”



      The French ministers had anticipated that a treaty with England’s rebellious colonies would be followed by war with England, and in this expectation they were not disappointed. There was little delay in announcing that France had thrown in her lot with the colonists; indeed, it was impossible that such an alliance could long be kept secret; the news had been officially communicated to Congress, and would soon return from across the Atlantic, even if any effort at concealment were made in Europe. Lord Stormont had been insistent in his inquiries as to the negotiations between France and the American commissioners, and though he had always received untruthful answers, he had not been deceived.

      The treaty had now been made, and Vergennes was willing that it should be known to all the world. On the 13th of March, the Marquis de Noailles, the ambassador at London, received an order to convey to the English minister the important tidings. He performed his errand with alacrity. At four o’clock of the same day he waited upon Lord Weymouth, and read the official announcement of the treaty. The statement that his Majesty made public this act in pursuance of his resolution to cultivate good intelligence between France and England, and in the hope that the British sovereign would avoid anything that might disturb this harmony, could hardly have been regarded as sincere. A private letter to the ambassador expressed the more reasonable expectation that the declaration would excite not only surprise but effervescence (Doniol, ii, 823-828.)

      The effervescence was for the time repressed. Though Weymouth could have been little surprised at this declaration, yet, if we may trust the account of the French minister, he was almost moved to tears of wrath in listening to it (Letter of Noailles, Much 15,1778; Doniol, ii, 827,828.) But he contented himself with saying he could make no reply until he had received the instructions of the King, his master.

      The instructions were brief and to the point. On March 14 a courier crossed the channel in hot haste, passed from Dover to Calais in less than three hours, with orders for Lord Stormont to demand his passport at once, without the formality of paying any farewell visits. On the 16th he left Paris; he had issued invitations for a dinner on the following Thursday, but the guests were notified that their host could not have the pleasure of receiving them. Noailles was likewise recalled by his government, and left London forthwith.

      One benefit France at once obtained from the rupture. Under the humiliating terms of the last peace, an English representative was stationed at Dunkirk, charged with the duty of seeing that France did not seek to restore the fortifications of that place. This irritating condition was at once ended: by an order sent on the 19th of March, the English commissioner was notified that his errand was closed, and Dunkirk was freed from foreign dictation (Doniol, ii, 833.)

      The treaty of alliance with the United States was regarded both by France and by England as equivalent to a declaration of war, and yet some little time elapsed before the beginning of hostilities. The action of France excited bitter resentment in England, and quickened the war spirit even among those who had regarded with disapproval the treatment of the colonists by the home government. The dying protest of Chatham against the dismemberment of the British empire was incited by the hostile act of that nation whose pride he had done so much to lower.

      Though no collision had as yet occurred, the French prepared actively for a contest that was inevitable. The plan of an invasion of England, so often considered and so seldom attempted, was discussed, and resulted only in talk. But on the 17th of June a frigate and sloop detached from the English fleet opened fire on the French frigate La Belle Poule cruising off Brest. The engagement began about six and, aided by the prolonged light of a June day, the frigates continued firing until nearly midnight. They were at close range and some forty men were killed. At last the firing was stopped by the darkness and the ships parted, not very seriously harmed (Doniol, iii, 163.)

      Meanwhile the French government had resolved to send a fleet to America, which might render useful service, both in the United States and in the West Indies. The command of the expedition was intrusted to an officer who had achieved a moderate, though not a brilliant, reputation in the Old World, which he did not enhance by his exploits in the New.

      The Comte d’Estaing belonged to an ancient and honorable family. Some of its members sought to trace their pedigree to origins as illustrious as they were remote, and counted, among other ancestors, the last king of the Visigoths, who died in the eighth century. Without asserting any uncertain claims, the record of the family covered more than five centuries of faithful service and honorable position (Doniol, iii, 197.) The count who took part in our Revolution was born in 1729 at the Chateau of Ravel, a feudal castle of vast proportions, furnished with much luxury and commanding an extensive view over the surrounding country. The castle had been captured and sacked several times during the internal wars of France, and was again ravaged and many of its treasures were dispersed when it was seized as the property of a suspect in the year IV.

      The young d’Estaing entered the army when a lad of nine, and he was a colonel when nineteen. He served with merit in India, and after that he was for two years governor-general of San Domingo. His rule was not acceptable to those be governed. The residents of the island complained of him as headstrong and passionate; they said he had much zeal but little judgment; that he loved pomp and lost his temper; that his plans were vast, but his performance unsatisfactory (Mem. de la chambre d’agriculture de Port-au-Prince; Doniol, iii, 179.)

      D’Estaing had passed middle life before he transferred his activity from the land to the sea. Such changes were not uncommon in the French service, but it is doubtful if they were often judicious; starting as cabin-boy is usually better training for an admiral than service on land, however long and honorable.

      The count was almost fifty years of age when he was given command of the fleet bound for New York. The generals and admirals whom Louis XVI sent over to America were, for the most part, men of mature years. La Fayette was the only one holding an important command who still retained the enthusiasm of youth and its readiness to take great chances. D’Estaing showed in this expedition a deliberation and a prudence which were in keeping with his years, but were not calculated to secure brilliant results.

      On receiving his appointment he at once devoted himself to preparing a fleet for the expedition, and on April 13, 1778, twelve men-of-war and four frigates weighed anchor at Toulon. They encountered adverse weather and the ships were not in the best of order; thirty-five days were spent on the Mediterranean, and not until the 17th of May did they pass the Straits of Gibraltar and enter the Atlantic Ocean.

      The fleet had sailed under sealed orders, and on May 20, when they were well out in the Atlantic, these were opened and read by the officers on the various ships. They contained a formal declaration of war against England. The fleet was directed to make prize of English ships wherever found, and, if the vessels should become separated, they were ordered to rendezvous at Boston. Cries of “Vive le roi!” greeted the reading of these instructions; the long-restrained hostility against Great Britain was at last to be gratified, and the prospect of an expedition to a remote part of the world, with the possibility of plunder and the certainty of excitement, was agreeable to all. A solemn mass was said on board the Languedoc, the admiral’s flagship; the officers were arrayed in their most splendid raiment, the vessel was covered with flags, the priest blessed their arms and prayed God to send them victory over their enemies (Journal de campagne du Languedoc; Doniol, iii, 233.) The English, doubtless, were praying God with equal fervor to send victory to them.

      The instructions to d’Estaing, while leaving him a large liberty of action, bade him, before sailing to the West Indian islands, to perform “some action advantageous to the Americans, glorious for the arms of the King, and fitted to show the protection which his Majesty extends to his allies.” (Doniol, iii, 238) The admiral discussed his plans at great length with Gerard, the minister to the United States, who accompanied him on the journey. He gave utterance to many apothegms, both wise and epigrammatic. “Promptitude is the first quality,” he wrote Gerard; “to astonish the enemy is almost to have conquered them; it is this which is desirable, which perhaps will be shown, and to reach which we shall surely do all that is possible . . . A combination of rapid operations might overcome the ordinary firmness of the British troops . . . The least act of feebleness or timidity might be very fatal.” The count then discussed at much length and with much vivacity the conduct to be pursued in the various contingencies of American warfare.

      Unfortunately, his apothegms were not fully carried into effect. As is often the case, the faculty of epigrammatic utterance was not accompanied with efficient execution. Even before the fleet reached America it seemed doubtful whether the desires of the King would be gratified, and any result accomplished that would be advantageous to the Americans or glorious to the French arms. The time occupied by the journey was lamentably long; the vessels were of unequal speed, and the rapid sailers had to delay on account of their slower companions. Moreover, the admiral could not resist making captures, and the pursuit of stray merchantmen occupied much valuable time. D’Estaing also occasionally exercised his fleet in maritime evolutions in mid-ocean. These may have been valuable as practice, but they occupied hours that could have been better employed. As a result of all this, it was not until July 7, eighty-five days after they had left Toulon, that the French fleet anchored at the mouth of the Delaware (Doniol, iii, 189.) It was short of water, short of provisions, and, what was still worse, it was too late for the destined prey. It had been hoped that d’Estaing would surprise and defeat Lord Howe’s squadron; but two weeks before his arrival, the English evacuated Philadelphia and Lord Howe sailed tranquilly to New York City.

      D’Estaing reported his arrival to Washington in a letter couched in the ardent terms which the French always used in reference to the American commander-in-chief, and which expressed a sincere admiration, that was still further augmented in the years during which they were his companions in arms. Intrusted by his King, said the admiral, with exhibiting his affection for his American allies, the pleasure was increased by the prospect of serving with the American commander. The talents and great achievements of George Washington,” he added, “have secured him in all Europe the truly sublime title of the liberator of America.” (Letter of Aug. 8, 1778; Doniol, iii, 822.)

      As a result of the long cruise the fleet was in great need of provisions. Some officers were sent to Philadelphia to ask for supplies; they received from Congress good words but little else. “It is impossible to show more good-will,” Gerard wrote, but their resources are almost nothing.” (Gerard to Vergennes, Aug. 18, 1778; Doniol, iii, 323.)

      An officer visited Washington at his camp, and reported his reception in favorable terms. “I was weighed down with politeness,” he stated. Washington at once wrote, expressing his pleasure that the command of the fleet had been given to one so recommended by talent, by experience, and by reputation as the Comte d’Estaing. The American general was quite the equal of French courtiers and diplomats in the skill with which he bestowed courteous and honeyed phrases.

      As Howe had already escaped, nothing remained but to sail to New York in pursuit of him. The French fleet reached Sandy Hook; at a little distance they could see the Union Jacks floating at the English mast-heads, with some appearance of disorder about the ships, which had made a hasty retreat. It was expected that the fleet under Admiral Byron would soon come to Howe’s relief, but the French were unable to pursue him farther and attempt his destruction. At Sandy Hook they encountered insurmountable obstacles. The French ships were large and clumsy, some of them drew twenty-three feet of water, and over the bar at that time such vessels could not pass. D’Estaing offered one hundred and fifty thousand francs to the pilots if they could bring his fleet into the bay, but they either could not or would not (The bay would allow only vessels drawing seventeen feet or less to pass. – Barras to Rochambeau, Aug. 12, 1781 ; Doniol, v, 522. The reports on file at Washington show that there has always been from 22 to 24 feet of water over the bar at low tide and five feet more at high tide.) Possibly the pilots were Tories, and had little heart in the cause; but if they were correct in stating that no vessel could pass drawing more than seventeen feet, it would have been disastrous to make the attempt.

      As it was impossible to enter the New York harbor, d’Estaing now sailed on to Rhode Island, in the hope of capturing the English force at Newport. If this enterprise had been successful, it would have been of considerable importance. The garrison consisted of nearly six thousand men, and its capture, following the surrender of Burgoyne, and shedding lustre upon the first appearance of the French in the war, might have hastened the termination. There seemed to be good reason for anticipating a successful result: Washington was to keep the English stationed at New York in check; General Sullivan was placed in command of the forces in Rhode Island, supposed to be ten thousand strong, and it was expected that he would cooperate with the French fleet in capturing the English army.

      The arrival of the French fleet filled La Fayette with delight, and his letters to d’Estaing combined youthful enthusiasm with vigorous animosity towards England. “I love to think,” he wrote the admiral, “that you will give the first blow to an insolent nation, for I am sure you will appreciate the pleasure of humiliating it and that you know it sufficiently to hate it . . . May you begin the great work of destruction which will put their nation at the feet of ours. May you do them as much harm as they wish to do us.” (Doniol, iii, 324.)

      Washington showed his appreciation of La Fayette’s good work by giving him command of a detachment which was to join Sullivan and cooperate in the capture of Newport. La Fayette’s attachment to the Americans did not prevent his observing their peculiarities. “You must find it ridiculous to see me a sort of general officer,” he wrote, speaking of his new command. “I confess it makes me laugh myself, and that in a country where there is not as much laughter as in ours.” (Doniol, iii, 336.) He hoped that some of the French soldiers might also be placed under his orders; to see his compatriots and his brothers of America serving together under his command was, he said, his dearest dream (Tower, The Marquis de Lafayette, etc., i, 429.)

      On his arrival with his command, he at once reported to the French admiral. The situation in which he met his compatriots was somewhat grotesque. Nominally be was a deserter from the French army, having come to America in defiance of the orders of his government. The order was still in force, directing any French vessel to arrest the fugitive marquis and return him to France. But in the mean time, the nation had followed where the marquis had led; he was now at the head of a detachment of American troops, ready to cooperate with a French fleet in an attack on the common enemy. When he visited the flagship he was received with due honors, and the order for his arrest was regarded as abrogated by the progress of events.

      The movement against Newport which promised so well resulted only in disappointment and recrimination. If the forces on land and sea had been handled with skill, and the attack made at the earliest possible moment, it might have been attended by success; but the progress of events was very different. For the delays that occurred, the French admiral does not seem to blame; the responsibility rested, perhaps, solely on the lamentable condition of the American army. On the 29th of July the French fleet came to anchor opposite Newport. It was intended that Sullivan with his forces should land on the island, under the protection of the French guns; the French ships would then force their way up the channel and assist in the capture of the town. Unfortunately, the American army, in Sullivan’s judgment, was not ready to commence the attack. Washington had sent two thousand Continentals under the command of La Fayette, but the rest of Sullivan’s army was to be made up by militia from the New England States, and the militia were not on hand.

      “Sullivan’s soldiers,” said d’Estaing, “are still at home”; and they showed no haste to leave (Doniol, iii, 449.) “Do not trust the figures,” a Frenchman already in the United States wrote to the admiral; “the figures have no reality. Three thousand to-day will be three hundred to-morrow. Certainly the number on paper will be double the number in the field.”

      In fact, Sullivan seems to have displayed the qualities of a Fourth of July orator rather than of an efficient commander. As he had had much experience in politics and little in warfare, this perhaps was not strange. The men under his command, for the most part, were not regular soldiers, and it was difficult to fit them promptly for efficient work. If their commander drilled them but little, he gave them much praise. He expected to have his army ready for the advance on August 12, and on the 11th he issued what was justly called a “patriotic general order.” He was happy, so he said, “to find himself at the head of an army actuated by a sacred regard for the principles of their country, and fired with just resentments against those barbarians who have deluged their country with innocent blood . . . The prospect before us is now exceeding promising. The several corps have everything to animate and press them on to victory.” The general himself did not yield to his soldiers in courage or patriotism, for he adds: “The general assures his brave army that he shares with them every danger and fatigue, and is ready to venture his life in every instance where his country calls for it.”

      “A noble spirit of patriotism,” so ran another general order, “brought numbers of brave men on the ground, whose particular interest loudly called for their presence at home.” The general wishes, he continues, “to do everything in his power to forward the return of those brave men to their respective families and business, for which reason he exhorts every one to use their best endeavors to make the siege as short as possible.”

      Unfortunately, militiamen collected as were the forces under Sullivan, however brave and patriotic, were a very uncertain element. He was unwilling to begin the attack until the troops for which he hoped had assembled, and thus time went by. The days that were consumed, as d’Estaing truthfully said, “were those most favorable ones, the precious moments of the arrival, when all are astonished, and most frequently no one resists.” (Doniol, iii, 337.) Nine days passed before Sullivan was ready to move, and when he was ready the fateful moment had gone by.

      On the 8th of August the French ships forced their way up the middle passage, and on the next morning a large force was landed on Conanicut Island. But on the 9th Howe made his appearance off Newport with thirteen men-of-war and seven frigates, and the situation at once changed. The French were unwilling to remain in the harbor with the chance of being taken at a disadvantage. Accordingly, they started to force their way past the English batteries and gain the open sea. In this they succeeded, but the noise of the artillery informed Howe of the movement, and as the French boats one after another came out from the inner bay, he forthwith weighed anchor and sailed for New York.

      At a little after eleven o’clock of the morning of the 10th, d’Estaing’s ships were in the open sea and the signal to give chase was at once raised. There was little wind at first, but it freshened, and it was soon evident that the French could overtake the fugitives. Late in the afternoon they were up with the rear division; but in the meantime the wind had been growing stronger, by six it was blowing a gale, and the weather was so thick that the fleets lost sight of each other. The misfortunes of the French had only begun; the gale continued, and at half-past three in the morning the masts of the Languedoc went down with a tremendous crash, and the rudder also gave way. The flagship was now helpless and in great peril. All the 12th the storm continued, and not until the 13th did it begin to abate. The French ships slowly gathered; the Languedoc, though she had not been shipwrecked, was helpless, and the Marseillais was in little better shape. The English had escaped, and with two of their best ships dismantled, the French were now in no condition to meet them (Journal de campagne du Languedoc; Doniol, iii, 374. d’Estaing to Laurens; Doniol, iii, 384-392.) Some of the officers desired to proceed at once to Boston, but d’Estaing had promised Sullivan that he would return, and on the 20th of August the damaged fleet sailed ingloriously to Newport, severely battered by the storm and in great need of repairs.

      Sullivan was now eager to attempt the capture of Newport, and demanded the assistance of the French; but d’Estaing and his officers felt that they could undertake nothing until the ships were put in shape for service. The English fleet might reappear at any time and the French ships would be almost helpless before them. There was nothing to do, so they decided, but to sail forthwith to Boston and have the needed repairs made. The decision was prudent, but it was unfortunate. La Fayette told the admiral of the unfavorable effect such a movement would have, but d’Estaing said he had no right to risk the destruction of the King’s fleet, and on the 21st he set sail for Boston.

      The wrath of the Americans was even fiercer than La Fayette had anticipated, and it was expressed with impolitic frankness. Sullivan had shown little military skill in the campaign, but he manifested much vigor as a polemic. An order of the day (T.C. Amory, Military Services and Public Life of John Sullivan, 77.), signed not only by Sullivan but by many of his subordinates, declared that the departure of the squadron was injurious to French honor, contrary to the King’s intentions and to the interests of the United States, and harmful to the alliance between the two peoples. Articles of a similar tone appeared in the newspapers; where officers in the service indulged in such expressions, restraint was not apt to be found among irresponsible journalists. The situation was grave enough at best, and this outburst of vituperation bade fair to make it much worse. La Fayette was summoned to the council at which the resolutions were adopted, but he left in great dudgeon when he discovered the object of the conference. Resolved that their views should be known, Laurens sailed to Boston in pursuit of d’Estaing, and there on his own ship presented him in person with the offensive document (Doniol, iii, 351.)

      Naturally, this outburst of ill-will had its effect at Boston. The air was full of abuse of the French, the mob was hostile, and there were some disagreeable scenes. In a riot in the town, two officers of the French fleet were dangerously wounded, and one died from his injuries. The situation was now serious. Such an incident as this might result in an open breach between the United States and the ally of whose assistance they stood in such need. The authorities at Boston, naturally, were much disturbed by the death of the French officer. The City Council proposed to give him a public funeral, but his associates wisely thought that the less publicity given to the matter the better, and he was buried without parade at a private chapel.

      There was the possibility that this unfortunate affair might have more serious results than the failure to capture Newport. Not only might the French feel ill affected towards an alliance in which thus far
      they had gained no glory, but an affront openly offered to the French admiral and his command might result in a refusal to aid further an ally that repaid assistance by insult. No one realized these possibilities more keenly than Washington. He realized also that the aid of France was indispensable to American success, and he at once exerted himself to restore harmony. He wrote General Heath, exhorting him to see that the French received all proper assistance and courtesy at Boston. To La Fayette he sent an assurance of his appreciation of d’Estaing’s services, while to Sullivan, the chief offender, he sent a letter expressed with the courtesy in which he never failed, but calculated to calm Sullivan’s wrath and point out the indiscretion of his conduct. Congress acted with equally good judgment. Sullivan had communicated his complaint to that body. Gerard asked that it not be made public, and this was at once agreed to. Steuben was sent to Sullivan to assist in extricating him from the difficulties in which his intemperate speech had involved him.

      D’Estaing received this outburst with entire calmness. He answered Sullivan, defending his own conduct and saying it was impossible that the ships should now assist in the attack on Newport; but in order to show his own zeal in the cause, he offered to lead the soldiers under his command by land, to report to Sullivan and serve under his orders. In his report of this transaction to the Secretary of the Navy, he writes: “I desire that there shall not be a single man in America who does not love the French . . . I have offered to become a colonel of infantry, under the command of one who, three years ago, was a lawyer, and who certainly must have been an uncomfortable person to his clients.” (Doniol, iii, 363.) To Washington he wrote that he wished to show the French were not offended by hasty expressions of untimely zeal, and that he himself would always remain one of the most devoted and faithful servants of the United States.

      He was not required to serve as a colonel under a general who had been so lately studying Blackstone instead of Vauban. Sullivan had already withdrawn his forces, and the British garrison had been so reinforced that it was now useless to attempt their capture. But harmony was restored; if Sullivan was not placated, he was silenced. Washington wrote d’Estaing thanking him for his services, and regretting that an accident which human wisdom could not avert had prevented the success of sagaciously formed plans.

      The restoration of harmony was not followed by any important results. The repairs to the ships were completed, but d’Estaing did not attempt further action. The fleet was needed in the West Indies, and his orders were to proceed there, after having accomplished something in the United States. It must be confessed that he had not accomplished much, except perhaps to divert the attention of the English and keep them from new undertakings. But he was not unwilling to leave a field of action in which he had met with much annoyance and reaped no glory.

      On November 4 the French fleet sailed for the West Indies. It encountered bad weather and many of the ships were more or less injured, and not until December 9 did they come to anchor in the bay of Port Royal.

      The campaign carried on in the West Indies had no special effect on the progress of the war. D’Estaing was a man of much bravery and of some energy, but he could not handle ships with the skill of one whose life had been spent on the sea. Little was accomplished for some months. D’Estaing certainly did not overestimate his successes, and he was never afraid to tell the truth about himself. He wrote home in January, 1779, that he had gone from one misfortune to another, and the King’s squadron had not even been able to retake St. Lucia. “If I do not entirely succumb under the weight of misfortune which has characterized the events of this ruinous campaign, I am none the less filled with extreme regret not to have been more useful in the service of the King.” (Doniol, iv, 130.)

      In the summer of 1779 he was somewhat more fortunate. The French captured Grenada and St. Vincent, and d’Estaing defeated the English under Lord Byron, who was by no means as great an admiral as his nephew was poet. Even then d’Estaing was criticized, and perhaps justly, because he did not utilize his victory to the utmost; apparently if he had possessed greater talent as a sailor, he might have destroyed the English fleet. “If he had possessed as much sea-craft as bravery,” wrote an officer, “we would not have allowed four disabled vessels to make their escape.”

      He now made a second attempt to cooperate with the American troops, but it was attended with no more success than his luckless expedition to Rhode Island in the preceding year. His assistance was earnestly demanded in the southern states. Georgia was largely in the hands of the English, and South Carolina was in great peril. General Lincoln and the French consul at Charleston wrote to d’Estaing, asking for aid, and to these appeals he decided to yield.

      The news which I find at San Domingo,” he wrote the French Minister of Marine, “shows much uncertainty as to the constancy of the Americans. If we only go there and show ourselves, this will produce an effect which I believe will be of the greatest importance.”

      Before this, Congress had made a request that d’Estaing should send part of his fleet to the Georgia coast (Doniol, iv, 128-129.) He was then unwilling to do this, and proposed instead an expedition to capture Halifax and Newfoundland. This was submitted to Washington, and he, with his usual good judgment, discouraged the plan, and advised that d’Estaing should act in the South and afterwards turn his attention to New York. The condition in the South was bad and there was sore need of aid. “Never,” wrote the Marquis de Bretigny from South Carolina, “was this country in more need of succor. It is necessary to defend it against its enemies and against itself. All is in lamentable confusion, few regular troops, no assistance from the North, a feeble and ill-disciplined militia, and a great lack of harmony among the leaders.” (Bretigny to dEstaing, July 17, 1779; Doniol, iv, 297.)

      This account of conditions in the South was not overdrawn, and d’Estaing acted with good spirit in endeavoring to aid his allies. But he still clung to his plans of conquering Newfoundland, and he wrote in a manner that indicated somewhat hazy notions of the distances and of the difficulties of the task. “If possible we will enter at Charleston, and then we will sail up as far as Newfoundland.” (Archives Maritimes, Aug. 21, 1779; cited by the Vicomte de Noailles, Marins et soldats francais en Amerique, pendant la guerre, etc.)

      On the 16th of August, 1779, d’Estaing sailed for the United States at the head of a fleet of some forty ships, carrying about four thousand soldiers. On the first of September the expedition came to anchor near the mouth of the River St. John’s in Florida, and on the following day it suffered severely from one of the storms which infest that coast. As a result of the losses sustained by the fleet, d’Estaing decided to abandon the thought of an expedition farther north, and to confine his activities to assisting in an attack on Savannah, which was defended by a small garrison of English under the command of General Prevost. “The damage done my ships,” he wrote the minister, “has imposed on me the melancholy necessity of acting where I should not and did not wish to act.”

      Notwithstanding this unfavorable opinion, good results might have been hoped from the cooperation of the French with the American army, but they were not realized. The vessels that were in condition to proceed with the cruise anchored near the mouth of the Savannah on September 8 (The Siege of Savannah in 1779 [C. C. Jones, Jr., trans.], 13.) The French took possession of Tybee Island, but they could make little progress in a maze of creeks and marshes, and after some fruitless efforts the fleet sailed south to the mouth of the Ossabaw. There, during the night of September 11, some fifteen hundred men disembarked. The weather was bad, the soldiers had brought with them rations for only three days, and provisions became scarce; they had little ammunition and no tents, and there for six days they remained, suffering from a never-ending rain, in a position where, if the enemy had known of their plight, they might have been attacked with great advantage. At last the weather cleared and the disembarkment was finished; but d’Estaing was able to land in all only about thirty-three hundred men, and with these he joined the American army under General Lincoln, some eighteen hundred strong, and advanced toward Savannah.

      D’Estaing sent a formal summons to the English commander, asking him to surrender, and giving him twelve hours to consider the proposition (C. C. Jones, Jr., History of Georgia, ii, 379.) It probably would have been wiser if he had made no demand, but had at once attempted an assault of the town. Prevost had only a few hundred men under his command, but during the delay he received reinforcements to the number of eighteen hundred. He thereupon notified the French commander “that though we cannot look upon our post as absolutely impregnable, yet . . . it may and ought to be defended.” ( lbid., 383.)

      The entire force of the allies taking part in the siege was about six thousand, of whom two thirds were French, and they largely exceeded the numbers of the garrison, even after it was reinforced. But the defence was stout, and the assailants encountered obstacles of every kind. Savannah was encircled by creeks, streams, and marshes, over which any advance was slow and difficult. The French boats attempted to cooperate in the attack, but some of them ran aground and they could accomplish little. An active bombardment was carried on; many of the houses in the city were burned, but the intrenchments were of earth and suffered little damage. In the meantime provisions were running low, and the time was approaching when the French must rejoin their fleet and sail for home. There was nothing to do but abandon the siege or attempt to carry the city by storm, and d’Estaing decided on the latter course. At midnight of October 9 the allies began their march, in the hope of surprising the English garrison; but the English were prepared, while the eagerness of some of the French to be among the foremost resulted in considerable disorder. The attack was characterized by much gallantry and no success. The French lost over six hundred in killed and wounded, a considerable portion of their small army. The American loss was less than half that of the French, but among those killed was General Pulaski, one of the best of the foreign volunteers who came to assist the cause of American independence. D’Estaing himself was severely wounded, and upon his assistant, Colonel Dillon, devolved the melancholy duty of reembarking the French troops and sailing ingloriously away (Journal du Siege de Savannah; Doniol, iv, 303-307. The Siege of Savannah in 1779 [C. C. Jones, Jr., trans.], 28-39.)

      During this unsuccessful attempt, those left on board the ships fared almost as ill as their companions on land. Food was scanty and good water lacking. The scurvy raged with such violence that an officer of the fleet declared that on an average thirty-five men who had died from disease were committed to the sea each day. “We could not relieve our poor sailors,” he says, “wanting coats, destitute of linen, without shoes, and absolutely naked . . . The bread . . . was so much decayed and worm-eaten . . . that even the domestic animals on board would not eat it . . . Behold,” he adds, “a part of the frightful picture of the cruel and miserable condition of our crews during . . . the siege of Savannah.” (lbid., 62.)

      Even if we allow for exaggeration, the conditions were very bad, and the expedition was a melancholy failure. It is hard to say to what extent this was due to bad judgment, and to what extent it was due to bad luck; the result was the same.

      The Americans retreated to Charleston, and on October 28 the French fleet sailed away. “The precautions and sagacious arrangements employed by the officers,” says the official report, “are the highest praise of their zeal and their talents.” Doubtless this was so; but the second attempt at cooperation between the French and their American allies had resulted, not merely in accomplishing nothing, but in actual defeat. To end this unlucky campaign, a violent storm caused the loss of several of the French ships with all on board.

      If the result was unfortunate, at least there was harmony between the allies. D’Estaing had failed in his efforts, but all recognized the zeal and courage with which he had come to the aid of the American cause. No one, wrote General Lincoln, could doubt that the Comte d’Estaing had the interests of America at heart. He had shown it in coming to our aid, by his endeavor to take Savannah by storm, and by the bravery with which he had led his troops to the assault; he could find consolation for his wounds and his reverses in the assurance that America appreciated his efforts, and his merit was not obscured by his misfortune (Doniol, iv, 265.) With the consolation derived from such tributes the unfortunate count was forced to be content; he returned to the West Indies and was shortly succeeded in command by the Comte de Grasse.

      D’Estaing took no further part in the war. Like so many others who served in the American Revolution, he was to meet a sad end in the revolution of his own country. In 1787 he was a member of the Assembly of Notables, and he was afterward a deputy to the States-General. He was a friend of the revolutionary cause, and proved his zeal by enlisting as a grenadier in the Parisian Guards. But his service was found insufficient by those who distrusted all aristocrats. In due time he was imprisoned at Sainte-Pelagie, and brought to trial before the Revolutionary Tribunal. There his rank and early associations were enough to secure his condemnation, and on April 28, 1794, he died upon the scaffold.

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