Chapter 19 – The Expedition of de Grasse | 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.”



      We must now follow the fortunes of the expedition which had sailed from France under the command of the Comte de Grasse, and which was to exercise a decisive influence on the fortunes of the American Revolution.

      The count was a member of one of the oldest French families. They traced their line back to a Prince of Antibes in the tenth century, and boasted that members of their family had intermarried with many royal houses. They had, at all events, a long and honorable ancestry, and their forefathers had for centuries acquitted themselves with valor in the wars in which France took part. Francois Joseph de Grasse was born in 1723, in the chateau of Bar, on a property that had belonged to his ancestors for five hundred years. His father was a captain in the army, but the son sought his fortune in the marine. In that service he worked his way with success, though without special distinction, and he was a captain when war was declared between France and England. He served under d’Estaing in the West Indies, and in 1781 was selected as commander of the expedition to be sent to America. His enemies asserted that he owed this command to court intrigues rather than to past service; his friends declared that he assumed it unwillingly and only by the express order of Louis XVI (See The Operations of the French Fleet under the Count de Grasse in 1781-2, as described in Two Contemporaneous Journals (New York, 1864), 27, 28, 139. The author of the first Journal, the Chevalier de Goussencourt, asserts that de Grasse obtained the command by his intrigues at court; the second diarist, an officer in the Naval Army in America, says that the count accepted the command reluctantly. The volume cited is number 3 of the publications of the “Bradford Club.”) However this may be, the expedition was to bring him permanent fame, and yet to involve the remainder of his life in unhappiness and disgrace.

      Active preparations were made to equip the new fleet, and it was a more formidable reinforcement than any of those which the French had thus far sent to the assistance of their American allies.

      The fleet sailed from Brest on Thursday, March 22, 1781. Privateers were so numerous that merchant ships delayed long for an opportunity to proceed under convoy; no less than two hundred and fifty sail, with cargoes valued in all at thirty million livres, accompanied the expedition. On the 29th of March, forty of them parted from the rest and proceeded to the East Indies under the guard of five men-of-war. Later, on April 5, the Sagittaire, with a convoy of forty sail, steered for Boston and reached there in safety. But the rest of the merchant ships were bound for the West Indies, and they proved a serious impediment to any rapid movement of the fleet. Before they reached their destination, each of the men-of-war had a merchantman in tow (Operations of the French Fleet, etc., 30, 32, 34.)

      The fleet proceeded without interference from storm or the enemy, and on April 28 the mountains of Martinique were sighted. The chronicler of the expedition expresses a relief which was probably felt by many of his companions: “What a vast desert does not the solitude of the sea then present! . . . What a secret pain does not a man then experience who, accustomed to live with his fellowmen, lives but with the fish!” (Operations of the French Fleet, etc., 39, 40, 41,140.)

      These gloomy reflections were dispelled by the sight of land, and, to increase the pleasure of the young Frenchmen, who were spoiling for a fight, they found themselves at once engaged off Martinique, with the English fleet under Hood. The combat was of short duration, and it was not followed by any action of importance (lbid., 42-45, 141-147.) The West Indies were the chief object of de Grasse’s cruise, and any expedition to the United States was regarded as of secondary interest. But as matter of fact, the fleet accomplished little during its first stay among the islands, and met with serious disaster in the year following, while the expedition to the Chesapeake ended a long and momentous contest.

      The future importance of the West Indies was then much overestimated. These fertile tropical islands were more considered than the colder and less alluring mainland, and both France and Spain attached great weight to their possession. Moreover, the French West Indies were enjoying an unprecedented season of prosperity, which naturally encouraged great hopes for the future.

      At Cap Francois the fleet had their headquarters. It was then regarded as the most agreeable town of the West Indies, the Paris of the islands. It was the handsomest and, next to Havana, the richest city; regularly laid out, built largely of stone, and enjoying lucrative trade. In the French portion of San Domingo there were excellent roads over which an active commerce was carried on, and the island aspired to become a rival of Jamaica in its products.

      The English were not anxious for an engagement, and the French could not compel one, because the English ships were the better sailers. The French captured the unimportant island of Tobago, and the months passed uneventfully until the Comte de Grasse was ready to unite his forces with Rochambeau and the American army.

      The count had not been unmindful of his instructions to attempt some enterprise for the relief of the American colonies; even before he reached the West Indies he wrote Rochambeau, saying that by the end of June he wished to be fully informed as to the strength and position of the English armies in North America, as a guide for his future action. Not before the middle of July could he leave the West Indies, and as the time for his stay on the American coast must be short, it was important for him to have full information at the earliest possible moment (De Grasse to Rochambeau, March 29, 1781 ; Doniol, v, 488.) The time required for communication between these widely separated forces added to the difficulty of the situation. De Grasse wrote on March 29. Not until the 10th of June did the convoy by which the letter was sent reach Boston, after many vicissitudes and much bad weather.

      Immediately after the conference at Wethersfield, Rochambeau communicated to de Grasse the views held by Washington and himself. On May 28 he wrote saying that, as it was impossible for the fleet under the Comte de Barras to transport the French army to Chesapeake Bay, a movement against New York had been decided upon, in the hope of capturing the city or at least of relieving the situation in the southern states. After dwelling on the insufficiency of the army for any important movement, he added: “Such is the crisis in which America, and especially the southern states, are now involved. The arrival of the Comte de Grasse may save the situation. The resources which we have can accomplish nothing without his assistance, and the naval superiority which he can furnish us. 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.” To this he added a request that de Grasse would bring with him soldiers as well as ships. The American and French armies united would not exceed twelve thousand men, and if de Grasse could bring five or six thousand soldiers and a million livres, of which the need was almost as great, he would render invaluable assistance (Rochambeau to de Grasse, May 28 and 31, June 6, 1781; Doniol v, 475.)

      On the receipt of de Grasse’s letter of March, Rochambeau at once despatched another communication, in which be portrayed the needs of the situation in gloomy but truthful colors. He sought to impress on de Grasse the necessity for prompt relief in men and money. He informed the admiral of the contemplated advance on New York, and then added: “I ought not to conceal from you that these people are at the end of their resources; Washington will not have half the troops he counted upon, and I believe, although he conceals the fact, that he has not now six thousand men . . . Such is an actual picture of the lamentable condition of the forces in this country . . . It is, therefore, of the greatest importance that you take in your ships the largest number of soldiers possible; four or five thousand will be none too many . . . I am certain you will assure us maritime superiority, but I cannot tell you too often to bring us also soldiers and money.” (Rochambeau to de Grasse, June 11, 1781; Doniol, v, 489.) “You can see,” he wrote again, “how necessary it is that you bring troops with you. This country is in extremity; all its resources have failed at once; Continental paper has become worthless.”

      Rochambeau had advised that the French fleet should proceed to Chesapeake Bay, but in a postscript he said that a letter of La Luzerne’s indicated that Washington preferred that de Grasse should first make land at the Hook before New York, in order, if possible, to cut off the squadron under Arbuthnot. “I yield, therefore,” he added, “as is proper, my opinion to his; although the latest information tells us that the enemy’s squadron, after anchoring a few days off the Hook, has sailed for the South.”

      While Washington regarded the capture of New York as the most serious blow that could be inflicted on the English, he recognized its difficulty and was ready to adopt other plans which his associates favored and which promised good results. Two days later he wrote Rochambeau saying that, while New York had been considered the only practicable object, other opportunities might present themselves. He then suggested that it might be well to leave de Grasse, in view of all the information he had, to decide for himself where be should first make land (Washington to Rochambeau, June 13, 1781; Doniol, v, 491.)

      This letter was forwarded, and the French admiral was left to govern his own conduct as he deemed most judicious. He decided on the Chesapeake, and there can be no doubt that he decided wisely. No one, indeed, could foresee that Cornwallis would allow himself to be captured with such ease; it might well have been expected that Clinton and the English fleet would make vigorous efforts to furnish him succor; but in any event the chance of important success was much better in Virginia than in New York. It is unlikely that the forces under Clinton could have been forced to surrender, even by the junction of an army and fleet as large as that which beleaguered Yorktown. An attempt to capture New York in the short time that de Grasse could be absent from the West Indies would probably have failed, and the campaign of 1781 have ended in disaster. The French might have wearied of an inglorious war, and the history of the American Revolution have been different.

      An additional difficulty in a movement against New York was the uncertainty whether de Grasse’s boats could get into the harbor. The passage was intricate and the bar would not allow the entrance of the great ships which now sail past Sandy Hook. The French boats were heavier than the English and drew more water. When d’Estaing made his luckless cruise, he was stopped at Sandy Hook, and not by any promise of money could he hire pilots who would undertake to guide his ships over the bar. Clinton was confident that de Grasse would be stopped by the same obstacles as was d’Estaing; those long-legged French ships, he said, could never get over the bar.

      But de Grasse followed Rochambeau’s suggestion and decided to proceed to the Chesapeake, there to take part in whatever enterprise might be decided upon. On the 28th of July he wrote Rochambeau a letter in which, referring to the appeals made upon him for help, he said: “I see with regret the distress in which the American continent is involved, and the necessity for the prompt succor which you ask.” He then announced the steps which be had taken, and that on August 13 his fleet would sail for Chesapeake Bay, and in addition would carry three thousand French soldiers from San Domingo, under the command of the Marquis de Saint-Simon.” This destination,” he added, “seems to be indicated to me by you and by Washington, Luzerne, and Barras as the best fitted to secure the advantages which you wish to obtain.” When they arrived at Chesapeake Bay they would await further orders, but their assistance must necessarily be brief; the soldiers were borrowed and must be returned; his own fleet must soon sail back to southern waters. By the 15th of October they must all start on their return. ” Employ me promptly and usefully that time may be turned to profit . . . You will appreciate the necessity of employing well time that is precious.” (De Grasse to Rochambeau, July 18,1781; Doniol, v, 520.)

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