The terms of the treaties that concluded the complex conflict known as the Seven Years’ War (1756–63) were regarded as something of a national humiliation for the kingdom of France which saw its global empire shorn of the greater part of its colonial possessions in what are now the USA, Canada and India. The fractious times were not long in providing the kingdom with an occasion to exact a measure of revenge; the opportunity being provided by the unrest developing in the British colonies in North America, partly as a result of taxation imposed to pay for the massive costs of the Seven Year’s War.
Simmering unrest and isolated outbreaks of lawlessness and rebellion inexorably led to armed conflict in 1775 and the following year saw the colonies, excluding East Florida and West Florida, supplant the authority of the crown with local autonomous powers and their political assemblies vote for independence from Great Britain. On 4 July 1776, the Second Continental Congress unanimously adopted the Declaration of Independence; the Articles of Confederation took a little longer to be agreed before being approved on 15 November 1777 and eventually coming into force on 1 March 1781.
One of the signatories to the Declaration of Independence and former representative of Pennsylvania in London was the noted polymath Benjamin Franklin; one of the key figures of the 18th century and a man whose wide-ranging accomplishments it would be impossible to do justice to in a few sentences. In September 1776, Franklin’s diplomatic skills saw him selected by the Continental Congress to plead their case for support to the court of King Louis XVI.
While France had tacitly endorsed the sale of arms, ammunition and gunpowder to the separationists from the outbreak of the revolution, it was reluctant to enter into another war with Great Britain while there remained a strong prospect that the rebellion could be quelled. By the summer of 1776, significant amounts of arms and material had been supplied to the American forces thanks, in part, to the efforts of Silas Deane, the Continental Congress’ secret envoy to France. However, more money and material were needed for the war effort and Deane’s position was formalised and strengthened by the appointment of Franklin and Arthur Lee to the official American delegation to the French kingdom.
On 4 December 1776, Franklin arrived in France, disembarking at the small Breton port of Auray; strong headwinds having forced his ship to abandon its original destination, the major Breton city of Nantes. He stayed a few days in the town, recovering his strength after almost 40 days at sea and noting sight of ‘the most beautiful woman’ he had ever seen, before continuing his onward journey by road to Vannes, Nantes and thence to Paris. Here, efforts to negotiate and secure a formal alliance and treaty were begun in earnest.
Franklin’s august reputation saw him widely feted in Parisian high society but although his personal achievements were celebrated, diplomatic success was slow in coming; a position that changed rapidly following news of the American victory at the Battle of Saratoga in October 1777. Confident that an American victory in the war was indeed possible, France now formally aligned itself to the independence of the American states and on 6 February 1778 signed the Treaty of Amity and Commerce and the Treaty of Alliance with Franklin and the other American delegates. The impact of the French assistance guaranteed under these agreements was crucial to the eventual outcome of the American War for Independence.
A discussion about the importance of the French intervention in the war or the results of Arthur Lee’s activities in Spain and John Adams’ efforts in the Netherlands, although of considerable interest, are outside the scope of this post focused on the Breton connections with the conflict, of which there are many.
The Breton port of Nantes was one of the most active channels used for the distribution of military aid to America. It was also here that John Paul Jones, aboard his ship, the USS Ranger, brought news of the victory at Saratoga on 2 December 1777 having captured two British vessels en route. Following the signing of the Treaty of Alliance, Jones left Nantes and on 14 February came across the squadron of Breton nobleman, Commander La Motte-Picquet, laying at anchor in the Bay of Quiberon off Brittany’s southern coast in preparation for a convoy run to North America. This was the scene of the very first salute of the ‘Stars and Stripes’ by a foreign vessel when La Motte-Picquet’s flagship fired a 9-gun salute in response to the USS Ranger’s 13-gun greeting. La Motte-Picquet also featured in the first major naval engagement of the war, when a French fleet of 45 ships fought an inconclusive battle with 36 British vessels off the Breton island of Ouessant on 27 July 1778. The area was also the scene of another Anglo-French sea battle in December 1781 and again in April 1782.
However, it was the Breton port of Brest that served as Jones’ base for his raids into British waters during 1778; a time of high adventure aboard the USS Ranger which in addition to harassing coastal traders, was involved in an attempt to kidnap the Earl of Selkirk as well as an assault on the port of Whitehaven (a previous home port of Jones) before capturing the British sloop, HMS Drake. In June 1779, Jones took command of the USS Bonhomme Richard, a 42-gun vessel gifted to the Continental Navy. In August, together with a small fleet, the USS Bonhomme Richard sailed for northern Britain to carry out diversionary raids in support of the planned Franco-Spanish invasion of southern England. Although the invasion failed to materialise, Jones’ fleet captured several vessels including the frigate HMS Serapis during their fighting circumnavigation of the British Isles.
As the largest military port in France, Brest played a key role in the deployment of the French forces that participated in offensive operations in North America; the fleets of Admirals d’Estaing, La Motte-Picquet, de Suffren and the Comte de Grasse all operated from the city. The majority of the 32,000 men of France’s Royal Navy who fought in direct support of the American Revolution were mustered here. Similarly, the bulk of the 12,000 or so French troops who served in America embarked from this thriving city on the west coast of Brittany.
Other Breton ports also played their part, with privateering ships regularly striking against British vessels from the harbour towns of Saint-Malo and Morlaix in particular. One of the most notable being Charles Cornic from the northern port of Morlaix who came from a family of corsairs and was an experienced mariner by the time he saw his first action towards the end of the War of the Austrian Succession in 1747. The outbreak of the Seven Years’ War saw him command a small privateer vessel with some success; a distinction which saw him given the captaincy of a 30-gun frigate in 1758 and whose masterful handling, in combat off the Breton coast, saw Cornic further distinguish himself. In 1778, Cornic returned to service as a privateer, harassing British merchantmen and capturing many vessels during his years roaming the Atlantic Ocean until the declaration of peace in 1783.
Another naval officer from Morlaix, Nicolas Anthon, also spent much of the war as an active and successful privateer. The American sailor Nathaniel Fanning, who had previously served as a Midshipman under Jones aboard the USS Bonhomme Richard, served as Anthon’s Second-in-Command during some of his deadly raids in 1781 and 1782. Another naval officer who sailed a privateering vessel out of Morlaix was the future Minister of the Navy and Colonies, Jean Dalbarade, who captained a frigate there in 1779 before shifting his home port to Saint-Malo later in the war, after he had been freed in an exchange of prisoners with the British. He too was a successful privateer, capturing a score of prizes in 1780 alone.
The role of the wealthy French aristocrat, the Marquis de La Fayette, in the American War for Independence is well-known. Volunteering – unpaid – into the Continental Army in April 1777, he was appointed major-general at just 19 years of age. In January 1779 he returned to France to lobby for additional resources for the American cause and pushed for an invasion of Great Britain. Although more likely down to broader French strategy rather than La Fayette’s lobbying, an additional French expeditionary force of almost 6000 soldiers under the command of General Jean-Baptiste de Rochambeau was readied for America; reaching there some months after La Fayette’s own return in April 1780. Buoyed by the arrival of this latest French force, La Fayette, at Washington’s urging, wrote to the French authorities urgently seeking additional men and material and was rewarded with the arrival of a French fleet.
Following his participation in the decisive Battle of Yorktown in October 1781, he returned to France, in glory, in 1782 but the costs he had incurred in waging war in the Americas required the liquidation of many of his assets and he therefore sold some of his estates in central Brittany where his family held extensive landholdings. He subsequently enjoyed a troubled relationship with the post-revolutionary government of France who, for a time, confiscated his remaining lands in Brittany.
While La Fayette remains the most famous of the French soldiers and sailors who fought for American independence, many Bretons, both notable and anonymous made important contributions to the cause. While history might remember the contributions made by the noted Breton cavalry officer the Marquis de la Rouërie or the Breton naval officer de Beauverger, it is sobering to reflect that a significant proportion of the French naval forces that engaged the British on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean were from Brittany and records show that over 1,300 Breton sailors died in fighting for the American cause between 1778 and 1783.
With the signing of the peace agreement in September 1783, many seasoned campaigners returned to France influenced by the ideals of freedom and democracy espoused by their American companions; contagious ideas that would not take long to spread throughout the kingdom.