Benjamin Franklin, Bon Homme Richard, John Paul Jones, Whitehaven, Dominica, Rhode Island, Count d’Estaing, Anti-French Riots and Serapis

Posted by PITHOCRATES - April 26th, 2012

Politics 101

The First French Action in the New World that was in Support of their New American Allies was in Rhode Island

The French loved Benjamin Franklin.  He was America personified.  They loved his science.  And his Poor Richard’s Almanac.  In 1779 King Louis XVI of France bought a merchant ship from the French East India Company and gave it to the Americans to use in their common war with Great Britain.  The U.S. captain fittingly named the Duc de Duras the Bon Homme Richard.  Which translates to Good Man Richard.  Richard as in Poor Richard’s Almanac.  To make it a favorite of the French.  Who were already quite enthused by this young American captain.  Who was a Scotsman by birth.  John Paul Jones.  From his actions off (and on) the British coast the previous year.  In the first year of the Franco-American alliance in the American Revolutionary War (1775–1783).

With the French on board Benjamin Franklin wanted to capitalize on this new alliance.  With friendly ports on the far side of the Atlantic Franklin instructed John Paul Jones to harass the British coast.  To bring the war home to the British people.  And that’s exactly what Jones did.  Then in command of the Ranger.  Coming ashore at Whitehaven in April of 1778.  A seaport on the north east coast of England.  His intent was to set fire to the ships and port facilities.  To disrupt British shipping.  He didn’t do the great damage he had hoped.  But it really brought the American Revolutionary War to British soil.  And the British were not amused.  But the French were.

The French were eager to get some payback for their embarrassing defeat in the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763).  And to recover some of their lost New World territories.  Beginning in the West Indies.  On the island of Dominica in September of 1778.  The first of a series of victories in the West Indies where the French navy began helping the Americans in their War of Independence.  By taking these islands from the British.  Which helped the Americans by keeping the British busy.  And depriving the Royal Navy of some useful ports.  But these actions benefited the French more than the Americans.  Which was keeping with French interests in joining this war.  Payback for their prior defeats at the hands of the British.  And regaining lost territory.  The first French action in the New World that was in support of their new American allies was in Rhode Island.  In the first Franco-American combined action in the war.  Which didn’t go well.  Or end well.

The French arrive with a Fleet Including some 16 Warships and about 4,000 French Soldiers

1777 ended well for the Americans.  They defeated a British Army at the Battle of Saratoga.  Because of this the French joined in alliance with the Americans in their war against Great Britain.  Valley Forge followed.  Which was pretty horrible.  But Baron von Steuben drilled the Continental Army.  Made them as good as any European Army.  And when General Clinton was moving his army from Philadelphia back to New York in the Spring Washington wanted to go on the offensive.  His chance came at the Battle of Monmouth.  Washington ordered an attack on the rearguard of Clinton’s army.  General Charles Lee hesitated.  Then ordered a retreat.  Which Washington turned around.  As had the British in their retreat to New York.  The Americans and the British then engaged in a long day of attacks and counterattacks.  Stopping only after exhaustion set in.  Von Steuben’s trained Continental Army fought the British Army to a draw.  As impressive a feat as the win at Saratoga.  Perhaps more so.  And so close to a win.  Had Lee followed Washington’s orders perhaps it would have been.  But, alas, it wasn’t.  And in the morning the British were gone.

The French were on their way.  But they did not arrive early enough to prevent Clinton from getting his army across to Manhattan.  But the appearance of the French fleet did paralyze the British into inaction.  The French fleet included some 16 warships and about 4,000 French soldiers.  With some 50,000 British regulars in New York surrounded by a fleet of 100 or so made New York NOT the best place to test the grand Franco-American alliance.  Instead the first test of that grand alliance would be in Newport, Rhode Island.

The plan was to land the French soldiers to join an American force to assault the British forces with the support of the guns of the French fleet.  What happened was a tragic comedy of errors.  A militia force arrived late.  While the Franco-American force was waiting a British naval squadron appeared.  Count d’Estaing, the French naval commander, re-embarked the French troops and prepared for battle.  Then a violent storm blew in.  Scattering the opposing naval forces.  The British then limped back to New York to refit.  And the French limped to Boston to refit.  The American commander was furious at the French.  He published an order condemning the French.  American morale fell.  Militia went home.  The British seeing this decided to attack.  The Americans held their ground.  Fought to another draw.  Then slipped away under the cover of night.  Yet another missed opportunity.

When the Serapis asked the crippled Bon Homme Richard if she was striking her colors Jones replied, “I have not yet begun to fight.” 

The Americans were not amused with the French actions.  Anti-French riots broke out in Boston where the French fleet was refitting.  All the old animosities from the previous war resurfaced.  When the Americans fought alongside the British against the French.  It took the combined efforts of d’Estaing, John Hancock, Nathanael Greene and Alexander Hamilton to maintain the peace between the Franco-American alliance in Boston.  Their counterparts in Charlestown, South Carolina, were not so successful.  Where the French and the Americans fired upon each other with cannon and small arms.  And there was blood.  Dead and wounded.  Not the greatest of beginnings between the grand alliance.

While the French fleet failed to pay any dividends for the Americans some other naval action was.  Harassing the sea lanes between London and the West Indies.  Causing great headaches to British commerce.  Harassing the fisheries off of Nova Scotia.  Capturing enemy ships.  And who was doing all of this damage to the British fleet?  And to British pride?  That Scotsman fighting for America.  John Paul Jones.  Who did not know the meaning of the word ‘surrender’.

In September of 1779 Jones came into contact with a convoy of 40 British merchant ships coming from the Baltic under the protection of the 44-gun Serapis and the 28-gun Countess of Scarborough.  Jones commanded a 4-vessel squadron including the Bon Homme Richard and the Alliance captained by French Captain Pierre Landais.  And engaged.  The battle lasted some three and a half hours.  And into the night.  The Bon Homme Richard and the Serapis rammed into each other yet still continued the fight.  The Alliance fired broadside after broadside into the Bon Homme Richard and yet Jones continued the fight.  When the captain of the Serapis asked the crippled Bon Homme Richard if she was striking her colors (surrendering) Jones reportedly replied, “I have not yet begun to fight.”  And he kept fighting until the captain of the Serapis struck his colors sometime after 10 PM.

Again, not an auspicious start for the Franco-American grand alliance.  But a pretty impressive one for a nearly nonexistent U.S. Navy.

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