Saturday, October 09, 2004

Histoire de la France (I): Some French Allies Showed — Surprise! — Disdain for America's Untrustworthy Provincials

During the War of Independence, the American revolutionaries had invaluable allies and friends noble and true like the legendary Lafayette. They also had Charles-Hector d'Estaing, a headstrong and pompous nobleman who claimed the last king of the Visigoths as an ancestor…

John J. Miller & Mark Molesky:

With New York securely in enemy hands, Washington and d'Estaing turned their attention to Newport, Rhode Island.… The Franco-American force planned a coordinated attack on Newport for August 10, though it was clear from the start that they would face serious problems working together. The aristocrat D'Estaing did not believe that a social inferior like [General John Sullivan], whose parents had been indentured servants from Ireland, had any right to issue him orders. The two men spent as much time bickering with each other as they did organizing their efforts. Lafayette tried to intervene, but at first his presence only complicated matters. Because there was still an order out for his arrest, d'Estaing did not know how to receive him. The admiral expressed "political anxiety about receiving a French officer who had violated the king's orders not to leave for America." After a round of vacillation, d'Estaing decided that his country's new treaty obligations nullified Lafayette's criminal status.

Even then, Lafayette's mediation failed. A professional military man, d'Estaing regarded the Americans as untrustworthy provincials: "I was forced to show an austere firmness to make the allies understand that while their troops were good for a defensive, they had no qualities necessary for attack." When the Americans attacked a weakness in the British defenses without first consulting d'Estaing, the admiral was furious. "The French officers sounded like women disputing precedence in a country dance," said one of Sullivan's colonels, "instead of men engaged in pursuing the common interest of two great nations."

…As the British sailed for the repair docks of New York, Sullivan decided that his attack had been delayed long enough. Assuming that d'Estaing would soon be landing his soldiers, he struck at Newport on August 14 [1778]. But the Frenchman had other plans. Anxious to patch up his own ships, d'Estaing retreated to Boston without putting any troops ashore.

Sullivan was furious: "I confess that I do most cordially resent the conduct of the Count, or rather the conduct of his officers, who have it seems, compelled him to go to Boston and leave us on an island without any certain means of retreat." Another American commander, John Laurens, complained in a letter to Washington: "The honor of the French Nation, the honor of the Admiral, the safety of the fleet, and a regard for the new alliance required a different conduct."

The alliance that had been born half a year earlier was now in full crisis as d'Estaing considered sailing back to France and urging his king to forsake the vulgar Americans.

(Mes remerciements profonds vous accompagnent,
Sire le Chevallier Grégoire de Schreiber)

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