Foreign Assistance in the American Revolution
It was a bold proposition for thirteen poorly organized colonies to go to war against what was then the world’s greatest economic and military power. Without the vast wealth of the British and without a professionally trained military, the colonists faced a daunting task in fighting the Crown for their independence. When George Washington was given command of the Continental Army, he was horrified by the lack of discipline he found. “Uncertainty weighs on me when all around me are asleep. No one knows the predicament we are in,” Washington noted privately. While twenty-first-century Americans may like to think that our history is one of proud self-sufficiency, the American Revolution would likely have turned out very differently without significant foreign assistance.
For aid in fighting the British, the obvious choice for the colonies was France. The French and the British were, in the eighteenth century, long-time enemies. In addition to a long history of rivalry, the French had a desire for revenge after their humiliating loss in the Seven Years’ War, after which they were forced to cede much of their vast North American territory. The French, for their part, were captivated by the revolutionary rhetoric coming from the colonies. They were also fascinated by Benjamin Franklin, who led a delegation to France to negotiate with the country. Franklin was immensely popular in France, and it seemed, for a time, that the French infatuation with him might be enough to persuade the French to support the Continental Army. But the French were also practical; they knew the odds of an American victory were long, and when word of Washington’s losses in New York reached Europe, their enthusiasm for the colonists’ cause wavered.
Beyond its hostility toward the British, France was a natural choice to aid the Continental Army. A significant power, France was also the birthplace of the Enlightenment, the intellectual movement which sparked much of the colonists’ talk of liberty and equality. One could argue that the ideas which emerged from France’s age of Enlightenment laid the ideological underpinnings of the American Revolution, which would, in turn, inspire France’s own revolution a few years later.
Following the British defeat at the battle of Saratoga, the French realized that the Continental Army might have a chance of winning their independence. Prompted by the colonists’ victory, France recognized the new nation and agreed to provide military assistance in the form of men, money, and goods to the Americans.
The support of France also aided the colonists in intangible ways. In a world dominated by colonial powers, the backing of the French monarchy gave the colonies a legitimacy they might not otherwise have had. Without the support of a powerful ally, it might have been easy for other nations to look at the colonies as nothing more than rebellious subjects.
France’s entry into the American Revolution was, in modern parlance, a game-changer. From 1778 until the war’s conclusion, the French provided the colonists with uniforms, supplies, weapons, ammunition, and perhaps most critically, a navy capable of posing a serious threat to the British. The French involvement would potentially expand the war on a much broader scale around the globe, forcing the British into a more extensive and costlier conflict.
The French navy played an integral part at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781. With the British army under Cornwallis based at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay and a French fleet under Count de Grasse sailing from St. Domingue (present-day Haiti), George Washington ordered 5,000 Continental troops to block Cornwallis’s retreat by land. When the French fleet reached the Chesapeake, Cornwallis was effectively surrounded on land and sea and was compelled to surrender to Washington in October of that year.
Leading the French troops at Yorktown was the Marquis de Lafayette, arguably the most famous and well-remembered of the foreigners who fought with the Continental Army. His service to the Patriot cause began when he was just nineteen years old, when, captivated by the revolutionary fervor of the colonies, he left his marriage and fortune behind to fight with the Americans. A young, fatherless man, Lafayette developed a close relationship with George Washington, who had no children of his own. Impressed with Lafayette’s intelligence and devotion to the American cause, Washington became a surrogate father of sorts for the young Frenchman. Though he had no combat experience, Lafayette was commissioned a major general and was injured at the Battle of Brandywine in 1777. He was also instrumental in securing French aid to the Continental Army, and his service endeared him to Americans for generations to come.
In addition to the French, Spain also provided aid to the colonies. With possessions in the Caribbean, Spain could reach the colonies relatively quickly, providing them with invaluable supplies. As a colonial power itself, Spain did not sympathize with the colonists’ attempt to break away from British rule, but, like France, it was eager to gain any advantage it could against the increasing power of Great Britain.
Beyond the assistance the colonies received from other nations, several individuals from various European countries served in the Continental Army. Baron von Steuben, a former Prussian military officer, arrived at Washington’s encampment at Valley Forge, where he introduced new sanitation methods and instructed the weary troops on different methods of combat. Poland provided two of the Revolution’s most revered heroes, Casimir Pulaski and Tadeusz Kosciusko. Pulaski was exiled from Poland and eventually made his way to France, where he met Benjamin Franklin, who convinced him to aid the American cause. Like Lafayette, he served in the battle of Brandywine. In 1779, Pulaski was mortally wounded during the Siege of Savannah, securing a place as one of the Revolution’s most respected foreign heroes.
Though modern Americans may like to think of the country as always having been a world leader, it’s important to remember that we were once a struggling young country, dependent on the assistance of stronger nations.