Saturday, August 18, 2012

Intern's Corner: August in the Revolution

The Siege of Newport, Rhode Island 1778
By Mark Relation, DLAR Intern

After the signing of the Franco-American Alliance, the Comte d’Estaing sailed from Toulon in April 1778 with nearly 4,000 infantry and several naval vessels to aid in the struggle for American Independence.  However, the debacle that followed convinced many Americans, General Sullivan in particular, that they were better off without their new allies.  Initially, Washington intended the French contingent to join an assault on New York to regain what was lost in the Battle of Long Island two years prior.  Due to the much more able defense put up by the British than by Washington previously and to local sandbars blocking the French ships, however, this was deemed impossible and the attack abandoned.  On July 29th, the French arrived at Newport, Rhode Island, to meet up with Sullivan’s troops and attack there instead. 
From the start, the siege did not go well.  D’Estaing’s troops, after being at sea for the better part of four months, were low on provisions and plagued by scurvy, and were eager to attack as soon as possible to procure supplies.  Sullivan expressly did not want to rush into battle, both because his forces were still gathering and, after suffering defeats at Staten Island, Brandywine, and Germantown, did not want to engage the enemy until he was sure he held the advantage.  The British also kept up a substantial garrison at Newport of some 6,000 men.  Further exacerbating the problem was the distrust and contempt that each of the commanders held for each other, the perceived French arrogance and American incompetence put the two generals at odds every time they attempted to coordinate an attack. 
This conflict between the two allies came to a head in mid August.  On August 9th, Sullivan launched an assault while the French were still landing their men, and the French similarly abandoned their allies in the afternoon when a British fleet appeared under Admiral Howe.  The next day, the French set sail to engage the British at sea and were battered so heavily by a storm that d’Estaing decided to withdraw to Boston for repairs.  On the 12th and 13th, that same storm hit the unsheltered American forces and devastated their supplies.  When word reached Sullivan that d’Estaing was retreating, he sent a protest of his conduct to Boston, and by the 30th was forced to abandon the siege. 
This first action of the joint French-American forces was just short of a disaster.  Despite the best efforts of Congress and the Rhode Island legislature, public opinion regarded the French conduct of nothing less than a betrayal.  Riots broke out and a few French officers were harmed, but the conflict soon simmered down and relations were repaired between the newfound allies.  Despite this rocky start to Franco-American cooperation, the two nations would eventually come together for the decisive victory of the Yorktown campaign and win the war as allies. 

Blanco, Richard L., and Paul J. Sanborn. The American Revolution: 1775-1783 : An Encyclopedia. New York: Garland, 1993. Print. p. 1218-1219.

American Revolutionary War General John Sullivan.  By A. Tenney, 1873.

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