A Potential Invasion of Great Britain’s Home Islands – 1779

Combat between the French frigates Juno and Gentille against the English ship Ardent and the English frigate Fox, August 17, 1779. (Château de Versailles)

Each new war expends a great deal of effort to undo the results of the previous one. D’Estaing could not return to the American coast until he had carried out orders to recover territory in the Caribbean lost by France to Great Britain in the Seven Years’ War and to acquire equivalent new territory from Great Britain. In an attempt to capture Barbados, one of the largest British wealth generators, in June 1779 d’Estaing sailed in strength, his twenty-four ships of the line incorporating the de Grasse, Vaudreuil, and La Motte-Picquet squadrons. They carried 5,500 marines; among them was Lafayette’s brother-in-law Noailles, finally getting into the action—ostensibly on behalf of America—that he, Lafayette, and Ségur had long ago imagined.

The winds were unfavorable to invading Barbados so d’Estaing went after Grenada, at the southern end of the Lesser Antilles, French until 1763. His marines stormed Grenada’s Hospital Hill, overwhelming the outnumbered locals and causing the desertion of many slaves to the French ranks. In the notice of the feat sent to Sartine, d’Estaing recommended Noailles for the Croix de Saint-Louis, one of France’s premiere medals for military valor.

Admiral Byron, upon learning of the recapture of Grenada, sailed to counter d’Estaing. A large-scale battle ensued. The British seized the weather gage, but the French, maneuvering smartly, were able to severely damage six British vessels, one limping into port with “ninety-five Holes intirely through her Sides,” as a newspaper account put it. The day’s action was later deemed the greatest setback for the Royal Navy since 1690, for d’Estaing had also taken the Grenadines, a chain of small islands between Grenada and St. Vincent.

He then headed to defend Guadeloupe, French since 1763. Byron’s fleet had already occupied that island’s harbor and could not be easily dislodged or lured out to fight by the French insultingly parading their ships just outside the anchorage, all flags flying. D’Estaing shifted to another of his missions, to ferry convoys of merchantmen to a point in the Atlantic from which they could cross to Europe untroubled by privateers. This duty, too, Versailles had dubbed essential, since the merchantmen’s cargoes would translate into the most important annual infusion of treasure to the treasury.

Only after shepherding those convoys could d’Estaing set sail for America. He was returning to the United States because he felt morally obligated to do so, not because of orders, since Sartine had directed him to come back to Europe, if possible conquering along the way Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. D’Estaing interpreted his instructions to mean that he could voyage near the coastal United States, where he knew he might bump into the enemy and aid the ally. D’Estaing tried to excuse in advance, to Sartine, a dalliance in America by suggesting that “if we only go [to Savannah and Charleston] and show ourselves, this will produce an effect which I believe will be of the greatest importance.”

But he thought he could do more. “There is every reason to believe,” Washington had written Gérard in a letter for forwarding to d’Estaing, that in Georgia the admiral “would with great facility capture & destroy the enemy’s fleet & Army.” And d’Estaing was also influenced by a missive from a former musketeer who was now the leader of his paid troop in South Carolina: “It is necessary to defend [this area] against its enemies and against itself. All is in lamentable condition, few regular troops, no assistance from the North, a feeble and ill-disciplined militia, and a great lack of harmony among the leaders.” Thus summoned and enticed, d’Estaing departed on August 16, 1779, for Savannah, with twenty ships of the line, seven frigates, other troop transport ships, and 3,500 troops.

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Just then, a potential invasion of Great Britain’s home islands was taking shape in the English Channel. It had been awhile in coming. Lafayette had learned of an invasion in the late winter, at Versailles, perhaps from Louis XVI as the returned prodigal and his king hunted together, or from Marie Antoinette, who was quite taken with the marquis and liked to trade in secret information. But the precise plans for the grand invasion were taking so much time to come to fruition that Lafayette suggested to Maurepas he first attempt small-scale raids of England with a highly trained force of fifteen hundred. Lafayette’s model, then the talk of Versailles, was a similar-size French force known as Lauzun’s Legion—for its leader, a nobleman of equally distinguished lineage, the Duc de Lauzun—which had just wrested Senegal from British control.

Franklin, not privy to the grand invasion plans, was enthusiastic about the modest Lafayette caper, and added a most important element: “Much will depend, on a prudent & brave Sea Commander who knows the Coasts, and on a Leader of the Troops, who has the Affair at Heart,” he wrote to Lafayette as prelude to recommending John Paul Jones, then upgrading the old ship that Jones had renamed in Franklin’s honor the Bonhomme Richard. Jones told Lafayette: “I shall expect you to point out my Errors when we are together alone with perfect freedom. Where men of fine feeling are concerned there is seldom misunderstanding.” It was in regard to this mission that Jones had recently boasted to Chaumont, “I wish to have no connection to any ship that does not sail fast; for I intend to go in harm’s way,” a sentiment likely to flutter the heart of a Lafayette. The marquis wanted Pierre Landais to accompany them, having developed a high respect for the captain when together they had quelled the mutiny aboard the Alliance, and he also wanted the fast-sailing Alliance. The French navy lent an additional complement of ships. But Chaumont warned Jones, “You shall not require from [these extra] vessels any services but such as will be comfortable with the orders that [their captains] shall have,” which included making no changes to the French vessels’ crews or armaments, since those captains must be fully “answerable to those who have armed them.”

On May 22, Lafayette’s part of the adventure ended, and for the best reasons. As he explained to Jones, the king had reassigned him to a larger command in a full-scale invasion of Great Britain, scheduled for summer. Jones quickly redefined his mission and on June 19 departed Lorient in the Bonhomme Richard with the Alliance and the rest of his train. Problems began immediately, as Landais steered his ship into Jones’s, and more arose when it became apparent that the Bonhomme Richard was too slow. Changes at sea to the rigging and ballast added a half knot to its speed, but not enough to allow Jones to give proper chase to two British convoy escorts. As he wrote to Franklin, the British “courage failed, and they fled with precipitation, and to my mortification outsailed the Bonhomme Richard and got clear.”

The much larger invasion mission was experiencing even greater difficulties in getting to the point of weighing anchors. Even before the signing of the Aranjuez treaty, Vergennes had tried to hurry military preparations for the grand armada and the invasion of Great Britain, despite not wanting such an attack. It became an essential part of the deal with Spain, and so after the signing he redoubled his efforts, keenly aware that for the invasion to succeed it must take advantage of two rapidly closing windows: The combined Bourbon fleets’ superiority over the British navy, which would be eclipsed within six months by the frenetic pace of British capital shipbuilding, and the six weeks of relative calm weather that the English Channel experienced in the early summer, which would dissipate with the onset of an annual series of harsh storms on August 1.

Initial plans called for the French to sail first, from Brest, in early May, to meet up in Spanish waters with the Spanish fleets by midmonth, and then to spend a couple of weeks perfecting joint maneuvers before in June all moved toward the English Channel and from there made a rapid strike; the expedition was not a “question of a guerre de campagne [an extended campaign] but only of a coup de main [a surprise attack].”

Among the many factors affecting the attack’s potential success was the presumed willingness of the Irish to throw off the British yoke and join with the invaders. Bancroft, sent to assess that possibility, returned with the disappointing news that the prospect of a Franco-Spanish invasion had driven the Irish back into the embrace of Great Britain. No help could be counted on from that quarter.

Naval delays of the armada were initially due to Carlos III’s insistence that military officers in both realms not be made aware of negotiations before the treaty was signed. Additional delays resulted from the Spanish admirals’ resistance to having the French fleet guide their actions, and from Spain’s ships being far less ready for battle than those of France. A military aide to Montmorin toured the ports where the Spanish ships were being readied, and his assessment was dismal: crews recruited from convicts; old Scottish cannons that few knew how to maintain; poor-quality supplies from Russia; flimsy hemp from the Netherlands; and admirals either over the hill or known to be irresolute.

Delays mounted when Spain categorically refused to sail until war had been declared, something that could not occur prior to the completion of the time-honored sequence of delivering an ultimatum, having it rejected, and then withdrawing ambassadors. The Madrid government wasted time accumulating a list of grievances for the British to reject and then dallied in its deliverance. Finally Vergennes realized that Madrid would not hand over that list unless and until the French fleet had left Brest.

Then it was the French fleet causing the delays: D’Orvilliers told Versailles that he was unable to sail in May because of an incomplete upgrade to the Ville de Paris, from ninety guns on two decks to one hundred ten on three, necessary to counter the largest British ships. On June 4 the French fleet finally sailed, and six days later reached the rendezvous off Spain’s Atlantic Coast, but during the next six weeks the Spanish fleets did not join them. The discouraging delay was attributed partly to the weather but more to the Spanish admirals’ distaste for the French. Then, too, Spain decreed it necessary to wait not merely for the list of grievances to be delivered and rejected in London but for the news of the rejection to travel to Madrid and then to the port and the ships. Moreover, Spain’s prime target for invasion had shifted: It was much more interested in a joint Franco-Spanish attempt on the island of Gibraltar. That action began on July 11 and involved fourteen thousand Spanish troops and fifteen warships.

On d’Orvilliers’s ships, during six weeks under the broiling sun off Spain’s western coast, pestilence broke out—smallpox, dysentery, and scurvy, made worse because there were no surgeons; in the haste to depart Brest they had been left behind. Some 12,000 of the 23,750 men aboard became seriously ill, and there were many deaths. Then d’Orvilliers discovered that the Spanish ships did not have the agreed-upon signals to enable him to direct them during a battle.

As for the army of invasion, by July its 31,000 French soldiers had been distributed into dozens of camps in Normandy, with embarkation positions at Le Havre and Saint-Malo. De Broglie did not like the altered invasion plans and had refused to lead it. After his departure that army, nominally under the command of a seventy-four-year-old marshal, was actually led by Rochambeau, whose warrior single-mindedness provoked Lauzun to write that he “talked only of feats of arms, and demonstrated positions and executed movements out-of-doors, indoors, on the table, or on your snuff-box if you took it out of your pocket; without an idea outside of his profession, he had a marvelous grasp of that.”

Everyone in the nobility wanted in on the invasion, even the Chevalier d’Éon, who offered to ditch his petticoats and again don a military uniform—a violation of the conditions that had let him return to France as a female. That request was denied, just as his earlier one, to serve in America, had been. Lafayette advised Vergennes that he was providing “twenty million to support the paper currency, ten million to pay for an expedition, and ten to pay the interest on a general repayment” of the loan floated to buy supplies for the invasion.

Near the end of July a series of gales blew sails to shreds and kept the fleets from the Channel. Vergennes wrote to Montmorin: “Blackness overwhelms me.… What a wonderful opportunity is slipping from our grasp, without anyone being to blame! England, without resources or allies, was on the point of being taught a lesson; success seemed within our grasp … but the elements are arming themselves against us and staying the stroke of our vengeance.”

“The disunion of the two parties who divide the Congress increases and exasperates each other more and more. They lose on both sides the points of view of discretion and moderation,” Gérard was writing to Vergennes just then from Philadelphia. He had been recalled, but before returning home the emissary was determined to settle America’s peace terms. The Lee-Adams faction continued to insist on Newfoundland’s fisheries being included on the list, and to threaten that the New England states would leave the confederacy if they were not. Gérard cautioned Congress that the fisheries were not a part of the Franco-American pacts. When he queried Vergennes on the matter, the foreign minister’s response was quite tough:

1) that the King is actually the only guarantee of the Independence of the thirteen United States; 2) that this guarantee is only eventual as regards their possessions; 3) that the United States have no actual right to the fisheries; 4) that the King neither explicitly nor implicitly contracted an obligation to let them participate in them; 5) that they can have a share in them only insofar as they assure themselves of them by arms, or through a future truce or peace.

On July 24, after both Samuel Adams and R. H. Lee had left the deliberative body, Congress voted to omit the fisheries from the list of conditions for peace but, as Henry Laurens suggested, to make them essential in postarmistice discussions.

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In mid-August the sizable Franco-Spanish armada entered the western end of the English Channel, expecting to engage and conquer the British Home Fleet and clear the way for the invasion. D’Orvilliers wrote to the ministry: “The combined [fleet] is at present anchored in calm waters within sight of the tower of Plymouth.… It is most important to hasten the battle, particularly as the condition of the French ships is worsening daily, as regards both the disease running rampant in them and the small quantity of water and rations they possess.”

While the land troops waited for the armada to do its work, Franklin dispatched to Le Havre his seventeen-year-old grandson, William Temple Franklin, bearing the ceremonial sword commissioned by Congress for Lafayette; Temple wanted some military glory for himself, and Lafayette obliged, attempting to obtain Franklin’s consent for the boy to be his aide-de-camp during the invasion. In another letter Lafayette advised, regarding a feeler Franklin had received to go to London to negotiate a peace, that the offer would result in nothing because “whatever is prudent for [the British] to do, they will omit; and what is most imprudent to be done, they will do it.” He could have cited as the latest evidence of this that the British had passed over experienced, aggressive commanders to appoint as the new head of the Home Fleet Admiral Charles Hardy, sixty-five, who had not been to sea in twenty years.

And that, despite London having been aware of French and Spanish invasion designs since early spring and having obtained such specific information as the names of troop unit commanders, the number of troopships, the quantity of stores aboard them, and the main targets, Portsmouth and Plymouth.

The British preparations were almost as inept as the French and Spanish. Lord North had sent the information about the French-Spanish plans to George III in a locked box; the king had lost the box’s only key, and a locksmith had to be summoned to break it open. Once the king read the materials in the box and understood the danger from the combined fleets of France and Spain, he offered to take active command of the British forces on land during the invasion.

That proved unnecessary. No large-scale invasion of the British Isles took place. Nor did any climactic sea battle, although the combined French and Spanish fleets did get into the Channel and sail about in late August and part of September, when, infrequently, they could best the wind. Fogs contributed to the absence of action. On several occasions, the Franco-Spanish fleet and the British one narrowly missed each other. As significant a contributing factor was the commanders’ timidity. A tough observer aboard Hardy’s flagship wrote of him, in words that could also be applied to the French and Spanish admirals in this endeavor, “He means to take as small a share of responsibility upon himself as possible … to procrastinate as long as he can and when he is obliged to act he will make Ministers responsible for the consequence if he fails.”

The largest armada assembled since 1588 for invading Britain came to naught—at a cost to France of one hundred million livres, much more than had been expended to aid the American rebels. Lafayette, summing it up in a letter to Congress, acknowledged that the Franco-Spanish invasion of Great Britain had failed, but at least it had “exhausted England and detain’d at home forces which would have done much mischief in other parts of the world.”

The big invasion produced nothing, but John Paul Jones’s was still in the offing, though it had been delayed. In June and July, while the Bonhomme Richard was being repaired in Lorient, Jones had taken on additional hands, including former British sailors, and had to put down a potential mutiny by some of them. He also became ill. In early August, Sartine had dispatched Chaumont to the port to hasten Jones’s departure—and to meddle in the captains’ willingness to obey Jones’s commands. On August 9 Jones quickly left dockside and on August 14 passed the outer anchorage with the Bonhomme Richard, the Alliance, two French privateers, and three other French warships.

Once the small squadron was out of the harbor, one French privateer decided not to continue. Jones was powerless to halt his defection. The remaining six ships proceeded toward the Irish coast, taking several merchantmen. Problems cropped up everywhere, from Landais, whose ship fired at Jones’s, from the polyglot crew—the Irish members stole the flagship’s barge and rowed themselves ashore—from the desertion of another French naval vessel, and from the veering off of the second French privateer after capturing a prize and wanting to get it into port.

Jones, at odds with Landais, nonetheless continued to take merchantmen and menace the coast. “Not a day passed but we are receiving accounts of the depredations committed by Paul Jones and his squadron,” according to a letter that soon appeared in the London Evening Post. Jones then landed at Leith, Edinburgh’s seaport, aiming to exact a two-hundred-thousand-pound ransom in exchange for not burning the town, which was defenseless; but when the wind died suddenly Jones and his captains decided to return aboard and row themselves away, lest they be caught by the Royal Navy. Similar attempted raids and narrow escapes followed until September 22, when off the Yorkshire coast Jones spotted a fine target, a convoy of forty merchantmen. Able to seize some of them immediately, Jones learned that they were being guarded by two Royal Navy vessels, the larger being the Serapis, listed as forty-four guns but that Jones believed had between forty-six and fifty, mounted on two decks. In the ensuing fight off Flamborough Head, Serapis’s cannons ripped through the Bonhomme Richard so thoroughly that it was close to foundering, causing the British captain to ask Jones if he had struck his colors; he famously replied: “I have not yet begun to fight.” Ramming his ship into the Serapis, Jones then had his men grapple on, and they fought the British hand to hand in one of the most sanguinary close encounters of the war, which left nearly three hundred of the six hundred men dead. An exploding American grenade ignited gunpowder kegs and put Serapis’s cannon out of action. Its captain surrendered just in time for Jones to transfer into it with what remained of his crew and their prisoners, which he did because the Bonhomme Richard had become unstable.

A painting by William Gilkerson of the battle between the Continental Navy frigate Bonhomme Richard and HMS Serapis, Beverley R. Robinson Collection, US Naval Academy Museum.

An isolated victory, Jones’s feat was militarily insignificant, but in a season in which the larger invasion of Great Britain and the Franco-Spanish armada had come to such utter failure it was a notable success. The feat transformed John Paul Jones into a hero and it justly celebrated his crew, which included many French sailors as well as those of a dozen other nationalities.

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Among the British reactions to the Franco-Spanish near-invasion were doubling the size of the militias, eliminating many loopholes through which young Britons had been able to avoid military service, and making conciliatory overtures to Ireland to abate rebellion, including the easing of exclusionary practices against Catholics. In France the combination of Franklin, Adams, and finance minister Necker—Protestants all—began to advocate for similar elimination of second-class treatment of Protestants, and progress was made on that front.

Liberalizing in France had repercussions in America. It assisted congressional supporters of the Franco-American alliance by stripping from the anti-Gallicians the use of the canard that they intended to take over America and force Catholicism on its citizens. The anti-Gallicians found another opening when it became necessary to dispatch a plenipotentiary to Madrid. Jay was nominated, but the antis kept bringing up various objections that became confabulated with the Silas Deane/Arthur Lee impasse and took time to resolve. Finally Jay was approved, Lee was dismissed from his previous post, and Deane was offered a payment of $10,500, which he rejected as an attempt to buy him off for a few cents on the dollar.

In October 1779 Jay and his wife embarked for Spain on the same ship returning Gérard to France. Jay had decided that because of Lee’s poor reception by Madrid he must now approach Spain gingerly, going first to Paris and from there applying for entry. Once at sea, a storm necessitated changing course; in the argument over whether to head for the Caribbean or reattempt a more direct crossing, Gérard and Jay disagreed, and finished the voyage as less than friends.

“I don’t know what can be done regarding America,” Vergennes wrote Lafayette in the fall of 1779 at Le Havre, where the marquis had remained. “Our plans can no longer be unilateral; they require a preliminary agreement. It is obvious that the concern for America’s welfare requires that troops be sent, but that alone would not be doing enough.” He added a complaint about the Americans: “We hope they will have exerted themselves more than they have done up to now.” He excepted from this complaint the John Paul Jones victory, and the one at Stony Point that, he noted with pride, had been led by Lafayette’s colleague and friend Fleury.

Shortly Fleury returned to France and at Lafayette’s urging completed a memo of his time with the Continental forces, to which he appended comments on what should be done next. It echoed Vergennes in contending: “America is in a state of crisis that is alarming but not hopeless,” and went beyond the minister in its insistence that France could best prevent the states’ reconciling with Great Britain by “sending arms, clothing, money, or more assistance.”

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