American - French Alliance and Operations

By Robert Geake and Fred Zilian, Ph.D.

The American victory in the Battle of Saratoga (NY) in October, 1777, had a strategic impact on the Revolutionary War. It convinced the French to ally with the fledgling United States. In February, 1778, France signed a treaty of commerce and friendship and also a treaty of alliance with the United States. Great Britain now faced a much different threat. The US was hopeful and emboldened.

On July 29, the French fleet arrived off Pt. Judith, RI. Under the command of Charles Henri Théodat, Comte d’Estaing, it consisted of 16 ships, with 12 ships of the line and about 4,000 army troops. The British naval forces were clearly overmatched, so they took defensive measures. They withdrew their forces spread throughout the island to defensive positions near and in Newport. They also scuttled about 10 ships to prevent them from falling into French hands.

On August 8, d’Estaing moved the bulk of his fleet into Newport harbor. However, the next day British Admiral Howe and his fleet, a relief force, were spotted off Pt. Judith. On August 10, the fleets were maneuvering for position in the Atlantic south of the bay; however, Mother Nature stepped in. A tremendous hurricane arrived and raged for two days, disabling both fleets.

The American Siege of Newport

During this same time, the American forces, led by Maj Gen John Sullivan, had launched an offensive from Tiverton across Howland’s Ferry and landed unopposed in Portsmouth. They quickly occupied the fortifications which the British had evacuated, most prominently, Fort Butts, where the Portsmouth town wind turbine now stands. Gen Sullivan decided on a siege of Newport to try to strangle the British until the French fleet returned to the bay. American forces advanced in the east as far as the high ground east of Valley Rd. (Honeyman’s Hill), in the west as far as the high ground north of Miantonomi Ave.

The French Fleet Departs

Worried about the British relief force, Adm d’Estaing informed Gen Sullivan that he was taking his fleet to Boston for repairs. The Americans were stunned and angry; Gen. Sullivan was indignant.

Thus began the unraveling of the allied offensive operation. To make matters worse, the terms of enlistment for several of the militia units were expiring. They wanted to get back to their farms and families. Lastly, sickness, especially dysentery, began to take its toll. On August 24, the siege ended and American forces began a retreat.

The British Take Leave of Newport

With losses in the southern campaigns beginning to have their toll, and the constant harassment from American privateers and militia, the British decided to leave Aquidneck Island and regroup their forces around long occupied New York. The occupying forces departed Newport on the evening of October 25, 1779. The British burned the barracks used at Breton Point, but left other works intact, along with fuel, forage, and a number of horses behind.

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Ben Franklin and French diplomats depicted signing the Treaty of Alliance, officially entering France into the American War of Independence.

An illustration depicting the French Navy's entrance to Narragansett Bay.

The Siege of Newport.

Admiral Jean Baptistes Charles Henri Hector, Comte d'Estaing.

Breton Point, courtesy of Google ©