Prepared by M. Jacques de TRENTINIAN
for a filmed DVD educational program for the Sons of the American Revolution.

The presentation gives a comprehensive understanding of the diplomatic, economic and military resources implemented by France to help the American patriots obtaining the independence of their new nation. It is a rarely presented comprehensive overview of the robust French involvement in the American struggle for Independence. Most of the historical narratives focus on particular military operations in North America and specific diplomatic initiatives. Such restricted observations fail to grasp the global scope of the conflict and often either ignore or inaccurately portray the decisions made at Versailles.

Seven years of close cooperation and sacrifices.
  • France was determined as early as spring 1776 to go to war for American Independence.
  • The tenacious decider to help the new republic emerge was an absolute monarch.
  • A naval struggle all over the oceans was essential to gain the war for independence.
  • One hundred thousand French combatants lost 5,000 killed and 9,000 wounded in action.
When a majority of the two million British subjects living in America decided to throw off the yoke of their sovereign, they had to reach two goals:
  • Discourage the monarch from maintaining his sovereignty over them
  • Obtain recognition of their independence by other nations of the world
France was an obvious partner to assist the colonists in reaching their goals: first, because she was the traditional enemy of Britain, and also because of her power and her position within the international concert of nations.

France sponsored

  • SACRIFICES OF HER SOLDIERS AND HER SAILORS: 5,000 killed and 9,000 wounded in action; many more struck by epidemics.
  • DEPLOYMENT WORLDWIDE OF HER FIELD AND NAVAL ARMIES: Over 100,000 combatants: 75,000 at sea; 50,000 soldiers dispatched overseas.



  When the first news of an armed revolt in the British colonies of America reached France and United Kingdom, the potential impact of the event was quickly assessed by the French government in Versailles.

Louis XVI of France, only 20 years old, and king for one year, has selected a very experienced diplomat, Comte de Vergennes, as a secretary for Foreign affairs.

The new king has learned English by himself, and he is like the enlightened part of the French aristocracy who consider the British parliamentary system with great interest.
But at the same time, the "English" is for France a traditional opponent and has been a growing competitor for almost a century. Against France, Britain has made up for her much smaller population by almost permanent coalitions with other European powers and through an aggressive colonial expansion resting on a strong navy.

   Continental Europe is a mosaic of many populations with predators of different sizes.

In the second half of the 18th century, the traditional ball game in Europe has changed with:
* The emergence of Prussia. Which competes with Austria for the first role among the hundreds of principalities composing the so-called German Empire.
* A growing intervention in Central Europe by Russia, which is surrounded by countries traditionally supported by France: Poland, Sweden and the Ottoman Empire.

This European situation has a great impact on the decision-making in France :
For King Louis and his minister Vergennes, the news of the revolt in New England brings immediately the dilemma "should we enter this conflict and how?"
The French leaders must consider the effects on America, France, and Europe.

America: What are the American intentions and attitude towards a French intervention?
From London, diplomat Beaumarchais urges Vergennes:
   "The time has come for France to intervene."
A secret envoy, chevalier de Bonvouloir, is dispatched to Philadelphia in the fall of 1775. His report reaches Vergennes in February, with two main developments:
• The patriots have decided to proclaim their independence and fight fiercely for it.
• They expect from France military equipment and "two competent engineer officers well recommended and reliable."

Vergennes outlines for the King why France should support the rebels. On April 12, 1776, after having consulted the other members of his council, Louis XVI makes the decision to accept Vergennes' recommendations.

France-- As helping the rebels will inevitably lead to a war, how do we get prepared?
• Regarding the Army: the French army has been entirely reorganized and equipped with effective rifles and artillery.
• Regarding the Navy: for Louis XVI, the Navy will be the decisive factor in the emerging conflict.
  The Navy minister is therefore ordered on April 22:
• to protect neutral and American shipping,
• to develop the Mediterranean fleet in case Brest would be blockaded,
• to fill magazines and arsenals with all they lacked, and
• to refit the fleets and begin with 20 ships of the line and the necessary frigates be ready by October 1776.

Europe-- How can we prevent the other major competing states in Europe to enter again in a coalition with the British?
  The King decided that France should:
• not appear as aggressing Britain,
• negotiate to obtain the neutrality of the central European powers, and
• involve Spain, ruled by Charles III, whose navy would help scattering British squadrons. However, Spain is not prepared to choose her camp.

   On 2 May 1776, Louis XVI and Vergennes decide to covertly supply the insurgents with military equipments by helping Beaumarchais to launch a private company. Beaumarchais names the new company "Roderique Hortalez." Vergennes' written instructions to Beaumarchais were:

"…. We will give you a secret one million. We will endeavor to persuade the court of Spain to give you another. With these two millions you shall found a great commercial establishment, and, at your own risk and peril, you shall furnish to America arms and everything else necessary to sustain war. Our arsenals will deliver to you arms and munitions, but you will pay for it. …"

The new Roderique Hortalez company is registered and soon adds to the public financing, a third million Livres investment coming from private French firms.
The Company buys and equips a fleet of merchant ships, sailing from French ports.

Arriving in France July 1776, Congress' envoy Silas Deane is introduced to Beaumarchais. He requests arms and every necessary articles of clothing, for 30,000 men. These demands are reinforced six months later when Benjamin Franklin comes to Paris as chief of the American delegation. The famous, and already very popular as a scientist, Franklin will greatly contribute to better understanding between senior individuals in charge of the two nations.

Results are soon realized:
On 11 September 1776, Beaumarchais lists for the two Courts of Versailles and Madrid the arms and equipment he gathered to sail to America:
300,000 pounds of powder
30,000 rifles, bought at Saint-Etienne
3,000 tents
200 cannons + carriages + limbers
27 mortars
100,000 cannon balls
13,000 bombs
40,000 yards of lining for pants and pockets
30,000 blankets
180,000 aunes (1.2 yards) of cloth for soldiers' shirts
18,000 aunes of cloth for officers' shirts
120,000 dozens of buttons for soldiers
18,000 dozens of buttons for officers
30,000 woolen caps
Knives, handkerchiefs, shoes, garter claps,
95,000 aunes of fabric for the soldier's uniforms
Plus 12,000 cubic feet of wood for ship building acquired (in London) to refit his fleet!

Officers: By secret royal decision, by self initiative, or through American delegates' recruitment, a little over 100 officers (including some foreigners) are enrolled in American service, most of them dispatched from France.
Among them, let us mention four examples:
• Secretly commissioned by the French government in January 1777, chief military engineer Du Portail embarks with three other military engineers. He will lead the US engineering effort throughout the war and also bring his expertise in the strategy council around General Washington.
• The French war minister introduces Franklin to a middle-aged captain who had retired 15 years earlier from the Prussian army. He is dispatched to America as a potential instructor for the Continental Army at French expense on a Beaumarchais ship. Known as Baron de Steuben, he will become an efficient drill master after his arrival at Valley Forge in 1778.
• Former chief of the King's secret diplomacy, Comte de Broglie promoted and sponsored the departure of volunteer French officers:
   • Among them is the Marquis de La Fayette, whom Benjamin Franklin is especially interested by the political effect of having someone well connected at the French court serving the Patriot's cause. Though there are fears that his high visibility might handicap the efficiency of French diplomacy. La Fayette will tell a reticent Congress that he has come to serve and at his own expense. He will prove his soldier's capacity at the Battle if Brandywine.
   • Traveling with La Fayette, initially as a sort of mentor, is baron de Kalb, a veteran of thirty-five years serving in the French army. He speaks English and spent a whole year in 1768 of political analysis in the British Colonies for the previous Foreign minister.

A British army occupies Philadelphia, while another, composed of over 5,000 British soldiers and German mercenaries, surrenders at Saratoga.
Two treaties – one of Amity and Commerce and a second one more secret of defensive Alliance – are signed between Gerard representing the King and the Congress' delegates. France, first of all nations, acknowledges the existence of the new nation.

On European coasts, at Ushant (off Brittany) a battle involving 32 ships of each Navy proves French Royal Navy is able to challenge the British.
Africa: Duc de Lauzun captures British establishments and fortresses in Senegal, so depriving Britain from part of the slave trade with America
In the West Indies: the French governor of Martinique storms Dominica island in 1778.

Meanwhile, Admiral d'Estaing is dispatched from Toulon to America with 12 ships of the line and Conrad Gerard as an ambassador.
• British forces evacuate Philadelphia, recovering troops necessary to operate in the Caribbean.
• D'Estaing is prevented from penetrating New York Bay by the draft of his ships: the guiding buoys having been removed. He attempts a landing at Newport (Rhode Island)
• A sea battle with the British fleets is interrupted by a huge storm; the French fleet must sail to Boston for refitting.
• In 1779, d'Estaing with a fleet of 25 sails storms the island of Grenada in the West-Indies, one of the precious British sugar islands, and puts the British squadron to flight.
• Before sailing back to France, he attempts a combined operation with the American army against Savannah (Georgia). It is a failure with heavy casualties. The British will successfully lay siege to Charleston, but evacuate Newport.


Britain is now ready:
• at sea, 90 ships of the line are now equipped.
• On land, intense enrolment of mercenaries have been going on in German principalities
  – altogether 30,000 of those will be brought to fight in the thirteen colonies from 1778 to 1782.

France, with 66 ships of the line, feels the necessity to complement her forces with an ally to challenge the British.

Spain has now settled her differences with Portugal. However, She will not acknowledge the Independence of the thirteen American colonies as long UK has not and so Spain refuses allying directly with the Americans.
     Nevertheless, the French minister Vergennes succeeds in dragging Spain into the War. The two countries conclude a formal alliance by the Treaty of Aranjuez. But the price for France is high. France agrees to:
• help Spain to regain Gibraltar and Minorca, to recapture Florida, and take Jamaica.
• and as requested by an article of the Treaty, undertake a joint invasion of England.
     In accordance with this Spanish requirement, a landing in England is prepared. A vast French army (38,000 infantry and cavalry) and 400 transport ships are massed on Brittany and Normandy coasts. But by the time the 103 warships of the two fleets can be concentrated after three months at sea, the crews are decimated by illness. The landing will be cancelled, but the approach of the Armada has produced what is remembered as the British Plymouth Panic. The lasting result was that Britain maintained large forces on its homeland and waters throughout the rest of the war.

Conflict was brewing over Bavarian succession between Austria and German principalities including the kingdom of Prussia, with Russia preparing to enter the conflict. A settlement was reached through French mediation by the signature of the Teschen convention in May 1779.
     This treaty and the conclusion of a League of Neutrality set up between other Europeans prevent any opportunity for Britain to negotiate an alliance against the French and American Allies.
     This outcome is a crowning achievement of the previous year's diplomacy: France and patriots now have a freer hand to deal with the United Kingdom.


In the West Indies France must consolidate the territorial gains achieved by Governor marquis de Bouillé and comte d'Estaing (including the capture of Dominica, Saint Vincent and Grenada) the recapture of Saint Martin and Saint Bartholomew, and protect the other French possessions in the Caribbean.

The French Navy brings reinforcements and three times defeats British admiral Rodney's attempts against the islands.
Altogether, 20,000 soldiers are deployed in defense of the area where huge economic interests are at stake for the belligerents. The French 'sugar islands' produce twice as much as the British islands. (with triple the population of Britain, France consumes half less and re-exports 80% of her imports.)
Altogether, 50,000 French soldiers are now dispatched overseas (West Indies, Mediterranean, South Africa, Indian Ocean), and 38,000 men are still deployed on the French coasts facing England.

In North America for the first years of the conflict, Congress was opposed to having any French soldiers landing in America. But in the fall of 1779, the insufficient capacity of the Continental army added to grave financial issues induces Congress to cease excluding this possibility.
After convincing their Spanish ally not to object, Vergennes and the King of France decide upon an exceptional delivery of force to America. A chief of great experience and maturity, comte de Rochambeau, is preferred over the young candidate La Fayette to command this "Expedition particulière" as this secret operation was called.

Sailing towards an undisclosed destination, nine warships and 24 transports, manned by 5,000 sailors, leave Brest harbor in Spring 1780: 6,000 soldiers, officers and military engineers have embarked with armament, including 32 heavy siege pieces and 32 field cannons, plus their carriages and limbers, the munitions, powder, equipments and supplies for months of campaigning.

After seventy days of lengthy crossing, the convoy reaches Newport (RI), disembarks and fortifies the city. About 700 soldiers and 1,200 sailors must be taken care in hospitals for a few weeks.

George Washington and General de Rochambeau, who is placed under Washington's order by the King's decision, decide to wait upon further French reinforcement before launching an offensive campaign.


Britain declares war on the United Provinces (The Netherlands) to prevent them entering the League of Neutrality.
   Their colonies will be threatened by the British Navy. British Admiral Rodney captures Saint Eustacius Island, the West Indies Dutch base of the military supply trade to Continental America coming from Europe.

From France, naval operations are launched by French government to remove the pressure on the allied forces in the Dutch colonies and in America:

  • Admiral de Suffren sails to protect the Dutch colony in South Africa and further support the local revolt against the British in India.
  • The West Indies French naval squadron supports general Galvez's successful expedition against Pensacola in West Florida: a key harbor for the British trade with South America falls into the hands of the allies.
  • Comte de Grasse, whose final goal will be to capture Jamaica as requested from France by Spain, is first ordered to support Washington's and Rochambeau's operations.
  • Comte de Barras is dispatched to bring reinforcements to the French Army and take over command of the Newport squadron.




Meeting at Wethersfield, Connecticut, Washington and Rochambeau prepare a joint operation against New York. However, marching to Virginia is not excluded.
French and Continental armies meet close to New York, but the British garrison receives reinforcement. The first skirmishes show the difficulty of attempting a successful siege.

Rochambeau requests de Grasse's naval intervention including field reinforcements and subsidies. He suggests to the admiral that he might prefer sailing to Virginia rather than to New York.

"There are two points at which an offensive can be made against the enemy; the Chesapeake Bay and New York. The southwesterly winds and the state of defense in Virginia will have you probably preferring the Chesapeake, and this is where we think you may be able to render the greatest service; whereas, you will need only two days to come from there to New York. In any case it is essential that you send, well in advance, a frigate to inform Barras where you are to come and also General Washington."

What is De Grasse's response ?:

  • He borrows from French forces in Saint Domingue (now Haïti) 3,300 soldiers and some artillery.
  • He will sail towards Chesapeake, with 28 ships of the line and 4 frigates, boarding and cramming the soldiers on the warships.
  • De Grasse borrows money in Cuba from the local merchants who favor the operations, which they hope will open American harbors to their trade.

Yorktown Campaign

Washington orders the allied armies toward Virginia, and Barras sails the Newport French fleet toward the Chesapeake. Ovens are set up in New Jersey to deceive the British upon the allied intentions.

Land and naval armies are now converging towards Virginia, while Lord Cornwallis and his army have been ordered to prepare a departure for New York. His regiments dig themselves on both sides of the York River, at Yorktown, with a detachment at Gloucester Point.

On August 30, 1781, de Grasse enters the Chesapeake bay; and prepares landing the regiments he brought from the Caribbean. The longboats and their 1,800 sailors row up the James River.

Five days later, 19 British sails appear off the Bay. They are in situation to intercept the Newport squadron that is bringing the siege artillery.

De Grasse orders his fleet to rush out of the bay, without their longboats and slipping their anchor cables.

The British fleet of Graves and Hood is engaged in a heavy cannonade. Suffering 4 ships of the line badly damaged and one sunk. The British fleet returns to New York after three days.

When de Grasse returns to the Bay, Barras has arrived. The siege artillery is sailed up the James River.

French frigates and transports are dispatched by de Grasse up the Chesapeake to fetch most of the allied infantry and equipment at Annapolis, and transport them to Williamsburg.

Altogether, 9,000 Americans and 36,000 French (sailors and soldiers) are now gathered around Yorktown to front Cornwallis forces of 8,250 soldiers and sailors. On October 7, all land forces are investing Yorktown.

The French chief engineer of the Continental Army, General du Portail, commands the combined military engineers. Successive parallel trench lines are dug and the heavy artillery is positioned to execute the siege.

After a week of intense shelling, two strong British redoubts still hold key points in the British defense. Rochambeau's second in command, Major General Viomenil leads the French task force that storms Redoubt 9, while American forces under La Fayette and Hamilton storm the other British redoubt.
   After a vain attempt to escape and a short negotiation, British and German troops must lay down arms. On October 19, general Corwallis is forced to surrender to an American general.

Bataille de la Chesapeake," was essential to the overall success of the siege undertaken by the allied land forces. The campaign victory proved to be the decisive military operation in North America and essential for the ultimate success for the independence of the United States of America. It can justifiably be said that no other naval victory has ever had higher consequence for the history of the world.

De Grasse is prevented from further supporting the allied efforts on land because he must honor France's compromise with Spain by attempting to capture Jamaica


There was still 'a world war' to deal with. However, most Americans took lack of further major British military actions in North America as "Oh! The British are through". Because the Americans at the time were not aware of, or even concerned about, the other things going on in Gibraltar, in India and so forth, or even in the West Indies.
   The British realized they were not building up their army anymore. They still had more troops, but were not going to support them more in any immediate follow on offensives against the American colonies. The British had to decide what to do about the threat of new campaigns being launched in the West Indies by the French and the Spanish. The British decided to disengage –– not to give independence –– but disengage active combat in the colonies, and in other colonial areas, as well as in Europe. The broader global scope of the French and Spanish initiatives forced the British to divert their forces from attempting to subdue the American rebellion.
   If France and Spain had not continued the World war, the British could have maintained momentum and concentrated on the American colonies. One could easily sense that the American rebels may not have achieved their independence as a result. As some historians have observed: "the war over the horizon" from the Americans' viewpoint, the war that very few perceived then –– and often their histories today do not address –– is what kept the war going and kept pain on England. The people –– and many leaders –– in Great Britain wanted the war to end.
   American histories are usually blind to this. Many Americans want to say: "Oh! The war was over after Yorktown." It was not. The British had still more forces than the combined French and American forces if they wanted to do it. But they said: "No! Let us cut it." To most Americans the era between the end of 1781 and the eventual Peace Treaty of 1783 is an unrecognized void. The complex diplomatic arena receives little notice and remains an interesting side note in many academic journals.

   The Yorktown victory saved the Allies from a possible collapse and had a negative effect on the British morale, but the main British strongholds (New York Charleston and Savannah) were still intact.
   King George III was determined not to give up America, and the British Navy looked for revenge.


  • In Asia, Suffren's naval campaign challenges British domination of India.
  • In the Mediterranean, a French and Spanish army under duc de Crillon captures Minorca and lays siege to Gibraltar.
  • In the Caribbean, French forces storm Brimston Hill, the Gibraltar of the West Indies, and capture Saint Kitts.

A combined operation is prepared to capture Jamaica, when de Grasse's expedition is intercepted by Admiral Rodney, thus halting the immediate threat to Jamaica but having a marginal impact on the military situation.
   De Grasse saves his convoy but looses 7 of his 34 ships and is taken prisoner to London, where he will play his part in the peace negotiations.
   The French fleet keeps control of the West Indies. (Rodney's fleet has also been damaged.)    No other convoy between France and the West Indies is intercepted. Admiral de Vaudreuil sends La Pérouse to storm the British forts of the Hudson Bay.

French and Spanish naval and land forces are concentrated in Cadiz preparing, under the command of D'Estaing and La Fayette, a new expedition to Jamaica.

A direct Anglo-American conditional convention has been signed in Paris on November, 26 1782, preceding an armistice and preliminary peace agreement signed with Britain on January 30, 1783, by the Americans, France and Spain.

At last, on 3 September 1783:

  • In Paris the British delegates acknowledge American Independence.
  • The same day at Versailles, Vergennes receives the confirmation of the British signature with the Americans, thus letting France and Spain to grant peace to the United Kingdom.

   Altogether, more than 100,000 French combatants have been involved on land and sea.
   Almost each of the 115 different French ships of the line and 107 frigates have been in operation.

French personnel casualties amounted to 5,100 soldiers or sailors killed in action, and 9,000 wounded in action; plus many more losing their lives from their wounds, epidemics and other illnesses.

The overall cost for France of her intervention is generally estimated at 1,8 billion Livres ($22 billion) in terms of purchasing power, the multiplying factor is around 12.

The problem of overstretched U.S. finances during the war were substantially resolved by massive French gifts and loans in addition to secret help.
From 1777 to 1783 France has granted:
· 35 million Livres ($420 million) as loans
· and 11 million Livres ($130 million) as gifts.

France waited until 1914 to really take benefit from her exceptional intervention into the fight for liberties of the colonies and early acknowledgment of the new nation: American descendants enrolled on French side in the First World War
When the entire United States nation entered the war in 1917, general Pershing, through Colonel's Stanton's voice, could exclaim on July 4: "La Fayette we are here!"


Great winners have been the U.S. and Spain.
   The territories of the thirteen colonies became independent and gained potential western extensions up to the Mississippi.
   Spain retained Minorca and west Florida, and exchanged the Bahamas to Britain for East Florida

Between France and Britain, more or less a stalemate was attained.
   France's hope to develop intense trade with the U.S. was never accomplished.
   Britain lost the thirteen colonies but soon restored an intense trade with them, so winning the peace after losing the war,

The main losers: the Native Americans, whose territories were left without any protector.

And politically?

The "Articles of Confederation" drafted in 1776 morphed into the "Constitution of the United States" in 1787 -- a constitution which has lasted till today, and so is unique in its longevity. 'We the people' became the guiding principle of the government in the French Revolution and beyond.

And for the people involved?

George Washington was elected as first president of the United States in 1789. The first Federal government set up under Washington included John Adams (VP), Thomas Jefferson(Secretary of state), Alexander Hamilton (Treasurer). There also followed the emergence of political parties (1792).

High ranking French officers were admitted in the new society of the Cincinnati, which still includes today a Société de France added to the thirteen American State Societies.

Many officers who came to America with Rochambeau lived to take part in the European conflicts resulting from the French Revolution.

Jean-Jacques de Trentinian, ancestor of the narrator, who served in America as captain of the grenadiers in Lauzun's Legion, became a colonel in the French Republican Amies, setting the standard for four generations of his military descendents.

La Fayette, travelling back to America after forty years as the last surviving General of the Continental Army, rendered a new exceptional service to his second homeland with a one year triumphal journey through all existing states, thus serving as a symbol of unity and bringing nearer all the high-minded patriotism and self-denying virtues of the Founding Fathers.

Vergennes who had so effectively pled for the French intervention and was so successful in his diplomatic efforts, passed away on February 13,1787.

King Louis XVI, the only French sovereign to have won a war against Britain in four centuries, was unable to reform and restore a financial balance in France, and in the storm of an uncontrolled revolution, he was beheaded by his compatriots. In 1993, at the bicentennial of his execution, American Ambassador Walter Curley exclaimed: "Louis XVI we are here!"

As exemplified by commemorations of the 1783 peace, organized recently in France by the Sons and Daughters of the American Revolution, our Societies are proud to promote a higher than ever fraternity between the two nations.

Research and script: Jacques de TRENTINIAN

France's Contribution to American Independence
-- Seven years of close cooperation and sacrifices --

Discover facts you were never told before.

This 45-minute video presentation -- on a set of two DVDs -- provides a comprehensive understanding of the diplomatic, economic, and military resources used by France to help U.S. patriots secure independence for their new nation.

This NEW (2013) educational narration, illustrated by images of historical figures and documents, was developed as part of the education program of the National Society, Sons of the American Revolution (SAR). The presentation is now being shown at the SAR's Center for Advancing America's Heritage in Louisville KY.

Included with the DVD set is a brochure with the text of the narration and a chronology of French decisions and actions. Play the first (25 minute) DVD at a meeting of your group, leaving time for discussion, and play the second (20-minute) DVD at a later meeting.

The DVD, produced in France by the SAR, is most recently made available in US-compatible DVD format; so any ordered as of May, 2013 will play on standard DVD players for television in the US. It is a two disc package (for classroom or meeting use) and commentary is in English. Major credit cards are accepted.

Research and script by Jacques de Trentinian; filming, editing, and directing by Geneviève Husson.

The set of two DVDs costs $35.00 plus shipping and handling. To purchase this go to the SAR store

Posted 15 December 2012; revised 2 August 2013..