The Quasi-War (French: Quasi-guerre) was an undeclared war fought almost entirely at sea between the United States and France from 1798 to 1800, which broke out during the beginning of John Adams's presidency. After the French Monarchy was abolished in September 1792, the United States refused to continue repaying its large debt to France, which had supported the U.S. during its own War for Independence. The U.S. claimed that the debt had been owed to a previous regime. France was also outraged over the Jay Treaty and that the United States was actively trading with Britain, with whom France was at war. In response, France authorized privateers to conduct attacks on American shipping, seizing numerous merchant ships, and ultimately leading the U.S. to retaliate.
|Part of the War of the Second Coalition|
From left to right: USS Constellation vs L'Insurgente; U.S. Marines from USS Constitution boarding and capturing French privateer Sandwich
|Commanders and leaders|
A fleet of 54 including:|
Unknown fleet size|
Unknown number of sailors and Marines
|Casualties and losses|
After U.S. military involvement:
The war was called "quasi" because it was undeclared. It involved two years of hostilities at sea, in which both navies and privateers attacked the other's shipping in the West Indies. Many of the battles involved famous naval officers such as Stephen Decatur, Silas Talbot and William Bainbridge. The unexpected fighting ability of the newly re-established U.S. Navy, which concentrated on attacking the French West Indian privateers, together with the growing weaknesses and final overthrow of the ruling French Directory, led the French foreign minister, Talleyrand, to reopen negotiations with the U.S. At the same time, Adams feuded with Alexander Hamilton over control of the Adams administration. Adams took sudden and unexpected action, rejecting the anti-French hawks in his own party and offering peace to France. In 1800 he sent William Vans Murray to France to negotiate peace; the Federalists cried betrayal. Hostilities ended with the signing of the Convention of 1800.
When the United States won its independence it no longer had Britain's protection and therefore had the task of protecting its own ships and interests at sea. There were few American ships capable of defending the American coastline while trying to protect its merchant ships at sea. The Kingdom of France was a crucial ally of the United States in the American Revolutionary War. In March 1778, France signed a treaty of alliance with the rebelling colonists against Great Britain and had loaned the new Republic large sums of money. However, Louis XVI of France was deposed in September 1792. The monarchy was abolished.
In 1794 the U.S. government reached an agreement with Great Britain in the Jay Treaty, which was ratified the following year. It resolved several points of contention between the United States and Britain that had lingered since the end of the American Revolution. The treaty encouraged bilateral trade, and enabled expanded trade between the United States and Britain, stimulating the American economy. From 1794 to 1801, the value of American exports nearly tripled, from US$33 million to US$94 million. But the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans, who were pro-France, always denigrated the Jay Treaty.
The United States declared neutrality in the conflict between Great Britain and revolutionary France, and U.S. legislation was being passed for a trade deal with Great Britain. When the U.S. refused to continue repaying its debt, saying that the debt was owed to the previous government, not to the French First Republic, French outrage led to a series of responses. First, France authorized privateers to seize U.S. ships trading with Great Britain, and taking them back to port as prizes to be sold. Next, the French government refused to receive Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, the new U.S. Minister, when he arrived in Paris in December 1796, severing diplomatic relations. In President John Adams's annual message to Congress at the close of 1797, he reported on France's refusal to negotiate a settlement and spoke of the need "to place our country in a suitable posture of defense". Adams offered Washington a commission as lieutenant general on July 4, 1798, and as commander-in-chief of the armies raised for service in that conflict. In April 1798, President Adams informed Congress of the "XYZ Affair", in which French agents demanded a large bribe before engaging in substantive negotiations with United States diplomats.
Meanwhile, French privateers inflicted substantial losses on U.S. shipping. On 21 February 1797, Secretary of State Timothy Pickering told Congress that during the previous eleven months, France had seized 316 U.S. merchant ships. French marauders cruised the length of the Atlantic seaboard virtually unopposed. The United States government had nothing to combat them, as it had abolished the navy at the end of the Revolutionary War and its last warship sold in 1785. The United States had only a flotilla of small Revenue-Marine cutters and a few neglected coastal forts.
Increased depredations by French privateers led to the government in 1798 establishing the Department of Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps to defend the expanding U.S. merchant fleet. Benjamin Stoddert was appointed as Secretary of Navy. Congress authorized the president to acquire, arm, and man not more than twelve ships of up to twenty-two guns each. Several merchantmen were immediately purchased and refitted as ships of war.
On 16 July Congress appropriated funds "to build and equip the three remaining frigates begun under the Act of 1794": USS Congress, launched at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, on 15 August 1799; USS Chesapeake, launched at Gosport Shipyard, Virginia,[a] on 2 December 1799; and USS President, launched at New York, New York, on 10 April 1800. To make the most effective use of his limited resources, Secretary Stoddert established a policy that U.S. forces would be concentrated on attacks against French forces in the Caribbean, where France still had colonies. At times he had to concede to merchant ships requests for escorts for defense.
The U.S. Navy now operated with a battle fleet of about 25 vessels, which patrolled the southern coast of the United States and throughout the Caribbean hunting down French privateers. Captain Thomas Truxtun's focus on crew training paid dividends when the frigate Constellation captured the French Navy's frigate L'Insurgente and severely damaged the frigate La Vengeance. French privateers generally resisted, as did La Croyable, which was captured on 7 July 1798, by Delaware outside Egg Harbor, New Jersey.
By 1 July 1799, under the command of Stephen Decatur, USS United States had been refitted and repaired and embarked on its mission to patrol the south Atlantic coast and West Indies in search of French ships which were preying on American merchant vessels.
Enterprise also captured eight privateers and freed eleven U.S. merchant ships from captivity, while Experiment captured the French privateers Deux Amis and Diane. Numerous U.S. merchantmen were liberated by Experiment. Boston forced the Le Berceau into submission.
In April, 1800 Silas Talbot investigated an increase in merchant ship traffic near Puerto Plata, Santo Domingo, and discovered that the French privateer Sandwich had taken refuge there. On 8 May the squadron captured the sloop Sally, and Talbot devised a plan to capture Sandwich by using the familiarity of Sally to allow the Americans access to the harbor. First Lieutenant Isaac Hull led 90 sailors and Marines into Puerto Plata without challenge on 11 May, capturing Sandwich and spiking the guns of the nearby Spanish fort.
The U.S. Navy lost only one ship to the French, Retaliation. She was the captured privateer La Croyable, recently purchased by the U.S. Navy. Retaliation departed Norfolk on 28 October 1798, with Montezuma and Norfolk, and cruised in the West Indies protecting U.S. commerce. On 20 November 1798, the French frigates L'Insurgente and Volontaire overtook Retaliation while her consorts were away; commanding officer Lieutenant William Bainbridge surrendered the out-gunned schooner.
Bainbridge was allowed to remain on board Retaliation, and after ten days of detention was allowed to go ashore to Guadaloupe and negotiate terms of prisoner exchange with French General Desferneaux. The Governor promised to free officers and crew if Bainbridge, acting as a U.S. representative, would agree to declare Guadaloupe as neutral during the remainder of the war, with the hopes of commercial trade with the United States. Bainbridge, however, protesting the inhumane treatment of U.S. prisoners, maintained that his authority extended no further than to arrange for their exchange. Negotiations ultimately failed and Bainbridge was threatened with imprisonment if he did not comply with the wishes of the governor. Bainbridge, with his commitment to duty as a naval officer, again refused to co-operate. The governor, after further deliberations, and with earnest designs of forming his own cartel for purposes of trade with the United States, finally agreed to the release of prisoners and prepared a dispatch for Bainbridge to present to President Adams, assuring him of the neutrality of Guadaloupe. He released Retaliation to the command of Bainbridge with the stipulation that if their arrangement was not honored, Bainbridge and all released prisoners would be put to death if captured again. Bainbridge sailed for the United States and presented the Guadaloupe Governor's offer. Adams presented the offer to Congress, which accepted it, resulting in the passage of the Retaliation Act allowing the United States to capture and punish any French citizens aboard any French vessels. Bainbridge was ultimately promoted to the rank of Master and Commander and assigned to Norfolk for immediate service.
Montezuma and Norfolk escaped after Bainbridge convinced the senior French commander that those U.S. warships were too powerful for his frigates, and he should abandon the chase. The French renamed Retaliation as Magicienne, but on 28 June Merrimack fired a broadside and forced her to haul down her colors, and took the former privateer back into U.S. control.
Revenue cutters in the service of the U.S. Revenue-Marine (the predecessor to the U.S. Coast Guard), also took part in the conflict. The cutter USRC Pickering, commanded by Edward Preble, made two cruises to the West Indies and captured ten prizes. Preble turned command of Pickering over to Benjamin Hillar, who captured the much larger and more heavily armed French privateer l'Egypte Conquise after a nine-hour battle. In September 1800, Hillar, Pickering, and her entire crew were lost at sea in a storm. Preble next commanded the frigate USS Essex, which he sailed around Cape Horn into the Pacific to protect U.S. merchantmen in the East Indies. He recaptured several U.S. ships that had been seized by French privateers.
Although they were fighting the same enemy, the Royal Navy and the United States Navy did not cooperate operationally or share operational plans. There were no mutual understandings about deployment between their forces. However, the British sold naval stores and munitions to the U.S. government, and the two navies shared a signal system so they could recognise the other's warships at sea and allowed their merchantmen to join each other's convoys for safety.
A 20th-century illustration depicting United States Marines escorting French prisoners
Conclusion of hostilitiesEdit
By late 1800, the United States Navy and the Royal Navy, combined with a more conciliatory diplomatic stance by the government of First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte, had reduced the activity of the French privateers and warships. The Convention of 1800, signed on 30 September, ended the Quasi-War. It affirmed the rights of Americans as neutrals upon the sea and abrogated the alliance with France of 1778. However, it failed to provide compensation for the $20,000,000 "French Spoliation Claims" of the United States. The agreement between the two nations implicitly ensured that the United States would remain neutral toward France in the wars of Napoleon and ended the "entangling" French alliance. This alliance had been viable only between 1778 and 1783.
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