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The Quasi-War (French: Quasi-guerre) was an undeclared war fought almost entirely at sea between the United States of America and the French Republic from 1798 to 1800. After the toppling of the French crown during the French Revolutionary Wars, the United States refused to continue repaying its debt to France on the grounds that it had been owed to a previous regime. French outrage led to a series of attacks on American shipping, ultimately leading to retaliation from the U.S. and the end of hostilities with the signing of the Convention of 1800 shortly thereafter.
|Part of the French Revolutionary Wars; War of the Second Coalition|
From top to bottom: USS Constellation vs L'Insurgente; U.S. Marines from the USS Constitution boarding and capturing French privateer Sandwich
| United States
|Commanders and leaders|
| John Adams
| Paul Barras
|A fleet of 54 including:
|Unknown fleet size
Unknown number of Sailors and Marines
|Casualties and losses|
After U.S. military involvement:
The Kingdom of France, a crucial ally of the United States in the American Revolutionary War since early 1776, had loaned the US large sums of money, and had signed in 1778 a treaty of alliance with the United States of America against Great Britain. Louis XVI of France fell from power in 1792 during the French Revolution and the French monarchy was abolished. As a result, in 1794 the American government came to an agreement with the Kingdom of Great Britain, the Jay Treaty, that resolved several points of contention between the United States and Great Britain that had lingered after the end of the American Revolutionary War. It also contained economic clauses.
The United States had already declared neutrality in the conflict between Great Britain and revolutionary France, and American legislation was being passed for a trade deal with Britain. When the U.S. refused to continue repaying its debt using the argument that the debt was owed to the previous government, not to the French First Republic, French outrage led to a series of responses. First, French privateers began seizing American ships trading with Britain and bringing them in 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. In his annual message to Congress at the close of 1797, President John Adams reported on France's refusal to negotiate a settlement and spoke of the need "to place our country in a suitable posture of defense." 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 American shipping. On 21 February 1797, Secretary of State Timothy Pickering told Congress that during the previous eleven months, France had seized three hundred and sixteen American merchant ships. French marauders cruised the length of the Atlantic seaboard virtually unopposed. The United States government had nothing to combat them, as the navy had been abolished at the end of the Revolutionary War and its last warship sold in 1785. The United States had only a flotilla of small revenue cutters and a few neglected coastal forts.
Increased depredations by French privateers led to the rebirth of the United States Navy and the creation of the United States Marine Corps to defend the expanding American merchant fleet. 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, and construction of the frigate Congress resumed.
Congress rescinded the treaties with France on 7 July 1798. That date is now considered the beginning of the Quasi-War. This was followed two days later with the passage of the Congressional authorization of attacks on French warships in American waters.
The U.S. Navy operated with a battle fleet of about twenty five vessels, which patrolled the southern coast of the United States and throughout the Caribbean, hunting down French privateers. Captain Thomas Truxtun's insistence on the highest standards of 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 of Egg Harbor, New Jersey. Enterprise captured eight privateers and freed eleven American merchant ships from captivity. Experiment captured the French privateers Deux Amis and Diane. Numerous American merchantmen were recaptured by Experiment. Boston forced Le Berceau into submission. Silas Talbot engineered an expedition to Puerto Plata harbor in Hispaniola. On 11 May 1800, sailors and marines from Constitution under Lieutenant Isaac Hull captured the French privateer Sandwich in the harbor and spiked the guns of the fort.
The U.S. Navy lost only one ship to the French, Retaliation, which was later recaptured. 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 American commerce. On 20 November 1798, the French frigates L’Insurgente and Volontaire overtook Retaliation while her consorts were away and forced commanding officer Lieutenant William Bainbridge to surrender the out-gunned schooner. Montezuma and Norfolk escaped after Bainbridge convinced the senior French commander that those American warships were too powerful for his frigates and persuaded him to abandon the chase. Renamed Magicienne by the French, the schooner again came into American hands on 28 June, when a broadside from Merrimack forced her to haul down her colors.
Revenue cutters in the service of the United States Revenue-Marine, the predecessor to the United States 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 Essex, which he sailed around Cape Horn into the Pacific to protect American merchantmen in the East Indies. He recaptured several American ships that had been seized by French privateers.
American naval losses may have been light, but the French had successfully seized many American merchant ships by the war's end in 1800—more than 2,000, according to one source.
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. The British sold naval stores and munitions to the American 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. The news did not arrive in time to help John Adams secure a second term in the 1800 U.S. presidential election.
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- Selected Bibliography of The Quasi War with France compiled by the United States Army Center of Military History
- U.S. Department of State The XYZ Affair and the Quasi-War with France, 1798–1800
- U.S. treaties and federal legal documents re "Quasi War with France 1791–1800", compiled by the Lillian Goldman Law Library of Yale Law School