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The Quasi-War: America's First Conflict

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The Quasi-War: America's First Conflict

Frigate USS Constellation

Photograph Courtesy of the US Navy

Summary:

An undeclared war between the United States and France, the Quasi-War was the result of disagreements over treaties and America's status as a neutral in the Wars of the French Revolution. Fought entirely at sea, the Quasi-War was largely a success for the fledgling US Navy as its vessels captured numerous French privateers and warships, while only losing one of its vessels. By late 1800, attitudes in France shifted and hostilities were concluded by the Treaty of Mortefontaine.

Dates:

The Quasi-War was officially fought from July 7, 1798, until the signing of the Treaty of Mortefontaine on September 30, 1800. French privateers had been preying on American shipping for several years prior to the beginning of the conflict.

Causes:

Principle among the causes of the Quasi-War was the signing of the Jay Treaty between the United States and Great Britain in 1794. While largely a commercial agreement, the French viewed the treaty as a violation of 1778 Treaty of Alliance with the American colonists. This feeling was enhanced by the perception that the United States was favoring Britain, despite having declared neutrality in the ongoing conflict between the two nations. Shortly after the Jay Treaty took effect, the French began seizing American ships trading with Britain and, in 1796, refused to accept the new US minister in Paris.

The XYZ Affair:

Tensions heightened in April 1798, when President John Adams reported to Congress on the XYZ Affair. The previous year, in an attempt to prevent war, Adams sent a delegation to Paris to negotiate peace between the two nations. Upon arriving in France, the delegation was told by three French agents, referred to in reports as X, Y, and Z, that in order to speak to Foreign Minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, they would have to pay a large bribe, provide a loan for the French war effort, and Adams would have to apologize for anti-French statements. Refusing to comply, the delegation departed and returned home.

Active Operations Begin:

Announcement of the XYZ Affair unleashed a wave of anti-French sentiment across the country. Congress authorized Adams to expand the navy as French privateers continued to capture American merchant ships. On July 7, 1798, Congress rescinded all treaties with France and the US Navy was ordered to seek out and destroy French warships and privateers operating against American commerce. Consisting of approximately thirty ships, the US Navy began patrols along the southern coast and throughout the Caribbean. Success came quickly, with USS Delaware capturing the privateer La Croyable off New Jersey on July 7.

The War at Sea:

As over 300 American merchantmen had been captured by the French in the previous two years, the US Navy protected convoys and searched for the French. Over the next two years, American vessels posted an incredible record against enemy privateers and warships. During the conflict USS Enterprise captured eight privateers and liberated eleven American merchant ships, while USS Experiment had similar success. On May 11, 1800, Commodore Silas Talbot, aboard USS Constitution, ordered his men to cut out a privateer from Puerto Plata. Led by Lt. Isaac Hull, the sailors took the ship and spiked the guns in the fort.

Truxtun & the Frigate USS Constellation:

The two most noteworthy battles of the conflict involved the 38-gun frigate USS Constellation. Commanded by Thomas Truxtun, Constellation sighted the 36-gun French frigate L'Insurgente on February 9, 1799. The French ship closed to board, but Truxtun used Constellation's superior speed to maneuver away, raking L'Insurgente with fire. After a brief fight, Capt. M. Barreaut surrendered his ship to Truxtun. Almost a year later, on February 2, 1800, Constellation encountered the 52-gun frigate La Vengeance. Fighting a five-hour battle at night, the French ship was pummeled, but was able to escape in the darkness.

The One American Loss:

During the entire conflict, the US Navy only lost one warship to enemy action. This was the captured privateer schooner La Croyable which had been purchased into the service and renamed USS Retaliation. Sailing with USS Montezuma and USS Norfolk, Retaliation was ordered to patrol the West Indies. On November 20, 1798, while its consorts were away on a chase, Retaliation was overtaken by the French frigates L'Insurgente and Volontaire. Badly outgunned, the schooner's commander, Lt. William Bainbridge, had no choice but to surrender. The ship was recaptured the following June by USS Merrimack.

Peace:

In late 1800, the independent operations of the US Navy and the British Royal Navy were able to force a reduction in the activities of French privateers and warships. This coupled with changing attitudes in the French revolutionary government, opened the door for renewed negotiations. Signed on September 30, 1800, the Treaty of Mortefontaine ended hostilities between the US and France, as well as terminated all previous agreements and established trade ties between the nations. During the course of the fighting, the new US Navy captured 85 French privateers, while losing approximately 2,000 merchant vessels.

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