What was the Quasi-War (1798-1800)?

Introduction

The Quasi-War (French: Quasi-guerre) was an undeclared naval war fought from 1798 to 1800 between the United States and France. Most of the fighting took place in the Caribbean and off the Atlantic coast.

The war originated in disputes over the application of the 1778 treaties of Alliance and Commerce between the two countries. France, then engaged in the 1792-1797 War of the First Coalition which included Great Britain, viewed the 1794 Jay Treaty between the US and Britain as incompatible with those treaties, and retaliated by seizing American ships trading with Britain.

The US responded by suspending repayment of French loans from the American Revolutionary War; when diplomatic negotiations failed to resolve the issue, French privateers began attacking merchant ships in American waters. On 07 July 1798, Congress authorised the use of military force against French warships, and re-established the United States Navy, or USN.

The USN informally co-operated with the Royal Navy, chiefly in allowing merchant ships to join each other’s convoys. As the British had four to five times the number of ships available, they focused on escort duties, enabling the US to concentrate on attacking French warships. Many of these battles involved famous naval officers such as Stephen Decatur, Silas Talbot and William Bainbridge; the combination allowed the US to quickly regain control of its home waters.

However, President John Adams continued diplomatic efforts to resolve underlying issues; this coincided with Napoleon taking power in France, who for various reasons was also keen to agree to terms. This led to the Convention of 1800, which ended the war.

Background

Under the Treaty of Alliance (1778), the United States agreed to protect French colonies in the Caribbean in return for their support in the American Revolutionary War. As the treaty had no termination date, this obligation technically included defending them from British and Dutch attacks during the 1792 to 1797 War of the First Coalition. Despite popular enthusiasm for the French Revolution, there was little support for this in Congress; neutrality allowed Northern shipowners to earn huge profits evading the British blockade, and Southern plantation-owners feared the example set by France’s abolition of slavery in 1794.

Arguing the 1793 execution of Louis XVI voided existing agreements, the Neutrality Act of 1794 unilaterally cancelled the military obligations of the 1778 treaty. France accepted on the basis of ‘benevolent neutrality’, which meant allowing French privateers access to US ports, and the right to sell captured British ships in American prize courts, but not vice versa. It was soon apparent the US interpreted ‘neutrality’ as the right to trade with and provide the same privileges to both.

This conflict became apparent when the US agreed to the 1794 Jay Treaty with Britain, which contradicted the 1778 Commercial Treaty with France. It resolved outstanding issues from the American Revolution, and expanded trade between the two countries; between 1794 and 1801, American exports nearly tripled in value, from US$33 million to $94 million. The treaty was opposed by the Jeffersonian Democratic-Republicans, who were generally pro-French and anti-British.

When France retaliated by seizing American ships trading with the British, an effective response was hampered by the almost complete lack of a United States Navy. Driven by Jeffersonian opposition to Federal institutions, its last warship had been sold in 1785, leaving only a small flotilla belonging to the United States Revenue Cutter Service and a few neglected coastal forts. This allowed French privateers to roam virtually unchecked; from October 1796 to June 1797, they captured 316 ships, 6% of the entire American merchant fleet, causing losses of $12 to $15 million.

Congress responded by suspending repayment of French loans made during the Revolutionary War; efforts to resolve this through diplomacy ended in the 1797 dispute known as the XYZ Affair. However, it created support for establishing a limited naval force, and on 18 June, President John Adams appointed Benjamin Stoddert the first Secretary of the Navy. On 07 July 1798, Congress approved the use of force against French warships in American waters.

Forces and Strategy

Since ships of the line were extremely expensive and required highly specialised construction facilities, Congress compromised by ordering six large frigates in 1794. Three were nearly complete by 1798, and on 16 July 1798, they approved funding for the USS Congress, USS Chesapeake, and USS President, plus the frigates USS General Greene and USS Adams. The provision of naval stores and equipment by the British allowed these to be built relatively quickly, and all saw action during the war.

The USN was further reinforced by so-called ‘subscription ships’, privately funded vessels provided by individual cities. These included five frigates, among them the USS Philadelphia, commanded by Stephen Decatur, and four sloops, which were converted merchantmen. These privately funded vessels were noted for their speed, and very successful; the USS Boston captured over 80 enemy vessels, including the French corvette Berceau.

With most of the French fleet confined to home ports by the Royal Navy, Secretary Stoddert was able to concentrate his forces against the limited number of frigates and smaller vessels that evaded the blockade and reached the Caribbean. The other need was for convoy protection, and while there was no formal agreement with the British, there was considerable co-operation at a local level. The two navies shared a signal system, and allowed their merchantmen to join each other’s convoys, mostly provided by the British, since they had four to five times more escorts available.

However, the biggest threat came from small privateers, carrying between one and twenty guns and of very shallow draft. Operating from French and Spanish bases in the Caribbean, particularly Guadeloupe, they made opportunistic attacks on passing ships, before escaping back into port. To combat this, the US used similar sized vessels from the United States Revenue Cutter Service, as well as commissioning their own privateers. The first American ship to see action was the USS Ganges, a converted East Indiaman with 26 guns; most were far smaller.

Significant Naval Actions

From the perspective of the USN, the Quasi-War consisted of a series of ship to ship actions in US coastal waters and the Caribbean; one of the first was the Capture of La Croyable on 07 July 1798, by Delaware outside Egg Harbour, New Jersey. On 20 November, a pair of French frigates, Insurgente and Volontaire, captured the schooner USS Retaliation, commanded by Lieutenant William Bainbridge; Retaliation would be recaptured on 28 June 1799.

On 09 February 1799, the frigate Constellation captured the French Navy’s frigate L’Insurgente and severely damaged the frigate La Vengeance, largely due to Captain Thomas Truxtun’s focus on crew training. By 01 July, 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.

On 01 January 1800, a convoy of American merchant ships and their escort, United States naval schooner USS Experiment, engaged a squadron of armed barges manned by French-allied Haitians known as picaroons off the coast of present-day Haiti. On 01 February, the American frigate USS Constellation unsuccessfully tried to capture the French frigate La Vengeance off the coast of Saint Kitts. In early May, Captain Silas Talbot organized a naval expedition to Puerto Plata on the island of Hispaniola in order to harass French shipping, capturing the Spanish coastal fort at Puerto Plata and a French corvette. Following the French invasion of Curaçao in July, the American sloops USS Patapsco and USS Merrimack began a blockade of the island in September that led to a French withdrawal. On 12 October, the frigate Boston captured the corvette Le Berceau. On 25 October, the USS Enterprise defeated the French brig Flambeau near the island of Dominica in the Caribbean Sea. Enterprise also captured eight privateers and freed eleven US merchant ships from captivity, while Experiment captured the French privateers Deux Amis and Diane and liberated numerous American merchant ships.

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.

Role of the American Revenue-Marine

Revenue cutters in the service of the American Revenue-Marine 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 US merchantmen in the East Indies. He recaptured several US ships that had been seized by French privateers.

Involvement of the Royal Navy

For various reasons, the support provided by the Royal Navy was minimised at the time, and since; its most significant contribution was convoying merchant shipping, freeing the USN to attack French privateers. As a result, the first significant study of the war by US naval historian Gardner W. Allen in 1909 focused exclusively on ship to ship actions, and this is how the war is remembered.

In his work Stoddert’s War: Naval Operations During the Quasi-War with France, 1798-1801, historian Michael Palmer writes;

American naval operations of the Quasi-War cannot be understood in isolation. When the ships of the USN made landfall in the Caribbean, they entered a European theater where the war had been underway since 1793. The Royal Navy deployed four to five times more men-of-war in the West Indies than the Americans. British ships chased and fought the same French cruisers and privateers. Both navies escorted each other’s merchantmen. American warships operated from British bases. And most importantly, British policies and shifts in deployment had dramatic effects on American operations.

Aftermath and Legacy

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 million “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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