USS Constellation served with distinction in the Quasi-War
The Quasi-War was an undeclared war fought mostly at sea between the United States and French Republic from 1798 to 1800. In the United States, the conflict was sometimes also referred to as the Franco-American War, the Undeclared War with France, the Undeclared Naval War, the Pirate Wars, or the Half-War.
The Kingdom of France had been a major ally of the United States in the American Revolutionary War, and had signed in 1778 a Treaty of Alliance with the United States. But in 1794, after the French Revolution toppled that country’s monarchy, 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 since the end of the Revolutionary War. It also contained economic clauses.
The fact that the United States had already declared neutrality in the conflict between Great Britain and (now revolutionary) France, and that American legislation was being passed for a trade deal with their British enemy, led to French outrage. The French government was also furious over the U.S. refusal to continue repaying its debt to France on the grounds that the debt had been owed to the French Crown, not to Republican France.
The French navy began seizing American ships trading with Britain and refused to receive a new United States 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 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 for the restoration of diplomatic relations with the United States.
The French navy inflicted substantial losses on American shipping. Secretary of State Timothy Pickering reported to Congress on June 21, 1797 that the French had seized 316 American merchant ships in the previous eleven months. The hostilities caused insurance rates on American shipping to increase at least 500 percent since French marauders cruised the length of the U.S. Atlantic seaboard virtually unopposed. The administration had no warships to combat them; the last had been sold in 1785. The United States possessed only a flotilla of small revenue cutters and some neglected coastal forts.
Increased depredations by privateers from Revolutionary France required the rebirth of the United States Navy to protect the expanding American merchant shipping. Congress authorized the president to acquire, arm, and man not more than 12 vessels, of up to 22 guns each. Several vessels were immediately purchased and converted into ships of war.
July 7, 1798, the date that Congress rescinded treaties with France, is considered the beginning of the Quasi-War. This was followed two days later with the passage of the Congressional authorization to attack French warships.
The U.S. Navy operated with a battle fleet of about 25 vessels. These patrolled the southern coast of the United States and throughout the Caribbean, seeking French privateers. Captain Thomas Truxtun’s insistence on the highest standards of crew training paid dividends as the frigate USS Constellation captured the L’Insurgente and severely damaged La Vengeance. French privateers usually resisted, as did La Croyable, which was captured on July 7, 1798, by the USS Delaware outside of Egg Harbor, New Jersey. The USS Enterprise captured eight privateers and freed 11 American merchant ships from captivity. The USS Experiment captured the French privateers Deux Amis and Diane. Numerous American merchantmen were recaptured by the Experiment. The USS Boston forced Le Berceau into submission. Silas Talbot engineered an expedition to Puerto Plata harbor in St. Domingo, a possession of France’s ally Spain, on May 11, 1800; sailors and marines from the USS Constitution under Lieutenant Isaac Hull captured the French privateer Sandwich in the harbor and spiked the guns in the Spanish fort.
Only one U.S Navy vessel was captured by — and later recaptured from — French forces, the USS Retaliation. She was the captured privateer La Croyable, recently purchased by the U.S. Navy. Retaliation departed Norfolk on October 28, 1798, with Montezuma and Norfolk, and cruised in the West Indies protecting American commerce. On November 20, 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 June 28, when a broadside from USS Merrimack forced her to haul down her colors.
Revenue cutters in the service of the Revenue-Marine, the predecessor to the 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 several prizes. Preble turned command of the Pickering over to Benjamin Hillar, and she captured the much larger and more heavily armed French privateer l’Egypte Conquise after a nine-hour battle. In September 1800, Hillar, the Pickering, and her entire crew were lost at sea in a storm. Preble commanded the frigate Essex, which he sailed around Cape Horn into the Pacific to protect American merchantmen in the East Indies; he recaptured several ships that had been seized by French privateers.
American naval losses for the war were light, with only one armed U.S. Navy vessel lost to enemy action. However, one source contends that by the war’s end in 1800, the French had seized over two thousand American merchant ships.
Although they were fighting the same enemy, the Royal Navy and the United States Navy did not cooperate operationally, nor did they share operational plans or come to mutual understandings about deployment of their forces. The British did sell the American government naval stores and munitions. In addition, the two navies shared a system of signals by which each could recognize the other’s warships at sea and allowed merchantmen of their respective nations to join each other’s convoys.
Conclusion of hostilities
By the autumn of 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 September 30, ended the Franco-American War. However, the news did not arrive in time to help John Adams be re-elected in the United States presidential election, 1800.