Quasi-War – USA vs France 1798-1800


The undeclared Quasi-War between the USA and France occurred from 1798 to 1800 and I must admit that I had never heard of that conflict before researching for my article on Elbridge Gerry.  

The French and Americans were allies during the Revolutionary War and they formalized their relations through two 1778 treaties. Later, the French engaged several European countries, including Great Britain, in the “1792-1797 War of the First Coalition.” In 1794 the US and Britain concluded the Jay Treaty, which was primarily an effort to settle antagonisms left over from the 1783 Treaty of Paris and to normalize and increase trade. The French believed the Jay Treaty was incompatible with the US-French treaties and meant America was favoring Britain. For these reasons, the French began seizing American merchant ships. 

Initially the US could not respond militarily to the French seizure of American ships because there was no US Navy. Jeffersonian opposition to Federal institutions had resulted in the last American warship being sold in 1785. This left only the small United States Revenue-Marine and a few neglected coastal forts. This permitted the French fleet to operate with impunity. From October 1796 to June 1797, the French captured 316 American merchant ships (6 % of the entire merchant fleet) which caused monetary losses of $12-15 million. 

Portrait of Benjamin Stoddert, First Secretary of the Navy-Quasi-War
Benjamin Stoddert, First Secretary of the Navy

Congress suspended repayment of French loans made during the Revolutionary War, and 1797 diplomatic efforts to end the dispute failed because of French corruption. Finally, in 1798 Congress authorized the use of military force and re-established the United States Navy (USN). On 18 June 1798, President John Adams appointed Benjamin Stoddert the first Secretary of the Navy. 

As previously noted, the only American ships available when hostilities commenced belonged to the small United States Revenue-Marine (later the Revenue Marine Cutter Service and eventually part of today’s US Coast Guard). One big threat to American shipping was coming from lightly armed, shallow-draft privateers operating from French and Spanish bases in the Caribbean. They attacked targets of opportunity and then quickly escaped back into port. The fast Revenue-Marine cutters proved effective against these hit-and-run tactics and the Americans were further reinforced by commissioning their own privateers. 

Congress had ordered construction of six large frigates in 1794. Three were nearly complete by 1798 and on 16 July 1798 Congress approved funding for the USS CongressUSS ChesapeakeUSS President and the frigates USS General Greene and USS Adams. British naval stores and equipment allowed these vessels to be built quickly and all saw action during the war. 

The USN fleet was reinforced by so-called “subscription ships” which were privately funded vessels provided by cities. These included five frigates, among them the USS Philadelphia commanded by Stephen Decatur, and four sloops, which were converted merchantmen. These vessels were fast and highly effective.  

Most of the French fleet was trapped in their home ports by the British Royal Navy blockade. This allowed the USN to concentrate their limited number of vessels against those who managed to evade the blockade and reach the Caribbean.  

There was no official agreement for cooperation with the British during the war, but there was considerable cooperation at lower levels. The two navies shared a signal system and American warships operated from British bases. Merchantmen could join each other’s convoys. Most convoys were British since they had four to five times more men-of-war available. 

The USN participation in the Quasi-War consisted mainly of a series of ship-to-ship actions in American coastal waters and the Caribbean. One of the first was the capture of La Croyable on 7 July 1798 by the USS Delaware. On 20 November, a pair of French Frigates captured the schooner USS Retaliation commanded by Lieutenant William Bainbridge. Retaliation was recaptured on 28 June 1799. 

Painting of USS Constellation vs L'Insurgente by John W. Schmidt-Quasi-War
Painting by John W. Schmidt of USS Constellation vs L’Insurgente

Intensive crew training by Captain Thomas Truxton paid off on 9 February 1799 when his frigate USS Constellation captured the French frigate L’Insurgente and severely damaged the frigate La Vengeance. By 1 July, the USS United States under the command of Stephen Decatur began patrolling the South Atlantic coast and the West Indies. 

On 1 January 1800, a convoy of American Merchantmen and their escort, the schooner USS Experiment engaged a squadron of armed barges off the coast of present-day Haiti. The American frigate USS Constellation tried unsuccessfully to capture the French frigate La Vengeance off the coast of St. Kitts on I February. 

In May 1800, Captain Silas Talbot launched an assault on the Spanish fort of Puerto Plata on Hispaniola to harass French shipping. He captured the fort of Puerto Plata and a French corvette. Following the French invasion of Curacao in September, the American sloops USS Patapsco and USS Merrimack blockaded the island forcing a French withdrawal. 

On 12 October, the frigate USS Boston captured the corvette Le Berceau and on 25 October, the USS Enterprise defeated the brig Flambeau near Dominica. Enterprise also captured eight privateers and freed eleven American merchant ships. The USS Experiment captured the privateers Deux Amis and Diane and liberated numerous American merchantmen. 

The Revenue Cutter Service also racked-up some impressive results during the conflict. The Cutter USS Ganges, a converted East Indiaman, with 26 guns was actually the first American ship to see action. 

The cutter USRC Pickering, commanded by Edward Preble made two cruises into the West Indies and captured ten prizes. Preble then turned command of the Pickering over to Benjamin Hillar who captured the much larger and more heavily armed French privateer l’Egypte Conquise after a nine-hour battle. Unfortunately, Hillar, the Pickering and her entire crew were lost at sea during a storm in September 1800. 

Preble was given command of the frigate USS Essex, which he sailed around Cape Horn into the Pacific to protect American shipping in the East Indies. During this cruise, he recaptured several American vessels that had been seized by French privateers. 

By late 1800, the government of First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte’s conciliatory stance and the navies of the United States and Great Britain had reduced the activity of French warships and privateers. Napoleon needed money to finance his wars and could not afford the Quasi-War losses. The “Convention of 1800” was signed on 30 September which ended the Quasi-War. 

Although American naval losses during the Quasi-War were light, the French had inflicted significant financial damage on the US. According to one source the French successfully seized over 2,000 American merchant vessels by war’s end, which was a financial blow. However, the impact was short-lived because of the US rapidly expanding economy 

The 1800 agreement confirmed the rights of Americans as neutrals upon the sea.  It guaranteed that the United States would remain neutral toward France in the wars of Napoleon and ended the “entangling” 1778 French alliance. It failed to settle the $20 million “French Spoliation Claims.”  These claims were brought by US citizens against France, Spain, and Holland for the value of vessels and cargo taken by privateers under their control before 30 September 1800. These claims were never settled but there is a very long story of complicated international legal machinations. 

The Quasi-War is not a big item in American history books and on the surface had limited effect on the new nation. It did, however, establish American rights at sea, which Britain continued to ignore. Despite the cooperation during this short war the British still occupied some US territory and did not fully recognize US sovereignty.  

US Navy SealIn my opinion, the most important and most lasting acts were the re-establishment of the US Navy, the construction of men-of-war, and the combat experience gained by Naval officers and men. All of this paid off during the War of 1812, which was another naval war, and which finally firmly established American sovereignty. 

Without the Quasi-War the US would have been even less prepared for the War of 1812 which then could have ended in total disaster. The Quasi-War exposed the US need for a strong navy for security and trade. The war also started the development that eventually resulted in the USA having the most powerful navy in the world.  

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