22 April 2014

Freedom Fighters: The French in the American Revolution

By Ginger Myrick

In my latest novel, Marie Antoinette’s main love interest, Axel von Fersen, enlists in the French army to participate in the American Revolutionary War. It is common knowledge that the French held a significant role in helping us win our freedom. There are monuments in many U.S. cities to several well known French generals—La Fayette, Rochambeau, de Grasse—but until I started my research, I never realized how large a part they played. From simple foot soldiers all the way up to their King, the French contributions were crucial to our cause.

Bitter over the loss of North American territories during the Seven Years’ War, France was anxious for the chance to strike back at England and contain the expansion of their empire. In the early years of the American War for Independence, France made covert contributions of firearms, ammunition, and gunpowder. Louis XVI was unwilling to openly declare his support, because he questioned the wisdom of aiding a people in direct opposition to their sovereign. It would look bad for him—an anointed monarch—to take the side of the rebels, especially if their effort was destined to fail and put their supporters on the losing side, yet again.

But there were many who believed in independence as a cause. In 1777, La Fayette was one of the first French nationals to lend his assistance to the Americans. A true adherent to the ideal of freedom, he was eager to join the struggle, even going so far as to defy a direct order from Louis XVI to remain in France and train under a regiment in Marseille. La Fayette was so dedicated, in fact, that at twenty years of age, he said goodbye to his pregnant wife, dressed as a woman to avoid arrest, and purchased the cargo of the ship he traveled on to prevent his being discovered. After arriving in America, he offered his services for free to prove his sincerity. With a letter of recommendation from Benjamin Franklin, he started his tour as aide-de-camp to George Washington, although his position as a commander remained unclear. He participated in many of the deciding battles even before France had openly acknowledged their own involvement.

After the Americans had captured British forces in the Battles of Saratoga and it appeared that their cause had a decent chance of success, Louis decided it was worth the risk to harry the English. France officially entered into the conflict in 1778 after signing the Treaty of Alliance, a pact negotiated by Benjamin Franklin, an American ambassador to France since two years before. The British retaliated by declaring war on France, and the first campaign—largely naval—began, rendering mixed results. The second campaign was much more successful.

Rochambeau soon arrived in Rhode Island with his Expédition Particulière in July of 1780. The bulk of his forces remained there, but some of them moved on to the Ohio Valley where they fought side by side with Native Americans against their common enemy. A year later with six thousand French troops under his command, Rochambeau marched south to join the Continental army under George Washington for their planned attack on New York.

And this is where Axel von Fersen, Marie Antoinette’s favorite comes in. Fersen was not French but Swedish with a long history of military service in his background. He spent his formative years in military academies, and his father served Louis XV of France in the Seven Years’ War. He was a staunch idealist, and believed in the concept of freedom for all, although he came from a noble family and his father was one of the richest men in all of Sweden. There was a longtime connection to the French court, and it was as aide-de-camp to General Rochambeau that he was assigned.

Fersen’s duties encompassed many tasks for which he was well equipped. He filled the role of interpreter, secretary, and courier, and played a key role in organizing the objective at Yorktown that eventually led to the defeat of Cornwallis. It was here that La Fayette and de Grasse made their final contributions to the American cause. De Grasse defeated the British naval force at the Battle of the Chesapeake in September 1781, blockading their fleet at sea, and La Fayette completed the containment on land, compelling the British to surrender a little over a month later, ensuring the American victory.

Fersen was awarded the Order of Cincinnatus by Washington himself, although his own sovereign, King Gustavus of Sweden, censured the wearing of an honor earned in a people’s revolt against their overlord, the exact reason Louis XVI had originally refrained from openly joining the fight.

Louis XVI’s fears proved grounded. The debt incurred by French involvement, however well intended, led directly to the fall of the very monarch who financed it. The aid to the Americans was tendered at the expense of the French people who were crushed under the taxes implemented to recoup the expenditure. Their failing economy and dire living conditions caused them to rise against their ruling house in protest, culminating in the downfall of the Ancien Régime in France. Louis XVI was imprisoned and eventually executed, giving birth to the French revolution and resulting in their own struggle for independence.



Ginger Myrick was born and raised in Southern California. She is a self-described wife, mother, animal lover, and avid reader. Along with the promotion for BUT FOR THE GRACE OF GOD, WORK OF ART, THE WELSH HEALER, and EL REY, she is currently putting the finishing touches on novel #5. She is a Christian who writes meticulously researched historical fiction with a ‘clean’ love story at the core. She hopes to persevere and show the reading community that a romance need not include graphic details to convey deep love and passion. Look for Insatiable: AMacabre History of France ~ L’Amour: Marie Antoinette live now at Amazon!

3 comments:

Claudia said...

Great post! I remember my history teacher in 8th grade saying the "Yankees relied on pluck, luck and the French!"
I was also tickled to learn that La Fayette dressed as a woman to go help the Revolutionaries in America. It's usually the other way around, women dressing as men to join the cause. Loved it!
I live in one of the many Lafayettes throughout America, and now I will have something new to share with our Historical Society.
Claudia H Long
www.claudiahlong.com/blog

Ginger Myrick said...

Thank you so much for your comment, Claudia! Although I remember hearing all about it from the 8th grade on, it was never put into such crystal clear perspective until I wrote a book about the French! Go figure!

Mary Jean Adams said...

Interestingly, the French actually didn't contribute all that much - with the exception if notables like Lafayette. IMO, what they contributed the most to the American cause was legitimacy.