USS ConstellationMemorial Day Weekend rolls along with another topical post from Balladeer’s Blog. This one covers some naval actions from America’s undeclared, neither fish nor fowl, quasi-Naval War with France. Often called Stoddert’s War in reference to Benjamin Stoddert, America’s first Secretary of the Navy, this conflict was waged largely in the West Indies.

John Adams

John Adams

President John Adams wanted the infant United States Navy to protect American shipping in the West Indies from French vessels seizing our ships and sailors. The French Revolutionary government had adopted this policy to (in their view) “punish” the U.S. for not declaring war on France’s side in the Wars of the French Revolution.

Thus far America had remained neutral due to divided public opinion on the matter. Some voters felt the U.S. should join the war on the side of France but others felt that the current French Revolutionary government had overthrown, imprisoned and slain virtually all of the French figures who had aided America during our war against England, therefore negating any obligation on our part. (The paranoid French government had even jailed Thomas Paine when he visited the country.)

President John Adams later took great pride in keeping America out of an all-out land war. (Sentiment against France grew so strong that 80,000 men volunteered to serve against her. And don’t forget the rallying cry of “Millions for defense but not one cent for tribute!” following the X, Y and Z Affair.) Adams chose instead to act largely on defense by protecting our coastline, safeguarding U.S. shipping and expanding our Navy from three whole vessels (WOW!) to FIFTEEN.

Here are a few of the battles from this virtually unclassifiable conflict:

Stephen Decatur

U.S. Naval hero Stephen Decatur

JULY 7th, 1798: Off the New Jersey Coast, Captain Stephen Decatur, Sr led his 20-cannon Delaware against the 10-cannon French privateer craft La Croyable. The French vessel had just plundered the American merchant ship Alexander Hamilton. After a long chase and running fight La Croyable was seized by the Delaware. The French ship was renamed Retaliation and joined the growing U.S. Navy.

NOVEMBER 20th, 1798: Off Guadeloupe, the Retaliation (commanded now by William Bainbridge) ran afoul of two French vessels: the 40-cannon L’Insurgente and the 44-cannon Volontaire. The French opened fire and soon captured Retaliation, then imprisoned the crew in the hellish Basseterre Prison on St Kitts.   

FEBRUARY 9th, 1799: Nearly fifteen miles off the coast of the island of Nevis, American Captain Thomas “Terrible Tom” Truxton took his kickass nickname and his 36-cannon ship the Constellation into battle with the 40-cannon French vessel L’Insurgente. The battle began shortly after Noon and roughly two and a half hours later the French surrendered.    

APRIL 21st, 1799: The USS Ganges defeated and captured the sloop Mary, one of the many ships playing a con-game of alternating French and American ownership to try circumventing international law during the war. 

ALSO APRIL 21st, 1799: The Ganges had a very busy day. After capturing the Mary, the Ganges was hauling it north when it wound up taking action to free the American ship Eliza, which had been captured by the French privateer ship Telemaque

APRIL 29th, 1799: The USS George Washington, fighting alongside the Pickering, recaptured the ship Fair American, which had been seized by the French and converted for use by their navy.  

MAY 1st, 1799: The George Washington and the Pickering once again fought side by side to defeat and capture the schooner Francis.

MAY ? and ??, 1799: On two occasions in May the John Adams fought and recaptured a) the Dispatch and b) William, two vessels previously taken by the French and converted for use by their navy.  

JUNE 2nd, 1799: The USS General Greene, captained by Christopher R Perry and with his later-legendary son Oliver Hazard Perry serving as a Midshipman, joined the USS Governor Jay in protecting a convoy of merchant ships from Newport, Rhode Island to Havana, Cuba, at that point still under Spanish rule. 

JUNE 16th, 1799: The Ganges, alongside the USS Norfolk, engaged in an 8-hour pursuit/ running battle with the French privateer ship Vainquere. The American vessels defeated and captured the French craft. 

JUNE 28th, 1799: In the West Indies, the original USS Merrimack fought the former Retaliation – now renamed Magicienne by the French. The American ship won and captured the Magicienne, which once again changed hands.

AUGUST 5th, 1799: After a 12-hour chase the Ganges attacked and captured the French privateer vessel La Rabateuse

AUGUST 7th, 1799: The Merrimack defeated and captured the French privateer vessel Bonaparte.

AUGUST 15th or 16th, 1799: The Ganges, the Pickering and the Merrimack attacked the French Revelleiu and freed its latest capture – the American ship John. The three vessels then escorted the John to freedom.

AUGUST 19th, 1799: Off St Thomas in the Virgin Islands, the Ganges defeated and captured a French privateer ship whose name has not survived in the records. 

SEPTEMBER ?, 1799: The Ganges fought and captured the French naval vessel L’Eugene.

OCTOBER 2nd, 1799: The Ganges continued its streak, defeating and capturing the French ship L’Esperance, which had been an American ship called Laurel until its earlier capture and renaming by the enemy. 

OCTOBER 18th, 1799: The Pickering, commanded by Lt Edward Preble, defeated and captured the French L’Egypt Conquise after a 9 hour battle.

OCTOBER ?, 1799: The USS Adams defeated and recaptured the brig Zylpha, which the French had earlier seized and converted for their navy’s service.

OCTOBER ??, 1799: The Adams and the Insurgent defeated and captured a French privateer vessel whose name has not survived. They simultaneously liberated an American ship and a British ship the privateer had recently seized.

NOVEMBER 12th, 1799: The Adams and the Insurgent teamed up again to defeat and recapture the Margaret, a formerly British vessel that the French had seized and converted for their navy’s use.

NOVEMBER 15th, 1799: The winning combo of the Adams and Insurgent struck again, defeating and seizing the French privateer Le Onze Vendemiaire.

NOVEMBER 20th, 1799: The Adams and Insurgent liberated the Nancy from the unidentified French vessel which had captured it.

DECEMBER 1st, 1799: The General Greene and the Boston – commanded by “The American Horatio Nelson” himself, Captain George Little, battled the French vessels Flying Fish and Hope. The American ships captured Flying Fish and retook the American merchant ship Weymouth, which had been seized by the Hope.

DECEMBER, 1799 to FEBRUARY, 1800: The USS Insurgent, formerly the French L’Insurgent and now captained by Alexander Murray, sailed in European waters and during this period defeated and captured the French warship Vendemiaire. During that same period it also successfully liberated and retook the captured American ships the Angora, Commerce, Margaret and William & Mary from the French ships which had taken them captive. 

JANUARY 1st, 1800: North of Gonaive Island, the American ship Experiment was convoying four merchant ships when they came under attack by ten hostile craft (exact strength still debated, but they did bear cannon). The enemy craft were technically in the service of Andre Hyacinth Rigaud, who was at war with THE Toussaint L’Ouverture for control of Haiti. Rigaud was allied with France, L’Ouverture, as we all know, was leading a Haitian uprising against European control of Haiti.

            The Experiment‘s commanding officer, Lt Commander William Maley, paniced and began issuing orders to signal surrender to the ten Rigaud vessels. Maley’s First Officer, THE Lt David Porter, physically overcame Maley and took command of the Experiment. With Porter in charge the American ship fought the enemy vessels for roughly three hours. The Experiment drove off the hostiles repeatedly but they kept regrouping and renewing their attack. Ultimately the French-allied ships fled for good but had captured a couple of the merchant ships during the long battle. 

JANUARY 4th, 1800: The USS Maryland defeated and captured the slave ship Clarissa.

JANUARY 10th, 1800: The Adams and the Eagle defeated and captured the French vessel La Fougeuse.

JANUARY ??, 1800: The Adams defeated and recaptured the Alphia, previously seized by the French and converted into a ship in their navy.

JANUARY ??, 1800: Off San Juan, Puerto Rico, the John Adams (separate vessel from the Adams), commanded by Captain George Cross, defeated and captured a French vessel whose name has not survived in the records. She also freed the French ship’s captive the Dolphin.

FEBRUARY 1st, 1800: Southwest of Guadeloupe, Terrible Tom Truxton and his Constellation waged a night battle against the 52-cannon French ship Vengeance. The hot and heavy combat started around 8pm and lasted until 1 am. Twice during the final hour of fighting the French tried to surrender by striking their colors but the smoke from the firefight was so heavy that the Constellation couldn’t see that, so the battle continued. Finally the Vengeance gave up and fled, winding up beached at Curacao and declared beyond repair. 

FEBRUARY ? and ?, 1800: The Adams defeated and captured the French vessels L’Heureuse Rencontre and Isabella.  

DECEMBER 1799 through FEBRUARY 1800: Since December, the General Greene had been assisting Toussaint L’Ourverture by blockading the Haitian Port of Jacmel, which was in the hands of Hyacinth Rigaud’s French-allied forces. This prevented the French from resupplying Rigaud through this last major port in his hands. 

FEBRUARY 27th, 1800: The General Greene assisted L’Ouverture’s forces in taking Jacmel by using its cannons to bombard Rigaud’s French-allied forces. This helped L’Ouverture seize Jacmel.

MARCH 1800: Lt David Porter, after his adventures aboard the Experiment, was placed in command of the much smaller 5-swivel-gun, sixteen-man ship Amphitheater. The vessel served as a mobile trouble-shooter for the legendary USS Constitution and its equally legendary commander Silas Talbot (covered previously at Balladeer’s Blog). From January to March of 1800 Porter and the Amphitheater stayed busy fighting and chasing off more of French-allied Rigaud’s hostile ships in the region.

            The biggest action for the Amphitheater came in March near Cape Samana, Santo Domingo. Inside the reefs, Porter spotted two of Rigaud’s French-allied vessels – a schooner and a barge – preying upon an American brig. Porter urgently asked his superior Silas Talbot on the Constitution for permission to attack. The reefs prevented the larger U.S. ship from taking action, so Talbot placed six Marines on the Amphitheater to bring its strength up to twenty-two men and sent a pair of longboats to follow David Porter’s craft. The Amphitheater triumphed over the two enemy ships in less than an hour.    

MARCH ? 1800: The Adams liberated the Nonpareil from the unidentified French vessel which had captured it.

MARCH 22nd, 1800: The John Adams (separate vessel from the Adams) battled the French privateer President Tout and liberated its trophy captive the Hannibal

MARCH 23rd, 1800: The John Adams once again clashed with the President Tout and liberated its other trophy, the Atlantic.  

APRIL 1800: The Enterprise, then commanded by Lt John Shaw, was on its way to the West Indies to join the other American naval vessels in the region. Just off Cuba, a Spanish brig mistook the Enterprise for a hostile craft and opened fire upon it. Lt Shaw, every bit as feisty as his contemporary officer David Porter, fought back rather than fleeing. When conditions separated the Enterprise and the Spanish ship, Shaw’s craft was in need of refitting from damages and put in at St Thomas.

              While in port the captain of a French vessel, the 12-cannon La Diane, noticed the Enterprise‘s vulnerable condition and issued a challenge to Shaw to meet La Diane at sea for ship-to-ship combat. The French were stunned when the ballsy Lt Shaw accepted the challenge. The Enterprise sailed out and waited for La Diane to join it, but the cowardly French refused to carry through on their own challenge. Eventually, Shaw and his vessel went off in search of other action.

              A week to ten days later the Enterprise ran across La Diane again, chased it down and engaged it in battle. Shaw and his crew defeated the French and captured not only the vessel but its VIP passenger: Hyacinth Rigaud himself! 

APRIL 3rd, 1800: The John Adams defeated and captured the French privateer vessel Jason.

APRIL ?, 1800: The Adams liberated the Priscilla from the unidentified French ship which had captured it .  

MAY 12th, 1800: Puerto Plata, Santo Domingo was the site of a legendary action by men of the USS Constitution. The French were holding a captured British ship, the Sandwich, in that port protected by the cannons (too many people don’t know cannon is both singular AND plural so I add the “s” for clarity) of a Spanish fort.

            The waters were too shallow for the Constitution so its First Officer, Lt Isaac Hull, put eighty-nine Marines and Blue Jackets under Marine Captain Daniel Carmick in the commandeered American Sloop Sally. With Carmick and his men hiding below decks the Sally sailed into Puerto Plata and put in alongside the Sandwich. Some Americans boarded the British ship “like devils” intent on freeing it from French hands and others stormed the overlooking fortress, going ashore in water up to their necks.

            In roughly a half-hour the U.S. forces had taken the fort and spiked all the cannons. With the fort unable to fire upon them, the Americans all assembled on the seized Sandwich and sailed out to sea.     




© Edward Wozniak and Balladeer’s Blog 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Edward Wozniak and Balladeer’s Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.   




Filed under Neglected History

23 responses to “AMERICA’S QUASI- NAVAL WAR WITH FRANCE: 1798-1801

  1. Pingback: CONCLUSION: AMERICA’S QUASI-NAVAL WAR WITH FRANCE (1798-1801) | Balladeer's Blog

  2. Annette

    Excellent look at this forgotten conflict!

  3. This article is awesome! I never even knew about any of these battles.

  4. Anthony S

    I never knew about this war. Thanks!

  5. Oswald H

    Greetings! I like naval battles!

  6. Carlton

    To hell with the French!

  7. Sona

    I prefer your Revolutionary War articles.

  8. Israel

    I always love sea battles!!!

  9. Gil

    The battles at sea in any war never interest me.

  10. Michael

    The French were always kind of odd.

  11. Pingback: MAY OF 2019: THE BEST OF BALLADEER’S BLOG | Balladeer's Blog

  12. Hello there, I found your site via Google while looking for a related topic, your site came up, it looks good. I’ve bookmarked it in my google bookmarks.

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