Russia and the American War for Independence

Politics During the War (1775-1783)

September 14, 2015
by Norman Desmarais Also by this Author


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The use of foreign troops in time of war was not an uncommon practice in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Much as we have treaties, like NATO, for mutual support, eighteenth-century countries banded together, particularly along family lines, as royal families intermarried to secure and promote their economic and political interests.

When the troubles between England and her American colonies turned to armed conflict in 1775, the war was not popular in Britain. The country could no longer count on its usual sources for new recruits into the military as they did not support the war. Moreover, recruiting and training was a lengthy process, so, in conjunction with recruiting and training, Britain sought experienced soldiers. So Britain turned to foreign troops. She first turned to Russia for help.

Lord William Legge 2nd Earl of Dartmouth, Secretary of State for the American Department, began making overtures to Catherine II, Empress of Russia even before King George III proclaimed the colonies in rebellion on August 23, 1775.. (News of the King’s proclamation didn’t arrive in America until October 31, 1775.) Catherine had veteran troops available who had just fought a successful war against the Turks (1768 to 1774). She expressed her desire to have the continued good will of the King of England, but made no mention of supplying soldiers. The English envoy did not comprehend the significance of Catherine’s shrewd remarks. When Britain made a formal request for a loan of 20,000 troops, the Empress, refused to send any help, due largely to pressure from Frederick the Great of Prussia. She expressed the hope that the American conflict might be settled by peaceful means.

Yet, the Earl of Dartmouth wrote to Major General William Howe on September 5, 1775, telling him that the Empress of Russia gave “the most ample assurances of letting us have any number of infantry that may be wanted.” He requested 20,000 men and planned to send them to Quebec in the spring. He expected to have an equal number of British troops in North America to act with them.[1]

Reports on negotiations between Britain and Russia put the number of troops at between 13,000 and 100,000. They expected the number to be on the low side because the British people seemed rather averse to “hiring any more Troops, being already burdened with Taxes.”[2]

France and Spain opposed Russia’s entry into the war and planned to do their utmost to thwart Britain’s effort. A schooner departed from Nantes, France on October 11, 1775 and arrived at Providence, Rhode Island about mid-November. The captain reported that the Empress of Russia had agreed to furnish Great Britain with a body of troops to serve in America and that “a great naval armament was preparing at Brest, said to be destined to intercept the Russian fleet in the Baltic.”[3]

The news of possible Russian involvement created consternation in the colonies. When a privateer from Beverly, Massachusetts captured five empty transports, part of a fleet of 200 vessels heading from New York to England, some people wondered whether she was going to bring over some Russians or provisions.[4]

However, Lord Dartmouth wrote to General Howe, on October 27, 1775, advising him that the prospect of troops from Russia was doubtful at best.[5]

General Howe replied to the Earl of Dartmouth, on November 26, 1775, proposing to strengthen Halifax, provide for the blockade of Boston, and take Rhode Island with 10 battalions the following spring. Each battalion would incorporate 100 hired Hanoverians or Hessians without officers and 100 volunteers of English militia. He also wanted to add 4000 Russians against an estimated 10,000 rebels in Rhode Island.[6]

George Sackville Germain, 1st Viscount Sackville, called Lord George Germain, had succeeded the Earl of Dartmouth by January 5, 1776. He wrote to General Howe approving his plan for the spring campaign. He estimated that Howe would need 6100 more men but thought that adding foreign troops to the British battalions would be liable to objections. He decided instead to raise the troops by recruiting. He acknowledged that the negotiations with Russia had failed but he was “in treaty with other states for different corps amounting in the whole to upward of 17,000 men, and I think those treaties are brought so near to an issue that they cannot fail.” He expected to send 10,000 foreign troops to General Howe.[7]

General Howe wrote to Lord Germain, on November 30, 1776, proposing that the winter campaign shift to South Carolina and Georgia. He anticipated needing no less than 10 ships of the line and a reinforcement of 15,000 troops “which I should hope may be had from Russia or from Hanover and other German states, particularly some Hanoverian chasseurs.” This would increase the army in the southern district to 35,000 effective men “to oppose 50,000 that the American Congress has voted for the service of next campaign.”[8]

General Howe’s request for 15,000 foreign troops “really alarmed” Lord Germain because he “could not see the least chance of my being able to supply you with the Hanoverians or even with the Russians in time.” When Lord Germain realized that General Howe’s army would consist of 35,000 men if he were reinforced with 4000 German troops (which he expected to procure) along with 800 additional Hessian chasseurs and about 1800 British recruits, he was satisfied that General Howe would have an army equal to his wishes. Lord Germain also thought that the enemy must be greatly weakened and depressed by Howe’s successes and hoped that Howe would be able to recruit provincial troops, so he ordered cloth for 3000 additional uniforms and camp equipage for 8000 to be sent to General Howe.[9]

British relations with Russia seem to have improved by July 1777. General Howe thought the addition of 10,000 Russian troops “would ensure the success of the war.”[10] British newspapers reported that Catherine the Great would send 30,000 troops to subdue the Americans and to maintain and recruit them for two years at her own expense if the British government would cede the island of Minorca to her. If parliament acquiesced, the addition of Minorca to Russia’s possessions in the Black Sea and her free navigation in the Archipelago would give Russia control of the entire Mediterranean and Levant (eastern Mediterranean extending from Greece to Cyrenaica) trade, making her the greatest maritime power in Europe.[11]

A letter from Stockholm dated July 30, 1777 erroneously stated that Britain, Russia and the King of Prussia concluded a treaty which would add 36,000 Russians and 12,000 German troops to the army payroll. Britain would also raise 24 regiments of 500 men each in England and Ireland, bringing the Army in America to at least 80,000 men.[12]

George III refused Russia’s request for Minorca and the treaty was never ratified, so Russia never sent any troops to America. However, Catherine the Great proclaimed the League of Armed Neutrality on February 29, 1780. It was conceived by the Danes and subscribed to by Sweden and several other European nations to protect free trade between neutral countries and those at war. While it focused primarily on ships from the Netherlands, the league resisted all search efforts at sea. Russia even entered into a treaty to protect neutral shipping with Denmark and Sweden in wartime. England received the principles of the Treaty from her Russian ambassador on April 1, 1780 but would not recognize them as “rights” which would undermine her most effective military weapon, the blockade.

England disregarded Armed Neutrality, so Catherine created an armed fleet to enforce its principles and called on other nations to join. The fleet consisted of 84 Russian, Danish and Swedish warships. Most of the European nations signed on, but, when Holland indicated her willingness to join, the British government declared war on the Dutch in December 1780 rather than have them enter into an alliance with the Russians.[13]

Catherine attempted to use the League of Armed Neutrality to mediate an end to the American War of Independence in December 1780 but negotiations broke down and the British surrender at Yorktown terminated the effort at a mediated peace.


  1. C.O. 5, 92, folios 238 – 239d; entry in C. O. 243, 75-76; C.O. 5/ 92, fol. 238; C.O. 42, 34 fos. 165-1607d; entry in the C.O. 43, 8, 174-177, all in K. G. Davies, Documents of the American Revolution 1770-1783 (Shannon: Irish University Press 1972, 1981), 10:74, 77. Extract of a Letter from Plymouth, Feb. 4, New-York Gazette, and Weekly Mercury. April 28, 1777. President Phillips Callbeck to the Earl of Dartmouth, January 5, 1776, C.O. 226/6, fol. 78. in Davies, Documents, 12:40.
  1. Richard Harrison to Willing Morris & Co., Martinique, August 22, 1776, in Naval Documents of the American Revolution. (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1962-2015), 6:277. Extract of a Letter from Captain Dennison, of the Expedition Transport, Halifax, September 2, 1776, New-York Gazette, and Weekly Mercury. January 13, 1777. The Pennsylvania Ledger: or the Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, & New-Jersey Weekly Advertiser, November 9, 1776. The Connecticut Gazette; and the Universal Intelligencer, November 1, 1776. Dunlap’s Pennsylvania Packet or, the General Advertiser, November 12, 1776. The Virginia Gazette, November 22, 1776 and November 29, 1776. The Connecticut Courant, and Hartford Weekly Intelligencer, October 28, 1776.
  1. Freeman’s Journal, or New-Hampshire Gazette, December 3, 1776. Pennsylvania Journal, January 29, 1777 and March 5, 1777. Freeman’s Journal, February 11, 1777.
  1. Freeman’s Journal, December 10, 1776.
  1. Dartmouth to Major General William Howe, C.O. 5, 92, fos. 275-277 D; entry in C.O. 5, 243, 91-93, all in Davies, Documents, 10:112.
  1. Howe to Dartmouth, November 26, 1775, C.O. 5, 92, fos. 318-327 d, in Davies, Documents, 10:138.
  1. George Germain to Howe, January 5, 1776, C.O. 5, 93, fos. 1-9 d entry in C.O. 5, 243, in Davies, Documents, 10:175; 12:34. The Parliamentary register; or, History of the proceedings and debates of the House of commons [and the House of lords … 1774-1780] (London, J. Stockdale 1802), 4:334.
  1. November 30, 1776, Howe to Germain, November 30, 1776, C.O. 5/93 fol. 304, in Davies, Documents, 12:265.
  1. Germain to Howe, January 14, 1777, C.O. 5/94 fol. 1, in Davies, Documents, 14:32.
  1. Howe to Germain, July 7, 1777, C.O. 5/94 fol. 260, in Davies, Documents, 14:129-131.
  1. Rivington’s New-York Gazette: or the Connecticut, Hudson’s River, New-Jersey, and Quebec Weekly Advertiser, October 11, 1777.
  1. Pennsylvania Ledger: or the Weekly Advertiser, November 19, 1777.
  1. Encyclopedia of the American Revolutionm, Harold E. Selesky, ed. (Detroit: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2007), 1:24-25. The Encyclopedia of the American Revolutionary War: a political, social, and military history, Gregory Fremont-Barnes, Richard Alan Ryerson, ed. (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2006), 2:694-696.





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