Book review: Brothers at Arms: American Independence and the Men of France and Spain Who Saved It (Knopf, 2016) by Larrie D. Ferreiro.
American students of the Revolutionary War may not like to hear it, but author Larrie D. Ferreiro, in his excellent new book, persuasively argues that the United States could never have won its war against Great Britain without France, and France could never have fought the war without Spain as an ally. Thus, he concludes, the United States was born as a centerpiece of an international coalition, which together worked to defeat a common adversary.
Ferreiro also persuasively argues that not only was the Declaration of Independence intended to motivate patriots at home, it was, in fact, an engraved invitation asking France and Spain to join America in its fight. Congress had to send a clear message to France and Spain that the conflict was not merely a civil war but a serious attempt at independence. As John Adams succinctly summarized it, “Foreign powers could not be expected to acknowledge us, till we had acknowledged ourselves . . . as an independent nation.”
France and Spain, naturally, had their own reasons to aid the Americans. In the aftermath of the embarrassing defeats at the hands of Great Britain during the Seven Years’ War (1754-1763), in which France lost Canada to Britain, France and Spain both were on the lookout for revenge. They saw an opportunity to weaken Great Britain by separating it from its growing thirteen colonies in North America. A reunited British empire, on the other hand, would pose a threat to France’s valuable sugar colonies in the Caribbean.
At the start of the war, America had no foundries, no powder mills, little money, and only a few gunsmiths. It desperately needed aid from France and Spain, which they were willing to give covertly at first in the form of military supplies worth some $2 billion in today’s currency. Ferreiro tells how this aid made its way to North America, including through the colorful exploits of Pierre Caron de Beaumarchais and the Spaniard Diego de Gardoqui.
Beaumarchais’s ships arrived in April 1777, loaded with 20,000 muskets, as well as much-needed cannon and gunpowder. It arrived just in time to supply 15,000 American soldiers in northern New York, who ended up capturing a British army under Gen. John Burgoyne at Saratoga. Lt. Caleb Stark of New Hampshire, son of Gen. John Stark, wrote, “Unless these arms had been thus timely furnished to the Americans, Burgoyne would have made an easy march to Albany.”
The author identifies the key French figure in this drama as Charles Gravier, Comte de Vergennes. He was persuaded that while the American victory at Saratoga showed that the Americans were indeed serious, in order to win independence they needed a French-American alliance. With the assistance of Benjamin Franklin and other American diplomats in Paris, one was secured in February 1778.
Ferreiro discusses the many French officers who poured into America, seeking a chance to fight their age-old nemesis the British and at glory, but also to promote the American Revolution. He admires in particular the French engineers who were so desperately needed in the Continental army, led by Louis Lebègue Duportail. Of course, he spends much time on the young and enthusiastic Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, who became almost a son to George Washington. Ferreiro also has an excellent description of the training at Valley Forge conducted by Friedrich Wilhelm, Baron von Steuben, even though that officer was not French (though the Prussian gave orders in French, which were translated into English).
Ferreiro provides the backdrop from the French and Spanish perspective of the stunning victory at Yorktown, in which a combined French and American army captured Lord Cornwallis’s army of 8,000 soldiers and sailors. Leading up to the victory on land was the crucial French naval victory at the Battle of the Chesapeake. The author notes that the combined army had equal numbers of French and American troops, but that twice as many French soldiers died. Most of the siege cannon were French and French officers directed the battle. This adds color to the decision by the British general who surrendered his sword at Yorktown to try to hand it to General Rochambeau rather than the titular commander of the combined army General Washington (I still think it was an intentional slight by the British, who continued to call him “Mr. Washington”).
While Yorktown in effect ended the war in North America, the worldwide conflict between France and Spain on the one side, and Great Britain on the other, raged on in places such as the islands in the Caribbean, Gibraltar, and India. From 1776 to 1783, probably more than 200,000 French and Spanish soldiers and sailors fought in the war that established American independence.
Ferreiro could have done a book just on the role of the French, but he wisely includes the Spanish as well. The two countries worked closely as allies, including in the failed attempt to invade England, with an armada of 150 ships, larger than the one that Queen Elizabeth I faced in 1588. Ferreiro makes the argument that Bernardo de Gálvez’s attacks on British Florida and capture of Pensacola in May 1781 with a joint Spanish-French force allowed France to commit its full force to the Yorktown campaign. (My own view of the capture of Florida by Spain is that after the war, it made it much easier for the United States to take Florida, as Spain’s empire was weakening. Taking it from an increasingly powerful Great Britain would have been much more difficult).
By its nature, this book is a summary of the American Revolution, but with a particular focus on the roles of France and Spain. There are plenty of valuable nuggets for readers as well. For one, Ferreiro converts money spent during the war into current dollar values, making the amounts much more understandable to the reader. For example, he says that Spain loaned the fledgling United States about $1 billion in today’s currency (all of which was repaid). As an expert in eighteenth century shipbuilding, he provides the most comprehensible explanation of the benefits of the Royal Navy’s copper-bottomed hulls that I have read. He writes of French and Spanish spies entering Great Britain to take stock of the Royal Navy’s shipbuilding program and entering the thirteen colonies to take stock of the state of the opposition to King George III. The careful author also noticed that prior to his interest in an alliance with the United States, in his letters to merchants carrying supplies to America, Vergennes would refer to the Americans as “your friends,” but once he agreed that an alliance was appropriate for France, he began referring to the Americans as “our friends.”
Ferreiro is a fine and efficient writer, easy to read, yet conveying important information at the same time. His book makes an excellent companion to Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy’s superb The Men Who Lost America, British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of Empire (Yale University Press, 2013). Indeed, the titles to the two books have some similarities.
I highly recommend Ferreiro’s new book and hope that he continues to write on the Revolutionary War.