European reaction to the American Revolution





Toward the close of 1778, the theatre of active military operations was changed. Early in November D'Estaing sailed for the West Indies to attack the British possessions there. To defend these, it was necessary for the British fleet in our waters to hasten to that region. Accordingly, Admiral Hotham sailed from New York for the West Indies, with a squadron, on the 3d of November; and when Admiral Byron succeeded Lord Howe early in December, he, too, departed for those waters with some vessels-of-war. This movement would prevent any co-operation between the British fleet and army, in aggressive movements against the populous and now well-defended North, and it was determined to strike a withering blow at the more sparsely-settled South. Late in November Sir Henry Clinton dispatched Lieutenant-Colonel Campbell with about two thousand troops to invade Georgia, then the weakest member of the Union. These troops were sent by way of the sea, and were landed at Savannah, the capital of Georgia, on the morning of the 29th of December. They were confronted by General Robert Howe, of North Carolina, who had hastened up from Sunbury, at the call of the garrison, with less than a thousand dispirited men. At a place known as Brewton's Hill, three miles below Savannah, a sharp fight ensued; but the Americans were compelled, by overwhelming numbers, to retreat. That retreat became a confused flight, partly across submerged rice-fields and a creek. About one hundred Americans were killed or drowned, and more than four hundred were made prisoners. The remainder went up the right side of the Savannah, crossed it at Zubley's Ferry, and took shelter in the bosom of South Carolina.

Now, at the end of the fourth year of the war, the relative position of the belligerents was almost the same as at the close of 1776. The headquarters of Washington were again in New Jersey, and those of the British were in New York City. The British army had accomplished very little more, in the way of conquest, than it had at the end of the second year, while the Americans had gained strength by experience, and had learned much of the arts of war and of civil government. They had also secured the alliance of a powerful European nation, and the sympathies of other European governments. The British forces really occupied the position of prisoners, for, with the exception of those in Georgia, they were closely hemmed in upon two islands (Manhattan and Rhode Island) almost two hundred miles apart. The Americans were strong, too, in the justice of their cause, while the British were weak, because they were warring against the rights of man.

Although the motives of France in forming an alliance were purely selfish (for the king hated republicans, and Vergennes was a thorough monarchist), and no real support had been given to the Americans by the French down to the close of the fourth year of the war, the fact served to give the patriots the moral strength of expectation, which, happily, was not powerful enough to make them neglect the use of their own resources in a reliance upon others, or to lose sight of real and constant danger. The Netherlands felt an earnest sympathy with the struggling republicans, and, as we have seen, refused to loan troops to Great Britain to fight her resisting subjects in America. Frederick the Great of Prussia had learned to distrust the friendship of England, and was coquetting with France; and early in 1778, he authorized his minister to write to the American commissioners at Paris: "The king desires that your generous efforts may be crowned with complete success. He will not hesitate to recognize your independence, when France, which is more directly interested in the event of the contest, shall have given the example."

Spain was hostile to the republican movement, for her monarch saw in the dissolution of the ties which bound the American colonies to Great Britain, a sure prophecy of the destruction of her own colonial system in America. He was willing to weaken Great Britain; and therefore Spain, for a time, secretly feigned a friendship for the Americans, for she desired to exhaust the resources of the British government. At the same time she strongly opposed the French alliance. When it was accomplished, the Spanish monarch was undecided what to do. He deceived the British minister at his court by the false pretence that he was ignorant of what France had been doing in the matter, and so he postponed a final determination. Franklin, whose sagacity had penetrated the depths of Spanish diplomacy, had, from the beginning, advised his countrymen not to woo Spain, and now he urged that advice more vehemently. He saw that all the friendship she might profess would be false, and lead to embarrassment. At this time, the Congress, wearied by the dissensions of rival commissioners, and perceiving that Vergennes preferred to treat with Franklin alone, determined to abolish the joint commission. They did so in September, 1778, and appointed Franklin sole envoy at the French court.





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