July 11, 1780 a squadron of French warships approached Newport. Their journey was started on February 2, 1780, when King Louis XVI approved a plan, code-named the expédition particulière (special exhibition). On May 2, a fleet with crews totaling about 7,000 sailors, commanded by Admiral de Ternay set sail from France for Rhode Island. This was not the first French fleet that had arrived at Newport waters as part of a French and American alliance. The fleet commanded by General d’Estaing in 1778 was part of a Rhode Island Campaign to free Rhode Island (Aquidneck Island) from the grip of British occupation. That fleet quickly retreated following damage from a storm and the campaign ended with the retreat of the Americans at the Battle of Rhode Island. This 1780 arrival would prove to be a key moment in the French and American alliance. This landing was the beginning of cooperation between the forces that would ultimately lead to victory at Yorktown.

When the French arrived they found a Newport that was diminished by three years of British occupation. The people couldn’t feed themselves or gather enough wood to keep warm. Livestock had been taken, anything wood had been burned, farm fencing had been destroyed and almost all the trees had been chopped down. After years of occupation Newporters were not enthusiastic about having to support another army.

The French had their own concerns. One-third of the French troops were weakened during the long voyage by scurvy. Forty-seven men died during the first seven weeks on Rhode Island. General Washington sent Dr. James Craick, the assistant director of hospital for the Continental Army, to set up hospitals. With a good diet of fruit and vegetables, the men recovered.

At first the French troops were camped throughout Newport. A camp ran east from Easton’s Beach to the west by Thames Street. Lauzon’s Legion camped at Castle Hill. When the winter came it was important to find housing for the troops. General Rochambeau was in charge and he began to repair the houses that the British had left in ruins.

Plan de Rhodes-Island, et position de l’armée françoise a Newport. [1780] Map. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, www.loc.gov/item/gm71002156/.

Rochambeau was skillful in managing his troops. Conduct and discipline were important. Where the British had taken from the inhabitants, the French were careful to bring supplies in from France and they paid for what they needed. Newport merchants began to resume trade. Townspeople were able to work again. The French Commissary department employed sailors, drivers, cooks, butchers, carpenters, wheelwrights and countless other tradesmen.

The French brought engineers and soon after they landed they began to repair the defenses that the British had destroyed before they left. These fortifications were remodeled and guns were mounted. In a letter to a friend, Militiaman Dr. John Goddard commented: “…there are about 7500 Men on the Island at the Several ports, 5000 of which are French, at Newport, 2000 Three Months Men (militia), at this place and 500 Continentals, under Col. Greene of this state….Notwithstanding the Superiority of the English Fleet the French appear to feel very secure. Their Fleet consisting of seven sail of the Line & three Frigates are drawn up in line of Battle from Tomany Hill across the Chanel to Conanicut. The Town of Newport is surrounded with Forts which are well filled with Cannon, on the whole I believe there is no Reason to fear an Attack from the Enemy this season.”

With the arrival of the French in 1780, Rhode Islanders felt more secure.


The letter was included in: Recent Acquisitions in Americana – William Reese Company – https://www.williamreesecompany.com

France and Rhode Island, 1636-1800. Mary Ellen Loughrey, New York King’s Crown Press 1944.

https://w3r-us.org/french-encampment-newport-11-july-1-november-1780/. French Encampment in Newport (11July-1 November 1780 National Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route Association, Inc.

https://allthingsliberty.com/2020/01/why-newport-rhode-island-scorned-the-french/. Why Newport, Rhode Island, scorned the French by Norman Desmarais. Journal of the American Revolution January 2, 2020