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The Quasi-War was an undeclared war fought almost entirely at sea between the United Statesmarker and Francemarker from 1798 to 1800. In the United States, the conflict was sometimes also referred to as the Franco-American War, the Undeclared War with France, the Undeclared Naval War, the Pirate Wars, or the Half-War.


The Kingdom of France had been a major ally of the United States in the American Revolutionary War, and had signed in 1778 a Treaty of Alliance with the United States. But in 1794, after the French Revolution toppled that country's monarchy, the American government came to an agreement with the Kingdom of Great Britainmarker, the Jay Treaty, that resolved several points of contention between the United States and Great Britain that had lingered since the end of the Revolutionary War. It also contained economic clauses.

The fact that the United States had already declared neutrality in the conflict between Great Britain and (now revolutionary) France, and that American legislation was being passed for a trade deal with their British enemy, led to French outrage. The French government was also outraged by the U.S. refusal to continue repaying its debt to France on the basis that the debt had been payable to the French Crown, not to Republican France.

France began to seize American ships trading with Britain and refused to receive a new United States minister when he arrived in Paris in December 1796. In his annual message to Congress at the close of 1797, President John Adams reported on France’s refusal to negotiate and spoke of the need "to place our country in a suitable posture of defense." In April 1798, President Adams informed Congress of the "XYZ Affair," in which French agents demanded a large bribe for the restoration of relations with the United States.

The French inflicted substantial losses on American shipping. Secretary of State Timothy Pickering reported to Congress on June 21, 1797 that the French had captured 316 American merchant ships in the previous eleven months. The hostilities caused insurance rates on American shipping to increase at least 500 percent, as French marauders cruised the length of the U.S. Atlantic seaboard virtually unopposed. The administration had no warships to combat them; the last had been sold off in 1785. The United States possessed only a flotilla of revenue cutters and some neglected coastal forts.

Increased depredations by privateers from Revolutionary France required the rebirth of the then-defunct United States Navy to protect the expanding merchant shipping of the United States. The United States Congress authorized the president to acquire, arm, and man no more than 12 vessels, of up to 22 guns each. Under the terms of this act, several vessels were purchased and converted into ships of war.

July 7, 1798, the date that Congress rescinded treaties with France, can be considered a semi-official beginning of the Quasi-War. The act was followed two days later with Congressional authorization to attack French vessels.

Naval engagements

The fight between USS Constellation and the Insurgente (William Bainbridge Hoff)
The U.S. Navy operated with a battle fleet of roughly 25 vessels. The Navy patrolled the southern coast of the United States and throughout the Caribbeanmarker, seeking out French privateers. Captain Thomas Truxtun's insistence on the highest standards of crew training paid handsome dividends as the frigate USS Constellation captured L'Insurgente and severely damaged La Vengeance. Often, French privateers resisted, as was the case with the privateer La Croyable, which was captured on July 7, 1798, by USS Delaware outside of Egg Harbor, New Jersey. The USS Enterprise captured eight privateers and freed 11 American vessels from captivity. The USS Experiment captured the French Deux Amis and the Diane. Numerous American merchantmen were likewise recaptured by the Experiment. The USS Boston summarily forced Le Berceau into submission. Silas Talbot engineered an expedition to the Puerto Plata harbor in St. Domingo, a possession of France's ally Spain, on May 11, 1800, in which sailors and marines of the USS Constitutionmarker under Lieutenant Isaac Hull cut out the French privateer Sandwich from the harbor and spiked the guns in the Spanish fort.

During the conflict, one U.S Navy vessel was captured by—and later recaptured from—French forces: USS Retaliation. Retaliation was the captured privateer La Croyable, recently purchased by the U.S. Navy. Retaliation departed Norfolk on October 28, 1798, with Montezuma and Norfolk and cruised in the West Indiesmarker protecting American commerce. On November 20, the French frigates L’Insurgente and Volontaire overtook Retaliation while her consorts were away on a chase and forced commanding officer Lieutenant William Bainbridge to surrender the out-gunned schooner. However, Montezuma and Norfolk escaped after Bainbridge convinced the senior French commander that those American warships were too powerful for his frigates and induced him to abandon the chase. Renamed Magicienne by the French, the schooner again came into American hands on June 28, when a broadside from USS Merrimack forced her to haul down her colors.

Revenue cutters in the service of the Revenue-Marine, predecessor of the Coast Guard, also participated in the conflict. The cutter USRC Pickering, commanded by Edward Preble, made two cruises to the West Indies and captured several prizes. After Preble turned command of the Pickering over to Benjamin Hillar she captured the much larger and more heavily armed French privateer l’Egypte Conquise after a nine-hour battle. In September 1800, Hillar, the Pickering, and all of her crew were lost at sea in a storm. Preble was given command of the frigate Essex, which he sailed around Cape Hornmarker into the Pacific to protect American merchantmen in the East Indies where he recaptured a number of prizes that had been seized by French privateers.

American naval losses for the entire war were light, consisting of only one armed U.S. navy vessel lost to enemy action. However one source contends that by the war's end in 1800, the French had seized over two thousand American merchant vessels.

Although they were fighting the same enemy, the Royal Navy and the United States Navy did not cooperate operationally, nor did they share operational plans or come to mutual understandings about deployment of their forces. The British did sell the American government naval stores and munitions. In addition, the two navies shared a system of signals by which each could recognize the other’s warships at sea and allowed merchantmen of their respective nations to join their convoys.

Conclusion of hostilities

By the autumn of 1800, the United States Navy and the Royal Navy, combined with a more conciliatory diplomatic stance by the government of First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte, produced a reduction in the activity of the French privateers and warships. The Convention of 1800, signed on September 30, 1800, ended the Franco-American War but news of this did not arrive in time to help John Adams get re-elected in the United States presidential election, 1800.

See also

  • French Revolutionary Wars
  • USS Haggard , named after Captain Thomas Haggard, who commanded the American armed ship Louisa of Philadelphia, which successfully engaged French and Spanish privateers August 20, 1800 off Tarifa.
  • War of 1812


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