On this day in 1778, French Vice-Admiral Count d’Estaing establishes contact with the Continental Army, which is waiting for his help to retake Rhode Island.
Following the Franco-American treaty of alliance signed the previous February, Americans expected a rapid defeat of the British. D’Estaing, a French naval commander, departed Toulon, France, in 1778, with a fleet of 12 ships-of-the-line and 4 frigates, with which he intended to help the Patriots. The British, who could have put d’Estaing’s ships out of commission before they made it to North American waters, were ill-prepared for his departure, and d’Estaing’s fleet passed through the Straits of Gibraltar without difficulty.
D’Estaing’s approach caused the British to evacuate Philadelphia and to march to New York to avoid an encounter with the fleet. The British also evacuated Newport Harbor as a preventive measure, destroying some of their fleet so as to rob the French of the pleasure. However, the planned Franco-American attack on Rhode Island never materialized.
Earlier in July, d’Estaing had blockaded Howe’s measly force of nine small ships-of-the-line off Sandy Hook, New Jersey, but chose not to attack despite his superior force, before setting sail for Newport. D’Estaing lost his second opportunity to engage Howe due to a sudden storm that separated the fleets and battered d’Estaing’s ships. Instead of laying siege to Newport, d’Estaing repaired his ships in Boston. Patriots were furious at his failure to regain Newport, leading to riots in Boston and Charleston. Thinking it best that he left the scene of such animosity, D’Estaing chose to sail for the West Indies.