From beginning to end, France supported the Americans in their struggle for independence. In the early stages of fighting, assistance came from idealistic young officers such as Gilbert du Motier, marquis de La Fayette (1757-1834), who volunteered his military expertise to help train and lead the Continental Army. Under the guise of neutrality, the French Crown secretly provided arms, uniforms, and other supplies.
When the British defeat at Saratoga in 1777 presented the prospect of American success, however, France began to openly support the rebellion. In 1778 France formally recognized the colonists in the Treaties of Amity and Commerce, negotiated by Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790), a longtime friend of leading French scientists and philosophers and the first American ambassador to Paris. Franco-American relations were far from perfect, but the mutually beneficial relationship endured for many years.
In no other battle was French military assistance more decisive than in the 1781 Battle of Yorktown. Conceived by French General Jean-Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de Rochambeau (1725-1807) and General George Washington (1732-1799), the Yorktown campaign involved a combined overland and naval assault on the British troops led by General Charles Cornwallis (1738-1805). Having landed five battalions of infantry and artillery at Rhode Island the year before, Rochambeau and several thousand of his troops joined Washington’s Continental Army in Virginia. By mid-September French naval forces from the West Indies, under the command of Admiral François Joseph Paul de Grasse (1722-1788), and Continental forces under General La Fayette, had trapped Cornwallis on the Yorktown peninsula.
With the arrival of Washington’s forces on September 28, the Franco-American force laid siege until the British surrender of October 19, 1781. The capture of Yorktown gave the Continental Army control of the Chesapeake and forced the British to enter the peace negotiations that led to British recognition of American independence.