Just before midnight on Jan. 5, 1781, a flotilla of French warships arrived off La Rocque, a craggy point on the southeast tip of the Channel Island of Jersey. Though only 14 miles off the Normandy coast of France, the island and its neighbors—Guernsey, Alderney, Sark and several smaller isles—had come under English rule in 1066. On this cold and fog-shrouded night seven centuries later a Flemish soldier of fortune named Philippe-Charles-Félix Macquart, the self-styled Baron de Rullecourt, would lead several hundred French troops ashore, intending to wrest control of Jersey from the British.
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Rullecourt's invasion was not simply an act of territorial reclamation, however. The French landing was part of a larger international conflict that had grown out of an April 19, 1775, skirmish between British troops and colonial militiamen on Lexington Green in the New England Province of Massachusetts Bay. After the fledgling Continental Army's decisive defeat of the British at Saratoga, New York, on Oct. 7, 1777, France and then Spain and the Dutch Republic had entered the war, looking to settle old scores. The British soon found themselves fighting not only in North America, but also in the West Indies, India, Gibraltar, the Mediterranean and the English Channel.
The Battle of Jersey held a singular distinction as the only land battle of the American Revolutionary War fought on British soil.
Once part of the Duchy of Normandy, the Channel Islands fell under Anglo-Norman rule in 1066 when William, Duke of Normandy, became king of England. In 1204 King John lost Normandy to Philip II of France, but England retained possession of the islands.
Though Jersey comprises just 46 square miles, its proximity to the maritime approaches to Brest—long a key French naval base—ensured it remained strategically important to both London and Paris. As soon as France joined the “American Rebellion,” the British government authorized Jersey-based privateers to prey on French shipping—which they did, even raiding along the American coast. It was a threat France could not ignore.