Military service is long periods of boredom interupted by utter terror. For those boring times, this supplementary reading for my book This Side Toward Enemy might help fill the hours. For your further reading and research, I have placed Olive Drab links to more information or to Amazon.com where you can research or buy the source material.
The surrender of Cornwallis marked the end of the active war upon the American continent. The issue of the struggle was indeed assured upon the day when France devoted her sea power to the support of the colonists; but, as not uncommonly happens, the determining characteristics of a period were summed up in one striking event. From the beginning, the military question, owing to the physical characteristics of the country, a long seaboard with estuaries penetrating deep into the interior, and the consequent greater ease of movement by water than by land, had hinged upon the control of the sea and the use made of that control. Its misdirection by Sir William Howe in 1777, when he moved his army to the Chesapeake instead of supporting Burgoyne’s advance, opened the way to the startling success at Saratoga, when amazed Europe saw six thousand regular troops surrendering to a body of provincials. During the four years that followed, until the surrender of Yorktown, the scales rose and fell according as the one navy or the other appeared on the scene, or as English commanders kept touch with the sea or pushed their operations far from its support. Finally, at the great crisis, all is found depending upon the question whether the French or the English fleet should first appear, and upon their relative force.
The maritime struggle was at once transferred to the West Indies. The events which followed there were antecedent in time both to Suffren’s battles and to the final relief of Gibraltar; but they stand so much by themselves as to call for separate treatment, and have such close relation to the conclusion of the war and the conditions of peace, as to form the dramatic finale of the one and the stepping-stone of transition to the other. It is fitting indeed that a brilliant though indecisive naval victory should close the story of an essentially naval war.
The capitulation of Yorktown was completed on the 19th of October, 1781, and on the 5th of November, De Grasse, resisting the suggestions of Lafayette and Washington that the fleet should aid in carrying the war farther south, sailed from the Chesapeake. He reached Martinique on the 26th, the day after the Marquis de Bouillon, commanding the French troops in the West Indies, had regained by a bold surprise the Dutch island of St. Eustatius. The two commanders now concerted a joint expedition against Barbadoes, which was frustrated by the violence of the trade winds.
Foiled here, the French proceeded against the island of St. Christopher, or St. Kitt’s. On the 11th of January, 1782, the fleet, carrying six thousand troops, anchored on the west coast off Basse Terre, the chief town. No opposition was met, the small garrison of six hundred men retiring to a fortified post ten miles to the northwest, on Brimstone Hill, a solitary precipitous height overlooking the lee shore of the island. The French troops landed and pursued, but the position being found too strong for assault, siege operations were begun.
The French fleet remained at anchor in Basse Terre road. Meanwhile, news of the attack was carried to Sir Samuel Hood, who had followed De Grasse from the continent, and, in the continued absence of Rodney, was naval commander-in-chief on the station. He sailed from Barbadoes on the 14th, anchored at Antigua on the 21st, and there embarked all the troops that could be spared, - about seven hundred men. On the afternoon of the 23d the fleet started for St. Kitt’s, carrying such sail as would bring it within striking distance of the enemy at daylight next morning.
The English having but twenty-two ships to the French twenty-nine, and the latter being generally superior in force, class for class, it is necessary to mark closely the lay of the land in order to understand Hood’s original plans and their subsequent modifications; for, resultless as his attempt proved, his conduct during the next three weeks forms the most brilliant military effort of the whole war. The islands of St. Kitt’s and Nevis being separated only by a narrow channel, impracticable for ships-of-the-line, are in effect one, and their common axis lying northwest and southeast, it is necessary for sailing-ships, with the trade wind, to round the southern extremity of Nevis, from which position the wind is fair to reach all anchorages on the lee side of the islands. Basse Terre is about twelve miles distant from the western point of Nevis (Fort Charles), and its roadstead lies east and west. The French fleet were anchored there in disorder, three or four deep, not expecting attack, and the ships at the west end of the road could not reach those at the east without beating to windward, - a tedious, and under fire a perilous process. A further most important point to note is that all the eastern ships were so placed that vessels approaching from the southward could reach them with the usual wind.
Hood, therefore, we are told, intended to appear at early daylight, in order of and ready for battle, and fall upon the eastern ships, filing by them with his whole fleet, thus concentrating the fire of all upon a few of the enemy; then turning away, so as to escape the guns of the others, he proposed, first wearing and then tacking, to keep his fleet circling in long procession past that part of the enemy’s ships chosen for attack. The plan was audacious, but undeniably sound in principle; some good could hardly fail to follow, and unless De Grasse showed more readiness than he had hitherto done, even decisive results might be hoped for.
The best-laid plans, however, may fail, and Hood’s was balked by the awkwardness of a lieutenant of the watch, who hove-to (stopped) a frigate at night ahead of the fleet, and was consequently run down by a ship-of-the-line. The latter also received such injury as delayed the movement, several hours being lost in repairing damages. The French were thus warned of the enemy’s approach, and although not suspecting his intention to attack, De Grasse feared that Hood would pass down to leeward of him and disturb the siege of Brimstone Hill, - an undertaking so rash for an inferior force that it is as difficult to conceive how he could have supposed it, as to account for his overlooking the weakness of his own position at anchor.
At one P.M. of the 24th the English fleet was seen rounding the south end of Nevis; at three De Grasse got under way and stood to the southward. Toward sundown Hood also went about and stood south, as though retreating; but he was well to windward of his opponent, and maintained this advantage through the night. At daybreak both fleets were to leeward of Nevis, - the English near the island, the French about nine miles distant. Some time was spent in manoeuvring, with the object on Hood’s part of getting the French admiral yet more to leeward; for, having failed in his first attempt, he had formed the yet bolder intention of seizing the anchorage his unskilful opponent had left, and establishing himself there in an impregnable manner. In this he succeeded, as will be shown; but to understand the justification for a movement confessedly hazardous, it must be pointed out that he thus would place himself between the besiegers of Brimstone Hill and their fleet; or if the latter anchored near the hill, the English fleet would be between it and its base in Martinique, ready to intercept supplies or detachments approaching from the southward. In short, the position in which Hood hoped to establish himself was on the flank of the enemy’s communications, a position the more advantageous because the island alone could not long support the large body of troops so suddenly thrown upon it. Moreover, both fleets were expecting reinforcements; Rodney was on his way and might arrive first, which he did, and in time to save St. Kitt’s, which he did not. It was also but four months since Yorktown; the affairs of England were going badly; something must be done, something left to chance, and Hood knew himself and his officers. It may be added that he knew his opponent.
At noon, when the hillsides of Nevis were covered with expectant and interested sightseers, the English fleet rapidly formed its line on the starboard tack and headed north for Basse Terre. The French, at the moment, were in column steering south, but went about at once and stood for the enemy in a bow-and-quarter line. (1) At two the British had got far enough for Hood to make signal to anchor. At twenty minutes past two the van of the French came within gunshot of the English centre, and shortly afterward the firing began, the assailants very properly directing their main effort upon the English rear ships, which, as happens with most long columns, had opened out, a tendency increased in this case by the slowness of the fourth ship from the rear, the “Prudent.” The French flag-ship, “Ville de Paris,” of one hundred and twenty guns, bearing De Grasse’s flag, pushed for the gap thus made, but was foiled by the “Canada,” seventy-four, whose captain, Cornwallis, the brother of Lord Cornwallis, threw all his sails aback, and dropped down in front of the huge enemy to the support of the rear, - an example nobly followed by the “Resolution” and the “Bedford” immediately ahead of him. The scene was now varied and animated in the extreme. The English van, which had escaped attack, was rapidly anchoring in its appointed position. The commander-in-chief in the centre, proudly reliant upon the skill and conduct of his captains, made signal for the ships ahead to carry a press of sail, and gain their positions regardless of the danger to the threatened rear. The latter, closely pressed and outnumbered, stood on unswervingly, shortened sail, and came to anchor, one by one, in a line ahead, under the roar of the guns of their baffled enemies. The latter filed by, delivered their fire, and bore off again to the southward, leaving their former berths to their weaker but clever antagonists.
1. When a fleet is in line ahead, close to the wind, on one tack, and the ship! go about together, they will, on the other tack, be on the same line, but not one ahead of the other. This formation was called bow-and-quarter line.
The anchorage thus brilliantly taken by Hood was not exactly the same as that held by De Grasse the day before; but as it covered and controlled it, his claim that he took up the place the other had left is substantially correct. The following night and morning were spent in changing and strengthening the order, which was finally established as follows. The van ship was anchored about four miles southeast from Basse Terre, so close to the shore that a ship could not pass inside her, nor, with the prevailing wind, even reach her, because of a point and shoal just outside, covering her position. From this point the line extended in a west-northwest direction to the twelfth or thirteenth ship (from a mile and a quarter to a mile and a half), where it turned gradually but rapidly to north, the last six ships being on a north and south line. Hood’s flag-ship, the “Barfleur,” of ninety guns, was at the apex of the salient angle thus formed.
It would not have been impossible for the French fleet to take the anchorage they formerly held; but it and all others to leeward were forbidden by the considerations already stated, so long as Hood remained where he was. It became necessary therefore to dislodge him, but this was rendered exceedingly difficult by the careful tactical dispositions that have been described. His left flank was covered by the shore. Any attempt to enfilade his front by passing along the other flank was met by the broadsides of the six or eight ships drawn up en potence to the rear. The front commanded the approaches to Basse Terre. To attack him in the rear, from the northwest, was forbidden by the trade-wind. To these difficulties was to be added that the attack must be made under sail against ships at anchor, to whom loss of spars would be of no immediate concern; and which, having springs (1) out, could train their broadsides over a large area with great ease.
1. A spring is a rope taken from the stern or quarter of a ship at anchor, to an anchor properly placed, by which means the ship can be turned in a desired direction.
Nevertheless, both sound policy and mortification impelled De Grasse to fight, which he did the next day, January 26. The method of attack, in single column of twenty-nine ships against a line so carefully arranged, was faulty in the extreme; but it may be doubted whether any commander of that day would have broken through the traditional fighting order. (1) Hood had intended the same, but he hoped a surprise on an ill-ordered enemy, and at the original French anchorage it was possible to reach their eastern ships, with but slight exposure to concentrated fire. Not so now. The French formed to the southward and steered for the eastern flank of Hood’s line. As their van ship drew up with the point already mentioned, the wind headed her, so that she could only reach the third in the English order, the first four ships of which, using their springs, concentrated their guns upon her. This vessel was supposed by the English to be the “Pluton,” and if so, her captain was D’Albert de Rions, in Suffren’s opinion the foremost officer of the French navy. “The crash occasioned by their destructive broad-sides,” wrote an English officer who was present, “was so tremendous that whole pieces of plank were seen flying from her off side ere she could escape the cool, concentrated fire of her determined adversaries. As she proceeded along the British line, she received the first fire of every ship in passing. She was indeed in so shattered a state as to be compelled to bear away for St. Eustatius.” And so ship after ship passed by, running the length of the line, distributing their successive fires in gallant but dreary, ineffectual monotony over the whole extent. A second time that day De Grasse attacked in the same order, but neglecting the English van, directed his effort upon the rear and centre. This was equally fruitless, and seems to have been done with little spirit.
1. In the council of war of the allied fleets on the expediency of attacking the English squadron anchored at Torbay (p. 408) an opponent of the measure urged “that the whole of the combined fleets could not bear down upon the English in a line-of-battle abreast, that of course they must form the line-of-battle ahead, and go down upon the enemy singly, by which they would run the greatest risk of being shattered and torn to pieces,” etc. (Beatson, vol. v. p. 396).
>From that time until the 14th of February, Hood maintained his position in sight of the French fleet, which remained cruising in the offing and to the southward. On the 1st a despatch vessel arrived from Kempenfeldt, informing him of the dispersal of the French reinforcements for the West Indies, which must have renewed his hopes that his bold attempt would be successful through Rodney’s arrival. It was not, however, to be so. Brimstone Hill surrendered on the 12th, after a creditable defence. On the 13th De Grasse took his fleet, now amounting to thirty-three ships-of-the-line, to Nevis, and anchored there. On the night of the 14th Hood summoned all his captains on board, had them set their watches by his, and at eleven P.M., one after another, without noise or signal, cut their cables and made sail to the northward, passing round that end of the island unnoticed, or at least unmolested, by the French.
Both strategically and tactically Hood’s conceptions and dispositions were excellent, and their execution was most honorable to the skill and steadiness of himself and his cap-tains. Regarded as a single military operation, this was brilliant throughout; but when considered with reference to the general situation of England at the time, a much higher estimate must be formed of the admiral’s qualities. (1) St. Kitt’s in itself might not be worth a great risk; but it was of the first importance that energy and audacity should be carried into the conduct of England’s naval war, that some great success should light upon her flag. Material success was not obtained. The chances, though fair enough, turned against Hood; but every man in that fleet must have felt the glow of daring achievement, the assured confidence which follows a great deed nobly done. Had this man been in chief command when greater issues were at stake, had he been first instead of second at the Chesapeake, Cornwallis might have been saved. The operation - seizing an anchorage left by the enemy - would have been nearly the same; and both situations may be instructively compared with Suffren’s relief of Cuddalore.
1. In war, as in cards, the state of the score must at times dictate the play; and the chief who never takes into consideration the effect which his particular action will have on the general result, nor what is demanded of him by the condition of things elsewhere, both political and military, lacks an essential quality of a great general. “The audacious manner in which Wellington stormed the redoubt of Francisco [at Ciudad Rodrigo], and broke ground on the first night of the investment, the more audacious manner in which he assaulted the place before the fire of the defence had in any way lessened, and before the counter-scarp had been blown in, were the true causes of the sudden fall of the place. Both the military and political state of affairs warranted this neglect of rules. When the general terminated his order for the assault with this sentence, ‘Ciudad Rodrigo must be stormed this evening,’ he knew well that it would be nobly understood” (Napier’s Peninsular War). “Judging that the honour of his Majesty’s arms, and the circumstances of the war in these seas, required a considerable degree of enterprise, I felt myself justified in departing from the regular system” (Sir John Jervis’s Report of the Battle of Cape St. Vincent).
The action of De Grasse, also, should be considered not only with reference to the particular occasion, but to the general condition of the war as well, and when thus weighed, and further compared with other very similar opportunities neglected by this general officer, a fair estimate of his military capacity can be reached. This comparison, however, is better deferred to the now not very distant close of the campaign. The most useful comment to be made here is, that his action in failing to crush Hood at his anchors, with a force at least fifty per cent greater, was in strict accordance with the general French principle of subordinating the action of the fleet to so-called particular operations; for nothing is more instructive than to note how an unsound principle results in disastrous action. Hood’s inferiority was such as to weaken, for offensive purposes, his commanding position. So long as De Grasse kept to windward, he maintained his communications with Martinique, and he was strong enough, too, to force communication when necessary with the troops before Brimstone Hill. It was probable, as the event showed, that the particular operation, the reduction of St. Kitt’s, would succeed despite the presence of the English fleet; and “the French navy has always preferred the glory of assuring a conquest to that, more brilliant perhaps but less real, of taking a few ships.”
So far De Grasse may be acquitted of any error beyond that of not rising above the traditions of his service. Some days, however, before the surrender of the island and the departure of the English fleet, he was joined by two ships-of-the-line which brought him word of the dispersal of the expected convoy and reinforcements from Europe. (1) He then knew that he himself could not be strengthened before Rodney’s arrival, and that by that event the English would be superior to him. Be had actually thirty-three ships-of-the-line in hand, and a few miles off lay twenty-two English in a position where he knew they would await his attack; yet he let them escape. His own explanation implies clearly that he had no intention of attacking them at anchor: -
“The day after the capitulation of Brimstone Hill was the moment to watch Hood closely, and to fight him as soon as he got under way from the conquered island. But our provisions were exhausted; we had only enough for thirty-six hours. Some supply-ships had arrived at Nevis, and you will admit one must live before fighting. I went to Nevis, always to windward and in sight of the enemy, a league and a half from him, in order to take on board the necessary supplies as rapidly as possible. Hood decamped at night without signals, and the next morning I found only the sick whom he left behind.” (2)
1. By Kempenfeldt’s attack upon De Guichen’s convoy, and the following gale in December, 1781. See p. 408. 2. Kerguelen: Guerre Maritime de 1778. Letter of De Grasse to Kerguelen. dated Paris January 8, 1783, p. 263.
In other words, Hood having held his ground with consummate audacity and skill, when he had some chance of successful resistance, declined to await his adversary’s attack under conditions overwhelmingly unfavorable. What shall be said of this talk about provisions? Did not the Comte de Grasse know a month before how long, to a day, the supplies on board would last? Did he not know, four days before Hood sailed, that he had with him every ship he could probably count on for the approaching campaign, while the English would surely be reinforced? And if the English position was as strong as good judgment, professional skill, and bold hearts could make it, had it not weak points? Were not the lee ships to leeward? If they did attempt to beat to windward, had he not ships to “contain” them? If the van ship could not be reached, had he not force enough to double and treble on the third and following ships, as far down the line as he chose? A letter of Suffren’s, referring to a similar condition of things at Santa Lucia, (1) but written three years before these events, seems almost a prophetic description of them: -
“Notwithstanding the slight results of the two cannonades of December 15 , we can yet expect success; but the only way to attain it is to attack vigorously the squadron, which in consequence of our superiority cannot hold out, despite their land works, which will become of no effect if we lay them on board, or anchor upon their buoys. If we delay, a thousand circumstances may save them. They may profit by the night to depart.”
1. See pp. 366, 426.
There can be no doubt that the English would have sold their defeat dearly; but results in war must be paid for, and the best are in the long run the cheapest. A tight grip of a few simple principles - that the enemy’s fleet was the controlling factor in the coming campaign, that it was therefore his true objective, that one fraction of it must be crushed without delay when caught thus separated - would have saved De Grasse a great blunder; but it is only fair to note that it would have made him an exception to the practice of the French navy.
The hour was now close at hand when the French admiral should feel, even if he did not admit, the consequences of this mistake, by which he had won a paltry island and lost an English fleet. Rodney had sailed from Europe on the 15th of January, with twelve ships-of-the-line. On the 19th of February he anchored at Barbadoes, and the same day Hood reached Antigua from St. Kitt’s. On the 25th the squadrons of Rodney and Hood met to windward of Antigua, forming a united fleet of thirty-four ships-of-the-line. The next day De Grasse anchored in Fort Royal, thus escaping the pursuit which, Rodney at once began. The English admiral then returned to Sta. Lucia, where he was joined by three more ships-of-the-line from England, raising his force to thirty-seven. Knowing that a large convoy was expected from France, before the arrival of which nothing could be attempted, Rodney sent a part of his fleet to cruise to wind-ward and as far north as Guadeloupe; but the officer in charge of the French convoy, suspecting this action, kept well north of that island, and reached Fort Royal, Martinique, on the 20th of March. The ships-of-war with him raised De Grasse’s fleet to thirty-three effective sail-of-the-line and two fifty-gun ships.
The object of the united efforts of France and Spain this year was the conquest of Jamaica. It was expected to unite at Cap Francais (now Cap Haitien), in Hayti, fifty ships-of-the-line and twenty thousand troops. Part of the latter were already at the rendezvous; and De Grasse, appointed to command the combined fleets, was to collect in Martinique all the available troops and supplies in the French islands, and convoy them to the rendezvous. It was this junction that Rodney was charged to prevent.
The region within which occurred the important operations of the next few days covers a distance of one hundred and fifty miles, from south to north, including the islands of Sta. Lucia, Martinique, Dominica, and Guadeloupe, in the order named. At this time the first was in English, the others in French, hands. The final, and for the moment decisive, encounter took place between, and a little to westward of, Dominica and Guadeloupe. These are twenty-three miles apart; but the channel is narrowed to thirteen by three islets called the Saints, lying ten miles south of Guadeloupe. it is said to have been De Grasse’s intention, instead of sailing direct for Cap Francais, to take a circuitous course near the islands, which, being friendly or neutral, would give refuge to the convoy if pressed. The close pursuit of the English, who came up with him off Dominica, led him to forsake this plan, sending the convoy into Basse Terre at the south end of Guadeloupe, while with the fleet he tried to beat through the channel and pass east of the island, thus drawing the English away from the transports and ridding himself of the tactical embarrassment due to the latter’s presence. Accidents to various ships thwarted this attempt, and brought about a battle disastrous to him and fatal to the joint enterprise. The anchorages of the two fleets, in Martinique and Sta. Lucia, were thirty miles apart. The prevailing east wind is generally fair to pass from one to the other; but a strong westerly current, and the frequency of calms and light airs, tend to throw to leeward sailing-ships leaving Sta. Lucia for the northern island. A chain of frigates connected the English lookout ships off Martinique, by signal, with, Rodney’s flag-ship in Gros Ilot Bay. Everything was astir at the two stations, the French busy with the multitudinous arrangements necessitated by a great military undertaking, the English with less to do, yet maintaining themselves in a state of expectancy and preparation for instant action, that entails constant alertness and mental activity.
On the 5th of April Rodney was informed that the soldiers were being embarked, and on the 8th, soon after daylight, the lookout frigates were seen making signal that the enemy was leaving port. The English fleet at once began to get under way, and by noon was clear of the harbor to the number of thirty-six of the line. At half-past two P.M. the advanced frigates were in sight of the French fleet, which was seen from the mastheads of the main body just before sun-down. The English stood to the northward all night, and at daybreak of the 9th were abreast Dominica, but for the most part becalmed. Inshore of them, to the northward and eastward, were seen the French fleet and convoy: the men-of-war numbering thirty-three of the line, besides smaller vessels; the convoy a hundred and fifty sail, under special charge of the two fifty-gun ships. The irregular and uncertain winds, common to the night and early hours of the day near the land, had scattered these unwieldy numbers. Fifteen sail-of-the-line were in the channel between Dominica and the Saints, with a fresh trade-wind, apparently beating to windward; the remainder of the ships-of-war and most of the convoy were still becalmed close under Dominica. Gradually, however, one by one, the French ships were catching light airs off the land; and by favor of these, which did not reach so far as the English in the offing, drew out from the island and entered the more steady breeze of the channel, reinforcing the group which was thus possessed of that prime element of naval power, mobility. At the same time light airs from the southeast crept out to the English van under Hood, fanning it gently north from the main body of the fleet toward two isolated French ships, which, having fallen to leeward during the night, had shared the calms that left the English motionless, with their heads all round the compass. They had come nearly within gunshot, when a light puff from the northwest enabled the Frenchmen to draw away and approach their own ships in the channel.
The farther the English van advanced, the fresher grew their wind, until they fairly opened the channel of the Saints and felt the trade-wind. De Grasse signalled to the convoy to put into Guadeloupe, which order was so well carried out that they were all out of sight to the northward by two in the afternoon, and will appear no more in the sequel. The two French ships, already spoken of as fallen to leeward, not being yet out of danger from the English van, which had now a commanding breeze, and the latter being much separated from their rear and centre, De Grasse ordered his van to bear down and engage. This was obeyed by the ships signalled and by three others, in all by fourteen or fifteen, the action, beginning at half-past nine A.M., and lasting with intermissions until quarter-past one P.M. Hood was soon forced to heave-to, in order not to increase too much his separation from the main fleet; the French kept under way, approaching from the rear and passing in succession at half cannon-shot to windward. As each ship drew ahead of the English division, she tacked, standing back to the southward until in position to resume her place in the order of attack, thus describing a continuous irregular curve of elliptical form, to windward of their opponents. The brunt of the attack fell upon eight or nine of the English, this number being successively increased as one ship after another, as the baffling airs served, drew out from the calm space under Dominica; but the French received similar accessions. While this engagement was going on, part of the English centre, eight ships with Rodney’s flag among them, by carefully watching the puffs and cat’s-paws, had worked in with the land and caught the sea breeze, which was felt there sooner than in the offing. As soon as they had it, about eleven A.M., they stood to the north, being now on the weather quarter (1) both of the English van and its assailants. The latter, seeing this, tacked, and abandoning the contest for the moment, steered south to join their centre, lest Rodney’s eight ships should get between them. At half-past eleven the French again formed line on the starboard tack, most of their ships being now clear of the land, while the English rear was still becalmed. The greater numbers of the French enabled them to extend from north to south along the length of the English line, whereas the latter was still broken by a great gap between the van and centre. The attack upon Hood was therefore hotly renewed; but the French centre and rear, having the wind, kept their distance, and held Rodney’s division at long range. At quarter-past one the French, finding that the whole British line was coming up with the wind, ceased firing, and at two Rodney hauled down the signal for battle, the enemy having withdrawn.
1. Weather quarter is behind, but on the windward side.
This action of the 9th of April amounted actually to no more than an artillery duel. One French ship, the “Caton,” a sixty-four, received injuries which sent her into Guadeloupe; two English were disabled, but repaired their injuries without leaving the fleet. The material advantage, therefore, lay with the latter. Opinions differ as to the generalship of the Comte de Grasse on this day, but they divide on the same basis of principle as to whether ulterior operations, or the chances of beating the enemy’s fleet, are to determine an admiral’s action. The facts of the case are these: Sixteen of the English fleet, all the rear and four of the centre, were not able at any time to fire a shot. Apparently every French ship, first and last, might have been brought into action. At the beginning, eight or nine English were opposed to fifteen French. At the end there were twenty English to thirty-three French, and these general proportions doubtless obtained throughout the four hours. De Grasse therefore found himself in the presence of a fleet superior to his own, in numbers at least, and by the favor of Providence that fleet so divided that nearly half of it was powerless to act. He had the wind, he had a fine body of captains; what was to prevent him from attacking Hood’s nine ships with fifteen, putting one on each side of the six in the rear. Had those nine been thoroughly beaten, Rodney’s further movements must have been hopelessly crippled. The French lost only five in their defeat three days later. The subsequent court-martial, however, laid down the French doctrine thus: “The decision to persist in engaging with only a part of our fleet may be considered as an act of prudence on the part of the admiral, which might be dictated by the ulterior projects of the campaign.” On this a French professional writer naturally remarks, that if an attack were made at all, it would be more prudent to make it in force; less injury would fall on individual ships, while in the end the whole fleet would inevitably be drawn in to support any which, by losing spars, could not return to windward.
Three times in one year had Fortune thrown before De Grasse the opportunity of attacking English fleets with decisive odds on his side. (1) Her favors were now exhausted. Three days more were to show how decidedly the ulterior projects of a campaign may be affected by a battle and the loss of a few ships. From the 9th to the morning of the 12th the French fleet continued beating to windward between Dominica and the Saints, in no regular order. On the night of the 9th the English hove-to to repair damages. The next day the chase to windward was resumed, but the French gained very decidedly upon their pursuers. On the night of the 10th two ships, the “Jason” and “Zele,” collided. The “Zele” was the bane of the French fleet during these days. She was one of those that were nearly caught by the enemy on the 9th, and was also the cause of the final disaster. The injuries to the “Jason” forced her to put into Guadeloupe. On the 11th the main body was to windward of the Saints, but the “Zele” and another had fallen so far to leeward that De Grasse bore down to cover them, thus losing much of the ground gained. On the night following, the “Zele” was again in collision, this time with De Grasse’s flag-ship; the latter lost some sails, but the other, which had not the right of way and was wholly at fault, carried away both foremast and bowsprit. The admiral sent word to the frigate “Astree” to take the “Zele” in tow; and here flits across the page of our story a celebrated and tragical figure, for the captain of the “Astree” was the ill-fated explorer Lapeyrouse, the mystery of whose disappearance with two ships and their entire crews remained so long unsolved. Two hours were consumed in getting the ship under way in tow of the frigate, - not very smart work under the conditions of weather and urgency; but by five A.M. the two were standing away for Basse Terre, where the “Caton” and “Jason,” as well as the convoy, had already arrived. The French fleet had thus lost three from its line-of-battle since leaving Martinique.
1. April 29, 1781, off Martinique, twenty-four ships to eighteen; January, 1 thirty to twenty-two; Ann! 9. 1782, thirty to twenty.
The disabled ship had not long been headed for Basse Terre, when the faint streaks of dawn announced the approach of the 12th of April, a day doubly celebrated in naval annals. The sun had not quite set upon the exhausted squadrons of Suffren and Hughes, anchoring after their fiercest battle off Ceylon, when his early rays shone upon the opening strife between Rodney and De Grasse. (1) The latter was at the time the greatest naval battle in its results that had been fought in a century; its influence on the course of events was very great, though far from as decisive as it might have been; it was attended with circumstances of unusual though somewhat factitious brilliancy, and particularly was marked by a manoeuvre that was then looked upon as exceptionally daring and decisive, - “breaking the line.” It must be added that it has given rise to a storm of controversy; and the mass of details, as given by witnesses who should be reliable, are so confused and contradictory, owing mainly to the uncertainties of the wind, that it is impossible now to do more than attempt to reconcile them in a full account. Nevertheless, the leading features can he presented with sufficient accuracy, and this will first be done briefly and barely; the outline thus presented can afterward be clothed with the details which give color, life, and interest to the great scene.
1. The difference of the from Trincomalee to the Saints is nine hours and a half.
At daylight (1) (about half-past five) the English fleet, which had gone about at two A.M., was standing on the starboard tack, with the wind at southeast, (2) an unusual amount of southing for that hour. It was then about fifteen miles from the Saints, which bore north-northeast, and ten from the French fleet, which bore northeast. The latter, owing to the events of the night, was greatly scattered, as much as eight or ten miles separating the weather, or easternmost, ships from the lee, (3) the flag-ship “Ville de Paris” being among the latter. Anxiety for the “Zele” kept the French admiral, with the ships in his company, under short canvas, standing to the southward on the port tack. The English on the star-board tack, with the wind as they had it, (4) headed east-northeast, and thus, as soon as there was light to see, found the French “broad on the lee bow, and one of M. de Grasse’s ships (the ‘Zele’) towed by a frigate, square under our lee, with his bowsprit and foremast prostrate across his fore-castle.” (2) To draw the French farther to leeward, Rodney detached four ships to chase the “Zele.” As soon as De Grasse saw this he signalled his fleet to keep away, as Rodney wished, and at the same time to form the line-of-battle, thus calling down to him the ships to windward. The English line was also formed rapidly, and the chasing ships recalled at seven A.M. De Grasse, seeing that if he stood on he would lose the weather-gage altogether, hauled up again on the port tack; and the breeze changing to east-southeast and east in his favor and knocking the English off, the race of the two fleets on opposite tacks, for the advantage of the wind, became nearly equal. The French, however, won, thanks to a superiority in sailing which had enabled them to draw so far to windward of the English on the previous days, and, but for the awkwardness of the “Zele,” might have cleared them altogether. Their leading ships first reached and passed the point where the rapidly converging tracks intersected, while the English leader, the “Marlborough,” struck the French line between the sixth and tenth ships (variously stated). The battle, of course, had by this time begun, the ninth ship in the French line, the “Brave,” opening fire at twenty minutes before eight A.M. upon the “Marlborough.” As there was no previous intention of breaking the line, the English leader kept away, in obedience to a signal from Rodney, and ran close along under the enemy’s lee, followed in succession by all the ships as they rcached her wake. The battle thus assumed the common and indecisive phase of two fleets passing on opposite tacks, the wind very light, however, and so allowing a more heavy engagement than common under these circumstances, the ships “sliding by” at the rate of three to four knots. Since the hostile lines diverged again south of their point of meeting, De Grasse made signal to keep away four points to south-southwest, thus bringing his van to action with the English rear, and not permitting the latter to reach his rear unscathed. There were, however, two dangers threatening the French if they continued their course. Its direction, south or south-southwest, carried them into the calms that hung round the north end of Dominica; and the uncertainty of the wind made it possible that by its hauling to the southward the enemy could pass through their line and gain the wind, and with it the possibility of forcing the decisive battle which the French policy had shunned; and this was in fact what happened. De Grasse therefore made signal at half-past eight to wear together and take the same tack as the English. This, however, was impossible; the two fleets were too close together to admit the evolution. He then signalled to haul close to the wind and wear in succession, which also failed to be done, and at five minutes past nine the dreaded contingency arose; the wind hauled to the southward, knocking off all the French ships that had not yet kept away; that is, all who had English ships close under their lee. Rodney, in the “Formidable,” was at this time just drawing up with the fourth ship astern of De Grasse’s flag. Luffing to the new wind, he passed through the French line, followed by the five ships next astern of him, while nearly at the same moment, and from the same causes, his sixth astern led through the interval abreast him, followed by the whole English rear. The French line-of-battle was thus broken in two places by columns of enemies’ ships in such close order as to force its vessels aside, even if the wind had not conspired to embarrass their action. Every principle upon which a line-of-battle was constituted, for mutual support and for the clear field of fire of each ship, was thus overthrown for the French, and preserved for the English divisions which filed through; and the French were forced off to leeward by the interposition of the enemy’s columns, besides being broken up. Compelled thus to forsake the line upon which they had been ranged, it was necessary to re-form upon another, and unite the three groups into which they were divided, - a difficult piece of tactics under any circumstances, but doubly so under the moral impression of disaster, and in presence of a superior enemy, who, though himself disordered, was in better shape, and already felt the glow of victory.
1. The account of the transactions from April 9 to April 12 is based mainly upon the contemporary plates and descriptions of Lieutenant Matthews, R. N., and the much later “Naval Researches” of Capt. Thomas White, also of the British Navy, who were eye-witnesses, both being checked by French and other English narratives. Matthews and White are at variance with Rodney’s official report as to the tack on which the English were at daybreak; but the latter is explicitly confirmed by private letters of Sir Charles Douglas, sent immediately after the battle to prominent persons, and is followed in the text. 2. Letter of Sir Charles Douglas, Rodney’s chief-of-staff: “United Service Journal,” 1833, Part I. p. 515. 3. De Grasse calls this distance three leagues, while some of his captains estimated it to be as great as five. 4. The French, in mid-channel, had the wind more to the eastward.
It does not appear that any substantial attempt to re-form was made by the French. To reunite, yes; but only as a flying, disordered mass. The various shifts of wind and movements of the divisions left their fleet, at midday, with the centre two miles northwest of and to leeward of the van, the rear yet farther from the centre and to leeward of it. Calms and short puffs of wind prevailed now through both fleets. At half-past one P.M. a light breeze from the east sprang up, and De Grasse made signal to form the line again on the port tack; between three and four, not having succeeded in this, he made signal to form on the starboard tack. The two signals and the general tenor of the accounts show that at no time were the French re-formed after their line was broken; and all the manoeuvres tended toward, even if they did not necessitate, taking the whole fleet as far down as the most leewardly of its parts. In such a movement, it followed of course that the most crippled ships were left behind, and these were picked up, one by one, by the Englishmen, who pursued without any regular order, for which there was no need, as mutual support was assured without it. Shortly after six P.M. De Grasse’s flag-ship, the “Ville de Paris,” struck her colors to the “Barfleur,” carrying the flag of Sir Samuel Hood. The French accounts state that nine of the enemy’s ships then surrounded her, and there is no doubt that she had been fought to the bitter end. Her name, commemorating the great city whose gift she had been to the king, her unusual size, and the fact that no French naval commander-in-chief had before been taken prisoner in battle, conspired to bestow a peculiar brilliancy upon Rodney’s victory. Four other ships-of-the-line were taken, and, singularly enough, upon these particular ships was found the whole train of artillery intended for the reduction of Jamaica.
Such were the leading features of the Battle of the Saints, or, as it is sometimes styled, of the 12th of April, known to the French as the Battle of Dominica. Certain points which have so far been omitted for the sake of clearness, but which affect the issue, must now be given. When the day opened, the French fleet was greatly scattered and without order. (1) De Grasse, under the influence of his fears for the “Zele,” so precipitated his movements that his line was not properly formed at the moment of engaging. The van ships had not yet come into position, and the remainder were so far from having reached their places that De Vaudreuil, commanding the rear division and last engaged, states that the line was formed under the fire of musketry. The English, on the contrary, were in good order, the only change made being to shorten the interval between ships from two to one cable’s length (seven hundred feet). The celebrated stroke of breaking through the French line was due, not to previous intention, but to a shift of wind throwing their ships out of order and so increasing the spaces between them; while the gap through which Rodney’s group penetrated was widened by the “Diademe” on its north side being taken aback and paying round on the other tack. Sir Charles Douglas says the immediate effect, where the flag-ship broke through, was “the bringing together, almost if not quite in contact with each other, the four ships of the enemy which were nearest,” on the north, “to the point alluded to, and coming up in succession. This unfortunate group, composing now only one large single object at which to fire, was attacked by the ‘Duke,’ ‘Namur,’ and ‘Formidable’ (ninety-gun ships) all at once, receiving several broadsides from each, not a single shot missing; and great must have been the slaughter.” The “Duke”, being next ahead of the flag-ship, had followed her leader under the French lee; but as soon as her captain saw that the “Formidable” had traversed the enemy’s order, he did the same, passing north of this confused group and so bringing it under a fire from both sides. The log of the “Magnanime,” one of the group, mentions passing under the fire of two three-deckers, one on either side.
1. The distance of the weathermost French ships from the “Ville de Paris,” when the signal to form line-of-battle was made, is variously stated at from six to nine miles.
As soon as the order was thus broken, Rodney hauled down the signal for the line, keeping flying that for close action, and at the same time ordered his van, which had now passed beyond and north of the enemy’s rear, to go about and rejoin the English centre. This was greatly delayed through the injuries to spars and sails received in passing under the enemy’s fire. His own flag-ship and the ships with her went about. The rear, under Hood, instead of keeping north again to join the centre, stood to windward for a time, and were then becalmed at a considerable distance from the rest of the fleet.
Much discussion took place at a later day as to the wisdom of Rodney’s action in breaking through his enemy’s order, and to whom the credit, if any, should be ascribed. The latter point is of little concern; but it may be said that the son of Sir Charles Douglas, Rodney’s chief-of-staff, brought forward an amount of positive evidence, the only kind that could be accepted to diminish the credit of the person wholly responsible for the results, which proves that the suggestion came from Douglas, and Rodney’s consent was with difficulty obtained. The value of the manoeuvre itself is of more consequence than any question of personal reputation. It has been argued by some that, so far from being a meritorious act, it was unfortunate, and for Rodney’s credit should rather be attributed to the force of circumstances than to choice. It had been better, these say, to have continued along under the lee of the French rear, thus inflicting upon it the fire of the whole English line, and that the latter should have tacked and doubled on the French rear. This argument conveniently forgets that tacking, or turning round in any way, after a brush of this kind, was possible to only a part of the ships engaged; and that these would have much difficulty in overtaking the enemies who had passed on, unless the latter were very seriously crippled. Therefore this suggested attack, the precise reproduction of the battle of Ushant, really reduces itself to the fleets passing on opposite tacks, each distributing its fire over the whole of the enemy’s line without attempting any concentration on a part of it. It may, and must, be conceded at once, that Rodney’s change of course permitted the eleven rear ships of the French to run off to leeward, having received the fire of only part of their enemy, while the English van had undergone that of nearly the whole French fleet. These ships, however, were thus thrown entirely out of action for a measurable and important time by being driven to leeward, and would have been still more out of position to help any of their fleet, had not De Grasse himself been sent to leeward by Hood’s division cutting the line three ships ahead of him. The thirteen leading French ships, obeying the last signal they had seen, were hugging the wind; the group of six with De Grasse would have done the same had they not been headed off by Hood’s division. The result of Rodney’s own action alone, therefore, would have been to divide the French fleet into two parts, separated by a space of six miles, and one of them hopelessly to leeward. The English, having gained the wind, would have been in position easily to “contain” the eleven lee ships, and to surround the nineteen weather ones in overwhelming force. The actual condition, owing to the two breaches in the line, was slightly different; the group of six with De Grasse being placed between his weather and lee divisions, two miles from the former, four from the latter. It seems scarcely necessary to insist upon the tactical advantages of such a situation for the English, even disregarding the moral effect of the confusion through which the French had passed. In addition to this, a very striking lesson is deducible from the immediate effects of the English guns in passing through. Of the five ships taken, three were those under whose sterns the English divisions pierced. (1) Instead of giving and taking, as the parallel lines ran by, on equal terms, each ship having the support of those ahead and astern, the French ships near which the penetrating columns passed received each the successive fire of all the enemy’s division. Thus Hood’s thirteen ships filed by the two rear ones of the French van, the “Cesar” and “Hector,” fairly crushing them under this concentration of fire; while in like manner, and with like results, Rodney’s six passed by the “Glorieux.” This “concentration by defiling” past the extremity of a column corresponds quite accurately to the concentration upon the flank of a line, and has a special interest, because if successfully carried out it would be as powerful an attack now as it ever has been. If quick to seize their advantage, the English might have fired upon the ships on both sides of the gaps through which they passed, as the “Formidable” actually did; but they were using the starboard broadsides, and many doubtless did not realize their opportunity until too late. The natural results of Rodney’s act, therefore, were: 1. The gain of the wind, with the power of offensive action; 2. Concentration of fire upon a part of the enemy’s order; and 3. The introduction into the latter of confusion and division, which might, and did, become very great, offering the opportunity of further tactical advantage. It is not a valid reply to say that, had the French been more apt, they could have united sooner. A manoeuvre that presents a good chance of advantage does not lose its merit because it can be met by a prompt movement of the enemy, any more than a particular lunge of the sword becomes worthless because it has its appropriate parry. The chances were that by heading off the rear ships, while the van stood on, the French fleet would be badly divided; and the move was none the less sagacious because the two fragments could have united sooner than they did, had they been well handled. With the alternative action suggested, of tacking after passing the enemy’s rear, the pursuit became a stern chase, in which both parties having been equally engaged would presumably be equally crippled. Signals of disability, in fact, were numerous in both fleets.
1. The other two French ships taken were the “Ville de Paris,” which, in her isolated condition, and bearing the flag of the commander-in-chief, became the quarry around which the enemy’s ships naturally gathered, and the “Ardent,” of sixty-four guns, which appears to have been intercepted in a gallant attempt to pass from the van to the side of her admiral in his extremity. The latter was the solitary prize taken by the allied Great Armada in the English Channel, in 1779.
Independently of the tactical handling of the two fleets, there were certain differences of equipment which conferred tactical advantage, and are therefore worth noting. The French appear to have had finer ships, and, class for class, heavier armaments. Sir Charles Douglas, an eminent officer of active and ingenious turn of mind, who paid particular attention to gunnery details, estimated that in weight of battery the thirty-three French were superior to the thirty-six English by the force of four 84-gun ships; and that after the loss of the “Zele,” “Jason,” and “Caton” there still remained an advantage equal to two seventy-fours. The French admiral La Graviere admits the generally heavier calibre of French cannon at this era. The better construction of the French ships and their greater draught caused them to sail and beat better, and accounts in part for the success of De Grasse in gaining to windward; for in the afternoon of the 11th only three or four of the body of his fleet were visible from the mast-head of the English flag-ship, which had been within gunshot of them on the 9th. It was the awkwardness of the unlucky “Zele” and of the “Magnanime,” which drew down De Grasse from his position of vantage, and justified Rodney’s perseverance in relying upon the chapter of accidents to effect his purpose. The greater speed of the French as a body is somewhat hard to account for, because, though undoubtedly with far better lines, the practice of coppering the bottom had not become so general in France as in England, and among the French there were several un-coppered and worm-eaten ships. (1) The better sailing of the French was, however, remarked by the English officers, though the great gain mentioned must have been in part owing to Rodney’s lying-by, after the action of the 9th, to refit, due probably to the greater injury received by the small body of his vessels, which had been warmly engaged, with greatly superior numbers. It was stated, in narrating that action, that the French kept at half cannon-range; this was to neutralize a tactical advantage the English had in the large number of carronades and other guns of light weight but large calibre, which in close action told heavily, but were useless at greater distances. The second in command, De Vaudreuil, to whom was intrusted the conduct of that attack, expressly states that if he had come within reach of the carronades his ships would have been quickly unrigged. Whatever judgment is passed upon the military policy of refusing to crush an enemy situated as the English division was, there can be no question that, if the object was to prevent pursuit, the tactics of De Vaudreuil on the 9th was in all respects excellent. He inflicted the utmost injury with the least exposure of his own force. On the 12th, De Grasse, by allowing himself to be lured within reach of carronades, yielded this advantage, besides sacrificing to an impulse his whole previous strategic policy. Rapidly handled from their lightness, firing grape and shot of large diameter, these guns were peculiarly harmful in close action and useless at long range. In a later despatch De Vaudreuil says: “The effect of these new arms is most deadly within musket range; it is they which so badly crippled us on the 12th of April.” There were other gunnery innovations, in some at least of the English ships, which by increasing the accuracy, the rapidity, and the field of fire, greatly augmented the power of their batteries. These were the introduction of locks, by which the man who aimed also fired; and the fitting to the gun-carriages of breast-pieces and sweeps, so that the guns could he pointed farther ahead or astern, - that is, over a larger field than had been usual. In fights between single ships, not controlled in their movements by their relations to a fleet, this improvement would at times allow the possessor to take a position whence he could train upon his enemy without the latter being able to reply, and some striking instances of such tactical advantage are given. In a fleet fight, such as is now being considered, the gain was that the guns could be brought to bear farther forward, and could follow the opponent longer as he passed astern, thus doubling, or more, the number of shots he might receive, and lessening for him the interval of immunity enjoyed between two successive antagonists. (2) These matters of antiquated and now obsolete detail carry with them lessons that are never obsolete; they differ in no respect from the more modern experiences with the needle-gun and the torpedo.
1. Official letter of the Marquis de Vaudreuil. Guerin: Histoire de la Marine Francaise, vol. v. p. 513. 2. See United Service Journal, 1834, Part II. no. 109 and following.
And indeed this whole action of April 12, 1782, is fraught with sound military teaching. Perseverance in pursuit, gaining advantage of position, concentration of one’s own effort, dispersal of the enemy’s force, the efficient tactical bearing of small but important improvements in the material of war, have been dwelt on. To insist further upon the necessity of not letting slip a chance to beat the enemy in detail, would be thrown away on any one not already convinced by the bearing of April 9 on April 12. The abandonment of the attack upon Jamaica, after the defeat of the French fleet, shows conclusively that the true way to secure ulterior objects is to defeat the force which threatens them. There remains at least one criticism, delicate in its character, but essential to draw out the full teachings of these events; that is, upon the manner in which the victory was followed up, and the consequent effects upon the war in general.
The liability of sailing-ships to injury in spars and sails, in other words, in that mobility which is the prime characteristic of naval strength, makes it difficult to say, after a lapse of time, what might or might not have been done. It is not only a question of actual damage received, which log-books may record, but also of the means for repair, the energy and aptitude of the officers and seamen, which differ from ship to ship. As to the ability of the English fleet, however, to follow up its advantages by a more vigorous pursuit on the 12th of April, we have the authority of two most distinguished officers, - Sir Samuel Hood, the second in command, and Sir Charles Douglas, the captain of the fleet, or chief-of-staff to the admiral. The former expressed the opinion that twenty ships might have been taken, and said so to Rodney the next day; while the chief-of-staff was so much mortified by the failure, and by the manner in which the admiral received his suggestions, as seriously to contemplate resigning his position. (1)
1. See letter of Sir Howard Douglas in United Service Journal, 1834, Part II. p. 97; also “Naval Evolutions,” by same author. The letters of Sir Samuel Hood have not come under the author’s eye.
Advice and criticism are easy, nor can the full weight of a responsibility be felt, except by the man on whom it is laid; but great results cannot often be reached in war without risk and effort. The accuracy of the judgment of these two officers, however, is confirmed by inference from the French reports. Rodney justifies his failure to pursue by alleging the crippled condition of many ships, and other matters incident to the conclusion of a hard-fought battle, and then goes on to suggest what might have been done that night, had he pursued, by the French fleet, which “went off in a body of twenty-six ships-of-the-line.” (1) These possibilities are rather creditable to his imagination, considering what the French fleet had done by day; but as regards the body of twenty-six (2) ships, De Vaudreuil, who, after De Grasse’s surrender, made the signal for the ships to rally round his flag, found only ten with him next morning, and was not joined by any more before the 14th. During the following days five more joined him at intervals. (3) With these he went to the rendezvous at Cap Francais, where he found others, bringing the whole number who repaired thither to twenty. The five remaining, of those that had been in the action, fled to Curacoa, six hundred miles distant, and did not rejoin until May. The “body of twenty-six ships,” therefore, had no existence in fact; on the contrary, the French fleet was very badly broken up, and several of its ships isolated. As regards the crippled condition, there seems no reason to think the English had suffered more, but rather less, than their enemy; and a curious statement, bearing upon this, appears in a letter from Sir Gilbert Blane: -
“It was with difficulty we could make the French officers believe that the returns of killed and wounded, made by our ships to the admiral, were true; and one of them flatly contradicted me, saying we always gave the world a false account of our loss. I then walked with him over the decks of the ‘Formidable,’ and bid him remark what number of shot-holes there were, and also how little her rigging had suffered, and asked if that degree of damage was likely to be connected with the loss of more than fourteen men, which was our number killed, and the greatest of any in the fleet, except the ‘Royal Oak’ and ‘Monarch.’ He... owned our fire must have been much better kept up and directed than theirs.”
1. Rodney’s Life, vol. ii. p. 248. 2. There were only twenty-five in all. 3. Guerin, vol. v p. 511. 4. Rodney’s Life, vol. ii p. 246.
There can remain little doubt, therefore, that the advantage was not followed up with all possible vigor. Not till five days after the battle was Hood’s division sent toward San Domingo, where they picked up in the Mona Passage the “Jason” and the “Caton,” which had separated before the battle and were on their way to Cap Francais. These, and two small vessels with them, were the sole after-fruits of the victory. Under the conditions of England’s war this cautious failure is a serious blot on Rodney’s military reputation, and goes far to fix his place among successful admirals. He had saved Jamaica for the time; but he had not, having the opportunity, crushed the French fleet. He too, like De Grasse, had allowed the immediate objective to blind him to the general military situation, and to the factor which controlled it.
To appreciate the consequences of this neglect, and the real indecisiveness of this celebrated battle, we must go forward a year and listen to the debates in Parliament on the conditions of peace, in February, 1783. The approval or censure of the terms negotiated by the existing ministry involved the discussion of many considerations; but the gist of the dispute was, whether the conditions were such as the comparative financial and military situations of the belligerents justified, or whether it would have been better for England to continue the war rather than submit to the sacrifices she had made. As regards the financial condition, despite the gloomy picture drawn by the advocates of the peace, there was probably no more doubt then than there is now about the comparative resources of the different countries. The question of military strength was really that of naval power. The ministry argued that the whole British force hardly numbered one hundred sail-of-the-line, while the navies of France and Spain amounted to one hundred and forty, not to speak of that of Holland.
“With so glaring an inferiority, what hopes of success could we derive, either from the experience of the last campaign, or from any new distribution of our force in that which would have followed? In the West Indies we could not have had more than forty-six sail to oppose to forty, which on the day that peace was signed lay in Cadiz Bay, with sixteen thousand troops on board, ready to sail for that quarter of the world, where they would have been joined by twelve of the line from Havana and ten from San Domingo.... Might we not too reasonably apprehend that the campaign in the West Indies would have closed with the loss of Jamaica itself, the avowed object of this immense armament?” (1)
1. Annual Register, 1783, p. 151.
These are certainly the reasonings of an avowed partisan, for which large allowances must be made. The accuracy of the statement of comparative numbers was denied by Lord Keppel, a member of the same party, and but lately at the head of the admiralty, a post which he had resigned because he disapproved the treaty. (1) English statesmen, too, as well as English seamen, must by this the have learned to discount largely the apparent, when estimating the real, power of the other navies. Nevertheless, how different would have been the appreciation of the situation, both moral and material, had Rodney reaped the full fruits of the victory which he owed rather to chance than to his own merit, great as that undeniably was.
1. Annual Register, 1783, p. 157; Life of Admiral Keppel, vol. ii. p 403.
A letter published in 1809, anonymous, but bearing strong internal evidence of being written by Sir Gilbert Blane, the physician of the fleet and long on intimate terms with Rodney, who was a constant sufferer during his last cruise, states that the admiral “thought little of his victory on the 12th of April, 1782.” He would have preferred to rest his reputation upon his combinations against De Guichen, April 17, 1780, and “looked upon that opportunity of beating, with an inferior fleet, such an officer, whom he considered the best in the French service, as one by which, but for the disobedience of his captains, he might have gained immortal renown.” (1) Few students will be inclined to question this estimate of Rodney’s merit on the two occasions Fortune, however, decreed that his glory should depend upon a battle, brilliant in itself, to which his own qualities least contributed, and denied him success when he most deserved it. The chief action of his life in which merit and success met, the destruction of Langara’s fleet off Cape St. Vincent, has almost passed into oblivion; yet it called for the highest qualities of a seaman, and is not unworthy of comparison with Hawke’s pursuit of Conflans. (2)
1. Naval Chronicle, vol. xxv. p 404. 2. Page 404. Yet here also the gossip of the day, as reflected in the Naval Atalantis, imputed the chief credit to Young, the captain of the flag-ship. Sir Gilbert Blane stated, many years later, “When it was close upon sunset, it became a question whether the chase should be continued. After some discussion between the admiral and captain, at which I was present, the admiral being confined with the gout, it was decided to persist in the same course with the signal to engage to leeward.” (United Service Journal, 1830, Part II p. 479.)
Within the two years and a half which had elapsed since Rodney was appointed to his command he had gained several important successes, and, as was remarked, had taken a French, a Spanish, and a Dutch admiral. “In that time he had added twelve line-of-battle ships, all taken from the enemy, to the British navy, and destroyed five more; and to render the whole still more singularly remarkable, the ‘Ville de Paris’ was said to be the only first-rate man-of-war that ever was taken and carried into port by any commander of any nation.” Notwithstanding his services, the party spirit that was then so strong in England, penetrating even the army and navy, obtained his recall (1) upon the fall of Lord North’s ministry, and his successor, a man unknown to fame, had already sailed when news arrived of the victory. In the fallen and discouraging state of English affairs at the time, it excited the utmost exultation, and silenced the strictures which certain parts of the admiral’s previous conduct had drawn forth. The people were not in a humor to be critical, and amid the exaggerated notions that prevailed of the results achieved, no one thought of the failure to obtain greater. This impression long prevailed. As late as 1830, when Rodney’s Life was first published, it was asserted “that the French navy had been so effectually crippled and reduced by the decisive victory of the 12th of April, as to be no longer in a condition to contest with Great Britain the empire of the seas.” This is nonsense, excusable in 1782, but not to the calm thought of after days. The favorable terms obtained were due to the financial embarrassment of France, not to her naval humiliation; and if there was exaggeration in the contention of the advocates of peace that England could not save Jamaica, it is probable that she could not have recovered by arms the other islands restored to her by the treaty.
1. Rodney was a strong Tory. Almost all the other distinguished admirals of the day, notably Keppel, Howe, and Barrington, were Whigs, - a fact unfortunate for the naval power of England.
The memory of De Grasse will always be associated with great services done to America. His name, rather than that of Rochambeau, represents the material succor which France gave to the struggling life of the young Republic, as Lafayette’s recalls the moral sympathy so opportunely extended. The incidents of his life, subsequent to the great disaster which closed his active career, cannot be without interest to American readers.
After the surrender of the “Ville de Paris,” De Grasse accompanied the English fleet and its prizes to Jamaica, whither Rodney repaired to refit his ships, thus appearing as a captive upon the scene of his intended conquest. On the 19th of May he left the island, still a prisoner, for England. Both by naval officers and by the English people he was treated with that flattering and benevolent attention which comes easily from the victor to the vanquished, and of which his personal valor at least was not unworthy. It is said that he did not refuse to show himself on several occasions upon the balcony of his rooms in London, to the populace shouting for the valiant Frenchman. This undignified failure to appreciate his true position naturally excited the indignation of his countrymen; the more so as he had been unsparing and excessive in denouncing the conduct of his subordinates on the unlucky 12th of April.
“He bears his misfortune,” wrote Sir Gilbert Blane, “with equanimity; conscious, as he says, that he has done his duty... He attributes his misfortune, not to the inferiority of his force, but to the base desertion of his officers in the other ships, to whom he made the signal to rally, and even hailed them to abide by him, but was abandoned.” (1)
1. Rodney’s Life, vol. ii. p. 242.
This was the key-note to all his utterances. Writing from the English flag-ship, the day after the battle, he “threw upon the greater part of his captains the misfortunes of the day. Some had disobeyed his signals; others, and notably the captains of the ‘Languedoc’ and ‘Couronne,’ that is to say his next ahead and astern, had abandoned him.” (1) He did not, however, confine himself to official reports, but while a prisoner in London published several pamphlets to the same effect, which he sent broadcast over Europe. The government, naturally thinking that an officer could not thus sully the honor of his corps without good reason, resolved to search out and relentlessly punish all the guilty. The captains of the “Languedoc” and “Couronne” were imprisoned as soon as they reached France, and all papers, logs, etc., bearing upon the case were gathered together. Under all the circumstances it is not to be wondered at that on his return to France, De Grasse, to use his own words, “found no one to hold out a hand to him.” (2) It was not till the beginning of 1784 that all the accused and witnesses were ready to appear before the court-martial; but the result of the trial was to clear entirely and in the most ample manner almost every one whom he had attacked, while the faults found were considered of a character entitled to indulgence, and were awarded but slight punishment. “Nevertheless,” cautiously observes a French writer, “one cannot but say, with the Court, that the capture of an admiral commanding thirty ships-of-the-line is an historical incident which causes the regret of the whole nation.” (3) As to the conduct of the battle by the admiral, the Court found that the danger of the “Zele” on the morning of the 12th was not such as to justify bearing down for so long a time as was done; that the crippled ship had a breeze which was not then shared by the English, five miles away to the southward, and which carried her into Basse Terre at ten A.M.; that the engagement should not have been begun before all the ships had come into line; and finally, that the fleet should have been formed on the same tack as the English, because, by continuing to stand south, it entered the zone of calms and light airs at the north end of Dominica. (4)
1. Chevalier, p. 311. 2. Kerguelen: Guerre Maritime de 1778. Letter of De Grasse to Kerguelen, p. 263. 3. Troude: Batailles Navales. it is interesting to note in this connection that one of the ships near the French admiral, when he surrendered, was the “Pluton,” which, though the extreme rear ship, had nevertheless thus reached a position worthy of the high reputation of her captain D’Albert de Rions. 4. Troude, vol. ii. p. 147.
De Grasse was much dissatisfied with the finding of the Court, and was indiscreet enough to write to the minister of marine, protesting against it and demanding a new trial. The minister, acknowledging his protest, replied in the name of the king. After commenting upon the pamphlets that had been so widely issued, and the entire contradiction of their statements by the testimony before the Court, he concluded with these weighty words - “The loss of the battle cannot be attributed to the fault of private officers. (1) It results, from the findings, that you have allowed yourself to injure, by ill-founded accusations, the reputation of several officers, in order to clear yourself in public opinion of an unhappy result, the excuse for which you might perhaps have found in the inferiority of your force, in the uncertain fortune of war, and in circumstances over which you had no control. His Majesty is willing to believe that you did what you could to prevent the misfortunes of the day; but he cannot be equally indulgent to your unjust imputations upon those officers of his navy who have been cleared of the charges against them. His Majesty, dissatisfied with your conduct in this respect, forbids you to present yourself before him. I transmit his orders with regret, and add my own advice to retire, under the circumstances, to your province.”
1. That is, commanders of single ships.
De Grasse died in January, 1788. His fortunate opponent, rewarded with peerage and pension, lived until 1792. Hood was also created a peer, and commanded with distinction in the early part of the wars of the French Revolution, winning the enthusiastic admiration of Nelson, who served under him; but a sharp difference with the admiralty caused him to be retired before achieving any brilliant addition to his reputation. He died in 1816, at the great age of ninety-two.