Friday, December 21, 2018

The American Revolution's Unsung Naval Hero, Part II: The British Get Even

The Battle of the Saintes, 12 April 1782, 6:30 pm by Thomas Luny (1759-1837), depicting the moment the colors were struck on Admiral Comte de Grasse's flagship, Ville de Paris, from which de Grasse had achieved victory over the British during the Battle of the Capes in September 1781 and at St. Kitts in the Leeward Islands in February 1782. Neither victory over the Royal Navy was as decisive for the French admiral as his defeat.     

A Reckoning at Saint's Passage
By A.J. Orlikoff
Hampton Roads Naval Museum Educator

After his capture of St. Kitts, Admiral François Joseph Paul, Comte de Grasse, resupplied his forces at Fort Royal on the island of Martinique and waited for reinforcements from France for the assault on Jamaica. While de Grasse was gathering his forces for the hammer blow on Jamaica, the British were organizing as well. On February 19, Admiral George Rodney joined Admiral Samuel Hood at Barbados with 12 ships of the line. Rodney, having fought de Grasse with Hood the prior year yet forced to cede command due to his health problems, was positioned to finally defeat this troublesome bete niore.
"A Prospect of Fort Royale upon the Island of Martinique" shows different parts of the fort (today known as Fort Saint Louis) such as the barracks, the magazine and the royal governor's residence.  The strategic citadel, still home to an active naval base today, was key in defending the island from the British after its establishment as a French colony in 1635. (The British Library

Key locations are highlighted in this detail from an index map made in 1771 by Thomas Jefferys for "The West-India atlas, or, A compendious description of the West-Indies : illustrated with forty correct charts and maps, taken from actual surveys : together with an historical account of the several countries and islands which compose that part of the world, their discovery, situation, extent, boundaries, product, trade, inhabitants, strength, government, religion, &c.," printed for Robert Sayer and John Bennett in February 1775. (Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division)
Despite some setbacks, de Grasse sailed out of Fort Royal on April 9 with 35 ships of the line escorting a convoy of over 100 cargo ships. They were bound for Saint Domingue to rendezvous with 15,000 Spanish troops earmarked for the conquest of Jamaica. Rodney, upon learning of de Grasse’s departure, immediately sortied out of Barbados with 36 ships of the line to stop the concentration of French and Spanish forces. In addition to their slight numerical superiority, the British ships were much improved over how they had been at the Battle of the Capes, with each British ship copper bottomed and equipped with carronades.
Copper-bottomed hulls and carronades were two of the most advanced and powerful forms of naval technology in the 1780s. This 1968 painting by Aiden Lassel Ripley depicts the recoppering of the USS Constitution. Copper bottomed hulls retarded the growth of marine life on the hulls of ships, allowing for greater speed as less marine growth weighed down the ship as it moved through the water. The above photograph shows a reproduction 68-lb carronade on the deck of HMS Victory. Carronades were short-barreled smoothbore cannons placed by the Royal Navy on the decks and in the forecastles of ships. Carronades tremendously upgraded the firepower of Royal Navy ships, giving them a decisive advantage at close range over the Marine Royale. These two cutting edge naval technologies gave the Royal Navy critical advantages over their French competitors in the Caribbean. (USS Constitution Museum/ Wikimedia Commons)
On April 9, de Grasse was surprised to see British ships rapidly closing with the French fleet off of Saint’s Passage between Dominica and Guadeloupe. With their copper bottoms, the Royal Navy had the advantage of speed and de Grasse was forced to deploy his fleet to foil the British attack. Hood, who had been given command of the eight ships of the British vanguard, aggressively attacked the French fleet. De Grasse responded well, reversing his line and pounding Hood’s isolated van division with accurate fire. De Grasse had a chance to further punish Hood’s isolated ships yet he decided to pull back to protect the French convoy. 

This detail from “Caribbee Island, Virgin Islands, and Isle of Porto Rico” from The West-India atlas shows the relative location of “Les Saintes” in relation to the islands of Dominca and Guadeloupe.  (Library of Congress, Geography and Map Division)

The opposing fleets jockeyed for position and wind over the next two days, with de Grasse trying to catch a favorable wind to bear convoy and fleet safely through Saint’s Passage. On April 11, a strong wind allowed the French to make for Saint’s Passage and the British pursued them. De Grasse’s fleet looked as if it would make it through the passage yet two French ships, Zélé and Magnanime, lagged behind and were vulnerable to capture by Rodney. In order to save the two stragglers, de Grasse reversed his line and was resolved to fight the Royal Navy in a decisive engagement.
The pomp and confidence of Admiral George Brydges Rodney, the British commander at the Battle of the Saintes, was captured in this 1792 painting by Joshua Reynolds. Rodney was the Admiralty’s initial choice to lead the Royal Navy in the Caribbean and he engaged French forces there several times during the Revolutionary War. Regarded as tactical genius, Rodney was an aggressive, strict, and capable naval commander. He would have led British forces at the Battle of the Capes if not for his health problems forcing a convalescence of several months. Rejuvenated after months of recovery, Rodney was back in command and ready to avenge the Royal Navy’s defeats at the hands of de Grasse.
The Battle of the Saintes, also known as the Battle of Saint’s Passage, began on the morning of April 12. De Grasse’s plan was to engage the larger British fleet at close range, inflict as much damage as possible, and then turn about his line to make for Saint’s Passage. The 30 available ships of the French fleet exchanged murderous fire with the 36 ships of the Royal Navy as the two lines passed each other at pistol shot range. The French were performing well until, to de Grasse’s dismay, gaps appeared in the French line due to the slower speed of many French ships. De Grasse, aware of the imminent danger to his entire fleet, rapidly signaled his flag commanders, the Comte de Vaudreuil and Bougainville, to correct the mistake by slowing their ships. Both commanders, when questioned after the battle, said that the maneuver de Grasse ordered was impossible. De Grasse, in his own memoir, retorted that regardless of what his commanders thought, “…the glance of the Admiral ought to be sufficient to prove to the fleet the possibility of a maneuver when ordered.”

This map illustrates the three main phases of the Battle of the Saintes. The critical breakthrough phase was caused by inconsistencies in the speed of French ships likely caused by marine growth, exacerbated by the lack of copper bottoms, slowing some of the French ships. The inconsistent speeds of the French ships caused gaps to appear in the French line that Rodney was able to exploit.(Wikimedia Commons)
Regardless of the practicability of de Grasse’s orders, the gaps in the French line proved to be catastrophic. Rodney was sucking on a lemon as he paced the decks of his flagship Formidable when his flag captain, Sir Charles Douglas, noticed the gap in the French lines. Douglas advised that Rodney lead his line through the gaps in the French line, essentially cutting de Grasse’s fleet in half. Rodney agreed and the Formidable, followed by Namur, Canada, Repulse, and others, pierced the French line. Other ships of the British line followed suit and by 10 am the French fleet was cut into pieces. Portions of the French fleet were raked on three sides by British fire, yet de Grasse, holding fast aboard the mighty Ville de Paris, refused to give up. He continued to signal Vaudreuil and Bougainville to form up the free portions of the fleet to swing back and counterattack the British fleet surrounding the French center. To de Grasse’s continued dismay and anger, Vaudreuil and Bougainville refused to respond to his signals. De Grasse’s commanders had abandoned him to his fate.
Lieutenant William Elliot depicted the critical moment of the Battle of the Saintes where Rodney’s flagship Formidable, in the center, pierced the French line of battle. Elliot, who served in the Royal Navy, captured the chaotic nature of the engagement which highlights the degree of difficulty of pulling off such a maneuver. (Wikimedia Commons)
De Grasse’s finest hour was arguably at the climax of his great defeat at the Battle of the Saintes. Cut off, surrounded, and without hope of victory de Grasse fought back like a cornered lion and he lived up to his reputation as his men often said that he was, “Six feet tall on ordinary days and six foot six on days of battle.” Ville de Paris was one of the most powerful ships in the world, with 104 guns and a crew of 1,300 men, yet all of her might was for naught as she was circled and raked by dozens of British ships like a pack of wolves taking down a stag. De Grasse moved across the decks from station to station, helping direct fire and encouraging his men to keep fighting. The decks and passageways of the Ville de Paris were turned into a charnel house as ship after ship of the Royal Navy fired full broadsides into the flagship at close range, receiving 80 broadsides from the 98-gun Formidable alone. The French, inspired by de Grasse, refused to yield. Only after the Ville de Paris had exhausted all of her ammunition did de Grasse surrender, declaring that his silver should be melted down to make cannon shot so they could continue fighting. At 6:30 PM, De Grasse ordered the colors of Ville de Paris struck and the battle was over.

The Battle of the Saintes was a crushing victory for the Royal Navy. The British captured four French ships, including Ville de Paris, and they scattered the surviving French ships, making an invasion of Jamaica well-nigh impossible. The French casualties were immense, with over 5,000 men captured and 3,000 estimated to be killed or wounded. On Ville de Paris alone, over 400 were killed and 700 wounded out of a crew of 1,300. British casualties were comparatively light, with 246 killed and 816 wounded, with moderate damage sustained by some of their ships.

Thomas Whitcombe illustrated the last stand of the proud Ville de Paris as she fought a final duel with Admiral Hood’s flagship Barfleur. Hood relished the opportunity to directly battle with de Grasse and with his typical braggadocio stated, “I concluded the Count De Grasse had a mind to be my prisoner as an old acquaintance...and therefore met his wishes by looking towards him…when I opened so heavy a fire against him that in ten minutes he struck.” Hood had finally beaten his “acquaintance” de Grasse. (Wikimedia Commons)
Adm. Hood, who from Barfleur had raked Ville de Paris with fire, boarded the defeated flagship around 7 pm to accept de Grasse’s surrender. He boarded with a party of officers who were stunned by the carnage they saw on the Ville de Paris. Captain Lord Cranston, who had come on behalf of Rodney to accept de Grasse’s sword, relayed to the author Sir Nathaniel Wraxall, “At every step he took he said he was over his buckles in blood, the carnage having been prodigious…On the quarter-deck only De Grasse himself remained standing.” Similar scenes played out on the other captured French ships, with witnesses astonished at the scale of the carnage and the hundreds of sharks feeding on the dead and wounded.  
This period engraving depicts a fictionalized surrender of Admiral de Grasse’s sword to Admiral Rodney. De Grasse did surrender his sword to Rodney but he did so indirectly through Rodney’s subordinate, Captain Cranston. Though fictionalized, the symbolic importance of sword surrendering to the victorious commander was nevertheless a poignant moment. (Naval History and Heritage Command)
After his capture, de Grasse was treated well by his captors with Rodney, Hood, and the other British officers hosting a feast in his honor where they toasted to his family’s health, Lady Rodney, and the men wounded in battle. After he arrived in London in August as a prisoner of war, de Grasse gained celebrity status as he dined and conversed with lords, nobles, and King George III. He even sat for a portrait and had a popular miniature made of him. De Grasse unfortunately drew the intense ire of the French ladies when it was heard in France that he was immensely popular with the aristocratic women of Britain.  After only ten days as a captive in the land of his gracious enemies, de Grasse embarked from England on a ship bound for home on August 12, 1782. 

After the signing of the Treaty of Paris on September 3, 1783, Gen. George Washington and de Grasse exchanged congratulatory letters, with de Grasse writing, “Permit me, my dear General, to offer you my congratulations…I beg you to be persuaded how earnestly I wish to renew that friendship we found amidst the scenes of war…I felicitate myself for my success in fighting for a cause so just.” Washington replied, “The friendship, which I had the Happiness to contract with you…has never been abated in my mind…should I ever have the happiness of meeting you again…you may be assured I should place the Event among the most fortunate Circumstances of my Life.”
This 1783 etching of De Grasse appeared in London Magazine and was just one of many depictions of de Grasse made in England after his stay in London. De Grasse was treated like a modern day celebrity in Britain while he was kept under guard in the Royal Hotel in London. De Grasse politely declined to occupy lodgings in the Palace of St. James and King George III declared that the Crown would pay for any expenses the admiral or his officers accrued while in England. His sword was returned to him personally by the king and the English nobles who met with him were consistently impressed with him, with one noble writing, “Comte De Grasse is polished without approaching to the effeminacy of the French. He is manly, open, and generous in his countenance and inspires a familiar attachment in those with whom he converses.” Ironically, de Grasse was treated with more reverence and respect by the English then he would be by his own countrymen for the remainder of his life.(HR83-002-001, Hampton Roads Naval Museum collection)
De Grasse was officially exonerated of any wrong doing at the Battle of the Saintes at a court of inquiry conducted by the French crown. However, the admiral became highly unpopular in France due to his perceived failure and he retired in disgrace to his estate in Tilly. It was an ignominious end for one who had served his country faithfully for his entire life. De Grasse asked for nothing from any government in his retirement save to request the U.S. Congress for four cannons captured at Yorktown that had been promised to him by Washington. Though melancholic and depressed in his retirement due to his fall from grace, de Grasse displayed these cannons at Tilly with immense pride and satisfaction. He died suddenly only a few years later on January 14, 1788. Though somewhat forgotten in France, the loss of de Grasse was mourned in the United States and especially by his old friend Washington.

The Comte de Grasse was a gallant, intelligent, talented, passionate, and faithful naval commander who served France with honor until the very end. With the eye of history on him, he defeated the British at the Battle of the Capes and brought the Royal Navy to the brink of defeat in the Caribbean. Without de Grasse, there is a good chance the American Patriots and their French allies ashore might have been defeated. Yet, despite his manifest importance, he is a largely overlooked and unsung hero of the Revolutionary War.

Congress passed a resolution only five days after the Franco-American victory at Yorktown which ordered the creation of a monument to commemorate the great victory. Although it would take the United States over 100 years, the Yorktown Victory Monument was erected in 1884. In their original resolution, Congress ordered that three individuals were to be mentioned by name in the monument’s inscription: George Washington, the Comte de Rochambeau, and the Comte De Grasse. Today, De Grasse’s name is engraved into a monument dedicated to the victory of liberty over tyranny. It stands as a solemn reminder of the eternal bonds of fellowship between the people of France and the United States. (Wikimedia Commons)
Individuals interested in the Revolutionary War should consider the words of de Grasse when he wrote Washington a farewell letter on November 4, 1781, as he departed for operations in the Caribbean, stating, “Allow me, therefore, to have the honor to take my leave of Your Excellency, and to request you to reserve me a place in your memory. I consider myself infinitely happy to have been of some service to the United States, but I should regard it as an advantage at least as precious…that I carried away with me your esteem and friendship.” As Washington did, Americans should remember Admiral François Joseph Paul, Comte de Grasse, as a hero of the Revolution deserving of a place in their memory.

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