Thursday, October 28, 2010

Combat on Kitts

One of the most remarkable images of Revolutionary War combat is a naïve-art painting of a skirmish on the island of St. Kitts on January 28, 1782. This is a very rare instance of a combat painting by a Revolutionary War soldier, created during the war. The artist was one François Lescalet, who served on the French warship Le Sceptre. The painting shows French infantry defending a hill against disembarking British infantry.

Two sections of this painting are shown below. A zoomable version of the painting can be found here.

British troops disembark on the island of St. Kitts (click to enlarge). Possibly (see analysis below) the column at left is comprised of troops from the 13th Foot, while the column at right is comprised of troops from the 69th Foot.

Comte de Flechin leads the defense (click to enlarge). Comte Charles-François-Joseph de Flechin, on horseback, is either rallying his troops, or sending men into action. At left, smoke-enshrouded regulars skirmish with the enemy.

Overall, the painting shows chiefly land and sky. The figures are small and vague, and the heavy smoke obscures the action. Nevertheless, a number of features stand out.

British Troops

The British form on the beach directly into columns, and the new arrivals take their place at the end of the column. The columns are formed two abreast, either because of the narrowness of the roads or to facilitate quick deployment into line. Three columns are shown, which seemingly correspond with the three infantry units known to have participated in this action: the flank companies of the 13th foot, the battalion companies of the 28th foot, and the 69th regiment. The first two of these wore yellow facings, the third wore dull green facings. Drummers in yellow can be seen alongside the left two columns. The visible facing colors, numbers of drummers, and length of each column suggest that the troops are, from left to right, those of the 28th, the 13th, and the 69th regiments. However, Lescalet may have chosen yellow as the facing color simply because it was common in the British army, and he may have varied the column length for other reasons.

French Troops

Flechin’s command included the chasseurs and grenadiers of regiments Agénois and Touraine, among others. It is not possible to discern which men belong to which regiment as the figures have not been given facing colors. The French troops are shown meeting the British near the base of the hill, suggesting that Flechin intended to fight a delaying action, slowly giving way, while still retaining the high ground. The French troops are not shown deployed as a single line, but rather as a cluster of small parties. This deployment makes sense in view of the difficult terrain.


The action appears to be taking place on St. Timothy’s Hill, which is in the southeastern quarter of St. Kitts, on the edge of Frigate Bay. A comparison with modern photographs suggests that Lescalet painted a location that he had visited and remembered.

Section of the Lescalet painting.

Google Maps screenshot with the Panoramio images feature enabled (the image has been cropped). The photo was taken from St. Timothy’s Hill, looking south, and shows much of the same terrain visible that is visible in the Lescalet painting.


The outcome of this skirmish on St. Kitts is in dispute. Francophile and Anglophile writers have claimed this as a decisive victory for the French and British, respectively. Two examples appear below:

John William Fortescue in A History of the British Army, Vol. 3 (1902):

"... Prescott [the British infantry commander] and his troops were able to land on the 28th. He was at once attacked by the French, who, however, were repulsed without difficulty."

René Chartrand in American War of Independence Commanders (2003):

"... on January 28, 1782, the British landed a relief force. Flechin, with a party of 300 men, charged the head of the British column. The stunned British re-embarked. Brimstone Hill [i.e., the British garrison on St. Kitts] surrendered on February 12 and Nevis also capitulated largely because of Flechin's outstanding action."

The truth, as far as I’ve been able to discern, lies somewhere between these statements. The British drove de Flechin’s small force off the hill, but the aggressive defense prevented the British from achieving any strategic advantage. The campaign for St. Kitts has been the subject of some recent reading on my part, and possibly it will serve as the topic for a future series of posts.

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