Tuesday, May 24, 2011

St. Kitts (2): The Invasion

This is the second in a series of posts, which will appear from time to time, on the St. Kitts campaign of 1782. The St. Kitts campaign took place in what is known as the West Indies theater of the Revolutionary War. For Part 1, click here.

De Grasse Approaches

A French fleet left Port Royal, Martinique, on January 5, 1782, to attack the British isles of St. Kitts and Nevis. The fleet consisted of 25 ships of the line, the 50-gun Experiment, and a number of frigates and transports. Its commander was Lieutenant-General François-Joseph-Paul de Grasse. Because of calms and fog, the ships became strung out over a considerable distance while en route. Most of the fleet reached St. Kitts on the 11th, but some ships did not arrive until the 13th. [1]

The difficulty of the journey was of little importance. The British West Indies fleet (Rear Admiral Samuel Hood commanding) was at distant Barbados.

The French fleet was spotted from St. Kitts and Nevis long before it reached shore. On the afternoon of January 9th (when the French were still 2 days away), Governor Thomas Shirley received word from Nevis “that a large fleet, consisting of about forty sail, twenty-four of which were large ships and the rest sloops and schooners had appeared in sight of that Island.” Shirley was in Basseterre, the principal town on St. Kitts. There he had a cannon fired as an alarm. A detachment of Royal Artillery, and part of the militia, were ordered to defend the coastal batteries. [2]

The British had little in the way of naval resources on hand. One large vessel, the 64-gun Russell, was in port for repairs, but this ship hurriedly departed on the 10th.

As the French fleet slowly drew closer, the British commanders on St. Kitts – Governor Shirley and Brigadier-General Thomas Fraser– had time to rethink the wisdom of defending the entire coast. At last, the two commanders decided to abandon Basseterre and concentrate their forces on and about Brimstone Hill.

On the morning of January 11th, the St. Kitts brigade of militia assembled in Basseterre. Governor Shirley then marched this force along the coastal road towards Brimstone Hill.

At about the same time, a number of merchant vessels in Basseterre got underway and headed north and west, away from the French fleet.

The French Landing

As the French fleet completed the last leg of the journey, it divided into two parts. The main force headed directly for Basseterre, while a secondary force circled around the island and headed for the town of Sandy Point, near Brimstone Hill.

The secondary force consisted of:

  • 1000 men from regiments Dillon and Royal Comtois aboard transports
  • 500 grenadiers and chasseurs aboard two ships of the line, the Experiment, and several frigates. [3]

St. Kitts: January 11, 1782 (click to enlarge).

The French secondary force reached Sandy Point without difficulty, but no landing was made. The approaches to Sandy Point were defended by two coastal batteries, and the British were in force on nearby Brimstone Hill. Instead, the French attacked the merchant vessels which were streaming along the shore. The merchant vessels hurriedly took shelter under the guns of Brimstone Hill. According to Shirley, some of the merchant vessels were saved from capture “by a well-directed fire from our line of batteries” and “the merchantmen got shelter under the guns of Brimstone Hill and [nearby] Fort Charles.” Nevertheless, the French captured at least 27 vessels. [4]

The French secondary force also spotted the St. Kitts and militia on their march and opened fire. Shirley wrote that the militiamen were “very much annoyed” by the French ships, but the fire did not prevent them from reaching Brimstone Hill.

The main French force, under de Grasse, approached Basseterre and saw that the battery defending the town appeared to have been abandoned. A 60-man company of colonial troops (the Volontaires de Bouillé) approached the fort in two boats, supported by two frigates. When the company found that the battery was undefended, they hoisted the French flag. At about the same time, a delegation of citizens from Basseterre approached the French fleet in a small boat and informed the French that the British had retired to Brimstone Hill and that those who remained behind would offer no resistance.

Meanwhile, the secondary force joined the main fleet at Basseterre, and at about 6pm, the French infantry began to disembark. The French commander, the Marquis de Bouillé, had his troops assemble in four divisions on the shore. They were organized as follows:

  • Colonel de Dillon’s division: Regiments Dillon and Royal Comtois, two companies of grenadiers from Regiment Martinique, and a detachment of Volontaires Étrangers de la Marine (perhaps 1,500 effectives in total).
  • Maréchal de Saint-Simon’s division: Regiments Agénois and Touraine (about 2,000 effectives).
  • Brigadier de Damas’ division: Regiments Auxerrois and Champagne (about 1,200 effectives).
  • Brigadier du Chilleau’s division: Regiments Armagnac (2 battalions), Viennois, and Guadeloupe (perhaps 2,100 effectives). [5]

The disembarkation and assembly proceeded smoothly, and at 9pm Dillon’s division began marching towards Brimstone Hill. The rest of the troops followed 30 minutes later. De Bouillé intended to surround the British fortress under cover of darkness.

Left to right: Grenadiers of Armagnac, Auxerrois, and Viennois. These illustrations show what was essentially the uniform worn by these regiments on St. Kitts; one difference is that the French grenadiers generally wore a tall bearskin cap rather than the cocked hat shown here.


1. An invaluable source on French naval operations is John Gilmary Shea's (1864) The Operations of the French Fleet Under the Count de Grasse in 1781-2 as Described in Two Contemporary Journals.

2. Extracts of Shirley’s journal, including that quoted here, appears in Algernon Aspinall's (1915) West Indian Tales of Old.

3. From Attaque et prise de Saint-Christophe dit le «Gibraltar» des Antilles (janvier-février 1782), in Revue Historique des Armées, Vol. 1, 1974. This article includes extracts from «Mémoires Secrets» de Bouillé. A detailed description of de Bouillé’s operations also appears in the Journal Politique of April, 1782 (seconde quinzaine).

4. R. de Kerallain (1928). Bougainville à l’Armée du Cte de Grasse. Journal de la Société des Américanistes de Paris, 20, 1-70.

5. French sources generally claim that they fielded an army of 6,000 men; British sources attribute to the French 8,000 men. I suspect the latter number is more accurate. One French account claims they had “6000 hommes effectifs & de 800 volontaires de la Martinique,” which I take to mean 6,000 effectives of the Metropolitan Army and 800 colonial troops that had been stationed on Martinique. Colonial troops known to have participated in this campaign included Regiment de la Guadeloupe, two companies of grenadiers from Regiment de la Martinique, and the company-sized Volontaires de Bouillé. If one counts soldiers of all ranks, the French army would have totaled well above 7,000 men. De Bouillé only partially identified the size of each of these divisions; I relied on a certain amount of extrapolation to determine the approximate size of Dillon’s and du Chilleau’s divisions. De Bouillé’s exact language in describing the composition of his forces (and how he intended to place them around Brimstone Hill) is as follows:

“La division du Marquis de Saint-Simon, composée de deux mille hommes, des régiments de Touraine et d'Agénois, dut prendre la droite, et se placer entre la vieille rade et Brimstone-Hill, le plus près possible, cependant hors de la portée du canon de la place. Celle du Vicomte de Damas, composée de douze cents hommes, des bataillons d'Auxerrois et de Champagne, à la gauche de la première, pour garder les debouches des montagnes. Celle du Comte Arthur Dillon, compose de 1.200 hommes, des bataillons de Dillon, de Royal comtois, et de deux companies de grenadiers de la Martinique, et les volontaires étrangers de la marine, fut à la gauche de celle de M. de Damas, pour le même objet et pour communiqué avec elle. Celle du Marquis du Chilleau, compose de deux bataillons d’Armagnac, d’un de Viennois, d’un de la Guadeloupe dut être à la gauche de celle de M. de Dillon, et occupier Sandy-point.”

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