Friday, June 10, 2011

St. Kitts (3): Opening Skirmishes

This is the third in a series of post 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. [Click for Part 1 or Part 2].

March to Brimstone Hill

The French army, commanded by the Marquis de Bouillé, marched towards Brimstone Hill on the night of January 11-12, 1782. In the lead was a division of troops commanded by Colonel Arthur Dillon. When these troops neared the hill, they filed off to the right and waited for the main body. De Bouillé arrived with the main body at 2:30am. Then, leaving the divisions of Dillon, Saint-Simon, and Damas near the coastal road, he advanced with du Chilleau’s division towards the town of Sandy Point. To reach Sandy Point, the troops marched along a sunken road that skirted the foot of Brimstone Hill. The British sentries above them heard their march and opened fire, but in the dark their aim was erratic. Apparently, some of the British also thought to roll heavy rocks down the hill, and these wounded a few of de Bouillé’s men. [1]

De Bouillé's March (click to enlarge). The French land at Basseterre on the evening of the 11th. That night, the column approaches Brimstone Hill (red dot). De Bouillé and du Chilleau bypass the hill in the early morning hours of the 12th.

Skirmishes at Sandy Point

At daybreak, du Chilleau’s division (regiments Armagnac, Viennois, and Guadeloupe) was on the outskirts of Sandy Point. There the French could hear a small British party in the “hedgerows” (les haies). De Bouillé ordered his vanguard (20 chasseurs from Regiment Armagnac) to charge. The chasseurs promptly killed a few of the British and dispersed the rest. The column then moved into Sandy Point, which was defended on its northern flank by a battery at Fig Tree Bay and on its southern flank (near Brimstone Hill) by Fort Charles. De Bouillé dispatched 100 men from the flank companies to seize the northern battery. The British began a hurried retreat from Sandy Point, preferring to defend Brimstone Hill. It was full light now, and the guns in Fort Charles fired on the tail of the French column as it moved into the town.

François-Claude-Amour de Bouillé

The Marquis de Bouillé had succeeded in placing his men on either side of Brimstone Hill, but now he faced by an array of difficulties. As the French took up their assigned positions, “many disorders” arose, no doubt caused by soldiers plundering. Officers were dispatched from the navy to help restore order. [2]

The French infantry also found themselves harassed by armed blacks. One French officer, who had invited an English lady to dine in camp, was slain while escorting her home. The adjutant of Regiment Viennois was captured and brought to Brimstone Hill. De Bouillé himself was attacked by 30 men while reconnoitering. He escaped thanks to the speed of his horse. His servant, however, was taken.

In retaliation, the French burned at least one plantation.

According to Governor Shirley, “the Marquis de Bouillé sent in a flag to remonstrate against the conduct of the negroes, threatening that unless they should be restrained he would immediately lay waste the country.” The white militia on Brimstone Hill had little appetite for total war. Therefore, “The servant was released and the Adjutant was discharged on parole.” [3]


De Bouillé’s greatest concern was the loss of the transport Lion-Britannique, which was carrying most of the army’s mortars, heavy guns, solid shot and shells. The vessel struck on a rock near Sandy Point and sank. The artillerists aboard (a “valuable species” according to one officer [2]) were brought off safely, and salvage operations soon begun to recover the guns and ammunition. Nevertheless, the incident threatened to significantly prolong the siege of Brimstone Hill.

The following day (the 14th), the French pushed their pickets closer to the British fortress. The British had some storehouses outside the fortress which contained surplus gunpowder. To prevent its capture, the British spread the powder on the ground and set it on fire. The fire, however, got out of control and destroyed some of their provisions, clothing stores, and spare gun and mortar carriages. These losses could not be easily replaced.

Hood Sets Sail

Rear-Admiral Samuel Hood commanded the British fleet in the West Indies, which was based in Barbados. At the time the French set sail for St. Kitts (January 5), they were being watched by two of Hood’s frigates. The commander of one (the Lizard) informed Hood on January 8th that the French were heading north. The other frigate was unable to follow the French very far, and it was not until the 14th that Hood received definite word on the French destination. Once he did (a letter reached him from Governor Shirley), he immediately put his fleet to sea. He had only 20 ships of the line, he was short on provisions, and his only infantry support consisted of two large battalions of marines and the 69th Regiment of Foot. To give his rescue operation a greater chance of success, he decided to stop en route at Antigua where he expected to be resupplied and reinforced. [4]


1. The description of French actions is based primarily on a) 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. b) Journal Politique of April, 1782 (seconde quinzaine). c) Mémoire du marquis de Bouillé

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

Two quoted phrases are derived from Bougainville’s journal:

“many disorders”:

14 . Il y a eu beaucoup de désordres commis à terre. La communication en est interdite aux équipages. Il est permis à la moitié des officiers de chaque vaisseau d'y aller à 4 heures après-midi...

“valuable species”:

Le Lion britannique s'est échoué sur une roche en allant prendre le mouillage sous Sandy-Point. On a sauvé les hommes, espèce bien précieuse, puisqu'il y avait 200 artilleurs; mais il est douteux qu'on puisse sauver 12 mortiers de 12 pouces, et toute l'artillerie que contient ce bâtiment.

3. Information on the British perspective, including Shirley’s journal, comes primarily from Algernon Aspinall (1915). West Indian Tales of Old.

4. An invaluable source on Hood’s actions during this period is Letters written by Sir Samuel Hood (Viscount Hood) in 1781-2-3.


  1. Enjoying this information immensely, thank you. I want to do some AWI Caribbean skirmish via Sharpe Practice within the year.

  2. I'm happy to hear that. I have a pretty good idea what I will have to say over the course of this series, but it will be awhile before everything is online. I'm guessing there will be 10 parts in total.