Saturday, June 18, 2011

St. Kitts (4): Brimstone Besieged

This is the fourth 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, or Part 3].

Brimstone Besieged

Governor Thomas Shirley and Brigadier-General Thomas Fraser were faced with overwhelming French numbers. They commanded a little more than 1,000 men, and were opposed by about 7,000 of the enemy [1]. However, Shirley and Fraser defended Brimstone Hill, a virtually impregnable fortress, and they were optimistic that they could hold out long enough to be relieved by the Royal Navy (specifically, the West Indies squadron commanded by Rear Admiral Samuel Hood).


British Defenses at Brimstone Hill (click to enlarge). This map is based on a 1775 Anthony Ravell map of St. Kitts. Brimstone Hill is at center. Two defenses can be seen on the hill. The square citadel was located on the highest point of the hill. Southeast of the citadel, a fortified “curtain” was placed on a lower plateau. Prior to the siege, the British also held coastal batteries at Fig Tree Bay (upper left) and Fort Charles (center left) on either side of Sandy Point Town. De Bouillé occupied Sandy Point Town on January 12th. On the other side of Brimstone Hill, the French established a camp east of “Goodwin’s Gutt.” [Original Image]

The View Towards Sandy Point (click to enlarge). The view today from Brimstone Hill, looking northwest towards Sandy Point Town. The island of St. Eustatius is visible in the distance. [Original Image by Ukexpat; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license].

Brimstone Hill in 1783 (click to enlarge). This view is from Sandy Point Town, looking southeast towards Brimstone Hill. The citadel is at the uppermost part of the hill. Part of the curtain is visible on the plateau on the right side of the hill. Fort Charles is on the low-lying promontory at right center.

The View Up the Slope (click to enlarge). The French infantry feared being called upon to assault the British fortress. This modern day image reveals the great difficulty they would have faced. Part of the stone fortifications are visible near the top of the image. These would have been lined with infantry and artillery. [Original Image]


The Marquis de Bouillé, who commanded the French army, determined that an infantry assault on Brimstone Hill was unlikely to succeed. Therefore, he resolved to use heavy guns to batter the garrison into submission and to only use an assault as a last resort. According to Governor Shirley, de Bouillé “carried on his approaches and opened trenches under all the formalities of the most regular siege." [2] Shirley, for his part, was resolved to keep the French at bay.

On January 15th, the British shelled the town of Sandy Point, which the French had occupied and where de Bouillé had his headquarters. The town soon caught fire and much of it was destroyed.

De Bouillé opened his first entrenchments against Brimstone Hill the night of the 16th-17th. Under cover of darkness, 300 workers, covered by 200 troops from the flank companies and a battalion of fusiliers (possibly Viennois [3]), dug an earthwork about 700 yards northwest of the fortress, on the plantation of one Stafford Somersall. After daybreak, the British spotted the work and began firing on the position.

The French launched a similar operation on the night of January 17th-18th. This time, the earthwork was dug 700 yards southeast of the fortress, on a plantation owned by one Stedman Rawlins. Again, after daybreak, the British used their heavy guns to impede French progress.

The French finally opened fire on Brimstone Hill on the 19th, when, according to Shirley, “a battery of seven mortars… bombarded the garrison very briskly” from Rawlins’ plantation. The British responded with “a warm cannonade.”


Section of the Rossel de Cercy Painting, Prise des Iles de Saint Christophe et de Nevis (click to enlarge). In this image, the mortar battery on Rawlins’ Plantation can be seen shelling the British fortifications on Brimstone Hill. A part of the defensive “curtain” is at upper center; the citadel is at upper right. [Original image]


Artillery exchanges were frequent over the days that followed. The French continued to dig entrenchments and gradually put into more and more artillery into action. On the 21st, three mortars became active on Wells’ Estate, east of Brimstone Hill. On the 23rd, a 6 or 7 mortar battery opened fire from Somersall’s plantation, near Sandy Point. [4]

The artillery exchanges were especially punishing for the French on the exposed plain. In a single incident, 20 men (fusiliers from Regiment Touraine and artillerists) were killed or wounded when a British shell ignited the magazine for the Rawlins battery. [5]

On January 24th it appeared that the worst of the garrison’s troubles were over. Samuel Hood came in sight of the island with 22 ships of the line, plus a number of frigates and other vessels. It was not an overwhelming force (indeed, the French navy was larger), but it was well led. Hopes among the British ran high.


1. Details of the French order of battle were described previously (see Part 2). The British garrison at this point consisted of about 600 effectives of the regular army (specifically, the first battalion of the 1st Foot and the flank companies of the 15th Foot), 350 militia, and 70 sailors. Governor Shirley mentioned in a journal entry dated January 17th that “A working party of seamen and negroes were employed in placing the mortars and forming platforms for them,” indicating some blacks were on hand, but it seems that they were not considered to be part of the garrison.

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

3. 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. For the role of Regiment Viennois, see Paul Jean Louis Azan. Service of the Azans in America.Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Volume 50, p 429-433.

4. Note that the battery on Somersall’s plantation was slow to get into action although the first entrenchment was dug there. Presumably the delay is related to the sinking of the Lion Britannique at Sandy Point on January 13 (see Part 3). I suspect the guns used at the Rawlins battery were landed at Old Road on January 13th, but I have not found the name of the transport. The three mortars for the battery established on Wells’ plantation possibly arrived aboard the vessel Citoyen on January 19th. Bougainville's journal mentions on this date that “Le Citoyen est revenu de la Guadeloupe avec 3 mortiers et des munitions de guerre” (R. de Kerallain (1928). Bougainville à l’Armée du Cte de Grasse. Journal de la Société des Américanistes de Paris, 20, 1-70).

5. For the losses in Regiment Touraine, see: Ministère des Affaires Étrangères. (1903). Les combattants Français de la Guerre Américaine: 1778-1783.


  1. Excellent read, must have so much info on this time period.
    great fluff

  2. That's very kind, thank you.