Wednesday, June 29, 2011

St. Kitts (5): The Fleets Clash

This is the fifth 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, Part 2, Part 3, or Part 4].

Hood’s Mission

Rear Admiral Samuel Hood learned on January 14th that the French were attacking St. Kitts. He and his fleet promptly left Barbados and sailed north for Antigua. En route he was joined by the Russell, which increased his fleet to 21 ships of the line. Hood noted that he had “nothing but flattering winds” on this voyage, but his ships faced “an ugly sea at times” and two ships lost a maintopsail yard and another additionally lost a main topmast and mizzen topmast. [1]


Hood’s Mission: January 14-24, 1782 (click to enlarge). This map shows Hood’s route from Barbados to Nevis January 14-24 (red line). Also shown is the path taken by the French fleet under de Grasse from Martinique to St. Kitts (January 5-11; blue line). Both paths are approximate.


On the 21st, Hood reached Antigua, where he was joined by the Prudent and a couple of lesser vessels. The British fleet then began to take on board provisions and part of the island’s garrison. The troops from the garrison included Brigadier-General Robert Prescott, the 28th Regiment of Foot, and the flank companies of the 13th Regiment of Foot. [2]

By the evening of the 23rd, preparations were complete, and the British fleet sailed out of St. John’s Harbour on Antigua, and anchored at sea. The French and British fleets were now about 60 miles apart.

Hood had probably learned that the French fleet at St. Kitts was, as one eye-witness put it, “formed [in] no regular line,” but rather were “in great confusion in Basseterre road, three or four deep.”

Hood’s intention, it seems, was to cross from Antigua to St. Kitts during the night, and to strike the French in Basseterre roadstead at daybreak. There, with the wind at his back, he would strike the eastern end of the French fleet. The rest of the French fleet would have difficulty coming to their assistance (they would be working against the wind). In this manner, he hoped to win a major victory before the French were ready for battle.


Rear Admiral Samuel Hood


The British sailed that night with 22 ships of the line in the following order of battle: [3]

Advance Guard (Francis Drake)

Alfred (74 guns), Alcide (74), Intrepid (64), Torbay (74), Princessa (74), Prince George (98), Ajax (74)

Center (Samuel Hood)

Prince William (64), Shrewsbury (74), Invincible (74), Barfleur (98), Monarch (74), Belliqueux (64), Centaur (74), St. Albans (64)

Rear Guard (Edmund Affleck)

Russell (74), Resolution (74), Bedford (74), Canada (74), Prudent (64), Montagu (74), America (64)

De Grasse’s Defense

The French had been expecting the British fleet for some days. The French commander, François-Joseph-Paul de Grasse, concentrated his fleet in Basseterre roadstead and used frigates and other, smaller vessels, as lookouts. The lookouts quickly spotted Hood’s departure from Antigua on the evening of the 23rd.

De Grasse then had to decide how he would face the British fleet. One option was to form a line of battle in Basseterre roadstead. As he had numerical superiority and occupied an excellent harbor, he should have been able to ward off any attempt to oust him. However, he thought this might not be the best position if Hood was determined to aid the British garrison on Brimstone Hill. Instead, it might be better to take to the open sea southwest of Basseterre. There, he would be windward of Hood’s ships and poised to maul the British while they lay close to shore. A third consideration was that he was expecting the arrival of supply ships and other reinforcements. If he remained at Basseterre he would be placing these vessels at grave risk of capture.

On balance, de Grasse decided it would be best to take to the open sea and await the British fleet. He planned to set sail the following day.

Hood Reaches St. Kitts

Hood’s daring plan to strike the French fleet in Basseterre roadstead was foiled before it could put into effect. The early morning hours of January 24th were “squally with rain” and by daylight the British fleet was near the south end of Nevis, but still far short of its destination. Also, one of Hood’s leading ship of the line (Alfred) had collided with one of his frigates (Nymphe) with the result that Alfred’s “fore topmast [was] down, and jib boom and sprit-sailyard gone,” and it appeared “much damaged about the bows…” Alfred was in no shape for immediate action, but, it was determined, the necessary repairs could be made in less than 24 hours. Having lost the advantage of surprise, Hood advanced cautiously towards St. Kitts.

The two advance-most British frigates (Lizard and Convert) in Hood’s fleet reached the western shore of Nevis far ahead of the ships of the line. A large French cutter (l’Espion), then just arriving from Martinique, mistook the British frigates for French ones and was promptly captured. The cutter was bringing to St. Kitts mortar shells and other ordinance, which the French could ill afford to lose.

That afternoon, the French fleet began to get underway, and headed south. At 10:00pm, Hood could see from the deck of his command ship (Barfleur) “20 strange vessels in the N.W., which proved to be the French fleet.” Neither commander sought battle at this late hour. Instead, the British sailed south, to a point near Isle Redondo, while the French drew closer to St. Kitts.

The Fleets Clash

The two fleets maneuvered during the night of January 24th-25th. Cannon discharges and rockets were used (at least among the French) to transmit signals in the darkness. Hood, by this time, had formed a new plan -- to take anchorage in Frigate Bay, a short distance southeast of Basseterre. Hood later called this “the only chance I had of saving the island, if it was to be saved.”

Specifically, Hood intended to gain a defensive position that would neutralize the French advantage in numbers. Ships at anchor could be carefully arranged into a defensive line that would be difficult to attack. Also, ships at anchor were relatively still and could fire with greater accuracy than those rolling on the open water.

Although Hood occupied the windward position (meaning that the winds favored his movements), a lunge towards Basseterre carried with it considerable risk. He would be placing his vessels between the French fleet and the rocky shores of St. Kitts and Nevis. Hood acted carefully before committing himself to this course of action. He later noted, “At daylight we plainly discerned thirty-three sail of the enemy’s ships… I made every appearance of an attack, which drew the Count de Grasse a little from the shore.” Close to midday, the situation appeared favorable to Hood – the main part of the French fleet was some 4 or 5 miles to the west and it appeared that the planned dash would be successful. Hood therefore ordered his fleet to sail north, hugging the coastline of the islands.

De Grasse had decided to concentrate on keeping his line of communications open and protecting the siege of Brimstone Hill. Not unaware that the Basseterre anchorage had been left vulnerable, he ordered François-Aymar, Baron de Monteil, “to hug the point of Isle Nevis” with the French “light squadron” (Caton, Hector, Sagittaire, and Experiment). As the British neared Nevis, de Grasse ordered the “light squadron and van… to bear down on the enemy’s [van].” The rest of the fleet followed “in a bow and quarter line.”

The French main body sailed in approximately the following order (note that the French were doubling back towards Nevis and consequently were in reverse order). [4]

Rear Guard (Louis-Antoine, Comte de Bougainville)

Pluton (74 guns), Bourgogne (74), Auguste (80), Neptune (74), Ardent (64), Scipion (74), Citoyen (74), Réfléchi (64), Glorieux (74)

Center (François-Joseph-Paul, Comte de Grasse)

Diadème (74), Northumberland (74), César (74), Ville de Paris (104), Sceptre (74), Saint-Esprit (80), Eveillé (64), Zélé (74)

Advance Guard (Jacques-Melchior, Comte de Barras)

Magnanime (74), Palmier (74), Jason (64), Marseillais (74), Duc de Bourgogne (80), Languedoc (80), Hercule (74), Souverain (74)

Contrary to de Grasse’s wishes, the light squadron did not contest the British advance. According to an officer with the French fleet,

…the French light squadron instead of continuing to bear down on the enemy, bore away. The admiral [de Grasse] surprised at this manoeuvre, thought that Nevis intercepted their wind [i.e., he thought that the mountainous island might have created a windless calm off its western shore]; to assure himself of it, [de Grasse] signaled [de Monteil] to lie to, which the squadron did; assured by this that it was by no fault of wind that they bore away, the admiral repeated his first signal to the squadron and the van; but it was too late... [5]


Hood’s Dash to St. Kitts (click to enlarge). Hood’s fleet passes the western end of Nevis en route to an anchorage off St. Kitts. De Grasse attempts to intercept Hood, while the light squadron, under de Monteil, bears away. Positioning of the British and French vessels is approximate. Ships carrying fewer than 50 guns are not shown.


The French then aimed at overtaking the center and rear of the British line (the British van was by now beyond their reach). However, the British vessels were moving too quickly and only the British rear found itself in real danger.

An eyewitness on Nevis described the engagement that followed:

About half-past two the Ville de Paris [de Grasse’s flagship]… fired about three single shots, probably to try the range of his guns; which were taken no notice of.

At about three o’clock the French Admiral began in earnest, seeming to direct his fire at the sixth ship from our rear [i.e., the Resolution]. He was immediately followed by about thirteen or fourteen of his ships nearest to him a-head and a-stern. This being returned by the six or seven or our rear, a most dreadful cannonade ensued, which spread by degrees to about the twelfth ship from our rear [i.e., Hood’s flagship, the Barfleur]. But the heaviest of the French fire fell on our last ships; for whose fate we trembled, as they had the fire of twelve or fourteen of the enemy on them at once; yet they never moved an inch out of line, but kept their stations and distances as steadily as if they had been at anchor; at the same time we could distinctly perceive they shot a-head of the enemy. [6]

At one point, de Grasse, aboard his flagship Ville de Paris, came close to cutting off the last three vessels in the British line (Prudent, Montagu, and America). According to Hood, “The Prudent had the misfortune to have her wheel shot to pieces [by] the first broadside”. Soon a gap began to develop between the Prudent and the vessel ahead (Canada), which the Ville de Paris attempted to exploit. However, Canada, followed by the vessels still further ahead (Resolution and Bedford) astutely slowed down and closed the gap.

The British Anchor

As the British vessels neared St. Kitts, they turned and anchored in line of battle in Frigate Bay. From this anchorage, some of the British vessels opened fire again as the French ships passed.


Hood Anchors (click to enlarge). Hood’s lead vessel (St. Albans) turns towards shore and anchors off of Green Point, on the southwest corner of St. Kitts. The following vessels anchor behind St. Albans, forming a line of battle. Meanwhile, the rear of the British fleet is engaged with the Ville de Paris and other French vessels. Some of the French ships, perhaps de Barras’ vessels, did not participate in this portion of the engagement. Positioning of the British and French vessels is approximate. Only ships of the line are shown.


A French officer, Chevalier de Goussencourt, glumly noted, “In spite of our fire, the English admiral managed his fleet so well that it anchored in our place with a spring on the cable, under our fire, without Mr. de Grasse preventing them” [5]. The French fleet turned and headed south for open waters. The last shots were fired around 5:30pm.

Only one British vessel was lost in this action, the frigate Solebay, which ran aground off Nevis at the beginning of the engagement. The observer on Nevis recorded that

Several French ships kept firing on her in this distress, and the Captain returned it; but, finding she must inevitably fall into the enemy’s hands, Captain Everett set fire to her and quitted her. She burnt for an hour or more, and blew up about eight o’clock with a most tremendous report; having 160 barrels of powder on board. [6]

The captain and his crew took shelter on Nevis.



1. For primary accounts of Hood's actions during this period, see David Hannay (1895) Letters written by Sir Samuel Hood (Viscount Hood) in 1781-2-3 and Charles Middleton (1907) Letters and papers of Charles, Lord Barham.

2. The 28th Foot saw significant action in the Thirteen Colonies earlier in the war, distinguishing itself in the storming of Chatterton’s Hill at the battle of White Plains (October 28th, 1776). The regiment was sent to the West Indies in the fall of 1778. There, the 28th had significant losses, chiefly from disease. The regiment’s strength was kept up my drafting into it the rank and file from other weak regiments (which were then sent home to recruit). The flank companies of the 13th Foot saw little or no combat prior to the St. Kitts campaign. Seven of the regiment’s battalion companies were captured in November, 1781, when the Marquis de Bouillé stormed St. Eustatius.

3. cf. William Laird Clowes et al. (1898). The royal navy: a history from the earliest times to the present, Volume 3. Isaac Schomberg (1802). Naval chronology...

4. cf. Odet-Julien Leboucher (1788). Histoire de la derniere guerre...

5. John Gilmary Shea (1864). The operations of the French fleet under the Count de Grasse in 1781-2 as described in two contemporary journals.

6. cf. Journal of the capture and recovery of Nevis in Charles Ekins (1824). Naval battles, from 1744 to the peace in 1814.

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