Thursday, July 21, 2011

St. Kitts (6): Battle of Frigate Bay

This is the sixth 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, Part 4, or Part 5].

Hood’s Plans

On January 25th, 1782, British Admiral Samuel Hood outmaneuvered French Admiral François-Joseph-Paul de Grasse and seized an anchorage in near Basseterre town on St. Kitts.

French reactions to this engagement were mixed. The French admired the tactical skill Hood had shown, but downplayed the importance of this engagement. According to one officer:

The most important anchorage for the English admiral, the only one decisive for raising the siege of Brimstone Hill… was that of Sandy Point; there, even under sail, he could have communicated directly with the fortress, he could have landed his troops under his guns, and been protected by them in case of attack; the place would never have been totally invested… and the position of the besiegers would have become very critical; on the other hand the vaunted anchorage [that Hood actually took]… was too far from the besieged place, and the English [infantry] corps was too weak to cut its way through to [the garrison]. [1]

It was true that if Hood had insisted on approaching Sandy Point he could have had a greater impact on the siege of Brimstone Hill. However, Hood’s decision making was influenced by two factors unbeknownst to the French. One was that that Brigadier-General Thomas Fraser of the British garrison had reported that reinforcements were not needed on Brimstone Hill. The other was that Hood was expecting the arrival of a British squadron commanded by George Brydges Rodney. This combined fleet (which Rodney would command) would give the British a decisive advantage over the French. Hood’s secure anchorage near Basseterre allowed him to balance the twin needs of being in supporting distance of the garrison while preserving his ships until Rodney’s arrival.

De Grasse Attacks

De Grasse was disappointed by the result of the action on the 25th, and he had no intention of allowing Hood to peacefully occupy an anchorage at St. Kitts. He chose to strike Hood’s fleet the morning of the 26th.

Hood anticipated an attack, and he specifically feared that the French would direct their ships against the front (eastern end) of his line, where they could use the windward position to their advantage. To protect this end, he rearranged his ships so that the line lay so close to shore that it was virtually unassailable.

The main part of the British line was in an east-west line (from east to west: Bedford, Russell, Montagu, St. Albans, Alcide, America, Intrepid, Torbay, Princessa, Prince George, Ajax, Prince William, Shrewsbury, Invincible, Barfleur). The rear ships lay in a line that curved to the north, towards Basseterre (from southeast to northwest: Monarch, Centaur, Belliqueux, Resolution, Prudent, Canada, Alfred). [2]

The rear ships abutted the 100-fathom depth line which prevented the French ships from anchoring near the British fleet. [3]

On the morning of the 26th, the French formed line of battle in the usual order (i.e., the reverse of that listed here, with Souverain in the lead) and sailed north, towards the British. De Grasse intended to strike the western extremity of the British line. However, the French ships sailed close to shore as they approached the British fleet, and thus the appearance of aiming for the eastern flank. De Grasse, it seems intended to suddenly turn and sail his ships across the length of the British line before closing with the western flank.

Whatever the merits of this plan, it was not carried out as intended. According to an eyewitness on Nevis, “The leading ship of the French [Souverain] stood on with amazing steadiness and resolution, and advanced considerably farther than the rest.” Perhaps Souverain was carried too far forward by wind and waves, or perhaps Souverain’s captain sought to make a name for himself. In any case:

“She [Souverain] kept on advancing till the fire of our line opened upon her, which seemed visibly to stagger her; the fire of the whole line opening in a manner at once, was truly awful; it resembled loud rolling thunder, and was incessant for nearly two hours. The whole French line followed their leader, but none came so near to the English line.” [5]

The Chevalier de Goussencourt concluded that this misaimed attack was a byproduct of infighting between de Grasse and his subordinates. He wrote sarcastically, “in consequence of the good will and affection entertained for the admiral, all efforts were turned to the centre of the [British] fleet” rather than the western flank, or rear. [1]

The French captains responded differently to this changed set of circumstances. According to the observer on Nevis, “the difference among them was very distinguishable… some luffing up and endeavouring to get as close as possible, while others apparently edged out of the heat of our fire.” [5]


De Grasse’s attack goes awry. The French vessels, with Souverain in the lead, come within range of Hood’s cannon. Ships of the line only are shown; positions are very approximate.

The French Attack. This painting depicts roughly the same events as the map above. The French vessels are sailing from at left. Nevis is in the foreground, and the "Narrows" separating St. Kitts and Nevis is in the middle ground. Brimstone Hill is faintly visible in the far distance at left (a flag appears above the summit and smoke billows from the British fortifications).


The ships in the British rear began shifting positions once it became apparent that they would come under attack. Captain William Cornwallis, commander of the Canada, was one of those in an exposed position. Seeing “the enemy’s fleet standing in with a press of sail, [we] were obliged to cut the cable…” Canada and the other vessels then began to work eastward, against the wind, to close with the rest of the fleet. [5]

According to de Goussencourt, the French attack did ultimately land hardest against the rear of the British line:

…we were fortunate enough, and our gunners expert enough, to handle the four rear vessels in the English line so severely that they were forced to weigh anchor under our fire, and could hardly have been more cut up than they were. As our ships passed the last English vessels they veered in the same order.


Battle of the 26th of January, 1782. Hood's fleet is anchored at left. The French ships (with sails unfurled) are shown turning back out to sea after passing the rear-most British vessels.


The attack killed and wounded many, but nothing of importance was gained. According to de Goussencourt, “This action was simply a brush, which lasted two hours, and amounted to nothing.” A fellow officer pronounced it a “farce” (facétie). [1]

De Grasse Attacks Again

De Grasse soon reformed his fleet; the much-battered Souverain was placed at the rear of the line. The French then made a new attack during the afternoon.

This time, the French attack landed squarely on the rear of the British line as intended. However, according to one of de Grasse’s officers, “only the head of the French line could come into action, and the wind prevented the action from becoming general.” [1] The eyewitness on Nevis recorded that these “six or seven of the French van attacked our rear; two of them seemed to us to luff up very gallantly, almost so as to double round” the British line.

The fighting, while limited in scope, was nevertheless intense. De Goussencourt claimed “we so harassed the English rear that Admiral Hood replaced the four rear vessels by others which had suffered less in the three engagements…”

Captain Robert Manners commanded one of these British ships (the Resolution), and later wrote:

One of their attacks was pretty severe, and fell mostly on our rear; we came off very well in point of men [Resolution’s losses in the three engagements totaled 5 killed, 11 wounded], but are much cut in the masts and rigging, having our bowsprit, all our lower masts, all our top masts, and all our top gallant masts wounded… [5]

The eyewitness on Nevis believed heavy fire from the British rear ships forced the French van to withdraw:

…the fire from our rear was now so terrible and particularly the Barfleur’s, that they soon bore away and stood up to the southward; when they lay-to for the night.


The final clash on the 26th. Ships of the line only are shown; positions are very approximate.


Once again, Hood’s fleet remained secure in its anchorage.

An officer with de Grasse commented,

We should have attacked again on the 27th, if the English squadron had not appeared out of reach of insult; the vessels cut up the day before were removed and eight or nine of the largest had taken their places. They were anchored, the bowsprit of one over the stern of the other; thus unattackable, the fleet contented itself with keeping them there. [1]

The British and French tallied up their losses from the several clashes. The British counted 316 killed and wounded, the French 314. [6]


De Grasse’s clashes with Hood on the 25th and 26th have been termed the “battle of Frigate Bay,” but this appears to be a misnomer. Frigate Bay was mentioned in Hood’s report on the St. Kitts campaign, but in connection only with the events of January 28th-29th (to be described in the next two posts), not his battle with de Grasse. Maps of St. Kitts shows Frigate Bay to be only a concave section of coastline, east of Basseterre Town, and some miles distant from where de Grasse and Hood are thought to have clashed. Several histories of the campaign claim that Hood anchored his fleet off Green Point, and this is what I have shown on the maps I’ve prepared (it’s the western “bump” in the coastline near Hood’s vessels). I have not seen Green Point specifically mentioned in primary sources, but several illustrations of the St. Kitts campaign (e.g., the Lescalet painting) show the British fleet anchored near a point of land that appears to correspond with Green Point.

1. The journals of Chevalier de Goussencourt, and another, anonymous French officer, can be found in John Gilmary Shea (1864). The operations of the French fleet under the Count de Grasse in 1781-2 as described in two contemporary journals.

2. 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...

3. cf. Clowes et al., ibid.

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

5. The accounts by Captains Cornwallis and Manners can be found in David Hannay (1895) Letters written by Sir Samuel Hood (Viscount Hood) in 1781-2-3

6. The commanders' reports can be found in the British Remembrancer, and the French Journal Politique for 1782.

No comments:

Post a Comment