Friday, July 29, 2011

St. Kitts (7): Battle on Land

This is the seventh 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, Part 5, or Part 6].

The Siege Continues

While the French and British fleets battled south of St. Kitts (Parts 5 and 6), the Marquis de Bouillé continued to attack Brimstone Hill, despite shortages of guns, mortars, and ammunition (cf. Parts 3 and 4). On the 25th, his men opened fire from a new 5-gun battery on Binkes’ Plantation, a little over 1,000 yards to the east, on high ground that was about level with Brimstone Hill. Enough guns and mortars were in action by now to begin inflicting significant damage to the fortress. According to British Governor Shirley:

the enemy [on the 25th] began an incessant fire upon the garrison with their mortars and cannon and continued it till midnight. This day [the 26th] the enemy's fire destroyed the building wherein our whole stock of rum was deposited, and a store which contained a considerable quantity of provisions and arms, and every building on the Hill except two small rooms. [1]

A new wrinkle for de Bouillé was the presence of British infantry with the fleet commanded by Rear Admiral Samuel Hood. To help protect his northern flank, de Bouillé ordered a battery to be erected that would command Fig Tree Bay, north of Sandy Point Town. To help protect his southern flank, de Bouillé placed a detachment at Basseterre.

The British Landing

The British regular army troops with Hood’s fleet included the 28th Regiment of Foot and the flank companies of the 13th Regiment of Foot. These men were commanded by Brigadier-General Robert Prescott and had been temporarily drawn from the garrison on Antigua. Hood also had the services of troops serving as marines for his fleet; these included the 69th Regiment of Foot and two battalions of His Majesty’s Marines.

According to a second-hand account by John Moore, Prescott presented Hood with a couple of options for relieving the British garrison on Brimstone Hill.

General Prescott offered to join and reinforce the garrison with 700 or 800 men if Lord Hood would land him near Charles Fort at the bottom of the hill [i.e., Brimstone Hill], or if he would give him a couple of frigates to land him at the back of the island. Such was his knowledge of the country that he expected to reach Brimstone Hill from thence by by-paths over the mountains, unknown to the French army. Both these proposals Lord Hood rejected, and proposed to the General to land at some distance from Basseterre, as he said, to make a diversion. [2]

Hood’s reasoning was stated in a letter to Prescott, dated January 27th. He wrote:

It appears to me of great importance to the king’s service to possess a post on shore, and I beg to submit it to your serious consideration. I can land two battalions of marines of 700 each, rank and file; the 69th Regiment of 500 rank and file, which, with the troops in the frigates [i.e., Prescott’s men from Antigua], including officers, would make a body of 2,400; and you might have as many guns, 12- and 9-pounders, as you please. It would certainly, I should imagine, make a diversion in favour of Brimstone Hill, and very much distress, puzzle, and embarrass the enemy. [3]

Hood appears to have believed that this force would be too small to raise the siege, but too large for the French to ignore. He saw little risk in this enterprise, he told Prescott, “because your retreat can always be secure.” In other words, Prescott’s men would be defended by the guns of the Royal Navy.

According to Moore, “General Prescott endeavoured to show the absurdity of this.” It seems Prescott felt that Hood’s plan was overly cautious and only a bold move would save the island. However, “His Lordship, as usual, was deaf to reason, adhered to his opinion, and told the General that if he did not choose to land the troops he would land the marines.”

This last part is undoubtedly true; Hood concluded his letter of the 27th by stating that if Prescott did not this plan, “I shall be inclined to land a party of marines to rout the French from Basseterre, [and] hoist the English flag.”

Prescott could not get to shore without the cooperation of the Royal Navy. Therefore, he reluctantly agreed to follow Hood’s proposal.

The troops from the 13th, 28th, and 69th regiments disembarked on the morning of the 28th, and landed on the shore of Frigate Bay. The marines remained with the fleet. According to Captain William Cornwallis of the Canada, the day was marked by fresh breezes and cloudy weather.” [4]

The British Landing (click to enlarge). This map shows the site of the clash on January 28th, 1782 between Prescott and de Fléchin. Also shown is the approximate position of Hood's fleet and de Bouillé's army.

French Forces at Basseterre

The detachment of French troops defending Basseterre was commanded by Le comte de Fléchin, a senior officer in Regiment Touraine [5]. This detachment consisted of the grenadiers and chasseurs from regiments Agénois and Touraine, a portion of Regiment Dillon, and the Volontaires de Bouillé. [6]

Among those stationed near Basseterre was Chevalier de Montlezun, a sous-lieutenant of chasseurs. [7] De Montlezun, still in his teenage years, would later recall tiring days beneath a burning sun and sleepless nights watching for a British attack. His platoon, it seems, dieted chiefly on the fruit of prickly pear plants. These plants abounded on the hills south and east of Basseterre, and one walking across these hills would be tormented by their sharp spines. Nevertheless, according to de Montlezun, the landscape was enchanting. Looking around, he saw green fields of sugarcane surrounded by steep and wild hills, a pale blue salt pond, rows of coconut trees, and a narrow and hilly peninsula, with the ocean lapping on either shore. [8]

It was on this spot that the principal land combat would occur during the St. Kitts campaign and where de Montlezun would have the fight of a lifetime.

When the British infantry landed, de Fléchin moved to confront the British, despite being greatly outnumbered. De Fléchin felt it his duty to delay the British so that de Bouillé would have time to organize a proper defense of the island. De Fléchin left the grenadier company from regiment Touraine and half of his troops from Regiment Dillon to defend Basseterre. The rest were thrown onto the Mooring Hills, southeast of town. From this commanding height they prevented Prescott from moving inland.

Basseterre, Frigate Bay, and the Mooring Hills (click to enlarge). Basseterre town is at left. Frigate Bay is at center (note the three anchors). The Mooring Hills are just to the left of Frigate Bay, and above Great Potatoe Bay.

The French deployment on the Mooring Hills appears to have been as follows: On the right (closest to the sea) was a detachment of 50 men from Regiment Dillon and the 60-man Volontaires de Bouillé, in the center were the flank companies of regiment Agénois, and one platoon of chasseurs from Regiment Touraine, and on the left was the remainder of the Touraine chasseurs (including de Montlezun). The total force numbered around 300 or so men. [9]

The Battle

The three British regiments assembled in column formation on the beach. Around 1pm, General Prescott ordered the 28th and 69th regiments to occupy the Mooring Hills. According to an eyewitness on Nevis, the British regulars “performed this service with gallantry, though their march was all up hill, and through thick shrubs and prickly pears.” [10]

At the same time that the British infantry were ascending the Mooring Hills from the south, de Fléchin was leading a party of men up the northern slope. As the leading British soldiers neared the summit, they unexpectedly “ran against a detachment of… grenadiers and chasseurs running up at full speed” from the opposite direction. The battle had begun. [11]

The British Infantry Land on St. Kitts. From a 1782 painting by François Lescalet. Several frigates are shown disembarking men along the shore. The British form on the beach and advance into combat with de Fléchin's men on the hill at right.

Close up view of British infantry forming on the beach.

De Montlezun and his men were on the British side of the hills when the fighting began. A few British troops were spotted at a dwelling, and de Montlezun was ordered to attack these with his platoon. However, as the chasseurs rushed forward, more and more British troops came into sight, and drew up in a formidable line of battle in an alley of palm trees. De Montlezun’s men would have been slaughtered were it not for the fact that some of the chasseurs on higher ground could see the danger and called for them to come back.

Close up view of chasseurs from Regiment de Touraine. Possibly these men are intended to depict part of de Montlezun’s platoon.

The movement of two British columns up the hill unmasked de Montlezun’s position, and he and his chasseurs began to be shelled by British frigates (they had four in action).

De Montlezun and his men then joined the scramble for control of the hills, where “The musketry fire began at a distance of 10 paces.” He recalled, “Arriving on the line, through a shower of bullets, I had the misfortune to see fall… the valiant Villebrune, second captain of the Agénois chasseurs [12]. The whiteness of his uniform was replaced by a tinge of blood that covered him entirely.”

Close up showing Comte de Flechin rallying the French infantry.

According to the biographer of Chevalier de Mirabeau, then a staff officer in Regiment Touraine, “There were on both sides desperate efforts, furious and repeated counter-attacks… Many times, the French overwhelmed by the number of assailants and shot down by the frigates in the bay, seemed about to succumb,” but the infantry, exhorted by their officers, grimly hung on. De Mirabeau “stood out among those most careless of danger,” until finally “His horse was killed, [and] he was shot in the thigh.” [11]

De Montlezun remembered that “The battle dragged on relentlessly. A mulatto, my company drummer, had the courage to beat the charge for the whole hour that the combat lasted.” De Montlezun admired “the imperturbable coolness” of this drummer, “surrounded by blood and carnage”, who could “expect no reward for his dedication.”

Finally, General Prescott ordered his reserve (the grenadier and light infantry companies of the 13th Foot) to sweep around the French left flank.

“At last,” according de Montlezun, “the ammunition was totally exhausted and,” he wrote with considerable exaggeration, “half of the officers and men had died.” Those still on their feet could not contest the advance of the British reserve, which “was in motion to turn our flank and place us between two fires.”

De Fléchin, realizing that the situation had become hopeless, ordered a retreat. The British had won a strong post near shore, and an open road into the interior.

French losses were about 86 men killed or badly wounded (about ¼ of those engaged). These losses were heaviest in the grenadier and chasseur companies of Regiment d’Agénois. [13]

De Fléchin, although defeated, was lionized for having put up such a stiff fight against the British forces.

British losses were approximately 17 killed, 47 wounded, and 7 missing (71 in total). The 69th Foot reportedly lost 5 officers and 29 men killed and wounded; this loss in officers was one of the highest by a British regiment during the war. [14]

Admiral Hood singled out for praise Lieutenant-Colonel (and New York land baron) Philip Skene, who led the 69th in this engagement. [4]


In October of last year, I made a preliminary assessment of this combat and concluded that the fighting probably took place on St. Timothy's Hill. Further research has led me to conclude that the action almost certainly took place on "the Mooring Hills" instead. None of the sources is explicit on this point, but it is the logical conclusion in view of several pieces of evidence. Most important to my way of thinking was a statement by the anonymous journalist on Nevis, who wrote "This day 700 regulars, being all the effectives General Prescott brought down with him, were landed under cover of the frigates at Frigate and Potatoe Bays [both locations are shown on the map above]. The French had a body of men posted on the hills above them..." Further, his description of events following the battle (these will be covered in the next post in this series) makes clear that the battlefield was closer to Basseterre town than St. Timothy's Hill. See Note #10, below, for the full account.

1. Excerpts from Shirley’s journal are from Algernon Aspinall (1915). West Indian tales of old.

2. The diary of Sir John Moore, Volume 1.

3. Charles Middleton (1907). Letters and papers of Charles, Lord Barham, Volume 1.

4. David Hannay (1895). Letters written by Sir Samuel Hood (Viscount Hood) in 1781-2-3.

5. Full name: Charles-François-Joseph de Fléchin de Vamin

6. 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.

7. Full name: Barthélemi-Sernin du Moulin de Montlezun de la Barthelle

8. Baron de Montlezun (1818). Souvenirs des Antilles. Translations of this work are my own.

9. De Montlezun described himself as being on the extreme left and he reported seeing only white-coated troops from regiment Agénois and Touraine to his right. This leads me to believe that the troops from Dillon and the Volontaires de Bouillé were even further to the right (outside his field of vision), and nearest the British fleet. Admiral Hood was under the impression that the British were fighting Irish troops in French service [cf. Note #4]; however, the detachment from Regiment Dillon was the only set of Irish troops in de Fléchin’s command. The total of “300 or so” is an estimate based on inconsistent statements about de Fléchin’s numbers across several sources.

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

11. Eugéne Berger (1904). Le vicomte de Mirabeau (Mirabeau-Tonneau) 1754-1792. Translations of this work are my own.

12. Full name: Servant-Paul le Saige de Villebrune

13. Statements about French losses varied slightly from source to source. cf. Note #6, above, the Journal Politique of April, 1782 (seconde quinzaine), and other French accounts of the campaign.

14. See Note #10, above, and the Remembrancer for 1782.

No comments:

Post a Comment