The Influence of Sea Power upon History/Chapter X
On the 15th of April, 1778, Admiral Comte d'Estaing sailed from Toulon for the American continent, having under his command twelve ships-of-the-line and five frigates. With him went as a passenger a minister accredited to Congress, who was instructed to decline all requests for subsidies, and to avoid explicit engagements relative to the conquest of Canada and other British possessions. "The Cabinet of Versailles," says a French historian, "was not sorry for the United States to have near them a cause of anxiety, which would make them feel the value of the French alliance." While acknowledging the generous sympathy of many Frenchmen for their struggle, Americans need not blind themselves to the self-interestedness of the French government. Neither should they find fault; for its duty was to consider French interests first.
D'Estaing's progress was very slow. It is said that he wasted much time in drills, and even uselessly. However that may be, he did not reach his destination, the Capes of the Delaware, until the 8th of July,--making a passage of twelve weeks, four of which were spent in reaching the Atlantic. The English government had news of his intended sailing; and in fact, as soon as they recalled their ambassador at Paris, orders were sent to America to evacuate Philadelphia, and concentrate upon New York. Fortunately for them, Lord Howe's movements were marked by a vigor and system other than D'Estaing's. First assembling his fleet and transports in Delaware Bay, and then hastening the embarkation of stores and supplies, he left Philadelphia as soon as the army had marched from there for New York. Ten days were taken up in reaching the mouth of the bay but he sailed from it the 28th of June, ten days before D'Estaing arrived, though more than ten weeks after he had sailed. Once outside, a favoring wind took the whole fleet to Sandy Hook in two days. War is unforgiving; the prey that D'Estaing had missed by delays foiled him in his attempts upon both New York and Rhode Island.
The day after Howe's arrival at Sandy Hook the English army reached the heights of Navesink, after an harassing march through New Jersey, with Washington's troops hanging upon its rear. By the active co-operation of the navy it was carried up to New York by the 5th of July; and Howe then went back to bar the entrance to the port against the French fleet. As no battle followed, the details of his arrangements will not be given; but a very full and interesting account by an officer of the fleet can be found in Ekins's "Naval Battles." Attention, however, may well be called to the combination of energy, thought, skill, and determination shown by the admiral. The problem before him was to defend a practicable pass with six sixty-four-gun ships and three of fifty, against eight of seventy-four guns or over, three sixty-fours, and one fifty,--it may be said against nearly double his own force.
D'Estaing anchored outside, south of the Hook, on the 11th of July, and there remained until the 22d, engaged in sounding the bar, and with every apparent determination to enter. On the 22d a high northeast wind, coinciding with a spring tide, raised the water on the bar to thirty feet. The French fleet got under way, and worked up to windward to a point fair for crossing the bar. Then D'Estaing's heart failed him under the discouragement of the pilots; he gave up the attack and stood away to the southward.
Naval officers cannot but sympathize with the hesitation of a seaman to disregard the advice of pilots, especially on a coast foreign to him; but such sympathy should not close their eyes to the highest type of character. Let any one compare the action of D'Estaing at New York with that of Nelson at Copenhagen and the Nile, or that of Farragut at Mobile and Port Hudson, and the inferiority of the Frenchman as a military leader, guided only by military considerations, is painfully apparent. New York was the very centre of the British power; its fall could not but have shortened the war. In fairness to D'Estaing, however, it must be remembered that other than military considerations had to weigh with him. The French admiral doubtless had instructions similar to those of the French minister, and he probably reasoned that France had nothing to gain by the fall of New York, which might have led to peace between America and England, and left the latter free to turn all her power against his own country. Less than that would have been enough to decide his wavering mind as to risking his fleet over the bar.
Howe was more fortunate than D'Estaing, in having no divided purposes. Having escaped from Philadelphia and saved New York by his diligence, he had in store the further honor of saving Rhode Island by the like rapid movements. Scattered ships-of-war from a fleet despatched from England now began to arrive. On the 28th of July Howe was informed that the French fleet, which had disappeared to the southward, had been seen heading for Rhode Island. In four days his fleet was ready for sea, but owing to contrary winds did not reach Point Judith till the 9th of August. There he anchored, and learned that D'Estaing had run the batteries the day before and anchored between Gould and Canonicut Islands; the Seakonnet and Western passages had also been occupied by French ships, and the fleet was prepared to sustain the American army in an attack upon the British works.
The arrival of Howe, although his reinforcements did not raise the English fleet to over two thirds the strength of the French, upset D'Estaing's plans. With the prevailing summer southwest breezes blowing straight into the bay, he was exposed to any attempts his adversary might make. That same night the wind shifted unexpectedly to the northward, and D'Estaing at once got under way and stood out to sea. Howe, though surprised by this unlooked-for act,--for he had not felt himself strong enough to attack,--also made sail to keep the weather-gage. The next twenty-four hours passed in manoeuvring for the advantage; but on the night of the 11th of August a violent gale of wind dispersed the fleets. Great injury was done to the vessels of both, and among others the French flag-ship "Languedoc," of ninety guns, lost all her masts and her rudder. Immediately after the gale two different English fifty-gun ships, in fighting order, fell in, the one with the "Languedoc," the other with the "Tonnant," of eighty guns, having only one mast standing. Under such conditions both English ships attacked; but night coming on, they ceased action, intending to begin again in the morning. When morning came, other French ships also came, and the opportunity was lost. It is suggestive to note that one of the captains was Hotham, who as admiral of the Mediterranean fleet, seventeen years later, so annoyed Nelson by his cool satisfaction in having taken only two ships: "We must be contented; we have done very well." This was the immediate occasion of Nelson's characteristic saying, "Had we taken ten sail, and allowed the eleventh to escape, being able to get at her, I could never have called it well done."
The English fell back on New York. The French rallied again off the entrance of Narragansett Bay; but D'Estaing decided that he could not remain on account of the damage to the squadron, and accordingly sailed for Boston on the 21st of August. Rhode Island was thus left to the English, who retained it for a year longer, evacuating then for strategic reasons. Howe on his part diligently repaired his ships, and sailed again for Rhode Island when he heard of the French being there; but meeting on the way a vessel with word of their going to Boston, he followed them to that harbor, in which they were too strongly placed to be attacked. Taking into consideration his enforced return to New York, the necessary repairs, and the fact that he was only four days behind the French at Boston, it may be believed that Howe showed to the end the activity which characterized the beginning of his operations.
Scarcely a shot had been exchanged between the two fleets, yet the weaker had thoroughly outgeneralled the stronger. With the exception of the manoeuvres for the weather-gage after D'Estaing left Newport, which have not been preserved, and of Howe's dispositions to receive the expected attack in New York Bay, the lessons are not tactical, but strategic, and of present application. Chief among them undoubtedly stands the value of celerity and watchfulness, combined with knowledge of one's profession. Howe learned of his danger by advices from home three weeks after D'Estaing sailed from Toulon. He had to gather in his cruisers from the Chesapeake and outside, get his ships-of-the-line from New York and Rhode Island, embark the supplies of an army of ten thousand men, move down the Delaware,--which unavoidably took ten days,--and round to New York again. D'Estaing was ten days behind him at the Delaware, twelve days at Sandy Hook, and only one day ahead of him in entering Newport, outside which harbor he had lain ten days before sailing in. An English narrator in the fleet, speaking of the untiring labor between June 30, when the English army reached Navesink, and the arrival of the French fleet on the 11th of July, says: "Lord Howe attended in person as usual, and by his presence animated the zeal and quickened the industry of officers and men." in this quality he was a marked contrast to his amiable but indolent brother, General Howe.
The same industry and watchfulness marked his remaining operations. As soon as the French ships hauled off to the southward, lookout vessels followed them, and preparations continued (notably of fireships) for pursuit. The last ship that joined from England crossed the bar at New York on the 30th of July. On the 1st of August the fleet was ready for sea, with four fire-ships. The accident of the wind delayed his next movements; but, as has been seen, he came up only one day after the entrance of the enemy into Newport, which his inferior force could not have prevented. But the object of the enemy, which he could not oppose, was frustrated by his presence. D'Estaing was no sooner in Newport than he wished himself out. Howe's position was strategically excellent. With his weatherly position in reference to the prevailing winds, the difficulty of beating a fleet out through the narrow entrance to the harbor would expose the French ships trying it to be attacked in detail; while if the wind unluckily came fair, the admiral relied upon his own skill to save his squadron.
Cooper, in one of his novels, "The Two Admirals," makes his hero say to a cavilling friend that if he had not been in the way of good luck, he could not have profited by it. The sortie of the French, the subsequent gale, and the resulting damage were all what is commonly called luck; but if it had not been for Howe's presence off Point Judith threatening them, they would have ridden out the gale at their anchors inside. Howe's energy and his confidence in himself as a seaman had put him in the way of good luck, and it is not fair to deny his active share in bringing it about. But for him the gale would not have saved the British force in Newport.
D'Estaing, having repaired his ships, sailed with his whole force for Martinique on the 4th of November; on the same day Commodore Hotham left New York for Barbadoes, with five sixty-four and fifty-gun ships and a convoy of five thousand troops, destined for the conquest of Sta. Lucia Island. On the way a heavy gale of wind injured the French fleet more than the English, the French flag-ship losing her main and mizzen topmasts. The loss of these spars, and the fact that twelve unencumbered ships-of-war reached Martinique only one day before the convoy of fifty-nine English transports reached Barbadoes, a hundred miles farther on, tells badly for the professional skill which then and now is a determining feature in naval war.
Admiral Barrington, commanding at Barbadoes, showed the same energy as Howe. The transports arrived on the 10th; the troops were kept on board; sailed on the morning of the 12th for Sta. Lucia, and anchored there at three P.M. the 13th. The same afternoon half the troops were landed, and the rest the next morning. They seized at once a better port, to which the admiral was about to move the transports when the appearance of D'Estaing prevented him. All that night the transports were being warped inside the ships-of-war, and the latter anchored across the entrance to the bay, especial care being taken to strengthen the two extremities of the line, and to prevent the enemy from passing inside the weather end, as the English ships in after years did at the battle of the Nile. The French was much more than double the English fleet; and if the latter were destroyed, the transports and troops would be trapped.
D'Estaing stood down along the English order twice from north to south, cannonading at long range, but did not anchor. Abandoning then his intentions against the fleet, he moved to another bay, landed some French soldiers, and assaulted the position of the English troops. Failing here also, he retired to Martinique; and the French garrison, which had been driven into the interior of the island, surrendered.
It seems scarcely necessary to point out the admirable diligence of Admiral Barrington, to which and to the skill of his dispositions he owed this valuable strategic success; for such it was. Sta. Lucia was the island next south of Martinique, and the harbor of Gros Ilot at its northern end was especially adapted to the work of watching the French depot at Fort Royal, their principal station in the West Indies. Thence Rodney pursued them before his great action in 1782.
The absence of precise information causes hesitation in condemning D'Estaing for this mortifying failure. His responsibility depends upon the wind, which may have been light under the land, and upon his power to anchor. The fact, however, remains that he passed twice along the enemy's line within cannon-shot, yet did not force a decisive action. His course was unfavorably criticised by the great Suffren, then one of his captains.
The English had thus retrieved the capture of Dominica, which had been taken on the 8th of September by the French governor of the West India Islands. There being no English squadron there, no difficulty had been met. The value of Dominica to the French has been pointed out; and it is necessary here to use the example of both Dominica and Sta. Lucia to enforce what has before been said, that the possession of these smaller islands depended solely upon the naval preponderance. Upon the grasp of this principle held by any one will depend his criticism upon the next action of D'Estaing, to be immediately related.
Six months of almost entire quiet followed the affair of Sta. Lucia. The English were reinforced by the fleet of Byron, who took chief command; but the French, being joined by ten more ships-of-the-line, remained superior in numbers. About the middle of June, Byron sailed with his fleet to protect a large convoy of merchant-ships, bound for England, till they were clear of the islands. D'Estaing then sent a very small expedition which seized St. Vincent, June 16, 1779, without difficulty; and on the 30th of June he sailed with his whole fleet to attack Grenada. Anchoring off Georgetown on the 2d of July, he landed his soldiers, and on the 4th the garrison of seven hundred men surrendered the island. Meanwhile Byron, hearing of the loss of St. Vincent and probable attack on Grenada, sailed with a large convoy of vessels carrying troops, and with twenty-one ships-of-the-line, to regain the one and relieve the other. Receiving on the way definite in-formation that the French were before Grenada, he kept on for it, rounding the northwest point of the island at day-break of July 6. His approach had been reported the day before to D'Estaing, who remained at anchor, fearing lest with the currents and light winds he might drop too far to leeward if he let go the bottom. When the English came in sight, the French got under way; but the confused massing of their ships prevented Byron from recognizing at once the disparity of numbers, they having twenty-five ships-of-the-line. He made signal for a general chase, and as the disorder of the French fleet forced it to form on the leewardmost ships, the English easily retained the advantage of the wind with which they approached. As the action began, therefore, the French were to the westward with a partly formed line, on the starboard tack, heading north, the rear in disorder, and to windward of the van and centre. The English stood down with a fair wind, steering south by west on the port tack, between the island and the enemy, their leading ships approaching at a slight angle, but heading more directly for his yet unformed rear; while the English convoy was between its own fleet and the island, under special charge of three ships, which were now called in. As the signal so far commanded a general chase, the three fastest of the English, among which was the flag of the second in command, Admiral Barrington, came under fire of the French centre and rear, apparently unsupported, and suffered much from the consequent concentration of fire upon them. When they reached the sternmost ships they wore upon the same tack with them and stood north, after and to windward of them; and at about the same time Byron, who had not before known of the surrender, saw the French flag flying over the forts. Signals followed to wear in succession, and for the advanced ships to form line for mutual support, ceasing the general chase under which the engagement had hitherto been fought. While the main body was still standing south on the port tack, three ships,--"Cornwall," "Grafton," and "Lion",-- obeying literally the signal for chose action, had passed much to leeward of the others, drawing upon themselves most of the fire of the enemy's line. They thus suffered very severely in men and spars; and though finally relieved by the advanced ships, as these approached from the southward on the opposite tack, they were unable, after wearing, to keep up with the fleet, and so dropped astern and toward the French. The bulk of the injury sustained by the English fell upon these three, upon the three advanced ships under Barrington, and upon two others in the rear, which, seeing the van so heavily engaged, did not follow the successive movement, but bore down straight out of the order, and took their places at the head of the column,--an act strongly resembling that which won Nelson such high renown at Cape St. Vincent, but involving less responsibility.
So far Byron had conducted his attack, using the initiative permitted him by the advantage of the wind and the disorder of the French rear. It will be observed that, though it was desirable to lose no time in assailing the latter while in confusion, it is questionable whether Barrington's three ships should have been allowed to separate as far as they seem to have done from the rest of the fleet. A general chase is permissible and proper when, from superiority of numbers, original or acquired, or from the general situation, the ships first in action will not be greatly outnumbered, or subjected to overpowering concentration before support comes up, or when there is probability that the enemy may escape unless promptly struck. This was not so here. Nor should the "Cornwall," "Grafton," and "Lion" have been permitted to take a course which allowed, almost compelled, the enemy to concentrate rather than diffuse his fire. The details of the affair are not precise enough to warrant more comment than naming these mistakes, without necessarily attributing them to fault on the part of the admiral.
The French had up to this time remained strictly on the defensive, in accordance with their usual policy. There was now offered an opportunity for offensive action which tested D'Estaing's professional qualities, and to appreciate which the situation at the moment must be understood. Both fleets were by this on the starboard tack, heading north, the French to leeward. The latter had received little injury in their motive power, though their line was not in perfect order; but the English, owing to the faulty attack, had seven ships seriously crippled, four of which--the "Monmouth", "Grafton," "Cornwall", and "Lion"--were disabled. The last three, by three P.M., were a league astern and much to leeward of their line, being in fact nearer the French than the English; while the speed of the English fleet was necessarily reduced to that of the crippled ships remaining in line. These conditions bring out strongly the embarrassments of a fleet whose injuries are concentrated upon a few ships, instead of being distributed among all; the ten or twelve which were practically untouched had to conform to the capabilities of the others. D'Estaing, with twenty-five ships, now had Byron to windward of him with seventeen or eighteen capable of holding together, but slower and less handy than their enemies, and saw him tactically embarrassed by the care of a convoy to windward and three disabled ships to leeward. Under these circumstances three courses were open to the French admiral: 1. He might stretch ahead, and, tacking in succession, place himself between Byron and the convoy, throwing his frigates among the latter; 2. He might tack his fleet together and stand up to the English line to bring on a general action; or 3. he could, after going about, cut off the three disabled ships, which might bring on a general action with less exposure.
None of these did he do. As regards the first, he, knowing the criticisms of the fleet, wrote home that his line was too much disordered to allow it. Whatever the technical irregularity, it is difficult to believe that, with the relative power of motion in the two fleets, the attempt was hopeless. The third alternative probably presented the greatest advantage, for it insured the separation between the enemy's main body and the crippled ships, and might very probably exasperate the British admiral into an attack under most hazardous conditions. It is stated by English authorities that Byron said he would have borne down again, had any attack been made on them. At three P.M. D'Estaing tacked all together, forming line on the lee ship, and stood to the southward again.
The English imitated this movement, except the van ship "Monmouth", which being too badly hurt to manoeuvre kept on to the northward, and the three separated ships. Two of these kept on north and passed once more under the French broadsides; but the "Lion", unable to keep to the wind, kept broad off before it across the bows of the enemy, for Jamaica, a thousand miles away. She was not pursued; a single transport was the sole maritime trophy of the French. "Had the admiral's seamanship equalled his courage," wrote the celebrated Suffren, who commanded the French van ship, "we would not have suffered four dismasted vessels to escape." "D'Estaing, at the age of thirty, had been transferred from the army to the navy with, the premature rank of rear-admiral. The navy did not credit him with nautical ability when the war broke out, and it is safe to say that its opinion was justified by his conduct during it." "Brave as his sword, D'Estaing was always the idol of the soldier, the idol of the seaman; but moral authority over his officers failed him on several occasions, notwithstanding the marked protection extended to him by the king."
Another cause than incapacity as a seaman has usually been assigned by French historians for the impotent action of D'Estaing on this occasion. He looked upon Grenada, they say, as the real objective of his efforts, and considered the English fleet a very secondary concern. Ramatuelle, a naval tactician who served actively in this war and wrote under the Empire, cites this case, which he couples with that of Yorktown and others, as exemplifying the true policy of naval war. His words, which probably reflect the current opinion of his service in that day, as they certainly do the policy of French governments, call for more than passing mention, as they involve principles worthy of most Serious discussion:--
"The French navy has always preferred the glory of assuring or preserving a conquest to that, more brilliant perhaps, but actually less real, of taking a few ships; and in that it has approached more nearly the true end to be proposed in war. What in fact would the loss of a few ships matter to the English? The essential point is to attack them in their possessions, the immediate source of their commercial wealth and of their maritime power. The war of 1778 furnishes examples which prove the devotion of the French admirals to the true interests of the country. The preservation of the island of Grenada, the reduction of Yorktown where the English army surrendered, the conquest of the island of St. Christopher, were the result of great battles in which the enemy was allowed to retreat undisturbed, rather than risk giving him a chance to succor the points attacked."
The issue could not be more squarely raised than in the case of Grenada. No one will deny that there are moments when a probable military success is to be foregone, or postponed, in favor of one greater or more decisive. The position of De Grasse at the Chesapeake, in 1781, with the fate of Yorktown hanging in the balance, is in point; and it is here coupled with that of D'Estaing at Grenada, as though both stood on the same grounds. Both are justified alike; not on their respective merits as fitting the particular cases, but upon a general principle. Is that principle sound? The bias of the writer quoted betrays itself unconsciously, in saying "a few ships." A whole navy is not usually to be crushed at a blow; a few ships mean an ordinary naval victory. In Rodney's famous battle only five ships were taken, though Jamaica was saved thereby.
In order to determine the soundness of the principle, which is claimed as being illustrated by these two cases (St. Christopher will be discussed later on), it is necessary to examine what was the advantage sought, and what the determining factor of success in either case. At Yorktown the advantage sought was the capture of Cornwallis's army; the objective was the destruction of the enemy's organized military force on shore. At Grenada the chosen objective was the possession of a piece of territory of no great military value; for it must be remarked that all these smaller Antilles, if held in force at all, multiplied large detachments, whose mutual support depended wholly upon the navy. These large detachments were liable to be crushed separately, if not supported by the navy; and if naval superiority is to be maintained, the enemy's navy must be crushed. Grenada, near and to leeward of Barbadoes and Sta. Lucia, both held strongly by the English, was peculiarly weak to the French; but sound military policy for all these islands demanded one or two strongly fortified and garrisoned naval bases, and dependence for the rest upon the fleet. Beyond this, security against attacks by single cruisers and privateers alone was needed.
Such were the objectives in dispute. What was the determining factor in this strife? Surely the navy, the organized military force afloat. Cornwallis's fate depended absolutely upon the sea. It is useless to speculate upon the result, had the odds on the 5th of September, 1781, in favor of De Grasse, been reversed; if the French, instead of five ships more, had had five ships less than the English. As it was, De Grasse, when that fight began, had a superiority over the English equal to the result of a hard-won fight. The question then was, should he risk the almost certain decisive victory over the organized enemy's force ashore, for the sake of a much more doubtful advantage over the organized force afloat? This was not a question of Yorktown, but of Cornwallis and his army; there is a great deal in the way things are put.
So stated,--and the statement needs no modifications,--there can be but one answer. Let it be remarked clearly, however, that both De Grasse's alternatives brought before him the organized forces as the objective.
Not so with D'Estaing at Grenada. His superiority in numbers over the English was nearly as great as that of De Grasse; his alternative objectives were the organized force afloat and a small island, fertile, but militarily unimportant. Grenada is said to have been a strong position for defence; but intrinsic strength does not give importance, if the position has not strategic value. To save the island, he refused to use an enormous advantage fortune had given him over the fleet. Yet upon the strife between the two navies depended the tenure of the islands. Seriously to hold the West India Islands required, first, a powerful seaport, which the French had; second, the control of the sea. For the latter it was necessary, not to multiply detachments in the islands, but to destroy the enemy's navy, which may be accurately called the army in the field. The islands were but rich towns; and not more than one or two fortified towns, or posts, were needed.
It may safely be said that the principle which led to D'Estaing's action was not, to say the least, unqualifiedly correct; for it led him wrong. In the case of Yorktown, the principle as stated by Ramatuelle is not the justifying reason of De Grasse's conduct, though it likely enough was the real reason. What justified De Grasse was that, the event depending upon the unshaken control of the sea, for a short time only, he already had it by his greater numbers. Had the numbers been equal, loyalty to the military duty of the hour must have forced him to fight, to stop the attempt which the English admiral would certainly have made. The destruction of a few ships, as Ramatuelle slightingly puts it, gives just that superiority to which the happy result at Yorktown was due. As a general principle, this is undoubtedly a better objective than that pursued by the French. Of course, exceptions will be found; but those exceptions will probably be where, as at Yorktown, the military force is struck at directly elsewhere, or, as at Port Mahon, a desirable and powerful base of that force is at stake; though even at Mahon it is doubtful whether the prudence was not misplaced. Had Hawke or Boscawen met with Byng's disaster, they would not have gone to Gibraltar to repair it, unless the French admiral had followed up his first blow with others, increasing their disability.
Grenada was no doubt very dear in the eyes of D'Estaing, because it was his only success. After making the failures at the Delaware, at New York, and at Rhode Island, with the mortifying affair at Sta. Lucia, it is difficult to understand the confidence in him expressed by some French writers. Gifted with a brilliant and contagious personal daring, he distinguished himself most highly, when an admiral, by leading in person assaults upon intrenchments at Sta. Lucia and Grenada, and a few months later in the unsuccessful attack upon Savannah.
During the absence of the French navy in the winter of 1778-79, the English, controlling now the sea with a few of their ships that had not gone to the West Indies, determined to shift the scene of the continental war to the Southern States, where there was believed to be a large number of loyalists. The expedition was directed upon Georgia, and was so far successful that Savannah fell into their hands in the last days of 1778. The whole State speedily submitted. Operations were thence extended into South Carolina, but failed to bring about the capture of Charleston.
Word of these events was sent to D'Estaing in the West Indies, accompanied by urgent representations of the danger to the Carolinas, and the murmurings of the people against the French, who were accused of forsaking their allies, having rendered them no service, but on the contrary having profited by the cordial help of the Bostonians to refit their crippled fleet. There was a sting of truth in the alleged failure to help, which impelled D'Estaing to disregard the orders actually in his hands to return at once to Europe with certain ships. Instead of obeying them he sailed for the American coast with twenty-two ships-of-the-line, having in view two objects,--the relief of the Southern States and an attack upon New York in conjunction with Washington's army.
Arriving off the coast of Georgia on the 1st of September, D'Estaing took the English wholly at unawares; but the fatal lack of promptness, which had previously marked the command of this very daring man, again betrayed his good fortune. Dallying at first before Savannah, the fleeting of precious days again brought on a change of conditions, and the approach of the bad-weather season impelled him, too slow at first, into a premature assault. In it he displayed his accustomed gallantry, fighting at the head of his column as did the American general; but the result was a bloody repulse. The siege was raised, and D'Estaing sailed at once for France, not only giving up his project upon New York, but abandoning the Southern States to the enemy. The value of this help from the great sea power of France, thus cruelly dangled before the eyes of the Americans only to be withdrawn, was shown by the action of the English, who abandoned Newport in the utmost haste when they learned the presence of the French fleet. Withdrawal had been before decided upon, but D'Estaing's coming converted it into flight.
After the departure of D'Estaing, which involved that of the whole French fleet,--for the ships which did not go back to France returned to the West Indies,--the English resumed the attack upon the Southern States, which had for a moment been suspended. The fleet and army left New York for Georgia in the last weeks of 1779, and after assembling at Tybee, moved upon Charleston by way of Edisto. The powerlessness of the Americans upon the sea left this movement unembarrassed save by single cruisers, which picked up some stragglers,--affording another lesson of the petty results of a merely cruising warfare. The siege of Charleston began at the end of March,--the English ships soon after passing the bar and Fort Moultrie without serious damage, and anchoring within gunshot of the place. Fort Moultrie was soon and easily reduced by land approaches, and the city itself was surrendered on the 12th of May, after a siege of forty days. The whole State was then quickly overrun and brought into military subjection.
The fragments of D'Estaing's late fleet were joined by a reinforcement from France under the Comte de Guichen, who assumed chief command in the West Indian seas March 22, 1780. The next day he sailed for Sta. Lucia, which he hoped to find unprepared; but a crusty, hard-fighting old admiral of the traditional English type, Sir Hyde Parker, had so settled himself at the anchorage, with sixteen ships, that Guichen with his twenty-two would not attack. The opportunity, if it were one, did not recur. De Guichen, returning to Martinique, anchored there on the 27th; and the same day Parker at Sta. Lucia was joined by the new English commander-in-chief, Rodney.
This since celebrated, but then only distinguished, admiral was sixty-two years old at the time of assuming a command where he was to win an undying fame. Of distinguished courage and professional skill, but with extravagant if not irregular habits, money embarrassments had detained him in exile in France at the time the war began. A boast of his ability to deal with the French fleet, if circumstances enabled him to go back to England, led a French nobleman who heard it to assume his debts, moved by feelings in which chivalry and national pique probably bore equal shares. Upon his return he was given a command, and sailed, in January, 1780, with a fleet of twenty ships-of-the-line, to relieve Gibraltar, then closely invested. Off Cadiz, with a good luck for which he was proverbial, he fell in with a Spanish fleet of eleven ships-of-the-line, which awkwardly held their ground until too late to fly. Throwing out the signal for a general chase, and cutting in to leeward of the enemy, between them and their port, Rodney, despite a dark and stormy night, succeeded in blowing up one ship and taking six. Hastening on, he relieved Gibraltar, placing it out of all danger from want; and then, leaving the prizes and the bulk of his fleet, sailed with the rest for his station.
Despite his brilliant personal courage and professional skill, which in the matter of tactics was far in advance of his contemporaries in England, Rodney, as a commander-in-chief, belongs rather to the wary, cautious school of the French tacticians than to the impetuous, unbounded eagerness of Nelson. As in Tourville we have seen the desperate fighting of the seventeenth century, unwilling to leave its enemy, merging into the formal, artificial--we may almost say trifling--parade tactics of the eighteenth, so in Rodney we shall see the transition from those ceremonious duels to an action which, while skilful in conception, aimed at serious results. For it would be unjust to Rodney to press the comparison to the French admirals of his day. With a skill that De Guichen recognized as soon as they crossed swords, Rodney meant mischief, not idle flourishes. Whatever incidental favors fortune might bestow by the way, the objective from which his eye never wandered was the French fleet,--the organized military force of the enemy on the sea. And on the day when Fortune forsook the opponent who had neglected her offers, when the conqueror of Cornwallis failed to strike while he had Rodney at a disadvantage, the latter won a victory which redeemed England from the depths of anxiety, and restored to her by one blow all those islands which the cautious tactics of the allies had for a moment gained, save only Tobago.
De Guichen and Rodney met for the first time on the 17th of April, 1780, three weeks after the arrival of the latter. The French fleet was beating to windward in the Channel between Martinique and Dominica, when the enemy was made in the southeast. A day was spent in manoeuvring for the weather-gage, which Rodney got. The two fleets being now well to leeward of the islands, both on the starboard tack heading to the northward and the French on the lee bow of the English, Rodney, who was carrying a press of sail, signalled to his fleet that he meant to attack the enemy's rear and centre with his whole force; and when he had reached the position he thought suitable, ordered them to keep away eight points. De Guichen, seeing the danger of the rear, wore his fleet all together and stood down to succor it. Rodney, finding himself foiled, hauled up again on the same tack as the enemy, both fleets now heading to the southward and eastward. Later, he again made signal for battle, followed an hour after, just at noon, by the order (quoting his own despatch), "for every ship to bear down and steer for her opposite in the enemy's line." This, which sounds like the old story of ship to ship, Rodney explains to have meant her opposite at the moment, not her opposite in numerical order. His own words are: "In a slanting position, that my leading ships might attack the van ships of the enemy's centre division, and the whole British fleet be opposed to only two thirds of the enemy." The difficulty and misunderstanding which followed seem to have sprung mainly from the defective character of the signal book. Instead of doing as the admiral wished, the leading ships carried sail so as to reach their supposed station abreast their numerical opposite in the order. Rodney stated afterward that when he bore down the second time, the French fleet was in a very extended line of battle; and that, had his orders been obeyed, the centre and rear must have been disabled before the van could have joined.
There seems every reason to believe that Rodney's intentions throughout were to double on the French, as asserted. The failure sprang from the signal-book and tactical inefficiency of the fleet; for which he, having lately joined, was not answerable. But the ugliness of his fence was so apparent to De Guichen, that he exclaimed, when the English fleet kept away the first time, that six or seven of his ships were gone; and sent word to Rodney that if his signals had been obeyed he would have had him for his prisoner. A more convincing proof that he recognized the dangerousness of his enemy is to be found in the fact that he took care not to have the lee-gage in their subsequent encounters. Rodney's careful plans being upset, he showed that with them he carried all the stubborn courage of the most downright fighter; taking his own ship close to the enemy and ceasing only when the latter hauled off, her foremast and mainyard gone, and her hull so damaged that she could hardly be kept afloat.
An incident of this battle mentioned by French writers and by Botta, who probably drew upon French authorities, but not found in the English accounts, shows the critical nature of the attack in the apprehension of the French. According to them, Rodney, marking a gap in their order due to a ship in rear of the French admiral being out of station, tried to break through; but the captain of the "Destin," seventy-four, pressed up under more sail and threw himself across the path of the English ninety-gun ship.
"The action of the 'Destin' was justly praised," says Lapeyrouse-Bonfils. "The fleet ran the danger of almost certain defeat, but for the bravery of M. de Goimpy. Such, after the affair, was the opinion of the whole French squadron. Yet, admitting that our line was broken, what disasters then would necessarily threaten the fleet? Would it not always have been easy for our rear to remedy the accident by promptly standing on to fill the place of the vessels cut off? That movement would necessarily have brought about a melee, which would have turned to the advantage of the fleet having the bravest and most devoted captains. But then, as under the empire, it was an acknowledged principle that ships cut off were ships taken, and the belief wrought its own fulfilment."
The effect of breaking an enemy's line, or order-of-battle, depends upon several conditions. The essential idea is to divide the opposing force by penetrating through an interval found, or made, in it, and then to concentrate upon that one of the fractions which can be least easily helped by the other. In a column of ships this will usually be the rear. The compactness of the order attacked, the number of the ships cut off, the length of time during which they can be isolated and outnumbered, will all affect the results. A very great factor in the issue will be the moral effect, the confusion introduced into a line thus broken. Ships coming up toward the break are stopped, the rear doubles up, while the ships ahead continue their course. Such a moment is critical, and calls for instant action; but the men are rare who in an unforeseen emergency can see, and at once take the right course, especially if, being subordinates, they incur responsibility. In such a scene of confusion the English, without presumption, hoped to profit by their better seamanship; for it is not only "courage and devotion," but skill, which then tells. All these effects of "breaking the line" received illustration in Rodney's great battle in 1782. De Guichen and Rodney met twice again in the following mouth, but on neither occasion did the French admiral take the favorite lee-gage of his nation. Meanwhile a Spanish fleet of twelve ships-of the-line was on its way to join the French. Rodney cruised to windward of Martinique to intercept them; but the Spanish admiral kept a northerly course, sighted Guadeloupe, and thence sent a despatch to De Guichen, who joined his allies and escorted them into port. The great preponderance of the coalition, in numbers, raised the fears of the English islands; but lack of harmony led to delays and hesitations, a terrible epidemic raged in the Spanish squadron, and the intended operations came to nothing. In August De Guichen sailed for France with fifteen ships. Rodney, ignorant of his destination, and anxious about both North America and Jamaica, divided his fleet, leaving one half in the islands, and with the remainder sailing for New York, where he arrived on the 12th of September. The risk thus run was very great, and scarcely justifiable; but no ill effect followed the dispersal of forces. Had De Guichen intended to turn upon Jamaica, or, as was expected by Washington, upon New York, neither part of Rodney's fleet could well have withstood him. Two chances of disaster, instead of one, were run, by being in small force on two fields instead of in full force on one.
Rodney's anxiety about North America was well grounded. On the 12th of July of this year the long expected French succor arrived,--five thousand French troops under Rochambeau and seven ships-of-the-line under De Ternay. Hence the English, though still superior at sea, felt forced to concentrate at New York, and were unable to strengthen their operations in Carolina. The difficulty and distance of movements by land gave such an advantage to sea power that Lafayette urged the French government further to increase the fleet; but it was still naturally and properly attentive to its own immediate interests in the Antilles. It was not yet time to deliver America.
Rodney, having escaped the great hurricane of October, 1780, by his absence, returned to the West Indies later in the year, and soon after heard of the war between England and Holland; which, proceeding from causes which will be mentioned later, was declared December 20, 1780. The admiral at once seized the Dutch islands of St. Eustatius and St. Martin, besides numerous merchant-ships, with property amounting in all to fifteen million dollars. These islands, while still neutral, had played a role similar to that of Nassau during the American Civil War, and had become a great depot of contraband goods, immense quantities of which now fell into the English hands.
The year 1780 had been gloomy for the cause of the United States. The battle of Camden had seemed to settle the English yoke on South Carolina, and the enemy formed high hopes of controlling both North Carolina and Virginia. The treason of Arnold following had increased the depression, which was but partially relieved by the victory at King's Mountain. The substantial aid of French troops was the most cheerful spot in the situation. Yet even that had a checkered light, the second division of the intended help being blocked in Brest by the English fleet; while the final failure of De Guichen to appear, and Rodney coming in his stead, made the hopes of the campaign fruitless.
A period of vehement and decisive action was, however, at hand. At the end of March, 1781, the Comte de Grasse sailed from Brest with twenty-six ships-of-the-line and a large convoy. When off the Azores, five ships parted company for the East Indies, under Suffren, of whom more will be heard later on. De Grasse came in sight of Martinique on the 28th of April. Admiral Hood (Rodney having remained behind at St. Eustatius) was blockading before Fort Royal, the French port and arsenal on the lee side of the island, in which were four ships-of-the-line, when his lookouts reported the enemy's fleet. Hood had two objects before him,--one to prevent the junction of the four blockaded ships with the approaching fleet, the other to keep the latter from getting between him and Gros Ilot Bay in Sta. Lucia. Instead of effecting this in the next twenty-four hours, by beating to windward of the Diamond Rock, his fleet got so far to leeward that De Grasse, passing through the channel on the 29th, headed up for Fort Royal, keeping his convoy between the fleet and the island. For this false position Hood was severely blamed by Rodney, but it may have been due to light winds and the lee current. However that be, the four ships in Fort Royal got under way and joined the main body. The English had now only eighteen ships to the French twenty-four, and the latter were to windward; but though thus in the proportion of four to three, and having the power to attack, De Grasse would not do it. The fear of exposing his convoy prevented him from running the chance of a serious engagement. Great must have been his distrust of his forces, one would say. When is a navy to fight, if this was not a time? He carried on a distant cannonade, with results so far against the English, as to make his backwardness yet more extraordinary. Can a policy or a tradition which justifies such a line of conduct be good? The following day, April 80, De Grasse, having thrown away his chance, attempted to follow Hood; but the latter had no longer any reason for fighting, and his original inferiority was increased by the severe injuries of some ships on the 29th. De Grasse could not overtake him, owing to the inferior speed of his fleet, many of the ships not being coppered,--a fact worthy of note, as French vessels by model and size were generally faster than English; but this superiority was sacrificed through the delay of the government in adopting the new improvement.
Hood rejoined Rodney at Antigua; and De Grasse, after remaining a short the at Fort Royal, made an attempt upon Gros Ilot Bay, the possession of which by the English kept all the movements of his fleet under surveillance. Foiled here, he moved against Tobago, which surrendered June 2, 1781. Sailing thence, after some minor operations, he anchored on the 26th of July at Cap Francais (now Cape Haytien), in the island of Hayti. Here he found awaiting him a French frigate from the United States, bearing despatches from Washington and Rochambeau, upon which he was to take the most momentous action that fell to any French admiral during the war.
The invasion of the Southern States by the English, beginning in Georgia and followed by the taking of Charleston and the military control of the two extreme States, had been pressed on to the northward by way of Camden into North Carolina. On the 16th of August, 1780, General Gates was totally defeated at Camden; and during the following nine months the English under Cornwallis persisted in their attempts to overrun North Carolina. These operations, the narration of which is foreign to our immediate subject, had ended by forcing Cornwallis, despite many successes in actual encounter, to fall back exhausted toward the seaboard, and finally open Wilmington, in which place depots for such a contingency had been established. His opponent, General Greene, then turned the American troops toward South Carolina. Cornwallis, too weak to dream of controlling, or even penetrating, into the interior of an unfriendly country, had now to choose between returning to Charleston, to assure there and in South Carolina the shaken British power, and moving northward again into Virginia, there to join hands with a small expeditionary force operating on the James River under Generals Phillips and Arnold. To fall back would be a confession that the weary marching and fighting of months past had been without results, and the general readily convinced himself that the Chesapeake was the proper seat of war, even if New York itself had to be abandoned. The commander-in-chief, Sir Henry Clinton, by no means shared this opinion, upon which was justified a step taken without asking him. "Operations in the Chesapeake," he wrote, "are attended with great risk unless we are sure of a permanent superiority at sea. I tremble for the fatal consequences that may ensue." For Cornwallis, taking the matter into his own hands, had marched from Wilmington on the 25th of April, 1781, joining the British already at Petersburg on the 20th of May. The forces thus united numbered seven thousand men. Driven back from the open country of South Carolina into Charleston, there now remained two centres of British power,--at New York and in the Chesapeake. With New Jersey and Pennsylvania in the hands of the Americans, communication between the two depended wholly upon the sea.
Despite his unfavorable criticism of Cornwallis's action, Clinton had himself already risked a large detachment in the Chesapeake. A body of sixteen hundred men under Benedict Arnold had ravaged the country of the James and burned Richmond in January of this same year. In the hopes of capturing Arnold, Lafayette had been sent to Virginia with a nucleus of twelve hundred troops, and on the evening of the 8th of March the French squadron at Newport sailed, in concerted movement, to control the waters of the bay. Admiral Arbuthnot, commanding the English fleet lying in Gardiner's Bay, learned the departure by his lookouts, and started in pursuit on the morning of the 10th, thirty-six hours later. Favored either by diligence or luck, he made such good time that when the two fleets came in sight of each other, a little outside of the capes of the Chesapeake, the English were leading. They at once went about to meet their enemy, who, on his part, formed a line-of-battle. The wind at this time was west, so that neither could head directly into the bay.
The two fleets were nearly equal in strength, there being eight ships on each side; but the English had one ninety-gun ship, while of the French one was only a heavy frigate, which was put into the line. Nevertheless, the case was eminently one for the general French policy to have determined the action of a vigorous chief, and the failure to see the matter through must fall upon the good-will of Commodore Destouches, or upon some other cause than that preference for the ulterior objects of the operations, of which the reader of French naval history hears so much. The weather was boisterous and threatening, and the wind, after hauling once or twice, settled down to northeast, with a big sea, but was then fair for entering the bay. The two fleets were by this time both on the port tack standing out to sea, the French leading, and about a point on the weather bow of the English. From this position they wore in succession ahead of the latter, taking the lee-gage, and thus gaining the use of their lower batteries, which the heavy sea forbade to the weather-gage. The English stood on till abreast the enemy's line, when they wore together, and soon after attacked in the usual manner, and with the usual results. The three van ships were very badly injured aloft, but in their turn, throwing their force mainly on the two leaders of the enemy, crippled them seriously in hulls and rigging. The French van then kept away, and Arbuthnot, in perplexity, ordered his van to haul the wind again. M. Destouches now executed a very neat movement by defiling. Signalling his van to haul up on the other tack, he led the rest of his squadron by the disabled English ships, and after giving them the successive broadsides of his comparatively fresh ships, wore, and out to sea. This was the end of the battle, in which the English certainly got the worst; but with their usual tenacity of purpose, being unable to pursue their enemy afloat, they steered for the bay, made the junction with Arnold, and thus broke up the plans of the French and Americans, from which so much had been hoped by Washington. There can be no doubt, after careful reading of the accounts, that after the fighting the French were in better force than the English, and they in fact claimed the victory; yet the ulterior objects of the expedition did not tempt them again to try the issue with a fleet of about their own size.
The way of the sea being thus open and held in force, two thousand more English troops sailing from New York reached Virginia on the 26th of March, and the subsequent arrival of Cornwallis in May raised the number to seven thousand. The operations of the contending forces during the spring and summer months, in which Lafayette commanded the Americans, do not concern our subject. Early in August, Cornwallis, acting under orders from Clinton, withdrew his troops into the peninsula between the York and James rivers, and occupied Yorktown.
Washington and Rochambeau had met on the 21st of Mar, and decided that the situation demanded that the effort of the French West Indian fleet, when it came, should be directed against either New York or the Chesapeake. This was the tenor of the despatch found by De Grasse at Cap Francais, and meantime the allied generals drew their troops toward New York, where they would be on hand for the furtherance of one object, and nearer the second if they had to make for it.
In either case the result, in the opinion both of Washington and of the French government, depended upon superior sea power; but Rochambeau had privately notified the admiral that his own preference was for the Chesapeake as the scene of the intended operations, and moreover the French government had declined to furnish the means for a formal siege of New York. The enterprise therefore assumed the form of an extensive military combination, dependent upon ease and rapidity of movement, and upon blinding the eyes of the enemy to the real objective,--purposes to which the peculiar qualities of a navy admirably lent themselves. The shorter distance to be traversed, the greater depth of water and easier pilotage of the Chesapeake, were further reasons which would commend the scheme to the judgment of a seaman; and De Grasse readily accepted it, without making difficulties or demanding modifications which would have involved discussion and delay.
Having made his decision, the French admiral acted with great good judgment, promptitude, and vigor. The same frigate that brought despatches from Washington was sent back, so that by August 15th the allied generals knew of the intended coming of the fleet. Thirty-five hundred soldiers were spared by the governor of Cap Francais, upon the condition of a Spanish squadron anchoring at the place, which De Grasse procured. He also raised from the governor of Havana the money urgently needed by the Americans; and finally, instead of weakening his force by sending convoys to France, as the court had wished, he took every available ship to the Chesapeake. To conceal his coming as long as possible, he passed through the Bahama Channel, as a less frequented route, and on the 30th of August anchored in Lynnhaven Bay, just within the capes of the Chesapeake, with twenty-eight ships-of-the-line. Three days before, August 27, the French squadron at Newport, eight ships-of-the-line with four frigates and eighteen transports under M. de Barras, sailed for the rendezvous; making, however, a wide circuit out to sea to avoid the English. This course was the more necessary as the French siege-artillery was with it. The troops under Washington and Rochambeau had crossed the Hudson on the 24th of August, moving toward the head of Chesapeake Bay. Thus the different armed forces, both land and sea, were converging toward their objective, Cornwallis.
The English were unfortunate in all directions. Rodney, learning of De Grasse's departure, sent fourteen ships-of-the-line under Admiral Hood to North America, and himself sailed for England in August, on account of ill health. Hood, going by the direct route, reached the Chesapeake three days before De Grasse, looked into the bay, and finding it empty went on to New York. There he met five ships-of-the-line under Admiral Graves, who, being senior officer, took command of the whole force and sailed on the 31st of August for the Chesapeake, hoping to intercept De Barras before he could join De Grasse. It was not till two days later that Sir Henry Clinton was persuaded that the allied armies had gone against Cornwallis, and had too far the start to be overtaken.
Admiral Graves was painfully surprised, on making the Chesapeake, to find anchored there a fleet which from its numbers could only be an enemy's. Nevertheless, he stood in to meet it, and as De Grasse got under way, allowing his ships to be counted, the sense of numerical inferiority--nineteen to twenty-four-did not deter the English admiral from attacking. The clumsiness of his method, however, betrayed his gallantry; many of his ships were roughly handled, without any advantage being gained. De Grasse, expecting De Barras, remained outside five days, keeping the English fleet in play without coming to action; then returning to port he found De Barras safely at anchor. Graves went back to New York, and with him disappeared the last hope of succor that was to gladden Cornwallis's eyes. The siege was steadily endured, but the control of the sea made only one issue possible, and the English forces were surrendered October 19, 1781. With this disaster the hope of subduing the colonies died in England. The conflict flickered through a year longer, but no serious operations were undertaken.
In the conduct of the English operations, which ended thus unfortunately, there was both bad management and ill fortune. Hood's detachment might have been strengthened by several ships from Jamaica, had Rodney's orders been carried out. The despatch-ship, also, sent by him to Admiral Graves commanding in New York, found that officer absent on a cruise to the eastward, with a view to intercept certain very important supplies which had been forwarded by the American agent in France. The English Court had laid great stress upon cutting off this convoy; but, with the knowledge that he had of the force accompanying it, the admiral was probably ill-advised in leaving his headquarters himself, with all his fleet, at the time when the approach of the hurricane season in the West Indies directed the active operations of the navies toward the continent. In consequence of his absence, although Rodney's despatches were at once sent on by the senior officer in New York, the vessel carrying them being driven ashore by enemy's cruisers, Graves did not learn their contents until his return to port, August 16. The information sent by Hood of his coming was also intercepted. After Hood's arrival, it does not appear that there was avoidable delay in going to sea; but there does seem to have been misjudgment in the direction given to the fleet. It was known that De Barras had sailed from Newport with eight ships, bound probably for the Chesapeake, certainly to effect a junction with De Grasse; and it has been judiciously pointed out that if Graves had taken up his cruising-ground near the Capes, but out of sight of land, he could hardly have failed to fall in with him in overwhelming force. Knowing what is now known, this would undoubtedly have been the proper thing to do; but the English admiral had imperfect information. It was nowhere expected that the French would bring nearly the force they did; and Graves lost information, which he ought to have received, as to their numbers, by the carelessness of his cruisers stationed off the Chesapeake. These had been ordered to keep under way, but were both at anchor under Cape Henry when De Grasse's appearance cut off their escape. One was captured, the other driven up York River. No single circumstance contributed more to the general result than the neglect of these two subordinate officers, by which Graves lost that all-important information. It can readily be conceived how his movements might have been affected, had he known two days earlier that De Grasse had brought twenty-seven or twenty-eight sail of the line; how natural would have been the conclusion, first, to waylay De Barras, with whom his own nineteen could more than cope. "Had Admiral Graves succeeded in capturing that squadron, it would have greatly paralyzed the besieging army [it had the siege train on board], if it would not have prevented its operations altogether; it would have put the two fleets nearly on an equality in point of numbers, would have arrested the progress of the French arms for the ensuing year in the West Indies, and might possibly have created such a spirit of discord between the French and Americans as would have sunk the latter into the lowest depths of despair, from which they were only extricated by the arrival of the forces under De Grasse." ) These are true and sober comments upon the naval strategy.
In regard to the admiral's tactics, it will be enough to say that the fleet was taken into battle nearly as Byng took his; that very similar mishaps resulted; and that, when attacking twenty-four ships with nineteen, seven, under that capable officer Hood, were not able to get into action, owing to the dispositions made.
On the French side De Grasse must be credited with a degree of energy, foresight, and determination surprising in view of his failures at other times. The decision to take every ship with him, which made him independent of any failure on the part of De Barras; the passage through the Bahama Channel to conceal his movements; the address with which he obtained the money and troops required, from the Spanish and the French military authorities; the prevision which led him, as early as March 29, shortly after leaving Brest, to write to Rochambeau that American coast pilots should be sent to Cap Francais; the coolness with which he kept Graves amused until De Barras's squadron had slipped in, are all points worthy of admiration. The French were also helped by the admiral's power to detain the two hundred merchant-ships, the "West India trade," awaiting convoy at Cap Francais, where they remained from July till November, when the close of operations left him at liberty to convoy them with ships-of-war. The incident illustrates one weakness of a mercantile country with representative government, compared with a purely military nation. "If the British government," wrote an officer of that day, "had sanctioned, or a British admiral had adopted, such a measure, the one would have been turned out and the other hanged." Rodney at the same the had felt it necessary to detach five ships-of-the-line with convoys, while half a dozen more went home with the trade from Jamaica.
It is easier to criticise the division of the English fleet between the West Indies and North America in the successive years 1780 and 1781, than to realize the embarrassment of the situation. This embarrassment was but the reflection of the military difficulty of England's position, all over the world, in this great and unequal war. England was everywhere outmatched and embarrassed, as she has always been as an empire, by the number of her exposed points. In Europe the Channel fleet was more than once driven into its ports by overwhelming forces. Gibraltar, closely blockaded by land and sea, was only kept alive in its desperate resistance by the skill of English seamen triumphing over the inaptness and discords of their combined enemies. In the East Indies, Sir Edward Hughes met in Suffren an opponent as superior to him in numbers as was De Grasse to Hood, and of far greater ability. Minorca, abandoned by the home government, fell before superior strength, as has been seen to fall, one by one, the less important of the English Antilles. The position of England from the time that France and Spain opened their maritime war was everywhere defensive, except in North America; and was therefore, from the military point of view, essentially false. She everywhere awaited attacks which the enemies, superior in every case, could make at their own choice and their own time. North America was really no exception to this rule, despite some offensive operations which in no way injured her real, that is her naval, foes.
Thus situated, and putting aside questions of national pride or sensitiveness, what did military wisdom prescribe to England? The question would afford an admirable study to a military inquirer, and is not to be answered off-hand, but certain evident truths may be pointed out. In the first place, it should have been determined what part of the assailed empire was most necessary to be preserved. After the British islands themselves, the North American colonies were the most valuable possessions in the eyes of the England of that day. Next should have been decided what others by their natural importance were best worth preserving, and by their own inherent strength, or that of the empire, which was mainly naval strength, could most surely be held. In the Mediterranean, for instance, Gibraltar and Mahon were both very valuable positions. Could both be held? Which was more easily to be reached and supported by the fleet? If both could not probably be held, one should have been frankly abandoned, and the force and efforts necessary to its defence carried elsewhere. So in the West Indies the evident strategic advantages of Barbadoes and Sta. Lucia prescribed the abandonment of the other small islands by garrisons as soon as the fleet was fairly outnumbered, if not before. The case of so large an island as Jamaica must be studied separately, as well as with reference to the general question. Such an island may be so far self-supporting as to defy any attack but one in great force and numbers, and that would rightly draw to it the whole English force from the windward stations at Barbadoes and Sta. Lucia.
With the defence thus concentrated, England's great weapon, the navy, should have been vigorously used on the offensive. Experience has taught that free nations, popular governments, will seldom dare wholly to remove the force that lies between an invader and its shores or capital. Whatever the military wisdom, therefore, of sending the Channel fleet to seek the enemy before it united, the step may not have been possible. But at points less vital the attack of the English should have anticipated that of the allies. This was most especially true of that theatre of the war which has so far been considered. If North America was the first object, Jamaica and the other islands should have been boldly risked. It is due to Rodney to say that he claims that his orders to the admirals at Jamaica and New York were disobeyed in 1781, and that to this was owing the inferiority in number of Graves's fleet.
But why, in 1780, when the departure of De Guichen for Europe left Rodney markedly superior in numbers during his short visit to North America, from September 14 to November 14, should no attempt have been made to destroy the French detachment of seven ships-of-the-line in Newport? These ships had arrived there in July; but although they had at once strengthened their position by earthworks, great alarm was excited by the news of Rodney's appearance off the coast. A fortnight passed by Rodney in New York and by the French in busy work, placed the latter, in their own opinion, in a position to brave all the naval force of England. "We twice feared, and above all at the time of Rodney's arrival," wrote the chief of staff of the French squadron, "that the English might attack us in the road itself; and there was a space of time during which such an undertaking would not have been an act of rashness. Now [October 20], the anchorage is fortified so that we can there brave all the naval force of England."
The position thus taken by the French was undoubtedly very strong. It formed a re-entrant angle of a little over ninety degrees, contained by lines drawn from Goat Island to what was then called Brenton's Point, the site of the present Fort Adams on the one side, and to Rose Island on the other. On the right flank of the position Rose Island received a battery of thirty-six 24-pounders; while twelve guns of the same size were placed on the left flank at Brenton's Point. Between Rose and Goat islands four ships, drawn up on a west-northwest line, bore upon the entrance and raked an approaching fleet; while three others, between Goat Island and Brenton's Point, crossed their fire at right angles with the former four.
On the other hand, the summer winds blow directly up the entrance, often with great force. There could be no question even of a considerably crippled attacking ship reaching her destined position, and when once confused with the enemy's line, the shore batteries would be neutralized. The work on Rose Island certainly, that on Brenton's Point probably, had less height than the two upper batteries of a ship-of-the-line, and could be vastly outnumbered. They could not have been casemated, and might indisputably have been silenced by the grapeshot of the ships that could have been brought against them. Rose Island could be approached on the front and on the west flank within two hundred yards, and on the north within half a mile. There was nothing to prevent this right flank of the French, including the line of ships, being enfiladed and crushed by the English ships taking position west of Rose Island. The essential points of close range and superior height were thus possible to the English fleet, which numbered twenty to the enemy's seven. If successful in destroying the shipping and reducing Rose Island, it could find anchorage farther up the bay and await a favorable wind to retire. In the opinion of a distinguished English naval officer of the day, closely familiar with the ground, there was no doubt of the success of an attack; and he urged it frequently upon Rodney, offering himself to pilot the leading ship. The security felt by the French in this position, and the acquiescence of the English in that security, mark clearly the difference in spirit between this war and the wars of Nelson and Napoleon.
It is not, however, merely as an isolated operation, but in relation to the universal war, that such an attempt is here considered. England stood everywhere on the defensive, with inferior numbers. From such a position there is no salvation except by action vigorous almost to desperation. "It is impossible for us," wrote with great truth the First Lord of the Admiralty to Rodney, "to have a superior fleet in every part; and unless our commanders-in-chief will take the great line, as you do, and consider the king's whole dominions under their care, our enemies must find us unprepared somewhere, and carry their point against us." Attacks which considered in themselves alone might be thought unjustifiable, were imposed upon English commanders. The allied navy was the key of the situation, and its large detachments, as at Newport, should have been crushed at any risk. The effect of such a line of action upon the policy of the French government is a matter of speculation, as to which the present writer has no doubts; but no English officer in chief command rose to the level of the situation, with the exception of Hood, and possibly of Howe. Rodney was now old, infirm, and though of great ability, a careful tactician rather than a great admiral.
The defeat of Graves and subsequent surrender of Cornwallis did not end the naval operations in the western hemisphere. On the contrary, one of the most interesting tactical feats and the most brilliant victory of the whole war were yet to grace the English flag in the West Indies; but with the events at Yorktown the patriotic interest for Americans closes. Before quitting that struggle for independence, it must again be affirmed that its successful ending, at least at so early a date, was due to the control of the sea,--to sea power in the hands of the French, and its improper distribution by the English authorities. This assertion may be safely rested on the authority of the one man who, above all others, thoroughly knew the resources of the country, the temper of the people, the difficulties of the struggle, and whose name is still the highest warrant for sound, quiet, unfluttered good sense and patriotism.
The keynote to all Washington's utterances is set in the "Memorandum for concerting a plan of operations with the French army," dated July 15, 1780, and sent by the hands of Lafayette:--
"The Marquis de Lafayette will be pleased to communicate the following general ideas to Count de Rochambeau and the Chevalier de Ternay, as the sentiments of the underwritten:
"I. _In any operation, and under all circumstances, a decisive naval superiority is to be considered as a fundamental principle, and the basis upon which every hope of success must ultimately depend._"
This, however, though the most formal and decisive expression of Washington's views, is but one among many others equally distinct. Thus, writing to Franklin, December 20, 1780, he says:--
"Disappointed of the second division of French troops [blockaded in Brest], but more especially in the expected naval superiority, which was the pivot upon which everything turned, we have been compelled to spend an inactive campaign after a flattering prospect at the opening of it... Latterly we have been obliged to become spectators of a succession of detachments from the army at New York in aid of Lord Cornwallis while our naval weakness, and the political dissolution of a large part of our army, put it out of our power to counteract them at the southward, or to take advantage of them here."
A month later, January 15, 1781, in a memorandum letter to Colonel Laurens, sent on a special mission to France, he says:--
"Next to a loan of money, a constant naval superiority upon these coasts is the object most interesting. This would instantly reduce the enemy to a difficult defensive.... Indeed, it is not to be conceived how they could subsist a large force in this country, if we had the command of the seas to interrupt the regular transmission of supplies from Europe. This superiority, with an aid in money, would enable us to convert the war into a vigorous offensive. With respect to us it seems to be one of two deciding points."
In another letter to the same person, then in Paris, dated April 9, he writes:--
"If France delays a timely and powerful aid in the critical posture of our affairs, it will avail us nothing, should she attempt it hereafter... Why need I run into detail, when it may be declared in a word that we are at the end of our tether, and that now or never our deliverance must come? How easy would it be to retort the enemy's own game upon them, if it could be made to comport with the general plan of the war to keep a superior fleet always in these seas, and France would put us in condition to be active by advancing us money."
Ships and money are the burden of his cry. May 23, 1781, he writes to the Chevalier de la Luzerne: "I do not see how it is possible to give effectual support to the Southern States, and avert the evils which threaten, while we are inferior in naval force in these seas." As the season for active operations advances, his utterances are more frequent and urgent. To Major General Greene, struggling with his difficulties in South Carolina, he writes, June 1, 1781: "Our affairs have been attentively considered in every point of view, and it was finally determined to make an attempt upon New York, in preference to a Southern operation, as we had not decided command of the water." To Jefferson, June 8: "Should I be supported in the manner I expect, by the neighboring States, the enemy will, I hope, be reduced to the necessity of recalling part of their force from the southward to support New York, or they will run the most imminent risk of being expelled from that post, which is to them invaluable; and should we, by a lucky coincidence of circumstances, gain a naval superiority, their ruin would be inevitable. .. While we remain inferior at sea... policy dictates that relief should be attempted by diversion rather than by sending reinforcements immediately to the point in distress," that is, to the South. To Rochambeau, June 13: "Your Excellency will recollect that New York was looked upon by us as the only practicable object under present circumstances; but should we be able to secure a naval superiority, we may perhaps find others more practicable and equally advisable." By the 15th of August the letters of De Grasse announcing his sailing for the Chesapeake were received, and the correspondence of Washington is thenceforth filled with busy preparations for the campaign in Virginia, based upon the long-delayed fleet. The discouragement of De Grasse, and his purpose to go to sea, upon learning that the English fleet in New York had been reinforced, drew forth an appealing letter dated September 25. which is too long for quotation; but the danger passed, Washington's confidence returns. The day after the capitulation he writes to De Grasse: "The surrender of York..._the honor of which belongs to your Excellency_, has greatly anticipated [in time] our most sanguine anticipations." He then goes on to urge further operations in the South, seeing so much of the good season was still left: "The general naval superiority of the British. previous to your arrival, gave them decisive advantages in the South, in the rapid transport of their troops and supplies; while the immense land marches of our succors, too tardy and expensive in every point of view, subjected us to be beaten in detail. It will depend upon your Excellency, therefore, to terminate the war." De Grasse refusing this request, but intimating an intention to co-operate in the next year's campaign, Washington instantly accepts: "With your Excellency I need not insist upon the indispensable necessity of a maritime force capable of giving you an absolute ascendency in these seas... You will have observed that, whatever efforts are made by the land armies, the navy must have the casting vote in the present contest." A fortnight later, November 15, he writes to Lafayette, who is on the point of sailing for France:--
"As you expressed a desire to know my sentiments respecting the operations of the next campaign, I will, without a tedious display of reasoning, declare in one word that it must depend absolutely upon the naval force which is employed in these seas, and the time of its appearance next year. No land force can act decisively unless accompanied by a maritime superiority... A doubt did not exist, nor does it at this moment, in any man's mind, of the total extirpation of the British force in the Carolinas and Georgia, if Count de Grasse could have extended his co-operation two months longer."
Such, in the opinion of the revered commander-in-chief of the American armies, was the influence of sea power upon the contest which he directed with so much skill and such infinite patience, and which, amidst countless trials and discouragements, he brought to a glorious close.
It will be observed that the American cause was reduced to these straits, notwithstanding the great and admitted losses of British commerce by the cruisers of the allies and by American privateers. This fact, and the small results from the general war, dominated as it was by the idea of commerce-destroying, show strongly the secondary and indecisive effect of such a policy upon the great issues of war.
- Martin: History of France.
- This delay was due to calms. Howe's Despatch, Gentleman's Magazine, 1778.
- Most accounts say between Goat Island and Canonicut; but the position given seems more probable. The names "Goat" and "Gould" (often written "Gold ") are easily confused. Since writing the above, the author has been favored with the sight of a contemporary manuscript map obtained in Paris, Which shows the anchorage as near Canonicut and abreast Coaster's Harbor Island; the latter being marked "L'Isle d'Or ou Golde Isle." The sketch, while accurate in its main details, seems the more authentic from its mistakes being such as a foreigner, during a hurried and exciting stay of twenty-four hours, might readily make.
- "The arrival of the French fleet upon the coast of America is a great and striking event; but the operations of it have been injured by a number of unforeseen and unfavorable circumstances, which, though they ought not to detract from the merit and good intention of our great ally, have nevertheless lessened the importance of its services in a great degree. The length of the passage, in the first instance, was a capital misfortune; for had even one of common length taken place, Lord Howe, with the British ships-of-war and all the transports in the river Delaware, must inevitably have fallen; and Sir Henry Clinton must have had better luck than is commonly dispensed to men of his profession under such circumstances, if he and his troops had not shared at least the fate of Burgoyne. The long passage of Count d'Estaing was succeeded by an unfavorable discovery at the Hook, which hurt us in two respects,--first, in a defeat of the enterprise upon New York and the shipping and troops at that place, and next in the delay occasioned in ascertaining the depth of water over the bar which was essential to their entrance into the harbor of New York. And, more over, after the enterprise upon Rhode Island had been planned and was in the moment of execution, that Lord Howe with the British ships should interpose merely to create a diversion and draw the French fleet from the island was again unlucky, as the Count had not returned on the 17th to the island, though drawn off from it on the 10th; by which means the land operations were retarded, and the whole subjected to a miscarriage in case of the arrival of Byron's squadron." WASHINGTON'S Letter, Aug. 20, 1778.
- See below, in Chap. XII.
- Of one of these, the "Monmouth," sixty-four, it is said that the officers of the French flag-ship drank to the health of the captain of the "little black ship." Ships' names, like those of families, often have a marked career. A former "Monmouth," twenty years before, had attacked and taken, practically single-handed, the "Foudroyant," eighty-four, one of the finest ships in the French navy. She was then commanded by a Captain Gardiner, who, having commanded Byng's ship in the battle which led to his execution, was moved by his mortification at the result of that affair to dare such desperate odds, and thereby lost his life. The same ship, here punished so severely off Grenada, will be found in like sturdy fight, under another captain, three years later in India.
- The final direction of the French line-of-battle; the lee ship having tacked and standing to, the other ships took position in her wake. Though not expressly stated, Byron doubtless formed in the same way on a parallel line. Into this new line the disabled ships, which could scarcely have made good the course they were heading, would be easily received.
- Chevalier: Hist. de la Marine Francaise.
- Guerin. Hist. Maritime.
- Drinkwater, in his history of the siege of Gibraltar, explains that the Spanish admiral believed that Rodney would not accompany the convoy to the Straits, but had separated from it. He did not detect his mistake until too late.
- In a severe reprimand addressed to Captain Carkett, commanding the leading ship of the English line, by Rodney, he says: "Your leading in the manner you did, induced others to follow so bad an example; and thereby, forgetting that the signal for the line was at only two cables' length distance from each Other, the van division was led by you to _more than two leagues distance_ from the centre division, which was thereby exposed to the greatest strength of the enemy and not properly supported" (Life, vol. i. p 351). By all rules of tactical common-sense it would seem that the other ships should have taken their distance from their next astern, that is, should have closed toward the centre. In conversation with Sir Gilbert Blane, who was not in this action, Rodney stated that the French line extended four leagues in length, "as if De Guichen thought we meant to run away from him." (Naval Chronicle, vol. xxv. p. 402).
- History of the American Revolution.
- For Rodney's reasons, see his Life, vol. i. pp 365-376.
- At the eastern end of Long Island.
- The French ascribe this disadvantage to the fact that some of their ships were not coppered.
- That the French government was not satisfied with M. Destouches's action can be safely inferred from its delay to reward the officers of the squadron, which called forth much feeling and very lively remonstrances. The French asserted that Arbuthnot was hooted in the streets of New York and recalled by his government. The latter is a mistake, as he went home by his own request but the former is likely enough. Both commanders reversed in this case the usual naval policy of their nations.
- Bancroft: History of the United States.
- Life of Rodney, vol. ii p. 152; Clerk: Naval Tactics, p. 84.
- De Barras had been unwilling to go to the Chesapeake, fearing to be intercepted by a superior force, and had only yielded to the solicitation of Washington and Rochambeau.
- Naval Researches: Capt. Thomas White, R. N.
- White: Naval Researches.
- Bouclon: La Marine de Louis XVI., p. 251. Under a rather misleading title this work is really a lengthy biography of Liberge de Granchain, chief of staff to the French squadron under Ternay.
- Diary of a French officer, 1781; Magazine of American History for March 1880. The works at the time of Rodney's visit to New York were doubtless less complete than in 1781. This authority, a year later, gives the work on Rose Island twenty 36-pounders.
- Sir Thomas Graves, afterward second in command to Nelson in the attack at Copenhagen in 1801,--an enterprise fully as desperate and encompassed with greater difficulties of pilotage than the one here advocated. See biographical memoir, Naval Chronicle, vol viii.
- Rodney's Life, vol i. n 402