From Victory to Defeat – Admiral Francois de Grasse and the Battle of the Saintes – April 12, 1782
“Lord Rodney’s flagship ‘Formidable’ breaking through the French line at the battle of the Saintes, 12th April 1782,” painted between 1784 and 1787 by Lieutenant William Elliott of the Royal Navy, will be exhibited at the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown, opening in late 2016.
In early September 1781 French Admiral de Grasse won a decisive naval victory over a British fleet off the Virginia Capes – a victory that resulted in the surrender of an entire British army under General Cornwallis at Yorktown in October. Despite George Washington’s efforts to persuade de Grasse to remain and support an attack on Charleston, S. C., his powerful French fleet departed Virginia for the West Indies in early November. The wealthy sugar-producing islands of the Caribbean were vital to the economies of both France and Great Britain, and their security commanded a high priority. At this time the war was going badly for Britain – Gibraltar and Minorca were under siege, Spain had retaken West Florida, and Jamaica appeared to be vulnerable.
In desperation, the king’s ministers looked to Admiral George Rodney to turn the tide. In January 1782 Rodney left England with a force of 12 ships of the line with orders to link up with Admiral Samuel Hood, who was already stationed in the Caribbean. By the time the two British naval forces joined up on February 25, the situation in the West Indies had deteriorated even further. The French had recaptured the island of St. Eustatius, and de Grasse had also recently taken St. Kitts from the British. After several indecisive skirmishes in March, de Grasse and his fleet sailed out from his base at Martinique in early April with the intention of joining a Spanish naval force from Cuba for an attack on Jamaica.
Rodney and Hood set off in pursuit, and the subsequent clash between the two forces on April 12 resulted in one of the greatest British naval victories of the war. Named for some small islands off the northern end of Dominica, the Battle of the Saintes was notable for both controversy and innovation. De Grasse commanded 35 ships of the line compared to the British, who had 36 ships of the line. Both fleets also had associated frigates. Most of the British ships, however, had been armed with carronades, a relatively new weapon. These short, powerful cannon could deliver devastating broadsides at close ranges and gave the British an advantage in firepower. Some of the British cannon had also been outfitted with flintlock firing mechanisms, which were more reliable than matchlocks.
After some inconclusive maneuvering in the morning, a shift in the wind direction opened up a gap in the French line of battle. Rodney quickly took advantage of the resulting confusion by breaking through the opening with his ship, the Formidable. At least five other British vessels followed Rodney, pouring cannon fire into the French as they crossed the “T” and scattering the French fleet into three groups. By nightfall de Grasse’s fleet had been dispersed and Rodney’s victory had restored British naval supremacy in the West Indies. Some French ships escaped, but at least five major ships of the line had either been captured or destroyed. The Comte de Grasse was also taken prisoner when his flagship, the Ville de Paris, surrendered. He remained a prisoner in England until peace was declared in 1783. The Battle of the Saintes is most remembered for Rodney’s innovative and controversial naval tactic of “crossing the T” or “breaking the line.”