On this day in 1782, the Battle of the Saintes begins. The battle was fought over the course of four days. Ultimately, the British defeated a French naval fleet. That fleet was led by the same French admiral who had helped George Washington winning his stunning victory at Yorktown!
Why were the French still fighting the British, so many months after Cornwallis’s surrender?
The answer can be found in an agreement brokered between French Admiral Comte de Grasse and a Spanish leader in America. They’d agreed to aid the Americans, then to work together to conquer Jamaica and take possession of the Windward Islands. The surrender at Yorktown effectively accomplished their first goal. Now the focus turned toward Jamaica, home of Britain’s profitable sugar trade.
The French Admiral left Virginia in November 1781. By April 1782, he was at Martinique in the Caribbean. He had 35 ships of the line; he planned to join forces with 12 Spanish ships. In the meantime, British General George Rodney was at nearby St. Lucia, taking note of French preparations. He hoped to prevent the Spanish-French rendezvous.
The French fleet departed on April 8, but the British were soon in hot pursuit. When de Grasse saw the British ships, he knew that he needed to get his (rather large) military convoy to safety. One person described the scene: “[T]he merchantmen were pellmell with the men of war, and we were afraid that the enemy would attack us in the confusion.” De Grasse dispatched the merchant ships toward Guadalupe, protected by two 50-gunners. Then, he decided to turn and attack. The two sides fought for several hours, but the outcome of the day’s fighting was indecisive.
The French continued on, with the British on their tail. The two sides again met in battle on April 12.
De Grasse was at a disadvantage. He’d already lost the two ships that had been sent ahead with the convoy. He’d also lost other ships that needed repair, including one called the Zélé. Rodney chose this moment to pursue the crippled Zélé. De Grasse first sent ships to protect the Zélé, but then he changed his mind and had his ships pull up into a battle line. Unfortunately, the French fleet was too scattered and there wasn’t really time for that! One officer later described that “our line of battle was formed under the fire of musketry.”
The battle waged for a few hours. The French found themselves trapped in windless waters, without the ability to maneuver sufficiently. The British broke the line of the French fleet in multiple places, ultimately forcing the French fleet to withdraw. Rodney decided not to pursue them, but he’d already captured several French ships. One of them was the Ville de Paris, the flagship. The French casualties were devastating.
One of the ships, “when boarded, presented a scene of complete horror,” an eyewitness wrote. “The numbers killed were so great, that the surviving, either from want of leisure, or through dismay, had not thrown the bodies of the killed overboard, so that the decks were covered with the blood and mangled limbs of the dead, as well as the wounded and dying.”
It was a stunning success for the British Navy. But the victory came too late in the American Revolution to make a real difference.
Alfred Thayer Mahan, Sea Power and the American Revolution: 1775-1783 (2010) (based on Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Major Operations of the Navies in the War of American Independence (1913)).
Anthony Bruce & William Cogar, An Encyclopedia of Naval History (1998)
Bob Ruppert, Who Really “Crossed the T” in the Battle of the Saintes (Journal of the American Revolution)
Jonathan R. Dull, The French Navy and American Independence: A Study of Arms and Diplomacy, 1774-1787 (1975)
Major-General Mundy, The Life and Correspondence of the Late Admiral Lord Rodney (1830) (Vol. 2)