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THE FINAL NAVAL CAMPAIGN IN THE WEST INDIES. HOOD AND DE GRASSE. RODNEY AND DE GRASSE. THE GREAT BATTLE OF APRIL 12, 1782
HE year 1781 closed with an incident more decisive in character than most of the events that occurred in European waters during its course; one also which transfers the interest, by natural transition, again to the West Indies. The French government had felt throughout the summer the necessity of sending de Grasse reinforcements both of ships and of supplies, but the transports and material of war needed could not be collected before December. As the British probably would attempt to intercept a convoy upon which the next campaign so much depended, Rear-Admiral de Guichen was ordered to accompany it clear of the Bay of Biscay, with twelve ships of the line, and then to go to Cadiz. Five ships of the line destined to de Grasse, and two going to the East Indies, raised to nineteen the total force with which de Guichen left Brest on the 10th of December. On the afternoon of the 12th, the French being then one hundred and fifty miles to the southward and westward of Ushant, with a south-east wind, the weather, which had been thick and squally, suddenly cleared and showed sails to windward. These were twelve ships of the line, one 50, and some frigates, under RearAdmiral Richard Kempenfelt, who had left England on the 2d of the month, to cruise in wait for this expedition. The French numbers were amply sufficient to frustrate any attack, but de Guichen, ordinarily a careful officer, had allowed his ships of war to be to leeward and ahead of the convoy. The latter scattered in every direction, as the British swooped down upon them, but all could not escape; and the French ships of war remained helpless spectators, while the victims were hauling down their flags right and left. Night coming on, some prizes could not be secured, but Kempenfelt carried off fifteen, laden with military and naval stores of great money value and greater military importance. A few days later a violent storm dispersed and shattered the remainder of the French body. Two ships of the line only, the Triomphant, 84, and Brave, 74, and five transports, could pursue their way to the West Indies. The rest went back to Brest. This event may be considered as opening the naval campaign of 1782 in the West Indies. Kempenfelt, before returning to England, sent off express to Hood in the West Indies the fireship Tisiphone, 8, Commander James Saumarez," – afterwards the distinguished admiral, - with news of the French approach. Saumarez, having been first to Barbados, joined Hood on the 31st of January, 1782, in Basse Terre Roads, on the lee side of St. Kitts; a position from which Hood had dislodged de Grasse six days before by a brilliant manoeuvre, resembling that which he had contemplated * as open to Graves the previous September at Chesapeake Bay for the relief of Cornwallis. The campaign for the year 1782 had opened already with an
1 James Saumarez, Lord de Saumarez, G.C.B. Born, 1757. Commander, 1781. Captain, 1782. Captain of Russell in Rodney's action, 1782. Knighted for capture of frigate Réunion, 1793. Captain of Orion in Bridport's action, at St. Vincent, and at the Nile (when he was second in command). Rear-Admiral and Baronet, 1801. Defeated French and Spaniards off Cadiz, July 12th, 1801. Vice-Admiral, 1805. Vice-Admiral of England and a peer, 1831. Died, 1836.
* Ante, p. 183.
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attack upon St. Kitts by the French army and navy; and
1 Probably Prudent, 64. There was no President in the fleet.
21st he anchored at Antigua for repairs and supplies, indispensable for keeping the sea in the operations which he contemplated, the duration of which could not be foreseen. About a thousand troops also were embarked, which, with the marines that could be spared from the squadron, would give a landing force of twenty-four hundred men. St. Kitts being less than fifty miles from Antigua, Hood doubtless now got accurate information of the enemy's dispositions, and could form a definite, well-matured plan. This seems to have been carefully imparted to all his captains, as was the practice of Nelson, who was the pupil of Hood, if of any one. “At 9.15 A.M. the Admiral made the signal for all flag-officers,” says the log of the Canada; “and at 4 P.M. the Admirals and Commodore made the signals for all captains of their divisions.” At 5 P.M. of the same day, January 23d, the fleet weighed and stood over for Nevis, round the southern point of which Basse Terre must be approached; for, the channel between Nevis and St. Kitts being impracticable for ships of the line, the two islands were virtually one, and, their common axis lying north-west and south-east, the trade-wind is fair only when coming from the south. Basse Terre, where de Grasse then was, is about fifteen miles from the south point of Nevis. The roadstead lies east and west, and the French fleet, then twenty-four of the line and two fifties, were anchored without attention to order, three or four deep; the eastern ships so placed that an enemy coming from the southward could reach them with the prevailing trade-wind, against which the western ships could not beat up quickly to their support. This being so, we are told that Hood, starting shortly before sunset with a fair, and probably fresh wind, from a point only sixty miles distant, hoped to come upon the French by surprise at early daybreak, to attack the weather ships, and from them to sail along the hostile order so far as might seem expedient. His column, thus passing in its entirety close to a certain exposed fraction of the enemy, the latter would be cut up in detail by the concentration upon it. The British then, wearing to the southward, would haul their wind, tack, and again stand up to the assault, if the enemy continued to await it. This reasonable expectation, and skilful conception, was thwarted by a collision, during the night, between a frigate, the Nymphe, 36, and the leading ship of the line, the Alfred, 74. The repairs to the latter delayed the fleet, the approach of which was discovered by daylight. De Grasse therefore put to sea. He imagined Hood's purpose was to throw succours into Brimstone Hill; and moreover the position of the enemy now was between him and four ships of the line momentarily expected from Martinique, one of which joined him on the same day. The French were all under way by sunset, standing to the southward under easy sail, towards the British, who had rounded the south point of Nevis at 1 P.M. Towards dark, Hood went about and stood also to the southward, seemingly in retreat. During the following night the British tacked several times, to keep their position to windward. At daylight of January 25th, the two fleets were to the westward of Nevis; the British near the island, the French abreast, but several miles to leeward. Foiled in his first spring by an unexpected accident, Hood had not relinquished his enterprise, and now proposed to seize the anchorage quitted by the French, so establishing himself there, — as he had proposed to Graves to do in the Chesapeake, – that he could not be dislodged. For such a defensive position St. Kitts offered special advantages. The anchorage was a narrow ledge, dropping precipitately to very deep water; and it was possible so to place the ships that the enemy could not easily anchor near them. At 5.30 A.M. of the 25th Hood made the signal to form line