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The influence exerted upon these two admirals by the mere approach of a hostile fleet, when decisive advantages depended upon their holding their ground, may be cited plausibly in support of the most extreme view of the effect of a “fleet in being;” but the instances also, when the conditions are analysed, will suggest the question: Is such effect always legitimate, inherent in the existence of the fleet itself, or does it not depend often upon the characteristics of the man affected ? The contemporary British narrative of these events in Narragansett Bay, after reciting the various obstacles and the inferiority of the British squadron, says: “The most skilful officers were therefore of opinion that the Vice-Admiral could not risk an attack; and it appears by his Lordship's public letter that this was also his own opinion: under such circumstances, he judged it was impracticable to afford the General any essential relief.” In both these instances, the admirals concerned were impelled to sacrifice the almost certain capture, not of a mere position, but of a decisive part of the enemy's organised forces, by the mere possibility of action; by the moral effect produced by a fleet greatly inferior to their own, which in neither case would have attacked, as things stood. What does this prove 2 Immediately upon Howe's appearance, the French seamen who had landed the day before on Conanicut were recalled to their ships. The next morning, August 10, at 7 A.M., the wind came out strong at north-east, which is exceptional at that season. D'Estaing at once put to sea, cutting the cables in his haste. In two hours he was outside, steering for the enemy. Howe, of course, retired at once; his inferiority' did not permit an engagement except on his own terms. To insure these, he needed the weather-gage, the offensive position of that day, which by keeping south he expected to gain, when the usual wind from that quarter should set in. The French Admiral had the same object, hoping to crush his agile opponent; and, as the sea breeze from south-west did not make that day, he succeeded in keeping the advantage with which he had started, despite Howe's skill. At nightfall both fleets were still steering to the southward, on the port tack, the French five or six miles in the rear of the British, with the wind variable at east. The same course was maintained throughout the night, the French gradually overhauling the British, and becoming visible at 3 A.M. of the 11th. By Howe's dispatch, they bore in the morning, at an hour not specified, east-northeast, which would be nearly abeam, but somewhat more distant than the night before, having apparently kept closer to the wind, which by this had steadied at east-north-east.
* For the respective force of the two fleets see pp. 66, 67, 71.
In the course of the day Howe shifted his flag from the Eagle, 64, to the Apollo, 32, and placed himself between the two fleets, the better to decide the movements of his own. Finding it impossible to gain the weather-gage, and unwilling, probably, to be drawn too far from Rhode Island, he now made a wide circle with the fleet by a succession of changes of course: at 8 A.M. to south, then to south-west and west, until finally, at 1.30 P.M., the ships were steering north-west; always in line of battle. The French Admiral seems to have followed this movement cautiously, on an outer circle but with a higher speed, so that from east-north-east in the morning, which, as the fleets were then heading, would be on the starboard side of the British, abreast and to windward, at 4 P.M. the French bore south-south-east, which would be somewhat on the port quarter, or nearly astern but to leeward. At this time their van was estimated by Howe to be two or three miles from the British rear, and, according to his reading of their manoeuvres, d'Estaing was forming his line for the same tack as the British, with a view of “engaging the British squadron to leeward,” whereby he would obtain over it the advantage of using the lower-deck guns, the wind and sea having become much heavier. As the French Admiral, in this new disposition, had put his heaviest ships in the van, and his line was nearly in the wake of the British, Howe inferred an attack upon his rear. He therefore ordered his heaviest ship, the Cornwall, 74, to go there from the centre, exchanging places with the Centurion, 50, and at the same time signalled the fleet to close to the centre, — a detail worth remembering in view of Rodney's frustrated manoevure of April 17th, 1780. It now remained simply to await firmly the moment when the French should have covered the intervening ground, and brought to action so much of his rear as d'Estaing saw fit to engage; the conditions of the sea favoring the speed of the bulkier ships that composed the hostile fleet. The latter, however, Soon abandoned the attempt, and “bore away to the southward, apparently from the state of the weather, which, by the wind freshening much, with frequent rain, was now rendered very unfavorable for engaging.” It may be added that the hour was very late for beginning an action. At sundown the British were under close-reefed topsails, and the sea such that Howe was unable to return to the Eagle." *
The wind now increased to great violence, and a severe storm raged on the coast until the evening of the 13th, throwing the two fleets into confusion, scattering the ships, and causing numerous disasters. The Apollo lost her foremast, and sprung the mainmast, on the night of the 12th. The next day only two British ships of the line and three smaller vessels were in sight of their Admiral. When the weather moderated, Howe went on board the Phoenir, 44, and thence to the Centurion, 50, with which he “proceeded to the southward, and on the 15th discovered ten sail of the French squadron, some at anchor in the sea, about twentyfive leagues east from Cape May.” Leaving there the Centurion, to direct to New York any of Byron's ships that might come on the coast, he departed thither himself also, and on the evening of the 17th rejoined the squadron off Sandy Hook, the appointed rendezvous. Many injuries had been received by the various ships, but they were mostly of a minor character; and on the 22d the fleet again put to sea in search of the enemy.
* This account of the manoeuvres of the two fleets is based upon Lord Howe's dispatch, and amplified from the journal of Captain Henry Duncan of the flagship Eagle which has been published (1902)
since the first publication of this work. See “Navy Records Society, Naval Miscellany.” Vol. i., p. 161.
The French had suffered much more severely. The flagship Languedoc, 90, had carried away her bowsprit, all her lower masts followed it overboard, and her tiller also was broken, rendering the rudder unserviceable. The Marseillais, 74, lost her foremast and bowsprit. In the dispersal of the two fleets that followed the gale, each of these crippled vessels, on the evening of the 13th, encountered singly a British 50gun ship; the Languedoc being attacked by the Renown, and the Marseillais by the Preston. The conditions in each instance were distinctly favourable to the smaller combatant; but both unfortunately withdrew at nightfall, making the mistake of postponing to to-morrow a chance which they had no certainty would exist after to-day. When morning dawned, other French ships appeared, and the opportunity passed away. The British Isis, 50, also was chased and overtaken by the César, 74. In the action which ensued, the French ship's wheel was shot away, and she retired; – two other British vessels, one of the line, being in sight. The latter are not mentioned in the British accounts, and both sides claimed the advantage in this drawn action. The French captain lost an arm.
At the mouth of Delaware Bay.
After making temporary repairs, at the anchorage where Howe saw them on the 15th of August, the French fleet had proceeded again towards Newport. It was in the course of this passage that they were seen by Byron's flagship' on the 18th, to the southward of Long Island. The Experiment, 50, which Howe had sent to reconnoitre Narragansett Bay, was chased by them into Long Island Sound, and only reached New York by the East River; being the first ship of the line or 50-gun ship that ever passed through Hell Gate. On the 20th d'Estaing communicated with General Sullivan, the commander of the American land forces on Rhode Island; but it was only to tell him that in his own opinion, and in that of a council of war, the condition of the squadron necessitated going to Boston to refit. Whatever may be thought of the propriety of this decision, its seriousness can be best understood from the report sent by Pigot to Howe. “The rebels had advanced their batteries within fifteen hundred yards of the British works. He was under no apprehensions from any of their attempts in front; but, should the French fleet come in, it would make an alarming change. Troops might be landed and advanced in his rear; and in that case he could not answer for the consequences.” Disregarding Sullivan's entreaties that he would remain, d'Estaing sailed next day for Boston, which he reached on August 28th. On the 31st the indefatigable Howe came in sight; but the French had worked actively in the three days. Forty-nine guns, 18 and 24-pounders, with six mortars, were already in position covering the anchorage; and “the French squadron, far from fearing an attack, desired it eagerly.” The withdrawal of the French fleet from Rhode Island was followed by that of the American troops from before Newport. Howe had quitted New York the instant he heard of d'Estaing's reappearance off Rhode Island. He took with
"Ante, p. 62. * Chevalier: “Marine Francaise,” 1778.