A. T. (Alfred Thayer) Mahan.

The influence of sea power upon history, 1660-1783 online

. (page 44 of 52)
Online LibraryA. T. (Alfred Thayer) MahanThe influence of sea power upon history, 1660-1783 → online text (page 44 of 52)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


',he "Journal de Bord du Bailli de Suffren.'



MILITARY QUALITIES OF SUFFEEN. 465

harbor. Their captains called eagerly upon the admiral, the
stout Commodore Bang of the " Exeter " at their head.
"The good Dutchmen have received me as their savior,"
•wrote Suffren ; " but among the tributes which have most
flattered me, none has given me more pleasure than the
esteem and consideration testified by the English who are
here." On reaching home, rewards were heaped upon him.
Having left Prance as a captain, he came back a rear-
admiral ; and immediately after his return the king created
a fourth vice-admiralship, a special post to be filled by
Suffren, and to lapse at his death. These honors were won
by himself alone ; they were the tribute paid to his un-
yielding energy and genius, shown not only in actual fight
but in the steadfastness which held to his station through
every discouragement, and rose equal to every demand made
by recurring want and misfortune.

Alike in the general conduct of his operations and on the
battlefield under the fire of the enemy, this lofty resolve
was the distinguishing merit of Suffren ; and when there is
coupled with it the clear and absolute conviction wliich he
held of the necessity to seek and crush the enemy's fleet, we
have probably the leading traits of his military character.
The latter was the light that led him, the former the spirit
that sustained him. As a tactician, in the sense of a driller
of ships, imparting to them uniformity of action and manoeu-
vring, he seems to liave been deficient, and would probably
himself have admitted, with some contempt, the justice of
the criticism made upon him in these respects. Whether or
no he ever actually characterized tactics — meaning thereby
elementary or evolutionary tactics — as the veil of timidity,
there was that in his actions which makes the mot probable.
Such a contempt, however, is unsafe even in the case of
genius. The faculty of moving together with uniformity
and precision is too necessary to the development of the full
power of a body of ships to be lightly esteemed ; it is essen-
tial to that concentration of effort at which Suffren rightly
aimed, but which he was not always careful to secure by pr©

30



466 LATER CAREER OF SUFFREN.

vious dispositions. Paradoxical though it sounds, it is true
that only fleets which are able to perform regular movements
can afford at times to cast them aside ; only captains whom
the habit of the drill-ground has familiarized with the shift-
ing phases it presents, can be expected to seize readily the
opportunities for independent action presented by the field of
battle. Howe and Jervis must make ready the way for the
successes of Nelson. Suffren expected too much of his cap-
tains. He had the right to expect more than he got, but not
that ready perception of the situation and that firmness of
nerve which, except to a few favorites of Nature, are the re-
sult only of practice and experience.

Still, he was a very great man. When every deduction has
been made, there must still remain his heroic constancy, his
fearlessness of responsibility as of danger, the rapidity of his
action, and the genius whose unerring intuition led him to
break through the traditions of his service and assert for
the navy that principal part which befits it, that offensive
action which secures the control of the sea by the destruc-
tion of the enemy's fleet. Had he met in his lieutenants
such ready instruments as Nelson found prepared for him,
there can be little doubt that Hughes's squadron would
have been destroyed while inferior to Suffren's, before re-
inforcements could have arrived ; and with the English
fleet it could scarcely have failed that the Coromandel
coast also would have fallen. "What effect this would have
had upon the fate of the peninsula, or upon the terms of
the peace, can only be surmised. His own hope was that,
by acquiring the superiority in India, a glorious peace might
result.

No further opportunities of distinction in war were given
to Suffren. The remaining years of his life were spent
in honored positions ashore. In 1788, upon an appearance
of trouble with England, he was appointed to the command
of a great fleet arming at Brest ; but before he could leave
Paris he died suddenly on the 8th of December, in the six-
tieth year of his age. There seems to have been no suspicion



LATER CAREER OF SUFFREN. 467

at the time of other than natural causes of death, he being
exceedingly stout and of apoplectic temperament ; but many
years after a story, apparently well-founded, became current
that he was killed in a duel arising out of his official action
in India. His old antagonist on the battlefield, Sir Edward
Hughes, died at a great age in 1794.



CHAPTER Xm.

Events in the West Indies after the Surrender of Yorktown.
— Encounters of De Grasse with Hood. — The Sea Battle
OF THE Saints. — 1781,1782.

THE surrender of Cornwallis marked the end of the active
war upon the American continent. The issue of the
struggle was indeed assured upon the day when France de-
voted her sea power to the support of the colonists ; but,
as not uncommonly happens, the determining characteristics
of a period were summed up in one striking event. From
the beginning, the military question, owing to the physical
characteristics of the country, a long seaboard with estuaries
penetrating deep into the interior, and the consequent greater
ease of movement by water than by land, had hinged upon
the control of the sea and the use made of that control.
Its misdirection by Sir William Howe in 1777, when he
moved his army to the Chesapeake instead of supporting
Burgoyne's advance, opened the way to the startling success
at Saratoga, when amazed Europe saw six thousand regular
troops surrendering to a body of provincials. During the
four years that followed, until the surrender of Yorktown,
the scales rose and fell according as the one navy or the
other appeared on the scene, or as English commanders
kept touch with the sea or pushed their operations far from
its support. Finally, at the great crisis, all is found depend-
ing upon the question whether the French or the English
fleet should first appear, and upon their relative force.

The maritime struggle was at once transferred to the
West Indies. The events which followed there were ante-
cedent in time both to Suffren's battles and to the final
relief of Gibraltar ; but they stand so much by tliemselvcs as



ATTACK ON ISLAND OF ST. CHRISTOPHER. 469

to call for separate treatment, and have such close relation
to the conclusion of the war and the conditions of peace,
as to form the dramatic finale of the one and the stepping-
stone of transition to the other. It is fitting indeed that
a brilliant though indecisive naval victory should close the
story of an essentially naval war.

The capitulation of Yorktown was completed on the 19th
of October, 1781, and on the 5th of November, De Grasse,
resisting the suggestions of Lafayette and Washington that
the fleet should aid in carrying the war farther south, sailed
from the Chesapeake. He reached Martinique on the 26th,
the day after tlie Marquis de Bouill^, commanding the French
troops in the West Indies, had regained by a bold surprise
the Dutch island of St. Eustatius. The two commanders
now concerted a joint expedition against Barbadoes, which
was frustrated by the violence of the trade winds.

Foiled here, the French proceeded against the island of
St. Christopher, or St. Kitt's (Plate XVIII.). On the 11th
of January, 1782, the fleet, carrying six thousand troops,
anchored on the west coast off Basse Terre, the chief town.
No opposition was met, the small garrison of six hundred
men retiring to a fortified post ten miles to the northwest,
on Brimstone Hill, a solitary precipitous height overlooking
the lee shore of the island. The French troops landed and
pursued, but the position being found too strong for assault,
siege operations were begun.

The French fleet remained at anchor in Basse Terre road.
Meanwhile, news of the attack was carried to Sir Samuel
Hood, who had followed De Grasse from the continent, and,
in the continued absence of Rodney, was naval commander-
in-chief on the station. He sailed from Barbadoes on the
14th, anchored at Antigua on the 21st, and there embarked
all the troops that could be spared, — about seven hundred
men. On the afternoon of the 23d the fleet started for
St. Kitt's, carrying such sail as would bring it within striking
distance of the enemy at daylight next morning.

The English having but twenty-two ships to the French



470 HOOD AND DE GRASSE

twentj-nine, and the latter being generally superior in force,
class for class, it is necessary to mark closely the lay of
the land in order to understand Hood's original plans and
their subsequent modifications ; for, resultless as his attempt
proved, his conduct during the next three weeks forms the
most brilliant military effort of the whole war. The islands
of St. Kitt's and Nevis (Plates XVIII. and XIX.) being sep-
arated only by a narrow channel, impracticable for ships-of-
the-line, are in effect one, and their common axis lying
northwest and southeast, it is necessary for sailing-ships, with
the trade wind, to round the southern extremity of Nevis,
from which position the wind is fair to reach all anchorages
on the lee side of the islands. Basse Terre is about twelve
miles distant from the western point of Nevis (Fort Charles),
and its roadstead lies east and west. The French fleet were
anchored there in disorder (Plate XYIII., A), three or four
deep, not expecting attack, and the ships at the west end
of the road could not reach those at the east without beating
to windward, — a tedious, and under fire a perilous process.
A further most important point to note is that all the east-
ern ships were so placed that vessels approaching from the
southward could reach them with the usual wind.

Hood, therefore, we are told, intended to appear at early
daylight, in order of and ready for battle, and fall upon
the eastern ships, filing by them with his whole fleet (a, a'),
thus concentrating the fire of all upon a few of the enemy ;
then turning away, so as to escape the guns of the others,
he proposed, first wearing and then tacking, to keep his
fleet circling in long procession (a', a") past that part of the
enemy's ships chosen for attack. The plan was audacious,
but undeniably sound in principle ; some good could hardly-
fail to follow, and unless De Grasse showed more readiness
than he had hitherto done, even decisive results might be
hoped iov}

1 The curve, a, a', a", represents the line which Hood proposed to follow with
his fleet, the iviiid being supposed east-southeast. The positions B, B, B, refer
to the proceedings of a subsequent day and have nothing to do with the diao-rani
at A.



AT ST. CHRISTOPHER. 47^

The best-laid plans, however, may fail, and Hood's was
balked by the awkwardness of a lieutenant of the watch,
who hove-to (stopped) a frigate at night ahead of the fleet,
and was consequently run down by a ship-of-the-line. The
latter also received such injury as delayed the movement,
several hours being lost in repairing damages. The French
were thus warned of the enemy's approach, and although
not suspecting his intention to attack, De Grasse feared
that Hood would pass down to leeward of him and disturb
the siege of Brimstone Hill, — an undertaking so rash for
an inferior force that it is as difficult to conceive how he
could have supposed it, as to account for his overlooking
the weakness of his own position at anchor.

At one p. M. of the 24th the English fleet was seen rounding
the south end of Nevis ; at three De Grasse got under way and
stood to the southward. Toward sundown Hood also went
about and stood south, as though retreating ; but he was
well to windward of his opponent, and maintained this ad-
vantage tlirough the night. At daybreak both fleets were
to leeward of Nevis, — the English near the island, the French
about nine miles distant (Plate XIX.). Some time was
spent in mancEuvring, with the object on Hood's part of get-
ting the French admiral yet more to leeward ; for, having
failed in his first attempt, he had formed the yet bolder
intention of seizing the anchorage his unskilful opponent
had left, and establishing himself there in an impregnable
manner. In this he succeeded, as will be shown ; but to
understand the justification for a movement confessedly haz-
ardous, it must be pointed out that he thus would place
himself between the besiegers of Brimstone Hill and their
fleet ; or, if the latter anchored near the hill, the Eng-
lish fleet would be between it and its base in Martinique,
ready to intercept supplies or detachments approaching from
the southward. In short, the position in which Hood hoped
to establish himself was on the flank of the enemy's com-
munications, a position the more advantageous because the
island alone could not long support the large body of troops



472 HOOD AND DE GRASSE

SO suddenly thrown upon it. Moreover, both fleets were
expecting reinforcements ; Rodney was on his way and might
arrive first, which he did, and in time to save St. Kitt's,
which he did not. It was also but four months since York-
town ; the affairs of England were . going badly ; something
must be done, something left to chance, and Hood knew
himself and his officers. It may be added that he knew
his opponent.

At noon, when the hillsides of Nevis were covered with
expectant and interested sightseers, the English fleet rapidly
formed its line on the starboard tack and headed north
for Basse Terre (Plate XIX., A, A'). The French, at the
moment, were in column steering south, but went about
at once and stood for the enemy in a bow-and-quarter line ^
(A, A). At two the British had got far enough for Hood
to make signal to anchor. At twenty minutes past two the
van of the French came within gunshot of the English
centre (B, B, B), and shortly afterward the firing began,
the assailants very properly directing their main effort upon
the English rear ships, which, as happens with most long
columns, had opened out, a tendency increased in this case
by the slowness of the fourth ship from the rear, the " Pru-
dent." The French flag-ship, " Ville de Paris," of one hun-
dred and twenty guns, bearing De Grasse's flag, pushed for
the gap thus made, but was foiled by the "Canada," seventy-
four, whose captain, Cornwallis, the brother of Lord Corn-
wallis, threw all his sails aback, and dropped down in front
of the huge enemy to the support of the rear, — an example
nobly followed by the " Resolution " and the " Bedford " im-
mediately ahead of him (a). The scene was now varied and
animated in the extreme. The English van, which had
escaped attack, was rapidly anchoring (b) in its appointed
position. The commander-in-chief in the centre, proudly
reliant upon the skill and conduct of his captains, made

1 When a fleet is in line ahead, close to the wind, on one tack, and the ships
go aboat together, they will, on the other tack, be on the same line, but not one
ahead of the other. This formation was called bow-and-qnarter line.




Pi.XK.

HOOD & DE GRASSE.
JAN. 25, 1782.



FRENCH
ENGLISH



Wl ND, E.S.E.



AT ST. CHRISTOPHER. 473

signal for the ships ahead to carry a press of sail, and
gain their positions regardless of the danger to the threat-
ened rear. The latter, closely pressed and outnumbered,
stood on unswervingly, shortened sail, and came to anchor,
one by one, in a line ahead (B, B'), under the roar of the
guns of their baffled enemies. The latter filed by, delivered
their fire, and bore off again to the southward, leaving their
former berths to their weaker but clever antagonists.

The anchorage thus brilliantly taken by Hood was not
exactly the same as that held by De Grasse the day before ;
but as it covered and controlled it, his claim that he took
up the place the other had left is substantially correct. Tho
following night and morning were spent in changing and
strengthening the order, which was finally established as
follows (Plate XVIII., B, B'). The van ship was anchored
about four miles southeast from Basse Terre, so close to
the shore that a ship could not pass inside her, nor, with
the prevailing wind, even reach her, because of a point and
shoal just outside, covering her position. From this point
the line extended in a west-northwest direction to the twelfth
or thirteenth ship (from a mile and a quarter to a mile
and a half), where it turned gradually but rapidly to north,
the last six ships being on a north and south line. Hood's
flag-ship, the " Barfleur," of ninety guns, was at the apex of
the salient angle thus formed.

It would not have been impossible for the French fleet
to take the anchorage they formerly held ; but it and all
others to leeward were forbidden by the considerations al-
ready stated, so long as Hood remained where he was. It
became necessary therefore to dislodge him, but this was
rendered exceedingly difficult by the careful tactical dis-
positions that have been described. His left flank was
covered by the shore. Any attempt to enfilade his front
by passing along the other flank was met by the broadsides
of the six or eight ships drawn up en potence to the rear.
The front commanded the approaches to Basse Terre. To
attack him in the rear, from the northwest, was forbidden



474 HOOD AND DE GRASSE

by the trade-wind. To these difficulties was to be added
that the attack must be made under sail against ships at
anchor, to whom loss of spars would be of no immediate
concern ; and which, having springs ^ out, could train their
broadsides over a large area with great ease.

Nevertheless, both sound policy and mortification impelled
De Grasse to fight, which he did the next day, January 26.
The method of attack, in single column of twenty-nine ships
against a line so carefully arranged, was faulty in the ex-
treme ; but it may be doubted whether any commander of
that day would have broken through the traditional fighting
order.2 Hood had intended the same, but he hoped a sur-
prise on an ill-ordered enemy, and at the original French
anchorage it was possible to reach their eastern ships, with
but slight exposure to concentrated fire. Not so now. The
French formed to the southward and steered for the eastern
flank of Hood's line. As their van ship drew up with the
point already mentioned, the wind headed her, so that she
could only reach the third in the English order, the first
four ships of which, using their springs, concentrated their
guns upon her. This vessel was supposed by the English
to be the " Pluton," and if so, her captain was D'Albert de
Rions, in Suffren's opinion the foremost officer of the French
navy. " The crash occasioned by their destructive broad-
sides," wrote an English officer who was present, " was so
tremendous that whole pieces of plank were seen flying from
her off side ere she could escape the cool, concentrated fire
of her determined adversaries. As she proceeded along the
British line, she received the first fire of every ship in

' A spring is a rope taken from the stern or quarter of a ship at anchor, to
an anchor properly placed, by which means the ship can be turned in a desired
direction.

^ In the council of war of the allied fleets on the expediency of attacking the
English squadron anchored at Torbay (p. 408) an opponent of the measure urged
" that the whole of the combined fleets could not bear down upon the English in
a line-of-battlc abreast, that of course they must form the line-of-battle ahead
and go down upon the enemy singly, by which they would run the greatest risk
of being shattered and torn to pieces," etc. (Beatson, vol. v. p. 396).



AT ST. CHRISTOPHER. 475

passing. She was indeed in so shattered a state as to be
compelled to bear away for St. Eustatius." And so ship
after ship passed by, running the length of the Hne (Plate
XVIIL, B, B), distributing their successive fires in gallant
but dreary, ineffectual naonotony over the whole extent. A
second time that day De Grasse attacked in the same order,
but neglecting the English van, directed his effort upon
the rear and centre. This was equally fruitless, and seems
to have been done with little spirit.

" From that time until the 14th of February, Hood maintained
his position in sight of the French fleet, which remained
cruising in the offing and to the southward. On the 1st a
despatch vessel arrived from Kempenfeldt, informing him
of the dispersal of the French reinforcements for the West
Indies, which must have renewed his hopes that his bold
attempt would be successful through Rodney's arrival. It
was not, however, to be so. Brimstone Hill surrendered on
the 12th, after a creditable defence. On the 13th De Grasse
took his fleet, now amounting to thirty-three ships-of-the-line,
to Nevis, and anchored there. On the night of the 14th
Hood summoned all his captains on board, had them set
their watches by his, and at eleven p. m., one after another,
without noise or signal, cut their cables and made sail to
the northward, passing round that end of the island un-
noticed, or at least unmolested, by the French.

Both strategically and tactically Hood's conceptions and
dispositions were excellent, and their execution was most
honorable to the skill and steadiness of himself and his cap-
tains. Regarded as a single military operation, this was
brilliant tliroughout ; but when considered with reference to
the general situation of England at the time, a much higher
estimate must be formed of the admiral's qualities.^ St. Kitt's

1 In war, as in cards, the state of the score must at times dictate the play ; and
the chief who never takes into consideration the effect which his particular action
will have on the general result, nor what is demanded of him by the condition
of things elsewhere, both political and military, lacks an essential quality of -a
great general. "The audacious manner in which Wellington stormed the re-
t'oubt of Francisco [at Ciudad Rodrigo], and broke ground on the first night of



476 CRITICISM OF DE GRASSE'S ACTION.

in itself might not be worth a great risk ; but it was of the
first importance that energ}' and audacity should be carried
into the conduct of England's naval war, that some great
success should light upon her flag. Material success was
not obtained. The chances, though fair enough, turned against
Hood ; but every man in that fleet must have felt the glow
of daring achievement, the assured confidence which follows
a great deed nobly done. Had this man been in chief com-
mand when greater issues were at stake, had he been first
instead of second at the Chesapeake, Cornwallis might have
been saved. The operation — seizing an anchorage left by the
enemy — would have been nearly the same ; and both situa-
tions may be instructively compared with Suffren's relief of
Cuddalore.

The action of De Grasse, also, should be considered not only
with reference to the particular occasion, but to the general
condition of the war as well, and when thus weighed, and
further compared with other very similar opportunities ne-
glected by this general officer, a fair estimate of his military
capacity can be reached. This comparison, however, is better
deferred to the now not very distant close of the campaign.
The most useful comment to be made here is, that his action
in failing to crush Hood at his anchors, with a force at least
fifty per cent greater, was in strict accordance with the gen-
eral French principle of subordinating the action of the fleet
to so-called particular operations ; for nothing is more in-
structive than to note how an unsound principle results in
disastrous action. Hood's inferiority was such as to ■weaken,
for offensive purposes, his commanding position. So long

the investment, the more audacious manner in which he assaulted the place
hefore the fire of the defence had in any way lessened, and before the counter-
scarp had been blown in, were the true causes of the sudden fall of the place.
Both the military and political state of affairs warranted this neglect of rules.
When the general terminated his order for the assault with this sentence,
' Ciudad Rodrigo must be stormed this evening,' he knew well that it would be
nobly understood" (Ntipier's I^eninsular War). "Judging that the honour of
his Majesty's arras, and the circumstances of the war in these seas, required a



Online LibraryA. T. (Alfred Thayer) MahanThe influence of sea power upon history, 1660-1783 → online text (page 44 of 52)