Sunday, May 12, 2024

ARP311 Battle of the Saintes


Following the Franco-American victory at Yorktown in October 1781, General Washington pleaded with Admiral de Grasse to make use of the French naval fleet for a few other actions.  Washington believed that even a few weeks at Charleston, SC would allow Nathanael Greene’s southern army to take that town.

The French commander would not budge.  He had already spent longer than he had planned in Virginia.  The only reason he had removed his fleet from the West Indies in the first place was to avoid peak hurricane season.  His focus was on protecting French Islands in the West Indies, and capturing some British ones.  North America was just a sideshow.   

Almost as soon as he could, de Grasse sailed his fleet away from Virginia and back to the West Indies.  By November 26, his fleet was back at Martinique.

St. Eustatius

The same day the French fleet arrived in Martinique, another French squadron was capturing St. Eustatius.  The British had captured the tiny Dutch island colony only a few months earlier.  A fleet under Admiral George Rodney had captured the island in January 1781 before the Dutch governor there was even aware that the Dutch Republic was at war with Britain.  The Dutch had only about 60 militia on the 8 square mile island and could offer no resistance.

Admiral Rodney was pleased to take control of St. Eustatius, mostly because it offered him pay day.  Rodney had wracked up massive debt before the war. He even had to flee to France to avoid creditors.  When the Revolution began, he had to borrow money from a French officer to return to England.

As commander of the fleet, Rodney would be entitled to a pretty large share of any booty his fleet captured.  He spent weeks on the island, fleecing its population.  Of particular interest to Rodney was the small community of Jewish merchants on the island.  Rodney had the Jewish population moved to St. Kitts, while he pillaged their property, even cutting open their clothing and digging up the cemetery in search of hidden money.  

He did not stop there.  Anything of value on the island was subject to seizure.  Much of the property actually belonged to British merchants and should not have been seized.  Rodney did not seem very concerned and confiscated everything. For the next few weeks, Rodney kept the Dutch flag flying over the island, hoping to lure more merchant vessels into port where he captured and confiscated them.

St. Eustatius, 1781
Rodney remained at St. Eustatius with his fleet for about four months, even missing another major naval battle in the region due to his obsession with plundering the wealth of the island.

When the fleet left, the British Army left two regiments to hold the island.  The commander, Lieutenant Colonel James Cockburn, was not expecting an attack and did not seem to worry much about his defenses.

On the night of November 26, 1781, an invasion force of 1500 French soldiers under the command of the Marquis de Bouillé landed on St. Eustatius.  The British garrison did not even notice.  The following morning, Colonel Cockburn went out for a morning ride.  The French soldiers captured him and took him prisoner.

When the French attackers approached the fort, they found most of the garrison outside its walls on morning drill.  When the surprised British garrison saw the approach of the enemy, they rushed back into the fort.  The French simply followed through the open doors and forced an immediate surrender.  They managed to capture the island even without having the French fleet available. St. Eustatius had gone from Dutch, to British, to French occupation, all within a single year.

St. Kitts

With the arrival of French reinforcements under de Grasse, the French looked at some larger targets.  They first focused on the British held Bahamas near the end of 1781, but found the defenses there too strong to take.  

Instead, the fleet sailed north to St. Kitts, a larger island next to St. Eustatius.  They almost immediately took the nearby small island of Nevis, which they could use as a staging area. St. Kitts had a much larger defense.  Some estimates indicate as many as 12,000 British regulars and militia on the island.  I suspect the British numbers are greatly inflated by expectations of local militia who did not really materialize in the numbers expected.  The French managed to land about 8000 soldiers on St. Kitts on January 11, 1782.  Admiral de Grasse provided naval support while the marquis de Bouillé led the army.  

The French took the capital, Basseterre, without any resistance.  The British retreated into a defensive position in the hills about nine miles away.  With the British behind fortifications on Brimstone Hill, the French settled in for a siege.

Adm. Samuel Hood
Things looked bleak for the British defenders until another fleet entered the scene.  British Admiral Hood, after supporting the failed effort to relieve the British army at Yorktown, had also sailed back to the West Indies. Hood’s fleet of 21 ships of the line and nine frigates arrived at Antigua on January 21, where they took on supplies and about one thousand soldiers.  

Hood then sailed to relieve the siege on St. Kitts. The British fleet arrived about two weeks after the siege had begun.   Hood formed a line of battle and hoped to catch the French under de Grasse off guard.  The British managed to take a couple of frigates caught off guard by the newly arrived fleet, but the fighting with those frigates alerted the rest of the French fleet.  The larger French fleet included 29 ships of the line, which sailed out to sea to do battle.  De Grasse was also concerned that four additional French ships that were due to join the fleet would not be caught by the British before they could join with the rest.

The two fleets moved away from the island, with some firing, but not a full engagement.  One British frigate, the Solebay, was badly damaged.  The captain drove the ship ashore on Nevis, removed the crew and set the ship on fire in order to deny it to the enemy.

Admiral Hood took advantage of his position to sail into the anchorage at St. Kitts that the French fleet had just left.  The French line attacked the British rear, threatening to sink the last three ships in the British line.  Three other British ships were able to turn and support the ships that were at risk. They sailed directly for the French flagship the Ville de Paris and forced it to turn away.  

The French passed along the British line, exchanging broadsides, which did more damage to the French fleet than to the British.  By this time, it was evening and the French withdrew.

Repulse of French Fleet Jan. 1782
The British were in an awkward position.  Hood’s fleet was just off the shore of St. Kitts.  The ships had to remain far enough from shore to avoid the French shore batteries from the army on the island.  At the same time, they were aware that the French fleet would be back for another attack.  The French navy could not simply abandon the large French army on St. Kitts.

As expected, the following morning, the French fleet under de Grasse brought its line against the British to exchange a brutal series of broadsides that greatly damaged both fleets.  Witnesses claimed they began to lose sight of the nearby enemy due to all the smoke from near continuous cannon fire.

Badly damaged the French fleet withdrew.  Casualties on both sides were pretty even, with a little over 300 killed or wounded on each side.  

While the British now controlled the waters around St. Kitts, but the French army on the island continued the siege against the British garrison in the hills.  On February 13, about a month after the siege began, the British soldiers on the island surrendered.  

The French now controlled the island.  The French navy under de Grasse had received reinforcements and was ready to renew the battle with the British fleet.  Hood had been expecting the arrival of reinforcements of his fleet with twelve ships of  the line under Admiral Rodney, but Rodney was still at St. Eustatius, looking for more treasure.  On the night of February 14, the British fleet at St. Kitts quietly sailed away, leaving lights on floating rafts to give the illusion that the fleet remained at anchor.  At dawn the following morning, the French looked out to see that the British fleet had vanished.

With French control of St. Kitts secured, the French fleet returned to base at Fort Royal in Martinique while the British retreated to St. Lucia. Both fleets had to make considerable repairs before the next inevitable naval confrontation.

The Saintes

By spring of 1782, the French fleet had consolidated at Martinique with 33 ships of the line.  The British fleet under Admiral Rodney finally joined with the fleet under Admiral Hood giving the British a total of 36 ships of the line.  Since Rodney outranked Hood, he took command of the combined fleet.

France coordinated with Francisco Saavedra de Sangronis, General Bureau for the Spanish Indies; and Bernardo de Gálvez, the Spanish Governor of Louisiana to develop a plan to take all of the British islands in the West Indies.  For the European powers, these islands were far more valuable than North America.  The sugar plantations on these islands were the source of most colonial wealth.

In early April, the Comte de Grasse sailed the French fleet out of Martinique.  He hoped to join with a Spanish invasion force of twelve additional ships of the line.  The Spanish had also assembled an army of 24,000 men, who would combine with another 10,000 French soldiers who had arrived in the West Indies from France and another 5000 French soldiers under de Grasse, and who had recently fought at Yorktown.  

This was a combined huge army and navy for the time: a total of 60 warships and 40,000 soldiers.  For French and Spanish military planners, the West Indies had become the priority of the war, more important than North America, more important than Gibraltar.  Control of the West Indies would break Britain economically and greatly enrich France and Spain. 

When de Grasse left Martinique, he had a total of about 150 ships in the fleet.  Only 34 of these were ships of the line.  A few more were smaller frigates, but most of the smaller vessels were slow moving troop carriers that would only be a burden in a sea battle.  De Grasse hoped to avoid a sea battle and bring the fight directly to Jamaica.  Jamaica was one of the largest and most valuable colonies still under British control

Rodney, however, received intelligence that the French fleet had left port.  He set sail with his own fleet, hoping to catch the enemy at sea, before it could combine with the Spanish fleet. The British fleet divided into three commands.  Admiral Rodney directly commanded one squadron, Admiral Hood commanded a second squadron.  Vice Admiral Samuel Francis Drake commanded a third squadron.  Although the French fleet was larger, the British ships were faster and better equipped.

The French fleet had left port on the morning of April 8.  British intelligence had been on top of French activities and was well aware of the movement.  That same afternoon, Admiral Hood’s squadron spotted the French fleet.  It was too late in the day, and not enough wind for the fleets to engage then, but battle would begin the following morning.  Even after Admiral Rodney’s squadron caught up, the French ships outnumbered the British by 2-1.  

The two fleets engaged on the morning of April 9th.  Hood’s squadron took considerable damage that day, but the fighting was inconclusive.  Overnight, Drake’s ships had arrived and took a position in the front of the British fleet, while Hood’s damaged ships fell to the rear where the men could work on repairs.

The French still hoped to avoid a major engagement at sea before joining with the Spanish.  They simply sailed away.  De Grasse continued on his original course after the engagement, separating the distance with the British fleet overnight.  The British would have to pursue them.  The French managed to keep a distance until the night of the 11th, when two of the French ships of the line collided with each other.  One of the ships was very badly damaged and began drifting back toward the enemy fleet. Rodney, seeing an opportunity, sailed his fleet at the two damaged ships. De Grasse had to turn his fleet around to protect them.  During the night rescue, de Grasse’s flagship the Ville de Paris also collided with one of the damaged ships causing more damage to both ships.  

De Grasse tried to move his fleet toward Guadeloupe, while the British gave chase.  The following day, April 12, Drake’s squadron moved into a line of battle to engage the French fleet.  At that point, de Grasse had no choice but to engage.  The ships exchanged broadsides  Right behind Drake’s line was Rodney’s squadron, which fired additional broadsides into the enemy fleet.

Ville de Paris attacked
The French line faltered leaving gaps between the ships. Rodney ordered the British to sail into the gaps, allowing the British to fire on the French from both sides of their ships at the same time, essentially doubling the amount of lead they could throw at the enemy at once - and giving the enemy limited opportunity to fire back.  Hood’s squadron brought up the rear, inflicting even more damage on the French fleet.  The slow moving French ships began throwing their dead and badly wounded into the water to lighten their loads.  Sailors reported seeing large numbers of sharks gathering behind the ships to feast on the dead.

The British had the advantage, and began to focus on several isolated French ships.  A few French captains lowered their colors and surrendered.  Admiral de Grasse, aboard the Ville de Paris continued to fight even after his flagship was badly damaged and surrounded by the enemy.  Many of the French ships who were able to do so, sailed away, leaving their comrades aboard damaged ships no choice but to surrender.  At around 6:00 PM, the Ville de Paris lowered her colors and Admiral de Grasse surrendered.  

The next few days saw very little wind.  The British fleet remained near Guadalupe, trying to effect repairs on both its own ships and several captured prizes.  After about a week, the wind returned.  Admiral Hood took ten ships in search of French stragglers.  He came across five ships, managing to capture four of them.

Adm George Rodney
Admiral de Grasse survived the battle without being wounded, but all of the other officers and all but three sailors aboard the Ville de Paris were dead or wounded after the battle.  On that one ship alone, the French suffered 400 killed and 700 wounded.  There are some widely disparate estimates of total French casualties among the entire fleet, ranging from 3000 to 9000 killed and wounded, including the deaths of six ship’s captains.  There were also between 5000 and 6000 French soldiers and sailors captured.  Nine French ships of the line were either captured or sunk.  By contrast, the British lost about 1000 casualties, about one-quarter of whom were killed.  Total British casualties across the entire fleet were less than the casualties of a single French ship, the Ville de Paris.  Among the British casualties were 50 sailors who were aboard a captured French ship that blew up after its surrender.

Admiral de Grasse became the first French admiral to be captured during a sea battle.  Command of the remainder of the French fleet in the West Indies fell to another admiral, the Comte de Vaudreuil.  He eventually joined up with the Spanish fleet. But the decimation of the French fleet and the loss of much of the Spanish army to disease meant that they called off the planned invasion of Jamaica before they even got to the island.

Admiral de Grasse did reach Jamaica, but only as a British prisoner.  Admiral Rodney returned to Jamaica with his fleet, along with his prizes and prisoners.  From Jamaica, a British ship of the line under Vice Admiral Peter Parker would carry De Grasse back to England.  There, de Grasse eventually would be granted parole and returned to France to face the consequences of his loss.  

Admiral Rodney would discover that officials in London had removed him from command because of accusations of his actions on St. Eustatius.  Admiral Hugh Pigot arrived in Jamaica to take command of the British fleet.  Pigot had been kept out of the war because of political disputes with the North Government. When the Rockingham Government took control, Pigot received this command.

The British victory became known as the Battle of the Saintes, a reference to all the nearby islands named after various saints.  The result was that the Spanish and French gave up on any new major offensives in the West Indies.


The Spanish fleet never arrived to assist the French fleet.  As the Battle of the Saintes was coming to an end, the Spanish commander Juan Manuel Cagigal y Monserrate left Havana aboard transport ships with 2500 soldiers.  Cagigal did not have his own ships.  Instead, he hired American privateers to carry his army.  He ignored orders to join the planned invasion of Jamaica and instead carried his army to the British-held Bahamas.

Bernardo de Galvez

On May 6, the Spanish fleet arrived outside Nassau.  Cagigal managed to convince the British commander there, Vice Admiral John Maxwell, to surrender without firing a shot. Spain took the 600 man British garrison prisoner and captured a frigate and a bunch of smaller ships, as well as 77 merchant ships..

Despite the success, Galvez was upset that Cagigal had disobeyed orders and had not joined the planned invasion of Jamaica.  The attack on Jamaica had not happened anyway because of the defeat of the French fleet.  Even so, Galvez had Cagigal arrested and imprisoned.  Spain ended up crediting Galvez with the capture of the Bahamas, even though Galvez had not approved the operation and in fact resisted it every step of the way.

The Bahamas would remain under Spanish control as the war in the West Indies came to an end.

Next week, we head back to North America as British and American leaders tangle over the Huddy-Asgill Affair.

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Next Episode 312 Huddy-Asgill Affair

Previous Episode 310 Gnadenhutten Massacre 

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Further Reading


The Capture of St. Eustatius:

Battle of St. Kitts:

St. Kitts, Captured By The French

Monk, Will “Battle of the Saintes” Journal of the American Revolution, Sept. 17, 2020.

Battle of the Saintes:

American Revolution: Battle of the Saintes

Beerman, Eric. “The Last Battle of the American Revolution: Yorktown. No, the Bahamas!. (The Spanish-American Expedition to Nassau in 1782).” The Americas, vol. 45, no. 1, 1988, pp. 79–95. JSTOR,

Beerman, Eric “Old Navy: The 1782 American-Spanish Expedition” Proceedings, Dec. 1978:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Balch, Thomas The French in America During the War of Independence of the United States, 1777-1783, Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1891. 

Mundy, Godfrey B. The Life and Correspondence of the Late Admiral Lord Rodney, Vol. 2 London: John Murray, 1830. 

Shea, John Gilmary The Operations of the French Fleet under the Count De Grasse in 1782-82, New York: Bradford Club, 1864. 

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Lewis, James A. The Final Campaign of the American Revolution: Rise and fall of the Spanish Bahamas, Univ of S.C. Press, 1991 (borrow on 

Rogozinski, Jan A Brief History of the Caribbean, Facts on File, 1999 (borrow on 

Shachtman, Tom How the French saved America: Soldiers, Sailors, Diplomats, Louis XVI, and the Success of a Revolution, St. Martin’s Press, 2017. 

Trew, Peter Rodney and the Breaking of the Line, Pen and Sword Maritime, 2006.

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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