Cornwallis v de Ternay – 20 June 1780
Almost fifteen years to the day before he affected the famous ‘Cornwallis’ Retreat’ off Brittany, a feat which was to prove the zenith of a most distinguished career, Captain Hon. William Cornwallis brought off another bold defensive strategy whilst operating out of the Jamaican station.
At 1 p.m. on the afternoon of 20 June his squadron of two 74’s, two 64’s a 50 and a frigate was some way to the east of Bermuda, having escorted the Salisbury 50, Captain Charles Inglis, and a homeward-bound convoy through the Gulf of Florida, when a signal from the frigate Niger advised of four sail in the north that were sailing in a north north-westerly direction. At the time Cornwallis’ squadron was set on an easterly track, and the wind was in the south south-east.
Upon sighting the strange vessels Cornwallis must have held some expectation and hope that he had come across the three sail of the line, a 50-gun ship and a frigate which his smaller squadron had encountered under the command of Rear-Admiral Jean Toussaint Guillaume La Motte-Picquet off Monte Cristi on 20 March. Soon however, more ships came into view, and it also became apparent that the superior number of unknown vessels were hauling their wind and changing course towards the south-west in order to come down upon his squadron.
The strange sail were in fact seven sail of the line, including one of 80 guns, two of 74, and four of 64, together with several frigates and a convoy of transports that were commanded by Commodore Charles Louis d’Arsac, Chevalier de Ternay. This fleet of forty-six vessels was conveying Lieutenant-General Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur Comte de Rochambeau’s army of six thousand men, which was bound for North America with orders to land anywhere between Savannah and Newport in the aim of bolstering the Colonial Revolution.
Two of the strangers, which were in fact the Neptune 74 and Eveillé 64, were some distance in advance of their consorts, having evidently been detached by de Ternay to identify Cornwallis’ squadron, but upon approaching the Niger and Hector 74 they wore ship and took in sail to await their consorts. By 4.30 the Neptune had assumed a position at the head of the seven French two-decked ships, and these formed themselves into a line of battle. The French convoy meanwhile assumed a position of safety about two miles off their escort’s starboard quarter, whilst the half a dozen frigates and corvettes sought to join the sail of the line.
With de Ternay approaching him on the larboard tack, Cornwallis formed all but one of his own squadron in line ahead upon the starboard tack. The exception was the dangerously positioned Ruby 64 which was wallowing away to leeward in the north, and in order to avoid the possibility of being cut off she was forced to tack into the wind and assume the same course as the French, that is to the southwest on the larboard tack. Cornwallis in turn wore the rest of his line towards the west, having decided that the rescue of his errant consort necessitated taking his remaining sail of the line into action with the superior enemy. It was therefore to his immense surprise that upon comprehending his manoeuvre the French began to cautiously edge away. Furthermore, although both lines were in range of one another at this stage no shots were fired.
By 5.30 Cornwallis was satisfied that he had lulled the hesitant French line so far to leeward that he could signal the Ruby, which was safely on the squadron’s lee bow, to join the rear of the British line, and he now made the signal for his squadron to tack to the east once more. At this point the French ran up their colours and opened fire, and passing their enemy in the opposing direction each ship poured in a broadside before sailing on. The French line then came about in succession and sailed in parallel to the British, engaging once more at long range from to leeward on the starboard tack with little damage to either side. Finally at 7p.m, having passed the last ship in the British line, the French commander decided that it was fruitless to perpetuate an action with the artful Cornwallis, and he turned away to join Rochambeau’s transports, the safety of which was evidently, and properly, his prime consideration.
That night Cornwallis and his squadron bore away to the south under easy sail, and come the morning there was no sign of the enemy. The Ruby had suffered the most casualties in the engagement, losing two men killed and another two wounded, as well as losing her jib-boom. Otherwise the only casualties were the coxswain killed and another man wounded aboard the Lion, and a man wounded aboard the Bristol. The squadron eventually returned to Port Royal without further incident on 20 July.
In his despatches de Ternay paid great testimony to the skill of his opponent, writing: ‘Knowing the magnitude of the expedition I was entrusted with, and finding, from his conduct that the officer who had the honour to command the British squadron was not to be trifled with, I judged it most prudent to decline an action as much as possible’. In effect though, it was Cornwallis who was happier to avoid an action against numerically superior opponents, whilst over the next week the French captains could barely hide their disdain at the hesitant tactics of their commander.
After liaising with American emissaries upon arriving off Cape Henry at the beginning of July, de Ternay rejected an appeal from General Washington to attack New York and instead opted to sail for a safer harbour. On 10 July the French convoy eventually reached Newport, Rhode Island, which had been abandoned by the British in October 1779, and they held it as their base for the duration of the American Revolutionary War. Unfortunately though, de Ternay did not even survive the year, for on 15 December he died of typhus after a week long illness aboard his flagship, the Duc de Bourgogne.
|Lion 64||Captain Hon. William Cornwallis|
|Sultan 74||Captain Alan Gardner|
|Hector 74||Captain Sir John Hamilton|
|Ruby 64||Captain John Cowling|
|Bristol 50||Acting Captain Hon. Thomas Pakenham|
|Niger 32||Captain John Brown|
1 x 80 guns: Duc de Bourgogne.
2 x 74 guns: Neptune, Conquérant.
4 x 64 guns: Éveillé, Provence, Jason, Ardent.
Frigates: Amazone 32, Bellone 32, Surveillante 32.
Corvettes: Guêpe, Serpent