Atalanta and Trepassey v Alliance – 28 May 1781
The British sloop of war Atalanta 16, Commander Sampson Edwards, and the brig Trepassey 14, Commander James Smyth, were cruising off the Newfoundland Banks on Sunday 27 May when a strange sail was discovered in the south-east at 3 p.m. Immediately the two vessels bore down to investigate, but having come within three miles they noted that the stranger was a somewhat larger ship, and so they hauled their wind to remain at a distance, yet in contact, through the night.
The strange sail was the American frigate Alliance 36, Captain John Barry, which in turn gave chase overnight and closed with the two brigs at noon on the following day, 28 May. After inviting the British officers to surrender and receiving the inevitable negative response, Barry opened up with a broadside from about a half-mile distance. At this juncture, although she was to leeward of the two smaller vessels, the American frigate would have been confident of overcoming both, but then the wind promptly dropped away. Deciding to use the calm conditions to their advantage, the British vessels un-shipped their sweeps and bore down upon the American as she wallowed motionless and immovable, being intent on overpowering her from either quarter.
The Atalanta had been commissioned in 1775, carried a crew of one hundred and twenty-five men, and was armed with sixteen 6-pounder cannon in addition to twelve swivel guns on her forecastle and quarterdeck. Her consort the Trepassey had originally been the American privateer Wildcat until captured by the Surprise 28, Captain Samuel Reeve, on 16 July 1779, and she had been commissioned into the navy a couple of months later. She had a crew of eighty men and sported fourteen 6-pounder cannon.
Their opponent, the Alliance, had been launched in 1778, had a crew of up to three hundred men, and was armed with twenty-eight 18-pounder cannon and twelve 9-pounder cannon. She harboured the unenviable reputation as being the frigate, commanded by Captain Pierre Landais, which had performed so erratically and incomprehensibly whilst John Paul Jones’ squadron had harassed the northern British ports in 1779. Following his capture of the British frigate Serapis and the loss of his own ship, the Bonhomme Richard, Jones had replaced Landais in command of the Alliance before the mad Frenchman had usurped the command once more and been allowed to sail for America. During the voyage home Landais’ behaviour had become so appalling and apparently deranged that he had been relieved of the command by the officers. The Continental Navy’s longest-serving captain, the Irish-born John Barry, had then assumed command, and after preventing a mutiny by her largely British-born crew he had undertaken a diplomatic mission to France before heading back once more for America.
The first of the British vessels into the action was the Trepassey, which hastily overshot her intended station on the Alliance’s larboard quarter and thereby placed herself at the mercy of the rebel’s entire broadside. Before the Atalanta could intercede her smaller consort was blasted to pieces by a couple of broadsides, with Commander Smyth paying for his mistake with his life at about 1 p.m., following which Lieutenant King took over. Desperate to save his consort from further punishment, Edwards brought the Atalanta up between the Trepassey and the Alliance, suffering a broadside that did great damage aloft. In the continuing absence of any wind the British sweeps were eventually able to carry the two smaller vessels into their advantageous positions on either quarter off the Alliance’s stern, the Atalanta positioning herself to starboard and the Trepassey to larboard. Now they were able to bombard their larger opponent relentlessly whilst receiving little punishment in return, and as their shot hit home the American position seemed increasingly hopeless.
Not long into the action Captain Barry was severely wounded in the shoulder by a grape shot, and after shedding a good deal of blood he eventually consented to be taken below for surgery, with Lieutenant Hoysted Hacker assuming command. As the unremitting pounding from the British 6-pounders continued, a fortunate shot carried away the Alliance’s colours, and for a moment the British rejoiced in their presumed victory by manning their rigging and giving huzzas. But although the Americans soon returned fire and the battle raged on Lieutenant Hacker believed the Alliance’s situation was untenable, and he went below to advise Captain Barry that they should surrender.
Barry was having none of it, and he demanded that his subordinate return to the deck to inspire his men to fight on. The captain’s resolution was instantly rewarded, not only by the newly-found confidence in his men, but also by a fortunate change in the elements which saw the wind come up, allowing the American frigate to at last utilise her ascendancy over her two smaller opponents after three hours under attack. Getting underway and turning broadside on to the Trepassey, the Alliance let loose one salvo which was enough to force the brig’s surrender.
Coming around the stern of the Trepassey, the Alliance set off for the Atalanta which was attempting to set sail on her damaged masts. The sloop’s capture was inevitable however, although she managed to survive for a further hour before her fore and mizzen masts came tumbling down and she struck her colours where she lay, an unmanageable wreck. The boldness and courage of her crew’s resistance was exemplified by Lieutenant Samuel Arden, who despite having an arm amputated returned to his post.
During the action the Trepassey suffered five men killed and ten wounded, the Atalanta six killed and eighteen wounded, and the Alliance six killed and twenty-six wounded.
When Captain Edwards repaired aboard the Alliance to offer his sword to the wounded Barry in his cabin the latter refused to accept it, stating that the British officer ‘richly merited it, and that his King ought to give him a better ship’. Barry’s chivalry extended to his instruction that the disarmed Trepassey be sent as a cartel to the British base at Halifax with her crew and that of the Atalanta under the command of her master, Phillip Windsor. Meanwhile Edwards, along with his first lieutenant, and Mr King, was taken to Boston aboard the Alliance, from where he was sent back to Newfoundland for exchange three months later on the basis that the commander-in-chief, his uncle Rear-Admiral Richard Edwards, always returned American prisoners by the first available cartel prior to them being officially exchanged.
Edwards was subsequently acquitted at a Newfoundland court-martial for the loss of his ship, and in recognition of his stalwart resistance was appointed to the flagship Portland 50 by his uncle. Meanwhile the brave Lieutenant Arden was promoted commander for his gallantry, whilst Captain Barry would go on to establish such a fine reputation that he would become known as ‘the Father of the American Navy’.
The Atalanta did not remain long in American hands, being retaken shortly afterwards by the Assurance 44, Captain James Cumming, Charleston 28, Captain Henry Francis Evans, and Amphitrite 24, Captain Robert Biggs, off Boston. The Trepassey, re-named the Defense, was retaken from the Americans in 1782 by the Jason 32, Captain James Pigott, and after a brief service was sold off in 1784.