Boston v Embuscade – 31 July 1793
During the early days of the war the French frigate Embuscade 36, Captain Jean Baptiste François Bompart, had enjoyed a profitable run against the British shipping in North American waters, capturing some sixty-odd merchantmen. This was more than enough for Captain George William Augustus Courtenay of the British twelve-pounder frigate Boston 32, who learning of the Embuscade’s capers whilst at Halifax, Nova Scotia, determined to bring her to action.
Prior to sailing in search of the Embuscade, Captain Courtenay and his officers were invited to a hastily arranged ball at Halifax that was attended by all the local gentry and officials, and at which the leading ladies announced that they would raise a prize purse to be shared out amongst the Boston’s crew on their triumphant return to Nova Scotia. The Boston then set off for New York where the Embuscade was temporarily undertaking minor repairs, and during her voyage south Courtenay built on the fact that his frigate had been taken for a Frenchman when first appearing off Halifax by setting his men to stitching French tricolour flags and cockades, and to painting a republican slogan on her stern.
The ‘ruse de guerre’ had immediate effect, for when the Boston arrived off New York she was indeed taken for a Frenchman. Concluding that she was his compatriot, the Concorde 36, Captain Bompart sent his American-born first lieutenant, Jacob Whittemore, off in a boat to instruct her to go in chase of a British ‘pirate’ ship which was operating against the French without a letter-of-marque, and to hang her crew after capturing her.
Upon nearing the Boston after a gruelling twelve-hour row, Whittemore’s suspicions were aroused as to a possible British subterfuge by her shipshape appearance and rig, but after being advised by the master of a passing American revenue cutter that he had heard a gabble of French voices omitting from her quarter-deck, he took to his oars again and clambered aboard, whereupon he was promptly made prisoner along with his twelve-man boat crew. This was no doubt to the delight of the Boston’s several French-speaking officers who had been instructed to talk loudly in that language at the taffrail in order to add further authenticity to their frigate’s disguise.
Captain Courtenay advised Whittemore that he wished to fight the Embuscade, and that he would wait for three days off Sandy Hook in the hope that a challenge would be taken up. In order to tickle French pride he despatched Midshipman John Hayes in command of a captured schooner with a formal challenge to Bompart, and he also sent a letter from Whittemore off with the revenue cutter’s master, who informed the French consul of the challenge and posted the notice in the Tontine Coffee House. Once Bompart heard of the challenge he posted his own acceptance in the same coffee house and began preparing for sea. In turn his men, alerted to the news of the forthcoming engagement, began returning to the frigate. The excitement amongst the local populace was then heightened that night when Mr Hayes visited the coffee house, and after several drinks became embroiled in a fracas before being thrown out by the partisan Americans.
On the afternoon of the 30th Captain Courtenay was given cause for concern when a French squadron of two sail of the line, supposed to be the Eole 74 and the America 74, together with four frigates and six corvettes, was seen in the south-east, but when the Boston withdrew out to sea the enemy ships disappeared over the horizon towards New York. At 3 a.m. the next morning a strange vessel was spotted coming down from a north-east by northerly direction, closing to within three miles to windward within the half-hour. Although she made several signals with false fires she was identified at 3.50 as a frigate flying French colours, and in response to the Boston hoisting the same colours at daybreak she raised a blue flag with a white cross at her peak, which signified to Captain Courtenay that she was indeed the Embuscade. Ten minutes later she wore to the east, and with the Boston turning likewise the two vessels continued on this course for the next three quarters of an hour.
The Boston was a very old frigate, having been launched thirty years before, but although she had been in commission throughout the greater part of the American Revolutionary War her career had been devoid of any noteworthy action. She carried twenty-six 12-pounder cannon on her upper deck and six fairly ineffectual 12-pounder cannon on her forecastle and quarterdeck, together with six 6-pounder carronades, equating to a broadside weight of metal totalling two hundred and ten pounds. The 32 year-old Captain Courtenay was a cousin of the Earl of Bute, who had served as prime minister at the time the Boston was launched, and he had been posted captain days after the Battle of the Saintes in 1782. Thereafter he had continued in employment during the peace before re-commissioning the Boston in December 1792 and sailing for Newfoundland in April. He had a crew of two hundred and four men under his command, but was missing the third lieutenant and twelve seamen who had been placed aboard a prize.
The Embuscade, which had only been commissioned in 1790, carried twenty-six twelve-pounders on her gun-deck, ten 6-pounders on her quarterdeck and forecastle, and two 36-pounder carronades, equating to a weight of broadside that was calculated at two hundred and twenty-two pounds. She had taken additional men aboard at New York to bolster her complement to three hundred and twenty-seven, and this did not include Mr Whittemore and the boat’s crew of twelve who were imprisoned on the Boston. In tonnage she was half as big again as her British opponent.
At 4.45 the Boston replaced the French colours she had been flying with English colours, and she then tacked and hauled her mainsail up, causing the Embuscade, which was about a mile and a half distant, to overtake her. The Frenchman then bore up and the Boston tacked once more towards her, at which point the French captain put his main topsail to the mast to await the battle. At 5.05 the British frigate passed along her enemy’s starboard beam and opened fire with her larboard guns, being met with a return fire from Bompart’s starboard guns. The Boston then wore ship to place herself on the same tack as her enemy and she also then put her main topsail to the mast.
The two ships were now about fifteen miles south-east of Sandy Hook, and upon the shoreline of New Jersey hundreds of spectators had come out to enjoy the morning fun and cheer on their old French allies. They soon saw that the French frigate was having the better of the engagement under her skilful commander, for the Embuscade blew away her opponent’s cross-jack at 5.20, her jib and fore-topmast stay sail at 5.45 and her main-topmast and yard at 6.10. Worse followed for the Boston ten minutes later when Captain Courtenay and his marine lieutenant, James Butler, were felled by the same cannonball, Courtenay being clubbed in the back of the neck by the iron hammock-rail as he tumbled over. Almost immediately his body, apparently without a trace of blood upon it, was pitched into the sea on the orders of the first lieutenant, John Edwards, so that that the men would not be downhearted by the sight of it lying prone on the deck. Shortly afterwards Edwards himself was knocked senseless and another lieutenant, Alexander Kerr, was led below blinded in one eye, and with a temporary loss of sight in the other. Twenty minutes later Edwards, still suffering from the effects of his wound, returned to the deck, but by now the mizzenmast was tottering and the Embuscade was dropping astern in preparation to rake the Boston. There was nothing for it but to try and escape.
With scarcely enough sail to manoeuvre the Boston succeeded in wearing ship at about 7 am, thereby avoiding her opponent’s raking manoeuvre, but as she came around on the opposite tack the wreckage of her fallen main-topmast prevented the firing of her cannon. She then set off before the wind, and although the Embuscade pursued her for upwards of an hour she was forced to haul off, her own masts tottering so badly that upon arrival at New York two days later they were taken out. She thereafter remained port-bound and under repair for another two months. Despite her evident victory the Embuscade’s fifty casualties were far in excess of the ten men killed and twenty-four wounded aboard the Boston.
Meanwhile the Boston headed for the Delaware River where she intended to make repairs, but being warned by a local pilot that the French frigates Concorde 36 and Inconstante 32 were anchored just south of Philadelphia at the old Fort Mifflin she turned about and headed north. On 19 August she finally got into St. John’s, Newfoundland, from where the sloop Shark, Captain Scory Barker, returned to England in September with news of the action. Once he was apprised of the engagement the King honoured the late Captain Courtenay’s gallantry by granting his widow a five hundred guinea pension and her children an annuity.
Lieutenant Edwards, after acting as commander of the fireship Pluto in place of Captain James Nicoll Morris who was posted to the Boston, returned to England on the frigate and was promoted commander, but the effects of his wounds impaired his life until he died in 1823. In the same year a work by the controversial historian, Captain Edward Pelham Brenton, claimed that Courtenay may not have been killed during the action, but might only have been in a state of unconsciousness when pitched over the side. This version of events was taken up by the late captain’s niece with the imputation that Edwards had been guilty of cowardice.
The Boston remained in active service until the end of 1804 without gaining any further distinction, whilst the Embuscade fell into British hands at the Battle of Tory Island in 1798. As the Ambuscade 36 and then the Seine 36 she saw active service in the Channel and the West Indies before being broken up in 1813. Her gallant commander, Bompart, quickly rose through the ranks in the Revolutionary French Navy to command the expedition to Ireland in 1798 before falling foul of political machinations three years later and entering retirement.