Crescent v Reunion – 20 October 1793
With war against France imminent, Captain James Saumarez was appointed to the eighteen pounder frigate Crescent 36 in January 1793, and after taking on volunteers from the Channel Islands and Exmouth to bring his crew up to complement he spent the spring and summer cruising in the Channel or engaged in convoy duty without any opportunity for distinction. As the days turned to autumn however, the possibility of some excitement arose when he was made aware of two French frigates, the Réunion 36 and Sémillante 32, which were in the habit of creeping out of Cherbourg at night, crossing the Channel to prey on the British coastal traffic, then darting back into port with their prizes the next morning.
At 4 p.m. on 19 October the Crescent departed Portsmouth following a refit with despatches for the Channel Islands, and despite light winds she was able to weather St. Helens that evening. By the early morning of 20 October she was off Cape Barfleur lighthouse to the east of Cherbourg, and with a brisk southerly wind coming off the land she was in a position to cut off either of the frigates returning from their midnight raid. Sure enough, as dawn broke two vessels were seen approaching the land, and these were the Réunion 36 Captain François Déniau, and her smaller consort, the cutter Espérance 14.
The Crescent had been launched in Hampshire after the American Revolutionary War in 1784, but bar a few months in commission under Captain William Young during the Spanish Armament in 1790 she had remained laid up in Ordinary. Her armament consisted of twenty-six 18-pounder cannon on her gun-deck, in addition to eight 18-pounder carronades and two nine pounder cannon on her quarterdeck and forecastle, equating to a broadside weight of metal of three hundred and fifteen pounds. She carried a crew of two hundred and fifty-seven men, and her commander, the 36 year-old Saumarez, was a Guernseyman with a proud naval heritage who was an experienced captain of thirteen years seniority enjoying a reputation for calmness, skill, and formality.
Having been launched in 1786, the Crescent’s imminent opponent, the Réunion, was of a similar vintage. She carried twenty-six 12-pounder cannon on her upper gun deck, and eight 6-pounder cannon and six brass 36-pound carronades on her forecastle and quarterdeck, equating to a broadside weight of metal of two hundred and eighty-eight French pounds, although this would later be translated into a total of three hundred British pounds. Her complement numbered three hundred and twenty men, the majority inexperienced and raw but inspired by revolutionary ardour, and she had recently undertaken a refit at Toulon.
With the benefit of the weather-gauge Saumarez took his swift frigate down upon the Réunion’s larboard and weather quarter, thereby ensuring that the Frenchman would be cut off from Cherbourg. At 10.30 a.m., with both ships on the larboard tack about some four miles to the west of Cherbourg, and with the wind dropping from a mild breeze to such a calm that the ensuing gunfire would be heard across the Channel at Fareham and Hilsea, she open fire at short range. At the same time, understandably preferring not to be drawn into the engagement, and wary of another British frigate, the Circe 28, Captain Joseph Yorke, that was lying becalmed several miles away, the cutter headed for port.
Early into the engagement the Crescent lost her fore-topsail yard and soon afterwards her fore-topmast, but her superiority soon began to manifest itself, not least because the carronades on either frigate proved to be most ineffective and thereby handed an advantage in firepower to Saumarez’ more powerful long guns. The French shooting practice was appalling, with barely any damage to the Crescent’s hull and with her sails merely holed, although one shot from the Reunion that did scour the Crescent’s forecastle providentially managed to ignite the priming on a 9-pounder cannon on her un-engaged side, and this in turn spewed forth its content in the direction of several gun-boats that were trying to come out of Cherbourg to assist their countryman.
Within three-quarters of an hour the French frigate had seen her fore-yard and mizzen-topmast topple over and her head sails shot away. Her main topgallant-mast fell shortly afterwards, and with the batteries ashore unable to reach the Crescent despite their constant and determined fire, and with the Sémillante unable to work out of Cherbourg against the wind and tide despite an attempt by boats to tow her out, it soon became apparent to the spectators watching in awe from the French coast that the contest would be decided in the British favour.
With the enemy at his mercy Saumarez put his helm hard a-starboard and spun around on the opposite tack to bring his larboard guns to bear. He was able to assume a raking position when the disabled Reunion left her stern exposed to the Crescent, and he made full use of the opportunity, receiving only the fire of two stern-chasers in return. His raking broadsides caused huge casualties on the French frigate, with one raking shot from the Crescent apparently accounting for twenty-one men alone. Such was his ascendancy that he was next able to cross the Réunion’s bow and threaten more punishment.
By now the brave resistance displayed by the Réunion was crumbling, and when the Circe began to pick up the light airs it left the French with no alternative but to strike their colours at 12.14 after an engagement of two hours and ten minutes duration. Amazingly the fight ended with thirty-three Frenchmen killed and forty-eight wounded, many of who were expected not to survive, whilst the British seaman had just a single casualty, this being a seaman who suffered broken leg from the recoil of a cannon in the opening exchanges. Upon Captain Déniau being brought upon the Crescent it would later be reported that he urged Saumarez to take his life too.
On Tuesday 22 October the Crescent and her prize entered Portsmouth, the former looking as fresh as if she were just out of dock, but the latter in a terribly shattered condition. The next day one of the Crescent’s lieutenants, Charles Otter, arrived in London where he hot-footed it to the Admiralty with news of the capture. On 5 November Saumarez was introduced to the King by the first lord of the Admiralty, Lord Chatham, and was knighted for his stunning victory, whilst his first lieutenant George Parker, who had been senior lieutenant to Captain Richard Strachan in that officer’s engagement with the Résolue in 1791, was promoted commander on 4 November.
The Réunion was added to the navy under her own name, but she was unfortunately lost on a sunken sandbank thirteen miles south-east of Harwich on 7 December 1796 whilst under the command of Captain William Bayntun. The Crescent would continue in service without gaining any further great distinction until she was wrecked off Jutland in December 1808 with huge loss of life, including her captain, John Temple.