Foul weather hinders Byron’s pursuit of d’Estaing – June to December 1778

by | Feb 18, 2016 | 1778, American Revolutionary War 1776-1783 | 0 comments


On 13 April Vice-Admiral Jean Baptiste Charles Henri Hector, Comte d’Estaing, who fifteen years before had joined the French navy from the rank of lieutenant-general in the army, departed Toulon with a fleet of eleven sail of the line, a 50-gun ship, five frigates, and four thousand troops. Destined for North America, his instructions were to assist the American rebels in their campaign against the British, and to develop the French interests on that seaboard and in the Caribbean.


Comte d’Estaing

When news of his departure for a destination unknown reached England on 23 April the weak and ill-prepared cabinet was divided as to what action to take. The two leading war ministers, being the secretary of state for the colonies, Lord Germain, and the first lord of the Admiralty, Lord Sandwich, advocated the opposing policies of sending ships in chase and protecting the Channel respectively. After a week of prevarication Germain prevailed, but in terms of the events that followed this was but a minor delay.

With the decision in favour of pursuit, a fleet of thirteen sail of the line was ordered to fit out for the command of the renowned explorer, Vice-Admiral Hon. John Byron. Two of the designated ships were at Plymouth where Byron arrived on 5 May, and the other eleven ships were reassigned from Admiral Hon. Augustus Keppel s Channel fleet, which at the time was fitting out at Portsmouth. These were placed under the command of Rear-Admiral Hyde Parker, who would become Byron s second-in-command. Once the two elements of the fleet were able to rendezvous they would be sent to reinforce the fleet of five sail of the line and three 50-gun vessels in North American where it was believed d’Estaing had sailed.

That Byron was as yet untried in the command of a fleet did not bode well, nor did the fact that the designated ships from the Channel fleet were in a desperately poor condition, or that they were obliged to embark a large number of gaolbirds and landsmen to make up their complement. The added encumbrance of the Admiralty s poor administration and the King s decision to appear at Portsmouth on 2 May, where he announced that he would remain until Parker set sail, did little to help preparations. Another potential delay was the importance attached to Byron sailing in command of the fleet, for if the commander-in-chief became wind-bound at Plymouth and Parker reached North America before him the rear-admiral would find himself subordinate to the hopeless Vice-Admiral James Gambier. Nobody dared trust that self-serving incompetent officer, who would be in temporary command following the expected return home of Vice-Admiral Lord Howe, with anything more than the command of his own barge. In the event however, Lord Howe would delay his return home in order to meet the French threat.

Finally on 9 May Parker was able to drop down to St. Helens with his eleven sail of the line, thereby allowing the King to leave Portsmouth. But five days later, on the advice of Lord Sandwich, Admiral Keppel, and the commissioner at Portsmouth, Commodore Samuel Hood, the King decided that the fleet should remain in home waters after all until the whereabouts of d Estaing could be ascertained. This new prevarication was largely based on a rumour of there being twenty Spanish sail of the line at Cadiz which were preparing to join d Estaing and bring an overwhelming allied supremacy in the Channel. Over the next three weeks there were equally concerning rumours, and in a foretaste of events to come political intrigue raised its ugly head as the Tory government attempted to abdicate the decision of where to send the fleet upon the Whig Keppel.

On 24 May Parker s squadron reached Plymouth and joined Byron to await the Admiralty s decision as to what to do next. Fortunately valuable intelligence soon arrived at Falmouth in the form of Captain Evelyn Sutton of the Proserpine 28, who had followed d Estaing s fleet past Gibraltar on 16 May and out into the Atlantic. His conviction from studying their course was that they were probably bound for the West Indies, although the information he provided gave equal credence to the destination being North America. On 5 June the King and the cabinet finally decided that North America was indeed almost certainly the Toulon fleet s destination, and Byron set sail from Plymouth Sound for New York on 9 June with Parker s slow detachment and a huge West Indies convoy in company.

Just over three weeks later, on 3 July, being some fifteen hundred miles out into the Atlantic and one thousand miles north of the Azores, Byron s fleet was overtaken by a ferocious storm. As the crews were ridden with gaol-fever and scurvy, and the ships were in such a poor state of repair, the fleet was in no condition to contend with the elements. In no time the ships scattered in all directions, some of them being dismasted, others losing much of their second-rate rigging. By the evening of 4 July Byron had but the Invincible 74, Culloden 74 and the frigate Guadeloupe in company, and even these had parted had from him by the time he finally arrived off Sandy Hook on the morning of 18 August.


The aptly named ‘Foul Weather Jack’ Byron

To compound his dismay at the scattering of his fleet, Byron found the badly damaged and vulnerable Toulon fleet lying to off Long Island following an encounter with Vice-Admiral Lord Howe s North American fleet off Rhode Island some days before. If his ships had been with him he could have finished off the French there and then. Upon sighting his flagship, the Princess Royal, two of the enemy gave chase but then inexplicably put about in order to return to their fleet. Unable to enter New York, where he believed he would find the North American fleet, Byron was obliged to bear away alone for Halifax, and upon reaching that port on 26 August he found the Culloden, which had arrived ten days before. Having collected this vessel, the frigate Diamond 32, Captain Charles Fielding, and the sloop Dispatch, Commander John Botham, he put to sea again to find his fleet.

Suffice to say, his ships had been well and truly scattered. The jury-rigged Invincible, having cut away her mainmast and lost both her mizzen and foremasts, and then been almost wrecked on the Nantucket Shoals, made it to Newfoundland on 5 September. Together with the frigate Guadeloupe she was made sea-worthy only in so much that she could return to England for repairs. The Cornwall, with three hundred men on the sick list, and the Monmouth had fallen in with Lord Howe s fleet and were safe. The Russell had been forced to return home to England via Lisbon. Parker, flying his flag aboard the Royal Oak, which vessel had sprung her topmasts, arrived at New York on 29 August with the Fame, the Sultan, which had sprung her mainmasts in two places and lost all her topmasts, the Bedford and the Grafton, both of which had sprung their main-masts, and the Conqueror, the latter also with three hundred men on the sick list. With the Albion coming in bereft of her main mast and all her top-masts, Byron was eventually able to gather his remaining twelve ships at Sandy Hook.

On 18 October he put to sea once more and headed towards Boston where d’Estaing had last been seen, but on arriving off the New England coast another violent storm enveloped his ships. The Somerset, which had joined him from Lord Howe s fleet, drove aground on Cape Cod and was lost with seventy of her crew, and the Culloden was dismasted and forced to bear away for England, eventually reaching Milford Haven in poor condition. Upon retiring with the remaining ships to Rhode Island for yet another refit the Bedford 74 was found to be unfit for immediate service and Byron returned her to England.

In the meantime d’Estaing took the opportunity to flee what had been an unfriendly reception from the Americans in Boston for Martinique on 3 November. By 13 December what remained of Byron s ragged fleet was finally ready to follow, but after leaving Rhode Island with ten sail of the line, a frigate and a sloop the weather again conspired against him, and on the journey south the Fame lost all her masts, the Trident her mainmast and the other ships were considerably knocked about. On 7 January 1779 he joined Rear-Admiral Hon. Samuel Barrington at Gros Inlet Bay in St Lucia to learn that d’Estaing had retired to Martinique, some thirty miles away after a brief sortie.

It was to be another six months before Byron, his fragile nerves in tatters, would finally bring d Estaing to battle, and by that time the admiral s nickname of Foul Weather Jack had been more than justified.

Fleet despatched to North America:

Princess Royal 90 Vice-Admiral the Hon. John Byron
Captain William Blair
Royal Oak 74 Rear Admiral Hyde Parker
Captain Henry Francis Evans
Invincible 74 Commodore John Evans
Captain Anthony Parrey
Bedford 74 Captain Edmund Affleck
Conqueror 74 Captain Thomas Graves
Sultan 74 Captain John Wheelock
Culloden 74 Captain George Balfour
Grafton 74 Captain Andrew Wilkinson
Albion 74 Captain George Bowyer
Fame 74 Captain Stephen Colby
Russell 74 Captain Francis Samuel Drake
Cornwall 74 Captain Timothy Edwards
Monmouth 64 Captain Thomas Collingwood
Guadeloupe 28 Captain Hugh Robinson

Fleet that sailed from Rhode Island in December:

Princess Royal 90 Vice-Admiral Hon. John Byron
Flag Captain William Blair
Royal Oak 74 Rear-Admiral Hyde Parker
Captain Thomas Fitzherbert
Conqueror 74 Commodore Thomas Graves
Captain Harry Harmood
Fame 74 Captain Stephen Colby
Grafton 74 Captain Thomas Collingwood
Cornwall 74 Captain Timothy Edwards
Sultan 74 Captain John Wheelock
Albion 74 Captain George Bowyer
Monmouth 64 Captain Robert Fanshawe
Trident 64 Captain Anthony James Pye Molloy
Diamond 32 Captain John Linzee
Star 10 Commander John Butchart

Toulon fleet that departed in April:

1 x 90 guns: Languedoc
1 x 80 guns: Tonnant
6 x 74 guns: C sar, Guerriere, Hector, Marseillais, Protecteur, Z le
3 x 64 guns: Fantasque, Provence, Vaillant
1 x 50 guns: Sagittaire
Frigates: Aimable 32, Engageante 32, Flore 32*, Chim re 30, Alcm ne 28.

*This frigate was returned to Toulon once the French fleet got out into the Atlantic.