Hussar v Sibylle – 22 January 1783
The British sloop Hussar 20, Captain Thomas Macnamara Russell, was cruising off the mouth of the Chesapeake in a fresh gale when through the haze she spotted a jury-rigged frigate steering in a westerly direction on the starboard tack, the wind being in the north north-west. To all intents and purposes the stranger appeared to be a prize of the British, for she had an English ensign flying over the French colours at the ensign staff, and in addition to the jury-masts there were visible shot holes in her hull. She was also flying another English ensign reversed in the main shrouds, and as this signified a ship in distress Russell eased down towards her in order to offer what assistance he could.
The stranger was in fact the crack French frigate Sibylle 32, Captain Théobald-René, the Comte de Kergariou Locmaria, which on the previous 17 October had attempted so magnificently to protect her compatriot, the Scipion 74, from the London 98, Captain James Kempthorne, and Torbay 74, Captain John Lewis Gidoin, prior to the Scipion being wrecked in Samana Bay. On 2 January she had fallen in with the Magicienne 36, Captain Thomas Graves, and despite totally dismasting her opponent had sustained a heavy mauling before making her escape from the Magicienne’s heavier consort, the Endymion 44, Captain Edward Tyrell Smith. Four days later she had herself been dismasted in a storm and had thrown twelve cannon over the side to remain afloat, but although reduced in firepower she did have a substantial crew of some three hundred and fifty men aboard her, including many prize seamen from the Scipion.
Originally launched as the Massachusetts State Navy vessel Protector 28, the Hussar had been captured on 5 May 1781 by the Roebuck 44, Captain Andrew Snape Douglas, and Medea 28, Captain Henry Duncan, and had been bought into the British navy and commissioned by Captain Russell in 1782 as a 20-gun sloop. She carried an armament of sixteen 9-pounder cannon and four six pounders equating to a broadside of 84 pounds, and although she had a nominal crew of one hundred and sixty men, only one hundred and sixteen were aboard when she fell in with the Sibylle, of who thirteen were on the sick list. The 40 year-old Captain Russell had been a late entrant to the navy following the death of his parents and the failure of his family finances, and he had only been posted captain in July 1781.
The Sibylle’s flying of the English colours at her ensign staff was an acceptable ruse under the prevailing conventions of war, but the flying of a flag of distress was, in British eyes, a contravention if it were being used to tempt an enemy to come within range. When Russell pulled under the Sibylle’s lee and prepared to hail her Kergariou, who according to a subsequent friendly account in the Pennsylvania Packet newspaper was still flying both English flags, suddenly put his helm up with the intention of ramming the Hussar. Russell just had enough time to order his own helm over and the sloop sheered away from what was the Sibylle’s apparent attempt to carry away her masts with the shock of the collision, preparatory to boarding.
At this point, again according to the later French account in the Pennsylvania Packet, the Sibylle lowered the English colours at the ensign staff, although not the signal of distress which was apparently stuck. She then opened fire. Due to Captain Russell’s manoeuvre she was only able to hit the Hussar with half a broadside, but even so this killed two men and caused a great deal of damage aloft up forward. The astonished British were unable to respond with their own cannon, but instead the Hussar’s officers and marines opened up with a volley of pistol shot and musketry that drove back a throng of French boarders who were looking to overwhelm the British crew with their superiority of numbers. One of these balls grazed Kergariou’s shoulder causing a minor wound.
The two ships were now abreast of each other, and recovering his wits Russell deployed a ruse of his own by calling out for his men to prepare to board. Now it was the French turn to put up their helm, whereupon the British sloop withdrew a safe distance to leeward and opened up with a full broadside. A great deal of this shot tore into the Sibylle’s hull below the waterline, for under her jury-rig the frigate was pitching and rolling to a far greater degree than if she had been fully-masted.
Over the next forty-five minutes the Hussar gained the upper hand by keeping herself broadside on to the disabled Sibylle, despite Kergariou’s frequent attempts to yaw. Within the hour the French fire had withered away, and with five feet of water in her hold, her magazine flooded as a result of the low shot into her hull, and having suffered a great number of casualties, the Sibylle fell away in the confusion of the smoke before fleeing to windward. The Hussar attempted to follow her but by now her damaged foremast and bowsprit could not take a sail, and after exchanging a few shot Captain Russell had to make good his own repairs before renewing the chase. Gradually the wind eased and she began to make up ground, but it was only when the haze cleared to reveal the Centurion 50, Captain Samuel Clayton, to windward and the Terrier 16, Captain Robert Murray, to leeward, that the French frigate’s fate was decided.
After a two hour chase it was nevertheless Captain Russell who caught up with the Frenchmen, and taking his sloop alongside he fired a single broadside to which two guns responded before the Sibylle’s colours came down. At this time the Centurion was within long-shot range and the Terrier some four or five miles to leeward. The French report in the Pennsylvania Packet would later suggest that it was to the Centurion that the Sibylle had struck her colours, but Captain Russell’s official letter clearly stated that it was the Hussar that enforced the surrender. Nevertheless it was accepted by the British that the brave Keragiou would never have surrendered to the Hussar without the arrival of the Centurion.
As a result of the engagement the Hussar’s casualties totalled three men killed and five wounded, and the French were reported as forty-two men killed and eleven wounded. When Kergariou went aboard the Hussar to offer his sword to Captain Russell he stated in somewhat flowery terms: ‘Accept, sir, of a sword, which was never before surrendered. Conceive my feeling, on being reduced to it by a ship of less than half my force. But such a ship! Such a constant and continued tremendous fire!’
Yet Russell, despite his victory, was furious at the apparent French deceit and flagrant disregard of the conventions of war with respect to the flying of the flags before the engagement, and he answered: ‘Sir, I must here humbly beg leave to decline any compliments to this ship, her officers, or company, as I cannot return them. She is indeed no more than a British ship of her class should be. She had not fair play; but Almighty God has saved her from the most foul snare of the most perfidious enemy. Had you, Sir, fought me fairly, I should, if I know my own heart, receive your sword with a tear of sympathy. From you, Sir, I receive it with inexpressible contempt. And now, Sir, you will please observe, that, lest this sword should ever defile the hand of any honest French or English officer, I here, in the most formal and public manner, break it.’ The British captain then stuck the point of the sword in the deck and snapped it over before ordering Kergariou to be kept in close confinement below.
Such a hostile display towards a French aristocrat who was highly esteemed at court could only have one outcome, and by the time they received news of the impending peace after reaching New York on the morning of 8 February Kergariou had already demanded satisfaction and Russell had made it clear that he was only too ready to offer it. The British captain’s official letter praised the skill and bravery of his opponent, but it was venomous in its denunciation of Kergariou’s character; indeed such was the tone of the letter that in view of the looming peace the authorities decided not to release it to the press.
Suffice to say there were many arguments and counter arguments regarding the errant flags. Notwithstanding the dispute over whether the British colours at the ensign staff should have been lowered before the Sibylle attempted to ram the Hussar, to Russell’s mind the flying of a flag of distress had been a deliberate ruse to entrap him, because such a signal was regarded as one that could not humanely be ignored, and was certainly one that could not to be used to deceive an enemy. According to Russell the signal of distress had also continued to fly for a good thirty minutes after the opening of the engagement, and he rejected out of hand Kergariou’s excuse that the flag had become stuck. The French contended that nobody could possibly have considered the hoisting of colours in the main shrouds to be an identifier of nationality, and that as the English colours at the ensign staff had been hauled down before any cannon had been fired no laws had been broken. To this the British responded that if Kergaiou had considered the flag in the main shrouds to be insignificant then why had he hoisted it at all?
Whatever the rights and wrongs of the argument the two men did not in the event meet on the field of honour, for when Russell raced to France at the end of the war upon hearing that his erstwhile enemy had been found innocent of any deception by a court martial he found that Kergariou had already gone beyond the Pyrenees to recover from his wounds. At Calais Vice-Admiral Marriot Arbuthnot, who had innocently accompanied Russell across the Channel, learned of the outraged captain’s intentions and persuaded Russell that he should return to England, and with no knowledge of Kergariou’s exact whereabouts this he was eventually obliged to do.
As for the two ships involved in the engagement they had seen their last employment as men-of-war, for when the Hussar returned to England in the early summer she was paid off and later sold out of the service, whilst the Sibylle ended up in the breakers yard just a year after her capture by Captain Russell.