The Relief of Rhode Island – August 1778
Having departed New York waters on 22 July following his decision not to run the risk of challenging Vice-Admiral Lord Howe’s defensive position off Sandy Hook, Vice-Admiral the Comte d’Estaing had initially sailed his Toulon fleet of twelve sail of the line southward to seek protection from an easterly gale. By the morning of the 23rd he was some hundred miles off the Delaware, and being freed from Howe’s advice boats that had returned to New York to report his position he set a northerly course for the British-occupied Rhode Island.
Upon arriving off Point Judith, some fifteen miles south-west of Newport, Rhode Island, at 11 am on 29 July, d’Estaing formulated a plan with the American Major-General John Sullivan to precipitate a pincer attack on the British garrison involving their combined fourteen thousand troops. The following day Captain Pierre Andre de Suffren led two sail of the line up the Narragansett Passage under fire from the British batteries to eventually anchor at the northern end of Conanicut Island. At the same time two frigates threatened the British sloop Kingfisher 16 and a couple of gallies that were stationed in the Sakonnet Passage, although before they could attempt to capture these vessels they were set alight and abandoned by their crews. The next day Suffren’s two sail of the line came back down Narragansett Passage to rejoin the fleet and anchor off Brenton’s Reef at the southern tip of Rhode Island.
Initial manoeuvres on the British side included the evacuation of the troops from Conanicut Island and a congregation of forces around Newport. Further allied advances over the next few days obliged the commander of the British Army, Major-General Sir Robert Pigot, and the senior naval officer at Newport, Captain John Brisbane, to scupper their own small naval force and add the ranks of seamen to the garrison. Accordingly on 7 August the frigates Flora 32, Juno 32, Lark 32, Orpheus 32 and Cerberus 28 and a number of smaller vessels were destroyed, with some being used to block the channels into Newport.
At midday on 8 August ten French sail of the line and a frigate began moving up towards Newport in line of battle, and at about 4 pm the British batteries lying just off the harbour on Goat Island and at Brenton’s Point opened fire upon them, the naval detachment at these batteries being commanded by Lieutenants Hugh Christian, Thomas Forrest and William Albany Otway. The French continued on their course and eventually anchored between Goat Island and Conanicut Island, whilst their other two sail of the line remained in the Narragansett Passage. These manoeuvres meant that the British force numbering approximately six thousand men, one thousand of whom were seamen, was now surrounded by the French fleet, ten thousand rebel troops on the north of Rhode Island, and four thousand French troops, some of whom were landed the next day on Conanicut Island.
But when all seemed loss their hopeless situation was suddenly and dramatically alleviated on 9 August when, to the astonishment of his enemy, Vice-Admiral Lord Howe and his rag-tag British fleet consisting of eight small sail of the line, five 50-gun vessels, and a host of frigates, sloops, brigs and fireships, arrived off Point Judith. The ships involved in the defence of Sandy Hook had been supplemented on 26th July from the West Indies by the Renown 50 after she had passed unnoticed through the French fleet the night before, and by the Cornwall 74 which had become detached from Vice-Admiral Hon. John Byron’s fleet on its voyage out from England in pursuit of the Toulon fleet, and had arrived off Sandy Hook on the 30th. Additionally the Raisonnable 64 and Centurion 50 had arrived at New York from Nova Scotia, having been wisely detached by the senior officer at Halifax, Captain Charles Fielding, after the sloop Dispatch, Commander John Botham, had sailed to that base with instructions from Howe for the expected Byron. The Raisonnable too had enjoyed a narrow escape from the French fleet on 27 July, and the information she brought, coupled with other intelligence, persuaded Howe that the French were heading for Rhode Island. Delayed by contrary winds at New York until 6 August, he had then set out to disrupt the allied operations.
At 7 a.m. on the morning of 10 August, and having re-embarked the men previously landed on Conanicut Island, the French fleet cut their cables and exchanging fire with the British batteries came out of the harbour on a favourable north-easterly wind. Despatching all his smaller vessels bar the fireships back to New York, Howe sought an advantage over d’Estaing’s superior fleet of twelve sail of the line by withdrawing to the south in an effort to gain the weather gauge, as he had an expectation that the wind would veer to that quarter. It did not do so that day however, and by the evening the two fleets were sailing in a southerly direction, the French some five or six miles in arrears, the wind in the east, and the fireships under the tow of the Experiment 50, Phoenix 44 and Pearl 32.
Dawn found the two fleets in fairly much the same orientation, but with the French a little more distant and their leading ships hull down in thick weather. During the day Howe transferred his flag to the frigate Apollo 32, which vessel had been placed overnight between the two fleets so as to monitor both lines of battle. Throughout the day it became increasingly apparent that Howe could not hope to gain the weather-gauge, and as he was being drawn away from Rhode Island he directed a gradual British haul in line of battle towards the north-west. By 4 p.m. the French were in the south-east and their van was almost three miles astern of Howe’s rear. They now came about, and with their largest ships ploughing through the heavy seas in the van Howe feared that d’Estaing would soon be able to overwhelm his rear. He therefore despatched his largest ship, the Cornwall 74, to cover the imminent attack whilst the Centurion moved up the line to take her place, and the rest of the fleet was ordered to close to the centre of his line.
Unfortunately for the French they were to be thwarted once more, for the deteriorating elements intervened before d’Estaing could force an action, and with the rain lashing down and the wind getting up to gale force his ships were instead obliged to bear away towards the south. That night the wind increased to a ferocious gale which dispersed both fleets, and the appalling weather continued throughout the following day so that Howe was unable to return to his flagship. During the night of the 12th the Apollo’s fore and mainmasts were sprung and she lost her foremast, and come the morning of the 14th, with the wind having finally calmed the previous evening, only the Ardent 64, Centurion 50, Phoenix 44, Roebuck 44, Richmond 32 and Vigilant 20 were in her company. Howe shifted his flag to the Phoenix and then transferred to the Centurion, and hearing gunfire on the morning of the 15th he proceeded southwards to discover ten enemy sail of the line some seventy miles to the east of Cape May. Detaching the Centurion to redirect any errant ships from his or Byron’s fleet, he then returned to the Phoenix and headed for New York.
It was not the end of the excitement however, for during the evening of the 18th d’Estaing’s flagship Languedoc 80, Captain Henri-Louis, Comte de Boulainvilliers, which had lost her bowsprit, all her masts, and the use of her rudder, was attacked by the Renown 50, Captain George Dawson. Having discharged one broadside the smaller British vessel manoeuvred under the flagship’s stern and bombarded her with full broadsides, receiving the fire of only two guns in return. d’Estaing viewed the outcome of the attack with such concern that he quickly gathered all his important documents together in order to throw them overboard. Fortunately for him the Renown’s acting captain felt obliged to break off the action as the gloom of night came on, and once a single broadside in the morning alerted the Languedoc’s consorts to her predicament she was rescued by six French ships. Three of these vessels gave chase to the Renown which managed to escape under all sail set.
Another disabled French vessel, variously considered to be either the Marseilles 74, Captain Jean François de la Poype-Vertrieux, or the Tonnant 80, Captain Comte de Bruyéres, survived an assault by Commodore Hotham’s pendant ship Preston 50 under similar circumstances the same night, the gunfire bringing other French ships to the rescue after several hours, but not before she had suffered many casualties. Again on the approach of the French reinforcement the British ship was obliged to flee in haste.
On the afternoon of the 18th the Isis 50, Captain John Raynor, fell in with the César 74, Captain Chevalier de Raymondis, which ship was flying the flag of the celebrated explorer Rear-Admiral Louis Antoine the Comte de Bougainville. After a chase over several hours the Isis seemed to be on the point of being overpowered when Captain Raynor brilliantly saved his command by crossing the Frenchman’s bows at the last minute and manoeuvring to leeward. Knowing full well that the French vessel could not open her lower deck guns in the raging sea, and perhaps being aware that her larboard guns had lumber stashed between them and had not been cleared for action, he then took the fight to his opponent. After an action of some ninety minutes another British ship of the line appeared in view, and with the Isis gaining an ascendancy the Cesar fled before the wind, her wheel shot away. Bougainville was wounded in his arm during the action and seventy other men were casualties, compared to one dead and fourteen wounded on the Isis.
Meanwhile, on 17 August, Howe had began gathering the remnants of his fleet off Sandy Hook and was directing repairs to his ships, including the Cornwall which had sprung her mainmast, and the Raisonnable her bowsprit. The fireships were so waterlogged that there was no possibility of them being used, and once she returned to the fleet the Isis had to be sent in to New York for further repair along with the Apollo. On 18 August Howe despatched the Experiment 50, Captain Sir James Wallace, to obtain information on the French fleet, whilst the sloops Ariel 20, Captain Hon. Charles Phipps, and Galatea 20, Captain Thomas Jordan, were despatched to the south and north respectively on a similar mission.
Having undergone some temporary repairs at sea, the French fleet fell in with Vice-Admiral Byron’s flagship, the Princess Royal 90, to the south of Long Island on the 18th but were unable to catch her. d’Estaing then returned to Rhode Island where he was spotted off Newport by the Galatea on the evening of the 20th, and where his appearance caused such alarm to Major-General Pigot that he dispatched Lieutenant Hon. Henry Stanhope in a whale boat to appraise Howe at Sandy Hook of his dire situation. Despite the fact that he had to navigate through the French fleet and was constantly at the mercy of the raging seas whilst progressing along the coast of Long Island, Stanhope managed to get through with his message. Meanwhile on the 23rd three French sail of the line chased the Experiment into Long Island Sound, forcing her to take the unprecedented course of sailing through the notorious Hell Gate to reach New York and from thence Sandy Hook.
Repairs effected, and with one of Byron’s fleet, the Monmouth 64, Captain Thomas Collingwood, having joined his strength on the 18th, Howe set off once more at great speed for Rhode Island on 25 August, only to be met on his passage by the Galatea bringing intelligence that the French had departed Rhode Island on the night of the 21st. Although d’Estaing had been keen to force his way into Newport and assist the American rebels, his captains, apparently scornful of the army officer who had been promoted over their heads, being wary of the whereabouts of Byron and Howe’s combined fleets, and knowing full well that their weather-beaten ships were in desperate need of repair, had effectively overruled him. To compound his misery the vehemence of the ensuing protest from the American commanders at the French decamp was so virulent that d’Estaing felt obliged to respond in the same terms before setting sail, apparently for Boston. Shortly after leaving Rhode Island he at least had some trifling satisfaction with the capture of the bomb-ketch Thunder, Commander James Gambier, and the sloop Senegal 14, Commander John Inglis.
Alerted to d’Estaing’s course, Howe proceeded to Boston where on the 30th he found the French fleet in disarray. Time was unfortunately lost in attending to the St. Albans 64, which had gone aground off the tip of Cape Cod, and the delay allowed d’Estaing to retreat further into the harbour where, with the aid of a frantic if disdainful populace, he was able to erect a number of batteries ashore to protect his fleet.
Deciding that the French were no longer an imminent threat, Howe returned to New York via Rhode Island on 11 September and resigned his command to Rear-Admiral James Gambier prior to leaving for England two weeks later. The charming but inept d’Estaing eventually completed his refit at Boston, although not without suffering the constant barbs and insults of the local populace who raged at his failure to assist the rebels at Rhode Island. The capture by American privateers of incoming British provision ships at least allowed him to re-embark his troops, and he sailed for Martinique on 3 November, obliging a furious Sullivan, who had already suffered wholesale desertions, to retreat from Rhode Island.
Having skilfully defended New York against the superior Toulon fleet weeks before, Howe had tenaciously broken the siege of Rhode Island and effectively isolated the French at Boston. This had been achieved with a fleet whose strength had only been deemed necessary to subjugate the fledgling American marine, and was far inferior to that sent out under Byron to deal with d’Estaing. Even so, on his return to England Howe faced criticism from his detractors in Parliament, led by the idiotic Commodore George Johnstone, and he was forced to defend his reputation against the attacks of the friends of the government who shamefully tried to assert that he had been allowed sufficient resources to defeat the French threat. As a result his brilliant services, like those of Keppel, were denied the country in its hour of need, and it would be another three and a half years before he was recalled to the colours.
British fleet at Rhode Island: