Revolutionnaire v Unite – 12 April 1796
A squadron of five British frigates under the orders of Commodore Sir Edward Pellew of the Indefatigable 44, and otherwise consisting of the two-decked Argo 44, Captain Richard Rundell Burges, Révolutionnaire 38, Captain Francis Cole, Amazon 36, Captain Robert Carthew Reynolds, and Concorde 36, Captain Anthony Hunt, was cruising well to the south of Brest in a light north-easterly breeze on the afternoon of 12 April, when at 4 p.m. it descried a strange sail to windward, some twenty miles to the west of the Île de Yeu. Commodore Pellew ordered a general chase of the sail, which would prove to be the French frigate Unité 36, Lieutenant de Vaisseau Jean François André Durand, although there is evidence that the man-of-war had recently been renamed ‘la Variante’.
The Révolutionnaire was well to the rear of Pellew’s squadron, and being the better placed to intercept the stranger, she was ordered to cut her off from the shore. As darkness began to descend, the British frigate was able to weather the French vessel, forcing her to tack, and although the dim light and a haze temporarily hid the Unité, Captain Cole was able to regain sight of her at 9 p.m. when she was in the process of bearing up.
The Révolutionnaire had been launched at Le Havre in May 1794, but had enjoyed only a brief career under French colours before being captured by Commodore Sir John Borlase Warren’s frigate squadron on 21 October. She had twenty-eight 18-pound cannons on her upper gun deck, ten 9-pound cannons on her quarterdeck and forecastle, and also mounted eight 32-pound carronades, equating to a broadside weight of metal of four hundred and twenty-five pounds. Her crew numbered two hundred and eighty-seven men, and her captain, the 36-year-old Cornish-born Francis Cole, was a post captain of five and a half year’s seniority who, despite his own concerns over his illiteracy, was regarded as a fine officer.
The Unité had been launched at Rochefort in 1787 as the Gracieuse before her name change in April 1793, and during the first few years of the French Revolutionary War she had been credited with the capture of two 16-gun British privateers. Her armament consisted of twenty-six 12-French pound cannons on upper gun deck, ten 6-French pound cannons on her quarterdeck, and four 36-French pound carronades, equating to a broadside weight of metal of two hundred and fifty-eight French pounds. This has been translated by earlier historians to a broadside weight of metal of two hundred and forty pounds, representing just over half that of the Révolutionnaire. Her nominal complement was two hundred and eighty men, of which she was some twenty-five men short. Many of her crew were conscripts from Rochefort, for her best seamen had earlier been removed to man frigates that were being sent out to the Indian Ocean. She also had aboard eighteen mutinous Vendeans who had been forcibly embarked at Lorient despite their hostility to the French Republic. Her commander, Citizen Durand, appears to have been previously employed in the merchant marine before becoming a naval ensign in April 1793 and being rapidly promoted lieutenant de vaisseau in the following August.
At 11.30 p.m. with the rest of the British squadron no longer in sight, the Révolutionnaire got up with the Frenchman, and in consideration of his vessel’s vastly superior firepower, Captain Cole courteously spent some minutes prevailing upon Captain Durand to surrender in order to avoid what he perceived to be the unnecessary shedding of blood. His entreaty was met with an unequivocal rejection, and as she fled from Cole’s first broadside, the Unité returned fire with her stern chasers. Unfortunately for Durand, some thirty of his raw and largely unwilling crew did not share his bravery and ran below feigning injury, whilst the eighteen Vendéens simply refused to fight.
With the land fast approaching, and racing along at a speed of ten knots, the Révolutionnaire unleashed a second broadside before putting her helm over to port with the aim of running alongside the Frenchman. A boarding party stood at arms under the first lieutenant, Edward Ellicott, but at this point, some twenty minutes into the action, and with the Concorde bearing down upon the two vessels, the French crew realised the hopelessness of their situation and called out their surrender.
Nine Frenchmen had been killed and eleven wounded in the brief engagement, whilst there was not a single British casualty on the Révolutionnaire, a fact which Cole ascribed to the Unité’s practice of firing at his masts and rigging in the hope of disabling his ship. On board the French frigate was the wife of the governor of Rochefort, Madame Le Large, together with her children and servants, whom Commodore Pellew chivalrously placed aboard the first neutral vessel he encountered. One of the children was serving as an ensign on the Unité, and he too was allowed to depart on parole with his family.
Mr Ellicott was given the honour of taking the prize into Falmouth in the company of the Révolutionnaire, but despite the praise bestowed on him by Captain Cole in his letter to Pellew dated 13 April, the Admiralty, which was officially appraised of the capture of the Unité by Pellew’s letter from Falmouth dated 20 April, apparently did not believe the action worthy of Ellicott’s promotion to commander. Meanwhile, Captain Durand was court-martialled and unanimously found guilty of not having sustained a resistance before the arrival of the Concorde; however, the panel also unanimously agreed that the precipitate surrender had been attributable to the poor composition of the Unité’s crew, and thus Durand was effectively acquitted of blame for her loss.
Thereafter, the Révolutionnaire enjoyed a long career in the Navy, taking many prizes before being broken up at Plymouth in October 1822. The Unité was bought into the Navy as the Unite 32, and after a fitting-out at Plymouth which took the rest of the year, she saw service in home waters and the West Indies before being sold off at Sheerness in May 1802.
N.B. Several eminent British historians have stated that Captain Durand was in fact the famed Charles Alexandre Léon Durand Linois, who achieved many successes against the British. This is clearly incorrect given Linois’ other employment at the time, and the fact that by the date of the action, he was already a capitaine de vaisseau and not a lieutenant de vaisseau, which was the rank applied to Durand of the Unité.
My thanks to Professor Kenneth Johnson, Olivier Aranda, and Thomas Gerhardsen Moine for their help in identifying the correct Captain Durand!