The Disastrous Expedition to Leogane – 21-23 March 1796

by | Feb 17, 2023 | 1796, The French Revolutionary War 1793-1802 | 0 comments


In early March 1796, Rear-Admiral William Parker, the commander-in-chief on the Jamaican station, sailed for the island of Hispaniola to undertake further action against the enemy possessions on the western half of the island, known as Saint-Domingue, the modern-day Haiti, where the British Army already had a foothold in the coastal towns of Saint Marc, Port-au-Prince, Jérémie, and Mole Saint-Nicolas.

At the time, the situation on the island could barely have been more confusing, for whereas the British could call on French royalists and white plantation owners to supplement their forces, the enemy was a combustible mixture of French republicans, mulattos, and an army of black slaves led by the formidable Toussaint l’Overture. To make matters even more confusing, the eastern half of the island, Santo Domingo, which is now known as the Dominican Republic, had been ceded by Spain to the revolutionary French republic in the previous year.

Upon reaching Port-au-Prince, Parker, whose squadron consisted of three sail of the line, three frigates and three sloops, consulted with the Army commander-in-chief, Major-General Gordon Forbes, and a decision was taken to launch a combined assault on the fortress and port of Léogane, some twenty miles to the west. This town was regarded as an ideal base from which to conduct operations against the mulatto forces under the leadership of André Rigaud in the South Province.

Rear-Admiral William Parker

On 17 and 18 March troops from the garrison at Port-au-Prince were embarked, and on the 21st landings at Léogane took place under Colonel James Grant and Major-General Henry Bowyer, with one division being put ashore to the east of the town under the covering fire of the Ceres 32 and Lark 16, and another division to the west under the covering fire of the Iphigenia 32, Cormorant 18, and Sirène 16. Meanwhile, Parker’s flagship Swiftsure 74 cannonaded the town, whilst the Leviathan 74 and Africa 64 began a bombardment of the fortifications. Unfortunately, during the course of the day the latter ships were unable to make any great impression upon enemy defences which were far stronger than had been anticipated, and after sustaining much damage aloft the two vessels were eventually forced to withdraw with the land wind at dusk.

Meanwhile, the Army’s advance on the town had been halted by the mulatto forces ranged against it, and some time was then expended in reconnoitring the situation. Despite the realisation that the enemy force was far more numerous than had been anticipated, an attempt was made on the next day to assault the town over a ditch that had been hastily filled in. The attack proved to be a disaster, for the troops were routed with the reported loss of hundreds of men, many to the fire from an overlooking tower. A temporary battery that had been erected was soon outflanked by the enemy’s heavy artillery, and the work had to be abandoned with the loss of one six-pounder cannon and another one spiked. That night and through to the following morning the troops were re-embarked, but not without further losses, particularly amongst the rear-guard, which consisted of white colonials under the command of the Baron de Montalembert. Such was the disorder amongst the invading force that the troops reportedly took to their heels in their frantic haste to reach the embarkation points.

During their action with the fortifications, the Leviathan had lost five men killed and twelve wounded and the Africa one dead and seven wounded, and such was their damage that both ships were required to return to Jamaica for repairs. The temporary loss of the these vessels impacted greatly on what was already a shortage of naval resources, and it allowed two French squadrons to replenish their garrisons on Saint-Domingue on 12 May. The first, under the command of Commodore Henri Alexandre Thévenard, and consisting of the Fougueux 74, Wattignies 74, Vengeance 40, and Berceau 20, had originally departed from Rochefort with twelve hundred troops aboard, and the second under the command of Captain Guilleaume Thomas, consisting of the Méduse 40. Insurgente 36, Dourcereuse 20, and eight transports had originally sailed from Brest. Both squadrons were able to make their way back to France unmolested, and to make matters even worse for Admiral Parker, the Salisbury 50, Captain William Mitchell, which was in passage from Africa to Jamaica, was wrecked on the Isle of Vache off the south-west coast of Saint-Domingue on 13 May. Fortunately, early concerns that the crew had been taken prisoner at Aux Cayes were at least alleviated when it transpired that they had been rescued by a schooner.

Writing to a friend shortly afterwards, Captain John Thomas Duckworth of the Leviathan could barely have been more scathing in his assessment of the disastrous expedition against Léogane, describing it as ‘blundering and undigested’. His assertion that the British would not long be able to maintain a foothold on the island seemed astute, for because of their replenishment the French garrisons were able to hold out, whilst the ever-increasing danger from the mulatto forces under André Rigaud and the negro armies under Toussaint l’Ouverture would threaten the British footholds. To compound these threats, sickness in Lieutenant-General Ralph Abercromby’s army in the Leeward Islands prevented the planned despatch of reinforcements to Saint-Domingue, and the Navy suffered its own blow when Admiral Parker resigned his command due to his ill-health and returned to England in September, leaving the unpredictable Duckworth in temporary command of the Jamaican station.

Rear-Admiral Parker’s Squadron:

Swiftsure 74 Rear-Admiral William Parker
  Captain Robert Parker
Leviathan 74 Captain John Thomas Duckworth
Africa 64 Captain Roddam Home
Ceres 32 Captain James Newman Newman
Iphigenia 32 Captain Francis Farrington Gardner
Ambuscade 32 Captain Thomas Twysden
Cormorant 18 Commander Francis Collingwood
Sirène 16 Commander Daniel Guerin
Lark 16 Commander William Ogilvy