The Incredible Heroism of Midshipman Patton of the Niger – 27 April 1796
On 27 April, the twelve-pounder frigate Niger 32, Captain Edward Foote, was cruising off the Penmarcks under the orders of Vice-Admiral John Colpoys, with whose squadron she had departed St. Helens a fortnight earlier, when she fell in with a large French lugger. This vessel would prove to be the Ecureuil, carrying eighteen 4-pounder cannons and having one hundred and five men aboard.
By sunset, the Niger had chased the Ecureuil into a small creek called Guillenet, where the French assumed that they would be safe. Undeterred, and resolving to pursue the chase to a conclusion, Captain Foote sent his jolly boat ahead under the third lieutenant, Thomas Thompson, to take soundings and direct a passage for the frigate through the rocks.
At 8 p.m., being in a depth of five fathoms, the Niger anchored with a spring on her cable some fifteen hundred yards from the confounded enemy. For over seventy minutes she poured an ineffective long-range fire into the Ecureuil, at the conclusion of which, and with the tide ebbing, Captain Foote decided that his better option was to send in a boarding party to bring the lugger off, or if that proved not possible, to set her on fire. Mr Thompson and the senior lieutenant, George Long, were dispatched in the barge and cutter, together with midshipmen Jeremiah Morgan and James Patton, the latter a fifteen-year-old youth of singular determination.
Upon fighting his way aboard the lugger Patton suffered a severe injury to the head, but rather than incapacitating him, the appalling wound appeared to spur him onto superhuman behaviour. A French officer who got in his way was hoisted into the air and pitched overboard, but then having second thoughts, the youth jumped down into one of the boats alongside, rowed across to the drowning Frenchman, and hauled him aboard. Meanwhile the rest of the boarding party overcame the fierce resistance of crew, killing three men, wounding one, capturing a further twenty-five, and forcing more than seventy to make good their escape ashore. The boats were back on board with the prisoners by 10.20, and having been set on fire, the grounded lugger blew up at half past midnight.
In addition to Patton, Mr Long, with a severe wound to the head and hand was one of the six other British casualties, the majority of whom suffered only light wounds. On returning to the Niger, Patton was taken below under the surgeon’s knife, and a piece of skull measuring an inch and a half by three quarters was cut away. Captain Foote’s dispatch from the Penmarks, dated 27 April, mentioned the wounds suffered by his officers, but failed to detail the heroic efforts of young Patton.
Sadly, the assault on the lugger proved to be the highlight of Patton’s career, for shortly afterwards he joined the East India Company, and it was in their employment that he was killed when falling from a horse onto that part of his head which had been so severely wounded in the boarding of the Ecureuil.