INTERNED in Paris, Admiral Rodney, Britain’s ablest naval officer, was moored far from mast or sail, an admiral without a sea. Frantic in disuse, he tried through friends to be recalled for a private audience with the King, in vain. He wrote to his wife urging her to plead his cause with Sandwich in person and to send his son to speak to Lord North. Sandwich refused to receive Lady Rodney, replying to her letter that it would be politically impossible to give her husband active employment until he had discharged his debts to private creditors and to the Exchequer, referring, it may be supposed, to expenses like the greatcoats for the Greenwich Hospital pensioners, charged to the navy. In an unnecessarily mean letter to the King, Sandwich wrote, “If Sir George Rodney should from his indigence have any temptation to make advantage of purchasing stores or anything else of that sort, he will have no means of doing it at present, as there will be a Commissioner on the spot through whose hands all that business must be transacted.” It was this kind of action that formed his contemporaries’ dislike and generally low opinion of Sandwich as a man. When Rodney was later recalled to active duty, an Admiralty Commissioner was indeed assigned to him to make sure he did not use his post for personal enrichment. No one knew more about taking advantage of purchasing than Sandwich himself, up to his elbows in jobbery throughout his career. Since graft was a way of life to English officials, it is hard to understand why, if the Navy Board found indebtedness so shocking, they made it virtually incumbent on Rodney by paying only half the salary due his rank, possibly on the pretext of his residence abroad. If the Navy Board would “deliver but half of what is due to me as Rear-Admiral of England,” he wrote to his wife in April, 1778, “it would be sufficient to satisfy every body and there would be money to spare besides.” In his letters, he pointed out rather logically that employment was the only method by which he could both serve his country and honorably discharge his debts. Certainly Sandwich seems to have borne some kind of grudge. To leave in disuse at this juncture of renewed war the most dynamic sailor in the Royal Navy, as Rodney was soon dramatically to prove himself, and one moreover willing to serve under Sandwich as First Lord, when most officers at this time, owing to the Keppel affair, were not, was hardly in the national interest. The given reason was that Rodney was too bellicose and likely to allow himself some action that would add Spain to the war, but this seems not to have been a very real fear, for the British were always making slighting remarks about Spain’s lack of enterprise and avoidance of any offensive action in the Channel when, having numerical superiority in combination with France, she had the opportunity for it.
In Paris, Rodney—receiving no messages or remittances—wrote in agony of mind to his wife, “Delays are worse than death, especially at this critical time when every hour teems with momentary expectation of war.” A French squadron, he reports, has sailed at the end of January for America along with a convoy of 13 sail and 2 ships of war “belonging to the Congress of twenty-eight guns each who saluted the French Admiral under Congress colours and had their salute openly and publicly returned, by which France seems to own them as a Republic—the greatest insult they could offer us.”
Besides the agony of inaction, Rodney was now in acute embarrassment for living expenses. At this moment an unexpected hand of friendship was extended to him, so unexpected and from so unlikely a source as to seem unreal. A French nobleman, the Maréchal Duc de Biron, Marshal of France, Colonel of the Gardes Françaises and commander of the troops of Paris, having heard of his enforced detention, proposed, Rodney wrote, “that his purse was at my service,” saying that “whatever sum I might want, even to £2,000 he would immediately let me have,” and the English friends in whose home the proposal was made would be asked to inform certain bankers to advance the sum which the Maréchal would pay. After Rodney’s initial reluctance to accept such astonishing generosity, the Duc de Biron assured him in the hearing of the English guests present “that it was not a French gasconnade but an offer of pure friendship and regard,” that “all France was sensible of the services I had rendered my country and that the treatment they all knew I had received was a disgrace to the nation and to its ministers” and that the Maréchal would be extremely happy if he were allowed to make this proof of his “esteem and good will” in order that “I may leave Paris without being reproached.” The Frenchman’s offer was made in May, after the French alliance was concluded with the American rebels but before France’s actual declaration of war on Britain. Biron certainly knew that he was releasing a formidable opponent, for he was reproached by many of his countrymen for doing so when his intervention became known. It was on this occasion that he consulted the French Chef de Cabinet Maurepas, who thought the matter of no great consequence because naval combat in his opinion was “piff poff.” Biron also went to Versailles to ask the King’s permission to give Rodney his freedom. “Je vous envie d’avoir eu cette idée,” the King replied, according to Biron family records. “Elle est Française et digne de vous.” (I wish I had had your idea. It is French and worthy of you.) If it was French, it was perhaps a reflection of medieval chivalry in which fellow-knights felt joined by brotherhood in the transnational chivalric order and more obligated to each other than to any other loyalty.
The Duc de Biron belonged to the Gontaut-Lauzun family, one-time partisans of the usurper Henri Quatre of Navarre. An ancestor, Charles de Biron, was named Admiral and Marshal of France before he suffered the common fate of prominence too close to a King. On being accused of conspiracy and tried for treason, he was beheaded by order of the erratic monarch he served. The family nevertheless prospered in royal service and by Rodney’s time had acquired an excess of riches, judging by the startling expenditures of Biron’s nephew Armand Louis de Gontaut, born 1747, who took the title Duc de Lauzun. He is recorded as having bought a colonelcy for 1.5 million livres (then worth about $400,000). His mansion was the present Ritz Hotel. He spent 1,337 livres and 10 sous for half a box at the opera, 1,500 for half a box at the Théâtre des Italiens and the same for a box at the Comédie Française. In between theatrical distractions and keeping count of amours that seemed likely to match Leporello’s proud record for Don Giovanni in Spain of “a thousand and three,” he applied himself to the subject of the day by writing a treatise on The Defenses of England and All Her Possessions in the Four Quarters of the World. Whether or not impressed by his subject, he became one of the young nobles who volunteered to fight in the American Revolution and was to take an active part in the Yorktown campaign. Elected in 1789 a deputy to the Estates General as a partisan of the Revolution, he commanded the Revolutionary Army of the Rhine but, in the course of factional struggles, suffered the fate of his ancestor and met death on the guillotine in 1793.
Because Rodney had been heard to boast that he could deal with the French fleet if free to go back to England, and because English newspapers were implying that the French were keeping Rodney from the front because of his military talent, it has been suggested that Biron’s generosity may have been moved as much by national pique as by chivalry. Whatever his motive, the sense of warmth and esteem it offered Rodney after the neglect by his own compatriots, and the prospect of release from Paris, came at a critical moment, for, as he writes, his passport had expired and the creditors had grown so “clamorous” that he risked being sued or worse, for they were only held back by the police and by the visits of “those great families whose attentions kept my creditors from being so troublesome as they otherwise would have been.” “For more than a month past,” he wrote to his wife on May 6, he had not had a letter from anyone “but Mr. Hotham and yourself.” Such astonishing neglect by his friends at home seems to suggest that Rodney was not very popular in his own circle in England, which makes all the more striking the puzzling contrast with the remarkable kindness and generosity of the Duc de Biron’s offer and the hospitable attentions of the “great families” of Paris—unless the explanation may be that the French derived a perverse pleasure in finding themselves aiding an enemy in distress, especially an English enemy.
On the same May 6 on which he acknowledged the absence of any message from England, Rodney, understandably depressed, dropped his scruples and accepted Biron’s offer to advance him 1,000 louis, satisfying all creditors. On his return to England in May, 1778, money to repay the loan was raised by Drummond’s Bank, whose director Henry Drummond was a relative of Rodney’s first wife. When this gentleman learned the circumstances, he arranged to cancel the debt. Rodney’s more pressing need of active employment was left hanging for yet another year, on the ground that the major commands in America and the West Indies and of the Grand Fleet had been filled. In fact, this was not true. At a time when Spain’s belligerency was anticipated and the combined Bourbon enemies were preparing for assault, Rodney was passed over as successor to Keppel for command of the Grand Fleet in favor of Sir Charles Hardy, one of the superannuated admirals whom Sandwich was scraping from the bottom of the barrel like last season’s dried apples when more active flag officers would not accept appointments, fearing to be made scapegoat if anything went wrong. Taken out of comfortable retirement at Greenwich Hospital, Hardy had not been at sea for twenty years. “Does the people at home think the nation in no danger?” wrote a senior captain of the Grand Fleet to a colleague while under Sir Charles Hardy’s limp command. “I must inform you the confused conduct here is such that I tremble for the event. There is no forethought … we are every day from morning to night plagued and puzzled in minutiae while essentials are totally neglected.… My God, what have you great people done by such an appointment?” Political division in the navy, besides setting comrades against each other, had injured the service by narrowing the choice of flag officers, and even of the Navy Board, to old and tired veterans, weak in health and spirit, the relics of better days.
Nature took care of the problem, when in May, 1780, after a year of the too heavy responsibility, Sir Charles Hardy died. The sigh of relief was short, for Hardy’s successor, when Admiral Barrington refused the command, was the seventy-year-old Admiral Francis Geary, another withered apple, whom an officer described as “wholly debilitated in his faculties, his memory and judgment lost, wavering and indeterminate in everything.” In three months Geary was not dead but exhausted, reporting that he could not get out of bed in the morning and sending his doctor’s opinion confirming his request for leave. When Barrington, who was second in command, again refused to move up, the Admiralty searched its own premises for an officer not likely to collapse, and found a member of the Admiralty’s Board in his fifties, Vice-Admiral Darby, willing to take the command.
While Rodney had been held idle, a scramble in the West Indies had taken place when the French, after the stalemate at Ushant, redirected their offensive against British commerce from the Caribbean. By aggressive troop landings, they captured Dominica, lying between Martinique and Guadeloupe, giving them a strong position in the middle of the Leeward and Windward islands. At the same time, the British took back Ste. Lucie, which Rodney always considered the key base from which to observe Fort Royal in Martinique. In the following summer of 1779, more islands fell with the French capture of St. Vincent near the middle of the Windward chain and of Grenada at the bottom.
When Spain joined France against Britain in June, 1779, both powers had reached the conclusion that defeat of their common enemy could best be realized by attack on the heart rather than on the limbs; by direct invasion of the home islands rather than assault on her sea-lanes and wide-flung colonies, reaching across the world from Ceylon to Jamaica. The invasion was planned for the summer of 1779 with a combined fleet of 66, far greater strength than the 45 ships that Britain could muster in the Channel for defense. What saved her was a worse case of French ministerial indecision and sloppy management than her own. Correspondence between Versailles and Madrid had been under way since December, but coordination of the fleets and commanders was on paper, not in practice, which proved a serious flaw. D’Orvilliers, the French commander, sailed for the rendezvous under hurried orders the first week in June and was not joined by the main Spanish fleet until July 23, by which time he had been cruising for six weeks doing nothing, with ships already short of provisions and water. They were poorly manned, he complained, with “mediocre captains,” of whom there is “a still greater number on this cruise than in the last one.” Sickness, which had already taken a terrible toll among the Spaniards, was spreading among his crews. Further time was lost in the translation of signal books and orders which had not been prepared in peace time. Conscious of too little joint experience to expect good maneuvering, D’Orvilliers wrote that he would have to place his hopes on “bravery and firmness.”
Alarm gripped England as people caught sight of the white-winged herd of enemy sails coming up the Channel. A Royal Proclamation ordered horses and cattle to be withdrawn from the coasts, booms to be placed across harbors, troops to be encamped on the south coast. Weather again came to the aid of the English, not like the storm that had scattered the Armada of Philip II but its opposite—a calm that held the enemy motionless within sight of Plymouth. The situation of the French fleet, D’Orvilliers reported, “becomes worse every day” because of the epidemic of sickness and the dwindling water supply. On top of this, a frigate arrived bringing a total change of orders for a landing at Falmouth, on the coast of Cornwall, instead of on the Isle of Wight as was the original plan. Furthermore, D’Orvilliers was told that the King wished the fleet to remain at sea “for several months” and that a supply convoy was “about to leave” Brest to meet him. To change a vast plan of operations at the last moment when army and navy were already at sea was hardly a sensible procedure. To postpone action when supplies were running out and “this terrible epidemic” was weakening his ships was, D’Orvilliers was forced to say, “very unfortunate,” and to expose fleets at sea during the autumn and winter was likewise. It was clear, wrote a personage of the court, the Duc de Chatelet, to the commandant at Havre, that the ministry had decided to “risk at all hazards … some sort of expedition against England in order to fulfill the engagement to Spain.” The court had been unable to come to a decision, reflecting the same “ignorance and vacillation” of our ministers who have “behaved like weak-minded people who never know what they want to do until the moment comes to do it.…” Under these circumstances, with the death rate on the Spanish ships leaving them virtually helpless, the invasion was called off in the fall of 1779 and the combined fleet dispersed. England was spared by act of God, if not by the navy, from what might have been the first invasion since the Normans of 1066.
At this late stage, in October, 1779, at a time of many threats, when Spain together with France was besieging Gibraltar and the Armed Neutrality League was showing hostility and the Dutch were considering adhering to it, Rodney, because of his reputation as an aggressive sailor, was taken back into active service. Since he did not belong to the political Opposition but supported the government in believing that “coercion of the colonies was perfectly just,” he had obtained his long-awaited audience with the King, who promised him an early appointment. Now, having been left to molder a year in London when no other officer of repute would serve under Sandwich, he was offered command of the Leeward Islands station and Barbados. Relief of Gibraltar, near exhaustion of its last supplies, was to be his immediate mission.
Anxiety for the great gate of the Mediterranean, England’s most important foothold on the Continent, was acute. With time pressing at his back, Rodney hastened at once to Portsmouth to prepare the fleet to make sure of seaworthy ships and full crews. He found working conditions and discipline there revealing, according to his biographer, an “extraordinary want of diligence in the different public departments,” and an “absence of proper zeal and activity in the officers of his fleet who were almost all strangers to him; and many of whom behaved to him with a marked disrespect and want of cordiality.”
Their attitude was political, for Rodney was known as a supporter of the government and of the war against the Americans. Feelings on this subject had become heated and divisive to the point of a civil war in opinion, strongly felt in the navy. In a recent diatribe, Opposition speakers in Parliament denounced the “pernicious system of government” as having brought the navy in home waters to a condition “superlatively wretched” and Britain, as they claimed, to “confusion, discord and ruin.” More than wretched, the navy was very far from the level prescribed by the unwritten rule that the British Navy must be kept at least as strong as the combined forces of France and Spain. As First Lord, Sandwich bore the blame.
Feeling the cold wind of public disfavor and threat of losing office, Parliament responded to the King’s plea in his speech from the throne in November, 1779, for more vigorous prosecution of the war by voting added subsidy for mercenaries and a draft of 25,000 seamen and 18,000 marines for the navy. Through a shower of complaints about delays and indiscipline, Rodney was able at least to put together a fleet fit for sea. He suffered a final frustration from westerly winds followed by a “stark calm” that held him in port for about two weeks, while Sandwich nagged when he felt a breeze in London: “For God’s sake go to sea without delay. You cannot conceive of what importance it is to yourself, to me and to the public that you should not lose this fair wind.” At last a wind blew through Portsmouth and on December 24, 1779, Rodney was able to sail to the encounter that would make him the hero of the hour.
He led a great fleet of 22 ships of the line, 8 frigates and 66 storeships and transports loaded together with a convoy of no fewer than 300 merchantmen bringing the trade to the West Indies. With his long train of followers that stretched over miles of ocean, he sailed south into the Atlantic, heading for the coast of Spain. En route he came upon a Spanish convoy on its way to supply the besieging force at Gibraltar. When the Spaniards in greatly inferior force surrendered without a fight, he took over the 54-gun escort, 6 frigates and 16 supply ships, which, with their cargo, were added to his train. Sailing on, he sighted on January 16 a Spanish squadron off Cape St. Vincent, on the coast of Portugal just north of Cádiz. It was lying in wait to intercept the Gibraltar relief force, of which the Spaniards had been warned. With only 11 ships of the line and 2 frigates, half the size of Rodney’s fleet, the Spaniards should have run for safety to Cádiz. Now, facing Rodney’s numbers, they chose to seek shelter in some harbor of the Cape.
Rodney, commanding from his cabin where he was lying ill with gout, chased them through the night under a rising moon until 2 a.m. Not to be deprived of a triumph while bedridden, he took a decision of instant boldness that few but he would have dared. With a hard gale blowing, giving promise of a storm, he raised the signal to engage to leeward—that is, to come between the enemy and the land, with the object of preventing the Spaniards from running to safety into a harbor. Leeward was a helpless position that every captain would normally avoid, with the added danger, in this case, of darkness and being dashed on the rocks by the rising storm. No council of war in advance had prepared his captains for any such unorthodox action, apart from his giving them all notice “upon my approaching the said Cape to prepare for battle.” Unlike Nelson, Rodney did not believe in holding conference and making friends with his officers. The risk he took in the moonlight depended on his own seamanship and his officers’ belief in him. Considering their attitude at Portsmouth, this appeared less than solid. Perhaps his boldness now inspired belief. They followed him, hoisting all their canvas for maximum speed and jettisoning barrels and lumber overboard to lighten weight.
The “brilliant rush” of the English fleet swept toward the shore while the light of the now full moon showed the fleeing Spaniards “flying for Cadiz like a shoal of frightened porpoises” pursued by sharks. Rodney told his sailing master to pay no attention to the smaller merchantmen but to lay him alongside the largest, “the admiral if there be one.” The Admiral’s ship proved to be the 80-gun Fenix, flagship of Don Juan de Langara, the Spanish commander who struck his flag along with five others. Another Spanish ship blew up with a tremendous explosion and four were taken, entangled with the English in the shoals. With the twilight falling in the short light of January, and the wind at gale force, Rodney had to put crews aboard the prize while keeping his fleet off the rocks. In the morning he could count possession of six enemy warships of the line, including the Admiral’s flagship and the Admiral himself as prisoner. Three more of the enemy line were wrecked on the rocks. Only two of Langara’s squadron escaped. Not forgetting his relief mission, in the midst of his triumph Rodney sent frigates to inform the consul at Tangier that Britain now held the Straits and provisions must be sent across to Gibraltar at once. Through storm wind and a heavy sea he reached the Straits, drove off the blockading squadron and anchored off the Rock, where he found the garrison and inhabitants on short rations close to starvation, with sentries posted at every store to prevent assault on the last produce on the shelves. After supplying Gibraltar and, beyond it, Minorca, with two years’ supply of stores and provisions, Rodney sailed for the Caribbean while cutters hastened back to London with the glorious news of Gibraltar’s relief and the tale of the moonlight battle.
Rodney’s numerical superiority at Cape St. Vincent reduced the victory from the heroic scale, but it was intrepidity and perfect command that brought him glory. Horace Mann, Walpole’s faithful correspondent, wrote from Florence that Rodney’s victory “caught like wild fire about the town” and Mann received congratulations from everyone he met. Rodney was greeted at home as the rescuer not only of Gibraltar but of the honor of the navy and, more than that, the honor of the flag. Guns were fired from the Tower of London and fireworks blazed for two nights running. “Everybody almost adores you,” wrote his eldest daughter, “and every mouth is full of your praise.” It was impossible to describe, wrote his wife, “the general applause that is bestowed upon you; or to mention the number of friends who have called to congratulate me on this happy event.” Many of them without doubt were the same friends who had left him without a word when he was down and out in Paris. How quick is the leap to catch on to the coattails of success! Rodney’s reward was the rather ephemeral gift of the thanks of Parliament, voted by both Houses, and the freedom of the City of London presented in a gold casket. More gratifying was his election unopposed on the floodtide of his victory as M.P. for the borough of Westminster.
Later, Rodney’s flag captain, Walter Young, claimed that he himself had given the order to chase and engage to leeward and that Rodney, because of the ill state of his health and his “natural irresolution,” had tried to call off the ships from the chase. Confined to his bed, Rodney had obviously had to rely on someone else’s sight of the situation, but Sir Gilbert Blane, the fleet physician, testified that the Admiral had discussed the leeward course with Young at sunset, when it was then decided on. Irresolution was not a characteristic that could credibly be attributed to Rodney. The order for a leeward course would have had to come from the Admiral and the action be his responsibility. That there had been no confusion and no hanging back by the captains indicated that much. In his report, Rodney expressed himself highly pleased by the promptitude and bravery of “all ranks and ratings” and by the advantage of coppered bottoms, which made it possible to bring the enemy to action. “Without them we should not have taken one Spanish ship.”
Sandwich wrote congratulations on the naval combat in terms which, in view of his earlier abandonment of Rodney, can only be described by use of the modern word “crust”: “The worst of my enemies now allow that I have pitched upon a man who knows his duty and is a brave, honest, and able officer.” Having been informed by one of Rodney’s captains, Sir John Ross, that our expedition “in nine weeks [had] taken from the enemy 36 sail of merchant ships valued by them at a million sterling and nine sail of the line [and] have supplied the garrisons of Gibraltar and Mahon with two years’ of provisions and stores of all kinds,” Sandwich at least had the decency to add that he hoped “to prevail on his Majesty to give some more substantial proofs of his approbation.” This he did, and the coming reward was to be ample.
News of the victory of Cape St. Vincent evoked from Horace Walpole an odd comment that does not quite seem to fit the occasion. “It is almost my systematic belief,” he wrote to the Reverend William Cole, another of his regular correspondents, “that as cunning and penetration are seldom exerted for good ends, it is the absurdity of mankind that … carries on and maintains the equilibrium that heaven designed should subsist.” Inapplicable to the Moonlight Battle, as it was soon everywhere known, Walpole’s remark was presumably intended as a philosophic maxim on human affairs rather than a reference to Rodney. “Adieu my dear Sir,” he concluded, “shall we live to lay down our heads in peace?” John Adams, too, felt peace to be elusive. With a bold and enterprising naval captain in action, he saw the British desire for a settlement receding, because “naval victories excite them to a frenzy.” Adams, as he often did, put his finger on the spot, for what Rodney achieved by the Moonlight Battle and the relief of Gibraltar was to invigorate British self-confidence, which was fatally to become overconfidence in the American war.
The prizes from Cape St. Vincent were sent back to His Majesty while Rodney himself, with four ships, set course for the Caribbean and his Leeward Island post at Ste. Lucie. He arrived in the same week that a French fleet under the Comte de Guichen came into Fort Royal at Martinique, intending with France’s revived naval powers to bring the war to the West Indies.
In this stage of the conflict, England was at a disadvantage that had not been so in the Seven Years’ War. Now she was militarily bogged down in war against the Colonies in North America, which drew strength away from support of the navy, while the reverse was true of her enemy. France, after the Peace of Paris, was relieved of continental war, which before 1763 had drawn her major strength to the army, keeping her maritime effort weak, but since then she had been pouring men and supplies, training and ship-building into the strong navy by which she hoped to prevail over Britain. In 1778, when France formally declared war, she had 75 to 80 ships of the line and 50 frigates, ships that were newer, better designed and faster than the British. Spain added 60 more of the line, although, like Italy in World War I, Spain’s uncertain will to fight made her as an ally as much a hindrance as help. Against the Bourbon allies, Britain had 69 ships of the line of which only 35 were seaworthy and 11 were in American waters, far from parity with the combined fleets of France and Spain.
Aggressive French designs on the Leeward Islands were to bring Rodney within a few months of his triumph at Gibraltar to the most disappointing battle of his career. Happily, to balance the blow, although it never obliterated the sting, great good fortune met him at Ste. Lucie when he returned to the Antilles after Gibraltar in March, 1780. The good news was a letter of congratulations from Lord Sandwich officially informing him that the King had conferred on him an annual pension of £2,000 and, more important, that after his death the pension would continue in the form of annual payments of £500 to his widow, £1,000 to his eldest son and £100 each to his other son and four daughters “to continue during each of their respective lives.” Relieving him of his worst anxieties for his family, the award also removes from history the force of the frequent argument that the money of St. Eustatius afterward bewitched Rodney into forgetting his duty at sea. The pension gave him ease of mind, he wrote to his wife rather too confidently. “All I want is to pay off my debts as soon as possible … Let me be clear of all demands, and our income will be more than sufficient to live as we ought, and to save money.” It was not to be that easy, for in the end the several lawsuits brought against him by the merchants of St. Eustatius and St. Kitts whose goods he had confiscated were to keep him in financial need for the rest of his life. That distress, however, could not be foreseen to spoil his newfound good fortune. At first notice, the pension reawakened the old yearning for membership in the one Club above all others, the House of Commons. Not yet informed of his election for Westminster, he raised the question with Lord George Germain. “To be out of Parliament,” he wrote, “is to be out of the world, and my heart is set upon being in.” And to Sandwich he confessed the same desire, writing that “the happy situation in my affairs” would not only discharge his debts but be sufficient “to spare a sum of money if necessary to bring me into Parliament.”
While he was en route from Gibraltar, news had been learned from escaped British sailors who had been prisoners in Brest that a strong French squadron of 15 to 20 sail of the line, with transports carrying 15,000 troops, had sailed for the West Indies. The object, after picking up one or two extra sail at Fort Royal, was to deliver Barbados where the British held 2,000 French prisoners and to recapture Ste. Lucie. Rodney saw an opportunity for a major, perhaps decisive blow. Never content with the parade tactics and ceremonious duels of his era and never a slave of Fighting Instructions, he believed in fighting for serious results. “The objective from which his eye never wandered,” as Mahan appreciates, “was the French fleet,” the organized force of the enemy at sea. This was indeed the crux. As long as French naval power had access to America as an ally and was able to furnish the rebels with men, arms and especially money, they would not be defeated. From the hour of the French alliance, British strategy should have made the blocking of France from America her primary aim. There was no cabinet decision that ever made this explicit nor orders to seagoing commanders to make it a primary concern. Ultimately the time came when the private loot of St. Eustatius and the public duty of protecting the overvalued West Indies, for which as Commander-in-Chief of the Leewards Rodney felt responsible, blurred his vision. Rodney’s eye did waver, and in a critical moment of bad judgment, strategic purpose was set aside.
Rodney’s plan for action in the West Indies in 1780 was a plan for breaking the line as envisaged by John Clerk in the harbor of Edinburgh. It was an unorthodox movement in which all of his ships at once, instead of section by section down the line, would fall upon and destroy the French center and rear before the van was engaged. The plan was explained to his captains in advance, but as it was contrary to Fighting Instructions, it was evidently not understood or else, as Rodney was later to charge, deliberately disobeyed for sinister political reasons.
Once again, the unregenerate signaling system that had not been changed for a hundred years was to ruin what could have been a decisive fleet action. On the theory that, for the sake of comprehension, flags should be kept as few and as simple as possible, the system was primitive. The rule was that signal flags should be hoisted only one at a time, so that varieties of meaning could only be indicated by adding pennants or by the flag’s position on a mast or to which mast it was attached. Given these limitations, a flag usually called by a number for one or another of the Fighting Instructions. Unless his plan were very carefully explained, which was not his habit, Rodney could not count on prompt and accurate response when discipline was lax.
On April 17, 1780, the English and French fleets sighted each other off the coast of Martinique. Gaining the wind in the morning, with his ships in close order while the French were strung out, Rodney, believing himself on the edge of a crushing victory, prepared to execute his surprise. Instead of the grand design he had laid out, the British system of signals virtually ensured that the captains would be bewildered. To indicate his intentions, Rodney had to raise signal 21, from Additional Fighting Instructions. A sport in regular tactics, signal 21 meant for each ship to bear down and steer for her opposite in the enemy line. It was made by flying the signal flag from the main topgallant mast in conjunction with firing a gun, not the most precise message when in the midst of action. The tired captains, puzzled by unorthodox maneuver, took off in individual disorder, some bearing down on the van as would have been normal, others, unsure of what to do, following each other against the wrong section in the French line, leaving their Admiral unsupported and his plan a shambles. For an hour he fought alone until his flagship was so hurt—with eighty shot in her hull, three below the waterline, with main- and mizzen-masts broken, sails gaping with holes, her main spar dangling uselessly like a broken limb—that for the next twenty-four hours she could barely be kept afloat, and Rodney had to shift to another ship of the rear division. Others of his ships were so badly damaged in the mělée that two of them sank afterward in the bay. Neither fleet having gained its object, they separated. In the fury of his disappointment, Rodney in private correspondence accused his subordinates of “barefaced disobedience to orders and signals” in a plot to discredit him and, through him, the government in the hope of turning them out of office. At long distance it seems possible that the disobedience arose as much from misunderstanding of unusual procedure so contrary to the sacred rule of line ahead as from politics.
More restrained in his official report to the Admiralty, Rodney felt compelled to inform their Lordships, “with concern inexpressible mixed with indignation,” that the British flag “was not properly supported.” Even that was too much for the Admiralty, which deleted this passage from publication of the report in the Gazette. Rodney’s private charges of outright disobedience quickly circulated, raising an unwanted prospect, after the Keppel disruptions, of more courts-martial. Sandwich promised the “shame and punishment” of those “who have robbed you of the glory of destroying a considerable part of the naval force of France.” Rodney, loath to reopen further damage to the navy by pressing for a public inquiry, chose rather to warn his officers that no rank would screen from his wrath anyone who disobeyed signals, and that if necessary he would use frigates as messengers to ensure compliance.
In the bitterness of being deprived of his great chance that “in all probability,” as he believed, would have been “fatal to the naval power of the enemy,” Rodney was determined that the French should not get away. Guichen, his opponent, had retreated to a base at Guadeloupe and would be sure, Rodney felt, to make an early effort to regain the shelter of Fort Royal, where Rodney, despite his own damaged ships, intended to keep guard and force him again to battle. Guichen, however, holding the windward position, was not to be lured from his advantage. When sighted again some fifteen miles off Martinique in the strait between Guadeloupe and Ste. Lucie, he could have initiated action if he had wished, but avoidance was rather the French game. Intent on conserving their vessels under the French doctrine of seeking strategic results without tactical risks, the French took evasive action, the more so as they recognized in Rodney’s actions an opponent ready to adopt unexpected battle movements that they thought best to avoid. In fickle winds, each admiral engaged in trying to outmaneuver the other. Guichen, with expert seamanship, managed to put himself in position either to enter Fort Royal or attack Ste. Lucie, while Rodney’s endeavor was to gain the wind in order to bring him to combat before Guichen could do either. To carry out his threat of closer command over his captains, he shifted his flag to a frigate. He believed they were “thunderstruck” by this resolution. “My eye was more to be dreaded than the enemy’s cannon.… It is inconceivable,” he told Sandwich afterward, “in what awe it kept them.” He was never shy in appreciation of his own efforts. Not content, he informed his captains more directly of the nature of command. “The painful task of thinking,” he told them, “belongs to me. You need only obey orders implicitly without question.”
For fourteen days and nights, with cannon loaded and slow match lighted, the opponents maneuvered for position, so near to each other that “neither officers nor men could be said to have had sleep.… The greatness of the object,” Rodney wrote to Sandwich, “enabled my mind to support what my strength of body was scarce equal to.” He did not go to bed during the fourteen days and nights: Only “when the fleet was in perfect order, I stole now and then an hour’s sleep upon the cabin floor.” Rodney liked to dramatize himself; in fact, when his ship was stripped for action, his furniture would be stored in the hold and his cabin transformed into an extension of the gun deck.
Further endeavors during the next six weeks to bring the French to action were unavailing.
Despite his own damaged ships with top masts shattered and leaking hulls, Rodney persisted in his pursuit, discovering as he sailed that Guichen, under orders to bring the trade convoy back to Europe, had withdrawn his fleet from the West Indies to return home. In one more “piff poff,” the campaign of 1780 in the West Indies had closed ahead of the hurricane season in early fall with no great advantage to either side, except that the presence and imminent threat of Rodney’s fleet checked the French from further offensives against the islands.
The withdrawal freed Rodney from anxiety for the fate of the Leewards under his command but not from his rage over the blundered battle, which had spoiled “that glorious opportunity perhaps never to be recovered of terminating the naval contest in these seas.” He craved a renewed opportunity for decisive action. Just at this time he learned from a captured American ship that a French squadron of 7 liners escorting troop ships had been sent to America to aid the rebels. This was de Ternay’s squadron bringing Rochambeau’s army. Perceiving that the added enemy would outnumber the British at New York and gain superiority in American waters, Rodney decided he must go to New York to save the situation. During his enforced idleness in Paris, he had kept his mind at work in studying a strategy for America, where he believed the war was being badly mishandled. He had formulated his thoughts in a letter to Sandwich in 1778, soon after France had entered the war. No copy is extant, but references by himself and others indicate that, first of all, Rodney believed in the necessity of viewing Britain’s conflicts as a whole, as a single war with a united plan for all its forces and a specific aim. Based on his recognition that French aid to the rebel colonies would now be a decisive factor, he advised that England’s effort should be to keep the French busy in the West Indies, so that they could not spare ships or men to intervene in America, and that during the hurricane months, when operations in the Caribbean were static, he should take his fleet to the American coast and, by uniting all available resources there, crush the rebellion. Sandwich had acknowledged and approved, or wrote Rodney a letter to that effect, but in fact England did not have enough ships to spare for action in the West Indies to keep the French busy.
While Rodney prepared for his venture, his friend Wraxall, who spent much time with him at his residence in Cleveland Row just before he left for America, found him “naturally sanguine and confident” and repeatedly prone to talk too much about himself.
The only change the British war ministers made was to name a new Commander-in-Chief of British forces in America. Sir William Howe, whose heart was not in the fight, was replaced by Sir Henry Clinton, who was not an improvement. The appointment of Clinton—a cousin of the Duke of Newcastle, manager-in-chief of political patronage—was not unrelated to his having the right “connections.” It gave direction of the war in the field to a man of neurotic temperament, whose constant hesitation always made him reach decisions too late for the event that required them.
Within three months of his appointment in May, 1778, Clinton’s survey of the elements of the situation—its immense geography, the fixed resolve of the rebels on nothing less than independence, as the Carlisle Commission was just then discovering, and the absence of active support by a large and eager body of Loyalists which the British had counted upon—left the new Commander-in-Chief with little enthusiasm and no illusions. Almost his first act, as he tells in his postwar narrative, was to solicit the King for leave to resign, on the ground of the “impracticability” of the war. Refused in his request, Clinton became as unhappy in his function as Lord North was in the premiership, not so much from North’s sense of personal unfitness for the post as from recognition, like Pitt’s before him, that the war was unwinnable. The means were too limited for the task. He complained of delay in promised reinforcements, which left him without adequate forces and “without money, provisions, ships or troops adequate to any beneficial purpose,” while being constantly prodded for more vigorous action here, there, or anywhere by Lord Germain, the war minister at home, his ministerial chief whom Clinton disliked and distrusted.
“For God’s sake, My Lord,” he wrote in one exasperated outburst, “if you wish me to do anything, leave me to myself and let me adapt my efforts to the hourly change of circumstances.” By September, 1780, he writes flatly to Germain his opinion of the “utter impossibility of carrying on the war without reinforcement.” This was wishing for the moon. Imperial Britain did not have the population to match the extent of her dominion, nor the funds to spend on more mercenaries, whose further employment would, in any case, have risked rancorous fury in the Opposition. Reinforcements would not be forthcoming. It was the old—and ever new—condition in war of ambitions outreaching resources.
Believing his field army in New York to be too few in numbers (which seems to have been a case of nerves, since he well knew that Washington’s army, suffering from shortages and mutinies, could not attack), and alarmed by “threatening clouds … which begin to gather in all quarters,” Clinton became prey to “the deepest uneasiness” and, like Lord North, repeatedly peppered the King with his wish to be relieved of the chief command and to turn it over to Lord Cornwallis, who was conducting the campaign in the South. Now in his uneasiness he not merely asked, but “implored” His Majesty to be relieved of the high command, and on a third occasion, his plea becomes a “prayer” for release. Though he was clearly not a general for the bold offensives wanted by the King, he was retained. King George, in his passionate conviction of righteous conquest and confidence in bold action, was left to depend for his chief lieutenants, one in the political and one in the military field, on a pair of reluctant coachmen, each of whom wished only to let go of the reins and descend from the coachman’s box. That is not the way wars are won.
The most active fight in America at this time was in the southern states, where the British campaign was intended to regain the area that contained the greatest number of Loyalists in the hope of mobilizing their support. Here the most active British Army leader from whom the most was expected, Lord Cornwallis, wrote ruefully to a fellow-officer in Virginia, “Now my dear friend, what is our plan? Without one we cannot succeed.” Clinton, he told his friend, has no plan “and I assure you I am quite tired of marching about the country in quest of adventures.” Supposed to advance northward through Virginia, the campaign was halted by the capacity of Nathanael Greene, Washington’s most reliable general, to stay in the field despite defeats and to wear down the British deployed against him. Greene was carrying out a Pyrrhic strategy foreseen by an enemy, General Murray, Wolfe’s lieutenant and Governor of Quebec, who had predicted that if the business was to be decided by numbers, the enemy’s (Americans’) plan should be on the Chinese model “to lose a battle to you every week until you are reduced to nothing.”
While land warfare in America tottered along inconclusively, Rodney felt he must play a personal hand at trying to infuse some purposeful motion. He undertook the mission to America on his own authority. His commission as Commander-in-Chief of the Leeward Islands and the seas adjoining gave him virtually a free hand in the Western Hemisphere. “I flew on the wings of national enthusiasm,” he wrote to a friend, “to disappoint the ambitious designs of the French and cut off all hope from the rebellious and deluded Americans.” If delusion was anywhere, it lay with the British in their belief, which Rodney clearly shared, that the Americans had somehow been deluded into rebellion by self-serving agitators. Recognizing no fundamental movement for independence, they failed to take the Revolution seriously.
On his arrival in America in September, 1780, Rodney swept the coast of the Carolinas and moved on to New York, where his hope of reviving unity of purpose and fresh spirit was balked by Clinton’s inertia and by the resentment of the elderly and prickly Admiral Arbuthnot, commander of naval forces in America, at Rodney’s taking precedence as his superior. Arbuthnot at age seventy was another of the relics dragged out from the bottom of the barrel, and was said in one comment to be “destitute of even rudimentary knowledge of naval tactics.” Already on bad terms with Clinton, he quarreled with all the orders issued by Rodney, who found the whole southern coast exposed, with “not a single frigate to be seen from that coast [Carolina] to Sandy Hook,” while the shores were swarming with American privateers. Rodney ordered ships to be stationed off every province, “by which means 13 sail of rebel privateers have been already taken, and the trade of his Majesty’s subjects effectually protected.” A torrent of orders and counterorders flowed between the two Admirals while their angry, if beautifully phrased, complaints of each other, addressed to the First Lord, made no great gain toward the hoped-for unity.
In 1780, with the rebels’ loss of Charleston, the treason of Arnold, and the lack of funds to keep an army in the field, the British had every reason to expect the Americans to give up, and the burdensome war at last to end. Clinton thought Rodney’s arrival in America an additional calamity for the rebels, which, he stated, “has thrown [them] into a consternation” by showing Washington’s “repeated and studied declarations of a second French fleet and reinforcement to be groundless and false,” with the result of spoiling his recruitment, “for under the influence of these invented succours” he had been able to collect large numbers. Washington wanted the addition of a second division of French ships and troops to make an attempt on New York. “Your fortunate arrival upon this coast,” Clinton wrote to Rodney, has “entirely defeated such a plan.… The rebels have grown slack in their augmenting the Washington army which on the contrary has diminished very much by desertion. Thus, Sir, in a defensive view of things your coming on this coast may have proved of the most important consequences.” Clinton regretted that he could offer no encouragement for an attack on the enemy position in Rhode Island, now too strongly fortified. Instead, he thought better of an expedition into Chesapeake Bay, “as to the necessity and importance of which we both agreed,” an interesting proposal at this time that might have changed the course of the war.
It was hardly likely to come. Clinton, who was no fire-eater, preferred to blame the inactivity on the aged incapacity of Admiral Arbuthnot. With a competent admiral, he wrote a friend in England, “all might have been expected from this Campaign, but from this Old Gentleman nothing can: he forgets from hour to hour—he thinks aloud—he will not answer any of my letters.” His heart might be in the right place, “but his head is gone.” To this state the British Navy, in time of need, had reduced itself by the political quarreling that left the quarterdeck to antiques.
Prize money, so often the source of contention, appeared again as a divisive factor, because Rodney’s advent as the superior officer in the naval command in America meant Arbuthnot’s loss of the chief share in the division of prizes. “I am ashamed to mention,” Rodney reported rather sanctimoniously to the Navy Board, “what appears to me the real cause and from whence Mr. Arbuthnot’s Chagrene proceeds, but the proofs are so plain, that prize money is the Occasion.” And he forwarded verifying documents. When submitted to the King, His Majesty adjudicated the Admirals’ quarrel in favor of Rodney, whose conduct, he said, “seems as usual praiseworthy … [and] the insinuation that prize money” was the cause “seems founded.” Although both Clinton and Rodney threatened to resign unless Arbuthnot were withdrawn, the Navy Board made no move, apparently unwilling to make another enemy. Only when Arbuthnot himself offered to resign by reason of age, and perhaps also the hostility of his colleagues, was he relieved, to be replaced in 1781 in the naval command in America by a cousin of Lord North. Unable to acknowledge even now that the hour was dark, requiring something more than the husk of an ancient mariner, the Navy Board could do no better in its limited range of choices than delve into its collection of old men of the sea and select Sir Thomas Graves. At sixty-seven, considered old age in those days, he was well past his prime and past the prime, too, of combat seamanship. Graves’s main characteristic was a highly developed caution, and his career had already skated within a hair of the court-martial verdict of “negligence” such as condemned Admiral Byng, but which in Graves’s case had judiciously settled for “error of judgment.” That too can be fatal. If negative qualities can ever be said to be determining, Graves makes the point.
The worst mistake in America, in Rodney’s opinion, had been the “fatal measure” of the evacuation of Rhode Island, which Clinton had given up in October, 1779, for the sake of concentrating his forces on the southern campaign—or, as he later claimed, under the “enforced” advice of Admiral Arbuthnot, who said Rhode Island “was of no use to the Navy and he could not spare a single ship for its defense.” British departure left Newport to the French, with the serious loss of Narragansett, which Rodney called “the best and noblest harbour in America, capable of containing the whole navy of Britain” and from where, he added in a grand vision, the navy “could blockade the three capital cities of America, namely Boston, New York and Philadelphia” in 48 hours.
Rodney’s greatest frustration was the failure of his “most strenuous endeavours” to persuade his associates Clinton and Arbuthnot to undertake an offensive for the recovery of Rhode Island. Arbuthnot would not put the navy at such a risk and the animus between him and Clinton precluded any agreed-upon action. “The fleet would never see Rhode Island,” asserted a naval officer, “because the General hates the Admiral.” Clinton said it was now too late, the French on reoccupation having strongly fortified it, and while it might have been taken before with 6,000 men, it would now take 15,000, which he could not spare for fear of an expected attack by Washington’s army on New York of which he had learned from intercepted letters delivered to him by Loyalist agents. The same story of intercepted letters is told in relation to Allied plans for the final campaign. For many years, statements have circulated that they were a deliberate plant by Washington to keep Clinton paralyzed, but subsequent researches have disproved this deception by the Commander-in-Chief.
Rodney had an idea, inventive and outrageous and characteristic of his readiness for independent action without reference to orders, of how to dislodge the French from Rhode Island. In a discussion with Clinton of which Clinton kept a record, he proposed—on the assumption, as everyone believed, that another French squadron was on the way to join de Ternay, commanding the French naval forces at Newport—to let some British ships under French colors appear off Block Island at a time when the wind was fair for de Ternay to emerge, and let them be engaged in a sham fight with Arbuthnot’s ships. De Ternay would certainly come out to assist his supposed compatriots and, once lured into battle, could be effectively demolished by the combined force of Rodney’s and the New York squadrons. Clearly this was not a man who would have hesitated to use the French flag in attacking St. Eustatius. Doubtless the plan was too much for the safe turn of mind of Clinton and Arbuthnot, for nothing more was heard of it and the “noble bay” of Rodney’s visionary sweep remained in French control.
On departure from America, Rodney wrote to Sandwich to report that the war was being conducted with a “slackness inconceivable in every branch,” and taking particular note of Clinton’s inertia. Washington’s intercepted letters, whether genuine or a plant, affected Clinton like a too strong sleeping pill, holding him in a paroxysm of inaction during the next critical months, when by sending prompt reinforcements he might have blocked the coming fatality at Yorktown. But at the moment the British were not worried, because American fortunes were so low as to point to an early collapse.
The period 1779–80 that followed the sorry disappointment for the Americans of d’Estaing’s naval intervention, the loss of Charleston, and the terrible privations of the winters at Valley Forge and Morristown, deepened by the miserly aid of Congress and the absence of vigorous popular support, was the worst year of the war when the Revolution sank to its lowest point.
In discouragement close to despair, Washington wrote in December, 1779, “I find our prospects are infinitely worse than they have been at any period of the war, and that unless some expedient can be instantly adopted, a dissolution of the army for want of subsistence is unavoidable. A part of it has been again several days without bread.” Battle in the Carolinas and Georgia, in spite of local victories, had brought reverses which now threatened to split the South in fatal division from the northern colonies. Misfortune augmented in May, 1780, when the fall of Charleston, with the capture of 5,000 American soldiers and four ships, marked the heaviest defeat of the war.
In September, 1780, Washington sustained a sharper personal blow in the treason of Benedict Arnold, whose planned betrayal to the British of West Point, key to the Hudson Valley, was foiled by the chance arrest of his go-between with the British, Major André, Clinton’s aide, only hours before the keys and plans to the fortress were to be handed over.
Winter quarters of 1779–80 at Morristown, New Jersey, were more severe even than the year before at Valley Forge. Rations were reduced for already hungry men who had been shivering in the snows to one-eighth of normal quantities. Two leaders of a protest by Connecticut regiments demanding full rations and back pay were hanged to quell an uprising. In January of 1781, Pennsylvania regiments mutinied and, with troops of New Jersey, deserted to the number of half their strength before the outbreak was suppressed. At the frontiers, Indians out of the woods guided by Loyalists were burning farms and homes and massacring civilians. Even to keep an army in the field was problematical, because soldiers of the militia had to be furloughed to go home to harvest their crops, and if leave were refused, they would desert. Fighting a war in such circumstances, said General von Steuben, the army’s Prussian drillmaster, “Caesar and Hannibal would have lost their reputations.”
Washington’s desk overflowed with letters from his generals in the field, pleading their shortages of everything an army requires: food, arms, field equipment, horses and wagons for a regular system of transportation, all of which had to be taken by military requisition from the local inhabitants, rousing antagonism toward the patriot forces. “Instead of having everything in readiness to take the field,” Washington wrote in his diary of May 1, 1781, “we have nothing and instead of having the prospect of a glorious offensive campaign before us we have a bewildered and gloomy defensive one—unless we should receive a powerful aid of ships, land troops, and money from our generous allies and these, at present, are too contingent to build upon.”
To rise above, and persevere, in spite of such discouragement required a spiritual strength, a kind of nobility in Washington rare in the history of generalship. It had something of the quality of William the Silent, making the possessor the obvious and only choice for Commander-in-Chief. This quality, conveyed abroad by another genius of America, Benjamin Franklin, and by the warmth of Lafayette, persuaded Louis XVI, last leaf on the dry stem of the old regime, to attach the monarchy’s faith and fortunes to the struggle of backwoods rebels against authority and royalty, the very props that supported Louis on the throne. In the wake of Lafayette—whose charm won Washington to love him like a father and Congress to appoint him Major General, and American recruits, who did not like to serve under foreigners, to fight willingly under his command—the young nobles of France flocked to volunteer in the American battle. Restless in the boredom and vacuum of court life, where the only excitement lay in vying for a nod from an overfed King in a powdered wig or a languid wave of his hand inviting their presence at the morning ritual in his dressing room, they craved manhood in military exercise, traditionally the path to reward, and a chance to devote their valor to the magic goddess Liberty, who was opening hearts of men in the tired and quarrelsome realms of the Old World. “Government by consent of the governed,” that magic phrase promised by the American Declaration of Independence, thrilled the minds and hearts of subjects ruled for generations by the dictatorship of monarchs and nobles. The promise seemed personified by the young new nation fighting for birthright in America. Her appearance in the world, they felt, would herald a new order of liberty, equality and the rule of reason for old Europe. What higher task could there be for men of liberal mind than to dedicate their arms and fortunes to aid the coming of that event?
A more mundane desire to retaliate for the loss of Canada revived the old impulse to fight the British that had stirred in their bones ever since William the Norman found a reason for quarrel in the 11th century. The King and Vergennes, his astute and hard-driving Minister for Foreign Affairs, thought rather of keeping the Colonies’ battle alive as a military cat’s-paw in France’s power struggle against Britain. By strengthening and augmenting the rebels’ resources, they could blunt the British sword, gain for themselves the advantage in North America, and by harassing British sea power and seizing a sugar island or two, they might even break down those wooden walls to invade the British hearth.
French purpose as conceived by Vergennes was not to assist the Colonies to victory or strengthen them to a level that might lead Britain to offer a reconciliation, leaving her once more free to knit up the torn fabric of empire and again concentrate her forces against France. Rather, it was to reinforce the Colonies enough to keep their battle going and keep Britain occupied in its toil.
So it was that out of desire to replace Britain as top dog, Bourbon France, placing a large block of irony across the path of history, lent her finances, fighting men and armaments in aid of a rebellion whose ideas and principles would initiate the age of democratic revolution and, together with its drain on the French budget, would bring down the ancien régime in the tremendous fall that marked forever the change from the Old World to the modern.