A Near Thing at Yorktown

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While the London ’s cannon balls were falling short, the ships of the British van, much closer to the enemy, came within musket shot and were subjected, one by one, to the diagonal fire of the French gunners. Among the reforms introduced in the navy by the Duc de Choiseul had been the formation of a corps of seamen-gunners, and this training, parallel to that of the land artillery, had begun to show results. Their policy was to aim high and seek to cripple the enemy’s masts and rigging, while their British counterparts went for the hull at close range. The carnage on deck was usually frightful, because once the hatches were closed, the gun crews could not leave their posts, and wooden walls gave scant protection.

Attacking in “a very spirited and gallant manner,” the leading ship of the British van, the Shrewsbury, met a hail of fire from the Pluton, which tore off the left leg of grizzled old Captain Mark Robinson, killed his lieutenant and fourteen of the crew, and wounded fifty-two. “All its running rigging and sails,” says the official report of damages, “were shot to pieces.” One broadside brought down the main topmast; others almost severed the foremast in three places, the mizzenmast in two. At 8:05 P.M.. the Shrewsbury made the signal of distress, no longer being able to keep its place.

The second ship, Intrepid, whose Captain Molloy bravely tried to cover the Shrewsbury, was even more roughly handled by the Marseillois. She was “much disabled in every respect,” with twenty-one killed and thirty-five wounded. There were “65 shot holes in the starboard side, 19 between wind and water; rudder much damaged; sails and rigging very much cut.” Similar reports came from the Alcide (“many shot under water, making the ship leaky, three shot through the mainmast”); the Ajax (“two guns are wounded and one dismounted”); the Europe (“four shot in the mainmast, 12 shot between wind and water, and a great number in the upper works”), and the Montagu (“hull much shattered by shot, rigging and sails very much cut, four guns dismounted”).

The flagship Princesa of Francis Drake, Rear Admiral of the Blue, had its “mainmast shot through in three places; several shot in the side and under water, with rigging and sails very much cut,” but nevertheless was able to retaliate in kind. It poured its “first broadside into the Réfléche, killing its captain, M. de Boade,” says a French account, which continues:

That vessel soon bore away, as well as the Caton, on which the English kept up a brisk fire. The four ships in the [French] van found themselves, consequently, entirely cut off from the rest of the fleet, and constantly engaged with 7 or 8 vessels at close quarters. The Diadème was near Rear Admiral Drake, who set fire to her at every shot, the wadding entering her side. This vessel was constantly engaged with 2 and sometimes 3 ships. The English could not cut off our van, which they might perhaps have taken, and which they would, at all events, have rendered past repair. They contented themselves simply with cutting up that part of our fleet which kept up a distant fight.

The Diadème was utterly unable to keep up the battle, having only four 36-pounders and nine 18-pounders fit for use, and all on board killed, wounded or burnt. At this juncture M. de Chabert, commanding the St. Esprit, which had for a long time been engaged with the British admiral, and who was himself wounded, seeing the imminent danger of the Diadème, hoisted sail and was soon in her wake; then he opened a terrible fire, that the gentlemen of Albion could not stand, and had to haul their wind.

Meanwhile Commodore de Bougainville on the Bourgogne was on the point of boarding the Princesa, which avoided him, whereupon he turned all his fire on the Terrible, sending two cannon balls through her already-sprung foremast, in which two more buried themselves. “We weighed one of the shot,” said her Captain Finch, “it weighed 39 pounds.” That ill-fated ship’s pumps, “only kept together by tar’d canvas and lead,” could not long keep her afloat; and after a council of war a few days later the Terrible had to be dismantled and burned in the sight of the enemy. The total battle casualties of the British amounted to 90 killed and 246 wounded, as against a French toll of dead and wounded of about 220.