Why was the Battle of the Saintes important?
A major naval victory for Britain in the West Indies that restored British naval mastery in the area and ended the French threat to nearby British possessions.
9-12 April 1782 marks the Battle of the Saintes in the American Revolution when Admiral Sir George Rodney’s 36 British ships-of-the-line defeated Comte Francois de Grasse’s 33 French ships-of-the-line.
De Grasse ferried 5,000 men to Jamaica. Rodney pursued & caught him near the Saintes Islands.
On 9 April, a brief action damaged both sides. Next day, de Grasse resumed course. On 10 April, 74-guns Zélé & Magnanime collided. They fell behind.
On 11 April, Rodney saw the straggling ships. He feigned an attack. De Grasse’s rearguard turned back to confront him. No violence occurred, but de Grasse’s line became disordered. That night, Zélé collided with his flagship, the 104-gun Ville de Paris. So the next day, on 12 April, the 44-gun Astrée towed Ville de Paris. However, 4 British ships pursued.
De Grasse formed a line-of-battle. Rodney recalled his ships & formed his own line. His van, under Rear Admiral Sir Samuel Hood, was making repairs and switched places with the rear.
Rodney sailed north. De Grasse sailed south. Action began at 08:00. Both lines fired opposite each other. By 09:00, wind shifted south. De Grasse’s line, unable to hold course, separated & bore west.
Rodney turned his ships & sailed into the gaps. He fired in both directions, raking the French.
His carronades wreaked horrid damage. 74-gun Glorieux, sailing behind Ville de Paris, became dismasted. As a result, she drifted wildly.
The 4 ships behind her left the line to avoid a collision. 6 British ships sailed through the gap, breaking de Grasse’s line a 2nd time. Each ship raked Glorieux. In the smoke & confusion, HMS Bedford, in Rodney’s center, sailed between the French 74-guns Cesar & Hector. Hood’s ships followed, breaking Grasse’s line in a 3rd place. Each raked Cesar & Hector. At 11:00, the winds died.
The becalmed fleets drifted apart.
Rodney was now between de Grasse & Jamaica – de Grasse’s destination. De Grasse’s ships were leeward of Rodney’s. Winds resumed at 13:00. De Grasse turned west to escape.
His line broke into small groups. 2 French ships tried to rescue Glorieux. Both were driven off. Glorieux surrendered.
Rodney pursued de Grasse. He caught him at 15:00. Cesar, dismasted & afire, surrendered. Hector, also dismasted, surrendered at 17:00. Admiral Bougainville ordered 8 ships to turn around and help them. Only 64-gun Ardent obeyed. She was flanked & captured. Ville de Paris had taken severe damage in the fight and by 17:30, she fell behind.
The ships around her dispersed when the British came close. De Grasse signaled them to rebuild the line. They ignored & abandoned him. Ville de Paris became cut off and raked repeatedly. She lost her masts, her rudder, 400 dead & 700 wounded. Only 3 men, including de Grasse, were untouched. At 18:00 she surrendered. Hood spitefully fired a final broadside before boarding.
De Grasse’s surrender ended the fight.
Some ships fired desultory shots at extreme long range. Rodney’s own ships were heavily damaged. He ordered his them not to pursue. His repairs afterwards took 9 weeks. At 21:00, Cesar’s imprisoned crew broke into the liquor stores. A fire started. The magazine exploded, killing 400 French & 58 British sailors. The French had been throwing dead bodies overboard all day.
Moreover, the waters teemed with sharks, and they ate the men who jumped overboard.
Rodney lost 243 dead (including 2 captains), 816 wounded. De Grasse lost 3,000 dead/wounded (including 6 captains dead), 5,000 captive, 5 ships-of-the-line lost & others severely damaged. In addition, he became the 1st French admiral captured, ever in combat!
In conclusion, an enormous amount of money was lost.
Ville de Paris alone held 36 pay chests – worth £500,000. On 19 April, Hood caught some surviving French ships at the Mona Passage. He lost 10 dead, 14 wounded. He captured 2 ships-of-the-line (64 guns Caton & Jason), 1 frigate (26-gun Aimable) & 1,300 men.
Astrée was also briefly captured, but she escaped, furthermore, Rodney was criticized for failing to pursue the remaining ships.
A popular poem said:
“Had a chief worthy Britain commanded our fleet, 25 good French ships had been laid at our feet.”
All the same, he became a national hero.
King George III made him a peer of the realm. On the trip back, a great storm sank Glorieux, Hector & Ville de Paris. Lastly, the survivors of de Grasse’s fleet reached Jamaica on 25 April. Disease killed thousands. Soon after, the invasion was cancelled.