Who Really “Crossed the T” in the Battle of the Saintes?

The War Years (1775-1783)

September 2, 2014
by Bob Ruppert Also by this Author


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When de Grasse’s fleet left Yorktown for the Caribbean on November 4, 1781, he was already planning how to pursue the second objective of the July 17, 1781, de Grasse/Saavedra Conventions. The objectives that he had agreed to with the Secretary of State and General Bureau for the Spanish Indies, Don Francisco Saavedra, were “to aid the Anglo-Americans powerfully, in such a way that the English Cabinet would in the end lose the hope of subduing them; to conquer Jamaica, the center of the wealth and power of Great Britain in that part of the world and to take possession of various points in the Windward Islands, where the English fleets lying in protected forts were threatening French and Spanish possessions.”[1]

When the British changed their war strategy in 1779, they took a more defensive posture toward their most valuable commodity in North America, their Caribbean Islands. King George III declared that “Our Islands must be defended even at the risk of an invasion of this island … If we lose our Sugar islands, it will be impossible to raise money to continue the War.”[2] Known as the British West Indies, Jamaica and the Leeward Islands were called the “Sugar Islands.” Jamaica alone had 775 sugar plantations.[3] Sugar made up 20% of all British imports and was worth five times as much as tobacco. In 1773, sugar had become so valuable that the total profit from Jamaica alone was estimated at over 1,500,000 pounds.[4] Sugar had become “white gold.” It is not difficult to understand why as the war was coming to an end Britain did not want to lose her islands to France or Spain.

On April 8, 1782, de Grasse departed Fort-Royal, Martinique with 33 ships of the line; originally he had 36, however, he had to release two 50-gun ships, the Fier and the Experiment, so they could escort the supply vessels essential to his plan to Guadeloupe and then a merchant fleet to France.[5] He planned to rendezvous with 12 Spanish ships of the line and 15,000 soldiers at Saint Domingue before advancing on Jamaica. On February 19, Admiral Rodney returned from England and took command of 36 British ships of the line. Rodney’s plan was to prevent the Spanish and French from joining forces and to safeguard the island of Jamaica.

On April 9, Rodney departed Gros-Islet Bay, St. Lucia, thirty miles to the north and met up with de Grasse near Les Iles des Saintes, a small group of islands between Guadeloupe and Dominica. The two fleets maneuvered and skirmished for three days. De Grasse was forced on the 9th to send the crippled Caton to Guadeloupeand two days later, the Jason and Zele because their masts were damaged. Early in the morning on April 12, Rodney noticedthe two ships were heading for Guadeloupe. He ordered Rear-Admiral Hood who was in the van to send the Monarch, the Valiant, the Belliqueux and the Centaur after them.[6]De Grasse, in order to protect the ships, ordered his fleet “to wear;” in doing so he abandoned his position to the windward and would now be approaching the British fleet in line but from the opposite direction. Immediately, Rodney recalled his four ships and had his fleet prepare for battle. This caused confusion or echelon in the French line. With a sudden change in the wind, the French ships were being forced toward the British ships. The British had two choices, either to hold their course or “luff,” that is, turn toward the direction from which the wind was coming. With the nearness of the ships, clouds of smoke reduced visibility. To avoid a collision, Rodney’s flagship, the Formidable, eighteenth in the column, veered in such a direction that it passed through a gap in the French line astern of the Glorieux.[7]; because of the rules of engagement, the next five British ships followed her through the gap. Soon the Bedford, the sixth ship behind the Formidable, and twelve other ships passed through another gap in the French line between the Cesar and the Hector. Rodney’s captains executed a maneuver that had never been done in the history of the British Navy. This allowed them to use their guns on each side of their ships without any fear of return fire from the front and rear of the French ships they were passing between. De Grasse was never able to reform his line for the remainder of the battle.

By the end of the battle, the French had lost four ships of the line, the Glorieux, the Cesar, the Hector, and the Ardent, as well as their flagship, the Ville de Paris.[8]Sir Gilbert Blane, the physician for the British Fleet reported, “When boarded, [Ville de Paris] presented a scene of complete horror. The numbers killed were so great that the surviving, either from want of leisure, or through dismay, had not thrown the bodies of the killed overboard, so that the decks were covered with the blood and mangled limbs of the dead, as well as the wounded and dying.”[9] The flagship was lostbecause after the Bedford “broke the line” the Ville de Paris and five ships were cut off fromthe French van and rear and facing thirteen British ships. The devastation aboard the French ships that were engaged in close action resulted from carronades “of which the British had many;” these were powerful cannons of short range but large caliber. One week later, Admiral Hood would sail west and capture the Ceres, the Amiable, the Caton, and the Jason, ships that had escaped after the battle[10]; however, he was still angry with Admiral Rodney’s decision not to follow up his advantages by “making the signal for a general chase” of the French fleet immediately following the capture of the Ville de Paris. “Had he so done I am very confident we should have had twenty sail of the enemy’s ships of the lines before dark.”[11] Sir Charles Douglas, the Captain of the British fleet, was equally “mortified by the failure.”[12]Rodney’s only reply was, “Come, we have done very handsomely as it is.”[13]

The casualties in the battle were enormous. The British suffered 243 killed and 816 wounded; the French suffered an untold number.

In the annals of naval history, the maneuver employed by the British became known as “Breaking the Line” or “Crossing the T.” There is, however, strong evidence that the wrong person may have been given credit for employing it.

A 1785 engraving of Rodney accepting the surrender of de Grasse. Source: Bernard's History of England
A 1785 engraving of Rodney accepting the surrender of de Grasse. Source: Bernard’s History of England

In 1829, Sir Charles Douglas’s son, General Sir Howard Douglas, brought forth evidence that it was his father, in fact, and not Admiral Rodney who pushed for the maneuver in 1782 as well as the person who gave the actual order. Both men, Rodney and Douglas, were exceptional naval commanders, however their styles of leadership were different. Rodney believed rules were “not meant to be broken,” the navy’s Sailing and Fighting Instructions were to be followed unerringly and those who did not should be disciplined. He had seen and been responsible for court-martials for not following instructions. Douglas, on the other hand, was willing to try the untested and unconventional. He was the commander of the Isis that rammed through the ice to relieve Quebec when Arnold was laying siege to the city in 1776. Later on he had, at his own expense, changed the firing mechanisms on his ship, the Duke, from fuses to flintlocks, and he introduced the principle of false keels on ships of war. Sometime during the four days that spanned the Battle of the Saintes, Rodney’s personal physician, Dr. Gilbert Blane, wrote, “It was considered as a fortunate circumstance for the service, that the Commander-in-Chief of the fleet in the West Indies … should have about his person to assist and advise him, so able an officer as Sir Charles Douglas, he himself being almost always in such bad health, either from illness, or from convalescence from the gout, from debility and unequal spirits, so as to render him less equal to the fatiguing and anxious duties inseparable from such high responsibility.”[14]

The following letters and statements were obtained by General Sir Howard Douglas in his quest to secure credit for his father:

Vice-Admiral Charles Dashwood, then a seventeen year old side-de-camp to both men, wrote, ”Sir Charles was (heading to Sir George’s cabin when he) met with Rodney, who was coming from the cabin … Sir Charles bowed and said: ‘Sir George, I give you the joy of victory!’ ‘Poh!’ said Rodney ‘the day is not half won yet.’ ‘Break the line, Sir George!’ said your father, ‘the day is your own, and I shall insure you the victory.’ ‘No’ said the Admiral, ‘I will not break my line.’ After another request and refusal, Sir Charles ordered the helmsman to put to port; Sir Rodney countermanded the order and said, ‘starboard.’ He then said, ‘Remember, Sir Charles that I am Commander-in Chief – starboard, sir (to the helmsman).’ A couple of minutes later, Sir Charles addressed him again – ‘only break the line Sir George, and the day is your own.’ Rodney then said, ‘Well, well, do as you like,’ turned around, and walked into the aft cabin. I was then ordered below to give necessary directions for opening the fire on the larboard side. On my return to the quarterdeck (from below), I found the Formidable passing between two French ships, each nearly touching us.”[15]

Vice-Admiral Sir Joseph Sydney Yorke, also an aide-de-camp to both men, wrote a similar account with but two slight changes; Rodney saying after Douglas begged him to break the line, “It was a very hazardous experiment” and Douglas repeatedly directing the helmsman to “luff.”[16]

Charles Thesiger was the brother of Frederick Thesiger, Rodney’s first aide-de-camp aboard the Formidable. He received a letter from his brother who wrote, “Sir Charles Douglas is the man who had the sole merit of fighting the Formidable.” He also wrote that he had even disobeyed Rodney’s direct order to turn the ship to starboard because “it is always an inferior officer’s duty to obey the last command therefore I did put the Admiral’s orders into execution.” His last order was from Sir Douglas who continued to shout, “Luff, my boys, luff!”[17]

Frederick Knight, Sir Charles’s Secretary, whose responsibility it was to record everything that he could, supported all of the above recollections and stated, “the merit attached to that bold and fortunate manoeuver rests wholly on the late Sir Charles Douglas!”[18]

Captain G. W. Blaney, a midshipman aboard theFormidable, wrote, “There can be no doubt of an altercation between the Commander-in-Chief and the Captain of the Fleet, whether the helm should be put a-starboard or port … with Rodney eventually saying, “Do as you please, Sir Charles.”[19] Blaney wrote this letter the day after the battle.

George Stewart, Sir Charles’s valet, corroborated what Dashwood and the others affirmed in a deposition before Thomas Rockwell, Notary Public, in Utica, New York in 1832.[20]

Regardless of who thought of the maneuver or gave the order, the maneuver was executed and it resulted in an overwhelming victory for the British. Nonetheless, the facts bear out that the maneuver would probably not have occurred if the French had the same number of ships as the British, de Grasse had not suffered a momentary lapse of good judgment, and the wind had not changed direction. Mother Nature, good fortune, and human decision-making all play a role in the outcome of battles. Mistakes are made in attribution and interpretation. Rarely does an opportunity arise for correcting one of those mistakes.

[FEATURED IMAGE AT TOP: “Battle of the Saintes, 12 April 1782” by Thomas Whitcombe. Source: Wikimedia Commons]


[1]       Francisco Morales Padron, Journal of Don Francisco Saavedra de Sangronis, 1780-1783 (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1988), 200-201.

[2]       “Letter from George III to Lord Sandwich” in the Private Papers of John, Earl of Sandwich, G. R. Barnes and J. H. Owens, eds., Vol. III (London: Navy Records Office, 1933), 201.

[3]       Roger Henry, Synchronized Chronology (New York: Algora Publishing, 2003), 121.

[4]       Jan Rogozinski, A Brief History of the Caribbean (New York: Plume Publishing, 2000), 115.

[5]       Jonathan Dull, The French Navy and American Independence, A Study of Arms and Diplomacy, 1774-1787 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975), 283-4.

[6]       David Hannay, ed., The Letters of Sir Samuel Hood Vol. III (Navy Records Society, 1895), 128.

[7]       Thomas White, Naval Researches: or a Candid Inquiry into the Conduct of Admirals Byron, Graves, Hood, and Rodney in the Action off Grenada, Chesapeak, St. Christopher’s and on the Ninth and Twelfth of April, 1782 (London: Whittaker, Treacher, and Arnott, 1830), 106.

[8]       Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Major Operations of the Navies in the War of American Independence (London: Sampson Low, Marston & Company, 1913), 222.

[9]       Donald Macintyre, Admiral Rodney (London: Norton, 1962).

[10]     Sir John Ross,Memoirs and Correspondence of Admiral Lord de Saumarez From Original Papers in Possession of the Family, Vol. I (London: Richard Bentley, 1838), Chapter IV.

[11]     Hannay, The Letters of Sir Samuel Hood, 103.

[12]     Letter of Sir Howard Douglas, United Service Journal and Naval Military Magazine (1834 Part II), 97.

[13]     Hannay, The Letters of Sir Samuel Hood, 104.

[14]     Sir Howard Douglas, “Additional Statement of Facts on Breaking the Line, 12th April 1782”, United Service Journal and Naval Military Magazine (1830 Part I), 598.

[15]     “A Statement of some important Facts, supported by authentic Documents, relating to the Operation of Breaking the Enemy’s Line, as practiced for the first time in the celebrated battle of the 12th April, 1782,” The Quarterly Review, 42 (January 1830), 64.

[16]     “A Statement of some important Facts,” 65-66.

[17]     Douglas, “Additional Statement of Facts,” 596-97.

[18]     Douglas, “Additional Statement of Facts,” 597.

[19]     Douglas, “Additional Statement of Facts,” 598.

[20]     Sir Howard Douglas, Naval Evolutions: A Memoir Major (London: Thomas and William Boone, 1832), xxi.


  • I just came across your article, and I’m glad to see Sir Charles getting his due. I’m a descendant of both Sir Charles and Sir Howard, and wrote my master’s thesis on this very subject, which I expanded into a book published by Fireship Press. It’s nice to see someone else trying to clear up the matter, since the overwhelming evidence supports the idea that he came up with the idea of breaking the line at the Saintes.

  • I enjoyed the article and learned from it.
    Just this comment about Francisco de Saavedra: at the time of the signing of the de Grasse/Saavedra Conventions Don Francisco was still a mid-level bureaucrat in the Ministry of Indies who was endowed with special powers by the King and sent on a mission which included the negotiation with Comte de Grasse. He did advance to become Minister of State much later, in 1798.

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