The Battle of Vigie Peninsula

"Plan of St. Lucia, in the West Indies : shewing the positions of the English and French forces with the attacks made at its reduction in Decr. 1778." (Gentleman's Magazine 1779)

When Gen. Henry Clinton was preparing the British army to leave Philadelphia, he received instructions from Lord George Germain, the British Secretary at War, to send 5,800 troops to the West Indies. When he learned that the navy was in no position to send ships to protect the transports, Clinton refused to dispatch the troops. Only after he arrived safely in New York did he dispatch troops under the command of Maj. Gen. James Grant. Lt. Col. Francis Downman of the Royal Artillery recounted the preparation for departure:

27th October 1778.      New York.

I embarked this day on Board the Friendship ordnance store ship, under orders for an expedition to the West Indies, at least so conjectured. Captains Williamson’s and Standish’s companies are ordered for this service, both com plete in men, 100 each … There are four shipd belonging to the artillery, having on board the afore mentioned ordnance and stores We have two sloops, on board of which are about 30 horses.

            Ten regiments of foot and fifty light horse are also embarked. The sea department is commanded by Commodore Hotham, and consists of the Nonsuch, St. Albans, Preston, Isis, Centurion, Venus (a frigate), the Carcass Bomb …

On the 29th of October, the fleet fell down to Staten Island, where we remained till the 31st, when we went down to Sandy Hook and came to anchor. The wind now began to blow very fresh from the N.E., and sent in a heavy sea; the weather was very cold, thick, and rainy. 1

On November 3, 1778, the force set sail under the protection of Commodore William Hotham. “Very early this morning the fleet got under way and stood to the S.E. with a fair pleasant breeze.” 2 On the same day, a French fleet of twelve warships under the Comte d’Estaing also set sail for the West Indies from Boston harbor.

A severe gale struck the two fleets in the latitude of Bermuda. One of Hotham’s ships lost contact with the fleet and fell into the hands of the French. D’Estaing, learning that the British fleet was sailing for the Caribbean, believed they were headed to Antigua and their main base in the Caribbean, English Harbour. He arrived on December 6 and spent the next two days searching for Hotham before making sail for Martinique, the main French base in the Caribbean. Hotham’s fleet with its 59 transports arrived in Carlisle Bay, Barbados on December 10. Waiting for him was Rear-Admiral Samuel Barrington with two ships of the line, the Prince of Wales and the Boyne. On September 7, the French governor of Martinique, Marquis de Bouille, had attacked British troops on the island of Dominica; in retaliation, Barrington and Hotham were going to attack St. Lucia. They set sail on the 12th and reached the island the next day.

On the morning of the 13th, we saw the Island of St. Lucia at a distance to leeward; we now knew this to be our destined port. The morning being very thick and hazy prevented our bearing down till eight o’clock … We continued along the shore till we came to a bay called the Grand Cul de Sac; here the fleet came to an anchor. 3

En route, Major General Grant issued the following order: “Colonel Prescott, Lieut.-Colonels Calder … and Medows are appointed Brigadier Generals for the expedition.” Each was given command of a brigade and a specific responsibility after landing.  “When the troops disembark[ed] they [were] to take on shore one day’s provisions cooked and a half a pint of rum each man and 36 rounds of ammunition only.” 4 By late in afternoon of the 13th the first brigade, made up of most of the 4th, 15th, 28th, 35th and 46th Regiments under the command of Brig. Gen. Robert Prescott, was in possession of the French outpost atop Morne Fortune, a hill north of the Grand Cul de Sac Bay on the west side of the island; the second brigade, made up of one flank company from the 4th, 15th, 27th, 28th, 35th, 40th, 46th, and 55th Regiments and the complete 5th Regiment under the command of Brig. Gen. William Medows, was ensconced on the Vigie Peninsula between Choc Bay and the Careenage Bay two and one half miles to the north of the bay; and the third brigade made up of most of the 27th, 40th, 49th, and 55th Regiments under the command of Brig. Gen. Henry Calder guarded the immediate heights around the bay. 5 The sixty-man French garrison under the command of the Chevalier de Micoud had already fled into the interior.

On December 9, d’Estaing arrived at Martinique to secure additional troops. He planned to capture the British islands of Barbados, Grenada and St. Vincent and if it meant taking on Hotham’s fleet so be it. En route to Barbados, he learned from an American privateer of Hotham’s attack on St. Lucia; he immediately changed course and set sail for the island. In the evening on the 13th, the French fleet arrived. It was composed of twelve Ships of the Line: the Languedoc (90 guns), Tonnant (80), Cesar (74), Zele (74), Hector (74), Guerrier (74), Marsailles (74), Protecteur (74), Vaillant (64), Provence (64) and ten frigates. 6

Captain Colin Lindsay of the 55th Regiment believed,

The total destruction of our little navy and the transports appeared inevitable. What fate would then attend the army, without the means of life in this inhospitable climate? We had the utmost confidence in British seamanship and British spirit, but now they could be no avail; and perhaps in three hours we should be the passive spectators of the most vigorous exertion of our gallant sailors … and of their infallible captivity. 7

Barrington, alerted by the frigate Ariadne of the presence of the French fleet, moved his seven Ships of the Line, the Prince of Wales (74), Boyne (70), Preston (50), St. Albans (64), Nonsuch (64), Centurion (50), and Isis (50) across the mouth of the Grand Cul de Sac. 8 On the 15th, after sending most of their small vessels into Gris Islett Bay a few miles to the north, the French fleet sailed passed the Vigie Peninsula, the shoreline batteries, and the British line of battle twice, once in the morning and once in the afternoon.

We had ever reason to suppose that the meaning of their first manoeuvre was to see the disposition of our fleet; and having now obtained the utmost information they could wish, that they were returning to the attack in that determined way which must have proved decisive. They did indeed return, but it was to make the self-same caracole as they had done before, and with an effect as insignificant.9

Instead of formally engaging the British fleet, d’Estaing decided to land 9,000 troops at Choc Bay and move against the British by land. On the morning of the 16th, the transports that would be used to evacuate Medows’ men from the peninsula “had dragged their anchors up, had driven to sea, and had been taken by the [French]”. 10 Medows and his men had just lost their only avenue of retreat. On the evening of the 16th,

We saw fires on the shore, and three rockets were discharged. This we rightly concluded was the prelude to landing their army. Their small craft left Gros Ilot Bay … and came into Choc Bay, and before morning all the troops they contained were landed. 11

Choc Bay was to the north of the Vigie peninsula, Careenage Bay was to the south, and the landward side was to the east. The town of Careenage was at the head of the bay, one and a half miles from its mouth. Medows’ troops were positioned on a hill not far from the shore on the northwestern edge of the peninsula. He was unsure of d’Estaing’s designs. Was he going “to leave a force to contain that of Medows, and to move the bulk of the French troops to Cul de Sac Bay, so as to overwhelm Calder, or to make an end of Medows?” 12 On the morning of the 17th, with the French on the march, Medows called in his pickets and the 46th Regiment that had been posted on the north side of the town. That evening, a French deserter from Micoud’s garrison came into Medows’ camp and informed him that the French were posted so as to isolate his brigade and they intended to attack it the following day with all of their men. Medows’ men were not the kind to be easily shaken. Many had been at Bunker Hill and had seen action at Brooklyn Heights, Fort Washington and Brandywine. They were undaunted and willing to face whatever the next day would bring.

A little after daybreak on the 18th, the French began to move toward the peninsula. Between the town and Medows’ position, five light infantry companies were posted near an old redoubt; the redoubt was atop a hill but because it “had no parapet, it afforded no cover for a defendant.” The French approached the position by way of the woods. Medows’ men were taken by surprise: “but for an exertion of their usual agility, a great many [would] have been taken. As it was [only] Captain Downing, 55th and another officer and eight men were made prisoners.” 13 Because the peninsula at “the neck [was] not more than 150 yards wide,” the French columns on the left and right had to squeeze together, causing some confusion. The British artillery from across the Careenage directed its fire at the choke point. Once reorganized, the French resumed their march toward the hill. Whole ranks were swept away by British cannon fire. “They for a length of time seemed to pay no attention to our cannon-ball … but inclined their heads, now to the right, now to the left, as if to see which way they could most easily ascend the hill.” 14 Many of the French soldiers had little experience fighting in America – they were trained to fight in the traditional European style of linear formations. They were marching on Medows’ position the same way the British had marched on the colonists’ position at Bunker Hill.

Three times the French charged the British position and three times they were repulsed. “At length, after a slaughter and resistance, they were taught not to expect, they retired.” 15 If the French had attacked one more time, the British “had scarcely any ammunition left.”

General Medows had, however, prudently reserved to each man three or four rounds which, if the enemy had attempted the Hill, were to be given them, and then they were to charge with bayonets. 16

According to Capt. Colin Lindsay of the 55th Regiment, “A reinforcement of French ammunition, from the magazine we had taken when we first landed, was brought across the [Careenage] in a ferryboat. Our fire began again. The enemy retired.” 17

In a period of three hours (from 8:00 am. to 11:00 am.), the French suffered 400 killed and close to 1,200 wounded; the British suffered 13 killed and 158 wounded. 18 With thirty-six rounds a man and limited artillery power, with muskets that were known to be inaccurate and limited in range and with the large French columns advancing no further than the foot of the hill, what accounts for the high number of French casualties? On the other side of the Careenage were four artillery batteries; these were abandoned French positions that now were manned by the British Royal Artillery. The two batteries that played a major role in the battle were called No. 4 and No. 5.  Battery No. 4 had five eighteen pounders and Battery No. 5 had four eighteen pounders. 19 The maximum range of these cannons was 4,000 yards, but they were most accurate up to a distance of 1,800 yards. 20 They easily had the range and accuracy to bombard the French columns. According to Lt.-Col. Francis Downman, the commanding officer at Battery No. 5, “To find a cause for the amazing disproportion in numbers, we must confidently say the British artillery did their duty on this day … We did not want their words to verify this, ocular demonstration is stronger, a more convincing proof. Heads, legs, and arms knocked off, and bodies torn to pieces are not the effect of musketry balls fired at a distance of 300 yards!” 21A few British officers after the French had retired made their way to the neck of the peninsula where the French columns had begun their march. Some became sick with what they saw:

The white-coats, hideously stained, lay thick upon the ground, over four hundred men being killed outright, and twelve hundred grievously wounded. Very soon every British soldier who could be spared was ministering to the poor fellows and some of the officers were for burying the dead. 22

The following day, d’Estaing made one last effort to win back the island. This time he sent thirty transports filled with troops south of the Grand Cul de Sac. His plan was to take control of the southern heights overlooking the bay, erect mortar batteries on them, and then bombard the British transports in the bay.  After landing his force, he learned that Brigadier General Calder had just dispatched portions of the 35th and 40th Regiments to the heights. Not wanting to risk another assault, d’Estaing and his men withdrew to the safety of their transports and then their ships.

With the failure of d’Estaing’s land forces to secure the island, on December 28 the small French garrison surrendered. 23 When word arrived that Vice-Adm. John Byron and ten ships of the line had departed Rhode Island on the 14th and were coming to assist Hotham and Barrington, d’Estaing re-embarked what was left of his forces and set sail for Martinique.

The next inlet to the north of Anse du Cloc is Gros Islet Bay. Only thirty miles from Fort Royal Bay, the French naval base on Martinique, it would become a vital base for the British fleet for the remainder of the war. It would also be instrumental in Admiral Rodney’s defeat of De Grasse in the Battle of the Saintes four years later.

 

1 F. A. Whinyates, ed., The Services of Lieut.-Colonel Francis Downman (Woolwich, England: The Royal Artillery Institution, 1898), 87-88.

2 Ibid., 89.

3 Ibid., 91.

4 Ibid., 92.

5 George Godfrey Cunningham, A History of England in the Lives of Englishmen (A. Fullarton, 1853), 133; James Grant Wilson, and John Fiske, Appleton’s Cyclopedia of American Biography (D. Appleton, 1900), 5:109.

6 De B. Randolph Keim, ed., Rochambeau: A Commemoration by the Congress of the United States of America (Washington DC: Appleton Prentiss Clark, 1907), 230.

7 “Narrative of the Occupation and Defence of the Island of St. Lucie,” in Lord Colin Lindsay, Lives of the Lindsays: Or, A Memoir of the Houses of Crawford and Balcarres   (London: John Murray, 1838), 338.

8 Isaac Schamberg, Naval Chronology; or, An Historical Summary of Naval and Maritime Events, from the Time of the Romans to the Treaty of Peace (London: C. Rowarth, 1802), Appendix 173.

9 “Narrative of the Occupation and Defence of the Island of St. Lucie,” 339.

10 Ibid., 343.

11 Whinyates, The Services of Lieut.-Colonel Francis Downman, 96.

12 George Grove, et al., “St. Lucia, 1778,” Macmillan’s Magazine, Vol. 85 (April, 1902), 423.

13 Whinyates, The Services of Lieut.-Colonel Francis Downman, 97.

14 “Narrative of the Occupation and Defence of the Island of St. Lucie,” 345.

15 Whinyates, The Services of Lieut.-Colonel Francis Downman,  98.

16 Ibid., 97.

17 “Narrative of the Occupation and Defence of the Island of St. Lucie,” 345

18 Mark M. Boatner, III, Encyclopedia of the American Revolution (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1994), 965.

19 Whinyates, The Services of Lieut.-Colonel Francis Downman, 93-4.

20 http://www.nps.gov/fosu/planyourvisit/upload/18_Pounder_Cannon.pdf

21 Whinyates, The Services of Lieut.-Colonel Francis Downman, 99-100.

22 Grove, “St. Lucia, 1778,” 425.

23 Tony Jagues, Dictionary of Battles and Sieges: A Guide to 8,500 Battles from Antiquity Through the Twenty-First Century (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2007), 882.

 

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1 Comment

  • When British officer Captain John Peebles of the 42nd Regiment of Foot heard of this battle, he was serving at Verplanck’s Point on the Hudson River opposite to Stony Point. He wrote in his diary on 22 June 1779, “well done little Meadows he lick’d ym handsomly”

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