The Battle of 20 June 1780
A True Account by One Who Was There
We were nine days out of Bermuda as the sun glinted off the waves of the Caribbean somewhere north of the Hispaniola coast. Commodore William Cornwallis had orders to look for a French convoy reputed to be in the area. To that end Ruby (64) had been dispatched to investigate a sail earlier int the morning making to the northwest. From the quarterdeck of Lion (64) we could make her out fine on the after port quarter as we beat to the east south east.
The Commodore had just ordered us to set the signal to shorten sail to await Ruby when the lookout cried “Sail Ho!” Upon interrogation it was found to be multiple sail to the northeast beating on the opposite tack. The signal was immediately rescinded until the new sails could be resolved. I went up the main ratlines to the t’gallant yard and spied out what we later learned to be de Ternay’s squadron of frogs. Beyond his warships, which rapidly formed line ahead, maintaining their bearing, was the convoy we had been sent to find.
I scurried back to deck with this intelligence. The commodore dispatched our lone frigate, Niger (32), to carry this important information to Admiral Parker, in Jamaica. Further, he ordered our own ships to close our line and clear for action.
Tense moments passed. The master, with chalk and slate, presented to the Commodore that, if all ships maintained their current bearings and speeds, the French would cut off Ruby. Our commodore was a resolute man, he was. Upon this report he immediately ordered the signal “Wear in succession. Make for Ruby. Engage the enemy closely.”
The order was passed by Captain Hyde at that same instant for the men to their stations to wear ship. We were a well-drilled company, having been on station nigh on three years, since the dastardly rebel raid on Bermuda in ’77, and the ship came about smartly and settled into a new course, reaching toward Ruby. At the same moment, Captain John of the Ruby tacked, coming about to the same course as the Frogs, in essence running from them to give us more time. None of us held out much hope she’d be able to outrun them, her bottom being foul, over two years since her last careening.
We now ran together, the two lines, tension building in the crews as we willed the ship to drive faster into the wind. As we closed the Ruby suddenly tacked again. It was clear in a trice Captain John was trying to ride his ship between the two lines with the double goal of delivering damage and allowing the rest of us to close.
To our dismay she made sternboard and, instead of flying between the lines, found herself alone to leeward of the French!
Bravely she crossed, engaging in succession the Conquerant, Duc de Bourgogne, and Neptune. With each crashing broadside we could only imagine the carnage on deck! Later it came out that brave Captain John was felled by a musket ball through the breast from Conquerant’s marines. Then the poor ship had her bowsprit shot away, forcing her to hold her course past the biggest French ships.
Fortunately for Ruby her course and that of the Frogs diverged and, while Provence and Jason gave her a broadside each, by then she was two cables off and lived to fight another day.
Commodore Cornwallis, seeing Ruby’s ill luck, cast another signal to the squadron – wear to starboard, together!
Thus, we closed the distance, each ship taking a raking fire from her opposite at about a cable’s distance. The first division then wore again and engaged the enemy’s line hotly. The rear division, the tiny 50s Salisbury and Bristol, continued to close, attempting to cut the French line.
Alas! Our ships, smaller than the enemy’s, were swifter and soon Lion surged ahead of the Conquerant. But the cost had been high, with blood filling the scuppers, guns dismounted, and sails tattered. Then, as perhaps an evening of the odds, the mainmast of the mighty Duc de Bourgogne toppled into the sea, smashed just above the main deck by a 32-pound ball fired from Hector at pistol shot. Poseidon take it!
The little 50s had bracketed the last ship in the French line, Eveille (64) and caused terrible slaughter. But the French, Eveille and her next in line, Jason (64) had done equal execution. Salisbury’s master was down, and Bristol’s rigging shredded. Neither was able to turn back and remain engaged. Rather they sailed on, eventually joining Ruby, far downwind of the battle, unable to contribute further. It was they who would take the sorry news to Jamaica.
For sorry news it was to be. Cornwallis made one more signal, Wear to Starboard Together, in an effort to break the French line. Obediently the three ships turned to run down the Frogs!
Our speed and the Duc’s lost mast allowed Lion and Hector to cross, delivering devastating rakes fore and aft on Conquerant and fore on Duc. But Sultan answered her helm too slowly and, in turn, received the might of the Duc.
None of the British were fast enough and each, in turn became fouled with her opposite number – Lion with Conquerant, Hector with Duc de Bourgogne, and Sultan with Neptune. Now was the time for boarders!
However, in all three cases, our captain’s had left their faith in speed and not in bullets. Grape rained down as the limeys formed on each of the three quarterdecks and, when away, the survivors were pitifully few and the officers even fewer. An unfortunate event also hampered the Lion’s men. In the final broadside from Conquerant, a gunner’s match was cut from his hand by an 18-pound ball and fell into some spilled powder. The fire quite disrupted any fire from the main battery.
The boarding action were swift and bloody and decisive, as they almost always are. In the end all three of His Majesty’s ships drifted with Saint Andrew’s cross cut from the flagstaffs, disgracefully floating in the sea.
Lion’s fire was extinguished and de Ternay brought his prizes triumphantly into Martinique. The greatest disaster in English naval history since unfortunate Admiral Byng.
We use 1:1200 ships and Trouin, Cochrane, and Jones rules – a modification of Fighting Instructions.
Diatribes are simply often humorous recountings of the games played by the Long Island Irregulars. We play with toy soldiers and are unabashedly happy to have never lost this part of our childhoods..