Strategic Assessment of the
Battle of the Saintes (12 April 1782)

West Indian Theater of Operations, American War for Independence.

The strategic goals for the Bourbon allies' operations in the West Indies and North America had been established by the French and Spanish courts in Paris and Madrid months prior to de Grasse's departure from France. The initial theater-level planning for the 1782 French-Spanish campaign to take British Jamaica began at Cap François, prior to de Grasse's deployment to the Chesapeake in August 1781. The theater-level plan for the allied forces was necessary to coordinate the disposition and to control the deployment of land armies and naval ships of both nations that were stationed throughout the West Indies. The theater plan was worked out between Admiral de Grasse, commander of the French fleet in the West Indies, and Francisco Saavedra de Sangroins, the Spanish court representative and aide to the Spanish Governor of Louisiana, Bernardo de Gálvez. They agreed upon a general concept plan that became known later as the ‘De Grasse – Saavedra Convention'. The strategic theater objectives of this scheme were to guide the allied military and especially naval forces in the West Indies to accomplish the following objectives:
(1) To aid the Americans and defeat the British naval squadron at New York
(2) To capture British Windward Islands and
(3) To conquer Jamaica.
[See page 244 of Jonathan R. Dull's The French Navy and American Independence, A Study of Arms and Diplomacy, 1774-1787 (Princeton, NJ, 1975). Dull's work also covers how the objectives in the West Indies were in a constant flux and influenced by the larger geographic perspective of the war as seen in the courts at Paris and Madrid.]
The first objective was essentially met with the success of the Yorktown Campaign of 1781, where de Grasse did not ‘defeat' the British naval squadron that deployed from New York to the Chesapeake, but he did deny the British squadron from coming to the assistance of the besieged British army under Cornwallis. The result of this ‘indecisive' naval engagement ensured the complete surrender in October 1781 of roughly a third of the British army in North America to the combined French and American armies under Washington and Rochambeau.
De Grasse sailed from the Chesapeake 4 November 1781. Returning to Cap François, Saint Domingue [modern Haiti], de Grasse found that the French and Spanish governments had reviewed and approved, in October 1781, the concept proposed by himself and Saavedra. [See Dull, pages 248-249.]

The French and Spanish strategic plan was to proceed next with the conquest of Jamaica. To some degree, this was perceived in Paris and Madrid as an alternative to the disastrous progress of the allied attempts to take Gibraltar. While he waited for reinforcements to undertake the Jamaica campaign, de Grasse busied himself with taking a few British held islands in the Lesser Antilles during February 1782. He retired to Fort Royal, Martinique, and waited for the arrival of provisions and reinforcements from France, which were finally assembled by late March, 1782, both at Fort Royal and at Cap François. Jonathan Dull [pages 283-284] provides a strategic summary of the essential events:

"On 8 April de Grasse and his troop convoy sailed for Saint Domingue to rendezvous with the Spaniards and to collect the remainder of the troops. Despite being far behind schedule Gálvez intended to carry out the attack even if the rendezvous was not made until the last days of April. The French, however, had failed to collect sufficient forces to leave any margin for error. One of Rodney's 37 ships of the line was missing, but 3 of de Grasse's 36 were not with him – the Saint-Esprit, left for repair at Martinique, and his two 50s, used to cover the convoy. De Grasse might still have outrun Rodney had not collisions deprived him of three more of the line and delayed him until combat was unavoidable."
"The battle occurred on 12 April [1782] off the Îles des Saintes, just south of Guadeloupe. Rodney, fighting with a decisive edge in ships and cannon, captured 5 of the line including de Grasse's flagship the Ville-de-Paris. Rodney's squadron, however, was so badly damaged and the convoy and the scattered remnants of de Grasse's squadron safely reached Saint Domingue (except for 2 damaged ships of the line left behind before the battle, which were captured while attempting to rejoin). By the middle of May, 28 French ships of the line, 11 or 12 Spanish ships of the line, and the entire expeditionary force of 20,000 troops were assembled at Saint Domingue. Their commanders, Gálvez, Solano, and Commondore Vaudreuil (replacing the captured de Grasse) now were forced to decide what to do with this gigantic force before all the provisions of the colony were consumed. They decided to divide the troops among the Spanish and French Leeward Islands, to send Solano's squadron back to Havana, the worst of Vaudreuil's ships back to France as convoy escorts, and the pick of Vaudreuil's squadron to North America to obtain provisions and matériel"

As so many of today's popular articles and casual references to this battle have mis characterized the event as a destruction of the French naval forces in the West Indies, and some even suggest the total loss of the troops being transported, it is worth taking space here to review the outcome in a little more detail.

The French admiral De Grasse was attempting to move a large troop convoy [thirty-three ships the line and some smaller vessels escorting a hundred and fifty transports with troops, which were under special charge of two fifty-gun ships] from Martinique to join up with troops and ships at St. Domingue. The British admiral Rodney's mission was to prevent the link up, and if possible to capture or destroy the troop transports as well as the escorting French warships. Rodney managed to meet de Grasse's fleet on the morning of 9 April, between the islands of Guadeloupe and Dominica. The narrow water passage is named for the very small island group, Les Saintes, located there. De Grasse succeeded in saving the troop transports by sending them to harbor in nearby Guadeloupe, while he took his escorting warships to engage the British fleet.
It appears that de Grasse's intention was to draw the British fleet away from attacking the troop transports, while with his own lesser number of combatant ships he would out run the British, and then return to pick up the convoy. While the troop transports were saved, de Grasse's squadron was overtaken, in part due to some of the French ships colliding and de Grasse choosing to remain with them in an effort to fend off the pursuing, larger British force. There followed three days maneuvering between the ships and intermittent close actions. On 12 April a long and hard fought sea engagement ended in a naval disaster for the French admiral, who was captured with his flagship the Ville de Paris. Among the four other French ships also captured were ones carrying the siege artillery for the siege at Jamaica. Two other French ships, that had departed from the main fleet before the engagement, were captured by the British a week later.
Admiral Vaudreuil assumed command of the scattered French naval fleet. He had ten ships with him on 13 April as he headed for Cap François. En route he was joined by five more survivors. When he arrived at the harbor on St. Domingue he found waiting four other survivors from the French fleet that fought at the 12 April battle. Later, in May, six other ships which had sailed from the Saintes battle by way of Dutch Curaçao, arrived for a total number of survivors of twenty-five French ships. They were soon joined by twelve Spanish ships.
The fact that so many of the French ships – admittedly severely damaged and suffering considerable crew losses – were allowed to continue on without a more aggressive pursuit by the British led to severe criticism of Admiral Rodney, who certainly performed well during the tactical engagement.

Jonathan Dull's previously cited work examines the strategic aspects of the naval events in the war, and on pages 286 and 287 of his study:

"The battle of the Saints had not been decisive, but the Allies had to move quickly to reestablish the initiative.... Since ‘victory' and ‘defeat' are in large part an expression of psychological effects, it became quickly obvious that the Saintes was not a defeat on the order of Yorktown. Nevertheless, it was a serious check, which necessitated, above all, a plan for renewing the attack on Jamaica."

The British author Piers Mackesy's The War For America, 1775-1783 (University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln and London, 1993) concludes on page 458:

"By the end of the day, de Grasse was a prisoner and five French ships of the line were in Rodney's hands; two more were struck to Hood a week later. The survivors rallied under Vaudreuil at San Domingo [St Domingue], and with fresh arrival from Martinique they numbered twenty-six French ships and with a dozen Spaniards. ... The battle of the Saints had yielded a limited harvest, and the enemy [French] were not broken, ..."

The British naval victory did halt the immediate threat to Jamaica, but Rodney's failure to pursue aggressively and to destroy the French naval assets in the West Indies is repeatedly faulted by historians. As is repeatedly concluded, the combined allied naval assets and the available invasion troops remained a potentiality for a renewed attack. Excessive caution on part of the Allies, who were not fully aware of how the British naval assets were being pulled away to other areas, led to the French and Spanish preferring to assemble more naval reinforcements in the West Indies before launching another effort against Jamaica.

Alfred T. Mahan's The Major Operations of the Navies in the War of American Independence (London, 1913) provides a naval historian's perspective on the battle and is suggested reading for a tactical description of the engagement. While praising British seamanship in general and their commander's tactical skill in the battle, Mahan is also critical of Rodney's "ingenious suppositions" [p.223] that, after the 12 April battle, incorrectly perceived the French fleet as being more organized and formidable than was the case. Holding such a perception, and with much of his British fleet damaged, the British commander did not feel secure in conducting a pursuit. Again, on p.223, Mahan sums up his assessment: "That Jamaica even was saved was not due to this fine, but indecisive battle, but to the hesitation of the allies."
Later, on pages 225-226, Mahan continues to describe "... the ill-effects of Rodney's most imperfect success, that the British fleet was thenceforth on the defensive purely, with all the perplexities of him who waits upon the initiative of an opponent. Nothing came of them all, however, for the war now was but lingering in its death stupor. The defeat of de Grasse, partial though it was; the abandonment of the enterprise upon Jamaica; the failure of the attack upon Gibraltar; and the success of Howe in re-victualling that fortress, – these had taken all heart out of the French and Spaniards; while the numerical superiority of the allies, inefficiently though it had been used heretofore, weighed heavily upon the imagination of the British Government, which now had abandoned all hope of subduing its American Colonies."

 


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Posted 19 January 2004; revised 8 August 2004.