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Battle off La Désirade
9 March 1778




-Atlantic Ocean:-

Battle off La Désirade:

“. . . that damnd rascal . . . ran away . . .”

La Desirade, West Indies




1. Raleigh and Alfred at Sea, 29 December 1777-9 March 1778


When Captain Thomas Thompson of Continental Navy Ship Raleigh and Captain Elisha Hinman of Continental Navy Ship Alfred took their ships to sea on 29 December 1777, they were heartily sick of France and eagerly looked forward to returning home. The first part of the cruise was largely uneventful.


Continental Navy Ship Alfred, December 1777. Raleigh is visible in the distance. From a painting by Colonel Phillips Melville USAF, published in Alfred: The First Continental Flagship, 1175-1778. Author John J. McCusker notes she is shown against the Brittany coast as she sailed for home in December 1777. This is a modern, although carefully researched, interpretation.


The little American squadron apparently came close to taking a prize soon after sailing. The 120-ton brig Eagle (J. Morgan), bound from Yarmouth, England to Genoa and Leghorn, was captured on 30 December 1777, by two American “privateers,” one of thirty-two and the other of twenty guns. The Americans were unable to take possession of the Eagle, presumably because of bad weather. The prize eluded her captors in the night and bad weather and got away.1


Two large French ships sailed on 31 December from L’Orient and joined the Americans, which, apparently, were to serve as escorts out of European waters. These were the ship Lyon, a three decked vessel of 1100 tons, mounting forty guns with a crew of 200 men and commanded by J. Michel. Michel had a “defensive” commission and a cargo of European and India goods. The other vessel was the 20 or 24-gun ship Vicomte de Vaux (Pierre Marie Donat de La Garde), bound for Chesapeake Bay. These ships stayed with Alfred and Raleigh until about 13 January 1778.2


Raleigh and Alfred steered south for the Guinea coast.3 By about the middle of January 1778 they were off the mouth of the Senegal River. A sloop with a cargo of wine was captured at anchor, and then course was set for the Windward Islands in the West Indies.4

2. Action off La Désirade, 9 March 1778

On 9 March 1778 the two Continentals were at 16o31'N, 55o40'W (according to Captain Thompson).5 More accurately, they were  about 200 miles north of Barbados and about 125 miles east of Guadeloupe, to the windward of La Désirade.6 The day dawned with moderate and fair weather.7 In the early morning, at 0600, Raleigh’s lookouts saw two sail away to the west northwest. Alfred was trailing behind Raleigh, as was usually the case.8 The two strangers were sailing across the projected course of the American ships.


Thompson and Hinman had found HM Frigate Ariadne (Captain Thomas Pringle), a small 20-gun ship with a reputation as a very fast sailer,9 and HM Sloop Ceres (Commander James Richard Dacres), an 18-gun ship.10 Pringle was a very professional and able captain, and had commanded the British fleet to victory in the Lake Champlain campaign of 1776. Dacres was a veteran of the same campaign. The British vessels were decidedly inferior to the Americans in firepower, fifty-two to thirty-eight.


The British ships had also sighted the Americans at 0600. Pringle later stated they were seen to the east11 and Ariadne’s log indicates a sighting of two sail in the northeast.12 Ceres’s log indicates two sail were sighted at 0500, in the northeast quarter, but it is unlikely to have been quite so early.13 Following Pringle’s orders, both British vessels began to chase.14


At 0730 Raleigh hove to, awaiting the slower Alfred. Thompson had seen that the strangers had closed up and were standing north, close hauled to the wind.15 This in itself would indicate that they were probably warships, and most likely British.


When the Raleigh and Alfred were close enough the two captains conferred. Hinman asked Thompson what he thought of the two ships; Thompson replied that he was unsure at that distance, but “we would go down and see what they were and then determining accordingly, desired him to go down to the sternmost ship . . .” If the trailing ship was the largest, Thompson said he would make for her. Hinman said he would go down and observe Thompson’s “motions.” By 1000 the Continentals were about five or six miles away from the two strangers, and it was clear by now that they were armed vessels.16


Thompson now hauled his wind on the same tack as the two British ships, that is, to the north. The British vessels were to leeward of the Americans, who thus had the better tactical position. Thompson wanted to get a longer and better look at their sailing qualities and strength before committing to battle. Alfred was trailing Raleigh on her weather quarter.17 This was probably the maneuver that Pringle interpreted as showing an American “disposition” to attack, as he later stated.18


Pringle promptly tacked again, “trying to work up and get our wakes” according to Thompson. If the wind was from the northeast, as it usually was in this area, the British were now steering to the southeast, attempting to close ground to windward. Raleigh stood on and held her position, but the abysmal sailing Alfred fell behind and to leeward, closing with Pringle’s Ariadne, and following Thompson’s orders to look over the enemy.19


At 1100 Ariadne fired two shots at the headmost American ship (Raleigh), as a signal to heave to. Thompson ignored them, and probably didn’t even see them. At 1130 Pringle signaled to the Ceres to tack, presumably turning to the north at the same time. At 1200 Pringle ordered Ceres to tack again, to the southeast, presumably.20 Both British vessels took their noon positions: Ariadne indicated she was 201 miles north of Barbados21 and Ceres showed a position of 17°34'N.22


Meanwhile, to Thompson, it appeared that Ceres was four miles to leeward of Ariadne (about six miles from Alfred), and Raleigh was three miles ahead of Alfred. Thompson prepared to tack and stand down (that is, turn south) to the Alfred, when both could attack the Ariadne.23 Pringle made sail and stood north, as if intent on closing. This was Pringle’s second tack. Thompson judged that the other ship (Ceres) would be two hours in closing.24


On her third tack the Ariadne passed under Alfred’s lee, standing south, distant about two miles. Hinman hoisted the American colors and fired a few shots at Ariadne, opening the battle.25 Ceres log indicates the time was about 1200, and noted the weather was clear with light breezes.26 Recalling that Ceres’s log time was off an hour would make this about 1100. Pringle ran up British colors and fired off a reply to Alfred’s shots.27


At 1230 Ceres passed by and alongside the Alfred, which hoisted American colors and fired a broadside at her in passing.28 Alfred now stood off before the wind (light, from the east northeast), crowding on her light sails to escape.29 This maneuver took her across the projected track of the British, following their next tack, and startled the undecided Thompson (“I had not determined in my own mind wat was to be done.”)30 One can assume that Hinman, in the slow and cranky Alfred was doing his best to escape in the absence of any sign of assistance from Raleigh.


It was obvious to Thompson that Alfred could neither escape from both British ships, nor engage only one, while Raleigh could fight one or escape both. The Ceres, now bearing southwest from Raleigh was steering to cut off the Alfred. Thompson’s hesitancy had provoked Hinman to steer into Pringle’s grasp. Amazingly, Thompson now hauled up his courses, the traditional way of inviting battle. He hoped to lure Ariadne to attack him while leaving Alfred to engage Ceres alone; “but they both made toward the Alfred.” Thompson now veered and stood down for the Alfred to come between her and the Ceres.31


Although it is not so stated, the British must have now tacked again, chasing the Alfred, which was now steering an intersecting course. Pringle ignored Thompson’s maneuvers and both British vessels closed on Alfred. At first Hinman gained on his pursuers, but in a few minutes (about 1250) both British came up alongside.32 Thompson reported that the British began a “furious” fire on the Alfred, which Hinman returned. Raleigh was finally turning about but Hinman was presumably too busy to notice. Thompson set his studding sails to close quickly, but not quickly enough: Hinman, assailed on both sides, surrendered at 1300, after, said Thompson, a ten minute fight.33


The British accounts indicate that both Ceres and Ariadne got alongside the Alfred at 1300, when a general action began.34 Pringle stated that Alfred gave and received a number of broadsides35 before she surrendered at 1330,36 a full half hour after the fight began. Thompson, who evaluated the British as superior in force, was still three miles away when Hinman struck.37 The next the British saw of Raleigh, she was making off.38


The British quickly sent boats over to the Alfred to take possession and to remove the prisoners. Pringle reported Alfred as armed with twenty 9-pounders and as having a crew of 181 men aboard. She was later noted as measuring 300 tons.39 Most of these men were removed to the Ariadne, including all the principal officers.40 Fifty-nine of the crew were placed on the Ceres.41 No mention of any casualties in the fight itself was made in any source, British or American. By 1500 the prisoners had been removed and Ariadne began chasing the Raleigh.42 At 1700 Ceres took in her boats and joined Ariadne in chasing the fleeing Raleigh.43


Meanwhile, Thompson turned Raleigh on the smooth sea and fled. Ariadne pursued with determination, followed by Ceres and Alfred. Alfred, which had been keeping company, fell behind and was lost to Pringle’s sight at 2100.44 Thompson threw everything possible overboard to lighten his ship and escape. Pringle broke off the pursuit at 1000 on 10 March, turning south to regain his station. He was “exceedingly chagrined to find that even a Copper bottom could not outsail a Ship tho’ reduced by lightening to the quality of a skimming dish.”45


Hinman ever believed that Thompson had deserted him.46 When Hinman boarded Ariadne after the battle he was introduced to Captain Thomas Pringle. Referring to Thompson the British captain asked who “that damnd rascal was who ran away?” Hinman replied “Sir, he is your countryman.” Pringle answered that “He is a rascal, come from where he may.” Hinman then added: “Had I his ship, I would have taken you, Sir.” Pringle thought that was boasting: “That is loud talking, Capt Hinman.” Hinman stated the force of the Raleigh and asked Pringle if he, Pringle, commanded such a ship did he not think he could have captured the two British vessels. Pringle thought he could have, to which Hinman added, “I think I could do as much as you.” Pringle concluded “I believe you can.”47


3. Aftermath


Ariadne and Ceres proceeded to Barbados, accompanied by Alfred. On 13 March the three encountered HMS Yarmouth, and continued on.48 Alfred arrived at Barbados with her captors later that day.49 Yarmouth arrived on 14 March.50 Vincent, reporting on his cruise on 17 March, noted the Alfred as having twenty guns and a crew of 180 men.51


At Barbados, the officers were transferred to HMS Yarmouth (Captain Nicholas Vincent). One officer, Second Lieutenant of Marines Nathaniel Richards, was released at Barbados, on the intercession of both the English Captain Vincent and of Hinman. Hinman wanted him to go to America and inform the Navy Board of the Eastern Department of Thompson’s behavior.52 From Barbados the officers were transported  to England, arriving at Gosport53 before being confined to Forton Prison.54 on 18 July 1778.55 Hinman was brought before a Scotch judge for examination at Gosport, where he allegedly won over the judge with his Yankee humor.56


One week later Hinman escaped.57 He left some money for his officers, bribed a guard with ten guineas, and walked out of jail at night. He walked in rain for ten miles, found a lodging place near London, and contacted people who helped him get to France three weeks later.58 Hinman took passage home from France in Continental Navy Ship Providence (Captain Abraham Whipple).59 First Lieutenant Peter Richards was also committed to Forton Prison on the 18th. He later escaped.60 Captain of Marines John Welsh, committed to Forton at the same time as the others, also later escaped.61 Other officers got away at different times and worked their way back to America.62


Of the 116 prisoners aboard the Ariadne, all were shown as discharged at Barbados, presumably to the local jail.63 Ceres’s muster table is a bit more informative. Of her fifty-nine prisoners, five were discharged to HM Sloop Fly on 15 March, presumably to enter the Royal Navy; two joined the Loyal Nova Scotia Volunteers the same day; Midshipman Peter Arnold and four sailors were retained aboard and entered the British merchant service on 9 April 1778; and the remaining forty-seven went to Barbados jail on 16 March 1778.64 The British, however,  lacked facilities in the West Indies to handle many prisoners and the crew gained their release almost immediately.65


The news of Alfred’s capture spread rather quickly. It was known on St. Vincent by 12 March,66and had reached New York by 21 March 1778.67 The Philadelphia papers had it by 22 April 1778. [The Philadelphia Ledger, or the Philadelphia Market-Day Advertiser, 22 April 1778]


As for the Alfred, what happened to her is not clear. According to one historian she was possibly sold at Barbados, presumably to someone who lived on Grenada. Pringle, still commanding Ariadne, escorted her there.68 However, that may not be the case. A vessel called the Alfred was tried in the Admiralty Court in England in July 1778. This is possibly our ship. The dates match with the timing that the prisoners were committed to jail.69 If so she was eventually condemned and sold. Ariadne’s master’s log for 6 November 1778 records that the ship’s company received twelve dollars and five bits a “fore mast” man for the Alfred.70 According to the modern Dictionary of American Naval Ships, she was taken into the Royal Navy as HM Armed Ship Alfred, 20 guns.71


The Marine Committee heard of the loss of the Alfred with distress and irritation. On 28 April 1778 the Marine Committee notified Massachusetts Continental Agent John Bradford, noting that the loss was to be inquired into, along with Thompson’s conduct.72 On 8 May 1778 the Marine Committee ordered the Navy Board of the Eastern District to suspend Thompson from command pending a court of inquiry.73 Thompson was duly tried and cashiered from the Navy.


Hinman’s court-martial for loss of the Alfred was convened on 12 February 1779, aboard Continental Navy Ship Providence, at Boston. Captain Abraham Whipple presided. The charges were preferred by Thomas Thompson, who had already been cashiered out of the Navy for his behavior in command of the Raleigh. Thompson charged Hinman with dis-obedience of orders, neglect of duty, and unprecedented conduct. The court “duly and maturely” considered the evidence and “fully and clearly” decided that Hinman was not guilty of any charges. Hinman was acquitted with “the highest honor,” the court “approving the whole of his conduct on the 9th of March 1778, he having behaved himself according to the strictest rules of naval discipline and agreeable in all respects to the 27th Article of the Rules and Regulations of the Continental Navy.” The decision was published in the Boston papers on 18 February 1779.74


Thompson publicly attacked the court’s decision in the press. He pointed out irregularities in the trial and noted that Hinman had come home from France in the Providence, commanded by Whipple. The majority of the court’s members had thus heard Hinman’s account numerous times “and they must be prejudiced in his Favour, by hearing his account of the matter to often on the passage.” On 18 March 1779 Thompson had the dissenting opinion of Captain Henry Johnson, who believed Hinman “had borne away before the wind and commenced an engagement with the British, without any orders from Thompson. Johnson noted that Hinman had called a council of his officers, “at a time by no means critical or dangerous . . . being entirely subversive of all order and discipline . . .”  Johnson thought Hinman was clearly guilty.75



1  NDAR, “The London Chronicle, Tuesday, February 24, to Thursday, February 26, 1778,” XI, 1046 and notes

2  NDAR, “News from New London,” XI, 629 and notes

3  NDAR, “Captain Thomas Pringle, R.N., to Vice Admiral James Young,” XI, 708-709 and 709 note

4  The Independent Chronicle and the Universal Advertiser, April 9, 1778; Allen, Naval History of the American Revolution, i, 301

5  Allen, Naval History of the American Revolution, i, 301 and The Continental Journal, April 30, 1778, both extracts from Thompson’s letter to the Navy Board of the Eastern District. Thompson’s position was far off the mark in regard to longitude. He reported that he was at 16o31'N, 55o40'W, about six hundred miles east of Guadeloupe. [Allen, Naval History of the American Revolution, i, 301] Guadeloupe is a large island, the northernmost part being about 16o30'N. Clearly Thompson and Hinman were running down the latitude, a common way of navigating in the eighteenth century. Finding longitude was notoriously unreliable at that time. It is likely that the Americans were further west than anticipated. Moreover, the position given by Thompson is likely to be the noon reading from the day before. According to the log of the Ceres, she was at 15°09'N, north of Barbados, at noon on 8 March. [NDAR, “Journal of H.M. Sloop Ceres, Commander James R. Dacres,” XI, 575 and notes] Ariadne, in company with Ceres, reported that Barbados bore SW by west, distant 129 miles at the same time. [NDAR, “Journal of H.M.S. Ariadne, Captain Thomas Pringle,” XI, 575 and notes] In general it appears that the American latitude was more correct, but the longitude was far off.

6  The Independent Chronicle and the Universal Advertiser, April 9, 1778

7  NDAR, “Journal of H.M.S. Ariadne, Captain Thomas Pringle,” XI, 575 and notes

8  Allen, Naval History of the American Revolution, i, 301

9  NDAR, “Vice Admiral James Young to Philip Stephens,”IX, 121-122

10  McCusker, 14, 15; Clowes, IV, 10. Dacres was a veteran of the Lake Champlain campaign. McCusker, 14, gives Ceres sixteen guns.

11  NDAR, “Captain Thomas Pringle, R.N., to Vice Admiral James Young,” XI, 708-709 and 709 note

12  NDAR, “Journal of H.M.S. Ariadne, Captain Thomas Pringle,” XI, 575 and notes

13  NDAR, “Journal of H.M. Sloop Ceres, Commander James R. Dacres,” XI, 575 and notes

14  NDAR, “Journal of H.M.S. Ariadne, Captain Thomas Pringle,” XI, 575 and notes; “Journal of H.M. Sloop Ceres, Commander James R. Dacres,” XI, 575 and notes

15  Allen, Naval History of the American Revolution, i, 301 and The Continental Journal, April 30, 1778, both extracts from Thompson’s letter to the Navy Board of the Eastern District

16  Allen, Naval History of the American Revolution, i, 301 and The Continental Journal, April 30, 1778, both extracts from Thompson’s letter to the Navy Board of the Eastern District

17  Allen, Naval History of the American Revolution, i, 301 and The Continental Journal, April 30, 1778, both extracts from Thompson’s letter to the Navy Board of the Eastern District

18  NDAR, “Captain Thomas Pringle, R.N., to Vice Admiral James Young,” XI, 708-709 and 709 note

19  Allen, Naval History of the American Revolution, i, 301 and The Continental Journal, April 30, 1778, both extracts from Thompson’s letter to the Navy Board of the Eastern District

20  NDAR, “Journal of H.M.S. Ariadne, Captain Thomas Pringle,” XI, 575 and notes

21  NDAR, “Journal of H.M.S. Ariadne, Captain Thomas Pringle,” XI, 575 and notes

22  NDAR, “Journal of H.M. Sloop Ceres, Commander James R. Dacres,” XI, 575 and notes

23  Allen, Naval History of the American Revolution, i, 302

24  Smith, Marines in the Revolution, 166

25  Allen, Naval History of the American Revolution, i, 301

26  NDAR, “Journal of H.M. Sloop Ceres, Commander James R. Dacres,” XI, 575 and notes

27  Allen, Naval History of the American Revolution, i, 302

28  NDAR, “Journal of H.M.S. Ariadne, Captain Thomas Pringle,” XI, 575 and notes

29  Allen, Naval History of the American Revolution, i, 302

30  Smith, Marines In the Revolution, 166

31  Allen, Naval History of the American Revolution, i, 302

32  Allen, Naval History of the American Revolution, i, 302

33  Allen, Naval History of the American Revolution, i, 302

34  NDAR, “Journal of H.M.S. Ariadne, Captain Thomas Pringle,” XI, 575 and notes

35  NDAR, “Captain Thomas Pringle, R.N., to Vice Admiral James Young,” XI, 708-709 and 709 note

36  NDAR, “Journal of H.M.S. Ariadne, Captain Thomas Pringle,” XI, 575 and notes; “Captain Thomas Pringle, R.N., to Vice Admiral James Young,” XI, 708-709 and 709 note

37  Allen, Naval History of the American Revolution, I, 303-304

38  NDAR, “Journal of H.M.S. Ariadne, Captain Thomas Pringle,” XI, 575 and notes

39  NDAR, “Journal of H.M.S. Ariadne, Captain Thomas Pringle,” XI, 575 and notes

40  NDAR, “A List of 181 Prisoners Taken out of the Rebel Ship Alfred, Victuald at 2/3d Allowance,” XI, 577-582

41  NDAR, “A List of 181 Prisoners Taken out of the Rebel Ship Alfred, Victuald at 2/3d Allowance,” XI, 577-582; “Muster Table of H.M. Sloop Ceres,” XI, 583-585

42  NDAR, “Journal of H.M.S. Ariadne, Captain Thomas Pringle,” XI, 575 and notes

43  NDAR, “Journal of H.M. Sloop Ceres, Commander James R. Dacres,” XI, 575 and notes

44  NDAR, “Journal of H.M.S. Ariadne, Captain Thomas Pringle,” XI, 575 and notes

45   NDAR, “Captain Thomas Pringle, R.N., to Vice Admiral James Young,” XI, 708-709 and 709 note

46  Morgan, Captains to the Northward, 124

47  Morgan, Captains to the Northward, 125

48  NDAR, “Journal of H>M.S. Yarmouth, Captain Nicholas Vincent,” XI, 638 and notes

49  NDAR, “Governor Edward Hay to Lord George Germain,” XI, 810-811 and 811 note

50  NDAR, “Journal of H>M.S. Yarmouth, Captain Nicholas Vincent,” XI, 646-647 and 647 notes

51  NDAR, “Captain Nicholas Vincent, R.N., to Vice Admiral James Young,” XI, 683-684 and 684 note

52  Smith, Marines in the Revolution, 167

53  Morgan, Captains to the Northward, 126

54  Morgan, Captains to the Northward, 125

55  Smith, Marines in the Revolution, 167; Kaminkow, Mariners of the American Revolution, 90

56  Morgan, Captains to the Northward, 126

57  Kaminkow, Mariners of the American Revolution, 90

58  Morgan, Captains to the Northward, 126. A different tale is told in McCusker, 14: “in less than a week they [the officers] bribed their jailors and got free by means of a hole through their chamber floor.”

59  Morgan, Captains to the Northward, 155

60  Kaminkow, Mariners of the American Revolution, 161

61  Kaminkow, Mariners of the American Revolution, 202

62  Second Lieutenant of Marines William Hamilton was committed on 18 July 1778. It is not recorded that he escaped. Kaminkow, Mariners of the American Revolution, 82

63  NDAR, “A List of 181 Prisoners Taken out of the Rebel Ship Alfred, Victuad at 2/3d Allowance,” XI, 577-582 and 582 note

64  NDAR, “Muster Table of H.M. Sloop Ceres,” XI, 583-585

65  McCusker, John J., Alfred, The First Continental Flagship 1775-1778, 14

66  NDAR, “Governor Valentine Morris to Lord George Germain,” XI, 624 and 625 notes

67  NDAR, “Extract of a letter from a Gentleman in Antigua, dated February 12,” XI, 329 and note

68  McCusker, 14

69  Kaminkow, 219

70  McCusker, 14-15 and 18n29. McCusker concludes that this was about £2800 for the two ship’s share of Alfred. This statement of the Ariadne’s master is based on Spanish milled dollars, not the currency of the United States.

71  DANFS, “Alfred,” http://www.history.navy.mil/danfs/a6/alfred.htm, 16 January 2007

72  NRAR, 71

73  NRAR, 72

74  The Continental Journal and the Weekly Advertiser [Boston], 18 February 1779; The Independent Chronicle and the Universal Advertiser [Boston], 18 February 1779

75  The Independent Chronicle and the Universal Advertiser [Boston], March 18, 1779; The Continental Journal and the Weekly Advertiser [Boston], March 18, 1779


Revised 6 August 2014 © awiatsea.com