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Beaumarchais Contract / Continental Privateer Ship L’Alexandre





L’Alexandre [Alexander]
Frigate

(1) [unknown]

Beaumarchais Contract Ship

 

Commerce Committee Ship

(2) Commander Stephen Gregory

Continental Privateer Ship

8 July 1782-12 December 1782


Commissioned/First Date:

1781

Out of Service/Cause:

12 December 1782/captured by HM Frigate Mediator


Owners:

Caron de Beaumarchais; John Joseph de Monthieu, both of France


Tonnage:

600 tonneaux


Battery:

Date Reported: October 1782

Number/Caliber  Weight         Broadside

24/9-pounder      216 pounds 108 pounds

Total: 24 cannon/216 pounds

Broadside: 12 cannon/108 pounds

Swivels:


Date Reported: 12 December 1782

Number/Caliber  Weight         Broadside

24/9-pounder      216 pounds 108 pounds

Total: 24 cannon/216 pounds

Broadside: 12 cannon/108 pounds

Swivels:


Crew:

(1) October 1782: 85-130 [total] (2) 12 December 1782: 102 [total]


Description:


Officers:

(1) “Ensign” Chevalier Barrè, -12 December 1782


Cruises:

(1) Bayonne, France to Nantes, France

(2) [Nantes, France to Chesapeake Bay]

(3) [Chesapeake Bay to Bayonne. France]

(4) Bayonne, France to La Rochelle, France, [September] 1782-[September] 1782

(5) La Rochelle, France to Bordeaux, France, October 1782-20 October 1782

(6) Bordeaux, France to sea, 9 December 1782-12 December 1782


Prizes:


Actions:

(1) Fight off La Rochelle, [September] 1782
(2) Fight off Cape Ortegal, 12 December 1782


Comments:



L’Alexandre was described as a “corvette,” purchased at Bayonne, France in 1781. She was sent to Nantes, France and armed and outfitted there by John Joseph de Monthieu, a ship broker with a connection to Pierre-Augustin, Caron de Beaumarchais, the ostensible owner of the “commercial” firm of  Rodrigue Hortalez et Cie. She was described as a ship of about 600 tonneaux, manned with between eighty-five and 240 men and armed with twenty-four 9-pounders.1 Presumably she was leased to Beaumarchais.2 She may have sailed to the Chesapeake, returned to La Rochelle, and was in Bordeaux in mid 1782.3


 

Detail from the Thomas Luny painting below.L’Alexandre in battle. Note the blue and white stripes.

 

 

 
 

Detail from the contemporary print below of the fight with Mediator.

 

 

Beaumarchais manned the ship with Americans. To skipper the vessel, Stephen Gregory was selected. He was probably already in Beaumarchais’s employ, and had been Third Lieutenant on the Continental Navy Ship Confederacy. On 8 July 1782 Beaumarchais and “Etienne” Gregory signed bonds for a privateer commission, which they filed with Benjamin Franklin, for “the frigate ‘The Alexander.’”4


Gregory’s first mission was to move L’Alexandre to Bordeaux, to take on a cargo there. Joseph Hardy, a fellow officer on the Confederacy, later described the trip. “On his route from Bayonne to Bordeaux in the month of October following with several vessels under his convoy he fell in with and engaged an enemy’s cruiser his ship was considerably damaged in the action which obliged him to put into Rochelle Whether from that ship's being so much disabled or what other circumstance 1 cannot recollect but Mr Gregory was turned over to another ship of twenty guns at Bordeaux . . .”6 But Hardy was incorrect about the second ship.


Beaumarchais, at Bordeaux to fit out and load several of his ships, described the action by L’Alexandre and her damages on 19 October in a letter to Francy: “She fought (could you believe it?) In the sight of four French frigates, and of a vessel of 64 guns, who did not make the least movement to help her. When the captain complained of it at Rochefort, they told him he ought to have made signals. The captain replied, very justly, that the noise and the fire of the cannons were the best signals he could have made”7


As for the damages, “She has nothing in her wood, but her tackle, sails and masts are destroyed.” Gregory gave his opinion of L’Alexandre’s sailing qualities: “like a basket without a bottom . . . but she keeps a more even keel than the ‘Eugénie;’ she arrives in the river tomorrow from Rochelle.8 Another translation of Gregory’s phrase was that she sailed like a “tub full of holes.”9


The only other known officer was the Chevalier Barrè, who served aboard as an “Ensign.”10


L’Alexander sailed from the mouth of the Gironde with other vessels in an “armed convoy” on 9 December 1782.11 The convoy was thus composed of:


(1) Beaumarchais Contract Ship L’Alexandre (Commander Stephen Gregory). Gregory had an American privateer commission issued in France12 (a “Congress” commission).13 Gregory had a mixed American and French crew14 for this voyage numbering about 100 men. She had a cargo of stores and provisions and was bound for Port-au-Prince, Saint Domingue, in the French West Indies,15 but more likely for Cap François16 and then to America.


(2) Beaumarchais Contract Ship L’Aimable Eugénie (or La Eugénie17, Nicolas Baudin),18 500 tonneaux, which had only eight guns.19 According to the British she was a frigate built ship of thirty-six guns and 130 men, with a cargo for the “French king,” and also bound for Port-au-Prince,20 but again more likely for Cap François21 and then to America.


(3) Beaumarchais Contract Ship La Ménagère (François Jérome Foligné-Deschalonges),22 600 tonneaux, was armed with twenty-two 12-pounders.23 According to the British she was a two decked vessel the length of a 64-gun ship, armed en flûte,24 with twenty-six 12-pounders on her main deck and four 6-pounders on her forecastle and quarterdeck. La Ménagère had a crew of 212 men and was bound for Port-au-Prince with gunpowder, naval stores and bale goods.25 Again, she was probably bound, eventually, for America


(4) the French Transport Ship Dauphin Royal (Antoine Chambert), purchased and armed at Bordeaux for the Marine Royale, 300 tonneaux and sixty men.26 According to the British she had twenty-eight guns and a crew of 120 men.27 She was bound for the East Indies.28


(5) an unknown American privateer brig with fourteen guns and seventy men.29


Meanwhile, HM Frigate Mediator (Captain the Honourable James Luttrell) was patrolling off the port of El Ferrol, Spain on 6 December 1782. On speaking a neutral vessel Luttrell was informed that an American “frigate” was ready to sail from Bordeaux, France.30 Several other vessels were to sail with the American, and the neutral vessel was able to inform Luttrell of their armament, cargo and destination.31 The wind was from the east: perfect for the American vessel to sail. Luttrell turned to the south in hopes of getting into the American’s track.32 HMS Vainqueur was in the general area, also on patrol, but was not present at the time.33


At 0700 on 12 December, Mediator discovered five sail on her lee beam and Luttrell immediately turned and gave chase. An hour later the hulls of the five appeared above water. The vessels were “forming in a close Line of Battle, and shortened Sail to their Topsails to wait for us . . .”34 The British were about fifty miles north of Cape Ortegal.35


According to the British, L’Aimable Eugénie led the line of battle, flying a French pendant and ensign, followed by the unknown American brig, flying American colors. Next was La Ménagère, flying a French pendant and ensign, followed by L’Alexandre, showing a French pendant and American ensign. Finally came the Dauphin Royal, flying French colors and pendant.36 This would be exactly right: the heaviest ship in the center, probably the “commodore,” preceded by the weaker ships and followed the next strongest and another weaker ship.37


Luttrell describes his thoughts as he approached the rear of the enemy line: “And having determined, without losing a Moment’s Time, to endeavour to throw their Squadron into Confusion, and, if possible, to take Advantage of some of them; and relying on the good Sailing of the Mediator to bring her off, if I could not see a Probability of Success after a few Broadsides; I continued bearing down, with all Sail set, on the Enemy, except such Sails as might be in theWay of quick Manoeuvres . . .”38


As Mediator approached within gunshot range, about 1000, La Ménagère fired a few random shots from her upper deck. Luttrell decided that she had no lower deck guns, although they certainly looked “compleat to the Eye.” The British ship continued to tack, wear ship and generally close down towards the line. Some of the other vessels began a random fire at the Mediator. At 1030 Mediator had closed and was approaching the rear of the line. The line now “broke, the Brig and Dauphin Royal crouding Sail away from the Rest; upon which the Menagere, Eugene, and Alexander wore under an easy Sail.”39


At 1100 Mediator bore down and drove into the enemy, splitting L’Alexandre from the other two ships. Luttrell said he “cut off the Alexander from her Consorts, employed fighting both Sides occasionally; and the first Broadside, when very close to the Alexander, made her strike her American Colours, and let fly her Sheets; the Menagere and Eugene, after firing at us for some Time, crouded all Sail, and went away before the Wind . . .”40


The Chevalier Barrè, serving aboard L’Alexandre as an ensign, records this phase of the action: “The Mediator came up with us on the 12th December 1782 at nine o clock in the morning we being then to leeward of her in company with the Menagere a vessel armed en flute belonging to the King of France on her way to America The Menagere left us after firing the first shot making a signal for safety the Sieur Gregory would not attempt to escape but held out as long as he could however two shots between wind and water and the inequality of force obliged us to strike to avoid being sunk.”41


To the left of the center of the painting, the Mediator is firing from both sides. Left of this, the privateer L’Alexandre is capitulating. To the right the Mediator is also engaging a French ship L’Amiable Eugénie, flying a commodore’s pendant and visible amidst the swirl of gunsmoke. To her right is another Frenchman La Ménagère, which is running before the wind in an attempt to escape. The two ships trying to escape in the distance on the right are the French ship Dauphin Royal and an American brig. It is signed and dated “T Luny 1783.” The caption seems to be however, reversed. La Ménagère is the large ship engaged to the right of Mediator, while L’Amiable Eugénie runs away. From the National Maritime Museum (Britain) http://www.nmm.ac.uk/collections/explore/object.cfm?ID=BHC0455.

 

Mediator hove to in order to secure her prize. A prize crew of twenty men quickly boarded L’Alexandre and laid her head towards the fleeing French ships. Mediator quickly removed 100 prisoners from the prize.42 The Chevalier Barrè records that the “ship’s boats came immediately on board and their people treated us exceedingly ill killed two of our men and made us embark without allowing us to take the smallest part of our effects When we arrived on board the ship the captain put us in the boatswain's store room and kept us there until night at midnight we were ordered upon deck and were sent into the gunner’s room . . .”43 At 1230 Luttrell made sail and began to chase after the French, leaving L’Alexandre to follow, or to steer for England if necessary. She was soon hull down from the Mediator.44


Another version of the fight from a contemporary lithograph. L’Alexandre is to the right. The double line of gunports on Mediator can clearly be seen. “A View of His Majesty's Ship Mediator commanded by the Honblt James Luttrell, Attacking Five Sail of the Enemy on the 12th of Decr 1782, & throwing their Line into Confusion where by Two of them was Captured; Viz: the Menagere the size of Sixty Four Gun Ship, arm'd on Flute; and the Alexander of 28 Guns. Robert Dodd, 1783.”

 

In a classic maneuver the French decided to split up. At 1500 L’ Amiable Eugénie hauled her wind and parted from La Ménagère. Mediator continued after the bigger ship. At 1700 Luttrell opened fire on the French vessel, in order to “prevent her aiming at bur Masts, by covering ourselves with Smoke. At Half past Five had gained very considerably on the Menagere, and occasionally fired Broadsides at each other.”45


At 1800 an accident nearly put an end to the pursuit. “At Six a sudden Squall caught me, with Three of my Lower Deckers run out, and obliged me to put before the Wind, the Water rushing in till Knee-deep on the Deck, but with the Chain Pumps we soon cleared our Ship, and as soon as she was safe I hauled towards the Enemy, crouding Sail to regain her.”46


At 1900 the Mediator again closed up on La Ménagère and the action began again. Luttrell reported that they began “to fire at each other, and our Main-top-gallant-Mast and Fore-top-gallant-Yard were shot away: Continued constantly firing at each other till Nine, when I had got within Pistol-Shot of the Menagere’s Quarter, and put my Helm a-weather to.pour in a Broadside of Round and Grape Shot from all my Guns, which she, being aware of, threw up in the Wind, hauled down her Colours, and hailed that she had struck.” And none too soon for Luttrell, as the entrance to El Ferrol was only five miles away.47


Since Luttrell believed that the Spanish in El Ferrol would have heard the sound of the guns he felt the need to make haste in getting the Mediator and her prize away from the land. Mediator had not escaped unscathed for her “Fore Shrouds” and a “great Deal of Running Rigging” had been shot away. Within two hours the rigging was temporarily repaired and two hundred prisoners received from La Ménagère. Fifty British sailors went aboard as the prize crew. About 2100 L’Alexandre joined the Mediator, and all three ships stood to the west, to clear away from the shore.48


A more detailed survey of Mediator’s damage was taken. The French had aimed at her rigging, intending to cripple the big 44-gun ship so they could escape. Her main topgallant mast, studding sail and yard, fore topgallant yard, topmast, and lower rigging and running rigging in general had all been shot away or damaged, Her sails were shot up and there were a few shot in the bows. Not a man had been killed or wounded. La Ménagère had one passenger killed, three sailors killed and seven or eight wounded. L’Alexandre had six sailors killed and eight or nine wounded.49


At daybreak the three were fifteen to eighteen miles off the island of Sisargo [Illas Sasargas, Spain]. In the offing, Luttrell could see the Dauphin Royal, with her main topmast gone, and seemingly, otherwise damaged. She seemed to be steering in toward the coast. The American brig was also seen, missing all her upper masts. She seemed to be steering for Bordeaux. With so many prisoners aboard, over 340, and only 190 of his own men left, Luttrell was forced to let them go.50


Gregory was not quite done fighting as yet. In Luttrell’s words: “On the 14th of December, at Ten P. M. Captain Stephen Gregory, of the Alexander, laid a Plot to occasion the Prisoners to rise, and hoped to have taken the Mediator from me; but through the indefatigable Attention of Lieutenant Rankin, of the Marines, in the Disposal and Regulation of Centries, &c. as a Guard, and the lucky Precaution we had taken of ordering the Gratings of all the Hatches in the Lower Gun Deck to be battoned down with Capstan Bars, leaving Room for only One Man at a Time to come up abaft, where, in Case of an Alarm, we had fixed our Rendezvous, the desperate Scheme of Gregory was prevented without Bloodshed, the Prisoners finding no Passage where they could get up. The Alarm he fixed on was, to fire an Eighteen Pounder Gun in the Gun-Room where he lay, for he messed with my Lieutenants, and had received every friendly Attention. At Ten at Night I felt a terrible Shock from some Explosion, and heard a Cry of Fire: I was soon after informed, that the Lee Port was blown away by the Gun into the. Sea, and the Water making in. As soon as I had wore Ship on the other Tack, to get the Port Hole covered with Tarpaulins, and secured, I went down, found the Gun-Room on Fire, and every Thing shattered that was near the Explosion; Gregory, with his Accomplice, dressed, though they had pretended to go to Bed ; and in their Cot was found Gunpowder, which they had provided to prime the Gun with; and, in short, every Proof necessary for a Conviction of Gregory’s having fired it for an Alarm to make the Prisoners rise : He had also endeavoured to provide himself with a Sword, but being disappointed in his Project, he begged his Life. A Cry of Fire forwards was heard among the Prisoners when the Signal-Gun was fired; but all being discovered and settled, I ordered Gregory, together with those of his Officers and Men, whom I suspected concerned in the Plot, to be put in Irons, and kept on Bread and Water. I think it my Duty to trouble their Lordships with this Narrative, in Justice to His Majesty’s Colours, under which no Prisoners are undeservedly treated with Rigour. The Officers of the Menagere having always conducted themselves like Men of Honour, I was happy to have the Pleasure of continuing them at my Table, with the usual Confidence in their Parole; and the Prisoners in general have had every Mark of Humanity and Attention shewn to them that our own Safety would admit of.”51


The Chevalier Barrè was probably Gregory’s unknown accomplice mentioned by Luttrell. His remarks about this incident cast a somewhat stronger light on Luttrell’s comments about the treatment of prisoners. “Until this time nothing appeared to presage the unfortunate event which caused my detention for five months The next day about ten o clock in the evening after every body had gone to bed an eighteen pounder was fired off near the place where I was ordered to sleep The explosion was terrible the port was carried away the side planks were burst off and the several cabins near were overturned the alarm was universal and I was instantly accused of firing off the cannon as a signal for raising the sailors who were on board prisoners to surprise the ship I was obliged to defend my life against twenty assailants and prevent by a steady countenance the whole effect of their rage I could no longer resist and was obliged to yield Captain Gregory and myself were dragged by the hair and driven with blows of the sword into the captain's cabin where we underwent a frightful examination and putting his feet on our necks the swords to our breasts and our feet before a glowing fire but not being able to draw any discovery from us he resolved to tie us hands and feet and ordered us on the quarter deck and then put a rope round our ankles and balls to our feet in short every thing was prepared for the most frightful punishment Having no proof of what we were accused he concluded to put our hands and feet in irons and made us remain at the door of his cabin for seventeen days and at his arrival at Plymouth he sent us to a dungeon in the same situation where we remained twenty days from whence we were taken because having no proof we could not be convicted.”52


Mediator and La Ménagère parted from L’Alexandre on 17 December, and arrived at Plymouth, England on 19 December. L’Alexandre safely arrived at Portsmouth about 18 December.53 L’Alexandre was tried in the High Court of Admiralty in 1783 and was condemned. She was described as a French privateer.54


Barrè, and presumably Gregory, were in prison until the end of the war. Barrè says “We were enlarged and put into the American prison with our sailors and we still continued three months and a half in the same distress having nothing but what we had on at the time of action In short the 12th June 1783 we were sent away in a flag to France and I conducted the Americans from Roscour to Nantz where they found a Consul . . .”55



1 Dermiliac, Alain, La Marine des Louis XVI: Nomenclature des navires français de 1774 à 1792, Editions Omega, Nice: 1996, 2132

2 http://continentalnavy.com/archives/2010/stephen-gregory-lieutenant/ accessed 3 April 2010

3 “From Mr Hardy to Secretary Thompson,” letter, 13 September 1785, in Sparks, Jared (ed.), The diplomatic correspondence of the United States of America, from the signing of the definitive treaty of peace, 10th September, 1783, to the adoption of the Constitution, March 4, 1789 Being the letters of the presidents of Congress, the secretary for foreign affairs--American ministers at foreign courts, foreign ministers near Congress--reports of committees of Congress, and reports of the secretary for foreign affairs on various letters and communications; together with letters from individuals on public affairs. United States Department of State. Washington: Blair & Rives, 1837, vol I, 431. Hereafter “Hardy Letter” Online at http://books.google.com/books?id=wmcUAAAAYAAJ&.

4 “Hardy Letter”

5 Benjamin Franklin Papers Part 11 -- Bonds given to the President of the United Colonies through Benjamin Franklin 1777-1782, at  http://www.amphilsoc.org/mole/view?docId=ead/Mss.B.F85inventory11-ead.xml;query=;brand=default, accessed 3 April 2010

6 “Hardy Letter”

7 Letter, Beaumarchais to Francy, 19 October 1782, in Loménie, Louis de, Beaumarchais and His Times: Sketches of French Society in the Eighteenth Century from Unpublished Documents, New York: Harper and Brothers, 1857, 338-340

8 Beaumarchais to Francy, 19 October 1782

9 http://continentalnavy.com/archives/2010/stephen-gregory-lieutenant/ accessed 3 April 2010

10 “Memorial from the Chevalier Barrè to the President of Congress,” in Sparks, Jared (ed.), The diplomatic correspondence, vol I, 427-429. Hereafter “Memorial of Barr*” Online at http://books.google.com/books?id=wmcUAAAAYAAJ&.

11 “Extract of a Letter from James Luttrell, Esq; Commander of His Majesty’s Ship the Mediator, to Mr. Stephens, dated in Plymouth-Sound, December 19, 1782,” in The London Gazette, Saturday, December 21, to Tuesday, December 24, 1782, hereafter “Luttrell’s Report”

12 Benjamin Franklin Papers Part 11 -- Bonds given to the President of the United Colonies through Benjamin Franklin 1777-1782, at  http://www.amphilsoc.org/mole/view?docId=ead/Mss.B.F85inventory11-ead.xml;query=;brand=default, accessed 3 April 2010

13 “Luttrell’s Report”

14 Dermiliac, 2132

15 “Luttrell’s Report”

16 “Hardy Letter”

17 Dermiliac, 2133

18 “Luttrell’s Report”

19 Dermiliac, 2133

20 “Luttrell’s Report”

21 “Hardy Letter”

22 HCA 32/401/13/1-27

23 Dermiliac, 2131

24 This is however, incorrect, as it overstates her strength. She was not en flûte (armed as a transport) but was formerly a flˆte (transport).

25 “Luttrell’s Report”

26 Dermiliac, 1910

27 “Luttrell’s Report”

28 Dermiliac, 1910

29 “Luttrell’s Report”

30 “Luttrell’s Report”

31  http://continentalnavy.com/archives/2010/stephen-gregory-lieutenant/ accessed 3 April 2010

32 “Luttrell’s Report”

33  http://continentalnavy.com/archives/2010/stephen-gregory-lieutenant/ accessed 3 April 2010

34 “Luttrell’s Report”

35  http://continentalnavy.com/archives/2010/stephen-gregory-lieutenant/ accessed 3 April 2010

36 “Luttrell’s Report”

37 “Luttrell’s Report”

38 “Luttrell’s Report”

39 “Luttrell’s Report”

40 “Luttrell’s Report”

41 “Memorial of Barrè”

42 “Luttrell’s Report”

43 “Memorial of Barrè”

44 “Luttrell’s Report”

45 “Luttrell’s Report”

46 “Luttrell’s Report”

47 “Luttrell’s Report”

48 “Luttrell’s Report”

49 “Luttrell’s Report”

50 “Luttrell’s Report”

51 “Luttrell’s Report”

52 “Memorial of Barrè”

53 “Luttrell’s Report”

54 HCA 32/266/7/1-20

55 “Memorial of Barrè”


Revised 6 August 2014 © awiatsea.com