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Mediator’s Five On One Fight





HM Frigate Mediator: The Five On One Fight
12 December 1782



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.1 Several other vessels were to sail with the American, and the neutral vessel was able to inform Luttrell of their armament, cargo and destination.2 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.3


 

James Luttrell. Print by William Angus.

 

 

Mediator was not an ordinary frigate. She was part of a large class of two decked cruisers, not much smaller than the 50-gun ships that were used, in this war, in the line-of-battle. Mediator was a new ship, completed in June 1782, measured about 880 tons, and was armed with twenty 18-pounders on the lower deck, twenty-two short 12-pounders on the upper deck and two 6-pounders on the forecastle, giving a broadside weight of 318 pounds.


The “frigate” in question was L’Alexandre. She sailed from the mouth of the Gironde with other vessels in an “armed convoy” on 9 December 1782.4 It is worthwhile to examine the origins of this convoy in some detail.


In mid 1782 Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, the owner of Hortalez et Cie and arms supplier to the Americans, began to assemble a convoy at Bordeaux. The biggest ship was La Ménagère,which had been built a Rochefort, France in 1775-1776 as an armed transport (a flûte) for the Marine Royale. She was a ship of 600 tonneaux, armed with twenty-four 8-pounders and with a 200 man crew in naval service.5 She was later described as a two decked ship the length of a British sixty-four gun ship.6 In April 1781 she was loaned to Beaumarchais, fully armed, by the Minister of Marine, as compensation for damage to another of his ships, Le Fier Rodrigue. She was re-armed in July 1781 with twenty-two 12-pounders.7 By April 1782 she was in Bordeaux.8 She was, seemingly, re-armed here with twenty-six 12-pounders on her main deck and four 6-pounders on her forecastle and quarterdeck. She had a crew of 212 men when she sailed again.9


Beaumarchais selected as her captain François Jérome de Foligné, a former Capitaine de Brûlot10 in the Marine Royale and a chevalier de Saint-Louis.11 This is without doubt the same man who commanded La Marquis de la Chalotais for Beaumarchais in 1777, as François Jérome Foligné-Deschalonges12 (another spelling is Jérome de Foligné de Chalonge).13


The next strongest ship was L’Alexandre. L’Alexandre was described as a “corvette,” purchased at Bayonne, France in 1781. She was a ship of about 600 tonneaux, manned with between eighty-five and 240 men and armed with twenty-four 9-pounders.14 She may have sailed to the Chesapeake, and, seemingly, returned to Bayonne.15 Beaumarchais manned the ship with Americans. To skipper the vessel, Stephen Gregory was selected by Francy, Beaumarchais’s agent at Nantes, about April or May 1782.16 Gregory had been Third Lieutenant on the Continental Navy Ship Confederacy. On 8 July 1782 Beaumarchais and “Etienne” Gregory signed bonds for an American privateer commission, which they filed with Benjamin Franklin, for “the frigate ‘The Alexander.’”17


Gregory’s first mission was to move L’Alexandre to Bordeaux, to take on a cargo there. En route, and escorting several other vessels, L’Alexandre encountered a British cruiser or privateer, and fought a stiff action with her.18 Beaumarchais described the damages to L’Alexandre: “She has nothing in her wood, but her tackle, sails and masts are destroyed.”19 After repair L’Alexandre took on a cargo of stores and provisions and was said to be bound for Port-au-Prince, Saint Domingue, in the French West Indies,20 but more likely for Cap François21 and then to America.


The third Beaumarchais vessel was L’Aimable Eugénie (or La Eugénie), purchased22 at Nantes, France, for him about March 178223 by his agent Francy. She was designed to be 600 tons,24 but, according to Beaumarchais, barely made 500 tons.25 She was designed for a crew of between 103 and 160 men and had twenty-eight gun ports cut along her sides.26 She mounted only twenty-four guns, according to another reporter.27 According to later British reports, she mounted thirty-six guns and had a crew of 130 men.28


The captain of L’Aimable Eugénie was one Nicolas Baudin.29 Beaumarchais had this to say about Baudin: “ . . . he is an intractable man, self-willed and careless . . .” and, referring to another of his captains, “Gregory himself is rather hot-headed; he will agree badly with Baudin (another captain), who is still more self-willed and despotic.”30 Baudin had badly mishandled the lading of the cargo and the distribution of the ballast. Further he had put thirty-two guns and 160 men on L’Aimable Eugénie. When Beaumarchais arrived he corrected these actions.31 It might have been about this time that L’Aimable Eugénie’s battery was reduced to eight guns.32 She loaded with a cargo for the “French king” and was bound to Port-au-Prince, Saint Domingue.33


As his ships were about to sail Beaumarchais no doubt instructed his captains to stick together. Foligné, who was a former naval officer, and who had sailed for Beaumarchais before, and of whom Beaumarchais had a good opinion, was probably appointed as “commodore.”


Before Beaumarchais’s convoy sailed, two other vessels joined. These were (1) the French Transport Ship Dauphin Royal (Antoine Chambert), purchased and armed at Bordeaux for the Marine Royale, 300 tonneaux and sixty men;34 according to the British she had twenty-eight guns and a crew of 120 men,35 and was bound for the East Indies;36 and (2) an unknown American privateer brig with fourteen guns and seventy men.37


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 . . .”38 The British were about fifty miles north of Cape Ortegal.39


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.40 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.


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 . . .”41


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.”42


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 . . .”43


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 the 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.

 

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.”44


A contemporary lithograph, inscribed “ 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.” Mediator’s two decks of guns can clearly be seen.

 

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.45 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 . . .”46 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.47


In a classic maneuver the French decided to split up. At 1500 L’Aimable 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.”48


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.”49


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.50


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.51


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.52


At daybreak the three were fifteen to eighteen miles off the island of Sisargo [Illas Sarsagas, 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.53


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.”54


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.”55


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.56


Dauphin Royal repaired her damages and arrived at the Île de France in May 1783.57 L’Aimable Eugénie proceeded to Saint Domingue, arriving in March 1783, where she was wrecked on a coastal reef off Porto Playa [San Felipe de Puerto Plata, Santo Domingo].58


Summary Table

Vessel

Tons

Guns

Broadside

Men

Killed

%

Wounded

%

Total

%

L’Alexandre

600tx

24

108

102

6

6%

9

9%

15

15%

La Ménagère

600tx

22

99

212

4

2%

8

4%

12

6%

L’Aimable Eugénie

600tx

8

[36]

130

Dauphin Royal

300tx

[20]

60

[unknown]

[100]

14

[42]

70

Allied Total

2200

96

522

545

10

2%

17

3%

27

5%

Mediator

880

44

312

[250]

0

0%

0

0%

0

0%



1 “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”

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

3 “Luttrell’s Report”

4 “Luttrell’s Report”

5 Dermiliac, Alain, La Marine des Louis XVI: Nomenclature des navires français de 1774 à 1792, Editions Omega, Nice: 1996, 2131. It is important to note that she was a fl*te (transport), not en fl*te (“armed as a transport”).

6 “Luttrell’s Report”

7 Dermiliac, 2131

8 Dermiliac, 2131

9 “Luttrell’s Report”

10 “Luttrell’s Report”

11 http://www.delanglais.fr/Peltier/html/michaud_fr.html

12 NDAR, “Beaumarchais to Vergennes,” VIII, 650

13 http://www.delanglais.fr/Peltier/html/michaud_fr.html

14 Dermiliac, 2132

15 “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&.

16 “Hardy Letter”

17 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

18 “Hardy Letter”

19 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

20 “Luttrell’s Report”

21 Hardy Letter

22 Morton, Brian M., and Spinelli, Donald C., Beaumarchais and the American Revolution, Lanham, MD, Lexington Books: 2003, 277

23 Dermiliac,  2133

24 Dermiliac, 2133

25 Letter, Beaumarchais to Francy, 19 October 1782

26 Dermiliac, 2133

27 Hardy Letter

28 “Luttrell’s Report”

29 Morton, Brian M., Beaumarchais and the American Revolution, 277

30 Letter, Beaumarchais to Francy, 19 October 1782

31 Letter, Beaumarchais to Francy, 19 October 1782

32 Dermiliac, 2133

33 Luttrell’s Report”

34 Dermiliac, 1910

35 “Luttrell’s Report”

36 Dermiliac, 1910

37 “Luttrell’s Report”

38 “Luttrell’s Report”

39 http://continentalnavy.com/archives/2010/stephen-gregory-lieutenant/

40 “Luttrell’s Report”

41 “Luttrell’s Report”

42 “Luttrell’s Report”

43 “Luttrell’s Report”

44 “Memorial from the Chevalier Barrè to the President of Congress,” in Sparks, Jared (ed.), The diplomatic correspondence of the United States of AmericaI, 427-429. Hereafter “Memorial of Barrè”

45 “Luttrell’s Report”

46 “Memorial of Barrè”

47 “Luttrell’s Report”

48 “Luttrell’s Report”

49 “Luttrell’s Report”

50 “Luttrell’s Report”

51 “Luttrell’s Report”

52 “Luttrell’s Report”

53 “Luttrell’s Report”

54 “Luttrell’s Report”

55 “Memorial of Barrè”

56 “Luttrell’s Report”

57 Dermiliac, 1910

58 Dermiliac, 2133


Posted 5 April 2010 © awiatsea.com