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A History of Sea Power by Stevens and Westcott

1 Footnote 1 Quoted by Mahan


[Illustration:

BATTLE OF THE SAINTS' PASSAGE, APRIL 12, 1782

After diagram in Mahan's _Influence of Sea Power Upon History_, p. 486.]

The result of this maneuver was that the British fleet found itself to windward of the French in three groups, while the French ships were scattered to leeward and trying to escape before the wind, leaving three dismasted hulks between the lines. An isolated group of six ships in the center, including de Grasse's _Ville de Paris_, offered a target for attack, but the wind was light and Rodney indolent in pursuit. Of these, one small vessel was overhauled and the French flagship was taken after a heroic defense, that lasted until sunset, against overwhelming odds. De Grasse's efforts to reform his fleet after his line was broken had met with failure, for the van fled to the southwest and the rear to the northwest, apparently making little effort to succor their commander in chief or retrieve the fortunes of the day.

Rodney received a peerage for this day's work but he certainly did not make the most of his victory. Apparently content with the five prizes he had taken, together with the person of de Grasse, he allowed the bulk of the French fleet to escape when he had it in his power to capture practically all. On this point his subordinate, Hood, expressed himself with great emphasis:

"Why he (Rodney) should bring the fleet

to because the _Ville de Paris_ was taken, I cannot reconcile. He did not pursue under easy sail, so as never to have lost sight of the enemy, in the night, which would clearly and most undoubtedly have enabled him to have taken almost every ship the next day.... Had I had the honor of commanding his Majesty's noble fleet on the 12th, I may, without much imputation of vanity, say the flag of England should now have graced the sterns of _upwards_ of twenty sail of the enemy's ships of the line."[1]

[Footnote 1: Quoted by Mahan, THE ROYAL NAVY (Clowes), Vol. III, p. 535.]

Sir Charles Douglas, who had been responsible for Rodney's breaking the line, warmly agreed with Hood's opinion on this point. Nevertheless, although the victory was not half of what it might have been in younger hands, it proved decisive enough to shatter the naval organization of the French in the West Indies. It stopped the projected campaign against Jamaica and served to write better terms for England in the peace treaty of January 20, 1783.

Tactically this battle has become famous for the maneuver of "breaking the line," contrary to the express stipulations of the Fighting Instructions. Certainly the move was not premeditated. Rodney may well be said to have been pushed into making it, and two of his captains made the same move on their own initiative. Indeed it is quite likely that, after the event, too much has been made of this as a piece of deliberate tactics, for the sudden shift of wind had paid off the bows of the French ships so that they were probably heading athwart the course of the British line, and the British move was obviously the only thing to do. But the lesson of the battle was clear,--the decisive effect of close fighting and concentrated fire. In the words of Hannay, "It marked the beginning of that fierce and headlong yet well calculated style of sea fighting which led to Trafalgar and made England undisputed mistress of the sea."[1] It marked, therefore, the end of the Fighting Instructions, which had deadened the spirit as well as the tactics of the British navy for over a hundred years.

[Footnote 1: Rodney (ENGLISH MEN OF ACTION SERIES), p. 213.]

The tactical value of "breaking the line" is well summarized by Mahan in the following passage:


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