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A Popular History of France from the Earliest Time

The English gunboats changed their part


Preparations

were being made for a grand assault. A French engineer, Chevalier d'Arcon, had invented some enormous floating batteries, fire-proof, as he believed; a hundred and fifty pieces of cannon were to batter the place all at once, near enough to facilitate the assault. On the 13th of September, at 9 A. M., the Spaniards opened fire: all the artillery in the fort replied at once; the surrounding mountains repeated the cannonade; the whole army covered the shore awaiting with anxiety the result of the enterprise. Already the fortifications seemed to be beginning to totter; the batteries had been firing for five hours; all at once the Prince of Nassau, who commanded a detachment, thought he perceived flames mastering his heavy vessel; the fire spread rapidly; one after another, the floating batteries found themselves disarmed. "At seven o'clock we had lost all hope," said an Italian officer who had taken part in the assault; "we fired no more, and our signals of distress remained unnoticed. The red-hot shot of the besieged rained down upon us; the crews were threatened from every point." Timidly and by weak detachments, the boats of the two fleets crept up under cover of the batteries in hopes of saving some of the poor creatures that were like to perish; the flames which burst out on board the doomed ships served to guide the fire of the English as surely as in broad daylight. At the head of a small squadron of gunboats Captain Curtis barred the passage of the salvors; the conflagration
became general, only the discharges from the fort replied to the hissing of the flames and to the Spaniard's cries of despair. The fire at last slackened; the English gunboats changed their part; at the peril of their lives the brave seamen on board of them approached the burning ships, trying to save the unfortunate crews; four hundred men owed their preservation to those efforts. A month after this disastrous affair, Lord Howe, favored by the accidents of wind and weather, revictualled for the third time, and almost without any fighting, the fortress and the town under the very eyes of the allied fleets. Gibraltar remained impregnable.

Peace was at hand, however: all the belligerents were tired of the strife; the Marquis of Rockingham was dead; his ministry, after being broken up, had re-formed with less lustre under the leadership of Lord Shelburne. William Pitt, Lord Chatham's second son, at that time twenty-two years of age, had a seat in the cabinet. Already negotiations for a general peace had begun at Paris; but Washington, who eagerly desired the end of the war, did not yet feel any confidence. "The old infatuation, the political duplicity and perfidy of England, render me, I confess, very suspicious, very doubtful," he wrote; "and her position seems to me to be perfectly summed up in the laconic saying of Dr. Franklin 'They are incapable of continuing the war and too proud to make peace.' The pacific overtures made to the different belligerent nations have probably no other design than to detach some one of them from the coalition. At any rate, whatever be the enemy's intentions, our watchfulness and our efforts, so far from languishing, should become more vigorous than ever. Too much trust and confidence would ruin everything."


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