CHAPTER XI. MARITIME WAR IN EUROPE, 1779-1782.
The last chapter closed with the opinions of Washington. expressed in many ways and at many times, as to the effect of sea power upon the struggle for American independence. If space allowed, these opinions could be amply strengthened by similar statements of Sir Henry Clinton, the English commander-in-chief. (1) In Europe the results turned yet more entirely upon the same factor. There the allies had three several objectives, at each of which England stood strictly upon the defensive. The first of these was England herself, involving, as a preliminary to an invasion, the destruction of the Channel fleet, - a project which, if seriously entertained, can scarcely be said to have been seriously attempted; the second was the reduction of Gibraltar; the third, the capture of Minorca. The last alone met with success. Thrice was England threatened by a largely superior fleet, thrice the threat fell harmless. Thrice was Gibraltar reduced to straits; thrice was it relieved by the address and fortune of English seamen, despite overpowering odds.
- - 1. The curious reader can consult Clinton's letters and notes, in the "Clinton Cornwallis Controversy," by B. F. Stevens. London, 1888.
After Keppel's action off Ushant, no general encounter took place between fleets in European seas during the year 1778 and the first half of 1779. Meantime Spain was drawing toward a rupture with England and an active alliance with France. War was declared by her on the 16th of June, 1779; but as early as April 12, a treaty between the two Bourbon kingdoms, involving active war upon England, had been signed. By its terms the invasion of Great Britain or Ireland was to be undertaken, every effort made to recover for Spain, Minorca, Pensacola, and Mobile, and the two courts bound themselves to grant neither peace, nor truce, nor suspension of hostilities, until Gibraltar should be restored. (1)
- - 1. Bancroft: History of the United States, vol. x. p. 191. - -
The declaration of war was withheld until ready to strike but the English government, doubtless, should have been upon its guard in the strained relations of the two countries, and prepared to prevent a junction of the two fleets. As it was, no efficient blockade of Brest was established, and twenty- eight French sail-of-the-line went out unopposed (1) June 3, 1779, under D'Orvilliers, Keppel's opponent of the year before. The fleet steered for the coasts of Spain, where it was to find the Spanish ships; but it was not till the 22d of July that the full contingent joined. Seven precious summer weeks thus slipped by unimproved, but that was not all the loss; the French had been provisioned for only thirteen weeks, and this truly great armada of sixty-six ships-of-the-line and fourteen frigates had not more than forty working-days before it. Sickness, moreover, ravaged the fleet; and although it was fortunate enough to enter the Channel while the English were at sea, the latter, numbering little more than half their enemies, succeeded in passing within them. The flabbiness of coalitions increased the weakness due to inefficient preparation; a great and not unnatural panic on the English Channel coast, and the capture of one ship-of-the-line, were the sole results of a cruise extending, for the French, over fifteen weeks. (2) The disappointment, due to bad preparation, mainly on the part of Spain, though the French ministry utterly failed to meet the pressing wants of its fleet, fell, of course, upon the innocent Admiral d'Orvilliers. That brave and accomplished but unfortunate officer, whose only son, a lieutenant, had died of the pestilence which scourged the allies, could not support the odium. Being of a deeply religious character, the refuge which Villeneuve after Trafalgar found in suicide was denied him; but he threw up his command and retired into a religious house.
- - 1. Although the English thus culpable failed to use their superiority to the French alone, the Channel fleet numbering over forty of the line, the fear that it might prevent the junction caused the Brest fleet to sail in haste and undermanned, - a fact which had an important effect upon the issue of the Cruise. (Chevalier, p. 159.)
2. The details of the mismanagement of this huge mob of ships are so numerous as to confuse a narrative, and are therefore thrown into a foot-note. The French fleet was hurried to sea four thousand men short. The original orders to D'Orvilliers contemplated a landing at Portsmouth, or the seizure of the Isle of Wight, for which a large army was assembled on the coast of Normandy. Upon reaching the Channel, these orders were suddenly changed, and Falmouth indicated as the point of landing. By this time, August 16, summer was nearly over; and Falmouth, if taken, would offer no shelter to a great fleet. Then an easterly gale drove the fleet out of the Channel. By this time the sickness which raged had so reduced the crews that many ships could be neither handled nor fought. Ships companies of eight hundred or a thousand men could muster only from three to five hundred. Thus bad administration crippled the fighting powers of the fleet while the unaccountable military blunder of changing the objective from a safe and accessible roadstead to a fourth-rate and exposed harbor completed the disaster by taking away the only hope of a secure base of operations during the fall and winter months. France then had no first-class Port on the Channel; hence the violent westerly gales which prevail in the autumn and winter would have driven the allies into the North Sea. - -