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Actions of the French Fleet

From Diary of the American Revolution, Vol II. Compiled by Frank Moore and published in 1859.

August 20.—A gentleman who went on board the French fleet at Sandy Hook, gives the following account of their principal transactions during the time he was on board:

On the 30th of July the fleet arrived off, and anchored before the light-house, at the entrance of the harbor of Newport, in Rhode Island, except two frigates, that were ordered to the east end of the island, in order to prevent any vessels from getting out through Seconnet passage. On the frigates’ arrival there, the English set fire to one twenty-gun ship and two galleys, which lay in that passage. The next morning one ship of fifty guns was sent up the west side of Conanicut Island, and after exchanging a few shots with the battery, the English thought proper to evacuate that island, after blowing up their fortifications, which were said to be guarded by about fifteen hundred men; they likewise blew up some of their outworks on Rhode Island, and burnt some dwelling-houses. The same day we sent up the west passage, one ship of sixty-four guns. The weather for the several following days was very foggy, which gave our fifty-gun ship an advantage of passing, without being seen, around the north end of Conanicut, and anchoring between a small bay or cove, on the west side of Rhode Island, (in which lay three British frigates,) and the harbor of Newport. On the fog’s clearing away, the people, finding the frigates could not return to Newport, immediately left them after setting them on fire.

On the 8th of August, a signal was made for the fleet to weigh anchor and get in a line, which was done, and about three o’clock in the afternoon, we stood in for the harbor of Newport, under topsails lowered down. The Admiral being the first of the line, as soon as he came within about two miles, the battery on Brenton’s Neck began a brisk cannonade on the Languedoc, which was not returned till she came within about three-quarters of a mile of the battery, when she began such a cannonade as I could not have conceived to have been possible from on board one ship, the consequence of which was, the battery was silenced in two or three broadsides, and the fleet passed in through the fire of the cannon from Fort Island, and two forts on the north end of the town of Newport, and anchored between Gold Island and Conanicut, without receiving any damage. On the ninth, a fleet of thirty-four sail of ships appeared off the harbor, which, we were informed, were a fleet from New York, commanded by Lord Howe; the wind being to the southward, we could not get out of the harbor. On the tenth, in the morning, the wind came round to the northward; a signal was made for the fleet to cut their cables, which was immediately done, and all came to sail except the frigates, which were all in Seconnet passage. On our coming to sea, the wind became very small. The enemy appeared to have been much alarmed on seeing our fleet under sail, as they all either cut or slipped their cables, cut many of their boats from their sterns, and hove many things overboard, in order to lighten their ships. On the 11th, in the morning, we found them at a much greater distance than they were the night before, but the wind springing up, we continued the chase. The British fleet now bearing about south-east by east, the wind at north-east, they hauled close upon a wind, but finding we came up with them, they altered their course from east south-east to south-east and to the southward, and from that to south-west, but all without effect, as we could outsail them very easily; the wind still continuing to blow a very fresh gale, and constantly increasing. At about five o’clock in the afternoon, both fleets drew in a line. The English fleet now consisted of only twenty-four sail, and ours of twelve. Our headmost ship in the line got up abreast with the sternmost of the English, but the sea running so high, we could not engage; we intended to have continued along side of them till the wind abated, but about sunsetting, a very heavy gale coming on, we were obliged to bring to, which we did with our heads to the southward; the English then hauled to the north-west, and the night coming on, we lost sight of them. On the 12th, at daylight, we discovered the Languedoc about a league distant, without a mast standing, and at about eight o’clock saw the Marseilles without a foremast or bowsprit. The gale continued extremely hard all this day and night following, and the greater part of the thirteenth, in the afternoon of which it abated. We then made sail and stood in about northwest, under what sail we could carry. In the morning of the 14th, at daylight, saw the Languedoc at about two leagues distance, which, when we came up with her, informed us she had been attacked the night before, by a ship of fifty guns, but had obliged her to sheer off, although she had neither mast nor rudder. At about nine o’clock discovered the Marseilles, who had been attacked early in the morning by a sixty gun ship, and one other coming down on her, but our fleet coming in sight, they quitted her. In the afternoon we took the Thunder bomb; and in the morning of the fifteenth, saw the Senegal sloop of war, of sixteen guns, commanded by Captain Inglis, which we very soon came up with, and made a prize of. The fleet then anchored in latitude thirty-nine, in about forty fathoms water, where we lay till we got up jury masts on board the Languedoc and Marseilles. The Cesar, of seventy-four guns, had not joined the fleet since the gale on the seventeenth. In the evening we weighed anchor and came to sail, and arrived off Rhode Island this afternoon.1


1 New York Journal, September 7.