Combat de Louisbourg

Battle off Spanish River


An impartial Narrative of the engagement between his Majesty’s Ship Vulture, Charlestown, and the Astrea and Hermione French frigates, on the 21st of July, off Nova Scotia. 1 

The Charlestown2 frigate and Vulture3 Sloop of War sailed from Halifax on the 18th day July, to conduct a convoy destined for Spanish River4 Nova Scotia and Quebec ;  the Allegiance5 Sloop of War, and Jack6 armed ship was also in company, they arrived at the entrance of the river about ten o’clock, A.M. on the 21st of July.  At the very juncture when orders were about to be given for a separation, two strange sail were seen to leeward, the Charlestown immediately gave chace, throwing out the signal for the convoy’s going into port, the Vulture’s signal was made to follow her, the Jack soon after left the convoy, and came after us ; about 2 o’clock P.M. we perceived the chace to be two very large frigates, who were unable to answer our private signals, we therefore haul’d our wind to beat up to join the convoy, the enemy immediately on this encreased their sail, and the wind shifting in their favour, besides they being remarkable fast sailing ships, fore-reached on us, and put it out of our power to make the convoy without hazarding an engagement.  Capt. Evans7 of the Charlestown threw out the Allegiance and Vernon’s8 signal’s [sic] about five o’clock to leave the convoy and come down to us,9 signifying at the same time that the enemy were of  superior force.  About seven o’clock the Allegiance and Vernon joined us,and a line of battle was formed, then we waited for the approach of the two French frigates who were now a little on our windward quarter; the observing our determined purpose of fighting them, stretched down towards our lee with a design of raking separately the ships of smaller force, hoping by this manœuvre either to disable or disperse them, then to pour their whole force on the Charlestown frigate.  Upon their firing some random shot10 among our little squadron, and raking the Vernon whereby she had six men killed, and as many wounded, which obliged her to sheer off, the Astrea11 made her attack on the Charlestown ; the Jack pour’d her broad side into the Astrea and bore away, the Vulture ran up to aid the Charlestown, and supported her for the space of ten minutes, when the Hermione12 advanced to the relief of her consort, immediately on this, Capt. George13 shot the Vulture a-head t take off the Hermione’s fire, and he with much judgment and undaunted bravery laid his little bark14 alongside the Hermione; the [combat was with every illegible] within the distance of a pistol shot, the Charlestown against the Astrea, the Vulture in opposition to the Hermione ; the British heroes disregarding the superiority of force against them, sustained the combat with firmness.  About half past eight o’clock the French finding from the constancy and briskness of our firing our purpose was fixed and determined, judged it best for their safety to bear away with the studding sail boom rigged out,15 to take advantage of separating from us under cover of a dark night, private signals having been made between them previous to their leaving us ; they directed their ships heads towards the Jack, which we hear has fell into their hands.  The Charlestown and Vulture were so disabled in their rigging, masts, and sails, that it was out of their power to renew the action, the main top mast of the Charlestown was shot away towards the end of the engagement, as was also the ensign halliards, the ensign being then pendant in the mizen peak, instantly on this happening an English Jack was displayed in the mizen shrowds, through the activity of Lieut. Mackay,16 who jumped in the shrowds and set it at liberty, that the enemy might not take hopes from the Charlestown’s ensign being shot away, of her being unable to continue the action.  Capt. Evans was killed very shortly after engaging, upon his death the command devolving upon Lieut. Mackay, the action was continued with great briskness ; his steady, uniform and well exerted, as well as successful endeavours on this occasion, must merit general applause ; the Charlestown had 7 men killed and 22 wounded, among the latter were the Master and Boatswain.  The Vulture’s sails were very much shattered, almost all her running rigging was cut, and chief part of her standing, two guns were dismounted, and her masts suffered, 1 man was killed, and 8 wounded, but no officers; the Charlestown, Vulture, and Vernon kept company all night to repair their damages, and then proceeded to Halifax where they arrived on the 30th.  The corps[e] of Capt. Evans was preserved, and interred on shore with military honours.  From this gallant behaviour of the Charlestown frigate and Vulture sloop, then not only saved themselves from being taken, but also prevented thereby the whole convoy from falling into the hands of the enemy, besides by their disabling the enemy so much as to oblige them to forsake their cruising station, and take refuge in port, they rendered an essential service.  They17 got to Boston on the 23d18 in a very shattered condition.  Captain Rupert George is appointed to command the Charlestown frigate and Lieut. Mackay to the Vulture sloop of war.

The following is a list of ships that composed this small squadron, with the number of guns and weight of metal appertaining to each, and the condition they were in on the day of action.

The Charlestown, 24 nine pounders and 2 sixes, her compliment of men is 220,19 but had on board on the day of action only 180.

Vulture 16 six pounders, and a spare shifting one, tho’ only on the establishment of a 14 guns sloop,20 her compliment of men 125, had actually on board on the 21st of July, 99 only.

Vernon, 14 guns, 8 of which were nine pounders.

A transport21 totally unprepared for action.

Allegiance, 22 16 nine pounders, and 2 three ditto.

1    The Royal Gazette, New York, 08 Dec 1781, p. 3, col. 2-3. 

2    HMS Charlestown formerly the American frigate Boston, taken in the harbor when Charlestown surrendered.  Commissioned 15 May 1780 as a 6th rate of 28 guns although this account only credits her with 26 guns; dimensions: 114ft 3in, 94ft 3in x 32ft 0in x 10ft 3in, 51334/94 tons; 220 officers & men (175 seamen + 45 marines).  Captain Henry Francis Evans, commanding. 

3    HMS Vulture, a Swan-class Sloop of War, launched 18 Mar 1776, dimensions: 96ft 9½in, 79ft 2in x 26ft 10¾in x 12ft 11in, 30458/94 tons; 125 officers & men Rupert George, commanding. 

4    Now Sydney, Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia. 

5    HMS Allegiance, Armed Ship, formerly Sedden & Goodrich merchant ship King George, formerly French L’Empereur, purchased & commissioned at New York, called “about 200 tons” when libeled but that seems too small.  Master & Commander David Phips, commanding.  Established as Vulture but frequently supplemented crew with soldiers from the 74th Highland Regiment at Penobscot (20 in Feb 1781 and 21 from 01 May 1782 taken POW when captured. 

6    Quebec Provincial armed ship [hired?], Richard Peter Tonge, master [and owner?] 

7    Henry Francis Evans, commissioned to command Charlestown on 16 May 1780 by VAdml Arbuthnot. 

8    Tentatively identified as the transport ship Vernon, 480 tons, Francis Hull, Master. 

9.“Us” signifying that the author was on the Charlestown, Vulture, or Jack; most probably the Charlestown. 

10    i.e., firing from near maximum range. 

11    L' Astrée, M. Jean-François de Galoup, Comte de La Pérouse (1741-c1788), commanding, launched 1780 at Brest, 32 guns (26 x 12-pounders + 6 x 6-pounders), sister ship to La Nymphe (141ft 5½in, 120ft 4½in x 38ft 3¼in x 11ft 9in, 93772/94 tons. [Demerliac] 

12    L' Hermione, M. Louis-René Levassor, Comte de Latouche Tréville (1745-1804), commanding, launched 1779 at Rochefort, 32 guns (26 x 12-pounders + 6 x 6-pounders), sister ship to la Concorde (142ft 11in, 118ft 11in x 37ft 6in x 11ft 7 in, 88882/94 tons). [Demerliac] 

13    Master & Commander Rupert George. 

14    William Falconer’s Dictionary of the Marine (1768) ”BARK, (barca, low Lat.) a general name given to small ships: it is however peculiarly appropriated by seamen to those which carry three masts without a mizen top-sail. Our northern mariners, who are trained in the coal-trade, apply this distinction to a broad-sterned ship, which carries no ornamental figure on the stem or prow.” 

15    It  would not be normal practice to fight with studding booms in place 

16    Presumably Charlestown’s 1st Lt David MacKay [date of rank: 21 Mar 1777] whom CSORN lists as promoted to M&C on 14 Sep 1781 which would be but 5 days after the Vulture’s arrival at Halifax (Sep 9th [see above]) 

17    i.e., the French frigates. 

18    The month not stated but it would have been impossible to have gotten to Boston by July 23, therefore, arrival would have been either the 23d of August or 23d of September, one month and two days or two months and two days, respectively, after the engagement, suggesting that the French continued their cruise. 

19    The standard complement would have comprised 175 seamen and 45 Marines (i.e., 2 Lieutenants of Marines, 1 sergeant, 2 corporals, 1 drummer, and 39 privates). 

20    The Swan-class of sloops were all established on the List of the Navy as 14 gun ships; however, most actually carried 16 x 6-pounders + 12 x ½-pounder swivels.  The standard complement was 125 officers and men of which 97 were seamen and 28 Marines (i.e., 1 either 1st or 2d Lieutenant of Marines, 1 sergeant, 1 corporal, 1 drummer and 24 privates) 

21.The French records call her the Thompson which did not engage.  Nothing is known about this ship. 

22.Allegiance would have been established similar to Vulture with 125 officers and men.

Transcribed and annotated by R. Brooks. Posted 3 September 2010

 Extrait du site: