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Napoleonic Wars: Battle of San Domingo

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Napoleonic Wars: Battle of San Domingo

Admiral Sir John Duckworth

Photograph Source: Public Domain

Battle of San Domingo - Conflict & Date:

The Battle of San Domingo was fought February 6, 1806, during the Napoleonic Wars.

Fleets & Commanders

British

  • Vice Admiral John Duckworth
  • 7 ships of the line, 2 frigates, and 2 brigs

    French

  • Vice Admiral Corentin Urbain Leissègues
  • 5 ships of the line, 2 frigates, 1 corvette

  • Battle of San Domingo - Background:

    After war with France and its allies began in 1793, the Royal Navy won string of victories over their opponents. These saw older commanders such as Admiral Lord Richard Howe, Admiral Sir John Jervis, and Admiral Adam Duncan triumph at the Glorious First of June (1794), Cape St. Vincent (1797), and Camperdown (1797) while younger leaders such as Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson also emerged. Defeating the enemy at the Nile (1799) and Copenhagen (1801), he shattered a combined Franco-Spanish fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar in October 1805. In the wake of the victory at Trafalgar, the leadership in London elected to withdraw the blockade of the French coast as it was felt that the French Navy no longer posed a threat. This proved a mistake as French naval forces at Brest had remained largely unengaged and were available for operations in the Atlantic. Seeking to strike a blow against the enemy, Napoleon directed two squadrons to sortie and raid British commerce.

    Leaving port on December 14, the French entered the Atlantic before dividing into separate squadrons led by Contre-Admiral Jean-Baptiste Willaumez and Vice Admiral Corentin Urbain Leissègues. Learning of the French departure on Christmas Eve, the Admiralty immediately ordered Rear Admiral Sir Richard Strachan and Rear Admiral Sir John Warren to prepare their squadrons for sea. Though work quickly moved forward, they did not depart until January 1806. Far to the south, the small squadron of Vice Admiral John Duckworth also learned of the French sailings. Tasked with blockading the remnants of the combined fleet that had been defeated at Trafalgar, Duckworth received reports of French warships interdicting convoys between Madeira and the Canary Islands. Though generally thought of as slow and cautious by his peers, Duckworth abandoned the Cadiz blockade and sailed south to investigate.

    Battle of San Domingo - Duckworth's Pursuit:

    Finding nothing, Duckworth reached the Cape Verde Islands before turning to return to Cadiz. En route, he encountered HMS Arethusa (38 guns) which reported that its convoy had been attacked by the French. Setting a course that he believed would intercept the enemy, Duckworth pressed northwest and spotted a French squadron on December 25. Pursuing the enemy, which turned out be to be Willaumez's squadron, into the next day, his squadron gained on the enemy but became strung out in the process. On these dubious grounds he called off the chase and set course for Barbados to re-supply. Arriving, he next moved north to St. Kitts where he was joined by HMS Northumberland (74) and HMS Atlas (74) under Rear Admiral Alexander Cochrane.

    As Duckworth lingered at St. Kitts, Leissègues' squadron arrived in the Caribbean and made port at Santo Domingo on January 20. Battered by storms off the Azores, he took time to repair his vessels and consolidate his forces. On February 1, Duckworth received intelligence suggesting that three French ships of the line had been spotted near Santo Domingo. Immediately putting to sea, he was joined in the Mona Passage by the frigate HMS Magicienne (32) which provided further information regarding the French dispositions. With the frigates HMS Acasta (40) and Magicienne scouting ahead, Duckworth continued pressing west. Approaching Santo Domingo early on February 6, he spotted five French ships of the line and two frigates anchored in a line at the harbor entrance around 6:00 AM.

    Battle of San Domingo - The British Strike:

    Ashore in the city, Leissègues had issued orders for his ships to prepare to sail for Jamaica. Alerted to the British approach, he rushed to re-board his flagship Impérial (120). Seeking to strike the French before they were fully ready for battle, Duckworth's ship bore down on the enemy. Around 8:00 AM, he divided his force into two divisions with the one to windward consisting of his flagship HMS Superb (74), Northumberland, HMS Spencer (74), and HMS Agamemnon (64). To leeward, the second division, led by Rear Admiral Thomas Louis, included HMS Canopus (80), HMS Donegal (74), and Atlas. As the French got underway, Duckworth steered a course intended to cut across Leissègues' path. Closing over the next two hours, the British line began to break up as Agamemnon and Louis' division fell behind.

    Around 10:10 AM, Superb opened fire on the lead French ship, Alexandre (80). Next, Northumberland engaged the larger Impérial. In this fight, it was aided by Spencer which engaged both Impérial and Diomède (74). After about fifteen minutes, a damaged Alexandre attempted to turn to port and pass between Northumberland and Spencer. Matching this turn, Spencer raked the French ship's bow before closing and battering it at close range. This maneuver enabled Leissègues' flagship to focus its fire on Northumberland and Superb. Struggling to catch up, Louis' ships passed Spencer and Alexandre around 10:35 AM and all fired into the French ship crippling it.

    Battle of San Domingo - Victory:

    While Louis steered Canopus towards the battle around Impérial, Donegal and Atlas moved to engage the two rearmost French ships, Jupiter (74) and Brave (74). With the defeat of Alexandre a short time later, Spencer followed Canopus into the fray. Attacking Brave, Donegal forced the French ship's surrender after a brief fight and left Acasta to take possession. Moving forward, it joined Atlas in fighting Jupiter. As Donegal poured fire into the enemy vessel, Atlas departed to join the fight against Impérial. Capturing Jupiter, Donegal was met by the arriving Agamemnon. Approaching Impérial, Atlas fired three broadsides at the French flagship before colliding with Canopus. Recovering, the British ship then closely engaged Diomède.

    Focusing their fire on Impérial, Duckworth's ships succeeded in toppling its main and mizzen masts. Outnumbered and with his ship crippled, Leissègues steered for shore around 11:30 AM. Unwilling to risk his ship in the shallow water, Duckworth followed at a distance with only Canopus pressing the attack. Approximately ten minutes later, Impérial ran hard aground. It was followed onto the reef by Diomède which was under heavy fire from Spencer and Atlas. Gathering on deck, the crews of the two French warships made preparations for abandoning ship. Remaining in the vicinity, Duckworth made efforts to repair his ships and collect the three prizes. Two days later, he dispatched boats to the wrecks of the two French ships on the reef and had them burned.

    Battle of San Domingo - Aftermath:

    In the fighting at the Battle of San Domingo, Duckworth sustained 74 killed and 264 wounded. While all of his ships took damage to some degree, Northumberland and Spencer suffered the worst. For Leissègues, the battle had been a complete disaster and resulted in the loss of all five of his ships of the line and around 1,500 casualties. Several days after the fighting, Duckworth detached Cochrane's two ships and sailed for Jamaica. Refitting his ships, he then sailed for Britain.

    One of the final fleet actions of the war, the Battle of San Domingo helped remove the threat to British shipping in the Atlantic. Though the victory was widely celebrated and his officers given a variety of rewards and peerages, Duckworth only received his prize money, the thanks of Parliament, and a £1,000 annuity. This was largely due to his superior's, Vice Admiral Lord Collingwood, anger over his abandoning Cadiz, failing to bring the French to battle in December, and sailing for the Caribbean rather than returning to Spain.

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