Heritage: The French Battle of Grenada and the Comte d’Esta

The Battle of Grenada and the Comte d’Estaing

         Once the French joined the American Revolutionary War, it became a more global conflict as they began to send reinforcements to the Revolutionaries and to challenge British naval dominance.  Setting sail in April 1778, the Comte d’Estaing sat at the head of a significant fleet and expeditionary force sent to come to the aide of the beleaguered Americans.  After a few defeats and setbacks in the north, most notably a failed attack on New York and another failed move against the British in Newport, RI, d’Estaing repaired his fleet in Boston for some time before setting out to the Caribbean.  This move was so that d’Estaing could recuperate his forces at the French island of Martinique and capture British posts at Grenada and St. Vincent while reinforcements from France were being gathered.  Moving with a force of 25 ships and 5,500 troops, d’Estaing easily captured the two islands, along with 30 merchant ships that were docked in the Grenada harbor, but holding on to these prizes was another matter.

British Vice Admiral John Byron with 21 ships quickly mobilized against the French fleet.  Due to changing wind conditions, faulty intelligence, and the general difficulty of communication at sea, the ensuing battle progressed with much confusion on both sides.  Thinking that half the French fleet was at Port Royale rather than at Grenada, Byron believed he had a numerical advantage, and ordered his ships on in a general chase of the perceived disorderly French fleet, which quickly disrupted the British battle formation as each ship eagerly pressed forward as fast as it could.  The French were in a much better position than Byron had presumed.  With their entire fleet present and in good order, they managed to form a proper battle line and were able to inflict significant damage to a number of British vessels as they attempted to form up.  Byron was unable to get his forces fighting properly, as his change in orders in response to learning the French full numbers only served to further disorder his fleet.

Once the smoke settled, the fighting proved somewhat indecisive.  The French had suffered more casualties, 190 killed and 759 wounded to the British 183 killed and 346 wounded, but the French had managed to defend their captured position at Grenada.  In the fighting, the British had also suffered heavy damage to a number of their ships’ riggings, so that for a time after, the British fleet was only able to form a defensive line due to a loss of tactical mobility.  D’Estaing had achieved a tactical victory but did not press his advantage and pursue any more action against the British.  Instead, he moved the French fleet off to Georgia for his ill-fated Savannah Campaign.  The loss of productive sugar plantations in the West Indies caused wealthy British merchants to pressure Parliament, and of the next shipment of 7,000 reinforcements, 3,000 were sent to Jamaica to continue the fighting in the West Indies.

D’Estaing himself would be largely forgotten in popular memory of the Revolution, as his attempt on Savannah would end in a clear defeat due to his own overconfidence.  His contribution to the cause, however, was much more than a string of French failures as he played a significant role in persuading the French government to send the forces that would later fight at Yorktown, the battle that ensured American success.  His contribution did not go unnoticed, however, as he was given citizenship and a grant of 20,000 acres of land from the State of Georgia.  He was executed during the French Revolution on 29th April 1794.  The land did acquire a bit of fame when legends grew that d’Estaing used the land to base the operations of a group of bandits, the first case of organized crime in the south.  Regardless of whether or not the land was actually the base of the first southern crime syndicate, d’Estaing deserves to be remembered as a key contributor to the success of the American Revolution.


Hue, Jean-Francois, Naval Combat off the Isle of Grenada, 6th July 1779.  1788

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