Royal Naval Biography/Kerr, Alexander Robert
ALEXANDER ROBERT KERR, Esq.
A Companion of the Most Honorable Military Order of the Bath.
[Post-Captain of 1806.]
Son of Lieutenant Robert Kerr, R.N. who died at the Royal Hospital, Greenwich, in 1805.
The subject of this memoir entered the naval service as a Midshipman on board the Endymion 44, commanded by Captain (now Lord) Gambler, in Nov. 1781; and served in that ship, the Nemesis, Alarm, and Boreas frigates; Rattler sloop of war, Orion 74, Narcissus 20, and Boyne 98; under Captains Edward Tyrrel Smith, Charles Cotton, Horatio Nelson, James Wallace, Sir Hyde Parker, Philip d’Auvergne, John Salusbury, Paul Minchin, and George Bowyer; on the Leeward Islands, North American, Jamaica, and Channel stations; till his promotion to the rank of Lieutenant, at the conclusion of the Spanish armament. His first commission bears date, Nov. 22, 1790.
In April 1791, Mr. Kerr was appointed senior Lieutenant of the Narcissus, then commanded by Captain Minchin, with whom he continued until paid off in Oct. following. Previous to the commencement of the French revolutionary war, we find him joining the Boston 32, Captain George W. A. Courtenay, in which ship he lost the sight of his right eye by splinters, and received a grape-shot wound in the shoulder, whilst engaged with l’Ambuscade, a republican frigate of superior force, near New York, Aug. 1, 1793. The following account of that action, and of the circumstances which led to it, has been forwarded to us, by an officer who belonged to the Boston, since the publication of the memoir in which we first noticed it.
“We sailed from Newfoundland in consequence of a letter addressed to Captain Courtenay, by the late Sir Rupert George, then commanding the Hussar, at Halifax, stating that l’Ambuscade French frigate had arrived on the coast of America, and that there was not a British man of war on that station, of sufficient force to protect our commerce; the Hussar being about to depart for the West Indies, with a fleet of transports under her convoy.
“After calling off Halifax harbour to procure pilots, the Boston proceeded towards Sandy Hook, where she arrived on the 26th July, 1793. Two days afterwards she captured a French schooner privateer of 5 guns and 34 men.
“This prize was manned as a tender, and placed under the command of Mr. Hayes, acting Lieutenant, who was sent into New York, with despatches for the British Consul, apprising him, on the authority of the prisoners, that a French squadron had arrived in the Chesapeake, from Port-au-Prince, St. Domingo, and that the enemy might shortly be expected to appear off the Hook. Mr. Hayes was likewise directed to reconnoitre l’Ambuscade, to obtain information respecting the strength of her crew, to ascertain, if possible, when she would be ready for sea, and above all to endeavour to get some volunteers for the Boston, she being short of complement, and six of her men unable to leave their hammocks.
“Mr. Hayes parted company with the Boston, at 4-30 P.M. on the 28th July, taking with him our purser, one midshipman, a pilot, and eight men. On the 30th, two officers and thirteen men, belonging to l’Ambuscade, were taken prisoners in the way you have mentioned at p. 674, of your late publication.
“On his arrival at the entrance of the North River, (July 29th, 4 P.M.) Mr. Hayes observed l’Ambuscade at anchor off the town of New York, with top-gallant-masts pointed, and her crew in the act of bending sails. On his nearer approach he clearly ascertained that she mounted 26 long guns on the main-deck, 8 on the quarter-deck, and 2 on the forecastle.
“Soon after the tender had anchored, she was boarded by a French officer, supposed to have been Mons. Bompard himself, who asked her commander if he had seen an English frigate off the Hook; upon which Mr. Hayes informed him that he had the honor to be one of her lieutenants, that he had lately left her there, that she had come from Newfoundland, purposely to meet l’Ambuscade; that her officers would be happy to see the French frigate outside the Hook, and that if Mons. Bompard had the smallest inclination to meet Captain Courtenay, he might depend on finding him about 3 or 4 leagues from the above mentioned point. To this the Frenchman replied that the Boston should certainly be favored with a meeting, and that l’Ambuscade would sail the next morning: he then took leave of Mr. Hayes, and returned on board his frigate.
“The Boston’s real character was first discovered by the master of an American revenue cruiser, who was heard to say, as he passed almost touching her, that ‘that ship, and those boats (alluding to two which were towing astern), never came from a French port.’ In consequence of this remark, and by the desire of his gallant commander. Lieutenant Kerr went out on the bowsprit, and hailing the vessel, said ‘this is the Boston frigate. Captain Courtenay; if l’Ambuscade will come out we shall be glad to see her.’ ‘I dare say you will,’ answered the American; ‘I shall be happy to see you meet, and I will take care to let her know it.’ This was the only challenge given by Captain Courtenay’s directions.
“Finding from the report of l’Ambuscade’s officers, that Mons. Bompard was getting ready to sail, and that he would soon be at sea. Captain Courtenay immediately despatched a midshipman (the late Captain Daniel Oliver Guion) in a fishing boat to recall the tender; but on that gentleman approaching New York he met Mr. Hayes and his party coming down the river in a small hired vessel, the French Consul having taken measures to cause the schooner’s detention, and thereby prevented him from fulfilling the principal object of his mission.
“On the same day, July 30, Captain Courtenay gave chase to a strange vessel off the Long Island shore; and on the 31st, when returning to the spot where he expected to meet with his tender, he was himself pursued for several hours by the above mentioned squadron, consisting of two 74-gun ships, five frigates, and several corvettes. In the mean time, Mr. Hayes had pushed out to sea, but not finding the Boston, and observing l’Ambuscade under weigh, he was obliged to tack and stand in shore again, by which means alone he could possibly hope to save his people from being captured.
“The Boston resumed her station, off Sandy Hook, just before midnight; and on the first of August, between 2 and 3 A.M., a large ship was seen to windward; at day-light she was discovered to be a frigate, distant about 3 miles.
“The stranger now hoisted a blue flag, with a white cross at the mizen peak, and both ships set their courses, jibs, and spankers; but kept three reefs in their top-sails, the wind blowing strong, with a smooth sea. In less than an hour the Boston fore-reached on the other frigate, tacked, and passed to leeward off her. At 6 o’clock, being then on her lee-quarter, we again hove in stays, when she hauled her courses up, wore round, hoisted French colours, and steered for our larboard or weather bow. The Boston’s first fire did but little execution, and it was quickly returned by the enemy’s ship, as she ranged close past us to windward, backing her main-top-sail on the starboard tack.
“Having thus commenced the action. Captain Courtenay directed the helm to be put down, intending to tack under l’Ambuscade’s stern; unfortunately, however, our cross-jack-yard had been shot away, which caused us to miss stays, and we were consequently obliged to wear short round in order to close with her. From this time, 5-10 A.M., the Boston’s main-top-sail was kept to the mast, and we continued warmly engaged for an hour and three-quarters, during which period the enemy made three attempts to board us, and the colours of each ship were repeatedly shot away.
“After being in action more than an hour, the Boston’s main-top-mast fell on the lee-quarter of the main-yard, and caused it to top an end; the enemy’s cross-jack-yard was also gone, and her fore-top-sail-yard was lying on the cap.
“About a quarter of an hour before the firing ceased, an unlucky shot struck the foremost hammock stauncheon on the quarter-deck, which occasioned the death of Captain Courtenay, and the marine officer, who were then walking together. At this time the first and second Lieutenants were below getting their wounds dressed; but the senior, Mr. John Edwards, who had been much hurt by a splinter striking him on the head, was no sooner informed of his Captain’s fall than he went upon deck and assumed the command.
“The Boston had hitherto maintained a position close under the enemy’s lee; but was now fore-reaching, and falling to leeward for want of after-sail, the gaff being shot away, and the mizen-stay-sail literally cut to pieces, no less than 25 large shot, besides an immense number of musketballs, having passed through it. The main-top-sail was hanging over the lee-gangway, so that it was absolutely necessary to clear the wreck before the larboard guns could be fired with safety; and when about to wear, for the purpose of bringing them to bear on l’Ambuscade, several strange sail suddenly appeared to windward. This alone induced Lieutenant Edwards to put before the wind, and Mons. Bompard, although encouraged by the sight of his supposed countrymen, did not make any attempt to follow the Boston until she had increased her distance to about 2 miles. The last shot fired by either party was at about 7 A.M..
“The Boston’s damages, in addition to those I have mentioned, were as follow:– the cap of the bowsprit shot away; fore-top-mast, and fore and main-yards badly wounded; mizen-mast wounded and sprung; the whole of the mizen-rigging on both sides, and the standing and spring, stays shot away; only two main shrouds on one side, and one on the other left standing; the fore-rigging much injured; the main-spring-stay and both bob-stays cut in two; every brace and bowline gone; the ship hulled in many places, and two of the main-deck-guns dismounted. The loss we sustained has been correctly stated by you, and that it was not greater is truly astonishing, as the musket-balls afterwards picked up on our quarter-deck alone amounted to an almost incredible number.
“Our opponent mounted 26 long twelves, 10 long sixes, and 2 heavy carronades; the Boston had the same number of long twelves, but only 6 sixes, and not a single carronade, either ‘monkey-tailed,’ or of any other description. Lieutenant Hayes, Mr. Guion, &c. having been prevented from joining the ship, the total number of effective officers, men, and boys on board in the action was only 189; and a few of these were necessarily stationed as sentries over the 49 French prisoners. L’Ambuscade, notwithstanding tho absence of two officers and a boat’s crew, had many men above her established complement; indeed it was afterwards strongly reported that the numerical strength of her crew, including American volunteers, exceeded 400; but this is a point that I will not pretend to determine. That she had an unusually large proportion of small-arm-men cannot be disputed.
“After losing sight of l’Ambuscade, we steered for the Delaware, in order to repair our damages; but when about to enter that river the next morning, a pilot-boat informed us that two French frigates had gone in at day-light; it was therefore thought prudent to haul off and steer for Newfoundland, where we arrived in safety on the 19th of the same month. I should here mention, that a letter, written purposely to deceive the enemy, was addressed to the British Consul at Philadelphia, stating that we were going to refit at Jamaica, which letter was carried to the French frigates according to our expectation.”
The official letter respecting this hard-fought action, written by Lieutenant Edwards, was never published, probably because he mentioned in it, that a number of men, on seeing Captain Courtenay fall, had run from the Boston’s quarterdeck guns, and seated themselves round the fore-brace-bitts, from whence he could not immediately get them back to their quarters. We know that such were the reasons assigned by Lieutenant Edwards for his own precipitate conduct in ordering the body of his gallant Captain to be thrown overboard without surgical examination; and although it might have been impolitic to publish such facts at the commencement of the French revolutionary war, we see no reason why they should be concealed at this distant period.
The Boston returned to England in 1795, under the command of Captain (now Sir James N.) Morris; and we subsequently find Mr. Kerr serving on board the Repulse of 64 guns. About April, 1796, he was appointed first Lieutenant of the Clyde 46, commanded by the present Commissioner Cunningham, whose high opinion of him was thus publicly expressed in a letter to Lord Keith, reporting the capture of la Vestale French frigate, Aug. 20, 1790:
“The Clyde’s officers and men conducted themselves much to my satisfaction; and I received that support from Lieutenant Kerr which I was prepared to expect by his animated conduct in former critical and more trying situations.”
Mr. James, in his second edition, after giving an account of the Clyde’s action, says, “since the capture of the Reunion by the Crescent, and of the Unité by the Revolutionnaire, it had not been customary to knight the Captains of 18-pounder frigates for their success over the 12-pounder frigates of the enemy. Hence Captain Cunningham was not so rewarded; but the Clyde’s first Lieutenant, Alexander Robert Kerr, was made a Commander.” Our contemporary “must excuse us” for reminding him that la Vestale was captured on the 20th Aug. 1790, and that Lieutenant Kerr was not promoted until April 20, 1802. The manner in which the Clyde was employed during the six years that Mr. Kerr served under Captain Cunningham, and her well-managed escape from the mutinous fleet at the Nore, have been described in our memoir of the latter officer,Vol. II Part I, p. 77, et seq.
From June, 1802, till February, 1806, Captain Kerr commanded the Diligence and Combatant sloops of war, both employed watching the enemy’s flotilla at Boulogne. In the latter vessel he assisted at the capture of a lugger privateer, near Cape Grisnez. His post commission is dated Jan. 22d, 1806.
We now lose sight of Captain Kerr until Aug. 1808, between which period and the month of June 1809, he was successively appointed, pro temp., to the Tigre, Valiant, and Revenge, third rates, employed off Brest, l’Orient, and Rochefort.
The Revenge was the only two-decker of Lord Gambier’s fleet that sustained any loss in Aix Roads on the memorable 12th April, 1809. By reference to his lordship’s official letter, which is inserted at p. 818 of our first volume, it will be seen that she then formed part of the advanced squadron under the orders of Captain (now Rear-Admiral) John Bligh, by whom it is stated that she anchored about three cables’ length within Lord Cochrane’s ship, and drew the fire of the batteries of Isle d’Aix from the frigates and smaller vessels to herself. This statement was made at the trial of Lord Gambler, on which occasion the following questions were put to Captain Bligh:
1st, “What number of guns appeared to command the anchorage of Aix Roads from the batteries of the island?“ A. “When at anchor in the road of Aix, I counted 60 guns; there may have been more, but I am certain there were not less.”
2nd, “Did the enemy throw shells from the island?” A. “They did.”
3rd, “What is your opinion of the position taken by Captain Kerr, of the Revenge; was it judicious?” A. “I think it impossible a ship could be better placed than the Revenge; and indeed the general conduct of the Revenge on that day reflects the highest credit on the zeal and bravery of her Captain.”
From the evidence given by Captain Kerr at the same trial, we find that the Revenge’s bowsprit was very much injured, great part of the running rigging and sails were cut to pieces, five planks of the quarter-deck cut through, and one of the beams was entirely carried away. She had also a number of large shot in different parts of the hull; and her loss consisted of 3 men killed and 15 wounded, 2 of whom mortally. On the following day, when returning to Basque Roads, she was struck between wind and water, under the main-chains, by a shot from Isle d’Aix, the shells from Oleron at the same time passing over her.
Captain Kerr’s next appointment was to the Ganymede of 26 guns, but he does not appear to have ever sailed in that ship. The Unicorn 32, to which frigate he was removed in Aug. 1809, captured, whilst under his command, le Gascon French privateer, of 16 guns and 113 men; and l’Esperance (formerly H.M. 22-gun ship Laurel) armed en flute, with a valuable cargo of East India produce.
In April, 1811, Captain Kerr assumed the command of a most desirable frigate, the Acasta, mounting 48 guns, with a complement of 300 men. During his continuance in her he captured the American brig-privateer Curlew, of 16 guns (pierced for 20) and 172 men: Highflyer, schooner privateer, 5 guns and 172 men; Herald letter of marque, 10 guns (pierced for 18) and 60 men, from Bourdeaux, bound to Baltimore; and several unarmed merchantmen. He also assisted at the capture of the Snapper schooner privateer, of 10 guns and 90 men; and the Porcupine letter of marque, with a valuable cargo, from Bayonne bound to Boston; likewise at the recapture of a British 20-gun ship, and many trading vessels, which had been taken by the Constitution and other American cruisers. The Acasta returned to England in July, 1815; and Captain Kerr was about the same time nominated a C.B. as a reward for his long and arduous services. The following letter was addressed by him to the author of this work, shortly after the publication of Sir George Collier’s memoir:
“Great King Street, Edinburgh, Oct. 6, 1825.
“Sir,– I have just seen in the fourth part of your Naval Biography, a note attached to the memoir of the late Sir George Collier, which induces me to explain why I did not make a signal to the Leander of the force of the American squadron off Porto Praya, on the 11th Mar. 1815.
“Perhaps you are not aware that, at the time the Acasta’s log states the force of the enemy, the Leander was nearly as close to them as the Acasta; and as the water-lines of the enemy’s ships were distinctly seen from her, I could not suppose that any difference of opinion could possibly exist respecting their force. I therefore considered the senior officer fully able to judge for himself, and that it would be presumption in me to make that signal, or to suppose they could not make out the force of the enemy on board the Leander as clearly as we did in the Acasta. I am, &c.
(Signed)“A. R. Kerr.”
“To Lieut. John Marshall, R.N."
“London, Oct. 10th, 1825.
“Sir,– I have been favoured with your letter of the 6th inst., and I shall feel much pleasure in giving publicity to the explanation therein contained; but I must confess that nothing less than such an avowal, coming from an officer of high reputation and indisputable veracity, could possibly have staggered my belief as to the state of the weather, and the position of the Acasta, on the unfortunate 11th Mar. 1815. The former, judging from the documents which were sent to me soon after a late melancholy event, I certainly supposed to lie so very thick and hazy, as to render it impossible for the Leander to make out, what you appear to have so promptly and correctly done, the real force of the enemy; particularly as it is stated by Captain M‘Dougall, whose letter I have incorporated with the memoir of his lamented friend, that the Levant was not discovered to be only “a corvette or 20-gun ship” until the Leander’s fire was opened upon her: and the log of the senior British officer describes that as having been done only ten minutes previous to the enemy rounding the eastern point of Porto Praya bay, when on her return to the anchorage she had so lately left: and not more than twenty minutes before the Leander was obliged to shorten sail in consequence of finding herself close to the rocks off Quail island. The following extract from the log of the Leander will corroborate what I have just written:
“3-15 P.M., opened our fire on the chace, who hoisted American colours, – saw the land a-head.’
“‘3-25,’ (ten minutes after gaining sight of the land) ‘saw chace rounding the easternmost point of the harbour.’
“‘3-35,’ (only ten minutes later)’ up main-sail, being close to the rocks off Quail island.’
“From an entry in the Newcastle’s log, the only one that mentions how the British ships bore from each other when they had all tacked to the eastward, at 1 P.M., I could do no otherwise than suppose that you were more than a mile nearer to the enemy than Sir George Collier was, and nearly in a line between him and them. You have been kind enough to undeceive me, and I return you my best thanks for doing so. I am, &c.
“To Captain Alex. R. Kerr, R.N. C.B.”
The subject of this memoir married, in Jan. 1805, Charlotte, youngest daughter of Dr. Charles Maule, formerly a physician in India, and by that lady he has seven children. His eldest son is a Midshipman, R.N.
Agent.– A. C. Marsh, Esq.
- See Captain John Hayes, C.B.
- Vol. II. Part II.
- Mons. Bompard commanded a privateer at the close of the American war, and was then taken prisoner by Captain Courtenay.
- Lieutenant Kerr, “with the temporary loss of sight in one, and with total blindness in the other, of his eyes.” – James’s Nav. Hist. 2nd. edit, vol. I, p. 145.
- The strangers to windward were very naturally suspected to be French; but it was afterwards ascertained that they were Americans, coming out to witness the battle. L’Ambuscade brought to with her head to the eastward, at 8 A.M. and was soon afterwards lost sight of by the Boston. The enemy’s squadron from St. Domingo anchored at Sandy Hook Aug. 1st, and went up to New York on the following morning.
- 10 killed and 24 wounded. N.B. Although none of l’Ambuscade’s masts fell during the contest, she was obliged to take them all out on her return to New York , where she continued upwards of two months, repairing the damages she had sustained by the Boston’s fire. See James’s Naval Hist. 2d ed. Vol. I, p 147.
- Mr. Hayes returned to the schooner at day-light on the 1st Aug. and soon afterwards obtained permission from the American governor to depart in her at his own pleasure: he ultimately effected his escape from the enemy by passing through Hell-Gate into Long Island Sound about the same hour that the French squadron anchored before New York. His conduct throughout the whole affair entitles him to the highest praise.
- See our first Vol. pp. 178 and 277.
- See Naval Hist. Vol. II. p. 600.
- This vessel was afterwards the Barbadoes sloop of war.
- See Vol. II. Part II. note ‡ at p. 536.