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Royal Naval Biography/Percy, William Henry

[Post-Captain of 1812.]

This officer, the sixth son of the Earl of Beverley, was born Mar. 24, 1788; and he appears to have entered the navy, as a midshipman on board the Lion 64, Captain Henry Mitford, in May, 1801. After making a voyage to and from Canton, he was removed to the Medusa 32, in which active frigate he served under Captain (now Sir John) Gore, from Nov. 1802 until her return from Bengal, early in 1806[1], He then joined the Fame 74, Captain R. H. A. Bennett; and subsequently the Tribune 36, Captain Thomas Baker. His first commission bears date July 6, 1807.

From the latter date. Lieutenant Percy successively served in la Decade frigate, and the Hibernia a first rate, Captains John Stuart and Robert Jenner Neve, on the Channel, Irish, and Mediterranean stations, till his promotion to the rank of Commander, May 2, 1810.

We next find the subject of this memoir commanding the Mermaid 28, armed en flute, and employed in conveying troops to Portugal and Spain. He was made a Post-Captain Mar. 21, 1812; and appointed to the Hermes of 20 guns, April 4, 1814. The circumstances which led to the destruction of that ship, on the coast of West Florida, are thus detailed by him in two official letters addressed to Sir Alexander Cochrane, commander-in-chief on the North American station:–

H.M.S. Hermes, Pensacola Bay, Sept. 9, 1814.

“Sir,– I have the honor to detail my proceedings since I last addressed you from the Havannah; which place I left in company with H.M. sloop Carron, on the 6th day of August.

“We arrived at the entrance of the Apalachicola river, on the 13th of the same month; where having landed the detachment of marines under the command of brevet Lieutenant-Colonel Nicolls on Vincent island, I proceeded with him to Prospect Bluff, where I learnt that brevet Captain Woodbine had proceeded to Pensacola in H.M. sloop Sophie, for the purpose of communicating with and assisting a party of friendly Indians, driven by the Americans into the Spanish territory near that place. On my return from the Bluff, I found a vessel had arrived from Pensacola, hired by Captain Woodbine to bring the arms, ammunition, and every thing from the depot at the Bluff to Pensacola, having leave to that effect from the governor.

“Lieutenant-Colonel Nicolls then proposed immediately re-embarking the detachment for the purpose of proceeding to that place: I expressed a doubt that the governor would allow them to land, but the Lieutenant-Colonel’s orders directing him to assist the Spanish nation, should they require it, which it appeared they were about to do, as they were threatened with an attack from the Americans; I assented to re-embark the marines and proceed to that place; acquainting him at the same time with my firm determination, in the event of not receiving a request from the Governor to land them, immediately to return to the anchorage off the Apalachicola, as I had promised the Captain-General, at the Havannah, not to land on Spanish territory without being requested to do so.

“On the 21st August I left Apalachicola, and arrived at this anchorage on the 23rd; having fallen in with, off the bar, and brought with me H.M. sloop Sophie. I fortunately found that a letter from the governor had been sent to me, requiring the naval force might be brought down, as he was threatened with an attack by the Americans: on the next morning I waited on the governor, when he requested me to disembark the detachment, ammunition, &c. which I immediately complied with. The fort San Miguel, the only one near the town, was put into the hands of Lieutenant-Colonel Nicolls; and the British colours were hoisted in conjunction with the Spanish, which he informed me was done with the governor’s approbation.

“You will have received from Lieutenant-Colonel Nicolls, the details of the previous proceedings of Captain Woodbine, and every other information relative to the Indians. On the 29th August, I directed Captain Lockyer of H.M. sloop Sophie, to proceed to Barataria, (taking with him an officer belonging to the detachment, the bearer of letters from Lieutenant-Colonel Nicolls) to communicate with that people, and in the event of his finding them disposed to co-operate with H.M. forces against the enemy, to hold out to them that they should be considered as British subjects, and have lands assigned them in H.M. colonies, and to deliver to them a letter containing proposals to that effect, on the condition of their armed vessels being put into my hands until the pleasure of the commander-in-chief should be known[2]. Since we arrived here we have been completing the squadron in water and provisions.

“The Childers joined me on the 6th instant from New Providence, with a further supply of arms, ammunition, &c. for the Indians, as also a small supply of flour for the squadron.

“It being necessary for us to have possession of the town of Mobile to hold communication with the very numerous tribe of the Choctaws, (who are supposed to be friendly towards us), I have determined, if found practicable, to attack with the squadron, Fort Bowyer, on Mobile Point, it appearing from every respectable source that it is a low wood battery of little strength, mounting at the utmost fourteen guns of small calibre, en barbette; though others state the number only at six; the men are exposed as low as the knee, and there is depth of water sufficient for the squadron to anchor within pistol-shot of their guns[3]. I have also heard that General Jackson has ordered it to be re-fortified, after having lately dismounted the guns and sent them up to the fort near the town of Mobile.

“I communicated my intention to Lieutenant-Colonel Nicolls, requesting a hundred Indians might be sent with me to divert the fort on the land side: the colonel refused to permit any to go without himself, but volunteered to proceed with a party of about 60 marines and 130 Indians; I shall sail to-morrow or next day, after embarking them, and take with me the Carron and Childers, having procured the best pilots at this place for the bar of Mobile.

“I have detained H.M.S. Carron for this service, as I have not yet had any intelligence of importance relative to the Indian nations to transmit to you.”

H.M. Sloop Sophie, Pensacola Bay, Sept. 17, 1814.

“Sir,– You will have received a copy of my letter of the 9th instant, acquainting you with my intention to attack fort Bowyer, on Mobile Point. It is with the greatest regret that I have to inform you of our miscarriage in that affair, and of my having been necessitated to destroy H.M. ship Hermes. The following is a detailed account of my proceedings.

“Having embarked Lieutenant-Colonel Nicolls and his detachment of marines and Indians, as stated in my former letter, on the 11th instant, I left this port in company with the Carron and Childers, and off the entrance of it, fell in with H.M. sloop Sophie, returning from Barataria, when I received the enclosed letter from Captain Lockyer, acquainting me with the ill success of his mission.

“On the morning of the 12th, I landed Lieutenant-Colonel Nicolls, with his party and a howitzer, about 9 miles to the eastward of fort Bowyer, and proeecded with H.M. ships off the bar, whieh we were prevented from passing, by contrary winds, until the afternoon of the 15th, during which time the enemy had an opportunity of strengthening themselves, which we perceived them doing, having reconnoitred in the boats within half a mile of the battery: I had proviously communicated to the captains of the squadron the plan of attack, and at 2-30 p.m. on the above mentioned day, having a light breeze from the westward, I made the signal for the squadron to weigh, and at 3-10 passed the bar in the following line of battle – Hermes, Sophie, Carron, Childers.

“At 4-16, the fort commenced firing, which was not returned until 4-30, when being within pistol-shot of it, I opened my broadside, and anchored by the head and stern. At 4-40, the Sophie having gained her station did the same; at this time the wind having died away and a strong ebb-tide made, notwithstanding their utmost exertions, Captains Spencer and Umfreville finding their ships losing ground, and that they could not possibly be brought into their appointed stations were induced to anchor, but too far off to be of much assistance to the Hermes or Sophie, against whom the great body of the enemy’s fire was directed[4]. At 5-30, the bowspring being shot away, the Hermes swung with her head to the fort and grounded, where she lay exposed to a severe raking fire, unable to return it, except with one carronade and the small arms in the tops. At 5-40, finding the ship floated forward, I ordered the small bower cable to be cut and the spanker to be set, there being a light wind to assist, with the intention of bringing the larboard broadside to bear, and having succeeded in that I let go the best bower to steady the ship, and recommenced the action.

“At 6-10, finding that we made no visible impression on the fort, having lost a considerable number of men, and being able only occasionally to fire a few guns on the larboard side, in consequence of the little effect the light wind had on the ship, I cut the cables and springs, and attempted to drop clear of the fort with the strong tide then running; every sail having been rendered unmanageable, and all the rigging being shot away; in doing which, unfortunately, H.M. ship again grounded with her stern to the fort.

“There being now no possibility of returning an effective fire from the Hermes, I made the signal No. 203, it having been already arranged that the storming parties destined to have acted in conjunction with Lieutenant-Colonel Nicolls, were to assemble on board the Sophie, to put themselves under the orders of Captain Lockyer. While they were assembling, Captains Lockyer and Spencer came on board the Hermes, and on my desiring their opinion as to the probable result of an attempt to escalade the fort, they both agreed that it was impracticable under existing circumstances, at the same time offering their services to lead the party if it should be sent. In this opinion I coincided with them.

“The ship being entirely disabled, and there being no possibility of removing her from the position in which she lay, I thought it unjustifiable to expose the remaining men to the showers of grape and langrege incessantly poured in, and Captains Lockyer and Spencer, who saw the state of the ship, giving it as their decided opinion, that she could not by any means bo got off, I determined to destroy her. Captain Lockyer was now ordered to return to the Sophie, to send the boats remaining in the squadron to remove the wounded and other men, and to weigh; at the same time the signal was made for the other ships to prepare to do so. The crew being removed, and seeing the rest of the squadron under weigh, at 7-20, assisted by Mr. Alfred Matthews, second Lieutenant (Mr. Peter Maingy, first Lieutenant having been ordered away to take charge of the people), I performed the painful duty of setting fire to H.M. ship.

“I then went on board the Sophie, and finding it impossible to cross the bar in the night, anchored the squadron about 1 1/2 miles from the fort: at 10 P.M. I had the melancholy satisfaction of seeing the Hermes blow up in the same spot in which I left her.

“During the night, the ships partly repaired the damages in their rigging; and at day-light I took them out over the bar, having previously communicated with the commanding officer of the detachment, and desired that he would fall back upon Bon Secour.

“Although this attack has thus unfortunately failed, I should be guilty of the greatest injustice did I not inform you, Sir, of the high sense I entertain of the intrepidity and coolness displayed throughout the action by the officers, petty officers, and crew of H.M. late ship Hermes: from Mr. Peter Maingy, the first Lieutenant, I received the greatest assistance; and I beg to mention the activity and good conduct of Mr. Alfred Matthews, second Lieutenant; in Mr. Pyne, Master, who fell early in the action, the service has sustained a severe loss. Lieutenant-Colonel Nicolls, having been seriously ill on shore, had been removed to the Hermes, and was on board during the action; it is almost unnecessary for me to mention of him that he was actively assisting on deck, to which post he returned after a severe wound which he received in the head had been dressed.

“It if also my most pleasing duty to inform you. Sir, that I received every possible assistance both before and during the action from Captains Nicholas Lockyer, of the Sophie; the Hon. Robert Cavendish Spencer, of the Carron; and Captain John Brand Umfreville, of the Childers, To Captains Lockyer and Spencer I am particularly indebted for their assistance when on board the Hermes during the action, and at so anxious a moment of it. It is with great pleasure I have to add, that the captains of the squadron have expressed their highest approbation of the steady and cool conduct of their respective officers and ships’ companies, who, together with their commanders, had all volunteered for the storming party.

“I also beg to call your attention, Sir, to the able conduct and professional abilities of Mr. James Wilson, surgeon of the late Hermes, and of the other surgeons of the squadron, who, under every local disadvantage, increased by the total want of medical assistants, have succeeded beyond expectation with the wounded, of whom, and of the killed, I regret having such large returns to make to you. I have the honour to be, &c.

(Signed)“W. H. Percy.”

In this very gallant, but unfortunate attack, the Hermes had 17, including Messrs. Richard C. Pyne (master), B. Hewlett (master’s-mate), and G. Thompson (boatswain), slain ; 5 mortally, 2 dangerously, 15, including Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Nicolls, severely, and 3 slightly wounded: the Sophie 6 killed and 16 wounded. Fort Bowyer, when taken by the British, in Feb. 1815, up to which date no additional guns appear to have been sent to it, mounted three long 32-pounders, 8 twenty-fours, 6 twelves, 5 nines, one brass 4-pounder, 1 mortar, and 1 howitzer; its garrison consisted of 375 officers and men. We should here observe, that the chiefs of the Creek nations, in a letter to Sir Alexander Cochrane, dated May 28, 1814, had earnestly requested that officer to land a small body of troops; declaring, that if he would attack and take Mobile, all the Choctaw Indians, and the rest of the tribes in the American service, would “join with hearts and souls the British cause.” Notwithstanding this fact, Mr. James, in his account of the military occurrences between Great Britain and America, has thought proper to call the attack upon fort Bowyer an “unadvised” and “indiscreet” proceeding.

Captain Percy’s trial by court-martial, for the loss of his ship, took place on board the Cydnus frigate, off Cat island, Gulf of Mexico, Jan. 18, 1815. Among the witnesses examined were Captains Nicholas Lockyer and the Hon. R. C. Spencer, both of whom deposed that they considered the attack justifiable under the circumstances mentioned in the foregoing letter: Captain Spencer also declared that he would “most certainly have done the same” as Captain Percy, had he commanded the squadron. The court having deliberately weighed and considered the whole of the evidence, pronounced:–

“That the attack upon fort Bowyer, on Mobile Point, was perfectly justified by the circumstances stated; that the conduct of the Hon. Captain Percy, in placing his ship, was seaman-like and judicious; that she was defended by him, his officers, and crew, with the greatest gallantry; that they used their utmost exertions to save her after she got aground; that her loss is to be attributed to the enemy’s shot having cut the springs on her cables, which exposed her to a raking fire from the fort, that rendered it impossible to persevere longer in the attack with a probability of success; and that she was not set fire to until all hopes of saving her were gone, and then in order to prevent her falling into the hands of the enemy.”

The court did, therefore, honorably acquit Captain Percy, his officers, and ship’s company, of all blame on that occasion.

On the 9th March following. Captain Percy arrived at the Admiralty, with despatches from Sir Alexander Cochrane, reporting the defeat of the British army before New Orleans. At the general election in 1818, he was chosen M.P. for Stamford, co. Lincoln; which borough he continued to represent until 1826. His brother, the Hon. Josceline Percy, obtained post rank in 1806, and now commands the yacht in attendance upon their noble relative, the Duke of Northumberland, K.G. Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.


(Suppl. Part III. p. 64.)

In the sanguinary affair with Fort Bowyer, this officer had the narrowest possible escape, a grape-shot having cut open the collar of his coat, without inflicting any material injury. The military officers on shore, who were waiting the effect of his fire to storm, and who were passive spectators of the scene, describe the manner in which the Hermes was laid alongside of the fort as being beautiful, and truly Nelsonian.

  1. See Suppl. Part II. pp. 478–481.
  2. Lafitte, the commandant of the Baratarian freebooters, received with seeming acquiescence, all the British officers’ communications, and then forwarded them to the Governor of Louisiana, to whom he offered the services of himself and his hardy band, in defending the important point of the state of which they had taken possession. James’s Military Occurrences, vol. ii. p. 341.
  3. The capture or destruction of it will enable us effectually to put a stop to the trade of Louisiana, and to starve Mobile
  4. “Nor was the fire of the Sophie of much use, as, owing to the rottenness of her timbers, and her defective equipment, her carronades drew the bolts, or turned over, at every fire.” See James’s Naval Hist. 2d edit. vol. vi, p. 519.