Royal Naval Biography/Russell, Thomas MacNamara

Admiral of the White.

This officer is descended, on both sides, from respectable and once opulent families. His father, (an Englishman,) went over to Ireland, where he married a lady of that country, and settled. Mr. Russell was born, we believe, about the year 1743, and at the early age of five years, he had the misfortune of losing his father; and, through either the fraud, or mismanagement of his guardians, all the fortune which had been left him was dissipated by the time that he reached fourteen.

Our officer entered the service at an early period of life, and after serving fourteen years as a Midshipman[1], was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant. During the war with the colonies, he served on board the Albany, Diligent, and Raleigh, principally on the coast of America, and distinguished himself on several occasions. In the latter vessel, Lieutenant Russell served at the siege of Charlestown, in South Carolina; on the reduction of which, May 11, 1780[2], Vice-Admiral Arbuthnot, the naval Commander-in-Chief, promoted him to the rank of Commander, in the Beaumont sloop.

From the Beaumont, Captain Russell was made Post, May 7, 1781, in the Bedford, of 74 guns, on board which ship Commodore Affleck hoisted his broad pendant. He soon after removed into the Hussar, of 20 guns 5 and cruised with considerable success against the enemy, taking and destroying a fine frigate near Boston, laden with masts and naval stores, for the French fleet; a large brig privateer, of 18 guns; a letter of marque, of nearly the same force; and several smaller prizes, beside la Sybille frigate, the capture of which demanding more particular notice, we shall here insert Captain Russell’s official letter relative thereto.

Hussar, off Sandy Hook, Feb. 6, 1783.

“Sir. On the 22d of last month, in a fresh gale and hazy weather, lat. 36° 20’ in soundings, I chased a sail standing to the westward, with the starboard tacks on board, wind N.N.W. On my approach, she displayed an English ensign reversed in her main shrouds, and English colours over French at the ensign staff. Having likewise discovered that she was under very good jury-masts, had some shot-holes in her quarter, and not supposing that French tactics contained a ruse de guerre of so black a tint, I took her to be what her colours intimated a distressed prize to some of his Majesty’s ships; every hostile idea vanished; my mind was employed in devising means to succour and protect her; I declined the privilege of my supposed rank, and stood under his lee to hail. At that moment, by a pre-concerted and rapid movement, he put up his helm, aimed at laying me athwart hawse, carrying away my bowsprit, raking, and then boarding me. I felt the error of my credulity; ordered our helm hard-aweather, shivered, and shortened the after-sails[3]. The Hussar obeyed it saved me from the murdering reflection of a surprise baffled in part the enemy’s attention, and received only a half-raking fire; which, however, tore me to pieces forward, and killed two of my men. By this time both ships were by the lee forward, and almost aboard each other. I called loud, to stand by to board him. It had the desired effect; he put up his helm wore off the Hussar closed with him and a fair engagement commenced before the wind. He yawed frequently; the Hussar kept as close and as parallel to him as possible; in about forty minutes his situation appeared disagreeable to him; his fire grew less frequent, and soon after contemptible. At the hour’s end it ceased; and, under cover of our smoke, he extended his distance, put his helm a-starboard, got his larboard tacks on board, and fled to windward. To avoid a raking, to jam him up against the wind, and bring our larboard guns to play, two of the other side having been rendered unserviceable, I followed his motions, exchanged a few shot with him on that side; but, to my great mortification, found my fore-mast and bowsprit tottering, and no head sail to govern the ship by, as you will see by my enclosed defects. However, we chaced and refitted as well as we could, and found we gained on the enemy, it having fallen less wind.

“The haze dispersed, and a large ship, which we at first took for an enemy, but afterwards found to be the Centurion, appeared to windward, and a-stern withal; and to leeward, a sloop, which by signal I knew to be ours. After about two hours’ chace, the Hussar got up abreast of the enemy, gave him one broadside, which he returned with two guns, and struck his colours; the Centurion, then about long random shot astern, and the Terrier sloop about four or five miles to leeward, under a pressure of sail, which does honour to Captain Morris[4].

“The prize is la Sybille, a French frigate of 38 guns, twelve of which he hove overboard when he first fled, and 350 men[5], commanded by Monsieur le Compte de Krergarou de Soemaria.

“In justice even to the Captain of the Sybille, it must be owned that all his evolutions (as far as my little ability enables me to judge) were masterly; and, in one instance, bordering on a noble enthusiastic rashness. Nor did he fly, until the men in his magazine were breast high in water, and all his powder drowned, by some low shot which he received early in the action. It is, therefore, Sir, with great pain and reluctance, that I inform you that this officer, commanding a ship of more than double the Hussar’s force[6], in perfect order of battle; for, under the then circumstances of wind and sea, he derived great and obvious advantages from being under jury-masts[7] an officer of family and long rank, adorned with military honours, conferred by his Sovereign for former brilliant services, has sullied his reputation, and, in the eye of Europe, disgraced the French flag, by descending to fight me for above thirty minutes, under the English Colours, and signal of distress, above described; for which act of base treachery, and flagrant violation of the law of nations[8], I have confined him as a state prisoner, until, through your mediation, justice and the King’s service are satisfied.”

From the circumstance of peace taking place just at this period, the above letter was never published. Perhaps, also, from motives of conciliation on the part of Great Britain, it was thought politic not to give it to the world, as it certainly bore extremely hard upon the French Commander.

The congratulations and applause which Captain Russell received, both at home and abroad, on his brave and skilful conduct in the capture of la Sybille, must have been highly grateful to his feelings. The capture was indeed of great importance; as, in consequence thereof, the greater part of her convoy fell into the hands of the British; and prizes, to the amount of more than half a million sterling, were carried into New York, in the short space of about three months. On his return to England, Captain Russell, for his various services, but particularly that of capturing la Sybille, was offered the honour of knighthood; which he modestly declined, as not possessing a sufficient fortune to support the rank with becoming splendour.

The Hussar being paid off, our officer continued unemployed until 1790, in the course of which year he was appointed to the Diana frigate, on the Jamaica station; where, for his conduct during the apprehension of a rising among the negroes, he was twice gratified with the public thanks of the inhabitants.

It was during the time that Captain Russell was on the above station, that he was sent, by Admiral Affleck, to convoy a cargo of provisions, as an act of perfect charity, from the Government and principal inhabitants of Jamaica, to the white people of St. Domingo, who were then severely suffering from the depredations of the people of colour. They received him, of course, with joy and gratitude; as a token of which, he was invited to a public dinner, which was given on shore by the Colonial Assembly at Aux Cayes. At this repast, our officer represented to the Assembly, that there was a Lieutenant Perkins, of the British Navy, cruelly confined in a dungeon, at Jeremie, on the other side of the island, under the pretext of having supplied the blacks with arms; but, in fact, through malice, for his activity against the trade of that part of St. Domingo, in the American war. Captain Russell stated, that, before he had ventured to plead his cause, he had satisfied himself of his absolute innocence; that he had undergone nothing like a legal process,— a thing impossible, from the suspension of their ordinary courts of justice, owing to the divided and distracted state of the colony; and yet, horrible to relate, he lay under sentence of death! “Grant him,” exclaimed Captain Russell, “grant me his life ! Do not suffer these people to be guilty of the murder of an innocent man, by which they would drag British vengeance upon the whole island!”

So forcible was this appeal, that the assembly, in the most hearty and uriequivocal manner, promised that an order should be instantly transmitted, for him to be delivered up immediately.

On the following day, Captain Russell sent an officer to receive the order for Lieutenant Perkins’s pardon and delivery. In a short time he returned, reporting that much prevarication had been used, and that he had not obtained the order. The day after, the same gentleman was sent again, and returned with a downright refusal from the Assembly; “for, as it was a promise made after dinner, they did not think it binding.”

Almost at the moment of the officer’s return, the Ferret sloop, Captain Novvell[9], hove in sight. She had been at Jeremie, with despatches containing the requests of Lord Effingham and Admiral Affleck, that Lieutenant Perkins might be delivered up; which the Council of Commons there absolutely refused; adding, that the imperious voice of the law called for his execution.

No sooner was Captain Russell apprised of this state of the business, than he declared that he would sacrifice as many Frenchmen as there were hairs on Perkins’s head, if they murdered him. His determination was soon known amongst the Diana’s crew; the anchor was up, sail crowded, and, the wind favouring them in an uncommon manner, the frigate and sloop appeared off Jeremie in a portion of time astonishingly short. Both of the vessels hove-to close to the harbour, and prepared for battle; every soul on board of them panting for vengeance, should Perkins be murdered.

Captain Nowell was sent on shore, with the following letter, to demand him instantly; and with verbal instructions for his conduct, should they hesitate;

H.B.M.’s Ship the Diana, off Jeremie, Feb. 24, 1792.

“Sir. I applied to the Provincial Assembly at Aux Cayes for the liberation of Lieutenant John Perkins, of His Britannic Majesty’s Royal Navy; and my application was immediately and of course complied with. M. Billard, the President, promised me an order to your Assembly, to deliver him up to me. That order had not arrived at l’Isle de Vache, where I lay, before I sailed, which must be no impediment to your sending him off to me in safety immediately.

“If, however, it should unfortunately be otherwise, let it be remembered, that I do hereby, in the most formal and solemn manner, demand him. Captain Nowell knows my resolution, in case of the least hesitation.

(Signed)“T. M. Russell.

To M. Plicque, President of the
Council, at Jeremie.

Captain Nowell, on landing, was surrounded by a mob. The President read the letter, and said &endash; “Sir, suppose I do not?” “In that case,” replied the British Officer, “you draw down a destruction which you are little aware of. I know Captain Russell; I know his resolution; beware, if you value your town, and the lives of thousands; he has given me sixty minutes to decide; you see, Sir, that thirty of them are elapsed.” The mob now grew outrageous. “You shall have him,” exclaimed one of them, “but it shall be in quarters!” Captain Nowell instantly drew his sword; and, sternly looking at the President, said; “Sir! order that fellow out of my sight, or he dies!” The President did so; and, after a few more threats from Captain Nowell, that he would return without him, poor Perkins was led from his dungeon, at the door of which, and in his sight, was planted the rack on which it had been intended that he should be tortured the very next morning.

Captain Russell saw him led into the Ferret’s boat; then wore with the ship’s head off the land; secured his guns; and carried a most adventurous and enterprising officer, and good man, in triumph to the Commander-in-Chief at Jamaica, to whose prayers the sanguinary democrats of the new French regime had refused him[10].

Having remained the usual time on the Jamaica station, the Diana returned to England, and was paid off; after which Captain Russell commanded the St. Albans, of 64 guns, but does not appear to have had any further opportunity of distinguishing himself. On the llth Jan. 1796, he was appointed to the Vengeance, 74; in which he served at the capture of St. Lucia and Trinidad, and at the subsequent unsuccessful siege of Porto Rico[11].

In the spring of 1799, he returned to England, and joined the Channel Fleet. Having remained for some time in that service, the Vengeance, being much out of repair, was paid off; and, on the 23rd April, 1800, Captain Russell was appointed to the Princess Royal, a second rate, in which ship he remained until advanced to the rank of Rear-Admiral, Jan. 1, 1801.

Soon after the commencement of the late war, we find our officer serving under the orders of Lord Keith[12]. About the year 1807, he was appointed to the chief command of the North Sea fleet; but from the rigid caution which the Dutch squadrons observed, no opportunity occurred for him to display the determined spirit which he is well known to possess. His promotion to the rank of Vice-Admiral took place Nov. 9, 1805; and on the 12th Aug. 1812, he became a full Admiral. Mrs. Russell, to whom he was united about the year 1793, died March 9, 1818.

A portrait of the Admiral, in the old Post-Captain’s uniform, is prefixed to his memoir in the Naval Chronicle, v. 17, p. 441.

  1. The late Lord Collingwood, the worthy and gallant successor of the immortal Nelson, served the same space of time without promotion; so little did his prospects at first setting out in life keep pace with his merit, or forbode the honours to which he afterwards arrived! The late venerable Vice-Admiral Hunter, of whom a memoir will be found in the “Annual Biography and Obituary for 1823,” was twenty years in the navy before he attained the rank of Lieutenant. This reflection will afford matter of consolation to modest merit, struggling under similar difficulties; and those who are inclined to despond after a few years trial, may here find instances of the rewards that attend diligence and perseverance.

    “The Wise and Active conquer difficulties
    By daring to attempt them; Sloth and Folly,
    Shiver and shrink at sight of Toil and Hazard,
    And make the impossibility they fear.”

  2. See Retired Captain Sir Andrew S. Hamond.
  3. At this moment, Captain Russell was pouring cold shot, by hand, amongst the enemy; by one of which the French Commander’s shoulder was grazed. Another killed one of the boarders, and broke a leg of a second. The assailants fled. Sixty of them, with helmets, &c. were dispersed by the above-mentioned cold shot, and marine musketry.
  4. Now a Vice-Admiral.
  5. The Hussar had only 116 men, thirteen of whom were on the sick list. Her loss in the action consisted of 3 killed and 5 wounded; la Sybille had 42 slain and 1 1 wounded.
  6. At the time when she was taken, la Sybille was considered as the finest frigate in the world. In addition to her very select crew, she had 33 Americans on board, as passengers and supernumeraries.
  7. La Sybille had lost her masts in a severe action with the Magicienne frigate, on the 17th of the preceding month.
  8. See Vattel on the Law of Nations, Book III, chap. x, p. 69, on Stratagems.
  9. The present Rear-Admiral Nowell.
  10. Mr. Perkins was afterwards made a Post-Captain, and died at Jamaica, Jan. 27, 1812.
  11. See Note at p. 112, et seq.
  12. About this period Rear-Admiral Russell received the following epistle from his old acquaintance Lord Nelson, written in the style that was most congenial with the bluntness of his character; “Here I am, waiting the pleasure of these fellows at Toulon, and we only long to get fairly alongside of them. I dare say, there would be some spare hats, by the time we had done. You are a pleasant fellow at all times; and, as Commodore Johnstone said of General Meadows, I have no doubt but your company would be delightful on the day of battle to your friends, but damned bad for your enemies. I desire, my dear Russell, you will always consider me as one of the sincerest of the former.”