Open main menu

Royal Naval Biography/Spilsbury, Francis Brockell

[Post-Captain of 1815.]

A native of Nottinghamshire, and son of Mr. Spilsbury, Surgeon, R.N., patentee of the drops bearing his name.

This officer was made lieutenant Dec. 27, 1805; and we first find him serving under Captain Thomas Ussher, of the Hyacinth post-sloop, who speaks very highly of his gallantry and zealous conduct, in the brilliant affair at Malaga (on which occasion he was wounded), and at the attack of Almunñecar. in April and May, 1812[1]. His promotion to the rank of commander took place Mar. 8, 1813; and he shortly afterwards accompanied Sir James Lucas Yeo to Canada, where he was appointed by that officer to the Beresford schooner, then at Kingston, on Lake Ontario.

About this time, the Canadian Lakes had become the most active scene of warfare; and a number of spirited actions took place on them and their coasts. Towards the end of April, 1813, Colonel Proctor embarked with a force of between 800 and 900 regulars and militia, joined by about 1200 Indians, to attack an American post at the rapids of Miami, a river flowing into Lake Erie; but, in consequence of heavy rains, he was not able to open his batteries till the 1st May, by which time the enemy had so well secured themselves, by block-houses and batteries, that no impression could be made on them. While he was engaged in overcoming these impediments, an American reinforcement of 1300 men, commanded by Brigadier-General Clay, came down the river, and made an attack upon him, aided by a sally from the garrison. After a severe contest, they were repulsed, and the greatest part, except those from the garrison, killed or taken prisoners; but Colonel Proctor was not able to maintain his position, having been deserted by half the militia, and almost all his Indian auxiliaries.

On the 27th May, the Americans in force effected a landing near Fort St. George, on the Niagara, and proceeded to attack it. They were very gallantly opposed by Colonel Vincent, commanding at that station, and the troops under him; but the superiority of numbers rendering a lasting resistance impossible, he spiked his guns, destroyed the ammunition, and retired to a position near the head of Lake Ontario. In his retreat he was joined by Lieutenant-Colonel Bishopp, with all the detachments from Chippawa to fort Erie, and by some other parties, which increased his whole force to about 1600 men. The enemy, estimated at 10,000, in the mean time, pushed forward a considerable body towards Queen-town, which rendered them masters of the Niagara frontier. They met, however, with several checks in attempting a farther advance; and in June, General Dearborn concentrated his forces at fort George, where he remained in a strongly entrenched camp. On the 3d of that month. Sir James Lucas Yeo sailed from Kingston, to co-operate with the British troops, and annoy the Americans, by cutting off their supplies: his proceedings are thus detailed in an official letter to the Admiralty:

“At day-light on the 8th, the enemy’s camp was discovered close to us, at Forty Mile Creek; it being calm, the large vessels could not get in; bat the Beresford, Captain Spilsbury, the Sir Sidney Smith schooner. Lieutenant Majoribanks, and the gun-boats, under the orders of Lieutenant Anthony, first of the Wolfe, succeeded in getting close under the enemy’s batteries, and, by a sharp and well-directed fire, soon obliged him to make a precipitate retreat, leaving all his camp equipage, provisions, &c. behind, which fell into our hands; the Beresford also captured all his batteaux, laden with stores. Oar troops immediately occupied the post. I then proceeded along shore to the westward of the enemy’s camp, leaving our array in his front. On the 13th, we captured two schooners and some boats, going with supplies; by them I received information, that there was a depôt of provisions at Genessee river; I accordingly proceeded off it, landed some seamen and marines, and brought away the whole, as also a sloop laden with grain. On the 19th, I anchored off the Great Sodas, landed a party of the Royal Scots, and took off 600 barrels of flour and pork.”

At this time, the enemy’s naval force in Sackett’s harbour, under Commodore Chauncey, consisted of the General Pike, quite a new ship, and mounting 28 long 24-pounders, 2 of which, being on traversing carriages, were as effective as double the number mounted in the common way; the Madison, launched in the preceding year, pierced to carry 24 guns on a flush deck; the Oneida brig, of 16 guns; and ten fine schooners, each mounting from 2 to 4 guns, a number of them on pivot carriages. In this squadron there were no less than 39 long 32 and 24-pounders: the total number of officers and men, as admitted by the Americans themselves, was 1193.

Towards the end of July, Commodore Chauncey sailed with the whole force under his command; and on the morning of the 8th August, while at anchor off fort Niagara, he was discovered by Sir James L. Yeo, whose squadron consisted of the Wolfe (launched in May), mounting 23 guns; the Royal George 21; the Melville brig, 14; the Beresford, 8; the Moira schooner, 14; and the Sir Sidney Smith, 12: total 92 guns, of which number only 2 were long 24-pounders, and none of larger calibre. The squadron did not contain more than 717 officers and men.

The Americans were soon under weigh, and came out formed in line of battle; but, on the British approaching nearly within gun-shot, they fired their broadsides, wore, and stood back under their batteries. During the night, two of their schooners upset in a heavy squall, and all on board unfortunately perished. On the 9th, the hostile parties were again in sight of each other; but light airs and calms prevented Sir James L. Yeo from closing with the enemy until the night of the 10th, when, having a fine breeze, he stood for them, and, at eleven o’clock, got within gun-shot of their line of schooners: the General Pike and the Madison kept off the wind to prevent his closing; but, at a little after midnight, the Wolfe arrived within gun-shot of them also, when they immediately bore round-up, fired their stern chasers, and made sail away, leaving two of their schooners far behind, both of which were captured. The prizes proved to be the Growler and the Julia,, of 2 guns and 40 men each.

Shortly after this affair. Commodore Chauncey was reinforced by two schooners, the Elizabeth and Sylph, the latter upwards of 400 tons, mounting 4 long 32-pounders, upon traversing carriages, and 4 long sixes.

On the 11th Sept., while Sir James Yeo lay becalmed off Genessee river, Commodore Chauncey, by the aid of a partial wind, succeeded in getting near enough to fire his 32 and 24-pounders with some effect, while the British had only six guns in all the squadron that could reach him or any of his companions. During the continuance of the calm, a period of five hours, he kept up an incessant cannonade; but when a breeze sprang up from the westward, and his opponent stood towards him, he took care to avoid a closer meeting. In this action, the British had 4 killed and 7 wounded.

On the 28th of the same month, another distant engagement took place; when Commodore Chauncey, having the weather-gage, kept his favourite distance, and succeeded in shooting away the Wolfe’s main-top -mast; which in its fall brought down the mizen-top-mast and cross-jack-yard. The only other American shot that took effect, struck the Royal George’s fore-top-mast, which fell upon her anchoring. The General Pike is said to have suffered a considerable loss of men; among whom were 22 killed and wounded by the bursting of a gun.

In April, 1814, the Prince Regent of 58 guns, and Princess Charlotte 42, having been launched at Kingston, the Wolfe and Royal George were ordered to be from thenceforward named the Montreal and Niagara; which latter ship Captain Spilsbury commanded at the capture of Oswego, on the 6th of the following month[2]. The manner in which he was subsequently taken prisoner by the Americans, has been described at p. 89.

Captain Spilsbury obtained post-rank, Sept. 19, 1815; and a pension of 250l. per annum, for wounds, was granted to him on the 4th Nov. in the same year. We are informed that he has been for some years settled at Cramake, a town founded by himself, in Newcastle district. Upper Canada.

Agents.– Messrs. Cooke, Halford, and Son.