Royal Naval Biography/Thornbrough, Edward

Admiral of the White; Knight Commander of the most honourable Military Order of the Bath; and a Vice-President of the Naval Charitable Society.

This officer is a native of Devonshire. We are not acquainted with the particulars of his services previous to 1775, in which year he proceeded to America in the Falcon sloop, as First Lieutenant, and arrived at Boston three days before the fight at Lexington, which was the first act of open hostility committed by the rebellious colonies[1]. The Falcon was also one of the ships that covered the attack on Bunker’s Hill, a which place the Americans had collected in great force under General Putnam, and thrown up some strong redoubts. General Gage, who commanded in Boston, ordered the Generals Howe, Clinton, and Pigot, with about 2000 troops, to attack the enemy’s works, which were carried at the point of the bayonet, after an obstinate resistance. It was, however, a dear bought victory; 226 of the British were slain, 19 of whom were commissioned officers, and upwards of 800 wounded. Only 30 wounded rebels and a few pieces of cannon were taken. This affair caused the flame of war to blaze over the whole continent of America[2].

We next find Lieutenant Thornbrough engaged in an attempt to bring off a schooner that had been chaced by the Falcon into Cape Ann Harbour, where she ran aground. On the boats boarding her, the Americans opened a heavy fire from the shore, by which 3 men were killed, and several wounded; among the latter was Lieutenant Thornbrough, who was conveyed back to the Falcon in the only boat that had escaped destruction from the enemy’s shot. The remainder of the party, 36 in number, having expended all their ammunition, and no means of regaining their ship, as every exertion to get the schooner afloat had failed, were obliged to surrender prisoners of war[3].

Lieutenant Thornbrough afterwards served in the Flora frigate, and was promoted to the rank of Commander for his gallant conduct at the capture of la Nymphe, in August, 1780[4]. He obtained Post rank on the 24th Sept. in the following year; and, in 1782, commanded the Blonde, of 32 guns, on the coast of America, which ship was unfortunately wrecked on the Nantucket shoals, when proceeding to Halifax with a prize, laden with masts for the French fleet. Captain Thornbrough and his crew constructed a raft, by which means they got to a barren and uninhabited island, where they continued for two days in the utmost distress; providentially two American cruizers came in sight, and relieved them from their perilous situation. For the generous and humane treatment which Captain Thornbrough had shewn his prisoners, the enemy, as a return, landed him and his people near New York, at that time in possession of the English. The prize escaped the danger and got to Halifax.

Our officer’s next appointment appears to have been to the Hebe, the finest frigate in the British navy, which he commanded upwards of six years, a period unexampled in time of peace. This circumstance may be accounted for, from the Hon. John Leveson Gower having hoisted his broad pendant in that ship, when he made the tour of the coasts with Prince William Henry, now Duke of Clarence. After the Commodore had struck his pendant, the Prince continued to serve as Lieutenant of the Hebe, until he was appointed to the command of the Pegasus[5].

During the Spanish armament, Captain Thornbrough commanded the Scipio, of 64 guns; but an amicable adjustment of the dispute between the Courts of London and Madrid having taken place, that ship was paid off in the autumn of 1790, and we find no further mention of Captain Thornbrough until the commencement of the war with the French republic, when he was appointed to the Latona, of 38 guns, in which frigate he captured several of the enemy’s privateers.

On the morning of the 18th Nov., 1793, our officer discovered a French squadron, consisting of six sail of the line, two frigates, and two smaller vessels, which circumstance he immediately communicated to Earl Howe, with whom he was then cruizing. Chace was instantly given; but the enemy being considerably to windward, and the weather thick and squally, they ultimately effected their escape. At noon, the Latona was so far a-head as to engage the frigates; and at four P.M. would have cut one of them off, had not two of the French line-of-battle ships, bore down and prevented her. They passed so near to the British frigate as to discharge their broadsides at her, but without causing any injury. Captain Thornbrough most gallantly luffed up, and returned their fire with great effect; and, according to the account given by the prisoners taken on board a recaptured vessel soon afterwards, killed and wounded a number of their people. The Bellerophon, Latona, and Phoenix, lost sight of the British fleet in the night, and found themselves on the next morning near four ships of the enemy’s line; but being unsupported, they were reluctantly obliged to discontinue the chace.

To shew the high opinion the Admiralty had of the spirited conduct of Captain Thornbrough upon this occasion, on the arrival of the fleet at Spithead, Earl Howe received the following letter from the Board, which was ordered to be communicated to all the ships’ companies:

Admiralty Office, Dec. 11th, 1793.

“My Lord. In return to that part of your Lordship’s letter of the 30th ult., stating the spirited conduct of Captain Thornbrough, in the transactions on the 18th of the same month, and of the opportunity you had of observing the equal ardour shewn by the other Commanders and Captains of the fleet, on the same occasion; I am commanded by my Lords to signify their desire, that you should assure Captain Thornbrough, and the other Commanders and Captains of the fleet, of their Lordships’ satisfaction in that testimony of their commendable exertions.

(Signed)Philip Stephens.

To Admiral Earl Howe.

A few days subsequent to the above event, the Latona, in company with the Phaeton, captured la Blonde, a national vessel of 28 guns, off Ushant. In the following year, when Lord Howe defeated the French fleet, she was stationed opposite the centre of the British line to repeat signals; a duty which Captain Thornbrough performed with his usual promptitude, and much to the satisfaction of the Commander-in-Chief.

In the course of the ensuing autumn, our officer removed into the Robust, of 74 guns, which ship afterwards formed a part of the squadron employed under the orders of the late Sir John Borlase Warren, in co-operation with the French royalists[6]. Although the expedition proved unsuccessful, yet no blame whatsoever attached itself to the British navy.

For nearly three years from this period, the Robust was attached to the Channel Fleet, without being engaged in any service requiring particular attention. In the autumn of 1798, she was again placed under the orders of Sir John Warren, who had been selected to command a detachment sent to the coast of Ireland, for the purpose of intercepting reinforcements and supplies, with which the French had agreed to furnish the mal-contents in that kingdom.

On the 11th October, the Commodore being then off Tory island, fell in with the squadron under M. Bompart, consisting of la Hoche, of 78 guns, eight frigates, a schooner, and a brig. He immediately made the signal for a general chace, which was continued all day and the following night, in very unsettled and boisterous weather, during which the Anson lost her mizen mast. At five o’clock on the morning of the 12th, the enemy was seen a little distance to windward, the line-of-battle ship with her main top-mast gone. The enemy, notwithstanding, bore down, and formed their line in close order on the starboard tack. From the length of the chace, and in unfavourable weather, the British squadron became much spread, and it was seven o’clock before Sir John Warren had his ships sufficiently collected, when he made the signal for the Robust to lead, and the rest to form in succession. At twenty minutes past seven, Captain Thornbrough commenced the action, and was so ably supported by Captain De Courcy, in the Magnanime, that at eleven, the Hoche, after a most gallant defence, struck; upon which the frigates made sail, and were closely pursued for five hours, in a smart running fight, when after an obstinate resistance three of them surrendered; these were la Bellone, la Coquille, and l’Ambuscade. Captain Moore in the Melampus, parted company during the chace; and at midnight, on the 13th, came up with la Resolue, which struck without offering any resistance. L’Immortalité, of 44 guns, was in company, but made off as soon as she saw the fate of her consort, whom she did not attempt to assist.

After the action, the Robust and Magnanime continued with the prizes, the rest of the squadron having separated in the chace[7]. The disabled state of these ships, in addition to the severe weather which they encountered, created a considerable degree of alarm for their safety. The Robust and la Hoche put into Lough Swilly, where they refitted, and from thence sailed to Plymouth; while the Magnanime, with l’Ambuscade and la Coquille, were obliged to proceed round the north of Ireland; and after stopping at Belfast to repair their damages, also reached the same port.

This critical victory filled the nation with joy, and appears to have saved Ireland from the miseries of a new civil war. Parliament, fully sensible of its importance, honoured the squadron with a vote of thanks on the occasion, which was communicated by the Commodore to the Captains, officers, and men under his command.

In the month of Feb., 1799? Captain Thornbrough was appointed to the Formidable, of 98 guns; and about the same time obtained a Colonelcy of Marines. In May following, he proceeded to the Mediterranean, to reinforce the fleet under Earl St. Vincent, but does not appear to have remained long on that station, as in the ensuing autumn we again find him serving in the Channel.

Captain Thornbrough was advanced to the rank of Rear-Admiral of the Blue, Jan. 1, 1801; and, with his flag in the Mars, of 74 guns, commanded the in-shore squadron off Brest, alternately with Sir James Saumarez, during the remainder of the war. On the renewal of hostilities, in 1803, he was appointed to the command of a division of the North Sea fleet, under the orders of Lord Keith. In the Spring of 1806, his flag was on board the Prince of Wales, off Rochefort; and in 1808, we find him employed in guarding Sicily from the designs of the French, who at that time had complete possession of the Calabrias.

Our officer remained in the Mediterranean until about the spring of 1810, when he returned to England; and, in the ensuing summer, succeeded the present Sir James H. Whitshed, as Commander-in-Chief on the Irish station, where he continued during the usual period of three years. He was advanced to the rank of Vice-Admiral, June 9, 1805; Admiral, Dec. 4, 1813; and nominated a K.C.B. Jan. 2, 1815. In the course of the same year, Sir Edward was appointed to the office of Commander-in-Chief at Portsmouth, which he held until May 21, 1818.

Sir Edward Thornbrough has been twice married. By his first wife, who died at Exeter in 1801, he had several children, one of whom is a Commander in the Navy; another died after attaining the rank of Lieutenant. He married, 2dly, Dec. 4, 1802, to the daughter of Sir Edwin Jeynes, of Gloucester. That lady died at Bishop’s Teignton[errata 1], near Teignmouth, in December, 1813.

  1. The year 1775 forms a memorable epoch in the annals of Great Britain, as it presents the commencement of that war, which terminated in the loss of her North American colonies. A petition and remonstrance from the provincials met in Congress, having been rejected by the English ministry, on the ground of its want of constitutional form, and a military force ordered to reduce the refractory to obedience, that assembly proceeded to discipline and arm the militia of the colonies, and to stand on the defensive. It was not long before the certain result of this state of irritation displayed itself at Lexington, where a detachment of troops on their way to destroy a quantity of military stores, collected by the Americans at the town of Concord, were opposed by a body of militia; and a skirmish ensued, which ended in the regulars being compelled to retreat, with the loss of 273 officers and men, killed, wounded, and prisoners. The loss of the rebels was stated at only 60.

    This affair, which occurred on the 19th April, summoned the whole province of Massachussets to arms; upwards of 20,000 militia invested Boston; the highest indignation was excited hi the other colonies; and preparation for war became the general cry. The congress met a second time at Philadelphia on the 10th May, and their first measures were resolutions for raising an army, and for the issue of a paper currency for its payment, on the security of the United Colonies.

  2. The battle of Bunker’s Hill, June 17th, 1775, rendered the power of Great Britain much less formidable in the eyes of the colonists, than it had been before; and the Congress proceeded formally to justify its proceedings, in a declaration, setting forth the causes, and the necessity of their taking up arms; in which they alluded to foreign aid, as being attainable; but affirmed, that they had no wish to dissolve the connexion with the mother country, unless they should be forced to do so, by continued hostility on her part. In the month of July, Georgia joined in the alliance, and sent its delegates to Congress, which now assumed the title of the Congress of the Thirteen United Colonies; and in compliance with the general wish, it appointed George Washington, Esq., a gentleman of fortune in Virginia, who had acquired experience in the command of different bodies of provincials during the French war, to be Commander-in-Chief of the American forces.
  3. See p. 157.
  4. See p. 33.
  5. See p. 7.
  6. It was in the month of June, 1795, that Commodore Warren left Yarmouth Roads, Isle of Wight, with three ships of the line, six frigates, and a number of smaller vessels of war, having under his protection a fleet of fifty transports, on board of which were embarked a body of emigrants, commanded by the Counts d’Hervilly and de Puisaye. On the 21st, the Galatea frigate, which had been sent into Quiberon Bay, on her return to join the squadron, was chaced by the French fleet. The Commodore immediately made the best disposition for the protection of his charge, and hastened to join Lord Bridport, whom he had the good fortune to discern the next morning in pursuit of the enemy; the Robust, Thunderer, and Standard, were ordered to join the fleet, but got up with it too late to have any share in the action. After being at sea sixteen days, Sir John Warren anchored with his squadron and the transports between Isle Dieu and that of Noirmoutier; but as this was not considered by the French officers a proper situation to disembark, they proceeded for Quiberon Bay, where they anchored on the 25th. On the 27th most of the emigrant troops were landed near the village of Cramac. At first about 200 Republicans shewed a disposition to oppose the disembarkation; but these were put to flight with some loss. The whole coast was soon alarmed; and the Republicans collecting in great force, (after several successful attacks,) compelled the Royalists to retreat into Fort Penthievre, and the peninsula of Quiberon, which had surrendered to M. d’Hervilly on the 3d of July. The whole force which occupied the peninsula amounted to about 12,000 men.

    On the night of the 16th, M. d’Hervilly, at the head of about 5000 Royalists, made an attempt to carry by storm the Republicans’ works and entrenched camp on the heights of St. Barbe, in which he was repulsed with considerable loss, and himself severely wounded.

    Desertion from the emigrant army became at this time seriously alarming; indeed little else could have been expected, when it is considered that numbers of the men were enlisted from the French prisons. By these deserters General Hoche was informed of the exact state of the fort and royal army. On the night of the 20th, which was extremely dark and tempestuous, many of the emigrant soldiers who were on guard deserted; and being acquainted with the parole and countersign, conducted a large body of the Republican troops unmolested into the fort. The instant the alarm was given, the garrison was thrown into the greatest scene of confusion; several of the emigrant soldiers grounded their arms, and shouted Vive la Republique; others abandoned or massacred their officers; the few who remained faithful fought with great desperation, and did not surrender till after a bloody and dreadful conflict.

    The Emigrants, Chouans, and English in the fort, were about 10,000; most of whom were either killed or taken prisoners; among the number were the young Comte de Sombrieul, the Bishop of Dol, and several other emigrants of distinction, who were, contrary to the terms of capitulation agreed on by General le Moine, conducted by his orders to Nantz, where they were tried by a military tribunal, and sentenced to suffer death. The morning after this dreadful affair, the boats of the squadron with great difficulty brought off upwards of 2000 royalists, under cover of the frigates.

    Sir John Warren next proceeded to the islands of Hedic and Houat, of which he took possession without opposition. Having refreshed the troops, and left a sufficient number for their defence, with some ships of war to cover the retreat of the troops if necessary, he sailed to the attack of the island of Noirmoutier; but he here also found the Republicans so well prepared, that he was obliged to retire, after destroying two or three armed vessels, and then took possession of Isle Dieu, about five leagues to the southward of Noirmoutier.

    Soon after the Commodore’s arrival at this place, he was joined by the Jason frigate, Captain Stirling, having on board the Comte d’Artois, Duc de Bourbon, and several French noblemen. A fleet of transports also joined the squadron, with 4000 British troops on board, under the command of Major General Doyle, who were landed on the island with a great quantity of military stores, cloathing, &c. They remained here till the close of the year, when finding it utterly impracticable to attempt any further descent on the coast of France, they were re-embarked on board the transports and returned to England.

    Thus ended this unfortunate expedition, by which the nation is supposed to have lost near 40,000 stand of arms, with cloathing for as many men; besides an immense quantity of stores, ammunition, &c. Six transports that arrived in the evening previous to the storming of Fort Penthievre, laden with provisions of every sort for the army, fell into the hands of the enemy.

  7. The force under Sir John Warren’s orders, consisted of one 80-gun ship, two 74’s, and five frigates.

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