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Royal Naval Biography/Williams Freeman, William Peere

WILLIAM PEERE WILLIAMS FREEMAN, Esq.

(Late Williams.)

Senior Admiral of the Red.

This officer, who has recently obtained the royal permission to take and use the surname of Freeman, after passing through the subordinate ranks of Midshipman, Lieutenant, and Commander, was promoted to that of Post-Captain, Jan. 10, 1771, and served as such with great credit during the contest with our trans-atlantic colonies.

On the 10th Aug. 1780, Captain Williams being on a cruise off Ushant, in the Flora, of 42 guns and 259 men, fell in with an enemy’s frigate and a cutter, the former of which he captured after a most desperate action. She proved to be la Nymphe, of 32 guns, pierced for 40, and 291 men, 63 of whom, including her commander, were killed, and 73 wounded. The loss sustained by the Flora was 9 killed and 27 wounded. It is somewhat singular, that la Nymphe was taken by the Flora in the same manner in which she herself afterwards took the Cleopatra[1]; the wheel being shot away, she became ungovernable, fell on board her antagonist, and was carried by boarding[2].

In the month of March, in the ensuing year, Captain Williams accompanied the fleet under Vice-Admiral Darby, to the relief of Gibraltar[3], from whence he proceeded to Port Mahon. On the 29th May following, the Flora and Crescent, the latter commanded by the present Admiral Sir Thomas Pakenham, being near the coast of Barbary, on their passage from Minorca, and having recently escaped from a very superior Spanish squadron, fell in with two Dutch ships; but it then blowing a gale of wind, Captain Williams waited for a more favourable opportunity to bring them to action. The next morning, the gale having abated and the sea considerably fallen, the British frigates edged down towards the enemy. At five o’clock each ship had arrived close alongside of her opponent. A furious engagement commenced, and continued without intermission for two hours and a quarter, when the vessel opposed to the Flora struck her colours. She proved to be the Castor, of 32 guns and 230 men, 22 of whom were slain, and 41 wounded. The Flora had 9 killed, and 32 wounded.

Captain Pakenham’s antagonist continued the action some minutes longer, when by an unlucky shot, the Crescent’s main and mizen-masts were carried away, and the whole of the wreck falling within board, rendered her guns useless, and the ship became ungovernable. In this situation her gallant commander was reduced to the painful necessity of striking his colours to the Brille, a ship of the same force with the Castor. The instant Captain Williams saw the fate of his friend, he, by great exertions, placed the Flora in such a situation as to induce the enemy to forego the advantage he had obtained, and to make sail from the scene of action.

The ships were all so extremely disabled, particularly the Crescent and Castor, which were with some difficulty kept afloat, that it was five days before Captain Williams was able to make any progress towards his destination. On the 19th June, he discovered two large frigates approaching; at first Captain Williams shewed a disposition to give them battle; but as they still continued the pursuit, encouraged no doubt by the crippled appearance of his consorts, he, with the advice of his officers, separated,, and each ship steered a different course. The Castor about one o’clock was retaken by one of the enemy’s frigates; and in the night the Crescent also fell into their hands.

In the month of March, 1782, we find Captain Williams in the Prince George, of 98 guns, serving on the Leeward Island station, under Sir Samuel, afterwards Viscount Hood. The operations of the fleet, to which Captain Williams was attached during the siege, and after the capture of St. Christopher’s[4], at the above mentioned period, form an epoch in the proud annals of the British Navy; compelling an enemy of superior force to quit his anchorage, taking the same situation during action, and defeating the attempts made to force that position, was a lesson in naval tactics, that will ever be deservedly regarded with admiration; and our approbation must be divided between the skill displayed by Sir S. Hood, in directing these masterly manoeuvres, and the bravery and precision with which they were executed by those under his orders.

The capture of St. Christopher’s having rendered the presence of the squadron no longer safe, as they were within the range of shells, and an enemy’s fleet of nearly double their force within a few miles, Sir Samuel Hood prepared to quit his anchorage, which he did, in the same dexterous manner that he gained it. On the 19th March, the squadron anchored in St. John’s road, Antigua, and on the 22nd, sailed to join Sir George Rodney, who had recently arrived from England, at Antigua.

Early in the following month, when the fleet under Admiral Rodney was at St. Lucia, the Count de Grasse, having embarked an army of 5,500 men, and a considerable train of artillery and battering cannon, endeavoured to elude the vigilance of the English cruizers off Martinique, and push for St. Domingo; he was, however, so narrowly watched, that the French fleet were discovered in the night of the 7th; and being immediately pursued and overtaken, the battle of the 9th, and victory of the 12th April, were the consequences[5].

In these actions the Prince George bore a distinguished part, and had 9 men killed, and 24 wounded. Captain Williams was advanced to the rank of Rear-Admiral, April 12, 1794; Vice-Admiral, June 1st, in the following year; and Admiral, January 1st, 1801. His lady died in Sept. 1819, aged 73 years.


Addenda

W. PEERE WILLIAMS FREEMAN, (p. 33.) In 1777 this officer commanded the Venus, a very fine fast-sailing frigate, from which he exchanged with Captain Fergusson, the late Lieutenant-Governor of Greenwich Hospital, into the Brune.


  1. See Viscount Exmouth.
  2. This appears to have been the first action in which a British man-of-war, mounting carronades, was engaged. The Flora had on board six pieces of ordnance of that description, (eighteen pounders) in addition to her 36 long guns. See James's Naval History, vol. i, note † at p. 63.
  3. See p. 4, at which place we should have remarked, that in addition to the annoyance afforded by the Spanish gun-boats, the enemy opened the whole of his land batteries, and continued to bombard the rock during the period that the British fleet remained in its vicinity; by which cruel proceeding a great part of the town was destroyed, and many of the inhabitants reduced to indigence and beggary.
  4. See Retired Captain, John N. Inglefield.
  5. The engagement of the 12th of April commenced about seven A.M.: It was fought in a large basin of water, lying among the islands of Guadaloupe, Dominique, the Saints, and Marigalante; both on the windward and leeward of this basin, by very dangerous shores. As soon as day broke, Admiral Rodney threw out the signal for close action; and every vessel in his fleet obeyed it most scrupulously and literally. The British line, instead of being, as usual, at two cables’ length distance between every ship, was formed at the distance of only one. As each came up, she ranged close alongside her opponent, passing along the enemy for that purpose, giving and receiving, while thus taking her station, a most dreadful and tremendous fire. The action continued in this manner till noon; when Admiral Rodney resolved to carry into execution a manoeuvre, which, if successful, he expected would gain him a complete and decisive victory; for this purpose, in his own ship, the Formidable, supported by the Namur, the Duke, and Canada, he bore down with all sail set on the enemy’s line, within three ships of the centre, and succeeded in breaking completely through it. As soon as he had accomplished this, the other ships of his division followed him; and they all wore round, doubled upon the enemy, and thus placed between two fires those vessels, which by the first part of the manoeuvre they had cut off from the rest of the fleet. As soon as Admiral Rodney and the vessels which followed him wore, he made the signal for the van to tack, by which means they gained the windward of the French, and completed the disorder and confusion, into which the breaking of their line had thrown them.

    The enemy, however, still continued to fight with great courage and firmness; and made an attempt to reform their broken line, by their van bearing away to leeward; this, however, they could not accomplish; during the whole of this time, Sir Samuel Hood’s division had been becalmed, and of course unable to take any part in the action; but at this critical moment a breeze sprung up, which brought forward most of his ships, and thus “served to render the victory more decisive on the one side, and the ruin greater on the other.”

    One consequence of the breaking of the French line was, that opportunities were given for desperate actions between single ships; the most splendid and striking of which were the following, told in language, which it would be wrong to alter, because it would be scarcely possible to improve.

    “The Canada, of 74 guns, Captain Cornwallis, took the French Hector, of the same force, single-hand. Captain Inglefield, in the Centaur of 74 guns, came up from the rear to the attack of the Caesar, of 74 also. Both ships were yet fresh and unhurt, and a most gallant action took place; but though the French Captain had evidently much the worst of the combat, he still disdained to yield. Three other ships came up successively, and he bore to be torn almost to pieces by their fire. His courage was inflexible; he is said to have nailed his colours to the mast; and his death could only put an end to the contest. When she struck, her mast went overboard, and she had not a foot of canvas without a shot hole. The Glorieux likewise fought nobly, and did not strike till her masts, bowsprit, and ensign were shot away. The English Ardent, of 64 guns, which had been taken by the enemy in the beginning of the war, near Plymouth, was now retaken, either by the Belliqueux, or the Bedford. The Diadem, a French 74-gun ship, went down by a single broadside, which some accounts attribute to the Formidable; it has also been said, that she was lost in a generous exertion to save her Admiral.” “M. De Grasse was nobly supported, even after the line was broken, and till the disorder and confusion became irremediable towards evening, by the ships that were near him. His two seconds, the Languedoc and Couronne, were particularly distinguished, and the former narrowly escaped being taken, in her last efforts to extricate the Admiral. The Ville de Paris, after being already much battered, was closely laid alongside by the Canada; and in a desperate action of near two hours, was reduced almost to a wreck. Captain Cornwallis was so intent in his design upon the French Admiral, that, without taking possession of the Hector, he left her to be picked up by a frigate, while he pushed on to the Ville de Paris. It seemed as if M. De Grasse was determined to sink, rather than strike to any thing under a flag; but he likewise undoubtedly considered the fatal effects which the lowering of his flag might produce on the rest of his fleet. Other ships came up in the heat of the action with the Canada, but he still held out. At length, Sir Samuel Hood arrived in the Barfleur, just almost at sun-set, and poured in a most tremendous and destructive fire, which is said to have killed sixty men outright; but M. De Grasse, wishing to signalize as much as possible, the loss of so fine and so favourite a ship, endured the repetitions of this fire for about a quarter of an hour longer. He then struck his flag to the Barfleur, and surrendered himself to Sir Samuel Hood. It was said, that at the time the Ville de Paris struck, there were but three men left alive and unhurt on the upper deck, and that the Count de Grasse was one of the three.”

    Long before the French admiral surrendered, his fleet had sought their safety in flight; and that they might divide the attention of the English, and thus more easily accomplish their object, they went off before the wind in small squadrons and single ships. They were at first closely pursued; but on the approach of night, Admiral Rodney made the signal for his vessels to collect, for the purpose of securing his prizes, and removing the men from on board of them.

    While our fleet were obliged to lie under Guadaloupe for three days, to repair their damages, the French seized the favourable opportunity to escape. As, however, many of their ships were very much crippled, Admiral Rodney entertained hopes that he should be still able to overtake and capture some of them. On the 17th, therefore, he detached Sir Samuel Hood, with those vessels of his division which had suffered the least; and on the 19th, five sail of the enemy were perceived endeavouring to effect their escape through the Mona passage. The signal for chace was immediately given, and before the French could enter the passage, they were becalmed and overtaken. The Valiant, Captain Goodall, was the first who came up with them; he laid his ship alongside the Caton, of 64 guns, which struck at the first broadside; Captain Goodall, however, did not stop to take possession of her, but pushing on, he came up with and attacked the Jason, a vessel of the same force as the former; she held out about twenty minutes, and then submitted. A frigate of thirty-two guns, and a sloop of sixteen, were also taken.

    The whole loss of the enemy amounted to eight ships; one had been sunk; one, the Caesar, blew up after she was taken; by this accident, a lieutenant, and fifty English seamen, perished, with about four hundred prisoners; and six ships remained in the possession of the conquerors. On board the Ville de Paris, were found thirty-six chests of money, with which the troops that were intended for the invasion were to have been paid; and the whole train of artillery, with the battering cannon that were to have been employed on the same enterprise, were captured in the prizes.

    It was esteemed remarkably fortunate and glorious for the conquerors, that the Ville de Paris was the only first rate man of war that ever was taken and carried into port by any commander of any nation. This ship had been a present to the French monarch from the city of Paris; and was said to have cost 176,000l. sterling in her building and equipment.

    The loss of the enemy in killed and wounded, was very great; the amount of the former is supposed to have been three thousand; and of the latter, at least double that number. The Ville de Paris was fought so long and so gallantly, that on board of her alone four hundred perished.

    On board of the British fleet, the loss was also great, but not nearly in the same proportion, nor so great as might have been anticipated, when the length and the obstinacy of the contest are taken into consideration. Including the loss of both actions, on the 9th and 12th, the number of the killed amounted to two hundred and thirty-seven, and of wounded to seven hundred and sixty-six. Several officers of great repute for skill and bravery were among both. Captain Blair, of the Anson, who had distinguished himself the preceding year, in the action off the Dogger Bank with the Dutch, was slain; and Lord Robert Manners, son of the great Marquis of Granby, was so dangerously wounded, that he died on his passage to England.

    The British nation were so sensible of the bravery displayed both by the officers and men in this action, and of the importance of it as the only means of preserving the remainder of our West India Islands, that their joy, when the intelligence arrived, was excessive; it came also very seasonably in other points of view. On land, and even at sea, except where Admiral Rodney was engaged, we had not been able to meet the enemy, on any occasion, with great and decisive advantage; and in too many instances we had retired from the contest, not in the most honourable manner. As the means also of procuring more favourable terms of peace, this victory was hailed with joy and exultation; and as Admiral Rodney was looked up to as the great cause of it, the gratitude of the nation towards him was deeply felt, and expressed in warm and glowing language. It was recollected that the fortune of Sir George Rodney had been peculiarly singular, as well as highly glorious in the war. Within a little more than two years, he had given a severe blow to each of our three powerful and dangerous enemies, the French, Spaniards, and Dutch. He had taken an Admiral of each nation; a circumstance perhaps unequalled. He had in that time, added twelve line-of-battle ships, all taken from the enemy, to the British navy; and destroyed five more!

    Nor were his Sovereign and the Houses of Parliament less sensible of the bravery of the officers and men who had achieved this glorious and decisive victory; Sir George Rodney was created a Peer of Great Britain; Sir Samuel Hood, a Peer of Ireland; and Rear-Admiral Drake, and Commodore Affleck, were made Baronets of Great Britain; the thanks of both Houses of Parliament were unanimously voted to these, and the other officers, and the seamen and marines of the fleet; and on the 23d May, a vote of parliament was passed, by which a monument was ordered to be erected to the memory of Captains Bayne, Blair, and Lord Robert Manners, who had so bravely fallen in the defence of their King and Country. – (Campbell’s Lives, edit. 1813.)