Battle of Saints, 1782
(Also known as Battle of Dominica)


 I am indebted to Christopher Valin for giving us access to his research into his ancestor, Sir Charles Douglas 








An Old Controversy Revisited







Master’s in Military History


Historical Research Methods, RC576


May 25, 2007























"You have removed all doubt on the matter from my mind….

This manoeuvre was one of the happiest ever introduced into naval warfare, and I think your duty leaves you but one course to pursue with those documents in your possession.

You must lay them before the public.”


-Sir Walter Scott to Sir Howard Douglas

Quoted in S. W. Fullom, Life of General Sir Howard Douglas, p. 294


It was the early morning hours of April 12, 1782, and Sir George Brydges Rodney, Admiral of the White, was spoiling for a fight. The French fleet under the Comte de Grasse was on its way to meet a small Spanish fleet so that they could together invade Jamaica, one of the few Caribbean islands still held by the British. If Rodney, British Commander-in-Chief of the West Indies, could catch De Grasse in time, he might just prevent this from happening. He came upon the French in the channel between Dominica and a small group of islands known as the Saintes, and both fleets drew up their battle lines. What happened next would change the course of history, and incite one of the great controversies of the period. An unusual maneuver by the British ships, never before attempted in a major battle, led to a decimation of the French fleet from which it never recovered. The credit for the maneuver, however, was to be fought among supporters of naval officers on the same side. Though the exact truth will probably never be determined, a thorough examination of the evidence available strongly favors one side: that of Rodney’s captain-of-the-fleet, Sir Charles Douglas.


By the end of the eighteenth century, naval tactics had become stale. Admirals and captains were required to follow the rules of battle imposed on them from above. Known as the “Sailing and Fighting Instructions,” these directives had come about after a great deal of trial-and-error at the beginning of the Age of Sail, when the limits of fighting in vessels dependent upon the wind and other weather conditions began to be understood. Following these instructions, as well as common sense, a style of fighting had come about where two fleets would line up, one ship behind the other, then pass one another going in opposite directions, shooting their cannons as each ship went by (ships large enough to form up in such a battle line became known as “battle-line ships” or simply “battleships”). This would continue until one side surrendered or escaped. Naval battles of the time became quite orderly, and this prevented ships on the same side from causing damage to one another either from their guns or due to collisions. It also meant that the side with the greater firepower generally won, and that the winning side was often nearly as damaged as the loser.

This is not to say that officers of the Royal Navy never deviated from the Fighting Instructions. In 1744, Admiral Sir Thomas Mathews fought against a combined Franco-Spanish fleet at the Battle of Toulan and brashly went against the Instructions. His maneuver, which may have even been an attempt to break the enemy line, met with such failure that he was court-martialed, along with his second in command (Trew 2006, p. 15). This and other examples led naval commanders to be highly reticent about varying their tactics. At least that way, if they failed, they could still claim they were simply following orders.

The Battle of the Saints (known to the French as the Battle of Dominica), 12th April 1782, changed all of that. Sir Rodney, after pursuing the French fleet for three days with his 35-ship fleet, forced De Grasse and his thirty-three ships into a fight. During the battle a change in the direction of the wind and some confusion in the French line opened up spaces between ships. Rodney’s flagship, the Formidable, sailed toward and through the French line (thus “breaking the line”) and several other British ships followed suit, either behind Rodney’s ship or at other points in the line. Because nearly all of the guns on the ships were located on the sides, the British ships were able to fire away at the hapless French vessels, which were practically unable to return fire. The French fleet was devastated, and many ships were destroyed or captured, including De Grasse’s flagship, the Ville de Paris.

It was a tremendous victory, with several important consequences: First, it ruined France’s plan to invade Jamaica, which remained a British colony. Second, it reasserted Britain’s dominance at sea after huge losses during the Revolutionary War, allowing Britain to save face at the treaty negotiations a short time later. Third and finally, it changed naval warfare for as long as battles continued to be fought between sailing ships (well into the nineteenth century), including the all-important Battle of Trafalgar, where Admiral Horatio Nelson defeated Napoleon’s fleet using similar tactics.

Before the Battle of the Saints, the British government was so unhappy with Sir Rodney’s recent performance in the West Indies that (unbeknownst to Rodney) his replacement, Admiral Pigot, had already been sent to relieve him. Following the battle, amidst celebrations all over the country, the government was forced to acknowledge the great victory (Conway 2001). Rodney was made a baron, and parliament officially thanked him for his service (Breen 2000, p. 245). It was generally accepted by the public that Rodney had come up with the brilliant idea of breaking the French line, and that credit for the victory was his. But there were other views. A Scot named John Clerk of Eldin, who had written an Essay on Naval Tactics, believed that Rodney had been aware of his book, including the idea on breaking the line that he presented in it, and indeed took credit for the celebrated maneuver in later editions. A version was published posthumously in 1827 that even contained notes by Lord Rodney himself, which many took to be proof of Clerk’s claims.

Meanwhile, the family and friends of Sir Charles Douglas, as well as many naval officers and sailors, believed that it had been Douglas, not Rodney, who had the idea. The first time this is mentioned in print is probably in Admiral Ekin’s Naval Battles in 1829. But it was not until Sir Charles’ son, General Sir Howard Douglas, wrote his “Statement of Some Important Facts, Supported by Authentic Documents, Relating to the Operation of Breaking the Enemy’s Line, as Practiced for the First Time in the Celebrated Battle of the 12th of April, 1782” as part of his Treatise on Naval Gunnery in 1829 that the controversy came to a head. The Quarterly Review, a popular, conservative London magazine, published an ostensibly unbiased, but in reality quite one-sided, article taking to task both Sir Howard Douglas and the supporters of the then-late Clerk of Eldin in its January 1830 issue. Shortly afterward, the Edinburgh Review, the liberal competition, published its own views on why Clerk should be credited. This was followed by Sir Howard defending himself and his evidence in the United Service Journal, a less-well-known military magazine, and eventually in an entire book entitled Naval Evolutions (1832).  Noted naval expert Alfred T. Mahan said of Sir Howard’s documentation, “…it may be said that the son of Sir Charles Douglas, Rodney’s chief-of-staff, brought forward an amount of positive evidence, the only kind that could be accepted to diminish the credit of the person wholly responsible for the results, which proves that the suggestion came from Douglas, and Rodney’s consent was with difficulty obtained” (Mahan 1898, pp. 367-368). Interestingly, the Quarterly Review article stated that Sir Howard’s evidence obviously showed that Clerk had no claim to the maneuver, but disputed his claims against Rodney; while the Edinburgh Review said that Sir Howard’s refutation of Rodney’s claim was clearly proven, but that Douglas got the idea from Clerk.

Other journals and books came down on one of the three sides, the authors of many of which appear to have only read one or two of the previous works. For example, in an 1852 book on gunnery, Colonel Francis Chesney credits Clerk and acknowledges the controversy regarding Rodney, but makes no mention of Douglas. It is no surprise, then, that he references Clerk’s own book, Playfair’s biography of Clerk, the Edinburgh Review, and the Quarterly Review, and ignores the other available evidence. Obviously, to properly assess the claim, the evidence for all three versions should be thoroughly reviewed.


The name Admiral George Brydges, Lord Rodney may not enjoy the fame of Horatio Nelson, but to those familiar with British naval history he is ranked among such eminent officers as Nelson himself. Rodney had a long and illustrious, albeit controversial, career in the Royal Navy. After being raised by wealthy relatives, he joined the navy at a very young age, and, through a combination of connections, good fortune, and merit, quickly moved up in rank. His naval career was a roller coaster, with great victories often overshadowed by poor health, nearly constant financial troubles due to a gambling problem, and assaults on his reputation by fellow officers at sea and politicians at home (Trew 2000, pp. 2-4). 

Despite such powerful detractors as the distinguished Admiral Samuel Hood, there is little doubt that Rodney was one of the best naval commanders of his time. He was made one of the youngest captains in the fleet at the age of twenty-five, and six years later became governor of Newfoundland (Trew 2006, p. 15; Breen 2000, p. 230). During the Seven Years War he was promoted to rear admiral, and, following a period of exile in Paris to avoid debtors, Rodney became commander-in-chief of the Leeward Islands (West Indies) in 1778. But it was during the period of 1779-1782 that he really distinguished himself. At the close of the American War for Independence, Rodney had captured or destroyed sixteen ships of the line in two and a half years, and captured the commanding admiral of each of the nations with which Britain was still at war (Breen 2000, pp. 235-237, 245). The Saints was his final battle, and he retired upon his return home to England.

Rodney took at least his fair share of prizes and credit, including for the maneuver at the Battle of the Saints. He was known to be egotistical and self-serving, which sometimes made him unpopular with his officers.  His difficulties with other officers included his captain of the fleet, Sir Charles Douglas, of whom A. T. Mahan said, “…the chief-of-staff was so much mortified by the failure, and by the manner in which the admiral received his suggestions, as seriously to contemplate resigning his position” (Mahan 1898, p. 371).

Rear Admiral Sir Charles Douglas, 1st Baronet of Carr, was born in 1727 to one of the proudest and most influential families in Scotland. He was a direct descendant of the Earls of Morton, and his son’s biographer claims he would have inherited that title had a distant relative not produced a son late in life. Regardless, he must have had a good education, as evidenced by his ability to speak six languages fluently and his fondness for mathematical computation (Fullom 1865). His career in the Royal Navy began at the age of twelve, and he was in the service of Holland for several years, and for a short time following the Seven Years’ War he was known to have been in St. Petersburg helping Catherine the Great reorganize the Russian navy. But most of his long and distinguished career was spent in the Royal Navy of Great Britain, and he was involved in many of the most important military moments of the eighteenth century. As captain of the Syren off Newfoundland, it was he who first reported the French attack on St. John’s. During the American Revolutionary War, his ship, the Isis, broke through the ice in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and continued up the frozen river to relieve Quebec from the siege of the Americans under Benedict Arnold (Clark 1970; Nelson 2006). He also supervised the building of a small navy for the Battle of Valcour Island on Lake Champlain (for which he was made a baronet in 1777), participated in the Battle of Ushant, and, obviously, was Rodney’s captain-of-the-fleet (with duties similar to an adjutant general) at the Battle of the Saints. He was twice made commander-in-chief of North America at Halifax Station, and became a rear admiral before his untimely death of apoplexy in 1789.

Although Sir Charles never publicly took credit for the breaking the line maneuver, it appears that this was simply a matter of loyalty, duty, and discretion on his part. It is noteworthy that credit is taken on his headstone at Greyfriars Church in Edinburgh, Scotland.[1] Whether this was the decision of a family member, a friend, or perhaps his own way of finally setting the matter straight is unknown. His son, Sir Howard Douglas, stated in a letter to the editors of United Service Magazine that Sir Charles accepted the congratulations of close friends and family for the victory in private, but secretly longed for the public acknowledgement given to his commander-in-chief, and “went to his grave with a spirit wounded and mortified by neglect, for splendid, but unrequited, services” (United 1830, p. 355).

The third contender for the credit, John Clerk, Laird of Eldin, was not a sailor, but a merchant and lawyer who had always had an interest in naval battles, even though he had actually been to sea very little. He did write about naval tactics and, in a book printed for friends in 1782, An Enquiry on Naval Tactics, (and published publicly as An Essay on Naval Tactics in 1790), discussed his idea for breaking the line in naval battles. Whether or not his idea was known to Rodney, or even the same as the tactic used at the Battle of the Saints, is a matter of dispute.

In the 1782 edition of his book, Clerk states in the preface that he met with Rodney’s secretary, Richard Atkinson, in 1780, and gave him notes and sketches regarding the maneuver to give to Rodney before he left for the West Indies. However, Sir Howard Douglas points out that Rodney first sailed for the West Indies in 1779, so there is no way Atkinson would have been able to give Rodney the documents or discuss the tactic before he left (Quarterly 1830, pp. 52-53). Later, in a biography of Clerk, Professor John Playfair repeated the claim that Clerk suggested his idea to associates of Lord Rodney prior to 1780, and adds that Clerk also met with Sir Charles Douglas himself, which would mean that, regardless of who took the initiative on the 12th of April, the plan originated with him (Playfair 1822). Yet, if Clerk had met with Douglas, he never mentioned it himself. Moreover, Playfair’s attempt to fix the dates by stating that Douglas left for the West Indies several months after Rodney, and therefore could have relayed the information to him before the Battle of the Saints, is also demonstrably false. Rodney had returned for a short time in 1781, and both Rodney and Douglas left for the West Indies together on January 1, 1782 (Quarterly 1830, p. 53). Relatives of Lord Rodney vehemently denied that he had ever seen Clerk’s book or met the man before 1782, and Sir Howard Douglas likewise refuted any meetings between Clerk and his father. In fact, he discussed a letter in which his father mistakenly thought others were referring to a naval officer named Clark, and had never even heard of Clerk of Eldin. Further, Sir Howard had in his possession a copy of the version of Clerk’s book printed before the battle in 1782, and stated unequivocally that it did not even present the specific method of breaking the line used on 12th April (from the leeward), as did the later version (Douglas, 1832; Fullom 1865, p. 293).

Many observers were convinced by either the Quarterly Review or by Sir Howard that Clerk’s claims were unfounded. A London Times article published in 1893 stated, “That John Clerk, of Eldin, had advocated it from the arm-chair before it was employed in the Battle of the Saints is a coincidence only” (“Sea Power,” p. 462). In the third volume of his Life of Napoleon Buonaparte, originally published in 1727, Sir Walter Scott stated in a footnote: “John Clerk of Eldin; a name never to be mentioned by Britons without respect and veneration, since, until his systematic Essay Upon Naval Tactics appeared the breaking of the line (whatever professional jealousy may allege to the contrary) was never practiced on decided and defined principle” (p. 114). And yet, when Sir Howard Douglas showed him his evidence to the contrary, Sir Walter was not only convinced of his error, he urged Sir Howard to make his evidence public (Fullom 1865, p. 294). This is especially noteworthy in that one of Sir Walter’s best friends was William Clerk, son of John Clerk of Eldin (Lockhart 1900).

In 1789, seven years after the battle, a copy of Clerk’s Essay on Naval Tactics was sent to Lord Rodney for his opinion on it. Rodney wrote copious notes in the margins, including the section on the breaking of the line maneuver, and yet never once mentioned anything regarding first reading about the maneuver there. In fact, in one note, he stated, “And it is well known, that attempting to bring to action the enemy, ship to ship, is contrary to common sense, and a proof that the Admiral is not an officer, whose duty is to take every advantage of an enemy, and to bring, if possible, the whole fleet under his command to attack half or part of that of the enemy…” (Quarterly 1830, p. 57). By breaking the line, each ship would, in fact, end up fighting ship-to-ship as they passed through the enemy line. Furthermoe, as the editor of the Quarterly Review article noted, “We venture to say no one will readily believe that Lord Rodney was capable of annotating thus deliberately on Clerk’s book in 1789, if he had been conscious of owing the great victory of 1782 to its suggestions, without manfully and distinctly expressing his sense of his obligations in some part of his comments” (Quarterly 1830, p. 57).

Still, if one investigates the matter without digging past the surface materials, it may be difficult to find refutations of Clerk’s defenders. Historians and writers from Henry Lord Brougham in 1870 to David Gates today, and even a recent History Channel program on the Royal Navy, have continued to credit Clerk, either based on Playfair’s claims, or a lack of knowledge of, or attention to, the plentiful evidence to the contrary (Brougham 1870; Gates 2001; Chesney 1852). In fact, a magazine called Library World, at the turn of the last century, criticized a book on naval tactics for ignoring Clerk’s “contribution” (1906, p. 196).


While the question of Clerk’s contribution can be fairly easily laid to rest, the dispute between backers of Rodney and Douglas is not so easily resolved. Circumstantial evidence abounds on both sides.  Both men were certainly tactical giants, with numerous victories on their records. But Douglas had the advantage with respect to “thinking outside the box.” The fact that he rammed his ship, the Isis, into the ice in order to sail up the St. Lawrence River and relieve Quebec during the Americans’ siege of that city shows not only his ingenuity, but also his willingness to embrace risk and try something unusual and untested (Clark 1970). He was so confident in his ideas on naval gunnery that he used his own money to change the cannons on his ship, The Duke, from fuses over to flintlocks, as well as widen the field of fire of its guns and make them more stable. As a result, these ships were able to fire more often and more accurately, with less risk of injury to those firing them. The Barham Papers contains so many letters from Douglas to Lord Barham at the Admiralty filled with technical information on these types of changes, that the editor began to excise portions and simply state that Douglas described things in “tedious detail” (Laughton 1907). But Douglas’ suggestions worked. The same alterations made to the Duke were made to at least two other ships of Rodney’s fleet, the Formidable and the Arrogant, and after the success at the Battle of the Saints, the entire British fleet followed suit.

Lord Rodney, on the other hand, had a habit of sticking to the rules, and admonishing those who did not. He had two of the officers under his command court-martialed following the Battle of Martinique in 1780 for not following his instructions to the letter. A memorandum of advice to his son, John (whom he had made a captain while still a teenager) begins: “The first consideration of a captain of a man of war is to be particularly attentive in perusing and studying the Sailing and Fighting Instructions he may receive from the Admiralty…” (Trew 2006, p. 200). It should also be mentioned that Rodney, as a newly-promoted rear admiral, commanded the van of Admiral Mathews fleet at the previously mentioned Battle of Toulan, and saw both his commander-in-chief and vice-admiral court-martialed for deviating from the Instructions. Obviously, it would have been no small matter for Rodney to deviate from the Instructions by breaking the line, regardless of the circumstances at the time.

It has been suggested by some, such as the editor of the Quarterly Review, Rodney’s biographer (and son-in-law) General Mundy, and W. H. Adams, that Rodney apparently attempted to break the French line during an earlier battle off Martinique (Quarterly 1830 p. 78; Mundy 1830, pp. 295-297; Adams 1882, p. 159). This does not appear to be accurate, nor would it necessarily fall on his side of the argument. Many analysts believe Rodney was simply trying to concentrate his fire upon a small part of the opposing line (in this case, the rear) rather than cut the line, as was done in the later battle (Trew 2006). In any case, the attempt was not successful due to the failure of some of his officers to follow his signals. Because of his personality, Rodney often had difficulty relaying his wishes to his officers, and in this case, it resulted in two of his captains being court-martialed. If anything, this may be seen as yet another reason why Rodney would have been hesitant to attempt a similar maneuver again two years later.

Another item to take into consideration is Lord Rodney’s poor health. By all accounts, the admiral was extremely ill, and spent most of the day in his cabin. Rodney’s physician, Gilbert Blane, wrote in a memoir that

…it was considered as a fortunate circumstance for the service, that the Commander-in-Chief of the fleet in the West Indies, in the memorable campaign of 1782, should have had about his person to assist and advise him, so able an officer as Sir Charles Douglas, he himself being almost always in such bad health, either from illness or from convalescence from the gout, from debility and unequal spirits, so as to render him less equal to the fatiguing and anxious duties inseparable from such high responsibility (United 1830, p. 598).


Some crewmembers would go so far as to state that Rodney spent most of the Battle of the Saints sitting in a chair (United 1830, p. 598).

Hearsay evidence exists on both sides. Friends of Lord Rodney claimed that Douglas had admitted that Rodney first had the idea. One associate, the writer Richard Cumberland, even went so far as to say that Douglas told him he had tried to talk Rodney out of breaking the line after Rodney ordered it (United 1830, p. 93). Sir Howard Douglas states that, even if that story were true, it merely served to illustrate Sir Charles’ dedication to his commander-in-chief and his strong belief that it was his duty not to undermine his superior in public. Admiral Samuel Hood, who was Rodney’s second in command at the Battle of the Saints, claimed that Douglas was too fearful of Rodney to have made such a suggestion, but he was aboard his own ship, the Barfleur, at the time, so it was only supposition. Hood had a reputation for being highly critical of others, and this opinion may have been partly a result of his disappointment in Rodney for not chasing and destroying the rest of the French fleet on the 12th of April, since he also blamed Douglas for this lapse in initiative (Duffy 2000, p. 262). On the other hand, if Hood is correct about Douglas’ reticence, it could also be another reason for Sir Charles not taking credit for the maneuver later on, even if it had been his idea.

In 1830, following several first-hand accounts (recounted below), Sir Howard Douglas produced a “Second Class of Evidence,” which were letters addressed to Sir Charles “expressly ascribing to him the Manoeuvre in question, and congratulating him on the glory he had gained” (United, p. 599).

Next, Sir Howard published what he called his “Third Class of Evidence,” a number of letters from officers still living at the time, who were not on the Formidable during the battle but were in the fleet, that “prove that the belief and impression were general, if not universal, in the Fleet at the time, that my Father suggested, proposed, and urged the decisive, supermeditated operation” (United 1830, p. 600).

Finally, Sir Howard’s “Fourth Class of Evidence” consisted of three “letters from officers who were at Jamaica when the fleet and prizes arrived, a few days after the action, to show the belief and impression were generally circulated and entertained in all societies at Port Royal that the decisive operation was pointed out by my Father at the important moment” (United 1830, p. 602).

First hand accounts of what transpired aboard the Formidable tend to be detailed and one-sided. As mentioned earlier, Rodney took credit for the idea, but it is generally accepted that such was his personality that he would done so have either way, while Douglas was mostly silent on the matter out of respect for his admiral and the chain of command. So one must, as in a court of law, assess the testimony of eyewitnesses who were present at the time.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence of all comes from Charles Dashwood, a seventeen-year-old (most sources mistakenly say thirteen) aide-de-camp to Rodney and Douglas at the time (Urban 1847, p. 636). Dashwood, who later became a vice-admiral himself, gave a detailed account of the exchange between the two men. According to Dashwood’s letter to Sir Howard, Sir Charles was leaning on the hammocks and staring out at the French line, when he suddenly said, “Dash! Where’s Sir George?” When Dashwood replied he was in the aft cabin, Sir Charles headed in that direction and met with Rodney, who was coming from the cabin and was close to the wheel. Then Sir Charles bowed and said:

“Sir George, I give you the joy of victory!” “Poh!” said the chief, as if half angry, “the day is not half won yet.” “Break the line, Sir George!” said your [Sir Howard’s] father, “the day is your own, and I will insure you the victory.” “No,” said the admiral, “I will not break my line.” After another request and another refusal, Sir Charles desired the helm to be put a-port; Sir Charles ordered it to starboard. On your father ordering it again to port, the admiral sternly said, “Remember, Sir Charles, that I am commander-in-chief—starboard, sir,” addressing the master, who, during this controversy, had placed the helm amidships. Both the admiral and the captain then separated; the former going aft, the latter forward. In the course of a couple of minutes or so, each turned and again met nearly on the same spot.” Then Sir Charles quietly and coolly again addressed the chief—“Only break the line, Sir George, and the day is your own.” The admiral then said, in a quick and hurried way, “Well, well, do as you like;” and immediately turned around and walked into the aft cabin. The words “Port the helm!” were scarcely uttered, when Sir Charles ordered me down with directions to commence firing on the larboard side. On my return to the quarter deck, I found the Formidable passing between two French ships, each nearly touching us. We were followed by the Namur, and the rest of the ships astern; and from that moment the victory was decided in our favor (Quarterly 1830, p. 64).


The letter is followed by an extract of the diary of Vice-Admiral Sir Joseph Sydney Yorke, who was also an aide-de-camp to Rodney and Douglas at the time. In Yorke’s version, which is very close to Dashwood’s, Douglas urged the admiral to break the line, to which Rodney replied that “it was a very hazardous experiment.” The argument over turning the ship is also present in Yorke’s diary, with Sir Charles repeatedly calling out to the helm to “luff” (Quarterly 1830, pp. 65-66).

The Quarterly Review’s editor (signed only “ART,” but generally understood to be Sir John Barrow, Lord of the Admiralty) was not persuaded by Dashwood’s (or Yorke’s) testimony, and was actually quite cruel in his assessment (Trew 2006, p. 178; Quarterly 1830, pp. 66-79). He stated that Dashwood was too young at the time and it was too long ago for him to remember it so clearly, took issue with the timing and the background noise that must have existed, and even went so far as to ridicule some of the descriptions of the action.

After seeing the Quarterly Review article, Dashwood wrote a letter to the editor of the United Service Journal, in which he said his letter to Sir Howard Douglas “is canvassed with no small degree of acrimony” in that article and went on to defend and explain himself  (United 1830, p. 352-353). In that same issue of United Service Journal, Sir Howard pulled out all the stops and published many more accounts that backed up his claims and, specifically, Dashwood’s letter. Charles Thesiger, brother to Sir Frederick Thesiger (Rodney’s first aide-de-camp on the Formidable), produced a letter that Frederick wrote to him at the time, in which he gave an account that not only supported Dashwood and Yorke’s stories, but stated, “Sir Charles Douglas is the man who had the sole merit of fighting the Formidable,” and that he (Thesiger) had even disobeyed Rodney’s direct order to turn the ship to starboard, since he was required to always obey the last order given, and Douglas continued to shout, “Luff, my boys, luff!” (United 1830, pp. 596-597). The next letter printed in the United Service article was from Frederick Knight, who was Sir Charles Douglas’ secretary at the time of the battle, and whose job was to record everything that happened. Knight also tells almost an identical story to the others, and states in no uncertain terms “that bold and fortunate manoeuvre rests wholly on the late Sir Charles Douglas!” (United 1830, p. 597). In another letter, Captain G. W. Blaney, a midshipman on the Formidable during the battle, states, “There can be no doubt of an altercation between the Commander-in-Chief and Captain of the Fleet, whether the helm should be put a-starboard or port, which was alternately done, and even a-port by the motion of Sir Charles’ hand.” A statement similar to the others’ follows this, with Douglas calling, “luff, my man, luff” over Rodney’s objections, and Rodney finally saying, “Do as you please, Sir Charles.” Blaney wrote this letter with his journal, written the day after the battle, in front of him (United 1830, p. 598).

One could certainly speculate, as the Quarterly Review did, as to why so many eyewitnesses would act in collusion to make up a story like Dashwood’s. But without any known reason to doubt their statements, and their versions having been told at such disparate times and under such different circumstances, it would be an odd endeavor, and certainly one undertaken with some sort of ulterior motives.

Finally, there is an assertion that, to my knowledge, has never been made, but probably should be examined based on what is known about Rodney’s character. Assuming the version told by Dashwood, Yorke, and the others is truthful, Rodney would have had very little to lose by finally allowing Douglas to steer the Formidable into the French line. If the maneuver proved to be a success, which it did, he would receive and accept the credit for the victory, which he was only too happy to do. But if it failed, Rodney had many witnesses who overheard Douglas countermanding his orders several times, which certainly would have been grounds for a court martial, for which he surely would have called in such an event. Either way, Rodney would probably come through the matter unscathed. As with so many things in life, the people at the top tend to find a scapegoat for the bad, and take the credit and praise for the good.






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[1] His memorial reads: “To the revered memory of Rear Admiral Sir Chas Douglas, Bart., Son of Chas Ayton Douglas of Kinglassie, Born 1727 Died 1789, a distinguished naval officer, he relieved Quebec 1778 and when Captain of the Fleet to Adl Sir George Rodney in the heat of battle first suggested the manoeuvre known as the breaking of the line, 12 April 1782. Interred beside his brother near this spot.” National Maritime Museum, Greenwich (


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