Tuesday, August 6

The Captain's Background, part II

Come, come, Doctor!  Has the bottle permanently dropped anchor along your shore!
Now, as I was saying, I finally received my commission aboard the HMS Preston as 3rd Lieutenant under the command of Commodore William Hotham.  The Preston was a 50 gun fourth rate, though when compared to the Acasta, the only difference lies with the number of guns she carried, as the Acasta is longer and broader of beam pointing to the marvelous advances in His Majesty’s ship design.  Initially, I was disappointed at being posted to a ship of the line, albeit one of the smallest class to be considered such, as I would have much rather preferred a posting to a frigate and possibility of prize money, but my disappointment so gave way to the satisfaction which comes from the faithful and meticulous performance of one’s duty to King and ship!  Most of the tasks assigned to the Preston entailed convoy duty between Halifax and New York, periodically broken by the sight of an American privateer on the horizon, though we were never able affect a capture they being far swifter than a 50.  It was during this time that I learned the value of a well –drilled gun crew, exercised regularly on the Great Guns, as it proved invaluable after the French fleet arrived off the North American coast in 1778, when the Preston engaged the Marseillois, a French 74¸off the coast of Rhode Island.  Though the Frenchman had been damaged by Nor’easter the day before, it was a hard go, but our gun crews were able to prevail against our larger foe.
That was my first experience in battle, and even though there have been others since then, the events are still as fresh and as real in my mind today.  The Preston was amongst those ships of Lord Howe’s squadron berthed in New York.  Lord Howe sortied the fleet to engage the French whereupon we set course for Newport, in the colony of Rhode Island.  During our approach, a Nor’easter suddenly appeared and scattered the fleet.  We were fortunate in having Commodore Hotham as our captain, he being a superb seaman, and the Preston sustained light damage to the rigging.  This proved to be of great consequence as the following evening, isolated from the rest of our fleet, we fell in with the French Marsellois, a 74 gun ship of the line.  Despite the disparity in the weight of our broadsides, the Marseillois was severely limited in her ability to maneuver, having lost both her mizzen and bowsprit and with but jury rigged repairs in place.  Having the weather gauge, Commodore Hotham immediately ordered that we beat to quarters.  I vividly remember how the rattle of the drum beating the long roll, coupled with the rapid scrambling of the crew to their stations created an atmosphere of excitement and fear.

My station was on the aft section of upper deck gun which housed the 12 pounder guns, the 24s being on the lower gun deck, and within short order the guns were loaded and run out.  I tell you Doctor, the 45 minutes during which the commodore maneuvered the Preston into an advantageous position from which to begin the engagement were amongst the longest I have ever had to endure.  The numerous hours of exercising the great guns had only begun to prove its value as every man exuded confidence at his station. 

Our view of the Marsellois was limited to what we could glimpse through the gun ports, but it was evident that Commodore Hotham was attempting to maneuver the Preston so as to rake the Frenchman’s stern.

Periodically, the sound of the 6 pdrs located on the foc’sle and quarterdeck being fired broke the silence below deck, as the commodore judged the range.  Finally , during the second dog watch at 15 minutes after seven bells – I do beg your pardon Doctor, I mean at “a quarter to eight in the evening”, - I do fail to see how you still have difficulty remembering the times for the various watches, the order was given to fire our broadsides at the Marsellois.  The guns fired as if one, and immediately the gun deck was filled with smoke.  The crews immediately sprang to their stations, swabbing, reloading, and running the guns out once more. 

The Marsellois disappeared from view, shrouded in smoke from our guns and their reply in turn, making it difficult to assess whether or not our aim was true.  The order was passed to aim for the hull and to fire as each gun bear on the target.  My entire world, within short order, became restricted to a few square yards as my only concern, and duty, was to the guns under my command.
Whilst we aimed to disable the Marsellois and her ability to continue the fight, the French initially attempted to damage our rigging and sails to render our superior maneuverability moot, such that the only damage we sustained initially to the hull was the occasional chain or ball which fell short of its intended target.  For 45 minutes, the Preston and Marsellois continued in this dance, neither being able to gain the advantage.  We still being in possession of the weather gauge had a better view of the Marsellois as the wind helped to disperse the smoke from our guns, word came down from the tops that the Marsellois was sending up a series of signal flags, which we interpreted as an attempt by the enemy to mislead Commodore Hotham into believing that relief was coming to the aid of the Marsellois.  Much to our dismay, topmen reported the appearance of sails which indeed heralded the arrival of other of the French squadron.  Commodore Hotham gave orders to break off the engagement whereupon we secured our guns and changed course to the southwest.  Whilst my first action was largely indecisive, I learned Doctor that one must be steady and vigilant in the execution of one’s duty even if it carries the danger of harm to oneself, for adherence to performing one’s duty without regard to self, enables you to remain calm thereby imparting a steadying confidence in your abilities to those whose lives depend on you.

Ah, our dish of wild boar has arrived!  Do help yourself Doctor, and I will continue the “Odyssey” of my life!

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