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Lindsey Brock: The Last Naval Battle of the American Revolution

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The year is‭ ‬1783.‭ ‬The fledgling colonies have made a name for themselves in fighting against the largest empire with the strongest fighting force on land or sea,‭ ‬then on the face of the earth.‭ ‬Diplomatic missions are ongoing in Europe to secure a peace between‭ ‬Great Britain and her rebellious colonies.‭ ‬Dynastic monarchies are courted to support the colonies as they pursue a plan toward freedom‭ – ‬total freedom from any foreign power or influence.‭ ‬As these efforts are taking place,‭ ‬the government in‭ ‬Philadelphia is facing a critical financial position.‭ ‬Already the Continental Army has been without pay and the troops threatening to march on the capitol and install General Washington as King.‭ ‬Only his character and integrity as a leader of men prevented the derailment of the cause.‭ ‬In his famous plea to his men he asked what flaw in his character ever gave them the thought that he would support such a move.‭ ‬The officers relented,‭ ‬then men followed suit,‭ ‬and the army continued to fight for freedom.‭ ‬Rumors began to circulate about a treaty,‭ ‬but news travels slow and the government desperately needed funds.‭

Captain John Barry,‭ ‬a renowned sea captain,‭ ‬who went on to receive the first commission as a Captain in the U.S.‭ ‬Navy,‭ ‬is the Captain of the‭ ‬Alliance,‭ ‬a stellar ship in the colonial navy.‭ ‬He is returning from a diplomatic journey to‭ ‬France and receives order from Robert Morris to sail to‭ ‬Havana and receive a loan from the Spanish crown of specie,‭ ‬72,000‭ ‬Spanish milled dollars.‭ ‬Along the way during his cruise to‭ ‬Havana,‭ ‬the‭ ‬Alliance had‭ ‬spotted‭ ‬various vessels just off the horizon,‭ ‬but was never quite able to identify them or give chase.‭ ‬Ultimately he realized that several British vessels were patrolling the waters and more than once he had to use the speed of the‭ ‬Alliance to avoid capture.‭ ‬Upon his arrival in Havana,‭ ‬Captain Barry found the‭ ‬Duc de Lauzun in port with identical orders from Robert Morris.‭ ‬Mr.‭ ‬Morris had earlier acquired the vessel and sent her under command of Captain John Green,‭ ‬an old acquaintance of Captain Barry’s.‭ ‬The specie,‭ ‬72,000‭ ‬Spanish milled dollars,‭ ‬had already been loaded upon the‭ ‬Duc de Lauzun,‭ ‬so the captains agreed that the‭ ‬Alliance‭ ‬would convoy with her to secure the delivery in‭ ‬Philadelphia.

The ships were delayed under‭ “‬secret orders‭” ‬of an embargo upon the port by order of the King.‭ ‬We know that all in the area knew the‭ “‬secret orders‭” ‬were merely to allow the French and Spanish fleets to join in force and sail to‭ ‬Jamaica.‭ ‬When the embargo lifted and the Spanish fleet departed on‭ ‬March‭ ‬6,‭ ‬1783,‭ ‬the captains joined with the Spanish fleet for a time,‭ ‬but not knowing their ultimate direction,‭ ‬they broke from them on‭ ‬March‭ ‬7,‭ ‬1783,‭ ‬and made way toward the‭ ‬Gulf of‭ ‬Florida.

The‭ ‬Alliance‭ ‬was clearly the faster of the two vessels.‭ ‬As would ultimately be shown,‭ ‬Captain Barry was clearly the better captain as well.‭ ‬As they approached the Great Bahama Bank,‭ ‬they spotted two sails to the southeast.‭ ‬Captain Barry slowed his vessel to allow Captain Green to get within hailing distance and the two discussed the sails and their response.‭ ‬Captain Green favored a run to the north,‭ ‬but Captain Barry realized that would give the advantage to the enemy to sail upon a short angle and give chase.‭ ‬His esteem for Captain Green fell considerably.‭ ‬Captain Barry recommended a southwest course to lure the ships back to the Spanish fleet.‭ ‬This was the course they followed and when the British ships caught sight of the Spanish fleet,‭ ‬they broke off the chase.

The‭ ‬Alliance and‭ ‬Duc de Lauzun remained in sight of the Spanish fleet until‭ ‬March‭ ‬8,‭ ‬1783,‭ ‬when they broke off again,‭ ‬heading along the coast of‭ ‬Florida.‭ ‬Captain Barry constantly had to slow his ship to allow the‭ ‬Duc de Lauzun to catch up to him.‭ ‬Finally on‭ ‬March‭ ‬9,‭ ‬1783,‭ ‬the captains had a‭ “‬consultation‭” ‬that lasted four hours.‭ ‬At its end,‭ ‬and much to the dislike of Captain Green,‭ ‬they agreed to move a great majority of the specie from the‭ ‬Duc de Lauzun to the‭ ‬Alliance.‭ ‬By this time they were through the‭ ‬Gulf of‭ ‬Florida and between‭ ‬Florida and the‭ ‬Bahamas,‭ ‬off the coast of what would be‭ ‬Fort Pierce,‭ ‬Florida,‭ ‬today.‭ ‬The transfer completed,‭ ‬they continued northward.

During this time,‭ ‬the two British ships that had given chase,‭ ‬Alarm,‭ ‬thirty-two gun frigate,‭ ‬Captain Charles Cotton and‭ ‬Sybil,‭ ‬twenty-eight gun frigate,‭ ‬Captain James Vashon,‭ ‬met up with the British sloop-of-war,‭ ‬Tobago,‭ ‬eighteen gun,‭ ‬Captain George Martin.‭ ‬These three British ships,‭ ‬south of‭ ‬Cape Canaveral,‭ ‬began cruising southward,‭ ‬spotted the American ships and gave chase.

Captain Barry spotted the British ships that morning,‭ ‬March‭ ‬10,‭ ‬1783,‭ ‬and also noticed another sail to his southwest.‭ ‬This later vessel tacked away from them,‭ ‬so it was little concern.‭ ‬His focus was squarely with the three vessels rapidly descending upon them.

The decision was made to make for the Spanish fleet again and the American vessels changed course to the southwest.‭ ‬As usual,‭ ‬Captain Green lagged far behind,‭ ‬with the‭ ‬Duc de Lauzun‭ ‬some two miles behind,‭ ‬she signaled that the pursuing ships were British frigates,‭ ‬vessels of superior force.‭ ‬Captain Barry,‭ ‬knowing he had the majority of the specie on his vessel,‭ ‬decided to place the safety of his vessel and cargo as paramount.‭ ‬He gave the signal for each to‭ “‬shift for herself‭” ‬and he unfurled the Navy Jack.

The gap began to widen between the American vessels,‭ ‬when Captain Green signaled the need to speak with Captain Barry.‭ ‬This was a risky proposition given that the‭ ‬Alarm was only one and a half miles off the windward stern of the‭ ‬Duc de Lauzun.‭ ‬Nevertheless,‭ ‬Captain Barry lowered his sails to slow his ship.‭ ‬He noted the‭ ‬Alarm did likewise in order to allow the other British ships to catch up to them and join in any fight.

When the two American ships came abreast of each other,‭ ‬Captain Barry was shocked by Captain Green’s words.‭ ‬Green claimed that the ships were merely privateers and could easily be taken by them.‭ ‬Captain Barry realized that some other cargo aboard the‭ ‬Duc de Lauzun was seriously clouding the captain’s judgment.‭ ‬Captain Green was obviously willing to sacrifice the‭ ‬Alliance and its public cargo,‭ ‬in order to protect his own private interests and his ship.‭ ‬One can only imagine how lowly Captain Barry regarded the other captain at this point.

Captain Barry held off his disdain and simply disagreed with Captain Green’s assessment of the ships,‭ ‬pointing out that they were clearly frigates,‭ ‬with the closest descending upon them carrying thirty-two guns.‭ ‬He implored Captain Green to throw his cannon overboard to lighten his ship and make speed away from the British vessels.‭ ‬This was done and all but the stern guns were thrown overboard.‭ ‬Again showing a lack of sailing prowess,‭ ‬rather than making the prudent maneuver to port and thus getting more wind behind him,‭ ‬Captain Green maintained his southwesterly course.‭ ‬The ships were closing rapidly.

Honor prevented Captain Barry from completely abandoning the‭ ‬Duc de Lauzun.‭ ‬He quickly considered the possibilities of saving her and his own vessel.‭ ‬While considering his very limited options,‭ ‬he again spotted the lone sail off to the southwest that had been standing just off from them.‭ ‬It had now turned toward them.‭ ‬Captain Barry saw the British frigate,‭ ‬Alarm,‭ ‬break off from the pursuit of the‭ ‬Duc de Lauzun and thus guessed that the ship to his southwest was either French or Spanish.

In a bold move,‭ ‬Captain Barry committed to the fight.‭ ‬He was convinced that with one vessel now approaching,‭ ‬the‭ ‬Sybil,‭ ‬and with help on the horizon,‭ ‬he could buy enough time for the‭ ‬Duc de Lauzun to escape to safety.‭ ‬Given the situation he was confident that he could engage the single British ship and avoid a fight with all three.

Captain Barry gave orders to raise sail and turn hard to starboard.‭ ‬His decision was to deliberately place his ship between the‭ ‬Duc de Lauzun and the oncoming‭ ‬Sybil.‭ ‬The‭ ‬Sybil continued firing her cannon and the‭ ‬Alliance took several shots,‭ ‬one that smashed into the captain’s cabin killing a master’s mate and wounding several others.‭ ‬Captain Barry left the quarter deck and personally walked from cannon to cannon encouraging and cautioning his men to not fire until he gave the order himself.‭ ‬He wanted to lure the enemy in as close as possible,‭ “‬half a pistol range.‭” ‬Alliance even took a full broadside from the‭ ‬Sybil and still did not fire her cannon.‭ ‬The discipline of the crew paid off in this crucial time of the battle.‭

Captain Barry ordered the main topsail hove to mast and this positioned the‭ ‬Alliance directly abreast of the‭ ‬Sybil.‭ “‬Open fire‭!” ‬came the order from Captain Barry and the full fury of his ship was unleashed upon the‭ ‬Sybil.‭ ‬The British guns went silent after forty minutes of close fighting‭; ‬she lost two sails and had considerable damage to her hull.‭ ‬Reports conflict,‭ ‬but it seems she raised distress flags to the other British vessels,‭ ‬which had not joined in the fight due to the French ship on the horizon.‭ ‬Her casualties were reported to range up to thirty-seven killed and forty wounded.‭ ‬In any event,‭ ‬the‭ ‬Sybil quickly broke off from the fight and fled back to the other vessels.‭

Captain Barry,‭ ‬knowing he had saved the‭ ‬Duc de Lauzun as well as the‭ ‬Alliance,‭ ‬did not give immediate chase.‭ ‬Instead he questioned the French captain why he had not come to their aid faster.‭ ‬The captain meekly replied that he had a valuable cargo of gold and feared the whole enterprise was a trick to draw him in and capture the vessel.‭ ‬At that point the‭ ‬Alliance,‭ ‬Duc de Lauzun,‭ ‬and the‭ ‬Triton,‭ ‬a sixty-four gun ship,‭ ‬gave chase to the British,‭ ‬but after eight to ten hours they lost sight of the ships in the dark.‭

Afterward,‭ ‬Captain Barry was met rather coolly by Captain Green,‭ ‬and after somewhat heated discussions,‭ ‬Captain Green eventually agreed to transfer the remaining Spanish dollars to the hold of the‭ ‬Alliance.‭ ‬At‭ ‬noon on‭ ‬March‭ ‬11,‭ ‬1783‭ ‬the ships continued on their journey northward without any other encounters.‭ ‬On‭ ‬March‭ ‬18,‭ ‬1783,‭ ‬the‭ ‬Duc de Lauzun became separated from the‭ ‬Alliance off the coast of‭ ‬Hatteras.‭ ‬This proved fortuitous because as the fog lifted the next morning,‭ ‬Captain Barry spotted two British ships off the‭ ‬Delaware capes who immediately gave chase.‭ ‬The speed of his vessel saved him yet again.‭ ‬He drew the vessels northward and allowed the slower‭ ‬Duc de Lauzun to safely sail into‭ ‬Philadelphia.‭

The next day,‭ ‬March‭ ‬20,‭ ‬1783,‭ ‬the‭ ‬Alliance‭ ‬sailed into‭ ‬New Port,‭ ‬Rhode Island,‭ ‬abandoning the plan to return to‭ ‬Philadelphia given the strong British presence.‭ ‬A few days later, news reached‭ ‬America that on‭ ‬February‭ ‬3,‭ ‬1783,‭ ‬the peace treaty had been ratified‭ – ‬the war for independence was over.‭ ‬Thus the last naval battle of the Revolutionary War was fought and won off the coast of‭ ‬Florida,‭ ‬just south of‭ ‬Cape Canaveral‭ – ‬sealing an American victory.

A resident of Jacksonville since 1978, Lindsey Brock is a founding member of McLeod Brock Law, a maritime, transportation, logistics, and public policy law firm. A graduate of the University of Florida and Tulane University School of Law, he holds numerous awards and certifications from the maritime and transportation legal community

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