|Battle off Barbados|
|Part of the American Revolutionary War|
|United States||Kingdom of Great Britain|
|Commanders and leaders|
|Nicholas Biddle†||Nicholas Vincent|
|Casualties and losses|
1 frigate sunk
The Battle off Barbados was fought in March 1778 during the American Revolutionary War. While escorting a fleet of American ships in the West Indies, the frigate USS Randolph was attacked by the British ship-of-the-line HMS Yarmouth. The following action resulted in America's most costly naval defeat, in terms of human lives, until the sinking of USS Arizona in 1941.
The young twenty-eight-year-old Captain Nicholas Biddle was in command of the thirty-six gun Randolph at the time, having received orders from John Rutledge to break the enemy blockade of Charleston, South Carolina. A large number of merchantmen had been trapped there so after breaking the blockade, Biddle was to sail south into the South Atlantic. Four other armed ships accompanied the Randolph in this mission, the General Moultrie, Notre Dame, Fair American and the Polly. However, after sailing out to meet the British off Charleston on February 14, the enemy was nowhere in sight so the American fleet headed for the West Indies where Biddle would raid commerce. On February 16, the fleet burned a British ship which had been dismasted by a privateer and on March 4, the Polly captured a small schooner which was added to the fleet as a tender. Three days after that, at about 5:30 pm, on March 7, 1778, the Americans were sailing off the eastern coast of Barbados when lookouts spotted a large ship to the windward. Captain Biddle assumed the vessel to be a man-o-war so he directed most of his ships to continue on while he remained behind to engage with the Randolph and the eighteen gun ship General Moultrie.
The enemy ship turned out to be the sixty-four gun HMS Yarmouth under the command of Captain Nicholas Vincent. After a few hours of maneuvering, the engagement began at about 9:00 pm when the Americans raised their colors and opened fire on the Yarmouth with a broadside. The British responded with one of their own and for twenty minutes a bloody battle raged. Captain Biddle was wounded early on in the action but he continued to fight for a few minutes, the shots that wounded him are thought to have come from the General Moultrie which accidentally struck the Randolph. The Americans seemed to be on the verge of victory when a spark entered the Randolph's powder magazine, causing a large explosion which completely destroyed the frigate in an instant. USS Randolph then sank with a loss of 301 men, only four others survived and Captain Biddle died ten days later from his wounds. According to Captain Hall of the Notre Dame, Biddle and his men heavily damaged the Yarmouth within twelve to fifteen minutes while the American ships were still mostly unharmed. The Yarmouth lost her bowsprit and her topmasts, a portion of which fell down and damaged the poop. Another portion of the topmasts fell into the top-gallant sails and then onto the cap. Five British sailors were killed and another twelve men received wounds.
After sinking the Randolph, Captain Vincent tried to go after the other American ships but they dispersed in separate ways. Damage to the Yarmouth's sail also gave the Americans the advantage to slip away. The four survivng Americans were not captured right away but five days later. HMS Yarmouth came across them on March 12 while she was chasing a ship west. The four were clinging to some wreckage and had survived by sucking rain water out of a blanket. The death of Captain Biddle was considered a severe blow to the Continental Navy; well respected, Biddle was regarded as a professional sailor and a strong leader.
On the Death of Captain Nicholas Biddle
WHAT distant thunders rend the skies,
What clouds of smoke in volumes rise,
What means this dreadful roar!
Is from his base Vesuvius thrown,
Is sky-topt Atlas tumbled down,
Or Etna's self no more!
Shock after shock torments my ear;
And lo! two hostile ships appear,
Red lightnings round them glow:
The Yarmouth boasts of sixty-four,
The Randolph thirty-two—no more--
And will she fight this foe!
The Randolph soon on Stygian streams
Shall coast along the land of dreams,
The islands of the dead!
But fate, that parts them on the deep,
Shall save the Briton, still to weep
His ancient honors fled.
Say, who commands that dismal blaze,
Where yonder starry streamer plays;
Does Mars with Jove engage!
'Tis Biddle wings those angry fires;
Biddle, whose bosom Jove inspires
With more than mortal rage.
Tremendous flash! and hark, the ball
Drives through old Yarmouth, flames and all;
Her bravest sons expire;
Did Mars himself approach so nigh,
Even Mars, without disgrace, might fly
The Randolph's fiercer fire.
The Briton views his mangled crew;
"And shall we strike to Thirty-Two"
(Said Hector, stained with gore);
"Shall Britain's flag to these descend--
Rise, and the glorious conflict end,
Britons, I ask no more!"
He spoke—they charged their cannon round,
Again the vaulted heavens resound,
The Randolph bore it all,
Then fixed her pointed cannons true--
Away the unwieldy vengeance flew;
Britain, the warriors fall.
The Yarmouth saw, with dire dismay,
Her wounded hull, shrouds shot away,
Her boldest heroes dead--
She saw amidst her floating slain
The conquering Randolph stem the main--
She saw, she turned, and fled!
That hour, blest chief, had she been thine,
Dear Biddle, had the powers divine
Been kind as thou wert brave;
But fate, who doomed thee to expire,
Prepared an arrow, tipped with fire,
And marked a watery grave,
And in that hour when conquest came
Winged at his ship a pointed flame
That not even He could shun--
The conquest ceased, the Yarmouth fled,
The bursting Randolph ruin spread,
And lost what honor won.
- Maclay, pg. 83–84
- Allen, pg. 296
- Allen. pg. 297
- Allen, pg. 298
This article incorporates text from the public domain Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships.
- Allen, Dardner W. (1913). A naval history of the American Revolution, Volume 1. Houghton Mifflin Company.
- Maclay, Edgar S. (1898). A History of the United States Navy, from 1775 to 1898. D. Appleton and Co..
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