Battle off Cape Sable

May 29, 1781

Conflict: American Revolution

Type of Action: Small Ship Naval Action

Location: Off Cape Sable, Nova Scotia

Forces: American: Frigate Alliance, Captain John Barry, 36 guns

British: Sloops of War Atalanta, 16 guns, and Trepassey, 14 guns

     The Alliance, a veteran of the Battle of Flamborough Head, under her new Captain John Barry, was returning from a diplomatic mission wherein Washington's aide John Laurens was transported to France when it sighted the English sloops Atalanta and Trepassey. The Alliance was the larger vessel by far, with more and bigger guns. However, her crew had previously been depleted for prizes on the cruise to France. The replacements recruited in Lorient, France, included many ruffians and rogues with no love of America. They had already mutinied on this return cruise, being beaten down and flogged. Furthermore, two prizes, the privateers Mars and Minerva had recently been taken and their prize crewing had depleted Alliance substantially. She was little fit for battle, yet battle was at hand.

     As the combatants closed, things did not improve for Alliance as what wind there was suddenly dropped away, leaving Alliance becalmed. However, unlike the Alliance and most large warships, the smaller English Sloops were equipped with sweeps, long oars for emergency use, and these were put to good use by the English Captains. Using this alternative means of propulsion they soon came up on the Alliance, maneuvering under her quarter where her great guns could not bear. There the English ships raked the Alliance, causing many casualties and wounding her Captain in the shoulder, sending him for a time below decks unconscious.

     Just as all must have seemed lost to the American crew, providence gave them a wind. Her sails once more filled to give her mobility, the Alliance turned upon her attackers. The great guns, now given a target, roared against the frail hulls of the sloops Being at close range and over gunned they could neither flee nor fight. Soon enough both struck their colors and surrendered, having suffered 11 men killed inluding one Captain and 25 wounded. The Alliance, taking her new prizes along, then completed her voyage, returning to Boston without further incident.

     The tactical and strategic implications of this encounter are speculative. At this time in the war the American Forces and their French allies were pondering the initiation of what would become the Yorktown campaign which would eventually win the war. Paramount in these deliberations, particularly to the French, was the question of Naval superiority and the conservation of the French fleet in American waters. News, therefore, of another American naval loss, particularly to lesser vessels, might have had an adverse affect upon the confidence of Rochambeau and Washington. Though the action between such vessels cannot be said to have any real meaning - they were not substantive combatants on a fleet scale - the egos and confidence of Washington and Rochambeau were fragile things by this time. Washington had sufferred many reminders as to the effectiveness of the English forces and was loth to gamble with his Army, for its loss would be the loss of the war. Rochambeau in turn had exhibited an extreme reluctance to risk his Army and Fleet for the Americans and cancelled operations at the merest indication of disadvantage. Similarly, after the Battle of Chesapeake Bay, DeGrasse was highly agitated and stayed to maintain the blockade only upon extensive urging by Washington. Therefore while it is unlikely that Cape Sable had any effect on the conduct of the war, it is not without reason to speculate that the victory was in a fashion one of many positive bits of news which emboldened the Allies into making the Yorktown attack, prosecuting it with vigor, and in the end winning victory in the battle and in the War. Had the Battle off Cape Sable been an American loss, it might well have had a dampening effect upon that aggressiveness in any one or more of the three commanders, Washington, Rochambeau or DeGrasse.

      As to actual operational effect, again no clear conclusions can be drawn. However, shortly thereafter the Yorktown operation began. In that operation the British troops were beseiged, supplied only by sea. Sloops were not transports but in an operation so heavily dependent upon naval power the loss of any unit can not be said to be irrelevant. Furthermore, the loss of Yorktown in the end was the result of the British Fleet's inability to breakthrough to Yorktown at the Battle of Chesapeake Bay. Would those two scout ships which were lost to the British have assisted in anyway in preventing the disaster at Yorktown? Might they have sighted the French or given some warning? Is it possible that these losses had an effect on British public rejection of the war after Yorktown? It is highly speculative to suggest that this battle changed the course of events, but in a war where the frame of mind of its commanders and also the public was so important, the possibility exists.

      In any case the one clear result was that the British lost two small warships which were and could have continued to be used in interception of American shipping while the Americans gained two vessels for sale as prizes to fund their war effort or two warships for their own use. Also, John Barry not only redeemed the loss of the Raleigh, but also added to his glory as an American Naval hero.

      Finally this battle was one more instance of intrepid Americans engaging and defeating the monolithic English Royal Navy on the high seas.  This victory, together with all of the other small ship engagements of the war, could not but have helped fuel confidence in America's ability to field a Naval force of merit. After the war the question of the very existence of an American Navy was very often in doubt.  Had Cape Sable been an English victory, with two minor vessels conquering the larger American ship, had John Barry fell or been disgraced,  that question may have been answered very differently.  The Constitution and its contemporaries which protected and secured American rights on the Seas in the Napoleonic era may never have been built or crewed or aggressively commanded.  The American Naval tradition which has given two hundred years of prosperity and victory in many foreign wars, and kept those wars foreign, may have died before it began.  Therefore it is not overstatement to say that the Battle of Cape Sable, though small in size, was an important victory for the American Nation. Indeed, as it was the American Naval tradition and strength which allowed America to successfully fight and win World War II, it canbe said that this victory was one not only for America, but eventually for Great Britain and the Free World as well.


Commodore John Barry Biography in the Regimental with links

DESCRIPTION AND HISTORY OF CAPE SABLE No mention of Battle but map showing location of Cape Sable


Sources: The Military History of Revolutionary War Naval Battles, Col. Trevor Nevitt, Dupuy and Grace P. Hayes, Franklin Watts, Inc., 1970 NY, NY; The Glorious Cause, The American Revolution, 1763-1789, Robert Middlekauf, Oxford University Press, 1982 1