Naval Hero Sir James Lucas Yeo

When reading of action by the Royal Navy in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic War period one is struck not just by the commitment in carrying the fight into the enemy’s inshore waters – and even harbours – but by the almost insane gallantry that was so widespread among officers and enlisted men alike. Nowhere was this more apparent than in “cutting out” operations – captures of enemy shipping by boarding parties in small boats – and in assaults on coastal fortifications. Hazardous as such actions were, they represented craved-for opportunities for young officers to distinguish themselves and to earn advancement, while prize-money provided a welcome inducement for officers and men alike.

James Lucas Yeo –
handsome and heroic

One such example of a young officer who earned fast promotion, and whose career would probably have brought him to the most senior levels, had he not died young, was Sir James Lucas Yeo (1782 – 1818). He is best remembered today for his command of British forces on the Great Lakes in the War of 1812 but his rapid ascent to such a significant command started with a spectacular attack on coastal fortifications in 1805. Handsome and courageous, obviously a born leader, he seems like a figure who steps from the pages of naval fiction.

Yeo joined the Royal Navy as a midshipman at the age of 10. By 1805, having already seen significant action, this twenty-three year old was serving as First Lieutenant on the frigate HMS Loire. Her name betrayed her French origin – it was Royal Navy policy for ships captured from the enemy to retain their original names – and this 1350-ton, 150-ft frigate had been captured off the west coast of Ireland in 1798 in the aftermath of the Battle of Tory Island.

In June 1805 – when Spain was still allied with France – the Loire was on patrol off the north-west coast of Spain. Information reached her that a 26-gun privateer was fitting out in Muros Bay, a deep inlet on this indented coast. Loire’s Captain Fredrick Lewis Maitland (1777-1839) had been in the bay on a previous occasion and – though his recollection was not perfect – he believed it possible to either capture or destroy the enemy vessel. The complication was however that the approach was commanded by a shore battery and in any contest between a warship and shore-based artillery the ship was likely to come off worst. This insight was summarised in Nelson’s aphorism that “A ship’s a fool to fight a fort”. As a precursor therefore to Loire entering Muros Bay, Lieutenant Yeo was directed to take a landing party of fifty men – seamen and marines – to storm the battery.

On the morning of 4th June the Loire stood in towards the bay, apparently to draw fire from the battery to provide a diversion to cover the landing party’s approach. In the elegant expression of the time, the Loire was described as having been “much annoyed” by fire from the battery, which proved to be armed with two guns only. Loire’s action proved effective enough for Yeo to get his force ashore under the battery. The arrival of this group proved enough for the enemy troops manning the battery guns to abandon the position, leaving Yeo in possession. He immediately ordered spiking of the guns but also identified, about a quarter mile distant, and further into the bay, a “regular fort protected by a ditch and a gate, with its and commanding the inner bay.” The presence of this fortification had not previously been known – Captain Maitland’s recollection of his previous visit to the bay was incomplete.

With the first battery eliminated – but with Yeo and his men still ashore – Captain Maitland now brought the Loire further into the bay. He could now see that the privateer was a corvette – later to be identified as the Confiance – and that by her lay a large armed brig. He also concluded that these vessels had not yet shipped their guns and were, accordingly, at his mercy. Only now however was he to become aware of the previously unseen fort. Loire was now subjected to what was descried as “well-directed” fire from shore, with virtually every shot striking her hull. Nothing daunted, Maitland dropped anchor in a position relative to the battery’s protective embrasures that made aiming of its guns at the ship virtually impossible. He engaged the fort but the Loire’s fire alone could not be enough to neutralise it –  that would be dependent on Yeo, ashore, having the initiative to take appropriate action.

Yeo brought his force, apparently undetected, close to the fort’s landward side – activity in the fort itself being focussed on action with the Loire. He launched a charge at the outer gate, where a single soldier fired on them and then retreated inside. The landing party stormed after him and towards a second, inner gate, which also appears to have been open. Here a furious struggle commenced, with the Loire’s men opposed by the fort’s governor, Spanish troops and the crews of the French privateers. Yeo led from the front and killed the governor with a blow that shattered his own sword in two. The defenders broke and retreated back into the fort, some being seen from the Loire as jumping down – twenty-five feet – from the embrasures. It was later stated that “such as laid down their arms received quarter, but the slaughter among those who resisted was very great”. After surrender however care does seem to have been taken of the wounded prisoners and indeed the local bishop and one of the community leaders later went out to the Loire to express gratitude for this. Despite the heavy French and Spanish casualties. Loire lost no men, though Yeo and fifteen others were wounded – eleven of them on the ship as a consequence of fire from shore. (It should be borne in mind however that the classification “wounded” could result in amputation).

Loire (L), under command of Surcouf, capturing the East Indiaman Kent in 1800

With the fort neutralised, Captain Maitland now captured the Confiance and the brig – both of which proved to be as yet unarmed – as well as a Spanish merchantman. The brig was found to be not ready for sea, and was accordingly burned, but the Confiance was taken into Royal Navy service. She was a ship with an already notable history. Commissioned in 1799, this 490-ton corvette had served in the Indian Ocean under the renowned French privateer (and slaver) Robert Surcouf. Confiance’s most notable action under his command was capture in 1800 of the East Indiaman Kent after a fierce battle. She had returned to Europe under Surcouf’s command but when found by Loire was fitting out for a new privateering voyage under another captain.

Command of what was now HMS Confiance was awarded, deservedly, to Yeo who was promoted to commander – who would achieve coveted post-captain rank two years later. Captain Maitland was later to earn his place in history when Napoleon Bonaparte surrendered to him on board HMS Bellerophon in 1815, in the aftermath of the Battle of Waterloo.

As captain of the Confiance Yeo found himself in command of a 22-gun, 490-ton corvette. It was initially classified in British service as a sloop and reclassified as a “sixth rate” in 1807, the same year in which Yeo achieved coveted post-captain rank. Already identified as an intrepid commander who led from the front, Yeo was to get an opportunity to demonstrate his ability to manage an amphibious force when he was assigned to complex operations off the coast of South America.

By late 1808 French garrisons and harbours in overseas colonies were largely cut off from the homeland, but still represented threats to British interests as support-bases for naval units and privateers which could escape the blockade of the European coasts. The main British focus for elimination of such bases was on the Caribbean but a smaller force was allocated to conquest of Cayenne – later known as French Guiana – on the north-west coast of South America. This operation was entrusted to Yeo. By this stage of the Napoleonic Wars Portugal was also at war with the French, and following invasion by them the Portuguese government had relocated to its vast colony of Brazil. Portuguese forces were accordingly allocated to Yeo to support British units.

Location of Cayenne – map from 1760s (Note position of island & flanking rivers)

What would now be described as Yeo’s task-force consisted of the Conficance, supported by two armed Portuguese brigs, Voador (24 guns) and Vingança (18 guns), and two unarmed vessels brigs, acting as transports for some 550 Portuguese regular troops. Seaman and marines from all vessels were also available for land operations and, as he had demonstrated in 1805, Yeo had experience of assaulting coastal fortifications. His objective was Cayenne, the town that gave its name to the French colony and was its administrative centre. Situated on an island between the estuaries of the Cayenne and Mahury Rivers, it was dominated by a masonry star fort (see illustration) and the approaches to it were covered by several smaller forts and gun batteries.

  Location of Cayenne – map from 1760s

Yeo’s first concern was to clear the approaches, concentrating on the positions along the Mahury River. He began operations by landing a force in the early hours of the night of 7th January 1809 despite heavy rain – which was to continue as a complicating factor through the subsequent fighting – and despite loss of boats in heavy surf, luckily without loss of life. A Portuguese force was allocated to capture of one French fortification, and Yeo’s seamen and marines to another. Surprise paid off and both positions were carried with minimal losses. They were then garrisoned with British and Portuguese personnel. Two further forts were now detected – the fact that they seem to have been unknown previously reminds one how difficult reconnaissance was in the days before availability of aircraft –  and Yeo brought the shallower draught Portuguese vessels inshore to provide covering fire while he launched land assaults – characteristically leading them himselft. The attacks were successful and both positions were carried

Victor Huges (1762 – 1826 )

The French governor, Victor Hugues (a major player in the French colonies in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods), now sallied from Cayenne with the small forces available to him to attack the captured fortifications but was repulsed.  Yeo pushed his forces forward towards a defensive position close to Hugues’ own residence and a British party which was sent under a flag of truce to negotiate a surrender was fired upon. This may have been a diversion to assist an ambush of Yeo’s other forces. Sword in hand, Yeo drove these attackers back to Hugues’ house and captured it in hand-to-hand fighting. This was decisive as it was now obvious that there were insufficient French forces to withstand the invasion. Cayenne itself, garrisoned by some 400 troops, surrendered without a fight on 10th January and the remaining French positions yielded in the following days.

Successful as it was, Yeo’s task-force had only one reasonably powerful vessel, the Confiance herself. On station off Cayenne while the operations continued onshore, her crew had been depleted by allocation of seaman and marines to the land attack – there were now only two midshipmen and twenty-five sailors on board. It was therefore of concern when on 13th January a 40-gun French frigate was seen approaching. This was the 40-gun Topaze, well capable of swift destruction of Confiance, and with her the Portuguese vessels. The Topaze had been despatched from France to reinforce the Cayenne garrison and she carried both troops and supplies. Were she to press the advantage of her superior armament the tables could easily be turned on Yeo.

 French frigate Clorinde
– generally similar to Topaze

In this situation the hero of the hour turned out to be Yeo’s younger brother George, one of the two midshipmen. With Confiance’s depleted crew – which he supplemented by some twenty local volunteers, all free black men – he relied on bluff as his only hope. He took Confiance directly towards the Topaze, with every display of intention to engage. He was not however aware the Topaze’s captain had instructions to avoid combat if the troops and supplies she carried were at risk. The outcome was that Topaze turned tail and ran, heading for the French-held Caribbean island of Guadoloupe. She never reached it – she was detected close to it by other British naval forces and was captured by HMS Cleopatra. Taken into British service, she was to be named initially as Jewel and later as Alcmene.

Yeo’s victory at Cayenne had been comprehensive. With small forces and few casualties – for the British a lieutenant killed and twenty-three men wounded, and for the Portuguese one killed and eight wounded – the entire French colony fell under Anglo-Portuguese control. 400 regular French troops were captured and some 800 local militia and irregulars were disarmed before being allowed to return to their homes. Some 200 cannon were captured as well as other military supplies. For its time, Yeo’s operation had been a text-book example of planning and executing an effective amphibious operation. It earned him well-deserved knighthoods from both Britain and Portugal – he was still only 27 years old – as well as a personal gift of a diamond ring by the Portuguese Prince Regent. His health had suffered in the campaign however – not surprisingly, as he was not a man to spare himself – and he required a period of recuperation before assuming his next command, the 32-gun frigate HMS Southampton.

 HMS Pomone (1805) – a typical frigate of this era

Yeo’s personality and experience made him an ideal frigate captain. In Southampton, in 1811, he captured the French privateer, the Amethyste, a prize which is likely to have benefitted him and his crew financially. When war broke out with the United States in 1812, Yeo was stationed in the Bahamas and in the course of the year captured another French privateer, the Heureuse Réunion. This was followed by his taking an American brig-of-war, the USS Vixen, in November 1812. Yeo was not to profit from the Vixen however – both she and the Southampton were wrecked five days later on Conception Island in the Bahamas. Yeo was duly court-martialled for the loss of these ships but had his sword returned to him on the grounds that an uncharted reef was the cause of the accident. (It is hard to imagine today just how limited charts were in this period – it was only later in the nineteenth century that a massive international hydrographic effort, largely driven by the Royal Navy, led to most of the world’s coastlines being surveyed and charted for the first time.)
The War of 1812 between Britain and the United States was by now in full swing, the Canadian border representing a major – and possibly decisive – front. Critical to this was naval control of the Great Lakes, most especially Lake Ontario, the southern and south-eastern shores of which could provide the British with access to New York State and threaten the Hudson Valley. A “Lakes Service” command was accordingly established by the Royal Navy, with headquarters at Kingston, at the eastern end of Lake Ontario’s Canadian shore – and almost directly across from the United States base and shipyard – at Sacket’s Harbor on the opposite shore. Situated close to the point of exit of the St. Lawrence river, the nation that managed to occupy both these locations would be well situated to dominate the lake.

 Sir George Prévost

Command of the Lakes Service was entrusted to Yeo and he arrived, as a Commodore, in 1813. The skill he had demonstrated in previous amphibious operations was probably a strong influence on the Navy choosing him since capture of Sacket’s Harbor would demand an opposed landing. The American shipyards were a major objective – they were to build no less than eleven warships in the course of the conflict – and a British attempt at capture had been repulsed before Yeo’s arrival. In early 1813 the balance of naval forces on the lake were in favour of the Americans and Yeo concentrated on getting a sloop, HMS Wolfe, completed and some smaller vessels refitted as warships. The major threat was however the intelligence that the Americans were building a similarly-sized sloop, the General Pike, at Sacket’s Harbor. Pre-emption of this was possibly a major factor in the British decision to mount an amphibious assault. Had Yeo been in sole command – and indeed had he stronger forces – this might have been successful. In this era of intense inter-service rivalries (a situation that sometimes seems to occur even today!) it was however inconceivable that overall command would not be taken by the senior army officer present, Lieutenant Sir George Prévost,, who also happened to be Governor General of Canada.

Contemporary view of British ships off Sacket’s Harbor

The second battle of Sacket’s Harbor, on May 28th and 29th 1813, resulted in a second repulse, despite the British force arriving there when much of the American naval force was at the other end of the lake. Yeo’s larger, deep- draught, vessels could not come close inshore to provide covering fire and his shallower gunboats that could were armed only with carronades, weapons only effective at very short range. Only the 16-gun brig HMS Beresford could be taken close enough inshore – by use of sweeps – to deliver the necessary bombardment capability. This was enough to disable one of the American gun emplacements and rounds from Beresford also fell in the dockyard where the General Pike was under construction. Believing a British victory imminent, American orders were given to burn the General Pike and large quantities of stores. Despite this limited success the landing itself did not go well – Yeo, characteristically, had gone ashore with the assault force – and it was beaten back. The blame of the failure was largely attributed to Prévost, the army commander, who failed to push what advantages he had.

The following year, 1814, was dominated by a building race between the British and Americans. Yeo pulled ahead in this contest and with two frigates now at his disposal, each more powerful than the brigs and sloops that constituted the American force, he was able to blockade Sacket’s Harbor. He was simultaneously building a 112-gun First Rate ship-of-the line, the HMS St. Lawrence. When this was completed at the year’s end Yeo now had effective command of the lake, and he had two more similar ships also under construction. The Americans were not idle and also had two equally large warships on the stocks. Neither was completed. Had this unnecessary war not ended in 1815, a major naval battle might have been fought between line-of-battle ships on Lake Ontario.

The never-completed American line-of-battle ship USS New Orleans.  

Laid down at Sacket’s Harbor in 1814, she was not broken up until 1883

Yeo’s subsequent career was short and tragic. He was awarded important commands on both the West African and West Indian stations – both notoriously unhealthy, and he was to die in 1818. Had he lived he would almost certainly have reached the highest ranks in the Royal Navy. This daring, handsome, capable man had however packed more into his 35 years than many other officers achieved in an entire lifetime.

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