Monday, February 6, 2012

This Day in History- February 6, 1806 The Battle of Santo Domingo

The Battle of Santo Domingo, in 1806, was a naval battle of the Napoleonic Wars. French and British squadrons of ships of the line met off the southern coast of the French-occupied Spanish Colony of Santo Domingo (usually written as San Domingo in contemporary British usage) in the Caribbean. The French squadron, under Vice-Admiral Corentin Urbain Leissègues in the 120-gun Impérial, had sailed from Brest in December 1805, one of two squadrons intending to raid British trade routes as part of the Atlantic campaign of 1806.

Separating from the squadron under Contre-Admiral Jean-Baptiste Willaumez in the mid-Atlantic, Leissègues sailed for the Caribbean. After winter storms near the Azores damaged and scattered his squadron, Leissègues regrouped and repaired his ships at the city of Santo Domingo, where a British squadron under Vice-Admiral Sir John Thomas Duckworth discovered them on 6 February 1806. Duckworth had abandoned his assigned station off Cadiz in pursuit of Willaumez during December and traveled so far across the Atlantic in pursuit that he was forced to resupply at St. Kitts in the Leeward Islands, where news had reached him of Leissègues' arrival.

By the time French lookouts at Santo Domingo had spotted Duckworth approaching from the southeast, it was too late for Leissègues to escape. Sailing with the wind westwards along the coast, Leissègues formed a line of battle to meet the approaching British squadron, which had split into two divisions. Although his divisions separated during the approach, Duckworth's lead ships remained in a tight formation and successfully engaged the head of the French line, targeting the flagship Impérial. Under pressure, the French squadron broke apart with the British isolating and capturing three ships before concentrating on the main combat around the French flagship. Severely damaged and surrounded, Leissègues drove Impérial ashore to avoid capture. The remaining French ship of the line, Diomède, followed him. Although most of the crew of these ships scrambled ashore, British boarding parties captured both vessels and set them on fire. The only French ships to escape the battle were three smaller warships, which Duckworth's squadron had ignored; they eventually returned to France.

Willaumez's squadron remained at large in the Atlantic until July 1806, when a hurricane scattered the vessels along the American Seaboard where British patrols were waiting to intercept them. Of the 11 ships that set out in December 1805, just four eventually returned to France. The crews of the British squadron were decorated for their success, with the exception of Duckworth, who shared in the general thanks but was otherwise unrewarded. By leaving his post off Cadiz he had provoked the anger of Vice-Admiral Lord Collingwood, commander in the Mediterranean; only his victory enabled Duckworth to escape a court martial.

The battle of San Domingo was the last fleet engagement of the war between French and British capital ships in open water. The Royal Navy's dominance off every French port made the risks involved in putting to sea insurmountable. The only subsequent breakout attempt, by the Brest fleet in 1809, ended with the defeat of the French fleet close to its own anchorage at the Battle of Basque Roads.

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