Having finished another Alan Lewrie adventure, it is time to take a quick look at the historical incidents that were form a backdrop for the novel.
How effective was French privateering operations against British commerce? Not very. It was a nuisance, siphoning off numerous minor combatants to protect convoys and patrol against privateers but the losses were minor. As a strategic weapon aimed at the British economy it was an abysmal failure.
The highlight of Reefs and Shoals is the small boat action on the St. Mary’s River. Like so many incidents by Pope or O’Brian or Lambdin this one is rooted in fact.
Alone among the major authors of war at sea during the Age of Sail, Lambdin talks about the necessity of any ship engaging in in-shore operations to have the services of a smaller ship, a tender, to enable it to project power in the shallower parts of the littoral zone. In 1805, the HMS Cambrian (40) under the command of Captain John Poo Beresford was cruising the Bahamas straits searching for French and Spanish privateers. Beresford was an energetic officer who played a small role in US naval history by capturing the USS Wasp and recapturing Wasp’s prize, HMS Frolic.
On July 3, after a chase of 22 hours the Cambrian ran the French privateer schooner Matilda into shoal waters presumably in the Little Bahama Banks where Lewrie captures Insolent in Reefs and Shoals. The Matilda was fitted out with 10 long nines. Beresford placed his first lieutenant John Pigot (or perhaps Pigott) in command of her and sent her off to explore the St. Mary’s River in search of a Spanish privateer and two prizes. We can infer from the capture of Matilda and the immediate dispatch of Matilda under Pigot that one of the prisoners probably gave valuable information.
Pigot arrived off Cumberland Island on July 6 and on July 7 proceeded up St. Mary’s River. He traveled 12 miles up the river, probably to the location of the Florida ghost town of Crandall. Crandall at the time had a sawmill and a landing for small craft. The movement was contested with Matilda taking musket and rifle fire from Spanish militia along the banks. Pigot found the privateer and her two prizes (Golden Grove and Ceres) lashed together in a line across the river presenting their broadsides. Pigot dueled with them until Matilda ran aground then ordered his men to the small boats to continue the action. Once he carried the Spanish privateer he used her guns to make the Spanish abandon the two prizes. With the three ships in his possession he turned all their guns on the militia which now numbered about 100 men and had a fieldpiece at their disposal.
They were quickly routed by the fire from three ships but Pigot found himself stranded by adverse winds. It wasn’t until July 21 that Pigot with Matilda and three prizes descended the St. Mary’s River to the Atlantic. British casualties were two killed, 14 wounded. Pigot, himself, was shot three times — twice in the head and once in the leg — but refused to relinquish command. Spanish naval losses were 25 killed, five of whom were Americans, and 22 wounded. Pigot was promoted to commander.
At that point, I lose track of Commander Pigot. He may be the Robert Pigot who was commissioned in 1796. Maybe he pursued the rest of his career in anonymity, never again afforded the chances he was given in the summer of 1805, or maybe his luck was simply used up and he died at sea or in some nameless engagement. If anyone has information, let me know.