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had in readiness another and still more stringent measure, —to suspend for six months all exemptions from impressment into the Royal Navy; or, in fact, to give the Government during that period the power, at their discretion, to man the fleet even from classes heretofore held free, as apprentices or fishermen.* This extraordinary measure, called for by the exigencies of the times, was brought forward in a no less extraordinary manner. On the night of the 23rd of June, at twenty minutes past twelve o'clock, and as the House of Commons was on the point of adjourning, Wedderburn, now Attorney-General, rose in his place, and, without any previous notice, moved for leave to bring in this Bill, with a retrospective effect from the 17th. While explaining its provisions he did not attempt to disguise its arbitrary character. He defended it on the ground of necessity, urging that, when the invasion of our shores was threatened by perfidious foes, it behoved us to remove all legal impediments in the way of calling every man to the aid of the State,—to hold out encouragement to the willing, and to compel the reluctant to join in the defence. He stated, that there were at Portsmouth six or eight ships of the line ready for sea, but lying useless for want of sailors; and that they could not be manned if the power of impressment continued to be clogged with common-law and statutable restrictions. "Will you, then," he asked, " continue these impediments? "Will you submit to an inferiority at sea, — allow your "men-of-war to rot in your harbours,—and trust the "existence of this country to the fate of a battle on shore? "So confident does the Government feel in the co-opera"tion of Parliament on this occasion, that I do not scruple "to tell you, that the unrestricted impressment which "this Bill is to authorise has already begun,—that I "make this motion at this late hour without notice for "the purpose of rendering the measure effectual, and "preventing any from evading it;—and that I hope, by
"suffered to stand ; as it had not, he must take the remnant and "pick up even the crumbs which fell from their Lordships' table." For this phrase he was keenly upbraided by Sir George Yonge, who called it an "abject humiliation." Parl. Hist., vol. xx. p. 1016.
* Act 19 Geo. III. c. 73. The whole Act •« only of three clauses. 0853.)
"the suspension of Standing Orders, it may to-morrow be "carried through all its stages" Sir George Savile, and the other Members of the Opposition who happened to be present, though taken by surprise, raised every difficulty, and offered every obstruction in their power. "It is reducing this House," cried Sir George, "to act as "so many midnight conspirators, . . . coming like hired "ruffians with poniards under their cloaks! Methinks I "hear the heart-felt shrieks of the miserable wife, or of "the aged and helpless parent, entreating the midnight "ruffians not to drag from them a tender husband, or a "dutiful and beloved son!" Nevertheless, at one o'clock that night the Bill was brought in, and read a first and second time. On the morrow it was sent to the Lords, where, however, it gave rise to keen debates, and it did not receive the Royal Assent until the last day of the Session.*
The Parliament was prorogued on the 3rd of July, but there was not the smallest slackening of the warlike preparations. On the 9th was issued a Royal Proclamation charging all officers, civil or military, in the event of an invasion, to cause all horses, cattle, and provisions, to be driven from the coasts. A boom was drawn across the entrance of Plymouth Harbour. A sufficient force lined the batteries of Portsmouth. It was alleged by the party out of power that these equipments bore signal marks of hurry and confusion. It was said that at Plymouth there was no adequate supply of powder—that the balls did not fit the guns — that there were no handspikes or other small stores — that even flints for the muskets were wanting. But most of these charges were strenuously denied on the part of Government; and it is difficult to discover the real truth amidst the conflict of respectable authorities. Thus we may observe the Duke of Richmond declare, in his place in Parliament, that he had himself gone down to examine Plymouth. There he
* Lord Campbell's Lives of the Chancellors, vol. vi. p. 127. (though in error as to the dates), and Parl. Hist., vol. xx. p. 962. In the debate upon this Bill in the Peers, Lord Sandwich stated : "The "number of our seamen at present is 81,000, which, considering that "we lost 18,000 of the seamen employed last war, by not having "America, is surely a very considerable number."
owned that he had found collected nearly 5000 of landforces; but no more than thirty-six or thirty-eight invalids, as artillery-men, to mount the batteries and work two hundred guns. No sooner had the Duke sat down than the First Lord of the Admiralty rose, and with equal positiveness stated that at the time and place which his Grace had specified there had been upwards of 500 seamen on shore, well acquainted with the use of artillery, and quite ready to serve it if required. *
With the land-forces, it appears to have been less easy to find fault. A large encampment had some time since been formed on Cox Heath, in front of Maidstone, comprising bodies of Militia, drawn from many counties. There, for instance, stood arrayed the Suffolk Militia, with the Duke of Grafton at their head. It might be objected to these men, that they had little discipline and no experience. But beyond all question they were resolute and eager; and had the enemy landed, would have done their duty. Through all the southern counties there arose a military spirit. It was shown, not merely in set speeches or on solemn occasions, but in the common and often ludicrous use of military phrases. As some evidence and token of that fact, let us not disdain even the jests of the play-wrights. Thus, in one small piece, to which the Camp at Cox Heath gave both subject and title, I find "Sir Harry Bouquet complain: — "As I travelled "down, the fellows at the turnpikes demanded the "counter-sign of my servants, instead of the tickets! "Then, when I got to Maidstone, I found the very waiters "had got a smattering of tactics; for inquiring what I "could have for dinner, a drill-waiter, after reviewing "his bill of fare with the air of a Field Marshal, pro"posed an advanced party of soup and bouilli, to be fol"lowed by the main body of ham and chickens, flanked by "a fricassee, and with a corps-de-reserve of sweetmeats l"f
* Debate in the Lords on the Address, November 25. 1779. In corroboration of Lord Sandwich, see also the speech next day in the Commons of Admiral Lord Shuldham, who had commanded at Plymouth at the time in question.
f The Camp, act ii. scene 3. This Play, though a mere trifle, or in the French phrase, apiece de circonstance, came from no less a pen than Sheridan's.
Neither in this passage, nor in any other of my history, do I offer any apology for inserting details, even the most trivial, if they portray the feelings, the temper, or the manners of the time. But a more solid proof of the public spirit at this juncture is afforded by the state of public credit. It appears that, in this month of July, when so large a force was ranged on the opposite shores— when an invasion of our own was every day expected — the funds were never more than one per cent, below their rate in the January preceding.* Both private gentlemen and public bodies (foremost among the latter the East India Company) entered into large subscriptions for raising troops, giving bounties to seamen, or equipping privateers. It was acknowledged by the Opposition that the Militia then in arms did not fall short of 50,000, and that the regular troops of various kinds within the kingdom were almost as many, f With truth might one of the Ministers declare that "the spirit of the nation "does not shrink from the increase of its difficulties." With equal truth might he say that "the King's mag"nanimity is not to be shaken by the nearness of danger."J His Majesty had determined, if the French should land, to put himself at the head of his armed subjects, animating them by his exertions and example.
On the other side the preparations for attack had been made upon a formidable scale. The French finances, till now on the verge of bankruptcy, had been brought to a more flourishing or, at least, more promising condition, since M. Necker, a rich and able banker from Geneva, had been named their Director-General. A French army, amounting probably to near 50,000 men, had been marched towards the Channel ports from Havre to St. Malo. Their advanced division was commanded by the Count de Rochambeau, and their main body by the Mareschal de Broglie; and their project for a landing
* The lowest price of the three per cent. Consols, in January, 1779, was 60J; the lowest price in July, 1779, was 59J. Ann. Regist, p. 250. On the 20th of August, Keppel writes to Rockingham: "Would your Lordship believe it? the Stocks are something - better to-day!"
t Speech of the Duke of Richmond in the House of lords, November 25. 1779.
\ Lord George Germaine to Sir Henry Clinton, August 28. 1779. pointed to our southern shores. Having left the port of Brest, the French fleet, under D'Orvilliers, effected a junction with the Spanish; the whole force, thus combined, amounting to no less than sixty-six sail of the line, with a train of frigates and small ships. Never, since the days of the Armada, had so great a fleet of foemen rode the British Channel. Against these sixty-six sail of the line, Sir Charles Hardy, the successor in command to Keppel, had not, with every exertion, been able to bring together more than thirty-eight. He could not prevent the enemy from insulting the British coast, nor from pursuing him, first near the Scilly Isles, and then towards the straits of the Channel. Nevertheless he appears to have disposed his inferior numbers to the best advantage. He lost only one ship, the Ardent, and that by the error of her captain, who ventured out too far, mistaking the hostile fleet for our own. Sir Charles having drawn the enemy from before Plymouth, succeeded likewise in covering Spithead; and being also, in some measure, favoured by the easterly wind, he gained that greatest of all objects in defensive warfare—time. Both the French and Spanish ships had been too hastily equipped, and were not quite seaworthy. It was afterwards declared by Lord North, in the House of Commons, that had Sir Charles Hardy known then as well as he did afterwards the internal state of their fleet, he would have wished and earnestly sought an engagement, notwithstanding his own inferiority of force.
Meanwhile there had arisen a violent dissension between the two allied Admirals. The Spaniard wished, without delay, to land the invading army on the British shores ; — the Frenchman thought it necessary, in the first place, to attack and defeat the British fleet. In the defective state of their own ships, the approaching equinoctial gales were dreaded; and a malignant distemper had broken out among the crews. Under these circumstances the Spanish commander declared, in a peremptory tone, to the French, that it had become necessary for him to relinquish the present enterprise, and return to the ports of his own country.* D'Orvilliers had no choice
* Statement of Count Florida Blanca, as cited in Coxe's Kings of Spain, vol. v p. 25. See also in my Appendix to this volume, an extract from the MS. Memoirs of the Duke of Grafton.