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W.L. Clowes on the 1845 Anglo-French action in Uruguay
(See also the account by H.N. Sulivan)


In most parts of South America the shaking off of Spanish rule in the second and third decades of the nineteenth century was followed by a period of active unrest which often became positive anarchy. In the Argentine, Don Juan Manuel de Rosas at length obtained almost unlimited power, and then turned his attention to the subjugation of the neighbouring republic of Banda Oriental, now Uruguay, and of its capital, Montevideo. A renegade Uruguayan, Oribe, assisted by Rosas, overran the Banda Oriental, laid siege to Montevideo, and defeated Riviera, the Uruguayan leader. His cruelties, however, caused the foreign residents, who were perhaps unwisely encouraged by the British consul, and by Commodore John Brett Purvis, to resist his entry into the city; and the siege continued, the Argentine naval commander, Commodore Brown, an Irishman (known in Argentine history as Almirante Guillermo (William) Brown, born at Foxford, co. Mayo, June 22nd, 1777; died March 3rd, 1857, at Buenos Aires, where, in the public cemetery, there is a monument to his memory. His name has been given to one of the administrative divisions of the province of Buenos Aires, and to an Argentine battleship, launched in 1880. He commanded the revolutionary navy in the War of Independence in 1814; and in the war with Brazil, 1826-28, he commanded the improvised navy of Buenos Aires), co-operating, by blockading the place with a corvette, two brigs, and seven small craft. French as well as British interests were seriously affected by this action. On the score of there being a great number of British subjects in Montevideo, Purvis declined to allow the blockade, or to permit any firing upon the city from seaward; but later, the Argentines, by seizing British property, and by their provocative action and non-observance of treaty engagements, so exasperated the British senior officer, then Sir Thomas Sabine Pasley, that Rosas was summoned to withdraw his troops. Upon his refusal, in August 1845, Brown's squadron was captured, and in part handed over to the Montevideans; Colonia was cleared of the enemy; and it was determined forcibly to re-open the navigation of the Parana, which had been blocked by the dictator. First, however, a small British force, consisting of the Gorgon, 6, paddle, Philomel, 8, Dolphin, 3, and Fanny, schooner, was sent up the Uruguay River as far as Paysandu, to facilitate the escape of such foreigners as might be hiding there. This preliminary expedition was cleverly navigated up and down by Commander Bartholomew James Sulivan, of the Philomel, and is interesting as having been undertaken in concert not only with a French force, but also with a motley flotilla which was commanded by the famous Giuseppe Garibaldi, who was then in the service of Montevideo. In the meantime, Rosas concentrated his opposition at Punta Obligado, on the Parana, about sixty miles below Rosario. Rear-Admiral Samuel Hood Inglefield, C.B., was at that time the British, and Rear-Admiral Lainé, the French Commander-in-Chief on the station; and those officers, in interpreting the orders of their respective governments, went, it is now notorious, somewhat beyond the intention of their instructions, though it can scarcely be doubted that their vigorous measures were, upon the whole, beneficial alike to South America and to civilisation generally.

The little international squadron told off for forcing the passage of the Parana was as follows:-

VesselsGunsTonsCommandersK.W.
British
Gorgon, padd.61111Capt. Chas. Hotham03
Firebrand, padd.61190Capt. Jas. Hope11
Philomel8428Com. Bart. Jas. Sulivan16
Comus18492Com. Ed. Aug. Inglefield (actg.)22
1Fanny, sch.1-Lieut. Astley Cooper Key01
French
1San Martin8200Capt. Francois Thomas Tréhouart1025
Fulton, padd.2650Lieut. Mazères16
Expéditive16-Lieut. Miniac24
Pandour10-Lieut. Duparc210
1Procida4-Lieut. de la Rivière01
1Taken from Commod. Brown

The largest of the above drew nearly seventeen feet of water, and there were but seventeen and three-quarter feet in the shallowest parts of the river that had to be traversed in going up. All the British vessels were short of their peace allowance of powder and shot: not one of them had a rocket on board ; there were only three field-pieces, without a single shrapnel shell for any of them; and but 70 British Marines, under Captain Thomas Hurdle, R.M., accompanied the expedition. Looking to the nature of the opposition to be encountered, it is marvellous that a great disaster did not follow. Rosas had caused to be moored across the river, with their heads up stream, twenty-four large hulks, which were held together by three chain cables. On the right bank, four batteries, all with good, and two with great command, covered this formidable obstruction. Nos. 1 and 2 were below the boom ; Nos. 3 and 4 above it (see plan). No. 1 mounted one long brass 36-pr., one long brass 32-pr., four long brass 24-prs., and a rocket-tube. No. 2 mounted two long brass 32-prs., one long brass 24-pr., and three long iron 18-prs. At the rear of these, posted in a wood, were four field-pieces. No. 3 mounted two long brass 18-prs., two long iron 18-prs., and four field-pieces; and No. 4 mounted seven short 18-prs. Above the other end of the boom, near the left bank, were two gunboats, each mounting one gun, and the schooner Republicano, which turned a broadside of six guns towards the hulks. The river is there about half a mile broad. Near its centre, below the barrier, several fireships lay ready; and the enemy, who was in strength, had carefully marked his distances, so as to be able to fire with the greatest possible effect.

The expedition started from off Martin Garcia on November 8th, 1845, but made slow progress. On the way up the people were repeatedly landed for exercise and practice. Of a certain ship's company, it was discovered that not one man had been taught to use a musket. On, November 18th, the force anchored two miles below Obligado; and that night Commander Sulivan, and Lieutenant Mazères stole up the river in their boats, and sounded close to the boom and batteries. On the 19th, the position was further reconnoitred, and plans were made for the attack. Sulivan was given charge of the left division, consisting of the Philomel, Expéditive, Fanny, and Procida. Tréhouart himself took command of the right or heavier division, consisting of the San Martin, Comus, Pandour, and Dolphin; and the steamers Gorgon, Firebrand, and Fulton remained in reserve under Hotham.

Map
THE BATTLE OF OBLIGADO, 1845
(From "Life and Letters of Sir B.J. Sulivan", by kind permission of Mr. John Murray)

On the morning of the 20th, the left division weighed, and moved up past the right division, which had lain overnight nearer to the enemy. As it reached a point abreast of him, Levinge, in the Dolphin, without waiting for the rest of his division, weighed, and ran up the middle of the stream, thereby diverting much of the enemy's attention from Sulivan's force, which, owing to light breeze and strong current, made but slow progress. Battery No. 1 opened at 9.50 A.M., the first shot cutting away the ensign halliards of the Philomel, which, as she advanced, returning the salute, soon began to be badly knocked about. Indeed, owing to damages received aloft, she ultimately had to anchor about three hundred yards short of her assigned position in front of the batteries. The Fanny anchored near her. The Expéditive and Procida, in trying to get their broadsides to bear, were swept a little down stream ere they brought up. Of the right division, the Dolphin pushed on alone, and at length anchored within six hundred yards of every gun of the enemy. For a quarter of an hour she was the most advanced vessel. Then Tréhouart, in the San Martin, went gallantly ahead of her, and sensibly relieved her from the worst of the fire. His anchor was let go for him by a shot which cut the stoppers; but, by that time, he was very nearly in his assigned position. The Comus, following the San Martin, got well up, but, while trying to spring her broadside, was swept back to a less effective station. Nor was the Pandour able to afford much assistance to Tréhouart, who, in his small brig, occupied a post worthy of a vessel of eight times the force, and maintained it nobly. On her port beam, well within six hundred yards of her, were batteries 1, 2, and 3; on her port bow at little greater range were the almost raking guns of battery 4; and from nearly ahead she was raked by the Republicano and gunboats. In a short time she was entirely disabled, all her guns that could be brought to bear being put out of action; yet, even when her cable was shot away and she began to drift, Tréhouart brought her up again, and kept his station (Chevalier says that when the San Martin drifted, Tréhouart transferred his pennant to, and pushed forward again in, the Expéditive). Ere the other vessels succeeded in diverting from him some of the storm of shot to which he had been exposed, and in partially silencing the batteries, the plucky Frenchman had lost an enormous proportion of his crew of one hundred men.

At 10.50 A.M. the enemy let loose ten fire-vessels, which, however, drifted past the allies without doing any harm. The light wind still prevented the sailing craft from stationing themselves exactly as had been intended; but the arrival on the scene of the three steamers, and the aid which was at once rendered to the San Martin by the Fulton, afforded compensation. The idea had been to keep the steamers in the rear until the chain should have been cut, as it was feared that their machinery would be quickly damaged if they should be long exposed to a heavy fire. But Tréhouart's necessity, and the devotion of Mazères when his senior officer appealed to him, upset all plans. Eventually the Fulton made her way quite close to the obstruction.

At 11.30 the crew of the Republicano deserted her in the gunboats, and, having set her on fire, went to reinforce battery No. 4, which, lying high, was almost intact. No. 3 was then nearly silent, and the field-guns had been withdrawn from it to the wood. Nos. 1 and 2 had had some guns silenced, but fired steadily with the remainder, and called up fresh guns' crews time after time. At about noon, a slightly strengthening breeze enabled the sailing craft to weigh, and move nearer to the defences. At 12.15 the Republicano blew up. Still, however, the obstruction remained unbroken; and, as the San Martin and Dolphin had not a boat that would float, and could not, therefore, attempt to cut the chain, Captain Hope, of the Firebrand, volunteered to do that needful but terribly dangerous piece of work. He took three boats, and, having picked up armourers from the Dolphin, pulled for a point in the boom about sixteen hulks, and 500 yards, distant from the batteries. One party, under Hope himself, attacked the chain cables that crossed the deck of one of the hulks; the other two parties, under Lieutenant William Henry Webb, Mate Frederick Falkiner Nicholson (Dolphin), and Midshipman John Edmund Commerell, severed the riding-cables of three craft. Although a furious and concentrated fire was poured upon the boom, no one, strange to say, was touched by it; and, in four minutes, the three craft swung round in the current, leaving a gap nearly a hundred yards wide.

The Fulton, although she had already fired away all her shot and shell, passed through at once; and she was presently followed by the Gorgon and Firebrand, which then, for the first time, got under fire. They were fresh and almost untouched when, from above the boom, they began to rake the batteries. Hotham assembled the armed boats of the squadron near the Gorgon, and, after a brief period of natural indecision, landed 180 British seamen, 145 Royal Marines, and a small detachment of French seamen. The enemy was still well posted in the wood, and of unknown but certainly great strength; and battery No. 4 was continuing its fire. A disembarkation was rapidly effected on the beach below battery No. 2: five guns in that were spiked by Sulivan, who entered it alone; and No. 1, which had been recently abandoned, was occupied by parties under Sulivan, and Lieutenants Astley Cooper Key, and George Henry Richards (Philomel). These detachments were at once fired at by small-arm men hidden in the trees not fifty yards away; but the enemy was silenced or driven off ere the Marines, under Captain Hurdle, could get up. All was then practically over (The little resistance that was offered ashore may be attributed to the fact that Rosas hoped to entrap the squadron further up the river. There were also numerous desertions). Only batteries 1, 2 and 3 were disabled by nightfall: the flag of Rosas then still waved over No. 4; and there was some firing in the woods near that battery. On the following day, No. 4 was entered, and dismantled without resistance.

The losses suffered by each ship engaged will be found set forth in the table on p. 338. On the British side, the officers killed were Lieutenant Charles John Brickdale (Comus), and Clerk George Andrews (Dolphin). Among the wounded were Lieutenant Charles Francis Doyle (Philomel) (mortally; he had nearly recovered, when, having been accidentally given five grains of morphine, he vomited so violently that his wound reopened, necessitating a fresh operation under which he sank), Lieutenant Astley Cooper Key (Fanny), Second Master Eichard Henry Warren (Dolphin), Assistant Surgeon John Gallagher (Dolphin), and Assistant Clerk T------ Ellstob (Dolphin).

In consequence of this action, Hotham was made a K.C.B., and Hope a C.B.; Sulivan was posted; and Lieutenants Inglefield, Levinge, Richards, Doyle, and Key were made Commanders. But no medal was ever granted for the affair, which, indeed, was practically disavowed, when Lord Aberdeen, a little later, returned the captured guns with an apology, after having said in public that Great Britain had no right to force Rosas to open the rivers. Very different was the view taken in France. The guns which fell to the French are still to be seen in Paris: Tréhouart was made a rear-admiral; and Tréhouart and Obligado were adopted as ship-names by the French navy.

After the action, Hope, with three boats, gallantly pursued up the river the schooner Chacabuco, 3, and another vessel mounting two guns. Hotham, anxious for the issue of the business, sent the Firebrand and additional boats in support; but, fortunately, Hope, who had but forty men with him, delayed making an attack; and the enemy, despairing of saving her, themselves blew up their schooner, whose crew of two hundred took refuge, on shore near Rosario.

The squadron advanced slowly up the Parana; and part of it reached Corrientes on January 20th, 1846, without serious adventure. Hotham himself, in the French steamer Fulton, went as far as Asuncion, the capital of Paraguay. In the meantime, the Dolphin and Fanny had gone down to Montevideo for a convoy of sixty merchantmen, which was to be brought up the river; and Rosas, determined, if possible, both to keep in the ships that had already gone up, and to keep out all others, had assembled about 2000 men, with a dozen heavy field-guns, on the flat summits of the cliffs of San Lorenzo, fifteen or twenty miles north of Rosario. These cliffs are four miles long, and the channel, for the whole of that distance, passes within a quarter of a mile of them. Nevertheless, assisted by the Firebrand, Dolphin, Fanny, and French corvette Coquette, the convoy from below passed up, no one being killed, and only two men in the Firebrand being wounded (She was in charge of that part of the river, and remained below the batteries until some days later, when, going up to Baxada, she was hulled eight times, and had a man killed, although one of the merchantmen had as many as thirty-four shots in her, and the Firebrand received two-and-twenty. Less formidable batteries, near Tonneloro, had already been run the gauntlet of; and both these, and those at Lorenzo, had to be passed by the Alecto, 5, paddle, Commander Francis William Austen, which, with mails and rockets from England, followed the convoy, and overtook it at Baxada de Santa Fé. At about the same time the French steamer Gassendi joined the force in the upper waters, without having been attacked on her way. She brought orders for the Philomel to return to Montevideo.

By that time the works at San Lorenzo bad been strengthened; and when, on the evening of April 2nd, the Philomel ran past them, she only escaped severe damage by keeping within a cable's length of the cliffs, so that the shot passed over her.

The batteries were again passed under fire, on April 6th, by the Alecto; on April 21st by the Lizard; and on May llth by the Harpy, 1, paddle, Lieutenant Edward Halhed Beauchamp; these vessels being employed in keeping up communications. The Alecto had occasion to tow three heavily-laden schooners past Tonneloro against a three-knot current and a head wind. For twenty minutes she was almost stationary under a hail of projectiles from seven 18-prs.; and seventy-five minutes elapsed ere she was able to get out of range; yet her Commander was the only man in her who was wounded. The Lizard, paddle, Lieutenant Henry Manby Tylden, on her way up, was subjected to a hot fire from the San Lorenzo works for very nearly two hours, and was riddled from stem to stern, losing Clerk Charles Barnes, Master's Assistant ----- Webb (Eldest son of Lieut. Alex. Webb, R.N. (1815), who died in 1847.), and two men killed; and four wounded.

During all this time the return convoy was being assembled and got ready in the upper reaches of the great river. It ultimately consisted of 110 sail of merchantmen; and towards the middle of May it made rendezvous at Baxada de Santa Fé, where, on the 16th, it was joined by Hotham from Corrientes. A scheme occurred to Lieutenant Lauchlan Bellingham Mackinnon, of the Alecto, whereby the passage of the huge fleet past the batteries of San Lorenzo might be facilitated; and this scheme, after examination, was accepted by Hotham. In pursuance of it, Mackinnon secretly, and chiefly by night, placed a masked rocket battery upon a scrub-covered island which lay opposite the most formidable part of the batteries. He was ably assisted by Lieutenant Charles Loudon Barnard, R.M.A., Boatswain Hamm, Mr. Baker, a pilot, twelve Marine Artillerymen, and eleven seamen. In the works opposite, twenty-eight guns were counted. On June 4th there was a fair wind, and the convoy, escorted by the Gorgon, Firebrand, Dolphin, Fanny, Lizard, Harpy and Alecto, as well as by several French men-of-war, passed down, the Gorgon, Fulton, and Alecto leading, and engaging the batteries as they got within range. At a pre-arranged moment, Mackinnon's party, the presence of which had been totally unsuspected by the enemy, discharged a flight of rockets with great effect, and, at the same time, hoisted a British flag on the island. A hot rocket fire was kept up; and so disconcerting did this prove to be that, strange to say, the entire convoy was enabled to make the passage without the loss of a single man (Four merchantmen, however, ran aground, and had to be burnt to save them from capture). Mackinnon and his gallant comrades thereupon pulled off safely in their boat, and rejoined the squadron below the works.

There was little further resistance; and although the allies afterwards relieved Montevideo from an attack by some of the friends of Rosas, and, for a time, occupied the city, the difficulties at issue thenceforward became the subject rather of diplomatic negotiations than of active measures. Many of the advantages which had been gained were, unfortunately, sacrificed or neutralised by the terms of the settlement; but, in spite of the rather unhandsome manner in which the services of the Navy on this most creditable expedition were treated by the Government, it must be admitted that seldom have British officers, bluejackets, and Marines deserved better of their country.


Source: Clowes, William Laird: "The Royal Navy: a history from the earliest times to the death of Queen Victoria", Sampson Low, Marston and Company, 1901, volume 6, 336 - 345.
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