Bartholomew James

Lieutenant of the British Royal Navy an Eyewitness to Yorktown
"Second Battle of the Virginia Capes.” By V. Zveg on behalf of the U.S. Navy circa 1962.

“Second Battle of the Virginia Capes.” By V. Zveg on behalf of the U.S. Navy circa 1962.

Lieutenant Bartholomew James of the British Royal Navy arrived at Yorktown, Virginia aboard the H.M.S. Charon on August 2, 1781. The Charon was part of a small British squadron of ships sent up the York River to help General Lord Cornwallis’s army fortify the town. Cornwallis’s army had achieved a string of victories in Georgia and the Carolinas, and were now seeking to subdue Virginia, the most populous of all the British colonies. On September 13, Bartholomew found himself aboard a schooner down the York River from Yorktown, having been sent to forage for supplies. From this vantage point, he cast a disheartened stare across the water. On that day, “George Washington having been suffered to march from the northward unmolested . . . arrived up the bay with six thousand French and continental troops.” The Americans wasted little time, and “a frigate with a detachment of transports was sent from the enemy to bring them down, all of which we had the mortification to see join.” The consequences were not lost on Bartholomew, who realized even then “the terror of the fatal storm, ready now almost to burst on our heads.” A little over a month later, the combined American and French forces under George Washington compelled Lord Cornwallis to surrender his army and navy forces at Yorktown, effectively ending the American Revolution.

Lieutenant Bartholomew James remembered the Battle of Yorktown as a grand struggle led by a great man, General Lord Cornwallis, for whom he expressed the fondest regard. He believed “that the utmost art and skill of one of our first generals in the eyes of Britain could not prevent the impending fall of his brave army.” After a “long successive chain of victory,” the efforts at Yorktown could not prevent the end of a noble “chain of adventures.” This final phrase was especially appropriate for Bartholomew, whose career as a British naval officer, which eventually led him into the ranks of the admiralty, could be described as a long “chain of adventures.” Bartholomew was born on December 28, 1752 in Falmouth, England. His father, however, had “from a variety of unsuccessful schemes in business” lost much of the family’s fortune by 1764. It was in this year that Bartholomew entered the navy at Bideford, England as an entree. He was just eleven years old, yet within three years he crossed the Atlantic for the first time.

Appointed acting lieutenant of the Falcon in 1773, Bartholomew served aboard a number of ships before arriving in Halifax, Nova Scotia (Canada) in 1776 at the start of the American Revolution. Sailing to New York, Bartholomew participated in the British rout of Washington’s army on Long Island. He later wrote that “it is hardly possible to conceive what a tremendous fire was kept up” by the Royal Navy during this battle. In one fifty-nine minute period, Bartholomew’s ship, the Orpheus, expended “five thousand, three hundred and seventy-six pounds of powder.” During the Revolutionary War Bartholomew cruised the West Indies, which became a major area of concern for the Royal Navy after the French entered the war on the side of the United States in 1778.
While patrolling the Caribbean in September 1778, Bartholomew’s ship, the Dolphin, was captured by the French ship Charmante, and he was taken as a prisoner to the French colonial island of St. Domingue. This began for Bartholomew the “most unfortunate period of [his] existence,” an experience he remembered as a “very unhappy situation.” He remained on the Caribbean island for months without much hope of rescue while numerous friends and fellow officers died from tropical diseases. Bartholomew himself became ill in April 1779, though thanks to the attentions of “a friendly black girl, who had more humanity than her neighbors,” he was able to survive the fever. Much to his astonishment, he was exchanged later that month, and arrived in British-held Jamaica in May 1779.

Plan showing the upper deck for HMS Charon (1783), a 44-gun Fifth Rate, two-decker, as fitted for an Hospital Ship at Woolwich Dockyard in December 1793.

Plan showing the upper deck for HMS Charon (1783), a 44-gun Fifth Rate, two-decker,
as fitted for an Hospital Ship at Woolwich Dockyard in December 1793.

By 1781, Bartholomew was a lieutenant aboard the Charon, a 44-gun frigate commanded by Captain Symonds. The crew of the Charon spent most of their time in Yorktown helping the army “throwing up [earth] works” for the defense of the town. When Bartholomew witnessed the arrival of French and American reinforcements on September 13, he was unaware that the fate of the Yorktown garrison had already been sealed. Throughout the battle, Bartholomew expressed hope “of a relief by the arrival of a British fleet.” That British fleet, commanded by Rear-Admiral Graves, had already been defeated off the Virginia Capes on September 5 by the French fleet commanded by Admiral de Grasse. Bartholomew knew of the engagement, but not of its importance. He commented on September 8 that Graves “had appeared off the Capes with about twenty sail of the line,” and after “some slight skirmish” with the French, “was obliged from their superiority to retreat.” It was both Lord Cornwallis’s and Bartholomew’s belief that Rear-Admiral Graves would soon return and make another attempt to relieve the beleaguered garrison. Unfortunately for the British, help did not arrive in time.

When the American and French forces began constructing their own earthworks, Bartholomew and the crew of the Charon manned artillery batteries for the army, using the Charon’s own guns. Once the American artillery bombardment began, the casualties mounted very quickly for the British. The French artillery batteries outside Yorktown directed their fire at the Charon using hot shot [red-hot cannon balls] and set the ship on “fire at half-past six o’clock in three different places,” on October 10. Within “a few minutes” the ship was “in flames from the hold to the mastheads.” The Charon ran aground on the Gloucester beach, and burned until totally lost. On an October evening in Virginia, night would have fully descended by 6:30 p.m., thus the blaze on the river would have made a forbidding spectacle. The dramatic loss of the Charon clearly saddened the young Lieutenant James, who watched from the shore “with infinite concern” as “one of the finest ships in the navy of her rate” was “totally destroyed” that night.

“Diagram of the Battle of the Chesapeake, Sep. 5, 1781.” Published by William Oliver Stevens and Allan Westcott, 1920.

“Diagram of the Battle of the Chesapeake, Sep. 5, 1781.” Published by William Oliver
Stevens and Allan Westcott, 1920.

The battle continued in a desperate fashion, though all the time with the hope of relief from the Royal Navy. Bartholomew was wounded when he volunteered for a hazardous duty, defending the British left. He, and a “midshipman, both wounded, were the only two that returned out of thirty-six, having stood a close cannonade with the enemy eight hours, who had ninety-seven pieces of heavy cannon playing on us all that time.” Finally, on October 19, 1781, the British surrendered, and the battle was over. General Lord Cornwallis’s army became prisoners of the Americans, but the members of the Royal Navy were made prisoners of the French Admiral de Grasse. Unlike the British and Hessian soldiers, the British sailors received a very speedy parole to New York City, where they hence returned to England, and were thereafter barred from further participation in the war against the United States.

Upon returning home to Falmouth, England, Bartholomew met and married Henrietta Pender, by whom he had a son, who died in infancy, and two daughters. Bartholomew served aboard numerous vessels in 1783-1801, including a period in the merchant-marine, where he commanded the Mercury and Maria. During Great Britain’s wars against France and Spain in the 1790s, Bartholomew served in the Mediterranean and in the West Indies, proving his skills as a commander. In 1798, he became Captain of the Canopus (formerly the French ship Franklin), an 84-gun Ship of the Line captured from the French by Admiral Lord Nelson at the Battle of the Nile River. In 1803, Bartholomew was appointed to the command of the Sea-Fencibles of Cornwall, where he remained until 1814. He was eventually raised to the rank of Rear-Admiral on the retired list, June 4, 1825. Bartholomew James died in England on May 22, 1828 at the age of seventy-five.

Primary Source Documents: Bartholomew James

From John Knox Laughton, ed., Journal of Rear-Admiral Bartholomew James, 1752-1828 (London: Royal Navy Records Society, 1896).

Taken prisoner by the French in the Caribbean, 1778:

[October 10, 1778] . . . At five in the morning on the 10th–Oh! fatal day!–the wind shifting round to the eastward, I tacked and stood to the northward through the Caicos, At daybreak I discovered three large ships, one of them having a poop [deck], and with them a schooner, which immediately struck me was the Bristol, Lowestoft and Niger, with her tender . . . On my coming within a few miles of them, I discovered the headmost ship to be clearly an English frigate, but was not satisfied with the appearance of the other two. I hoisted my colours and stood from them, when the nearest to me fired a shot, hoisted French colours, and made the signal for a general chase . . . In a chase of two hours and [a] half the headmost ship brought me to, and hailed me to strike immediately, which of course I was under the disagreeable necessity of doing. . . Here I must pause a moment to view this unfortunate stroke, and reflect on my fatal and very unhappy situation. At a period when I had reason to flatter myself I was almost within reach of a commission, and elated with the idea of dropping, on my return, the scornful name of petty [officer], and reaching that goal, which for the course of ten years I had been in quest of . . . to be snatched from such glorious and desirable acquisitions, and presented with the doleful appellation of prisoner, without the most distant view of enlargement, and destitute of money and clothes, sure it’s beyond the power of pen to describe, or any but the unfortunate to conceive. .

Life on San Domingo as a prisoner, 1778:

[November 5, 1778] . . . As I could better put up with the want of clothes in this warm climate than feel the distress of hunger, I lost no time in disposing of my box of linen, which enabled me to pay my little debts at the hucksters’ shops, and feast for two or three weeks. To complete the vast esteem they [San Domingans] had for us, they reported to the commandant that we had determined on setting fire to the village the first opportunity, and, taking the advantage of their confusion, make off to the seaside, and seize on some small vessel. This occasioned severer treatment, and [was] done on purpose to excuse their vile conduct towards us; for it cannot be even supposed that an English officer, on his parole of honour, would so much deviate from the established great character of his country, or deign to dirt his hands in the destruction of a poor, pitiful, French negro village . . .

Receiving his commission, 1779:

[May 13, 1779] . . . May 13, a day ever sacred in my memory, we arrived at Port Royal in Jamaica, naked and half starved . . . after an absence of nine months and three days. Distressed as I was for clothes, I immediately waited on the admiral, who received me with great satisfaction, kept me to dinner with him, and gave me, on my taking leave of him, a lieutenant’s commission, appointing me to the Porcupine sloop of fourteen guns, commanded by Captain John Pakenham; and he further told me that, on hearing I was taken, he had directed me to be rated mate of the Bristol, and kept open on the books, and that I was entitled to prize money for her. I therefore called on the agent that evening, who paid me three hundred pounds, and I joined my ship the following morning as happy a fellow as ever crossed salt water.

At the Battle of Yorktown, 1781:

[October] 10th [1781] . . . The enemy having opened fresh batteries on this day, and also commenced an additional fire on the Charon [James’s ship] with red-hot shot, she was set on fire at half-past six o’clock in three different places, and in a few minutes in flames from the hold to the mastheads. From our being quartered at the guns in front of the army, that timely assistance could not be given her which was necessary to extinguish the fire, and she broke adrift from her moorings and drove on board a transport to which she also set fire, and they both grounded on the Gloucester side, where they burnt to the water’s edge. The loss of our things in the Charon are so very trivial when compared to the more distressing scenes of the garrison, that I shall say no more on this head, than that we saw with infinite concern one of the finest ships in the navy of her rate totally destroyed on this day.

[October] 11th [1781] — I now want words to express the dreadful situation of the garrison, for it is scarcely possible to describe the calamitous condition we were in during the remainder of the siege. The enemy on this evening . . . advanced three hundred yards nearer to us; their fire continued then incessant from heavy artillery and mortars, and we opened fresh embrasures to flank the enemy’s works, keeping up a constant fire with all the howitzers and small mortars then in the garrison. Upwards of a thousand shells was thrown into the works on this night, and every spot became alike dangerous. The noise and thundering of the cannon, the distressing cries of the wounded, and the lamentable sufferings of the inhabitants, whose dwellings were chiefly in flames, added to the restless fatigues of the duty, must inevitably fill every mind with pity and compassion who are possessed of any feelings for their fellow creatures.
Yet admist all this dire destruction no murmuring was heard, no wish to give up the town while the most distant hope was in view of being relieved. On the contrary, this very distinguished little army, taking example from their chief [General Lord Cornwallis], went through the business of the siege with a perfect undaunted resolution to the general, who had so often led them to the field
with success. .

[October] 12th [1781] . . . At nine o’clock the chief officers of the artillery waited on the commodore from Lord Cornwallis with directions that the lieutenants of the navy, with their men, should move on from the right into the hornwork on the left, the transports’ men having quitted their quarters and left it exposed to a very heavy fire from the batteries of the enemy, who was hourly expected to storm the works.
Desirous of recommending myself to his lordship, I immediately offered myself a volunteer to work this battery, and set for it accordingly with a midshipman and thirty-six seamen, to be relieved in eight hours by the first lieutenant. . . At six o’clock in the evening, the first lieutenant having been sent to relieve me, a shell burst between us and gave me a contusion in my face and right leg, with which I conceived myself very fortunate, having during my stay in the works had nine men killed, twenty-seven wounded, eight of which died ere they was removed, and most of the wounded had lost an arm or leg, and some both. In short, myself and the midshipman, both wounded, were the only two that returned out of thirty-six, having stood a close cannonade with the enemy eight hours, who had ninety-seven pieces of heavy cannon playing on us all that time. I quitted the works about a quarter after six, having received the thanks of Lord Cornwallis, who was in the redoubt during the greatest part of the time.

[October] 19th [1781] — Seeing that the enemy was determined to confine us to such terms as they chose to grant, and that we had not as yet experienced the fire of the flanking redoubts . . . his lordship [Cornwallis] thought it, as he himself expresses, necessary to save the lives of the few brave men then left in the garrison, and accordingly at noon we surrendered prisoners of war to the United States of America, the navy only excepted, who became prisoners to the Comte de Grasse [the French admiral at Yorktown].

[October] 22nd [1781] . . . Happy am I to give a very different account of the French civility and humanity than the one I was obliged to mention when a prisoner with them in St. Domingue; and I cannot do it more fully than by saying it was in every particular the very reverse of the savage treatment of that island; not only happy in rendering us every attention, and being truly delicate in their behavior towards us, but they gave us a captain’s guard of grenadiers [elite troops] to protect us from the insolence and abuse of the American soldiers, who otherwise would have robbed us of the few things we had left at the end of the siege. . . In short, they [the French] discovered in general a conduct which will ever do them the highest honour, and authorise them to expect the utmost attention from every British subject. . .

For Further Reading:

John Sands, Yorktown’s Captive Fleet (1983).
Richard Buel, In Irons: Britain’s Naval Supremacy and the American Revolutionary Economy
John Tilley, The British Navy and the American Revolution (1987).
Gardner Allen, A Naval History of the American Revolution (1962).