January 16

This Day in History

American Revolution

Jan 16, 1780:

British demonstrate naval supremacy in The Moonlight Battle

British Admiral Sir George Rodney, with 18 ships-of-the-line, engages an inferior Spanish squadron of 11 battleships commanded by Don Juan de Langara off the southwestern coast of Portugal at Cape St. Vincent, in what comes to be known as The Moonlight Battle. (Ships-of-the-line is the 18th century term for ships substantial enough to be used in a battle line, a tactic of war in which two lines of ships faced off against each other.)

The Spanish, who were at war with the British because they had chosen to back the American rebels in the War for Independence, saw the British fleet in pursuit and attempted to retreat home to the port of Cadiz. As they fled, Rodney decided to ignore the accepted rules of naval engagement, which involved two lines of ships bombarding one another with cannon much like two lines of infantry confronting one another across a battlefield. Instead, he decided to attempt to overtake of the Spanish ships by giving orders of general chase--having each British ship chase the Spanish fleet to the best of its ability. The British hounded the Spanish until 2 a.m., when the Spaniards finally surrendered.

Four Spanish battleships and two frigates escaped capture, but the British took De Langara's flagship and five others before running into shoals and ending the chase. One Spanish ship with its entire crew was lost in battle. Thirty-two Britons died, and 102 were wounded.

Credit for the British victory belongs not only to their greater number of ships and Admiral Rodney's decision to give chase, but also to the British ships' barnacle-free copper bottoms, which allowed them to outpace the less technologically advanced Spanish fleet. The fact that the two fleets engaged in battle overnight was an anomaly in 18th-century sea warfare, and earned the encounter the title The Moonlight Battle, and a painting by Francis Holman, despite its comparative insignificance in the Revolutionary War.

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