By Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Eric Lockwood, Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
After a long struggle for independence, the United States of America succeeded in its break from Great Britain. Suffering several more defeats following the British surrender at Yorktown in October 1781, British Parliament agreed in April 1782 to cease offensive operations against their soon-to-be ex-colony and peace negotiations began. Both sides saw no point in fighting, and an armistice was struck but an official end to the war was still more than a year away.
So for some, the Revolutionary War continued.
Especially since at the time, information took a bit longer to cross the Atlantic pond than today. As word of the cease fire spread, the battlespace of the war slowly shrunk. Cities and major battlefields got the word early. Those fighting in out-of-the-way, off-the-main-road countrysides received word a bit later. Sailors on the wine-dark open ocean got news of the armistice last.
At sea, the last shot of the American Revolutionary War was fired from the bow of the Continental frigate Alliance into the HMS Sybil, if the evidence is anything to go by.
While in France, the 32-gun Alliance received orders to Havana to transport gold to Philadelphia. After brief repairs, Alliance set out on her mission, touched at St. Eustatius and Cape Francois, and reached Havana on the last day of January 1783.
However, another American warship, the 20-gun Duc de Lauzun, was already in port on the same mission. The specie (coins) had already been loaded on that ship, so instead of waiting on orders elsewhere, Alliance’s skipper, Capt. John Barry, decided to escort Duc de Lauzun home.
Almost immediately upon getting underway, though, the duo encountered two Royal Navy frigates. Barry decided not to fight them. The risk to the cargo he escorted was too great. Alliance and Duc de Lauzun evaded their pursuers.
Three days later, on March 10, off the coast of Cape Canaveral they encountered the same pair—HMS Alarm and HMS Sybil. Again, Barry chose to evade rather than engage the enemy.
At first, Alliance started pulling away. Duc de Lauzun, however, couldn’t maneuver as swiftly, and Alarm started gaining ground on her. And then Alarm gave up. Sybil was left to her lonesome for the presumed attack—which she then started.
Once within range, Sybil began firing on Duc de Lauzun. But she was overconfident. Perhaps her captain thought the evading ships under-capable or unprepared for a fight. If so, he was wrong.
Alliance was well able to fight, and Barry maneuvered her between Sybil and Duc de Lauzun so his comrades could break for safety. Sybil refocused her attention and turned her fire toward Alliance. She managed to send one shot from her bow chaser into the American frigate’s cabin, mortally wounding a junior officer and scattering many splinters.
But Barry held his fire. Not until Alliance was within a stone’s throw of her opponent did he unleash his broadside on his enemy. The two crews engaged in of close-in fighting warfare for either 40 minutes or a lifetime.
During the battle, Sybil’s captain, Capt. James Vashon, saw his eventual defeat. In fact, he said he had “never seen a ship so ably fought as the Alliance.” Capt. Barry impressed him. “Every quality of a great commander was brought out with extraordinary brilliancy,” Vashon said of Barry.
While this brief naval battle raged, diplomats were negotiating the terms of the Treaty of Paris, which would be officially signed Sept. 3, 1783, ending the Revolutionary War.
But out on the deep blue sea, America’s sea warriors made sure the final battle of the American Revolution was a victory for the new republic.