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The Action of 21 July 1781[1] was a naval skirmish off the harbor of Spanish River, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia (present-day Sydney, Nova Scotia), during the American Revolution. Two French Navy frigates, led by Admiral Latouche Tréville and La Pérouse, engaged a convoy of 18 British ships and their escorts from the Royal Navy. The two French frigates captured two of the British escorts while the remainder of the British convoy escaped.

Action of 21 July 1781
Combat naval en vue de Louisbourg
Part of the American Revolutionary War
Combat naval de Louisbourg 1781.jpg
Naval battle off Cape Breton (Combat Naval A La Hauteur De Louisbourg) by Auguste-Louis de Rossel de Cercy on display at the Musée Nationale de la Marine in Rochefort.
Date21 July 1781
Off present-day Sydney, Nova Scotia

45°54′27″N 59°58′26″W / 45.9075°N 59.9739°W / 45.9075; -59.9739
Result French victory
 France  Great Britain
Commanders and leaders
Kingdom of France Latouche Tréville
Kingdom of France La Pérouse
Kingdom of Great Britain Captain Henry Francis Evans 
Kingdom of Great Britain Captain Rupert George
2 frigates:
Astrée (38)
Hermione (34)
6 warships:
Charlestown (28)
Allegiance (24)
Vernon (24)
Vulture (20)
Jack (14)
Thompson (18) (did not fight)

9 coal transports
4 supply ships
Casualties and losses
6 killed
34 wounded
~17 killed
48 wounded
2 warships and 3 merchantmen captured


The convoy, which consisted of eighteen ships, including nine coal-transporting and four supply ships, was bound for Spanish River on Cape Breton Island to pick up coal for delivery to Halifax.[2][3] The escorting ships were the frigate Charlestown (28); the sloops Allegiance (24) and Vulture (20); an armed transport Vernon (14); and another small armed ship Jack (14).[2]

A possible motive for the French attack was to make advances to reclaim Louisburg, a strategic fortress which the British had seized during the French and Indian War.[4][5]


Two French frigates Astrée (38), commanded by La Pérouse, and Hermione (34), commanded by Latouche Tréville, attacked the convoy.[3] The French severely damaged Charlestown, which lost its mainmast and a number of its officers, including Captain Francis Evans. The French also significantly damaged Jack, which also lost its captain, and subsequently struck her colors. The engagement ended at nightfall. Captain Rupert George of Vulture led the damaged escorts into a safe harbor.[6] Six French and seventeen British sailors were killed.[6]

While the British escort was severely damaged, the convoy was still able to pick up a load of coal at Spanish River and deliver it to Halifax.[2] The French captured the British ship Thorn off Halifax Harbor, along with three merchantmen, which they brought back to Boston.


On October 6, Jack was taken to Halifax and later released under the British command of R. P. Tonge (son of W. Tonge), who, after a brief skirmish with two American privateers in Canso, took American prisoners to Quebec.[7] The following year, the British recaptured Jack in the Naval battle off Halifax.

The French commanders would go on to achieve further acclaim and recognition for their performance.[citation needed] Latouche Tréville became an admiral and was named a hero of the Napoleonic war. La Pérouse later became a famous explorer.

American privateers attacked British mining on Cape Breton throughout the war.[8]


See alsoEdit


  1. ^ (French: Combat naval en vue de Louisbourg, or Combat naval à la hauteur de Louisbourg)
  2. ^ a b c Gwyn, Julian (July 2004). Frigates and Foremasts: The North American Squadron in Nova Scotia Waters, 1745-1815. UBC Press. pp. 72–73. ISBN 978-0-7748-0911-5.
  3. ^ a b Gwyn, Julian (2004). Ashore and Afloat: The British Navy and the Halifax Naval Yard Before 1820. University of Ottawa Press. p. 155. ISBN 978-0-7766-3031-1.
  4. ^ Curtis, George Ticknor (1861). History of the Origin, Formation, and Adoption of the Constitution of the United States: With Notices of Its Principal Framers. New York: Harper and Brothers. p. 156.
  5. ^ Tennyson, Brian; Sarty, Roger (2000). Guardian of the Gulf: Sydney, Cape Breton, and the Atlantic Wars. University of Toronto Press. pp. 18–19. ISBN 978-0-8020-8545-0.
  6. ^ a b "Battle off Spanish River". 12 September 2010. Retrieved 1 December 2016.
  7. ^ Murdoch, Beamish (1866). A History of Nova-Scotia, Or Acadie. Vol. II. Halifax: J. Barnes. p. 619.
  8. ^ "Timothy Hierlihy and his times". Archived from the original on 9 April 2018. Retrieved 8 April 2018.