American Revolution: Admiral George Rodney, Baron Rodney

George Rodney
Admiral George Rodney, Baron Rodney by Thomas Gainsborough. Public Domain

George Rodney - Early Life & Career:

George Brydges Rodney was born in January 1718 and was baptized the following month in London. The son of Henry and Mary Rodney, George was born into a well-connected family. A veteran of the War of the Spanish Succession, Henry Rodney had served in the army and marine corps before losing much of the family's money in the South Sea Bubble. Though sent to the Harrow School, the younger Rodney left in 1732 to accept a warrant in the Royal Navy. Posted to HMS Sunderland (60 guns), he initially served as a volunteer before becoming a midshipman. Transferring to HMS Dreadnought two years later, Rodney was mentored by Captain Henry Medley. After a spending time in Lisbon, he saw service aboard several ships and voyaged to Newfoundland to aid in protecting the British fishing fleet.

George Rodney - Rising Through the Ranks:

Though a capable young officer, Rodney benefited from his connection to the Duke of Chandos and was promoted to lieutenant on February 15, 1739. Serving in the Mediterranean, he sailed aboard HMS Dolphin before switching to Admiral Sir Thomas Matthews' flagship, HMS Namur. With the beginning of the War of the Austrian Succession, Rodney was dispatched to attack a Spanish supply base at Ventimiglia in 1742. Successful in this endeavor, he received a promotion to post-captain and took command of HMS Plymouth (60). After escorting British merchantmen home from Lisbon, Rodney was given HMS Ludlow Castle and directed to blockade the Scottish coast during the Jacobite Rebellion. During this time, one of his midshipmen was future admiral Samuel Hood.

In 1746, Rodney took over HMS Eagle (60) and patrolled the Western Approaches. During this time, he captured his first prize, a 16-gun Spanish privateer. Fresh from this triumph, he received orders to join Admiral George Anson's Western Squadron in May. Operating in the Channel and off the French coast, Eagle and took part in the capture of sixteen French ships. In May 1747, Rodney missed the First Battle of Cape Finisterre when he was away delivering a prize to Kinsale. Leaving the fleet after the victory, Anson turned command over to Admiral Edward Hawke. Sailing with Hawke, Eagle took part in the Second Battle of Cape Finisterre on October 14. During the fighting, Rodney engaged two French ships of the line. While one pulled away, he continued to engage the other until Eagle became unmanageable after its wheel was shot away.

George Rodney - Peace:

With the signing of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle and the end of the war, Rodney took Eagle to Plymouth where it was decommissioned. His actions during the conflict earned him around £15,000 in prize money and provided a degree of financial security. The following May, Rodney received an appointment as governor and commander-in-chief of Newfoundland. Sailing aboard HMS Rainbow (44), he held the temporary rank of commodore. Completing this duty in 1751, Rodney became increasingly interested in politics. Though his first bid for Parliament failed, he was elected as MP for Saltash in 1751. After purchasing an estate at Old Alresford, Rodney met and married Jane Compton, the sister of the Earl of Northampton. The couple had three children before Jane's death in 1757.

George Rodney - Seven Years' War:

In 1756, Britain formally entered the Seven Years' War after a French attack on Minorca. Blame for the island's loss was placed on Admiral John Byng. Court-martialed, Byng was sentenced to death. Having escaped from serving on the court-martial, Rodney lobbied for the sentence to be commuted, but to no avail. In 1757, Rodney sailed aboard HMS Dublin (74) as part of Hawke's raid on Rochefort. The following year, he was directed to carry Major General Jeffery Amherst across the Atlantic to oversee the Siege of Louisbourg. Capturing a French East Indiaman en route, Rodney was later criticized for putting prize money ahead of his orders. Joining Admiral Edward Boscawen's fleet off Louisbourg, Rodney delivered the general and operated against the city through June and July.

In August, Rodney sailed in command of a small fleet that transported Louisbourg's defeated garrison into captivity in Britain. Promoted to rear admiral on May 19, 1759, he began operations against French invasion forces at Le Havre. Employing bomb vessels he attacked the French port in early July. Inflicting significant damage, Rodney struck again in August. The French invasion plans were cancelled later that year after major naval defeats at Lagos and Quiberon Bay. Detailed to blockade the French coast until 1761, Rodney was then given command of a British expedition tasked with capturing the rich island of Martinique.

George Rodney - Caribbean & Peace:

Crossing to the Caribbean, Rodney's fleet, in conjunction with Major General Robert Monckton's ground forces, conducted a successful campaign against the island as well as captured St. Lucia and Grenada. Completing operations in the Leeward Islands, Rodney moved northwest and joined with Vice Admiral George Pocock's fleet for an expedition against Cuba. Returning to Britain at the end of the war in 1763, he learned that he had been promoted to vice admiral. Made a baronet in 1764, he elected to remarry and wed Henrietta Clies later that year. Serving as the governor of Greenwich Hospital, Rodney again ran for Parliament in 1768. Though he won, the victory cost him a large part of his fortune. After three more years in London, Rodney accepted the post of commander-in-chief at Jamaica as well as the honorary office of Rear Admiral of Great Britain.

Arriving on the island, he worked diligently to improve its naval facilities and the quality of the fleet. Remaining until 1774, Rodney was forced to relocate to Paris as his financial situation had collapsed a result of the 1768 election and general overspending. In 1778, a friend, Marshal Biron, fronted him the money to clear his debts. Returning to London, Rodney was able to secure back pay from his ceremonial offices to repay Biron. That same year, he was promoted to admiral. With the American Revolution already underway, Rodney was made commander-in-chief of the Leeward Islands in late 1779. Putting to sea, he encountered Admiral Don Juan de Lángara off Cape St. Vincent on January 16, 1780.

George Rodney - American Revolution:

In the resulting Battle of Cape St. Vincent, Rodney captured or destroyed seven Spanish ships before proceeding on to re-supply Gibraltar. Reaching the Caribbean, his fleet met a French squadron, led by the Comte de Guichen, on April 17. Engaging off Martinique, a misinterpretation of Rodney's signals led to his battle plan being poorly executed. As a result, the battle proved inconclusive though Guichen elected to call off his campaign against British holdings in the region. With hurricane season approaching, Rodney sailed north to New York. Sailing back to the Caribbean the following year, Rodney and General John Vaughan captured the Dutch island of St. Eustatius in February 1781. In the wake of the capture, the two officers were accused of lingering on the island to collect its wealth rather than continuing to pursue military objectives.

Arriving back in Britain later that year, Rodney defended his actions. As he was a supporter of Lord North's government, his conduct at St. Eustatius received Parliament's blessing. Resuming his post in the Caribbean in February 1782, Rodney moved to engage a French fleet under the Comte de Grasse two months later. After a skirmish on April 9, the two fleets met at the Battle of the Saintes on the 12th. In the course of the fighting, the British fleet managed to break through the French battle line in two places. One of the first times this tactic had been used, it resulted in Rodney capturing seven French ships of the line, including De Grasse's flagship Ville de Paris (104). Though hailed as a hero, several of Rodney's subordinates, including Samuel Hood, felt that admiral did not pursue the beaten enemy with sufficient vigor.

George Rodney - Later Life:

Rodney's victory provided a much needed boost to British morale following key defeats at the Battles of the Chesapeake and Yorktown the year before. Sailing for Britain, he arrived in August to find that he had been elevated to Baron Rodney of Rodney Stoke and that Parliament had voted him an annual pension of £2,000. Electing to retire from the service, Rodney also withdrew from public life. He later suddenly died on May 23, 1792 at his home on Hanover Square in London.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Admiral George Rodney, Baron Rodney." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 26). American Revolution: Admiral George Rodney, Baron Rodney. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Admiral George Rodney, Baron Rodney." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 31, 2023).