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|Louis-René Madelaine Le Vassor
comte de La Touche-Tréville
Portrait of Latouche-Tréville, by Antoine Maurin
|Born||3 June 1745
|Died||19 August 1804
|Allegiance|| Kingdom of France
Kingdom of the French
French First Republic
|Years of service||1758 — 1804|
Commander of the Legion of Honour
Son to Louis-Charles Le Vassor de La Touche
Louis-René Madelaine Le Vassor, comte de La Touche-Tréville (3 June 1745 – 19 August 1804) was a French Vice-admiral. He fought in the American War of Independence and became a prominent figure of the French Revolutionary Wars and of the Napoleonic wars.
Born into a noble family of naval officers, Latouche enlisted at the age of 13. He rose to become a competent frigate captain, battling several British ships during the American War of Independence. His two-frigate squadron once manoeuvred a 74-gun ship of the line to the point of sinking, and he was entrusted with important personalities of the time as passengers, notably Louis XVI and the Marquis de Lafayette.
During the Revolution, Latouche, a Freemason and aide to Phillipe Égalité, took progressive positions as a deputy in the Estates General and later in the National Constituent Assembly. His nobility nevertheless made him a target during the Reign of Terror, and he was imprisoned and only freed from prison by the Thermidorian Reaction.
Returned to the Navy after a long period of unemployment, Latouche took command of the Flottille de Boulogne, where he repelled the Raids on Boulogne organised by Nelson. He then served in the Saint-Domingue expedition, which irrevocably compromised his health. After his return, he took command of the fleet in Toulon, reorganising it into a potent tool again, but he succumbed to a relapse of illness before he had a chance to use it. Under his successor Villeneuve, the fleet he had refurbished was crushed at the Battle of Trafalgar.
Latouche was born in Rochefort-sur-mer, Charente-Maritime. His father, Louis-Charles Le Vassor de La Touche, had been the governor of Martinique, until the Invasion of 1762, and chief of the naval forces of Rochefort. His uncle, Charles-Auguste Levassor de La Touche-Tréville, served as a Rear-Admiral, commanding the light squadron of the France-Spanish fleet under Orvilliers in 1780.
At the age of 13, Latouche joined the Gardes de la Marine, and took part in numerous naval actions during the Seven Years' War. He started sailing on the Hardi, ferrying troops to Canada in 1758, and took part in his first action, in 1759 aboard the 64-gun Dragon, which was under his uncle's command, taking part in the Battle of Quiberon Bay. He also served on the pram Louise and harassed the blockading British squadron Île-d'Aix in October 1760, still under his uncle. In 1762 he served on the 74-gun Intrépide and on Tonnant. In the summer of that year, Latouche was detached to command two gunboats with which he attacked two British ships, one 60-gun and one 74-gun, waging a two-hour battle.
After the Treaty of Paris in 1763, Latouche took part in training campaigns under his uncle Latouche-Tréville and Admiral d'Estaing, serving on the ships Garonne in 1763, and Hardi and Bricole in 1765.
In September 1768, aged 23, he was promoted to Ensign. Perhaps under pressure from his family, who hoped for quicker promotions, or because the reform of the Navy forced him to retire, he resigned from the Navy and enlisted in the Army. He became an aide to Governor-General d'Ennery, newly appointed governor of Martinique, who obtained a commission as a cavalry captain for him. In 1771, he transferred as captain to the Régiment de La Rochefoucauld-Dragons, a dragoon regiment, and became Aide-de-camp to Governor General Valière, who commanded at Saint-Domingue.
In 1772, Navy Minister Boynes acceded to repeated requests from Latouche's family, and he was reinstated in the Navy as "capitaine de brûlot". Latouche was appointed to command the fluyt Courtier. In 1774, Latouche put forward a proposition to the Ministry Navy for an exploratory expedition to circumnavigate Australia to see whether New Holland and New South Wales were separated by a channel; the plan was rejected, as the Ministry preferred using Île de France as the forward base for such an operation. Latouche corresponded with Captain Cook on exploration plans in 1775 and 1776.
In May 1777, he was promoted to Lieutenant and was granted the command of a corvette, the 20-gun Rossignol, which escorted convoys and ferried messages. He captured two English privateers and three merchantmen. His prizes saw him awarded the rank of Knight in the Order of Saint-Louis. He was also appointed to command the 26-gun frigate Hermione.
On 28 May 1779, Hermione spotted a British privateer, which she lured into a trap by feigning fleeing in the night. In order to induce a tiring chase, Latouche let his ship's beacon be glimpsed intermittently, before doubling back to attack his opponent in the morning. The privateer was the 18-gun Diffidence, of Falmouth. The next day, another 18-gun privateer attacked and Latouche captured her too, using the same ruse.[Note 1] Latouche then returned to Rochefort with his two prizes and numerous prisoners.
From 21 March to 28 April 1780, Latouche carried General Lafayette as a passenger on a transatlantic voyage from France to Boston. Then, joining the fleet under Rear-Admiral Destouches, and under orders from Barras and Ternay, he directed the building of several artillery batteries for the defence of Rhode Island.
After he had completed the batteries, Latouche received authorization to cruise off Long Island and intercept shipping to New York City. He quickly captured two prizes, before spotting four sails on 7 June 1780: these were the frigate Iris and three lesser warships. In the ensuing Action of 7 June 1780, Latouche was himself shot in the arm by a musket ball, and Hermione suffered ten deaths and 37 wounded.[Note 2] His opponent, Captain James Hawker, later accused him of fleeing the scene, to which Latouche replied "In my poor state, I could not pursue you. Why then did you not continue the fight?"[Note 3]
On 16 March, Latouche-Tréville participated in the Battle of Cape Henry, which took place at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. This action has led to a commonly repeated, but erroneous, report that Latouche-Tréville engaged in a "battle against the Chesapeake (March 1781)".[Note 4]
On 13 April 1781, Latouche's father, Louis-Charles Le Vassor de La Touche, died in Paris. Latouche inherited his title, and thereafter was styled "Comte de Latouche".
Latouche was promoted to Captain after the action of 7 June 1780. He then continued cruising off the coast of North America as part of a squadron under the command of Admiral Lapérouse, whose flagship was Astrée.
On 21 July, the two frigates encountered a British convoy off the coast of New Scotland. In the resulting naval battle of Louisbourg, Astrée and Hermione forced HMS Charlestown to strike her colours, but failed to board her, allowing her to flee during the night. They did however capture the 14-gun escort, Jack, and three merchantmen, which they brought to Boston.
After returning to France, Latouche was promoted to Captain on 20 June 1781. In 1782, he was tasked with ferrying officials, large sums of money[Note 5] and equipment to America, leading a two-frigate squadron comprising Aigle and Gloire, under Captain de Vallongue.
Latouche assumed command of the frigate Aigle which, along with the Gloire, ferried funds and equipment for the fleet of Admiral de Vaudreuil. On 5 September 1782, the squadron encountered the lone 74-gun HMS Hector: in the ensuing two-day battle, the two frigates heavily damaged the Hector, and only failed to captured her when a British squadron appeared on the horizon. Latouche retreated, and Hector foundered a few days later.
The frigates continued on their journey when, on 12 September, they spotted a British squadron, comprising two ships of the line with a frigate, two corvettes and a brig-sloop. Latouche captured the brig, HMS Racoon. Latouche then tacked into the Delaware River, as HMS Vestal, HMS Bonetta, and the prize Sophie, led by Captain G.K. Elphinston in Warwick, gave chase. Latouche landed his passengers and treasure with launches from the frigates. He then attempted to escape his much stronger opponents by sailing over the banks at the mouth of the Delaware River, but Aigle ran aground; Gloire also touched bottom, but she managed to free herself and reach the channel. Latouche attempted to free Aigle, but with the retreating tide, she became not only more and more firmly beached, but also fell on her side, rendering her battery unserviceable. Seeing his ship lost, Latouche had her the masts chopped off and her hull pierced; he then evacuated her crew; staying behind with only a few men, Latouche fired a few shots from his stern chasers before striking his colours. Despite the measures to disable Aigle, the British were able to recover her and took her into service as HMS Aigle.
Admiral Vaudreuil wrote to the Minister of the Navy de Castrie:
|“||Mister de la Touche deserves your reprimand; he had on board with him a kept woman with whom he lived; the English, having captured her, have returned her to him as though she was his wife. This is known and cannot but make a bad impression in a country with good morals.[Note 6]||”|
Upon Latouche's return in France, he was appointed to direct Rochefort harbour. He was also tasked with drawing a map of Oléron, which was published in the first volume of Hydrographie française.[Note 7] In 1784 he succeeded Bruni d'Entrecasteaux as vice-director of the Harbours and Arsenals, holding the position until 1787, when he became Chancellor to the Duke of Orléans. Meanwhile, he had also served as an inspector for the gunnery school of the Naval Academy, and co-authored the Naval Code for 1786. In July 1786, he sailed a corvette from Honfleur to Le Havre, ferrying king Louis XVI.
At the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789, Latouche-Tréville was elected deputy of the Nobility for the bailiwick of Montargis; he went on to sit at the National Constituent Assembly and held this position until it adjourned on 10 October 1791. Latouche took a liberal posture and was among the first nobles to join forces with the Third Estate. In September 1791, after king Louis XVI approved the new constitution, the National Constituent Assembly disbanded, and Latouche-Tréville resumed his naval activities.
Latouche had held the rank of Rear-Admiral since 20 December 1790 reform of the navy. In this capacity, in 1792 he took command of a four-ship squadron in Brest. He sailed from Brest to Toulon, on his flagship the Languedoc, to attach his division to the Mediterranean squadron under Rear-admiral Truguet. He took part in raids against Oneglia, Cagliari and Nice during the Army of Italy, and joined in the attack on Sardinia in October 1792 (which turned out to be a failure when the expeditionary corps was repulsed). Latouche-Tréville and Truguet then returned to Toulon.
Latouche-Tréville was promoted to Rear-Admiral on 1 January 1793. He was then sent on a mission to Napoli, after that kingdom's ambassador to Constantinople had precipitated a diplomatic conflict by insulting his French counterpart. Latouche threatened to bombard the city, and obtained apologies from Ferdinand I of the Two Sicilies. Latouche then departed, but had to double back to Napoli to repair due to gale-force winds, eventually making his rendezvous with Truguet on 8 February 1793. On 14 February, they landed 6,000 volunteers at Cagliari, who had to reembark under fire and in a gale two days later. The fleet then returned to Toulon once more.
In March 1793, amid the War of the First Coalition, Latouche took command of the "Naval Army of the Ocean" (the Brest fleet), but as soon as he took up his position, revolutionary subordinates denounced him as an aristocrat. On 15 September, at the height of the Reign of Terror, he was arrested as a "suspect" on orders of the Committee of Public Safety, and cashiered on 3 October. He spent one year in La Force Prison, and was freed only on 20 September 1794, after the Thermidorian Reaction.
Freed, Latouche returned to Montargis, where he was appointed chief of the Legion of the National Guard for the district. A Freemason, he rose to Vénérable in the Lodge Les Disciples d’Heredom et de la Madeleine Réunis, of Montargis. Latouche was rehabilitated under the Directoire and had his rank reinstated in December 1795, but nonetheless was left for five years without a command in the Navy. From 1797 to 1798, he managed equipment for the Navy with a ship-owner friend, and by 1799 he had grown so desperate that he advertised in Le Moniteur Universel for privateer captainships. It was not until 1799 that he returned to active duty.
In 1799, Latouche was appointed to lead a naval division in Brest, with his mark on the 74-gun Mont-Blanc. Soon after, he was appointed to command the full Brest fleet, and transferred his flag onto the 110-gun Terrible. Latouche-Tréville defended the harbour until the government decided to disband the naval Army of Brest; Latouche-Tréville then sailed four of its ships to Rochefort.
Soon after, advised by Navy minister Forfait, First Consul Bonaparte chose Latouche-Tréville to organise and lead the Flottille de Boulogne. This vast fleet of small ships was ostensibly designed to ferry an invasion army to England, but was in fact a disinformation ploy to pressure the British into negotiating the Treaty of Amiens. The ploy helped to disguise the true goal of the French military, which was massing armies in Boulogne for an invasion of Austria. Soon after his arrival, on 4 August and 15 August 1801, Latouche-Tréville repelled the several British raids that Admiral Nelson launched to destroy the Flottille.
During the Peace of Amiens, Latouche-Tréville was appointed to command the naval squadron of Rochefort, comprising six ships of the line, six frigates and two corvettes, in the fleet of Admiral Villaret de Joyeuse, ferrying 3,000 men of the Army of Rhine for the Saint-Domingue expedition. Latouche fought his way into the harbour of Port-au-Prince, captured its forts and landed the troops. He and General Boudet captured Port-au-Prince and Léogane. Latouche-Tréville managed to obtain the peaceful surrender of General Laplume, while, in the south, General Leclerc forced Toussaint L'Ouverture and Christophe to submit to French authority.
With Villaret de Joyeuse's departure in April 1802, Latouche-Tréville stayed in Saint-Domingue with four ships of the line, nine frigates and five corvettes. After the restoration of slavery on 20 May 1802, a new rebellion broke out, which overwhelmed the yellow-fever-stricken army of General Leclerc. Latouche-Tréville defended the harbours in the south, appointing Willaumez to the western naval station of Saint-Domingue. The situation grew even more desperate after the British started the War of the Third Coalition in May 1803: Willaumez had to return to France to repair his frigate, damaged in the Action of 28 June 1803, and the British effected a Blockade of Saint-Domingue that ended with the complete destruction of Rochambeau's army. In October 1803, Latouche-Tréville obtained free passage from the British due to his poor health, and returned to France.
Latouche-Tréville was made a vice-Admiral in December 1803. Returned to France, he was appointed general inspector of the coasts of the Mediterranean, before taking command of the fleet of Toulon, with his mark on the brand-new 80-gun Bucentaure. At the time, the squadron counted only seven ships of the line and four frigates, and discipline was much weakened; in particular, Navy officers slept aboard their ships only when forced to do so by their duty. Latouche-Tréville made a point to live on his ship, and morale quickly improved under his example and leadership.
Latouche-Tréville decided to have one ship or frigate patrol for three days outside the harbour, in rotation, while another would always be ready to put to sail at the first signal. Furthermore, the entire squadron regularly scrambled to support the cruisers whenever superior British forces ventured into Toulon harbour, preventing the British from conducting useful reconnaissance of French activities in the area. Over the time, the squadron received three more ships of the line and three more frigates as reinforcements.
In late June 1804, Latouche-Tréville suffered a relapse of a medical condition contracted at Saint-Domingue.[Note 8] However, he constantly refused to transfer ashore, stating "An admiral is only too glad when he can die under the flag of his ship."[Note 9] Indeed, after a 10-day struggle, on 19 August, Latouche-Tréville died aboard Bucentaure. Lord Nelson later wrote:
|“||The French papers say he died of walking so often up to the signal-post to watch us: I always pronounced that would be his death.||”|
Latouche-Tréville was buried in Toulon graveyard. In 1810, a seven-metre-high pyramidal mausoleum was built at the Sémaphore de la Croix des Signaux, at Cape Cépet, from where Latouche-Tréville had observed the British in his last year. On 14 October 1902, military authorities decided to move the mausoleum[Note 10] to the military graveyard of Saint-Mandrier-sur-Mer; the body was transferred on 29 April 1903.
French authors and historians often compared Latouche-Tréville to Nelson, partly because he fought and defeated him in the Raids on Boulogne, partly because, had it not been for his untimely death, he would have opposed Nelson at Trafalgar.
Three ships of the French Navy have been named Latouche-Tréville in his honour: the steam aviso Latouche-Tréville in 1860; the armoured cruiser Latouche-Tréville in 1892; and the F70-type destroyer Latouche-Tréville, presently in commission.