Arbuthnot, Marriot

views updated

Arbuthnot, Marriot

ARBUTHNOT, MARRIOT. (1711–1794). British admiral. Arbuthnot, son of John Arbuthnot, was born in Weymouth. He entered the navy around 1727, passed for lieutenant in August 1739, and reached post rank in 1747. After service in the Seven Years' War, he became resident commissioner of the Halifax careening yards in 1775 and lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia on 20 April 1776. On 23 January 1778 he was promoted rear admiral and recalled to Britain, where he was made commander in chief of the North American squadron. On 25 August he reached New York.

His squadron had been much reduced following French entry into the war, and the choices Arbuthnot had to make were even more difficult than those confronted by Howe. In 1779, aware of the approach of comte d'Estaing from the West Indies but unsure of his target, he rightly stayed in the north to cover New York, Newport, and Halifax. In fact Estaing attacked Georgia, taking four British ships and supporting the unsuccessful American attempt on Savannah. Early in 1780 Arbuthnot successfully cooperated with Henry Clinton in the Charleston expedition. Afterward he concentrated his forces at Gardiners Bay at the northern tip of Long Island to bottle up Rochambeau's squadron in Newport, seized by the French in July. There was little else a purely naval force could do, and he rejected Clinton's vague plan for a combined offensive. At about this time his relations with Clinton deteriorated to the point where they could hardly work together. In September, George Rodney—probably wisely—took it upon himself to come to Arbuthnot's support against an expected French onslaught from the West Indies. He then took the extraordinary step of insisting, as the senior admiral, on assuming command on Arbuthnot's station. He proceeded to interfere with Arbuthnot's patronage and dispositions, giving rise to the latter's complaint that Rodney's real interest was in prize money. Rodney was reprimanded by the earl of Sandwich, but the quarrel has too often been attributed to Arbuthnot's selfish pride. Worse still, when Rodney left in November he took with him all of Arbuthnot's frigates and most of his naval stores. Arbuthnot thus had caution thrust on him when he caught the escaped Newport squadron off Chesapeake Bay on 16 March. The action was disappointing; but by afterward entering the bay Arbuthnot effectively protected Benedict Arnold's force in Virginia. Plagued by ill health and fading eyesight, Arbuthnot resigned and sailed for Britain on 4 July. Retired on half-pay, he rose to rear admiral of the Blue by seniority before his death in London on 31 January 1794.

Arbuthnot may have been, as some contemporaries alleged, over-cautious, rude, quarrelsome, and too old for his job. On the other hand, he was zealous, strategically sensible, capable of energetic action, and generous to his captains. He had too few ships, and Clinton and Rodney were difficult colleagues. Although he was probably not the best choice for the North American command, his abysmal reputation is largely undeserved.

SEE ALSO Charleston Expedition of Clinton in 1780; Chesapeake Bay; Estaing, Charles Hector Théodat, comte d'; Rochambeau, Jean Baptiste Donatien de Vimeur, comte de; Rodney, George Bridges; Sandwich, John Montagu, fourth earl of.


Breen, K. "Divided Command: The West Indies and North America, 1780–1781." In The British Navy and the Use of Naval Power in the Eighteenth Century. Edited by J. Black and P. Woodfine. Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1988.

Gardiner, Robert, ed. Navies and the American Revolution 1775–1783. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1997.

Syrett, D. The Royal Navy in American Waters, 1775–1783. Aldershot, U.K.: Scholar Press, 1989.

                              revised by John Oliphant