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'Forgotten' hero is remembered

July 04, 2010|By ALLAN POWELL

Frequently, we hear a sports commentator refer to an athlete as the most underrated member of a team or a "forgotten" person soon after retirement. Veterans and historians often refer to a war as a "forgotten" war.

The following story is about a truly significant hero who easily could be classified as "forgotten" or certainly little known. He is truly an "unsung hero."

My first memory of Francois-Joseph Paul Comte de Grasse, an admiral in the French Navy, came while in college. Our textbooks usually had a very brief statement that the admiral dropped anchor in the Chesapeake Bay in 1781 at Yorktown and made it possible for Washington and his forces to defeat Lord Cornwallis. Very little more is written about de Grasse and, unless one gives special effort, this great man all but disappears from public notice.

While visiting St. Lucia several years ago, Joanie and I, quite by chance, had a surprise reintroduction to de Grasse. A young historical interpreter took us by boat to Pigeon Island. This small, but very high, rock outcropping provides a grand view of the island of Martinique on a clear day.

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Our enthusiastic guide prodded us to climb to the summit and hear the story of a naval engagement led by a newly assigned admiral of the French Navy's West Indies fleet.

De Grasse arrived at Martinique in late April 1781. The next day (April 29), de Grasse had an engagement with a large British fleet under the command of Admiral Hood that was damaging enough to force Hood to withdraw. This is a tribute to de Grasse in view of the fact that Hood had the advantage of being shielded behind Pigeon Island until the most opportune time to strike.

Barely more than a month later, de Grasse got a message carried by a French frigate requesting him to move his fleet northward to the Chesapeake to assist Washington and Rochambeau in the siege of Yorktown. His prompt response made it possible for another small fleet to arrive at Yorktown with much needed money, men and supplies from France. This French assist also might go unmentioned in many textbooks.

Also missing is the account of the most daring seamanship in a strategic battle. De Grasse - for five days - successfully outmaneuvered a large British fleet and inflicted enough damage to force a withdrawal back to New York. He then was free to drop anchor at Yorktown and prevent any escape by Lord Cornwallis. On Oct. 19, 1781, the British surrendered, assuring independence to the United States.

De Grasse then returned to the West Indies. In a major battle on April 12, 1782, known as the Battle of the Saints, this great friend of our new nation was severely battered by a British fleet commanded by Admiral Rodney. He was taken prisoner and carried to England. He then was released and made his way back to France, where he retired from naval service after a humiliating trial on charges of incompetence.

This chance encounter with a native of St. Lucia, along with the discovery of an essay "Comte de Grasse The Forgotten Man," inspired an interest in finding out what happened after Yorktown to this great naval officer who was so helpful to this fledgling republic.

Included in this DAR story is a tribute to de Grasse from George Washington that would make anyone proud - "Your timely intervention has given America independence and liberty." Such simple and direct praise from one with the stature of Washington must have raised the broken spirit of a man so discouraged.

Sadly, there are legions of "forgotten" heroes who will never get the recognition they deserve. They are the unsung heroes who help enrich our lives. What is more objectionable is that too many are deluged with praise beyond all sensibility and reason. A fairer world would provide a more equitable balance between these two extremes, but the prospects of such an adjustment appear dim.

Hopefully, this small attempt to recognize one "forgotten man" will help raise public awareness not to neglect those who served with honor.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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