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My Wife's Ancestor Was a Powder Monkey in French Admiral De Grasse's Fleet That Helped Win the American Revolution

John is a mid-Atlantic writer and avid student of history. His current passions are frontier and Civil War history, and genealogy.

French Powder Monkey in Painting by Louis-Philippe Crépin, a Noted French Marine Painter

French Powder Monkey in Painting by Louis-Philippe Crépin, a Noted French Marine Painter

A small seaside village in northern France is named after a saint named Josse who renounced a throne, became a monk, and established a monastery. This village, Saint-Josse-on-Sea, even today celebrates its namesake with an annual pilgrimage carrying relics of Saint Josse to a hillside church for remembrance.

It was in this village in 1767 that my wife's 3d great-grandfather, Jeremiah Montgillion, was born. Jeremiah's mother died when he was a young boy. His father remarried. His father and stepmother were reasonably happy together, but conflicts developed between Jeremiah and his stepmother.

As a young boy living near the sea Jeremiah, as boys often do, probably dreamed of adventures at sea. He may have heard sea stories told by sailors and veterans of the French navy, French privateers, and repeated by his friends. Driven by conflicts with his stepmother and the urge to become a sailor, he left home at age 13 or 14, managed to travel 368 miles to the French Naval Base at Brest, and join the massive French fleet assembled there by Admiral de Grasse. He became a "powder monkey" in a French warship.

Jeremiah Montgillion's Place of Birth and French Naval Base at Brest

Jeremiah Montgillion's Place of Birth and French Naval Base at Brest

What is a "Powder Monkey"?

"A powder boy or powder monkey manned naval artillery guns as a member of a warship's crew . . . His chief role was to ferry gunpowder from the powder magazine in the ship's hold to the artillery pieces, either in bulk or as cartridges, to minimize the risk of fires and explosions. The function was usually fulfilled by boy seamen of 12 to 14 years of age." -- wikipedia.com

Jeremiah Joins The Largest French Fleet Ever Assembled at the Naval Base in Brest, France

The port city of Brest in Brittany has long been considered the naval capital of France. It is located in a sheltered bay on a peninsula pointing out to sea near the western tip of France. The French Naval Academy (Académie de Marine) was established in Brest in 1752. Today Brest is the center of French ocean research, the location of the French Naval Museum, and has become a major university city.

Imagine the wonder in the mind of young Jeremiah as he surveyed the huge warships at Brest. It was there in Brest he became a powder monkey in one of the warships in the fleet of Admiral De Grasse. A French sailing ship of the line with 70 to 100 cannons required a large crew, including lots of young boys to serve as powder monkeys. When not in battle the boys performed other duties. They held the lowest rank of any other members of the crew.

In 1781, in Brest, Admiral de Grasse took command of the largest French fleet ever assembled -- 28 men-at-war and 200 merchantmen. He had orders to escort the merchantmen to the West Indies and protect the French colonies there from the British. These colonies were a "cash cow" for France with large sugar plantations dependent on slave labor. The port city at Cap‑Français was known as the "Paris of the West Indies."

De Grasse's orders also included helping the Americans in their Revolution against Britain, by moving his fleet up the east coast to provide troops and naval power as needed.

De Grasse and his massive fleet set sail from Brest on March 22, 1781. De Grasse's flagship was the majestic Ville de Paris, a huge 3-deck, 104-cannon warship with a crew complement of over 1300.

"Warships during the age of sail carried a surprisingly large number of children. It was perfectly normal for the five to six hundred complement of a ship of the line to include fifty or more ship’s boys. They appear in the muster books as either officer’s servants or as ordinary seamen." -- Philip K. Allan

Important Sites in the Sea War between Britain and De Grasse's French Fleet with Jeremiah Montgillion

Important Sites in the Sea War between Britain and De Grasse's French Fleet with Jeremiah Montgillion

Jeremiah Sails to the French West Indies as a Powder Monkey in De Grasse's Fleet

The map above shows the location of Yorktown, Virginia, and major sites in the West Indies where Jeremiah and De Grasse's fleet were engaged in 1781 and 1782.

1. Martinique and Fort Royal

It took just 36 days for Degrasse's fleet to sail from Brest, France to Martinique. His arrival surprised a British fleet of 22 warships that had been blockading Fort Royal. In the naval battle that ensued, the British losses were 39 killed and 162 wounded; the French lost 18 killed and 56 wounded. De Grasse successfully escorted his convoy to their destination; broke the British blockade, and young Jeremiah quickly learned the horrors of naval warfare.

2. Jamaica and Port Royal

Port Royal was a major British naval station in Jamaica. British warships were stationed there. From captured French prisoners, they mistakenly thought De Grasse planned to attack Jamaica and New York and sent warning messages to both. British commander Rodney also sent reinforcements to Jamaica and to New York, stopping first by the Virginia capes to see if De Grasse was there. At this time De Grasse was still in the West Indies. Confusion among the British advantaged the French.

3. Cap‑Français, Saint-Dominigue (now Cap-Haitien, Haiti)

"The Paris of the West Indies" as Cap‑Français was known, was the main port city of the French colonial period and the colony's main commercial center. It served as the capital of the French colony of Saint-Domingue from the city's formal founding in 1711 until 1770 when the capital was moved to Port-au-Prince on the west coast of the island.

De Grasse gathered his forces here at Cap‑Français for the momentous journey to the Virginia Capes and Yorktown. After thoughtfully considering all the advice and requests from the French and American commanders, De Grasse decided to take most of his fleet up the American coastline to the Virginia capes along with additional French troops. He also sent low draft boats to bring more French troops down the Chesapeake Bay to Yorktown, and he brought funds desperately needed by the Americans.

On August 5, 1781, De Grasse and his great fleet departed Cap‑Français sailing between Cuba and the Bahamas, a more treacherous route but one that avoided detection by the British.

Jeremiah was soon to participate in the naval blockade and sea battle that saved the American Revolution.

Battle of the Virginia Capes

Battle of the Virginia Capes

4. Yorktown

De Grasse's fleet reached the mouth of the Chesapeake undetected on 30 August, capturing the British frigate Loyalist and preventing Cornwallis from escaping to the south from Yorktown.

The French blockade lasted for days until French and American troops gained the upper hand in Yorktown and Cornwallis ran out of food and supplies.

British Admiral Graves tried to provide relief but arrived too late. After a two-hour naval battle, Graves saw the futility of further engagement. The Battle of the Virginia Capes resulted in six British ships being damaged, 90 sailors killed and 246 wounded. De Grasse suffered 209 causalities and only 2 ships were damaged.

The defeat of Cornwallis at Yorktown would not have happened without the assistance of France and of Admiral De Grasse. And Jeremiah was now part of American history. America and the Chesapeake Bay must have made a big impression on this young man.

There were celebrations among De Grasse, Washington, Rochambeau, and Layfayette. There were toasts and joy at their good fortune. Jeremiah wasn't present at these high-level celebrations, but he must have felt the exuberance.

5. Les Saintes

On November 4 De Grasse set sail with his mighty fleet including Jeremiah back to the West Indies. His assignment was to protect French interests and the French merchantmen. Little did these Frenchmen know that they were headed for disaster.

The first ominous sign was a tempestuous storm in mid-November that disrupted and damaged the fleet. On 25 November the fleet anchored at Martinique; however, the expected convoy from France with badly needed supplies had not arrived. It was intercepted and captured by the British. Only two merchant ships escaped and eventually arrived with supplies. Another convoy of 60 ships arrived on 20 March with supplies and De Grasse refitted.

British warships arrived to challenge De Grasse near Martinique. The famous naval battle of Les Saintes took place 9-12 April 1782. French and British warships blasted each other doing horrific damage. After a series of tactics in which De Grasse's commands were not heeded by his captains, and a brilliant tactical move by the British fleet that separated the French line of ships, De Grasse's massive flagship Ville de Paris was surrounded and pounded until both vessel and crew were decimated.

De Grasse surviived and surrendered. Jeremiah survived and was captured. Jeremiah witnessed once again the horrors of naval warfare. The French casualties on ships not captured were:

  • men killed -- 13 officers and 489 men
  • men wounded -- 48 officers and 1563 wounded

On ships captured, the Ville de Paris alone lost:

  • 400 killed and 600 wounded

The total of all French killed, wounded or captured was 14,000 to 15,000 men.

De Grasse, Jeremiah and Other French Prisoners are Taken to England

On May 25, 1781, a convoy of British ships with captives including De Grasse and probably Jeremiah set sail for England, It arrived on August 2nd. Captive Degrasse was treated like royalty both on the voyage and in England. Jeremiah and other French captives were taken to a prison camp near London where Jeremiah was a prisoner for 7 years. During this time he learned to speak English.

Finally, at age 21 he was released and made his way back to France. He spent the next 27 years in French maritime commerce. His voyages took him around the world -- to Manila, the Philippines, and more. He sailed with a French privateer commissioned by France to intercept enemy merchant ships and retain part of the prize. His sailing skills led to his position as "captain of the main top" working the sails of the mainmast.

When Jeremiah's Seafaring Days were Over He Returned to America and Settled in Elkridge, Maryland

In 1816 Jeremiah returned to the Chesapeake Bay which he never forgot from his days with De Grasse.

In 1817 he bought an 11-acre parcel of land where he built a log house in Elkridge, Maryland, near Elkridge Landing, a port community on the Patapsco River, not far from Baltimore.

The 1860 map of Elkridge Landing shown below points to the location of Jeremiah's log cabin and Louis Montgillion's frame house. (Jeremiah died in 1851 passing both houses to his son, L. Montgillion.)

Detail of Elkridge Landing from Map of Howard County, 1860, by Simon J. Martenet, showing Montgillion Settlement

Detail of Elkridge Landing from Map of Howard County, 1860, by Simon J. Martenet, showing Montgillion Settlement

Jeremiah supported himself by transporting passengers and cargo in a flat bottom boat from Elkridge Landing to Baltimore and back. He was joined in this enterprise by a free Black man, a fellow sailor from his time in the West Indies. Harboring a Black man in his cabin was a dangerous thing to do during these times. It is said that he kept a rifle at his side to protect both him and his companion from harm due to prevalent prejudicial attitudes.

Jeremiah married soon after arriving in Elkridge to Ann Davis. They had two children, Louis Montgillion (b. 3 Mar 1821) and (Eliza Montgillion (b. 1823). Tragically Eliza died at age 5 when her clothing caught fire while she was warming herself at the fireplace. Louis built a frame house on the Montgillion property facing Washington Pike. He married Mary Ann Duval. They had five children. Today there are many American Montgillion descendants of Jeremiah.

The coming of the railroad to Elkridge finally ended Jeremiah's enterprise. He died on December 20, 1851. He was 84. Jeremiah, Ann, and Eliza are buried somewhere on the original Montgillion tract in Elkridge.

Sources and References

Jeremiah Montgillion is not actually "Jeremiah's" birth name. It's a name acquired by him while in a prison camp in England to sound more "English" as he learned to speak English. His birth name is an unknown French name.

De Grasse's full name is François Joseph Paul, Comte De Grasse, Marquis of Grasse-Tilly,

I am deeply indebted to two second-great-grandsons of Jeremiah Montgillion who helped my wife and me by discussing my wife's family history and providing us with results of their research and unpublished manuscripts. They transcribed the oral history passed down from Jeremiah as he told the stories of his seafaring life to his son and grandchildren.

Helpful references were Wikipedia, De Grasse to the Rescue at Yorktown by HistoryNet, and the Battle of the Capes by the National Park Service.

My ready reference for De Grasse was the following book available from Amazon:

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2021 John Dove

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