Jean Guillaume Toussaint, comte de La Motte-Picquet
Born Nov. 1, 1720 in Rennes (Ille-et-Vilaine) as Jean Guillaume Toussaint Picquet, Seigneur de Melesse et de La Motte to Jean Seigneur de la Motte Picquet and Marie Joseph Le Clavier, a family of minor nobility and few riches.
After he entered the Gardes de Marines (naval cadets) in Brest, at age 15 he left on le Venus a 26-gun frigate, and sailed to Morocco in battle against the Barbary corsairs. Later he went on an expedition in the Mediterranean.
He embarked as a gunners-mate on campaigns to Morocco, the Baltics, and the Antilles.
He was appointed a sub-brigadier of the naval guards.
He was appointed an aide d’artillerie.
He sailed with le Mercure of 60 guns on two cruises of the Channel and one to the Irish coast.
Promoted to ensigne de vaisseau (lieutenant), he was second in command under Captain Kersaint on board la Renommée sailing to Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island. During the capture of the mastship Prince d’Orange of 44 guns en flute with 28 guns, he received his first battle wound. Information obtained after the capture that Louisbourg had fallen and that the relief warship le Vigilant of 64 guns had surrendered, ended their mission.
As la Renommée made its way back to France after the ill-fated d’Anville expedition, it joined Admiral Anson’s enemy squadron in a fog bank near the coast of France. A day long battle ensued as the frigate approached the French coast fighting off two frigates and a 70-gun warship. When Captain Kersaint was wounded and unable to command, la Motte-Picquet took over and refused to surrender even after losing his cheek to cannon fire. Their frigate was nearly destroyed but he succeeded in getting them to port.
He sailed then as second in command on the Cumberland of 36 guns bound for Îsle-de-France (Mauritius) in the Indian Ocean. They encountered an enemy frigate of 36 guns and fought at close range until the British ship caught fire and withdrew.
He left Îsle-de-France for India.
La Motte-Piquet returned from India and sailed to the Caribbean after the war ended.
Throughout the year la Motte-Picquet participated in numerous cruises in the Indian Ocean and he was promoted to lieutenant de vaisseau (ship commander).
At the beginning of the Seven Years War, he commanded the corvette la Sensible which engaged an hour long fight against an enemy frigate of thirty-six guns that he forced to surrender.
For his courage, he was made a chevallier in the Ordre de Saint-Louis.
He was second in command on le Diadème of 74 guns, part of the Dubois de La Motte squadron off the coast of Quebec against the British.
He fought British ships on the French coast at Fort Portzic near Brest for which he was forced to defend his actions with the secretary of the navy.
He commanded the ship la Charente of twenty-six guns and was assigned to convoy duty from Brest to Rochefort and to defend the coastline.
Back aboard le Diadème, la Motte-Piquet was promoted to capitaine de vaisseau (captain).
La Motte-Picquet took command of the frigate, la Malicieuse of 32 guns on a six month campaign in Canada. He then was part of the squadrons of Comte d’ Orvilliers and Duchaffaut. Later he took part in expeditions against the Barbary corsairs of Salé in Morocco.
After having serving on no less than 16 different warships, he was summoned to Paris, where he counseled the Secretary of State in preparing the 1776 orders that reorganize the administration of the Navy. King Louis XVI granted him a pension of 800 livres per year.
He captained le Soitaire of 64 guns, having on board the Duke de Chartres in the fleet of comte Duchaffaut.
La Motte-Picquet took command of le Robust of 74 guns and transported the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II, becoming personal friends with him.
Crossing Quiberon Bay, his ship le Robuste, returned a gun salute to John Paul Jones‘ ship Ranger as a flagship. This was the first recognition of the United States of America as an independent nation.
He was promoted to chef d’escadre (rear admiral).
He successfully led a convoy to America without being attacked through heavily enemy-patrolled seas.
In command of le Saint-Esprit of 80 guns, he participated in the rear guard of the inconclusive Battle of Ushant. Later he crossed the English Channel with two ships-of-the-line and a few frigates and took 13 prizes.
He sailed on l’Annibal again in a squadron protecting an 80 ship convoy to Martinique.
He joined up with d’Estaing’s Squadron at Martinique.
He took part in the Battle of Grenada and was wounded and his ship badly damaged.
He took part in the Siege of Savannah, Georgia in the cause of the War of American Independence. Then he returned to Martinique to repair his ship.
A convoy of French ships sailing to Marinique were chased by a British squadron of 13 ships-of-the-line and a frigate under Admiral Hyde-Parker. Sailing out alone from Fort Royal, Martinique, La Motte-Picquet on l’Annibal attacked the forward van of the enemy ships. Soon two more French warships joined him in a battle that lasted over four hours against three times as many enemy ships. At one point in the fight, seven British warships were attacking l’Annibal at once. When night came the British withdrew and la Motte-Piquet gathered the remaining convoy and returned to Fort Royal. In the end the British seized 9 of the 26 merchant ships while 4 others ran aground and were burnt. However La Motte-Picquet’s maneuvers and boldness drew praise by the enemy:
“The conduct of your Excellency in the affair of the 18th of this month fully justifies the reputation which you enjoy among us, and I assure you that I could not witness without envy the skill you showed on that occasion. Our enmity is transient, depending upon our masters; but your merit has stamped upon my heart the greatest admiration for yourself.” —Admiral Hyde-Parker
La Motte-Piquet became a commander in the Ordre de Saint-Louis.
He sailed with a squadron convoying 80 merchant ships from Martinique to Saint-Domingue.
A British squadron under Commodore Cornwallis attacked la Motte-Piquet’s convoy and the battle lasted all night and he was wounded in his chest as his squadron head for Saint-Domingue. The next day the ships were becalmed until evening winds allowed him to reach port.
La Motte-Picquet returned to Brest and purchased a beautiful mansion there.
He departed Brest in command of l’Invincible of 110 guns together with six warships and two frigates sailing for England.
La Motte-Picquet intercepted a convoy carrying loot from the Dutch island of Saint-Eustache taken by British Admiral Rodney. La Motte-Picque captured 26 of the British cargo vessels worth over 8 million pounds. The King granted him an additional 3,000 livres per year pension.
Until the end of the war he commanded a squadron of twelve warships along the coast of England and also at the Siege of Gibraltar.
He was promoted to Lieutenant General of the French Royal Navy and remained the captain of l’Invincible.
He commanded the fifteen French ships of the Franco-Spanish combined fleet and had action in the Battle of Cape Spartel near Morocco. His fleet attacked Admiral Howe’s British fleet and the battle lasted all night. The British fleet retreated in the morning.
He retired to his mansion.
La Motte-Piquet was named a Grand Croix de Saint-Louis, Knight Commander.
He received 4,000 livres as a pension award for his actions at Fort Royal from the Ordre de Saint-Louis.
President George Washington presented him with the Medal of the Company of Cincinnati for his actions against the British during the American War of Independence.
He died in Brest after 52 years of service, 34 campaigns, 10 battles, and 6 wounds.
As a final tribute, la Motte-Piquet was promoted posthumously to Rear Admiral. He was eulogized with the following:
“Sailor from his first dawn,
Warrior dear to his rivals,
France knows what you are worth,
and England better.”