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SAUNDERS, Sir CHARLES, naval officer and office-holder; b. c. 1715, son of James Saunders; m. 26 Sept. 1751 a Miss Buck, daughter of a London banker, James Buck; d. 7 Dec. 1775 in London, England.
Little is known about the antecedents and early life of Charles Saunders. In 1727 he entered the Royal Navy under the patronage of a relative and in 1739 was appointed first lieutenant of the Centurion, the flagship of Commodore George Anson in his circumnavigation of the world from 1740 to 1744. Saunders sailed a sloop around Cape Horn, captured Spanish shipping in the Pacific, and returned to England a post-captain. During the remainder of the War of the Austrian Succession he commanded several ships of the line with success; in 1746, in the Gloucester, he took part in the capture of a treasure ship bound for Spain and acquired about £40,000 of the booty. The following year, in the Yarmouth, he took two enemy warships when Admiral Edward Hawke defeated Admiral L’Étenduère off Cape Ortegal, Spain, on 19 October.
Placed on half pay in 1749 after the peace, Saunders began to combine a political career with his naval one, as did many aspiring officers. After sitting for the Admiralty borough of Plymouth in parliament from 1750 to 1754, he became a member of parliament for Hedon, Yorkshire, in 1754 and represented it until his death. The pocket borough was in the gift of Anson, now first lord of the Admiralty. When Anson died in 1761 Saunders became the borough patron and acquired considerable property in the vicinity. In 1752 he had returned to active service at sea, spending from July to October in Newfoundland as commodore of the squadron for the protection of the fisheries. In April 1754 he was appointed treasurer of Greenwich Hospital, a lucrative sinecure, and in December 1755 he became comptroller of the navy; Anson’s influence was responsible for both appointments.
With the outbreak of the Seven Years’ War Saunders was promoted rear-admiral of the blue in January 1756 and was hastily dispatched to Gibraltar as second in command of the Mediterranean fleet under Hawke. When Hawke returned to England early the next year Saunders assumed the command. He was unable, however, to prevent a French force under Joseph-François de Noble Du Revest from eluding his blockade and aiding Admiral Dubois de La Motte [Emmanuel-Auguste de Cahideuc*] to concentrate a large fleet in the harbour of Louisbourg, Île Royale (Cape Breton Island). In May 1757 Saunders was succeeded by Admiral Henry Osborn and the following year was transferred to the Channel fleet off Brest, with which he served until October.
William Pitt’s advent to power in 1757 brought more emphasis to the maritime and colonial aspects of the war with France. In North America this policy produced the capture of Louisbourg in 1758 [see Jeffery Amherst]. The victory opened the way for an attack upon the city of Quebec via the St Lawrence River, to be coordinated with advances up the line of lakes George (Saint-Sacrement) and Champlain. Saunders had never commanded a fleet in a major action before, but on 9 Jan. 1759, recommended by Anson, he was appointed commander of the fleet bound for the St Lawrence. One month later he was promoted vice-admiral of the blue. His second in command was to be Rear-Admiral Philip Durell*, then in charge of the squadron wintering at Halifax, Nova Scotia, and his third in command was to be Rear-Admiral Charles Holmes*. Major-General James Wolfe*, the military commander, joined Saunders aboard his flagship Neptune on 13 February. Both men had been warned by Pitt that success depended on an “entire Good Understanding between our Land and Sea Officers.” Saunders was ordered to “cover” the army against French naval intervention and keep control of the line of communication. He was left, however, to decide to what extent his fleet would directly aid Wolfe’s forces.
Saunders sailed from Spithead on 17 February. His fleet was stopped by ice from making Louisbourg, the original rendezvous with the transports from America, and it sailed to Halifax, arriving there on 30 April. To the dismayed anger of Wolfe, and no doubt to Saunders’ considerable surprise, Durell’s squadron was still in the harbour. Although the rear-admiral had been ordered to proceed to the St Lawrence as early in the year as possible in order to cut off any French reinforcements, a severe winter had delayed his departure and he did not leave until 5 May. Saunders himself proceeded to Louisbourg ten days later and spent most of three weeks marshalling and organizing the heterogeneous armada as vessels arrived there. The main fleet finally left on 4 June, almost a month later than planned. The battle fleet was composed of 49 warships, including 22 ships of the line carrying 50 guns or more, and was manned by 13, 500 seamen. About half the total fleet had been sent ahead under Durell, and Saunders now followed with 22 warships, guarding the main body of 119 transports, many of which carried flat-bottomed boats to be used in amphibious operations. He faced the task of conducting this large and unwieldy mass of ships through the difficult tides and currents of the gulf and river St Lawrence. For control purposes he divided the shipping into three divisions, each directed by a frigate and attended by sounding and buoy boats. The various types of vessels – transports, victuallers, sounding ships, anchoring and ordnance vessels, hospital ships, and tenders-were all distinguished by flags of different colours to facilitate signalling. Saunders had some fairly good charts of the river and also carried both French and English pilots, including the veteran Canadian pilot Augustin Raby and an able English pilot, John Veysey.
By 18 June Saunders was off Bic, 170 miles below Quebec. Durell had already reached he aux Coudres, 50 miles below Quebec, and had learned that he had been preceded by French reinforcements which carried knowledge of the British campaign plan. The difficulties of the river navigation, including the dreaded twisting Traverse below the he d’Orléans, were soon solved by ships’ masters such as James Cook, and from 14 June merchantmen and warships of Durell’s squadron were running continuously through the passage.
In March, while still at sea, Saunders had written to Amherst, the commanding army officer in North America, that he hoped Wolfe would be supplied with “pioneers” (labourers) by the transports, “for the situation of my squadron will render any dependence upon me, extremely precarious, as I shall be at a great distance below him in the river, and, perhaps, in constant expectation of seeing the enemy’s fleet.” Durell’s news of the French reinforcements convinced him, however, that the possibility of French naval intervention had disappeared, and he determined to support the army closely with virtually the entire fleet under his command. On 20 June he therefore signalled the transports to proceed up river and then brought the ships of his battle fleet after them. A week later the fleet had penetrated to the Quebec Basin.
Saunders covered Wolfe’s landing on the he d’Orléans on 27 June and, after fending off an attack by French fire-ships the following night, was able to settle his fleet into a safe anchorage in the south channel between Pointe-Lévy (Lauzon and Lévis) and Pointe d’Orléans. The fleet was really a vast supply train for the army and a prearranged system of signals allowed instant communication. The troops ashore signalled for reinforcements, provisions, supplies, and boats with flags by day or sky rockets and lanterns by night. Saunders’ few surviving letters to the army commanders are invariably cooperative, and his support was immediate and unstinting.
Early in the campaign Wolfe and Saunders agreed that ships and troops should be placed above Quebec to menace the French supply routes, although Saunders advised waiting until batteries were established at Pointe-Lévy to suppress the fire of the town’s guns. The batteries began their bombardment on 12 July and on the night of 18–19 July a flotilla of transports and smaller warships led by the Sutherland (Capt. John Rous*) ran the gauntlet successfully. Wolfe’s attack near the Montmorency Falls on 31 July brought about perhaps the greatest strain between the two men. The general blamed the failure partially on the lack of adequate covering fire from the navy. Saunders objected and Wolfe agreed to delete the criticism from his report to Pitt, although he plainly told the admiral that he still believed the facts were as originally stated. In spite of the criticisms of the navy which punctuated his letters, however, Wolfe referred to Saunders as a “brave zealous officer,” and in his will left him his “light service of Plate.”
The breakthrough which ultimately led to final victory owed much to the navy. In late August Saunders was able to reinforce the ships above Quebec in order to attack the enemy ships in the upper river. At about the same time Wolfe’s brigadiers Robert Monckton, James Murray, and George Townshend*, after lengthy consultations with Saunders, proposed that military operations be shifted above the city. Saunders’ opinions doubtless had an effect on the brigadiers’ plan and British naval strength above Quebec now made the plan feasible.
Wolfe’s landing at the Anse au Foulon in the pre-dawn blackness of 13 September involved a difficult and demanding amphibious operation. Some 1, 800 troops had to be conducted in boats almost ten miles downstream from Cap Rouge in complete secrecy and landed at an exact spot, with due allowance made for currents and tides. The boats arrived at almost exactly the right place, and surprise was achieved. In Saunders’ modest words, it was “a very critical Operation, and very properly & successfully conducted.”
Immediately after the battle, the admiral devoted all his energy to consolidating the victory won by his dead colleague. Every night all available boats, loaded with cannon, ammunition, tents, timber, and provisions of every kind, streamed past the town to the army, now commanded by Townshend. In less than a week seamen manhandled over 100 cannon and mortars up the heights to the west of Quebec. On 17 September Saunders moved seven ships of the line to within cannonading distance of Lower Town to act in concert with a projected assault by the army. When the capitulation of the garrison followed the next morning, Saunders and Townshend signed jointly for Britain. The news of the fall of Quebec reached England on 16 October in the dispatches of Saunders and Townshend. Saunders was, as usual, succinct and modest. Holmes was duly credited for his conduct of the landing operation, and the army highly praised for its ascent of the cliff. Echoing the words of Pitt’s instructions, he assured the Admiralty that there had been “a perfect good understanding between the Army & Navy.”
Although Saunders was anxious to attack the enemy ships still up river, he was forced to concentrate on landing stores and provisions at Quebec before winter trapped him in the St Lawrence. He also dispatched a sloop to New York for money and collected over £3,000 from his own officers as a loan to the army, which found itself embarrassingly short of cash. On 18 October Saunders dropped down the St Lawrence in the Somerset, accompanied by three other ships of the line and some smaller vessels. He left two sloops and three armed schooners with the garrison and sent a powerful squadron under Lord Colvill* to Halifax, with orders to proceed to Quebec as early as possible in the spring. Saunders had a great reception when he reached London on 26 December. Pitt had already ranked him with those who had beaten armadas and he was thanked by the House of Commons when he took his seat after the Christmas recess.
Saunders’ achievement at Quebec had been to organize and conduct a large expedition up a difficult river and maintain it there. The success reflected not only his professionalism, but also the advances that had been made in the navy in recent years, such as the development of reliable navigational devices, the improvements in marine surveying and charting, and the development of landing craft for amphibious operations. His contribution did not end with the capture of the fortress, for had he not supplied the garrison with cannon, ammunition, and provisions before he left, even to the extent of reducing ships’ stores, Quebec might well have been recaptured by the French under Lévis the following spring.
In addition, a permanent contribution to the safe navigation of the St Lawrence came out of the Quebec campaign. All soundings and bearings taken had been reported to the master of the flagship in order that existing charts might be improved. In April 1760 Saunders informed the Admiralty that he had readied the materials for a new, detailed chart of the St Lawrence and he received permission to publish. The first edition appeared on 1 May under his imprint.
Saunders returned to the Mediterranean command in April 1760, remaining there for the balance of the war. He successfully blockaded the French and Spanish fleets and in the course of this duty captured many ships, the most valuable of which was the Spanish treasure ship Hermione. More than £500,000 in prize money was distributed, Saunders receiving £65,000 to swell his ample fortune. In October 1762 he was promoted vice-admiral of the white.
At the end of the war Sir Charles (he was knighted in 1761) retired from active service and devoted more time to politics. To some extent he was drawn into the machinations that trapped other politician-admirals of the time. He was appointed first lord of the Admiralty in September 1766 but resigned a few months later over a conflict with Pitt, now Lord Chatham. Saunders never held political office again but he retained his seat in the Commons and often spoke on matters that concerned the navy. In June 1774 he attacked the Quebec Bill for removing control of the Labrador coast from the Newfoundland governor. He was sure that the reannexation of the region to Quebec would mean that the Labrador fishery would fall into the hands of Americans and Frenchmen, warning “God knows, how much you’ll find the want of seamen, whenever this country finds it necessary to equip its fleets!” Although the bill passed, Saunders’ arguments were respected and the Labrador fishery continued to be supervised by the Newfoundland governor.
Sir Charles died at his London town house in December 1775 “of an access of gout in the stomach”; at the time of his death he was an admiral of the blue, having been promoted in 1770. He was eulogized in the Commons by Edmund Burke and was buried privately in Westminster Abbey. His wife apparently predeceased him and they had no children. In his will, Saunders left large bequests to Vice-Admiral Augustus Keppel, a personal friend, and to Rear-Admiral Sir Hugh Palliser, one of his captains at Quebec, as well as a handsome annuity and his household effects to Ann Clevett (Cleverley), “a young lady that lived with him.” He settled the bulk of his estate on a favourite niece, Jane Kinsey, on condition that she and her husband assume the Saunders name and coat of arms. To her also went the pictures which had hung in the dining room of the town house, a portrait of Anson and two paintings of the attacks by the fire-ships and fire-stages on the fleet before Quebec.
It is difficult to penetrate the character of a reserved man like Saunders, who left no diary and whose dispatches are terse and impersonal. He was a professional sea officer in the mould of Anson, zealous to protect the interests of the navy and to advance those of his country. Married to a demanding profession, he had little home life and few close personal friends outside the navy. Although he never commanded in a victory at sea, he played a major role in Canada at a decisive moment in her history. Saunders spent only a single summer in Canada, besides the one in Newfoundland, but it was the high point of his career.
There are portraits of Saunders by Sir Joshua Reynolds and Richard Brompton; the latter hangs in the Painted Hall at Greenwich Naval College, London.
PAC, MG 18, M, ser.1, 21. PANL, GN2/1, 1, f.353. PRO, Adm. 1/482, 1/2467, 2/524, 2/526, 2/1331; C 108, bundle 23; Prob. 11/1014; WO 34/42. Annual Register (London), 1775, 27. Correspondence of William Pitt (Kimball), II, 168. G.B., Parl., Debates of the House of Commons in the year 1774, on the bill for making more effectual provision for the government of the province of Quebec, drawn up from the notes of Sir Henry Cavendish . . . (London, 1839; repr. [East Ardsley, Eng. and New York], 1966), 197–98. Knox, Hist. journal (Doughty). The logs of the conquest of Canada, ed. William Wood (Toronto, 1909), 84, 86–87, 97–99, 263–64, 303–4. Horace Walpole, Memoirs of the reign of King George the Second, ed.[H. R. V. Fox, 3rd Baron] Holland (2nd ed., 3v., London, 1847), II, 230; Memoirs of the reign of King George the Third, ed. Denis Le Marchant ([new ed.], ed. G. F. R. Barker, 4v., London and New York, 1894), III, 255–56, 282. Robert Beatson, Naval and military memoirs of Great Britain from 1727 to 1783 (2nd ed., 6v., London, 1804), II, 345. Charnock, Biographia navalis, V, 116–27. DNB. Namier and Brooke, House of Commons, I, 434; III, 405. W. L. Clowes, The Royal Navy; a history from the earliest times to the present (7v., London, 1897–1903), III, 206. J. S. Corbett, England in the Seven Years’ War: a study in combined strategy (2v., London, 1907), I, 401, 415, 471; II 321. A. [G.] Doughty and G. W. Parmelee, The siege of Quebec and the battle of the Plains of Abraham (6v., Quebec, 1901), II, 1515–54; V, 241; VI, 99–107, 137. Christopher Lloyd, The capture of Quebec (London, 1959). Robin Reilly, The rest to fortune: the life of Major-General James Wolfe (London, 1960). Stacey, Quebec, 1759, 103.
© 1979–2023 University of Toronto/Université Laval
Cite This Article
William H. Whiteley, “SAUNDERS, Sir CHARLES,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 23, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/saunders_charles_4E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||William H. Whiteley|
|Title of Article:||SAUNDERS, Sir CHARLES|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 4|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1979|
|Year of revision:||1979|
|Access Date:||March 23, 2023|