Though the Battle of Jersey took place during the American War for Independence, the site of the battle was the island of Jersey, the largest of the British controlled islands in the English Channel. Jersey was the base for many of the English privateers operating in the channel, and sitting only fourteen miles off the French coast, it was the perfect location from which English privateers could harass French shipping vessels.
England realized the strategic importance that Jersey held and they therefore built a series of fortresses and redoubts along the island’s coastline. France, however, decided that the potential gain of seizing the island outweighed the strength of the island’s defenses. Not everyone in France agreed that the attempt was a worthwhile endeavor, including the French military. The organization of the attack was trusted to one Baron Philippe de Rullecourt, a colonel in the French army. Though France considered the attack to be a private affair, de Rullecourt was fully funded by King Louis XVI, and by 5 January 1781 he had assembled a force of approximately 2,000 soldiers.
De Rullecourt’s force set sail for the island, hoping to take advantage of the British ‘Old Christmas Night’ celebrations. Luckily for the French, their plan worked, and the first division of soldiers landed at La Rocque, able to easily sneak past the town’s drowsy guards. The next morning of 6 January they were joined by another division of 200 men, bringing their total to only 1,000 strong. Two other divisions had been lost on the rocks before they could land, a cruel stroke of fate that cut their potential strength in half. With his 1,000 soldiers behind him, de Rullecourt advanced on the island’s capital of St. Helier.
Having easily established a defensive position in the town market, de Rullecourt sent a patrol to visit the island’s governor. The patrol surprised the governor while he was still in bed, and de Rullecourt convinced the confused governor that thousands of French troops had overtaken the island. Lacking any true information, the governor signed a capitulation. With the island’s governor a French prisoner command of the British troops fell to 24-year-old Major Francis Peirson, who quickly assembled 2,000 of the island’s 9,000 soldiers. Having learned that the French force barley reached 1,000 men, and that they had not gained control of the Howitzer guns, Peirson resolved to march on the town square and confront the invaders.
As the British under Peirson reached the town square, it became apparent that their 2,000-man force was actually a bit too large. The restrictive lanes made it so that a portion of his men could not join in the attack. Peirson could not turn back now: he had already dispatched the 78th Regiment of Foot to block of any French retreat and they had taken their place. Peirson did the best he could to send the surplus Regiments down side alleyways in order to approach the French from the side.
Within fifteen minutes of the battle’s first shot, the British force proved too strong. The Brits made good use of their Howitzer, with one British soldier commenting that each shot “cleaned all the surroundings of French.” Sadly for the British, as they were about to complete their victory, Major Peirson was killed by a musket ball to the heart. His death in battle was the subject of a painting by John Singleton Copley, entitled The Death of Major Peirson. The painting was drew huge crowds when it was first displayed in 1784, and it served to make Major Peirson a national hero.
In the end, the British took 500 French soldiers prisoner and the battle had taken the lives of about 86 Frenchman. The British sustained far lighter losses, with only 16 killed. De Rullecourt, the leader of the French forces sustained a wound during the battle and died the next day. It was de Rullecourt who had said after the British refusal to surrender, “Since they do not want to surrender, I have come to die.” The ill-fated French attempt to overtake the island was quashed at the Battle of Jersey on 6 January 1781.