Friday, February 23, 2018

Patriot of the Virginia Navy

A quick note: my name is Mike Romero, and I'm a Historic Interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg.  The postings I make on this site are my own personal opinions and research, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Colonial Williamsburg.  With that said, enjoy the read!

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Sultana, a replica of an 18th century British schooner, of
similar size and design to the pilot schooners Liberty
and PatriotSultana currently operates out of Maryland
as an education and research vessel.
The first few months of the American Revolution proved rather troublesome for the patriots of Virginia, as the erstwhile Royal Governor, Lord Dunmore, gathered the small forces of the Royal Navy at hand to raid rebel plantations and towns.  In early December, members of the Virginia Convention voted to establish a naval force of their own.  As part of a larger ordnance increasing the colony's defenses was the following: "Be it ordained, That the Committee of Safety shall, and they are hereby empowered and required to provide, from time to time, such and so many Armed Vessels as they may judge necessary for the protection of the several Rivers in this Colony, in the best manner the circumstances of the country will admit."  One of the first men commissioned in the nascent Virginia Navy was Captain James Barron of Hampton, who was tasked with outfitting three vessels for the new service.

One of the three vessels was the converted pilot schooner Liberty, commanded through much of the war by James Barron, and noteworthy for being the only Virginia vessel to survive the entirety of the conflict.  Liberty was a square-sterned schooner of about 60 tons burthen, mounting ten two-pound swivel guns.  The pilot boat Patriot was also most likely outfitted by Barron; she is described as also being schooner rigged and mounted eight two-pound swivels, purportedly arranged so well that she was able to repeatedly capture larger and heavily armed vessels.  By March of 1776, Patriot is under the command of James's brother Richard Barron, who would be responsible for several captures early in the war.  In June, Patriot is cruising with Liberty near the Virginia Capes when the Barron brothers encounter the transport ship Oxford, recently seized by 217 Highlanders from a Continental Navy prize crew.  After giving the Highlanders false information on where to find Lord Dunmore, the crews of the two Virginia schooners storm the Oxford around midnight, and recapture the Highlanders for good.  The next month, Patriot captures a sloop bound for Providence loaded with pineapples and limes, along with two carriage guns and fourteen swivels to boot.  (Historian Robert Armistead Stewart suggests the sloops guns were all unmounted, otherwise the capture should have proven much more difficult.)

One of Patriot's harder fought engagements would take place in October of 1778 as the schooner sailed with a small squadron consisting of the Virginia vessels Tartar and Dragon.  The three ships, under the overall command of Captain Richard Taylor, were cruising in the vicinity of Cape Henry when they encountered the British privateer Lord Howe.  Lord Howe, carrying eight four-pound carriage guns and more than enough men to serve them, initially mistook the Virginians for a trio of small merchant vessels.  She came upon the Dragon first, whose crew housed their guns and hid from view to draw the enemy in closer.  Lord Howe soon discovered she was in the midst of three armed vessels, and immediately fired on Dragon to cover her escape.  Captain Taylor boards the Patriot, realizing she is the fastest of his three vessels, and personally leads the chase.  At the helm is Cesar Tarrant, an enslaved river pilot owned by one Carter Tarrant of Hampton.  Taylor himself would later remark on Cesar's gallantry and steadiness under fire.  As the engagement progresses, Tarrant runs Patriot on board of the British privateer, her jib boom smashing through and entangling in one of Lord Howe's gallery windows.  The Virginians immediately attempt to board, spurred on by Patriot's Captain Hamilton.  This attempt and several others fail to carry Lord Howe and with no support forthcoming from the squadron (Dragon inexplicably does not attempt to join the action, and contrary winds prevent Tartar from approaching though she attempts to open fire from long range), Taylor orders Patriot to sheer off and Lord Howe leaves the area.  The action resulted in one Virginian killed and eight wounded, one of whom by the name of William Jennings left a written account of the battle, which the blogger is most eager to track down.  Captain Taylor himself takes a musket ball which shatters his femur...difficulty in recovering from this wound will result in his resignation from the service.

Cesar Tarrant continues to serve on vessels of the Virginia Navy throughout the war, and following the death of Carter, his ownership passes to his master's widow.  However, on November 14, 1789, Cesar appears in an act of the Virginia General Assembly: "WHEREAS it is represented to this Assembly, that Mary Tarrant of the county of Elizabeth City, hath her life in a negro named Cesar, who entered very early into the service of his country, and continued to pilot the armed vessels of this state during the late war; in consideration of which meritorious services it is judged expedient to purchase the freedom of the said Cesar."  Following the granting of his freedom, Cesar purchases a lot in Hampton from which he continues to work as a river pilot, purportedly respected by the white pilots living nearby.  Four years later, Cesar is able to purchase the freedom of his wife Lucy and the youngest of their three children, Nancy.  Cesar dies in 1798, having been unable to free his other two children.  Not giving up on the family, Lucy is finally able to purchase freedom for their daughter Lydia in 1823, though the fate of their son Sampson remains unknown.

Commodore James Barron (the Younger),
later of the United States Navy, but as a
young man, he witnesses the final action
of the schooner Patriot.
Patriot's story would have its own bittersweet ending.  In the spring of 1781, the Commonwealth of Virginia was occupied by British forces under Benedict Arnold, who was eventually reinforced by Generals Phillips and Cornwallis.  At the time, Patriot was one of few vessels Virginia had afloat (Liberty had been submerged around this time for protection, and most of the rest of the Virginia Navy had been destroyed at Osbourne's Ferry), and was under the command of one James Watkins.  Young James Barron (son of Liberty's famed captain of the same name, and who later earned the dubious distinction of becoming "The Man Who Killed Decatur") witnessed Patriot's final action from the shore with his older brother Samuel and an enslaved river pilot known as "Captain Starlins."  In the vicinity of Warwick County around 11 o'clock one Sunday morning, Patriot came up with a British sloop of about 90 tons.  Unbeknownst to the Virginia crew, the British vessel had a sea anchor over her starboard side to intentionally slow her down.  When Patriot came alongside, fifty British Marines previously concealed by the sloop's gunwales appeared and commenced a withering small arms fire.  Patriot held out for nearly two hours, even attempted to board the enemy twice, until she received a direct broadside from the sloop and was compelled to strike her colors.  The Virginian crew (including a free African-American named Joseph Ranger) were sent to Charleston and imprisoned, where Captain Watkins would die in captivity.

Patriot herself would be incorporated into Cornwallis's fleet and eventually awarded to the French after the British surrender at Yorktown.  Towards the end of his article in the Virginia Historical Register, James Barron the Younger states that she ended up serving as a French government packet in the vicinity of Cape Francois.  With the end of the American Revolution in 1783, a second Virginia vessel named Patriot would serve alongside the refloated Liberty as a revenue cutter until both vessels were sold upon the ratification of the United States Constitution.  While no ship of the Virginia Navy would be nearly as impressive as a British ship-of-the-line, or even a proper frigate, smaller vessels such as the Liberty and Patriot nonetheless played an important and memorable role in the Commonwealth's fight for independence.

1. Cross, Charles Brinson.  A Navy for Virginia: A Colony's Fleet in the Revolution.  (The Virginia Independence Bicentennial Convention, 1981.)
2. Stewart, Robert Armistead.  The History of Virginia's Navy of the Revolution.  (Richmond, Mitchell, & Hotchkiss, 1934.)
3. Tormey, James.  The Virginia Navy in the Revolution: Hampton's Commodore James Barron and His Fleet. (The History Press, 2016.)

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Contraband Man

A quick note: my name is Mike Romero, and I'm a Historic Interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg.  The postings I make on this site are my own personal opinions and research, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Colonial Williamsburg.  With that said, enjoy the read!

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John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore,
Virginia's last Royal Governor.
After fleeing the capital city of Williamsburg in the summer of 1775, Virginia's erstwhile Royal Governor, Lord Dunmore assembles a flotilla of small vessels to serve as a refuge for loyal British subjects and to strike back at the increasingly rebellious colonists.  In early 1776, Dunmore writes to the Secretary of State for the Colonies, Lord Germaine describing some new recruits:

"I had frequent occasion to mention a Family of the name of Goodrich, natives of this Colony, this is a Spirited, Active, industrious Family, and it has cost me much trouble and pains (knowing the Service they would be of to which ever Party they joined) to secure them in His Majesty's Service...I have now five of their Vessels employed constantly running up the Rivers, where they have orders to Seize, burn, or destroy every thing that is Water born, that they can get at."

Dunmore's "trouble and pains" certainly pay off, as the "Spirited, Active, industrious Family" would prove quite troublesome on the waters of Virginia and the other soon-to-be United States throughout the American Revolution.

By the outbreak of the American Revolution, the family of John Goodrich, Sr. had been in Virginia for nearly 150 years.  John himself owned a house in Portsmouth and a plantation in Nansemond County.  He was well-known as a merchant, shipowner, and mariner with a penchant for smuggling.  When it is discovered that a shipment of vital gunpowder has been imported to St. Eustatius by May 1775, revolutionary Virginians hope to put Goodrich's services to use.  Writing from Philadelphia, Richard Henry Lee suggests his compatriots "employ a Mr. Goodrich...a famous Contraband Man to send immediately some swift sailing Pilot Boats for 20 or 30,000 weight [of gunpowder] to supply the Countries."  Goodrich employs two of his seven sons, William and Bartlett, to carry out the mission; they are entrusted with some 5000 pounds sterling in colonial bills of exchange and sent to the West Indies.  By October, the Goodriches successfully return with between 4000 and 5000 pounds of gunpowder with which to support the cause of liberty.

And that's when they run into trouble.

Lord Dunmore is understandably leery of the Virginia rebels supplying themselves of military stores.  Intercepted correspondence leads him to suspect the Goodrich family in the smuggling of gunpowder.  John Goodrich, Sr. and his brother-in-law are apprehended and brought before Dunmore.  Under questioning, they reveal that William Goodrich had already returned with the first load of powder, but apparently more awaited the Virginia patriots in St. Eustatius.  In an audience with the governor, Goodrich, Sr. insists that his family undertook the mission out of the prospect of "good freight" for his family vessels rather than disloyalty.  He offers to travel to St. Eustatius himself to retrieve surplus bills of exchange and the remainder of the gunpowder, so long as William is "arrested" for his own protection.  Goodrich, Sr. is granted a writ of safe passage by Dunmore, but doesn't get far offshore before he is stopped by the HMS Kingfisher (who refuse to honor the safe passage) and sent back to the governor's custody.  William himself is sent to St. Eustatius aboard HMS Otter, and succeeds in returning with 500 pounds in colonial bills of exchange.  Father and son are released on parole with instructions to report aboard Dunmore's ship every ten days.

James Barron, Captain of the armed
schooner Liberty and eventually
Commodore of the Virginia Navy.
Sometime before January 16, 1776,
Barron seizes the sloop Dorothy,
captained by Bartlett Goodrich.
Goodrich's so-called "good freight" gets him in trouble with the patriots as well.  Apparently while on the gunpowder mission, William Goodrich met with a British merchantman from Liverpool, and took aboard a multitude of items, "consisting of checks, cotton, ginghams, striped Holland, jeans, Scotch thread, printed linens, Irish linens, white lead, and linseed oil."  All of these items were banned by the Acts of Association who refused to import goods from Great Britain until colonial grievances had been addressed.  Knowing the foibles of the Association, William altered numerous manufacturer's marks, packaged the items in rum puncheons, and carried them back to Virginia where his father attempted to sell the cargo as "Dutch goods."  When questioned by the Committee of Safety and later the Virginia Convention, the Goodriches later claim they were forced to take on the British goods in order to secure the gunpowder.  Not buying it, the Virginia Convention declares that the Goodriches had intentionally violated the Association.

Faced with the erstwhile Royal Governor on one side and angry patriots on the other, the Goodriches were forced to choose a side.  John Sr. remarked that he was "so harassed on both sides that he did not value his life."  That being said, Goodrich and his sons (five of whom had reached adulthood) sided with Lord Dunmore.  From that point forward, armed vessels commanded by the Goodrich family would prey on patriot plantations and shipping from Newfoundland down to Charleston.

The Goodriches begin by raiding rebel held plantations along Virginia's waterways (stealing provisions for Dunmore's forces) and capturing rebel shipping.  During the summer 1776 campaign for Gwynn's Island, Bridges Goodrich is in command of one of Lord Dunmore's armed tenders.  John Sr. is given command of the privateer sloop Lilly, and expands operations to North Carolina.  On April 14, Lilly is off Ocracoke Island when she meets the North Carolina schooner Polly loaded with corn and staves for the island of Madeira.  Goodrich himself is known by the people of North Carolina, though his new loyalties come as a surprise; Polly's captain is invited aboard only to discover that his ship is being seized for King George.  Not taking the event lying down, that night four whale boats full of North Carolina patriots manage to board Lilly, capture Goodrich, and retake the Polly.  Goodrich is sent back to Virginia, where he is found guilty of "bearing arms against the Colony and aiding and assisting the Enemy," and is promptly imprisoned in far-off Albemarle County.  Bartlett will join him in captivity, but both Goodriches will escape by the end of 1778 where they are found in active service of the British.

Detail of a painting by Nowland Van Powell depicting an American privateer battling a British vessel.

For the next several years, the Goodriches will act as British privateers up and down the Atlantic coast, calling for direct responses from Virginia and Continental forces alike:

In the spring of 1778, the Virginia ships Tartar, Dragon, and Southampton are dispatched on commerce protection duty.  They sail with orders to cruise "backwards & forwards within the Limits of a few Leagues North of Cape Charles keeping always within fifty Leagues of the land and using their utmost diligence to capture the Enemys Cruisers, particularly those Commanded by the Goodriches."  On June 29, the North Carolina Executive is informed that a Goodrich vessel supported by a brig drove two patriot vessels ashore at Hunting Quarter.  By November, the Naval Committee of Congress is writes, "At present we consider it an Object of Importance to destroy the infamous Goodrich, who has much infested our coast, cruising with a squadron of 4, 5, or 6 armed vessels, from 16 guns downward from Egg Harbor to Cape Fear, North Carolina."

On May 16, 1779, approximately 30 British vessels under the command of Commodore Sir George Collier entered Chesapeake Bay.  For the remainder of the month, Collier's ships cruised the waters of southeast Virginia, taking and destroying nearly every bit of patriot property they found afloat and ashore.  1800 British troops under General Mathew destroyed the town of Suffolk, raided Portsmouth, and burned the shipbuilding facilities at Gosport.  Among the forces at Collier's disposal were four privateer vessels commanded by the Goodriches.  Following Collier's withdrawal, the Goodriches remained behind to plunder plantations, burn warehouses, and attack shipping with support of the 16-gun HMS Otter and the 12-gun HMS Harlem.  Among their victims was the galley Protector of the Virginia Navy: the Goodriches came upon the vessel as she was careened in the Great Wicomico River for repairs; the crew put up what resistance they could with musket fire, but were soon driven off and their vessel burned.

Towards the end of June, Richard Henry Lee described the ongoing depredations to a prominent Continental officer, and included a suggestion of what to do about it: "The Confederacy & the Boston can with infinite ease destroy the enemies vessels that are doing us so much injury, causing us so much expense by frequent calls for Militia – They have already burnt several private houses and one public warehouse with between 2 & 300 hhds of Tobo. and carried off such plunder & many negroes – Soon as they see the Militia gathering they embark and go to another unguarded place.  They have 6 vessels, Otter 16, Harlem 12 Guns Kings Vessels – Dunmore 16, Schooner Hammond 14, Lord North 12 Guns & Fin Castle 2 three pounders, The 4 last are Guntridges [Goodrich’s] Pirates." 

In October 1780, Virginia would be invaded again, this time by a squadron under Commodore Clark Gayton supporting a land force commanded by Major General Leslie.  Once again, the remnants of Virginia's naval force would either be swept aside or sent scurrying into shallow creeks for shelter from the British.  Included in Gayton's order of battle is the 20-gun privateer Arbuthnot commanded by John Goodrich, Sr., who had apparently joined the expedition following Sir Henry Clinton's agreement to appoint a vessel for the removal of Goodrich's wife and the family of one of his sons, all of whom had remained in Virginia since the start of the war.

I haven't found any direct references to the Goodriches beyond 1780, but given their past record, I imagine they remained active in the King's service until the ratification of the Treaty of Paris in 1783.  The Goodriches were not the only people to place their loyalty to King George over an extensive family history in Virginia, but their efforts on the water set them apart.  Aside from a relatively brief period of captivity for two of them, it seems that the Goodriches made it through the war relatively unscathed.  One wonders if they were ever rewarded for their dedication to King and Country...

1.  Cross, Charles Brinson.  A Navy For Virginia: A Colony's Fleet in the Revolution.  (Virginia Independence Bicentennial Commission, 1981).
2.  Stewart, Robert Armistead.  The History of Virginia's Navy of the Revolution.  (Richmond, Mitchell, & Hotchkiss, 1934).
3.  Tormey, James.  The Virginia Navy in the Revolution: Hampton's Commodore James Barron and His Fleet.  (The History Press, 2016).

Friday, January 12, 2018

A Letter From Mr. Midshipman Whipple

A quick note: my name is Mike Romero, and I'm a Historic Interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg.  The postings I make on this site are my own personal opinions and research, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Colonial Williamsburg.  With that said, enjoy the read!

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A page from Midshipman Whipple's letterbook detailing a
cruise of USS Constitution in early 1815.
(Samuel Eliot Morison Memorial Library - Boston, MA)
Most anyone who has read the historic fiction of C.S. Forester, Patrick O'Brian, and the others of their ilk can likely relate at least a half dozen amusing anecdotes of life at sea.  From Wellington's sister interrupting the captain's morning walk on the quarterdeck, to two castaways being rescued by a tribe of rebellious Polynesian women, these random occurrences somehow make the stories seem more real.  Imagine my surprise and delight when I came across multiple instances of these random "plot twists" in a real narrative from the early United States Navy.

In July 2016, I was fortunate to travel to the USS Constitution Museum in Boston on a research trip funded by Colonial Williamsburg.  Part of my time there was spent at the Samuel Eliot Morison Memorial Library, where Matthew Brenckle allowed me to examine the letterbook of Pardon Mawney Whipple, a young officer in the USN.  In addition to time aboard Constitution, Whipple serves aboard USS Washington (one of America's first ships-of-the-line), USS Spark, and USS Colombus throughout his career and rises to the rank of lieutenant in 1820.

Whipple's first sea duty begins as a midshipman aboard Constitution in 1813, while the frigate is being repaired following her engagement with HMS Java.  Many of Whipple's letters are written to a female identified only as "My Dear Friend," the first of which begins with Whipple's pride at securing a berth aboard Constitution, and his eagerness to "join the worthy sons of Neptune to share in a perilous war on his wide domain," and adds, "Should I be so fortunate as to prove serviceable to my country I shall be in the zenith of my glory."

One of my favorite letters from the collection (a full transcript is available from the museum website, see the link in my source list below) details Constitution's cruise in early 1815, her last before the War of 1812 ended.  Ever since Napoleon had abdicated and been exiled to Elba (though we would soon discover this was not a permanent arrangement) in the spring of 1814, the military might of Great Britain had been turned on the United States quite effectively.  The Royal Navy had attempted to blockade American ports since the beginning of the war, and with additional resources freed from European campaigns, these blockades grew even tighter.

However, it seems this proved only a minor impediment to Constitution.  Midshipman Whipple writes, "We left Boston under circumstances very similar to our former cruise, both times we run out in the night & eluded the enemy who were blockading us – our first prize was made about a week out – her name being the Lord Nelson seemed ominous among the sailors, who said that if we captured a Lord so soon, our cruise would be successful --"  It may not be whistling to encourage the wind, but it makes for some good luck nonetheless.

"We next made a capture on the coast of Portugal which we man’d & sent in & have now just reaped the golden fruit, which is much the sweetest part of Warfare,  unfortunately  however not without the ruin of a fellow being, who was a jolly scotchman, & got most gloriously drunk the night after the capture & consoled himself with the common remark that it was the fortune of war – on board of this vessel we found two fine young Tigers, which had been in some measure domesticated & were of great amusement to the Sailors."  Early in the cruise, Constitution has taken two prizes (one of them a "peer"), partied with a Scot merchant skipper, and taken in some new mascots.  Whipple's letter will soon take a more serious turn.

On February 20, 1815, Constitution is two hundred miles ENE of Madeira when she fell in with two British men-of-war, the 34-gun HMS Cyane and the 20-gun HMS Levant.  The armament of both vessels consisted primarily of carronades, able to fire a combined broadside of 804 pounds, albeit at short range.  Constitution at the time had a broadside weight of 704 pounds, more than half of which were the long 24-pound cannon that had served her so well earlier in the war.  Midshipman Whipple includes sections of the log recorded by Captain Charles Stewart to "give you a better idea of the result of this discovery."

The British vessels were approximately ten miles apart when they were first sighted between 1:00 and 2:00 PM, and are able to join by 5:45.  They form a line with Levant in the lead, and a separation of about 100 yards between them.  Constitution draws up on Cyane's weather side at a distance of three hundred yards around 6:00 PM.  Five minutes later, the action begins and continues for about fifteen minutes.  As the British fire slackens, Stewart holds fire to allow the smoke to lift; he finds that Constitution is now abreast of Levant with the Cyane astern and trying for his port quarter.  Constitution fires her port battery on Levant, then took after sails aback to renew fire against Cyane.  After another ten minutes, the British fire slackens again, and Levant is seen bearing up before the wind.  Stewart makes sail ahead and is able to rake Levant from astern twice with the port guns.  Cyane is seen in the process of wearing, leading Constitution to immediately wear as well; the heavy frigate catches Cyane halfway through the maneuver and is able to rake her with the starboard battery.  At 6:50, Cyane strikes, and Stewart hurriedly dispatches a prize crew before making sail after the fleeing Levant.  By 8:30, Levant is met returning to the conflict.  Around 8:50, the two ships exchange broadsides on opposite tacks, at which point Constitution is able to come under Levant's stern and rakes her again.  No match for Constitution on her own, Levant attempts to flee again, only to be overtaken and compelled to surrender by 10:00 PM.

As reported by Captain Stewart, Constitution suffers three killed and twelve wounded, Cyane suffers twelve killed and twenty-six wounded, and Levant suffers twenty-three killed and sixteen wounded.  In his log and report, Captain Stewart alludes to the British holding an advantage of slightly superior combined weight of metal carried by a divided force, but Alfred Thayer Mahan finds himself unable to recognize what this advantage actually was.  He does however describe Stewart's management of the Constitution in action as "strikingly clever and prompt."

Following the battle, Midshipman Whipple is put in charge of one of the boats ferrying prisoners from the captured ships.  The young man who once looked forward to being at the zenith of his glory has this to say of the battle's aftermath, "Their spars & rigging were very much cut to pieces, particularly the Levant, whose mizenmast & all the appendant spars were wounded or carried away –several shots between wind & water;  this being the first action I was ever in, you can imagine to yourself what were my feelings to hear the horrid groans of the wounded & dying, & the scene that presented itself the next morning at daylight on board of the Levant, the quarter deck seemed to have the appearance of a slaughter house, the wheel having been carried away by a shot – killed & wounded all around it, the mizenmast for several feet was covered with brains & blood; pieces of bones, fingers, & large pieces of flesh were picked up from off the deck T’was a long time before I could familiarize myself to these & if possible more horrible scenes that I witnessed, In a few days we were enabled to get our prize in tolerable good repair under Lieut. Shubrick –"

"Capture of H.M. Ships Cyane and Levant, by the U.S. Frigate Constitution," by Thomas Birch

"In consequence of the strict blockade of the whole of our coast," Whipple explains, "It was thought there would be too great risk to proceed directly for the United States however anxious we were to get our prizes into port,  to our universal regret therefore, Captain Stewart concluded it would be more prudent to proceed to some of the neutral Islands & land the prisoners, at the expiration of which time, peace between the governments would probably take place, & we should by that means stand a good chance of saving our prizes, Fate ordered it otherwise, we steered for the Cape de Verds, where we arrived on 11th of March."  The next day, a sizable British squadron consisting of the razees HMS Leander and New Castle along with the heavy frigate HMS Acasta is seen making for the port.  Constitution and her charges attempt to flee, reasonably not eager to face a much heavier force with a pair of prizes stringing along behind..  Cyane goes unmolested, but Levant is recaptured under the guns of Port Praya.  Whipple suggests this was a violation of Portuguese neutrality, and objects strenuously when the American ships are fired upon by the Portuguese attempting to return to port and land prisoners...he suggests the Portuguese feared that Constitution would break neutrality herself by attempting to take Levant a second time.  Following this episode, Constitution and Cyane cruise to the coast of Brazil where they're finally able to land the majority of their prisoners.

Whipple concludes his letter with Constitution's crew learning of the end of the war, "St. Louis de Maranham = We here succeeded in landing our prisoners much to the satisfaction of all on board  after remaining here about ten days, we took our departure for the U. States, touched at the port St. Johns Island of Porto Rico, where we got American papers, here we learnt to a certainty that the treaty of peace had been signed, the most unwelcome news that I ever received, here we first heard of the battle of New Orleans – we arrived in this port yesterday in high health & spirits  I assure you, happy to tread once more on the shores of Freedom how shall I apologize to you for the length of this letter, the subject was of such a nature that it was impossible to curtail it therefore I shall send it without any alteration & run the risk of its meeting with your approbation."

Some of Whipple's other exploits in the line of duty include taking command of a cartel ship earlier in the war and facing a tense situation with British officials in Barbados, visiting a multitude of "curiosities" in Greece and Italy (including the ruins of Pompeii and the King's Garden at Naples), and cruising off Algiers not long after Commodore Stephen Decatur and Britain's Lord Exmouth would gather some of the final laurels of their careers.  Even though he never rises to prominence himself (he leaves the service due to declining health in 1824 and dies three years later from tuberculosis), Pardon Mawney Whipple is but one of many everyday sailors who helped the United States Navy take its first steps onto the world stage.

1. USS Constitution Museum.  Pardon Mawney Whipple's Letterbook,  (Transcribed 2014).
2.  Mahan, Alfred Thayer.  Sea Power in its Relations to the War of 1812, Volume 2. (Amazon Digital Services, 2011).

Monday, December 25, 2017

"Wittles is Up..."

A quick note: my name is Mike Romero, and I'm a Historic Interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg.  The postings I make on this site are my own personal opinions and research, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Colonial Williamsburg.  With that said, enjoy the read!

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"Wittles is up...which it wants eating this directly minute."

Monday in the year 1815 usually signified lean eating for the average British Tar.  This was one of three meatless or "banyan" days, wherein every man in His Majesty's Navy was allotted one gallon of beer (provided they were in home waters...brandy, wine, or rum was often substituted on foreign stations), one pound of biscuit, one pint of oatmeal, two ounces of butter, and four ounces of cheese.

A chart from the 1806 edition of Regulations and Instructions Relating to His Majesty's Service at Sea
detailing the provisions allotted to Royal Navy seamen each day.

"Cook: No. 4 in Series," by Thomas Rowlandson,
circa 1799.  Royal Museums Greenwich.
However, Christmas 1815 fell on a Monday, and Commander Basil Hall of the sloop-of-war HMS Lyra was an indulgent captain and decided to provide his men with a feast.  While Lyra was fitting out at Deptford, he purchased one goose and one turkey for each four to six man mess (likely a significant expense providing such a meal for a complement of 75).  The dinner went well, until one of Lyra's men could no longer resist showing off to the crew of an adjacent ship...the man asked how many geese and turkey had been eaten by the neighboring crew.  "None."  Was the answer.  The first man then waved a drumstick in each hand, gleefully calling out, "Look at these and weep, you hungry-faced rascals!"  The drumsticks were summarily yanked out of the man's hand and thrown back in his face.  At that point, Lyra's crew was honor bound to knock the other crew on the head, and a brawl between both crews ensued.

The following Christmas fell on a banyan day as well (Wednesday), and Lyra found herself in Canton in company with several merchant vessels.  Hall's steward reported that Christmas dinner was a popular topic of conversation among the men, last year's row notwithstanding, and that a multitude of poultry was available in a nearby village.  Hall decided once again to indulge the crew, and dozens of geese, chickens, and ducks were purchased.  On Christmas morning, dawn broke with a tremendous racket...a great squawking, quacking, flapping, and clucking that sent Hall rushing on deck and likewise drew the attention of the sailors aboard the nearby Indiamen.  As it turns out, Lyra's crew had taken the birds aloft during the night; they were tied to the yards, cross-trees, gaffs, and booms with lengths of twine, and the crew sat holding the birds and keeping them quiet (suffering numerous pecks and scratches for their trouble) until morning.  Once the sun rose on Christmas, the birds were dropped from the yards, provoking a tumult most fowl.  The screeching of the future dinner was accompanied by the enthusiastic shouts of the crew, drawing the envious view of the many onlookers...Commander Hall did not report a repeat of the previous year's scrap, though.

"Canton Warehouse on the Pearl River," circa 1850.

Two hundred years later, the Royal Navy tends to opt out of the Christmas After Dinner Brawl, but they still have their fair share of rowdy holiday traditions.  From 'escaping' HMS Protector while dressed as a reindeer, to Able Seamen standing in for Captains, to consuming kilo after kilo of pudding laced with Pusser's, the "Hearts of Oak" remain steadfast and strong.  Merry Christmas to all my readers, and especially to those serving away from home in their country's armed services!

1. His Majesty in Council.  Regulations and Instructions Relating to His Majesty's Service at Sea, The Fourteenth Edition. (1806).
2. MacDonald, Janet.  Feeding Nelson's Navy: The True Story of Food at Sea in the Georgian Era. (Greenhill Books, 2004).
3. Royal Navy and Royal Marines Charity.  You Know You're in the Royal Navy at Christmas When...  (December 10, 2016).
4. Wikipedia.  Cherokee-class brig-sloop  (June 8, 2017).

Saturday, December 16, 2017

May 27, 1781: Alliance and the Sloops

A quick note: my name is Mike Romero, and I'm a Historic Interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg.  The postings I make on this site are my own personal opinions and research, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Colonial Williamsburg.  With that said, enjoy the read!

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Alliance under full sail,
from the US Naval Institute Archives.
The 36-gun frigate Alliance, launched in the spring of 1778, was arguably the finest ship to be constructed by the Continental Navy.  Not to be surpassed domestically in design until the six frigates of the Naval Act of 1794, she was described in 1779 by the intendant of the French port of L'Orient as, "equal to any in Europe.  I have examined her, and I assure you there is not in the King's service, nor in the English Navy, a frigate more perfect in materials or workmanship...You may depend upon it, there is not in Europe a more perfect piece of naval architecture than your Alliance."  Throughout her Revolutionary War career, Alliance would serve under the Continental Navy's most mentally unstable officer (Pierre Landais) and two of the most celebrated (John Paul Jones and John Barry), and would participate in what is widely recognized as the final engagement of the Revolutionary War in March of 1783.

Alliance's time in the service got off to a fairly tumultuous start.  Her first commanding officer was Captain Peirre Landais, a former French naval officer, an adopted son of Massachusetts, and widely thought to be the naval equivalent of the Marquis de Lafayette.  Once afloat, however, Landais quickly proved something of a martinet and mentally unstable to boot.  On a 1779 passage to France, a mutiny by 38 English and Irish-born crew was barely by Lafayette himself during his mid-war trip home.  Having taken two prizes, Alliance is assigned on her arrival in France to a squadron being assembled under the command of John Paul Jones.  Commodore Jones initially thinks very highly of Captain Landais, but this positive impression barely lasts beyond their first meeting.  As the squadron led by Bonhomme Richard cruises in the vicinity of the British Isles during the summer of 1779, Landais frequently flouts Jones' orders, is openly defiant on numerous public occasions (resulting in Landais challenging his commodore to a duel), and refuses to avoid a collision when Bonhomme Richard runs afoul of Alliance...Landais comes up with the ridiculous theory that the flagship's crew had mutinied and was running to his cabin for his sword when the collision took place.  During the Battle of Flamborough Head, Landais avoids the worst of the combat, indiscriminately raking both Bonhomme Richard and Serapis at least twice from a distance.  Jones would criticize Landais heavily in his official report of the cruise and relieves him as captain of Alliance.  After Serapis is sold out from under him and the other ships of his squadron return to French service (due in no small part to his wallowing in the hero's welcome in the Netherlands), Jones takes Alliance racing down the Dover Straits in full view of nearby Royal Navy vessels to Coruna, Spain.  What follows is a brief and fruitless hunt for prizes before reaching L'Orient in late February of 1780.  While Jones travels to Paris to secure pay and supplies for his crew (and gets caught up again in the attention being lavished on the conquering hero), Pierre Landais essentially steals Alliance out from under him with the support of American commissioner Arthur Lee and sets off across the Atlantic.  Before Alliance can reach the United States, Landais' old instabilities pop up again, leading Lee to encourage Alliance's first lieutenant to forcibly assume command.

John Barry, Alliance's captain from the
summer of 1780 to the end of the
Revolutionary War.  Often referred to
as "Father of the American Navy."
Upon the frigate's arrival in Boston, the Continental Navy's Board of Admiralty immediately launches an investigation of Landais' command, and places her under the command of Captain John Barry, already distinguished from his service in command of Lexington and Effingham.  Barry's first assignment as Alliance's captain is to preside over the court-martial of Pierre Landais, who has to literally be dragged kicking and screaming from his cabin.  The trial is a rather tumultuous affair, resulting in the breaking of both Captain Landais and Lieutenant James Degge (the captain going insane apparently not being grounds for a civilian official egging you on to mutiny), and both are dismissed from the service.

With that unpleasant duty discharged, Barry is tasked with refitting Alliance and getting her ready for sea again as soon as possible.  Repairs and other preparations proceed slowly; as was frequently the case for Continental forces, materials, money, and manpower were in extremely short supply.  When Alliance is selected to convey the United States' newest envoy extraordinary to France, Congress is finally able to allocate the necessary funds and supplies to ready her for sea.  Manning the frigate proves more difficult, as British prisoners are pressed into service to round out the crew (a frequently used measure during the war), though she is still somewhat short of full complement.  Alliance is able to put to sea on February 11, 1781.  During a night less than a week later, Alliance finds herself in the midst of a crowded ice field and sustains significant damage before she can get back to open water.  Although following orders to avoid British vessels to minimize the risk to his important passenger, Barry still manages to capture the privateer Alert and releases the neutral Venetian vessel Alert had recently taken.  Alliance anchors safely in Groix Roads on March 9, and departs nearly three weeks later escorting the merchantman Marquis de Lafayette carrying a valuable cargo of arms and uniforms for the Continental Army.  Almost immediately after returning to sea, Barry is forced to brutally suppress a mutiny masterminded by his British born quartermaster John Crawford...following seven hours of flogging men strung up by their thumbs, nearly two dozen of the ship's company have been implicated in the plot.  On April 2, Alliance and Marquis succeed in capturing two British privateers, only to be separated by a storm three weeks later.  Two more prizes are taken in early May before Alliance is once again overtaken by foul weather.  On May 17, Alliance is struck by lightning which shatters the main topmast, carries away the main yard, damages the foremast, and wounds nearly a score of men.

In the early hours of May 27, Alliance is under a jury rig and reduced to about half her normal complement (due to the original recruiting difficulties, securing the would-be mutineers, detaching prize crews, and wounded men from the storm), but on course for Boston.  Wouldn't this be an opportune time for an engagement?  Alliance is sighted and approached by two British sloops-of-war, HMS Atalanta and HMS Trepassey each of 14 guns, 400 miles south of Nova Scotia in light winds.  Sampson Edwards commanding Atalanta hoists private signals...when Barry fails to respond, the British hoist their colors and the chase is on.  It is nearly noon before the three vessels have closed to within two cable lengths and Barry raises his own colors.  He hails Atalanta, the closest of the two British vessels:

"Ship ahoy!  What ship is that?"
"Atalanta, Sloop of War, belonging to His Britannic Majesty."
"This is the Continental Frigate Alliance, John Barry.  I advise you to haul down your colors."
"I thank you, Sir.  Perhaps I may, after a trial."

Immediately following this exchange, Barry orders his men to open fire, raking Atalanta by the bulwarks.  Just as Alliance begins to come about to get at both vessels, the wind dies completely.  Unfortunately for the becalmed Continental frigate, both her opponents are equipped with sweeps, and begin rowing into a more advantageous firing position.  Commander Smyth of Trepassey moves too quickly and inadvertently brings his vessel alongside Alliance.  The frigate has time to pound the smaller vessel with two broadsides (the first of which kills Smyth) before Trepassey rows clear.  Edwards of Atalanta boldly places his vessel between Alliance and Trepassey to cover her retreat, sustaining significant rigging damage in the next broadside.  The British sloops-of-war then row into a position where they can have maximum effect and risk minimum response:  Atalanta and Trepassey bracket Alliance's stern quarters, where they can fire with near impunity.

Smoke from the guns hung heavily over the combatants with no wind to disperse it.  Barry orders several of Alliance's 9-pound chasers moved, hoping to bring them better to bear on the enemy as his Continental Marines blaze away from the tops.  An hour into the battle, Alliance is at a marked disadvantage, only to bring guns that are run directly astern to bear on the enemy.  Atalanta and Trepassey begin to alternate between firing round and grapeshot, causing great carnage among the Continental crew.  Even worse, with the fighting taking place at such close range, Edwards order his powder charges reduced, causing projectiles to fly more slowly and tear larger splinters loose on impact.  Near to 3:00 PM, Barry is struck in the left shoulder by a round of grape.  He doggedly tries to keep the quarterdeck for several minutes before growing weak from blood loss.  Barry turns command over to his first lieutenant, Hoysted Hacker, and is helped below.

Almost immediately after Barry's departure, Alliance's quartermaster is killed at the wheel and her colors shot away.  The American colors are re-hoisted and firing continues from what few guns Alliance can fire with effect, despite mounting casualties.  Watching the ship being slowly but surely demolished, Hacker goes below to report the vessel's shattered condition and the growing butcher's bill to ask the wounded captain if the colors should be struck.

Barry's response is that of a wounded lion.  "NO!  If the ship can't be fought without me, I will be carried on deck!"  He then begins struggling with the surgeon and his mates to achieve just that.

To Hacker's credit, he returns immediately to his post and encourages the crew with an account of Barry's determination, resolving those of Alliance's crew within earshot to join their captain in fighting to the last.  Perhaps inspired by Barry as well, the wind chooses that moment to return, and for the first time in hours, Alliance is able to answer her helm and bring her main battery to bear.  Fourteen 12-pound guns on the starboard side blast into Atalanta moments before the port guns hammer TrepasseyTrepassey strikes her colors, unable to withstand the frigate's full firepower.  Atalanta attempts to break off, but the damage done to her rigging causes her fore and mizzenmasts to go by the board.  Another broadside from Alliance leads Edwards to strike as well.  At last, the battle is over.

Barry had finally gotten free of the surgeon and was struggling to make his way up the companionway when he was greeted by the weary cheers of his victorious crew.  The wounded captain, exhausted further from undergoing treatment, allows himself to be carried to his cabin.  A short time later, he receives Edwards of the Atalanta, whom he insists should keep his sword.  Despite her battered state, Atalanta and her coppered hull are to be taken home as a prize, though she would eventually be recaptured off Cape Cod.  Trepassey is disarmed, loaded with all the prisoners Barry had taken that cruise (biographer Tim McGrath sets this number at an astonishing 300) and sent to St. John as a cartel, where she hopes to exchange British for American prisoners.  On June 6, 1781, Alliance limps back into port under yet another jury rig.  She would spend months under repair, delayed again by want of money and supplies, but she had prevailed.

Both John Barry and the frigate Alliance would return to sea and fight another day before the war would end with American independence.

1. Bolander, Louis H.  "The Frigate Alliance: The Favorite Ship of the American Revolution."  Proceedings September 1937: 1249-1258.
2. McGrath, Tim.  Give Me a Fast Ship: The Continental Navy and America's Revolution at Sea.  (The Penguin Group, 2014).
3. McGrath, Tim.  John Barry: An American Hero in the Age of Sail.  (Westholme Publishing, 2010).
4. Thomas, Evan.  John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy.  (Simon and Schuster, 2010).

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

"An Inquiry Into Naval Tactics," 9/5/1781

A quick note: my name is Mike Romero, and I'm a Historic Interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg.  The postings I make on this site are my own personal opinions and research, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Colonial Williamsburg.  With that said, enjoy the read!

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On June 26, 1781, the Continental Congress appointed John Paul Jones as Captain of America, a 74-gun warship under construction at John Langdon's shipyard across the Piscataqua River from Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  America's construction had been authorized in November 1776 and had been laid down the following May, but a chronic shortage of funds, skilled craftsmen, and well-seasoned timber delayed the work for years.  By the time Jones assumed command of the warship-to-be, construction had nearly stalled and America's previous commander, Captain John Barry, narrowly derailed a scheme to reduce her construction to that of a 54-gun heavy frigate.  Despite ongoing logistical difficulties, Jones worked tirelessly to forward the completion of the only ship-of-the-line to be launched by the United States during the American Revolution.  Sadly, two months before she entered the water on November 5, 1782, the nearly bankrupt Congress decided to gift America to the French Navy, replacing one of their own warships that had been wrecked near Boston that summer.

Hoping vainly to become the Continental Navy's first admiral, Jones eagerly began preparing himself for the role.  "Ever the self-improver," notes biographer Evan Thomas, "Jones had been reading tracts on naval tactics and architecture."  One tract that may well have been available to Jones is John Clerk's An Inquiry into Naval Tactics, published in January of 1782.  This work examines several naval battles from the American Revolution, the French and Indian War, and the War of the Austrian Succession where British fleets engaged with those of the French.  Among other things, Clerk notes that French naval doctrine of the time discourages attacking from the windward (commonly known as "the weather gague") in a fleet action, and concentrating their fire to damage an enemy's sails and rigging.  In nearly all of the actions described in the Inquiry, the French eagerly maintain a leeward position and will even delay an engagement to surrender the weather gauge.  In these actions, despite a valiant attack, many of the British vessels find themselves heavily disabled and unable to prevent the French from departing the scene or achieving any other objective they may have had.  The primary question Clerk poses is this: "Will we not have reason to believe, that the French have adopted, and put in execution, some system, which the British either have not discovered, or have not yet profited by the discovery?"

"Second Battle of the Virginia Capes," by V. Zveg, circa 1961.

One of the actions described is the one that took place on September 5, 1781 near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, commonly known as the (second) Battle of the Capes.  This battle would prove to be critical to the outcome of the war, as the ensuing French victory on the sea prevented British Admiral Graves from reinforcing Lord Cornwallis and contributed heavily to his surrender at Yorktown in October 1781.  Clerk's discussion of the battle begins with an excerpt from Grave's own report:

"EXTRACT of a LETTER from Vice-Admiral Graves, 31st August 1781, off Sandy-hook.

'I beg you will be pleased to acquaint my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, that the moment the wind served to carry the ships over the bar, which was buoyed for the purpose, the squadron came out; and Sir Samuel Hood getting under sail at the same time, the fleet proceeded together on the thirty-first of August, to the Southward.

The cruisers which I had placed before the Delaware could give me no certain information, and the cruisers off the Chesepeak had not joined: The winds being rather favourable, we approached the Chesepeak the morning of the 5th of September, when the advanced ship made the signal of a fleet.  We soon discovered a number of great ships at anchor, which seemed to be extended across the entrance of the Chesepeak, from Cape Henry to the middle ground: They had a frigate cruising off the Cape, which stood in and joined them; and, as we approached, the whole fleet got under sail, and stretched out to sea, with the wind at N.N.E.  As we drew nearer, I formed the line first a-head, and then in such a manner as to bring his Majesty's fleet nearly parallel to the line of approach of the enemy; and when I found that our van was advanced as far as the shoal of the middle ground would admit of, I wore the fleet, and brought them upon the same tack with the enemy, and nearly parallel to them, though we were by no means extended with their rear.  So soon as I judged that our van would be able to operate, I made the signal to bear away and approach, and soon after, to engage the enemy close.  Somewhat after four, the action began amongst the headmost ships, pretty close, and soon became general, as far as the second ship from the center, towards the rear.  The van of the enemy bore away, to enable their center to support them, or they would have been cut up.  The action did not entirely cease till a little after sun-set, though at a considerable distance for the center of the enemy continued to bear up as it advanced; and, at that moment, seemed to have little more in view than to shelter their own van, as it went away before the wind.

His Majesty's fleet consisted of nineteen sail of the line; that of the French formed twenty-four sail in their line.  After night, I sent the frigates to the van and rear, to push forward the line, and keep it extended with the enemy, with a full intention to renew the engagement in the morning; but, when the frigate Fortune returned from the van, I was informed, that several of the ships had suffered so much, that they were in now condition to renew the action until they had secured their masts; we, however, kept well extended with the enemy all night.

We continued all day, the 6th, in sight of each other, repairing our damages.  Rear-Admiral Drake shifted his flag into the Alcide, until the Princess had got up another main-top mast.  The Shrewsberry, whose Captain lost a leg, and had the first Lieutenant killed, was obliged to reef both top-masts, shifted her top-sail yards, and had sustained very great damage.  I ordered Captain Colpoys of the Orpheus to take command of her, and put her into a state for action.

The Intrepid had both top-sail yards shot down, her top-masts in great danger of falling, and her lower masts and yards very much damaged, her Captain having behaved with the greatest gallantry to cover the Shrewsberry.  The Montague was in great danger of losing her masts; the Terrible so leaky as to keep all her pumps going; and the Ajax also very leaky.

In the present state of the fleet, and being five sail of the line less in number than the enemy, and they having advanced very much in the wind upon us during he day, I determined to tack after eight, to prevent being drawn too far from the Chesepeak, and to stand to the Northward.'"

Using some plates and figures included in Clerk along with some analysis from late 19th/early 20th century naval historian Alfred Thayer Mahan, we can break down the action as follows:

Clerk: Plate VI, Figure 1:
"F.  The French fleet at anchor, and extended across the entrance of the Chesepeak,
from Cape Henry to the middle ground, who, as soon as they perceived the British
fleet approaching, got under sail, and stretched out to sea upon the larboard tack, as at G.
B.  The British fleet advancing to the middle ground, but not till after the French had
left it, formed in a line nearly parallel to that of the French at G.
Mahan tells us that the British force included 19 sail of the line (two 98-gun ships, twelve 74's, one 70, and four 64's) opposing 24 French sail of the line (one 104-gun ship, three 80's, seventeen 74's, and three 64's).  The French ships were initially on station near the mouth of Chesapeake Bay south of the shoals at Middle Ground in the main channel (the open water between the Middle Ground and Cape Charles are relatively shallow...two to four fathoms deep until you clear Cape Charles, as opposed to eight to thirteen fathoms south of the shoal, according to a 1776 chart of the bay).  A French frigate on look out sights the approaching British near 8:00 AM, with wind from the NNE.  The French fleet gets underway with the ebb tide near noon, having to make several tacks in order to clear Cape Henry.  As a result, their line at G above forms late and was initially not very regular or close.

Clerk: Plate VI, Figure 2:
"B.  The British fleet, after having advanced as far as the shoal upon the middle ground,
as per course A, wore, and having stood after the enemy, are now upon the larboard
tack, extended in line of battle a-head, and almost a-breast of them."
At 2:00 PM, the French van bore directly south of Graves's flagship (putting the French van roughly abreast of the British center) at about three miles distance.  As the British fleet approached the Middle Ground around 2:13 PM, they wore together and hove to, allowing the French center to come abreast of the British center.  Although it isn't readily apparent from Clerk's figure above, the French line was significantly longer than the outnumbered British, and the rearmost French ships still hadn't completely cleared Cape Henry.

Clerk: Plate VI, Figure 3:
"Mr Graves says: 'So soon as I judged that our van would be able to operate, I made
the signal to bear away, and approach as at B; and, soon after, to engage the enemy close.'"
At 2:30 PM, Graves signals for HMS Shrewsbury (the British van ship) to lead farther starboard towards the enemy.  As each of the British ship maintained the line by following the course of the ship ahead, this put the British line on a course inclined towards the French, the angle of which became more marked as Graves renewed this signal at 3:17 and again at 3:34 PM.

Clerk refers to this inclined approach as "lasking."  This practice comes with several disadvantages, most of which were demonstrated during the battle.  Any ship attempting to bear down on an enemy at right angles must have their vulnerable bow pointed directly at the enemy's broadside, leaving them dangerously vulnerable to the enemy's full fire with little or no ability to respond in kind.  Lasking extends this vulnerable period by reducing the angle of approach; since it takes longer for the approaching fleet to reach their desired point of engagement, they will be exposed to unequal volumes of enemy fire that much longer.  As Mahan asserts, "This was the original and enduring cause of a lamentable failure by which seven of the rear ships, in an inferior force undertaking to attack, never came into battle at all."  The larger the angle of approach between the two fleets grew, the farther away the British rear was forced to swing from the enemy in order to maintain their formation of line ahead.

Clerk: Plate VI, Figure 4:
"'Somewhat after four, the action began amongst the headmost ships, pretty close, and
soon became general, as far as the second ship from the center, towards the rear.  The van
of the enemy bore away,' as at G, 'to enable their center to support them,' as at F,  or they
would have been cut up.'" 
With the signal for line ahead still flying, Graves signals at 3:46 PM to close to one cable's length (240 yards) followed almost immediately by a signal to bear down and engage.  Due to the lasking approach, the British van is naturally the first to come under fire, the action extending to the twelfth ship in the British line, two behind the flagship London, which filled her sails and bore down.  At approximately 4:11, the signal for line ahead was hauled down to not interfere with the signal for close action, only to have the signal for line ahead raised again at 4:22 PM, as the British line was no longer well extended...London had in fact advanced farther towards the enemy than several ships stationed ahead of her in the line of battle.  As a result, when London luffed up to bring her broadside to bear on the enemy, the ships immediately ahead were practically on her weather beam, and could not open fire until London moved out of the way.  The signal for line ahead was hauled down again at 4:27, with the signal for close action still flying and being renewed at 5:20 PM.  The rear of the British line finally bore up at a distance conducive to joining the battle, but the French were now bearing away.  Firing ceased shortly after sunset.

Admiral Graves,
commanding the British
at the Battle of the Capes.
Admiral de Grasse,
commanding the French
at the Battle of the Capes.
Commanding the ships at the rear of the British line, Rear Admiral Samuel Hood would prove to be quite critical of Graves's tactics following the battle.  Among Hood's points was that the French line was very disorderly in forming up, giving Graves nearly an hour and a half where he could have engaged the French van without the possibility of support from the French rear.  Hood also criticized Graves's angular approach, which forced the British vessels to come into action successively instead of simultaneously.  Finally, Hood chastises Graves for keeping the signal for line ahead raised nearly until the end of the action; while this signal was up, each British ship was ordered to maintain its station in the line of battle, and captains could not use their own initiative to advance and support the ships of the British van and center as they came under fire.  Hood believes that if the signal for line ahead had been lowered much earlier, the British rear could have effectively entered the action, and at the very least, the French van would have been cut to pieces.

As it was, Graves made plans to renew the action the following morning, though he was soon informed by his subordinates that several of his van ships were too crippled to do so.  As the British fleet struggles to make repairs, Graves keeps his own ships within sight of the French line, disregarding advice from Admiral Hood to turn away and attempt to beat the French back to the Chesapeake and put themselves in a position to support Cornwallis.  The two fleets remain within sight of one another until September 9th, when the French vessels were seen for the last time, "They were then under a cloud of sail, and on the morning of the 10th had disappeared."  On the morning of the 10th, Graves is forced to order the 74-gun HMS Terrible burned (she had only just been kept afloat during the days following the battle) before turning back to Virginia.

Meanwhile, another French fleet under Admiral de Barras had arrived at the entrance to the Chesapeake on September 10 (having taken a circuitous route from Newport, Rhode Island to avoid British forces), and was joined by the returning de Grasse on the 11th.  Admiral Graves and the British fleet arrive at the Virginia Capes on the 13th to discover that the French now had 36 sail of the line protecting entrance to the bay.  Graves reluctantly decides to return to New York.  In the meantime, General Washington arrives at Yorktown on September 14th, beginning the siege that eventually compels General Cornwallis to surrender on October 19th.  At that point, the outcome of the American Revolution was effectively decided.

In addition to commentary on the various battles, Clerk goes on to make several observations about the Royal Navy of the time:

-Due to the conditions and extensive coastlines of the British Isles, British seamen tend to be better trained navigators and shiphandlers than their counterparts in France and elsewhere.
-British seamen are also renowned for their courage under fire.  This trait is supported by British warships tenaciously seeking the windward position, and eagerly bearing down on their enemies to attack.  The tendency of the French and Spanish fleets to work to avoid a direct engagement suggests they acknowledge the superior courage of the British.
-Despite and advantage in the skill and courage of their seamen, British vessels tended to be of slightly inferior design to other European-built warships.  Clerk uses this point to insert an admonition for Royal Navy shipwrights and dockyards to step up their game.
-In single ship actions, British warships can be expected to prevail under most circumstances.  That being the case, is there not some way to adapt this skill so that the British can perform with equal success in fleet engagements?

Clerk concludes his Inquiry by suggesting a new approach to fleet engagements, where the British can still make use of the weather gauge and prove victorious in fleet engagements.  Rather than approaching an enemy fleet with the goal of coming directly alongside the enemy fleet and engaging them as a whole (which usually results in British ships, especially in the van, of becoming so disabled upon the approach that they are unable to prosecute the battle to a successful conclusion), Clerk proposes approaching in divisions rather than in line ahead.  The first British division will approach and engage the rearmost ships of the enemy fleet, with subsequent divisions in such a position to support/reinforce the first as possible, almost guaranteeing that the enemy rear will be defeated.  The enemy fleet then has the choice of either abandoning their rear or coming about by tacking or wearing to support them.  In almost every case, this situation seems to result in an enemy fleet finding themselves forced into a series of single ship actions as successive British divisions joining the fight, a circumstance that is sure to favor the British.  Clerk goes on to suggest a variety of means for attacking an enemy fleet by divisions, listing advantages and disadvantages of each, before noting that it will take active sea-officers attempting these new tactics in battle to determine which method is best.

Perhaps in the decades following the Battle of the Capes in 1781, a British naval officer will arise and make a name for himself by completely eschewing the traditional line of battle tactics of previous years.  Maybe he will even win his most celebrated battle by attacking a larger fleet by driving his own vessels in two divisions, breaking the enemy line, and then enveloping and overcoming them piecemeal.

Time will tell...

1. Thomas, Evan.  John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy.  (Simon and Schuster, 2003).
2. Clerk, John.  An Inquiry into Naval Tactics.  (Edinburgh, 1782).
3. Mahan, Alfred Thayer.  The Major Operations of the Navies in the War of American Independence.  (Amazon Digital Services, 2011).

Friday, October 13, 2017

"Haud crede colori..."

A quick note: my name is Mike Romero, and I'm a Historic Interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg.  The postings I make on this site are my own personal opinions and research, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Colonial Williamsburg.  With that said, enjoy the read!

-=|Blog Home||Reading Room||Source List=-

"Stephen and the chaplain stood at the taffrail, staring over the larboard quarter.  'I am afraid they are coming closer,' said Mr White.  'I can distinctly see the men on the front of the nearer one: and even on the ship behind.  See, they fire a gun!  And a flag appears!  Your glass, if you please.  Why, it is the English flag!  I congratulate you, Dr Maturin; I congratulate you on our deliverance: I confess I had apprehended a very real danger, a most unpleasant situation.  Ha, ha, ha!  They are our friends!'

'Haud crede colori,' said Stephen.  'Cast your eyes aloft, my dear sir.'

Mr White looked up at the mizzen-peak, where a tricolour streamed out bravely.  'It is the French flag,' he cried.  'No.  The Dutch.  We are sailing under false colours!  Can such things be?'

'So are they,' said Stephen.  'They seek to amuse us; we seek to amuse them.  The iniquity is evenly divided.  It is an accepted convention, I find, like bidding the servant --' A shot from the Semillante's bow-chaser threw up a plume of water a little way from the frigate's stern, and the parson started back.  '-- say you are not at home, when in fact you are eating muffin by your fire and do not choose to be disturbed.'

'I often did so,' said Mr White, whose face had grown strangely mottled.  'God forgive me.  And now here I am in the midst of battle.  I never thought such a thing could happen--I am a man of peace.'"

In the above passage, author Patrick O'Brian advises us, "don't trust the colour."  Indeed, the use of false colors was one of many accepted ruses de guerre utilized during the Age of Sail to allow a clever captain to gain the most advantageous position before engaging in combat.  There are numerous instances of captains in the Royal Navy and Continental Navy alike using this technique in an attempt to trick their opponent; provided you raised your own colors before joining battle in earnest, this was a perfectly legitimate practice.  In the summer of 1798, one of the first vessels of the United States Navy would experience this ruse and make use of it first-hand.

Commodore John Barry, USN,
from an 1801 portrait by Gilbert Stuart.
In March of 1794, the United States Congress passed the "Act to Provide a Naval Armament" authorizing the construction of six frigates to protect American merchant shipping from the depredations of Algerian pirates.  This act was hotly debated from the beginning, and only passed after a caveat was inserted declaring that construction on the frigates would cease should a treaty be signed with Algiers.  When a treaty was indeed struck in early 1796, construction was duly halted, though President George Washington was instrumental in convincing Congress to allow work to continue on the three frigates closest to completion.  In Philadelphia on May 10, 1797, the frigate United States became the first vessel of the new United States Navy to be launched.  She was commanded by Commodore John Barry, a veteran of the American Revolution, and the senior officer in the new service.

United States spent the next year fitting out and preparing to deploy (including a 55-gun armament: 32 24-pound cannon, 22 42-pound carronades, and one 18-pound long cannon), during which time America's relations with the revolutionary government of France deteriorated.  Following disputes over the repayment of debts from the American Revolution, the XYZ Affair, and a series of attacks on American vessels perpetrated by French privateers, the United States Congress rescinded past treaties with France and the so-called "Quasi-War" began.  What followed was a two year undeclared war, fought primarily at sea, which prompted Congress to authorize completion of the remaining three Naval Act frigates.

On July 7, 1798, United States made for the Delaware Capes.  Commodore Barry was ordered by the first Secretary of the Navy, Benjamin Stoddert to assemble a squadron of smaller vessels awaiting his command in Philadelphia and Boston, and cruise against French armed vessels in the West Indies for two months.  One of the ships assigned to Barry's squadron was the 20-gun Delaware, under command of Captain Stephen Decatur, and had taken the first prize of the Quasi-War just before United States left port.  Sadly, Barry arrived in Boston only to discover that the two ships Stoddert had assigned to accompany him were not yet ready for sea, so United States and Delaware were on their own.

Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, GCB, RN
from a portrait by Robert Field.
Although a heavy fog made for a slow passage down Nantasket Road out of Boston on July 26,  Barry's ships only took thirty hours to find themselves 400 miles from the North Carolina Coast.  In those waters, United States sighted a frigate flying French colors.  Raising French colors of his own, Barry maneuvered to pursue.  When United States had moved closer, she raised American colors and prepared to open fire.  At that point, the frigate promptly raised British colors and identified herself as HMS Thetis under the command of Sir Alexander Cochrane (uncle of Thomas Cochrane, one of Patrick O'Brian's inspirations for Lucky Jack Aubrey).  A veteran of the American Revolution himself, Cochrane had immediately deduced that Barry's ship was not British and acted under the assumption that she was hostile.  Once their identities had been confirmed, Cochrane was invited to dine with Barry aboard United States, where he provided the American Commodore with a set of British signals to prevent similar deceptions from turning into a needless chase.

United States and Delaware would go on to cruise in the vicinity of Barbados, Martinique, and Puerto Rico until September, taking several prizes.  Arriving at Cape Henlopen on September 18, Barry's cruise proved to be among the more successful of the other US Navy forces at sea at the time, though Secretary Stoddert had hoped for something more spectacular.  A second cruise in early fall would be cut short by storm damage, resulting in an extensive refit under the supervision of designer Joshua Humphreys.  In the meantime, while the Royal Navy had effectively cleared the Atlantic of French vessels, the Caribbean was still crawling with French privateers.  United States departed Philadelphia on December 12 as part of a twenty-four vessel offensive in the region.  On or near December 30, 1798, United States was saluted by British forces at Barbados, and Commodore Barry was invited to dine aboard the flagship of Vice Admiral Thomas Harvey.

Unfortunately, relations between the United States Navy and the Royal Navy would not remain so cordial for long, but that is, of course, a story for another day.

1.  O'Brian, Patrick.  H.M.S. Surprise.  (William Collins and Sons, 1973).
2.  McGrath, Tim.  John Barry: An American Hero in the Age of Sail.  (Westholme Publishing, 2010).
3.  Wikipedia.  USS United States (1797), (August 25, 2017).