Saturday, August 11, 2018

Lexington vs. Edward

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!

Portrait by an unspecified artist
believed to be of a young John Barry.
(Navy History and Heritage Command)
The Wild Duck was originally a sloop constructed in Bermuda which was converted to a square-sail brigantine in New York.  After evading the sloop Edward, a tender of the British frigate Liverpool, Wild Duck reached Philadelphia on 9 March 1776 with a cargo of gunpowder sorely needed by Continental forces.  The Marine Committee wasted no time in purchasing Wild Duck for service in the Continental Navy.  She was taken to Wharton's shipyard for refitting, placed under the command of John Barry, and rechristened Lexington.   

Captain Barry had already spent many months supervising the outfitting of multiple Continental Navy vessels that were placed under the command of other officers.  (His last merchant command, Black Prince, became the Alfred, flagship of the squadron commanded by Esek Hopkins.)  While Barry was always efficient and conscientious in carrying out such tasks, he was eager to get to sea; Lexington's refit was completed in two weeks.  Lexington was 86 feet long with a 70 foot deck and 25 foot beam, rated at about 140 tons.  She was described as having a "square-tuck stern painted yellow, and a low, rounded stem painted lead colors, black sides, and yellow moldings."  She was armed with sixteen four-pound cannon and twelve swivel guns, and could carry a complement of 110 men, though Barry's first lieutenant would only be able to enlist 70.  Little did anyone know that the brigantine was soon destined for another encounter with HMS Edward.

After multiple delays in acquiring small arms and powder, Lexington departed Philadelphia in the small hours of the morning on 28 March 1776.  Barry was accompanied by four Pennsylvania row galleys tasked with ridding the Delaware River of a number of an as yet unknown British warship and her tender.  When it was discovered that the tender serviced the 44-gun HMS Roebuck (more than a match for any Continental vessels in the area), Barry ordered the row galleys to remain in the relative safety of Reedy Island.  As Lexington moved downriver, Barry repeatedly exercised his crew as the guns, likely stopping short of live fire to conserve ammunition.  The Roebuck was sighted near dawn on 31 March, and the brief chase was on.  Well acquainted with local waters, Barry took the shallow-drafted Lexington through shoal waters known as the "Overfalls," successfully evaded the much heavier British warship and got out to sea.

Following several days of cruising the New Jersey coastline, followed by a brief return to the Delaware to convoy a group of merchantman past the usually watchful Roebuck, Barry steers south for the Virginia Capes.  The Continental Navy squadron under the command of Esek Hopkins had initially been ordered to the region to fight the naval forces employed by Virginia's Royal Governor, Lord Dunmore, but the new squadron's "Commander-in-Chief" was reluctant to engage any organized British forces.  Alfred and her consorts headed instead for New Providence, raiding the powder magazines there, before returning north to fight a running engagement with HMS Glascow on 6 April.

Lexington battling HMS Edward by William Nowland Van Powell.
(U.S. Navy Art Collection)
On the afternoon of 7 April, Lexington is just off Cape Charles at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay when an unknown sail is sighted.  Barry immediately sends his crew to quarters, but keeps his gunports closed and colors lowered to draw the possible enemy in closer.  The approaching vessel was HMS Edward, quickly recognized by the old hands from the Wild Duck days.  The sloop was armed with six three-pound cannon and a number of swivels, manned by 29 British tars under the command of Lieutenant Richard Boger.  While Edward was both outmanned and outgunned, her crew was battle tested and much more experienced than the men aboard LexingtonEdward charged straight towards her intended prey,  when Lieutenant Boger soon hailed Barry with orders to heave to and identify himself.  Barry boldly identified the Lexington as the Grand Union shot up the mast, the brigantine's gunports flew open, and her crew unleashed their first broadside.

While Edward was surprised by the Lexington's fire, Barry's inexperienced crew did little damage.  Lieutenant Boger changed course to head back into the Chesapeake Bay, hoping to find assistance from one of Lord Dunmore's vessels, and sustained another almost ineffectual broadside from Lexington for his trouble.  Edward soon returned fire, sending shot tearing into Lexington's bulwarks to kill two men and wound another.  What followed was a running engagement about an hour long as the two small warships blasted away at one another.  As the engagement progresses, the Continental gunners become more accustomed to the way of things, and Lexington's fire steadily becomes more effective.  Finally, Barry was able to cut across Edward's stern and rake her.  The Lexington's fire smashes into Edward's stern at and just below the cabin, killing one man and causing the sloop to take on water.  The smaller British crew is unable to successfully maintain the fight, sail the sloop, and plug holes below the waterline, so Lieutenant Boger is forced to strike his colors.

Following the surrender, Barry's crew quickly boards Edward to assist in repairs.  After plugging holes and repairing rigging, Lexington's prize is seaworthy enough for the voyage to Philadelphia.  With a prize crew under the command of one Lieutenant Scott aboard, Edward sails in company with Lexington to the Delaware Capes; Barry diverts to Little Egg harbor for repairs, while his prize is sailed triumphantly into Philadelphia.  John Barry was soon as popular with his crew as any Continental Navy captain could be: with a new reputation for victory in battle with few casualties and likely prize money to boot, future for the crew of Lexington looked bright.

An excerpt from the Virginia Gazette for 4/27/1776 
describing the battle.  Note that Lieutenant Boger 
is identified as Lieutenant "Boucher."
Numerous mentions of the battle soon appear in Dixon and Hunter's Virginia Gazette.  Barry's initial letter reporting the action is brief and to the point, "In sight of the Capes of Virginia, April 7, 1776.  Gentlemen, I have the pleasure to acquaint you, that at one P.M. this day I fell in with the sloop Edward, belonging to the Liverpool frigate.  She engaged us near two glasses.  They killed two of our men, and wounded two more.  We shattered her in a terrible manner, as you will see.  We killed and wounded several of her crew.  I shall give you a particular account of the powder and arms taken out of her, as well as my proceedings in general.  I have the pleasure to acquaint you that all our people behaved with much courage.  I am gentlemen [&c.] John Barry."  Biographer Tim McGrath describes this battle as the first time a British warship surrenders to one of the Continental Navy.  It is certainly the first in a string of exploits that will result in Barry being referred to as a "Father of the American Navy."

1.  Clark, William Bell.  (Ed.)  Naval Documents of the American Revolution, Volume 4.  (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1969.)
2.  Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships.  Lexington I (Brigantine)  (July 29, 2015.)
3.  McGrath, Tim.  John Barry: An American Hero in the Age of Sail.  (Westholme Publishing, 2010.)

Thursday, May 31, 2018

The Barron of Boston

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=-

Continental Frigate Boston, (1777-1780):
painting by Rod Claudius, circa 1962.
The "Web-Footed Barrons" of Hampton, Virginia have a proud tradition of military service crossing several generations.  Samuel Barron I commanded the detachment at Fort George (near the site of Fort Monroe today) until it was destroyed by a hurricane in 1749.  His sons James and Richard would serve valiantly in the Virginia Navy during the American Revolution.  His grandsons Samuel and James (the Younger) got their feet wet in the Virginia Navy before both eventually were appointed Commodores in the early United States Navy.  Today's post is about William Barron, another son of Samuel I, formerly of the Continental sloop Providence, who was serving as First Lieutenant of the Continental frigate Boston in early 1778.

Boston was a 24-gun frigate that had been launched in June of 1776.  She was initially under the command of Captain Hector McNeill, who was relieved of his command and eventually dismissed from the service for failing to support the Continental warships Hancock and Fox, thus allowing their capture.  McNeill was replaced by Captain Samuel Tucker, who in February of 1778 was ordered to convey John Adams (and his ten year old son John Quincy) to France as one of the American commissioners alongside Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee.  While Tucker was instructed to ensure Adams' safety and conceal his guns within French waters, he was also authorized to engage any British vessels he encountered along the way.  Foul weather and manpower difficulties delayed Boston's departure well into February.  In a somewhat ignominious episode, Lieutenant Barron falls overboard while trying to fish an anchor, but manages to catch himself by clinging to its flukes.  Boston would finally depart on February 17, and was in for a busy Atlantic crossing.

John Adams circa 1766,
portrait by Benjamin Blyth.
Almost immediately upon their departure, Boston is plagued by foul weather, much to the discomfort of Adams and the other passengers.  At one point, several crewmen are injured when Boston is struck by lightning; one unfortunate man has a hole burned in his head, causing him to go mad before his death three days later.  Seasickness may well have colored his judgement, Adams does not speak well of the frigate's crew in the beginning: Barron had to go ashore at least once to retrieve attempted deserters, and very few aboard knew how to handle either sail or cannon.  By March 7, however, Boston is in much fairer weather away from the coast, and Adams notes the crew is working diligently at the guns: "Mr. Barron gave the Words of Command, and they Spent an Hour, perhaps in the Exercise, at which they seemed tolerably expert." Adams eventually discussed William Barron at greater length, "Mr Barron our first Lt. appears to me to be an excellent Officer-very diligent, and attentive to his Duty.-very thoughtfull and considerate about the Safety of the Ship, and about order, (Economy and Regularity, among the officer, and Men-He has great Experience at Sea.-Has used the Trade to London, Lisbon, Affrica, West Indies, Southern States &c-" During this time, several 'frolics' take place aboard, including one where the crew are powdered all over with flour and doused with water...Adams seems unsure whether this is intended to conjure up a prize or trick the men into washing away vermin and changing their clothes.

Boston won't be alone on the ocean for long.  Strange sails are sighted on several occasions, during one of which, Adams refuses to take Captain Tucker's suggestion that he go below when the order is given to beat to quarters...the future President of the United States takes up his musket and insists he will fight alongside the crew.  (Fortunately, the vessel strikes its colors without a fight.)  Another incident takes place on March 11, when Boston takes the British Letter of Marque Martha.  As Captain Tucker reports, "I fired a Gun & they returned three and then down Collours."  Adams writes in his diary that, "One of her shot, went thro our Mizen Yard.-I hapened to be upon the Qr deck, and in the Direction from the ship to the Yard so that the ball went directly over my Head-We upon this turned our broadside which the instant she saw she struck."  Apparently, Adams wasn't about to hide himself away for this action, either.  Martha carried 14 guns, and had a cargo valued at £84,000 (provisions, 142 chests of tea, bale goods, and assorted merchandise), and her 34 man crew was taken prisoner.

The good fortune does not last.  On March 14 Boston sights another strange sail, and once again, John Adams records events in which he plays a prominent role: "Mr Barron our 1st Lt. Attempting to fire a Gun, as a signal to the Brig. the Gun burst, and tore the right Leg of this excellent Officer, in Pieces, so that the Dr was obliged to amputate it, just below the Knee.  I was present at this affecting Scaene and held Mr Barron in my Arms while the Dr put on the Turnequett and cut off the Limb.  Mr Barron bore it with great Fortitude and Magnannity.-thought he should die, and frequently intreated me, to take Care of his Family.-He had an helpless Family he Said, and begged that I would take Care of his Children.-I promised him, that by the first Letters I should write to America, I would earnestly recommend his Children to the Care of the Public, as well as of Individuals.  I cannot but think the Fall of this officer, a great Loss to the united States.-His Prudence, his Moderation, his Attention his Zeal, were Qualities much wanted in our Navy."  Unfortunately, the shock of his wounds and the subsequent operation bring about Barron's death on March 25.  Adams' diary describe the funeral service held the next day, "He was put into a Chest, and 10 or 12 Pounds shot put in with him, and then nailed up-the Fragment of the Gun, which destroyed him was lashed on the Chest, and the whole launched overboard through one of the Ports, in Presence of all the Ships Crew.-after the Buryal service was read by Mr Cooper."

Boston sights the coast of Spain just a few days after William Barron's burial at sea, and the Continental Navy has lost an experienced and, as we learn from the diary of John Adams, very fine officer.  Though he never achieved any level of fame or notoriety, William Barron is one of many early Americans who sacrificed his life for the dream of an independent nation.

1.  Crawford, Michael J.  (Editor).  Naval Documents of the American Revolution, Volume 11. (Naval History Division, Department of the Navy, 2005.)
2.  McGrath, Tim.  Give Me a Fast Ship: The Continental Navy and America's Revolution at Sea.  (The Penguin Group, 2014.)
3.  Plodding through the Presidents.  John Quincy Adams' Life in 9 Boats  (July 11, 2017.)

Sunday, April 8, 2018

The America That Could Have Been

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=-

Continental Ship-of-the-Line America,
Naval History and Heritage Command
The Journal of the Continental Congress for November 20, 1776 contains a momentous entry regarding the strength of the Continental Navy:

"The Marine Committee to whom was referred the bringing in a plan for increasing the navy of the United States, brought in a report, which was taken in consideration; Whereupon, Resolved, That there be immediately undertaken,  In New Hampshire, 1 ship of 74 guns,..."

The resolution also calls for the construction of two other 74's, five 36-gun frigates, an 18-gun brig, and a packet boat in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia.  The New Hampshire vessel referenced above is the ship-of-the-line America, the largest warship to be constructed in the Western Hemisphere up to that point, but sadly one destined for a brief and undistinguished career.  America's keel was laid in May 1777 at John Langdon's shipyard on the Piscataqua River.  Almost immediately, the would-be 74's construction was plagued by budget difficulties, scarcity of seasoned timber, and a lack of qualified tradesmen to work on such a massive vessel.  According to John Langdon's papers, the "Dimentions of a 74 Gun Ship" include a length of 147' at the keel, 49' across the beam, and a height of 7' between decks.  A Colonel James Hackett was appointed master builder under Langdon's supervision, and work plodded on for two years or so.

Difficulties in building notwithstanding, America would have two of the top contenders for the title of "Father of the United States Navy" as her prospective commanding officer.  Captain John Barry (already famed for his command of the Continental warships Lexington and Raleigh) was appointed to the command on November 9, 1779, with instructions to "hasten, as much as will be in your power, the completing of that ship."  Almost immediately, Barry would defeat a proposal to reduce America to a 54-gun razee (a ship-of-the-line that has had her top deck removed, essentially making her a heavy frigate), but little else would be accomplished in the coming months.  On March 23, 1780, Barry applies for a leave of absence from Continental service and commands a short privateering cruise.  Barry returns to the Continental Navy that September to assume command of the frigate Alliance, where he will, preside over the court-martial of Pierre Landais, defeat two British vessels at once, and eventually fight the final naval action of the American Revolution.

For the better part of another year, little to no work was done on America.  Then on June 26, 1781, Captain John Paul Jones would be appointed to the command.  Jones was ecstatic; still riding the waves of adulation from his storied victory over HMS Serapis and miraculously preserving the frigate Ariel through a massive storm on the Bay of Biscay, Jones thought command of a ship-of-the-line meant promotion to the rank of Rear Admiral was not far behind.  He would be sorely disappointed on that score, but Jones threw himself into the assignment nonetheless.  Finding money to pay for the construction plagued Jones just as it plagued Barry and Hackett before him, but he was determined to overcome.  Jones himself paid workmen out of his own pocket, and even tried his hand at crowdfunding.  Ever hopeful to get America to sea, Jones suggested to his friend Gouverneur Morris in Philadelphia, "a voluntary contribution of the public spirited ladies of Philadelphia, especially under the guidance of Mrs. Morris...I should hope also to give the ladies a ball on board soon afterwards at Philadelphia."  When not studying tracts on naval tactics to prepare himself for flag rank, Jones repeatedly butted heads with Langdon regarding different details of America's construction, just as they had during the fitting out of the sloop-of-war Ranger several years prior.  At one point as America stood vulnerable on the stocks, Jones received word of a rumored raiding party from a British frigate that planned to burn her.  Jones immediately posted guards and repeatedly stood watch himself; there were scattered reports of boats with muffled oars in the night, but no attack came.  John Paul Jones would be praised in a letter by John Adams (yet another "Father of the United States Navy"), who wrote, "The command of the America could not have been more judiciously bestowed, and it is with impatience that I wish her at sea.  Nothing gives me so much surprise, or so much regret, as the inattention of our countrymen to their navy.  It is to us a bulwark as essential as it is to Great Britain."

In the defense and Jones' and Adams' countrymen, they were essentially bankrupt.  The Continental Congress had bills and debts piling up across the board, with the war continuing to drag on.  When the French ship-of-the-line Magnifique was wrecked trying to enter Boston harbor on August 11, 1782, a way of crossing off one expense presented itself.  Instead of worrying how to arm, provision, crew, and maintain a 74-gun ship, Congress decided to gift America to the French as a replacement for Magnifique.  Jones was quite disappointed to say the least, but dedication to duty kept him moving forward; America was successfully launched on November 5, 1782.  She would depart for France on June 24, 1783 commanded by M. le Chevalier de Macarty Martinge, late of the Magnifique.  Her service in the French navy would be brief; an inspection revealed extensive dry rot (the direct result of building the ship with mostly green timber) in America's frame, and she was broken up in 1786.  It was probably just as well: armed with a main battery of 18-pound cannon supported by 12 and 9-pounders for an estimated broadside weight of 513 pounds, America was woefully under armed for her rate.  On the other hand, HMS Bellona, launched in 1760 as the prototype for the iconic British 74, was armed with a main battery of 32-pounders supported by 18 and 9-pounders, had an estimated broadside of 781 pounds.

The end of the beginning: the USN's first ship-of-the-line
USS Independence as a receiving ship circa 1890.
It would take thirty years and another war with Great Britain for the United States to launch another ship-of-the-line, this time to keep.  On June 22, 1814, the Boston Navy Yard would launch USS Independence.  While rated as a 74-gun third rate ship-of-the-line, Independence was immediately armed with 90 32-pound cannon and assigned to protect the approaches to Boston Harbor (and be blockaded therein by the British) alongside USS Constitution.  While Old Ironsides would break out of Boston for one last cruise, Independence would not put to sea until after the War of 1812 had ended.  In the interim, the Barbary Coast states (following British claims that they would sweep the oceans of United States vessels within six months) had once again begun raiding American vessels.  USS Independence was to be the flagship of Commodore William Bainbridge and lead an American fleet into the Mediterranean to combat Barbary piracy yet again...only to discover that a squadron dispatched earlier under Commodore Stephen Decatur had already secured a new peace treaty under threat of military reprisal.  Independence would eventually be razeed and become a 54-gun heavy frigate, albeit one of the fastest in the United States Navy.  She would cruise to Europe, the Mediterranean, off South America, and into the Pacific as far as the Hawaiian Islands before being decommissioned for the last time on November 3, 1912 at the Mare Island Navy Yard.

At the height of the Age of Sail, the strength of a nation's navy was often measured by the number of ships-of-the-line they had in service.  Ships-of-the-line were large and powerful, intended primarily as force projection.  While frigates tended to be more versatile and served a variety of purposes in the Continental Navy and early United States Navy, the development of American ships-of-the-line was a strong step towards making the United States a world renowned naval power.

1.  Morgan, William James.  Naval Documents of the American Revolution, Volume 7. (Naval History Division, Department of the Navy, 1976.)
2. Naval History and Heritage Command.  Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships: America I and Independence II  (June 16 and July 21, 2015.)
3.  Thomas, Evan.  John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy.  (Simon and Schuster, 2010.)
4.  Wikipedia.  HMS Bellona (1760)  (January 18, 2018.)

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Chronometers, Almanacs, and Computers

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=-

An engraving depicting the destruction of Admiral Shovell's
flagship HMS Association off the Scilly Isles in 1707.
On October 22, 1707 (November 2 by the modern calendar), a British fleet under the command of Sir Cloudesley Shovell was sailing home, following several successful actions in the Mediterranean.  The return was plagued with constant squalls and poor visibility.  Shovell and his senior officers believed they were just entering the English Channel, in a position to safely weather Ushant...unfortunately, the fleet was nearly 60 nautical miles off course, and bearing straight for the Scilly Isles.  The error was not realized until the last moment, when four ships smashed into the rocks and sank, a fifth just barely steering clear.  Nearly 2000 men would perish in the disaster, owing primarily due to the imprecise navigational techniques of the time.  This incident was one of several factors leading to the passage of the Longitude Act of 1714 offering prizes up to £20,000 for a reliable and practical means for determining longitude at see to within half a degree.  Calculating latitude north and south of the equator was relatively easy by taking a noon sighting of the sun, but longitude was a much more difficult problem to solve.  (Latitude lines are perfectly parallel, while longitude lines grow steadily closer together from the equator until they converge at the poles.)  To judge the various proposals that came in and dispense prize money as appropriate, a Board of Longitude was established, the commissioners of which included professors of mathematics and astronomy along with the First Lord of the Admiralty and the Astronomer Royal.

John Harrison's H4 chronometer, known
more commonly as "The Watch," completed
in 1759.  Harrison would eventually be
awarded £10,000 for the Watch, a copy
of which would accompany Captain
James Cook on his second voyage of
exploration between 1772 and 1775,
One of the more promising proposals to come before the Board of Longitude were the chronometers designed and constructed by John Harrison.  As early as the 1530's, navigators thought of using timekeepers to compute longitude; simply compare the apparent time at the ship with the apparent time at a particular location (such as Greenwich or Paris) and there you have it...every hour of time difference between the two locations being equal to 15° of longitude. The difficulty was in constructing a clock that could run steadily and remain accurate over long periods at sea; imprecise construction, difficulties with friction and wear, changes in temperature, changes in motion, changes in dampness, and a variety of other factors could and did cause clocks to speed up and slow down and otherwise throw off one's reckoning of local apparent time and the corresponding longitude.  Harrison's chronometers, beginning with the unveiling of H1 in 1735 revolutionized this approach.  Each of his first three chronometers included some form of innovation that allowed clocks to run more accurately...components made from two different metals that expand and contract at different rates to counteract the effect of temperature change, components that worked together without friction and thus did not require lubricant that would eventually wear out, and numerous others.

The first three chronometers were relatively large, but H4 (the watch that would bring Harrison the most notoriety) was only 6.5 inches across at its widest and weighing only three pounds (compared with the two foot tall and 60 pound H3)...easily transported and stored at sea.  In 1761, H4 underwent a trial at sea to Jamaica under Harrison's son William, and only lost five seconds of time in a passage of 81 days...making it accurate to within 1.25 minutes of longitude, WELL within the half a degree required to win the £20,000 prize.  The Board of Longitude prevaricated for years, insisting that H4 undergo additional trials on land and that Harrison prove that H4's performance was not simply a fluke.  He was eventually paid a prize of £10,000 after turning over all four timekeepers, submitting H4 to a supervised dismantling and explanation of its workings, and committing to construct two additional watches on H4's principles to prove that his methods were indeed sound.  Sadly, Harrison was in his 70's and had grown steadily resentful of his treatment by the Board of Longitude.  He completed another watch known as H5 (which was tested personally by King George III himself), and was an awarded an additional £8750 by Parliament, but never won the full 'official' longitude prize before his death in 1776.  It would fall to future clock makers such as Larcum Kendall, John Arnold, Thomas Earnshaw, and Thomas Mudge to continue the development of marine chronometers through the end of the 1700's and into the 1800's.

A paragraph or two is by no means sufficient to fully illustrate the contributions John Harrison made to navigation; numerous articles, books, and even a television miniseries has been made on the subject.  (I have plans to discuss Harrison in more depth in future blog posts myself.)  In many instances, the antagonist in a Harrison story is Nevil Maskelyne, a reverend turned scientist turned Astronomer Royal.  While Harrison was busy refining his various timekeepers, Maskelyne became a proponent of the lunar distance method (measuring the distance between the moon and another celestial body, and then attempting to determine the apparent time at the observer's location and Greenwich to calculate longitude) while awaiting the transit of Venus across the Sun from the island of St. Helena in 1761. John Harrison and his son William would blame Maskelyne with increasing vehemence in the years to come for the Board of Longitude's reluctance to award the full prize, changing conditions for marine chronometers to win, and even seizing Harrison's first four chronometers as public opinion that only worsened when Maskelyne was appointed Astronomer Royal (and thereby one of the Commissioners of the Board of Longitude) in 1765.  Despite being vilified somewhat unfairly by Harrison supporters and historians, Maskelyne seems to have supported the chronometer method as well.  Shortly after becoming Astronomer Royal, Maskelyne writes to his brother in India, "The Board of Longitude are also desirous to encourage the making of watches after Mr. Harrison's method.  They have engaged a person to make one.  I have had the drawings engraved here under my eye & shall publish them in a short space of time."

The biggest issue with Harrison's chronometers was their practicality, and whether an instrument as precise as H4 could be duplicated and made available to the general public.  Certainly, the basic multiplication needed to determine longitude from such a device was easy enough, but early marine chronometers were prohibitively expensive.  Larcum Kendall, the person referred to in Maskelyne's letter, is able to create several chronometers using Harrison's principles, but later says, "I am of the opinion that it would be many years (if ever) before a watch of the same kind with that of Mr. Harrison's could be afforded for £200."  For a bit of perspective, the most junior Post Captain in the Royal Navy could expect a daily wage of six would take him 667 days to accumulate enough money to purchase such a chronometer.  Kendall did attempt several less expensive variants, but these came with a corresponding drop in quality and a loss of accuracy.  Years later in the mid-1780's, at the height of competition between the chronometers of Arnold an Earnshaw, marine chronometers still cost between £65 and £80, whereas a mahogany sextant and the latest Nautical Almanac could be had for less than £6 in 1775...and the sun, moon, and stars were available free of charge.

Computation of a lunar distance observation for longitude, likely made by an
East Indiaman, 4 October 1772.
Speaking of the Nautical Almanac (properly known as the Nautical Almanac and Astronomical Ephemeris), this was the brainchild of Nevil Maskelyne and first published in 1766, shortly after he took office as the Astronomer Royal.  The Nautical Almanac contained twelve pages of calculations for each month, including data on the Sun, Moon, the most prominent stars, the movements of the Jovian satellites, eclipses and occultations, etc.  The point Maskelyne's almanac was to cut down on the time required to compute latitude and longitude at sea by calculating the positions and movements of celestial bodies in advance, with special emphasis on those required for the lunar distance method.  Paired with the Tables Requisite to be Used with the Astronomical and Nautical Ephemeris (another publication spearheaded by Maskelyne), the time required to "do your lunars" was reduced from nearly four hours to a much more practical thirty minutes.  Following its initial release in 1766, a new edition of the Nautical Almanac was to be published for every year, and these were eventually published as far as ten years in advance to be of more utility on long-term voyages such as the three year exploratory missions of Captain James Cook.  Initially, two computers were hired to calculate the tables for the first six months of a given year, two others to calculate the second six months, and a fifth person to act as a comparer and check all the tables for errors.  Pay for computers started at £70 per almanac in 1766, though this was increased to £75 the following year.

One of the more unexpected contributors to the Nautical Almanac was a woman named Mary Edwards.  She was the wife of a clergyman/mathematician/instrument maker who used computing work as early as 1773 to supplement his family's income.  John Edwards came to an unfortunate end in 1784, inhaling a lungful of arsenic fumes while experimenting with mirrors for a new telescope.  Desperate to provide for herself and her children, Mary wrote directly to the Astronomer Royal asking to continue computing for the Nautical Almanac.  There are strong indications that Mary was doing most of the computing for her husband prior to his death, and the Board of Longitude begins paying her openly starting in 1784.  Over the next few years, Mary's reputation for reliability and accuracy would grow; where other computers would take several months to finish eight weeks worth of tables, Mary tended to complete the work in less than half the time.  By the early 1790's, the Nautical Almanac was being published ten years in advance, so the Board of Longitude decided to briefly halt the computing work.  Mary appealed to the Board of Longitude for lost income, which was endorsed by Nevil Maskelyne itself, and was successful.  By 1809, Mary had been promoted to comparer, checking the work of the other computers; this came with an increase in pay from £225 per almanac to £250 (the dramatic increase in wages from the 1767 edition a direct result of the protracted wars with France).  She would serve in this capacity until Maskelyne's death in 1811, when she would have to appeal (again successfully) to the Board of Longitude and new Astronomer Royal for continued work.  Mary Edwards died herself in 1815, but not before passing her mathematical proficiency to her daughter Eliza, who continued as a computer until work on the Nautical Almanac was centralized as a form of civil service in 1832 and thus closed to women.

In the end, no one method ever "officially" won the Longitude Prize established by Queen Anne.  Many say that John Harrison deserves the honor, despite the prohibitive price of early marine chronometers.  Chronometers came into more prominence closer to the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries, though many mariners used them in tandem with the lunar distance method to be even more certain of their position at sea.  Well into the 20th century, until the advent of GPS, mariners could accurately plot their way across the oceans with a trusty chronometer, sextant, and almanac.  Notwithstanding "the fascinating modern age we live in," these navigational skills of the late 1700's still hold up today.

1.  His Majesty in Council.  Regulations and Instructions Relating to His Majesty's Service at Sea, The Eleventh Edition. (1772.)
2.  Howse, Derek.  Nevil Maskelyne: The Seaman's Astronomer.  (Cambridge University Press, 1989.)
3.  Pain, Stephanie.  "Lady of Longitude."  New Scientist 13 March 2004: Web.
4.  Sobel, Dava.  Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time.  (The Penguin Group, 1995.)

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!

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

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!

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

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!

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

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).