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!

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"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).

Saturday, September 23, 2017

The Battle of Flamborough Head

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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By the latter half of 1779, John Paul Jones was already a noteworthy captain in the Continental Navy: he had captured over a dozen prizes in the space of six weeks while in command of the sloop Providence, captured a British fishing fleet at the port of Canso, captured HMS Drake and staged a raid on the port of Whitehaven commanding the sloop-of-war Ranger.  While lobbying to secure a new command (preferably a proper frigate), in France, Jones announced his desire to "have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast, for I intend to go in harm's way."  In the end, Jones would be forced to settle for a converted East Indiaman, purchased and outfitted by the French government with much political wrangling by Benjamin Franklin.  Upon his appointment to the command, Jones named the vessel Bonhomme Richard, in honor of his new patron's famous Poor Richard's Almanack.

By March 1779, Jones was hard at work fitting Bonhomme Richard out.  He planned for her armament to consist of 28 12-pound cannon in the main battery, 6 9-pounders on the quarterdeck, and 6 18-pounders on the lower deck, just above the magazine at the stern.  To acquire these weapons, Jones was forced to travel to foundries throughout the French countryside, often having to work with older or badly constructed guns (he would reject the very worst of these) considered unsuitable for use by the French military.  In early April, Jones is summoned to Versailles to consult on secret plans to raid the English coast with a squadron of vessels commanded by Jones and carrying a land force under the Marquis de Lafayette.  These plans would eventually be derailed; King Louis would opt instead to attempt an all out invasion of the British Isles with a combined French and Spanish fleet, with Jones' ships to act as a diversionary force.  This fleet sails, but is poorly supplied and soon stricken with disease, forcing the plan to be abandoned.  Fortunately for Jones, he still gets his squadron: the 40-gun Bonhomme Richard, 36-gun Alliance, 32-gun Pallas, 18-gun Cerf, and 12-gun Vengeance.  Although these ships sail under Jones' command and fly American colors, only the Alliance is an American-owned vessel.  Alliance's captain is the French (though adopted as an American by the people of Massachusetts) Pierre Landais, whom Jones initially describes as a "sensible, well-informed man."  His opinion would soon change.

Jones would spend much of the late spring and early summer of 1779 working up his squadron in the Bay of Biscay: escorting merchantmen, chasing enemy marauders, and slowly molding his crew (including Americans, French, Irish, even some British prisoners pressed into American service) into fighting trim.  Almost immediately, Jones faced dissension from his squadron captains, who had been given orders suggesting they were under no true obligation to follow Jones orders, or even acknowledge his signals, in direct contradiction to the instructions Jones received from Franklin.  On numerous occasions, ships of the squadron would part company of their own accord to pursue prizes or missions of their own choosing.  Most frustrating to Jones, Bonhomme Richard was easily the slowest and least maneuverable ship in the squadron, repeatedly requiring the other ships to shorten sail and allow the flagship to keep pace.  In early September, Bonhomme Richard is becalmed off the Irish coast, and Jones orders his barge lowered to tow the ship clear of the looming rocks...the barge promptly cuts the tow line and deserts, promptly joined by the crew of the longboat ostensibly sent in pursuit.  By September 14, the squadron had taken several prizes, putting the coastline on alert, but Jones is hoping for a bold stroke similar to his capture of Drake and raid on Whitehaven the previous year.  Bonhomme Richard sails up the Firth of Forth, where he plans to lay the port of Leith under contribution (demanding a large sum of money to avoid destruction of the port), though a sudden storm springing up forces the squadron out to sea.

By September 23, Jones' squadron is more or less complete once again, but growing short on time; he was under orders to make for the Dutch port of Texel by October 1 to escort a fleet of merchantmen.  In the early evening, a fleet of 34 merchantmen escorted by two armed vessels is sighted: this is the Baltic Fleet (carrying invaluable naval stores and other items) escorted by the 44-gun HMS Serapis and the 20-gun Countess of Scarborough.  The merchant vessels are instructed to stand in for the shore near Flamborough Head while their escorts make for the American ships.  Jones orders Bonhomme Richard to beat to quarters around 5PM, and as it becomes apparent the two British warships intend to keep themselves between the merchantmen and the American squadron, Jones signals his ships to form line of battle to little effect. Alliance sheers off, Pallas maintains her original course, while Cerf and Vengeance hang back in relative safety.  As darkness began to fall, Serapis was coming up on Bonhomme Richard, when British Captain Pearson calls for Jones to identify himself...Jones initially claims to be the merchantman Princess Royal in an attempt to draw the enemy closer, but promptly raises his colors when Pearson demands he confirm his identity.  A nervous marine aboard Bonhomme Richard discharges his musket from the tops, and both vessels unleash a full broadside almost immediately thereafter, the combatants barely twenty-five yards apart.

“The Action Between His Majesties Ship Serapis, Commanded by Capt Pearson
& The Bonhomme Richard Commanded by Paul Jones, Sept. 23, 1779” by William Elliott, 1789.

Almost immediately, two of Bonhomme Richard's 18-pounders burst on the lower deck, killing and wounding many of the men serving those guns, and effectively taking Jones' heaviest weapons out of action. Unlike the aging Bonhomme Richard, Serapis is less than a year old, and Captain Richard Pearson is adept at taking advantage of his vessel's superior sailing qualities.  Jones gamely tries to maneuver his own ship to get in a position to rake the enemy vessel, but is out sailed at every turn.  At one point, Serapis rams Bonhomme Richard, tangling her bowspirit in the American mizzen rigging.  Taking advantage of the opportunity, Jones has the two vessels lashed together.  Hoping to break free, Pearson drops an anchor, hoping Bonhomme Richard's momentum will forcibly separate the two ships.  Jones has done his job well, however, and Serapis ends up swinging fully alongside Bonhomme Richard, catching her mizzen chains in the Jones' bow anchor.  For the next several hours, the two vessels blast away at one another, the muzzles of their run out guns literally touching the side of the opposing vessel.  In the fighting tops of both ships, marines are pouring withering small arms fire into the crews on deck. Both ships are soon burning (at one point leading to a brief lull in action as American and British seamen alike pause to fight the fires), and the winds die down to almost nothing.

Bonhomme Richard finds herself at a marked disadvantage, with fire from the Serapis passing through one side, killing men and dismounting guns, and passing out the other side.  More seriously, the American ship has taken several hits below the waterline, and is leaking badly.  Laboring in the hold, carpenter John Gunnison believes the ship is in danger of sinking, and makes his way to the gun deck.  Once there, he encounters gunner's mate Henry Gardner, who has taken a shocking number of casualties, with many of his guns disabled.  Both men agree that the time has come to surrender, and go on deck to report to the senior officers.  The sight that greets them above is gruesome indeed: the deck is littered with dead and wounded, the ship is practically shattered around them, Bonhomme Richard's colors have been shot away, and not a single is officer in sight.  Gunnison and Gardner shout across to Captain Pearson, attempting to surrender.  Suddenly, Jones appears from where he has been laboring behind a quarterdeck gun, knocks Gardner out with a thrown pistol and chasing Gunnison back below. Aboard Serapis, Pearson hails Jones: "Have you struck?  Do you ask for quarter?"

Portraying John Paul Jones in 1959,
Robert Stack boldly declares
"I have not yet begun to fight!"
According to American naval legend, Jones responds "I have not yet begun to fight!"   The quote was related to Jones by his first lieutenant, Richard Dale, some forty years later when speaking with a biographer. Other accounts of Jones' response vary wildly: an article in the Edinburgh Advertiser from October 1779 suggests Jones shouted "I may sink, but I'll be damned if I strike," and Midshipman Nathaniel Fanning claims his captain responded with "we’ll do that when we can fight no longer, but we shall see yours come down first; for your must know, Yankees do not haul down their colors till they are fairly beaten." Jones himself is no the report he addressed to Benjamin Franklin, he remarks that he responded "in the most determined negative," though in a memorial written to the French king years later, Jones claims to have declared that "I haven't as yet thought of surrendering, but I am determined to make you ask for quarter." Whichever particular response suits you best, suffice it to say that Jones told Pearson "NO!"

Once Jones makes his refusal to surrender clear, Pearson sends a boarding party across from Serapis, where they are met by a furious counterattack led by first lieutenant Richard Dale.  By this point, the only guns Bonhomme Richard still has in action are the 9-pounders on the quarterdeck, one of which Jones himself trains upon the Serapis' mainmast.  Seemingly out of nowhere, Captain Landais and the Alliance appear, firing a broadside that rakes both vessels indiscriminately, not once, but twice. Both ships are soon burning once again, with the near nonexistent winds preventing the smoke from dissipating.  Meanwhile, a sailor named William Hamilton crosses the tangled yards from Bonhomme Richard to Serapis, and begins throwing hand grenades down on the nearly deserted deck.  Somehow, one of these grenades falls down an open hatchway and detonates on Serapis' upper gun deck, setting off a devastating series of secondary explosions that force several guns out of action.  Realizing that the stricken Bonhomme Richard is not about to surrender and fearing that the undamaged Alliance will soon return to the engagement, Captain Pearson strikes his colors to preserve his remaining crew.

The Battle of Flamborough Head would prove to be one of the bloodiest naval engagements of the American Revolution; Bonhomme Richard and Serapis alike would have approximately 50% of their crews killed our wounded, abnormally high casualties for single ship engagements of the time.  Shortly after Pearson's surrender, Serapis' mainmast would fall, and the crew of Bonhomme Richard would spend hours getting the fires under control with flames coming within inches of the gunpowder magazine.  In the end, late the next day, Bonhomme Richard would succumb to her battle damage (numerous breaches below the water line, and at least one pump destroyed) and sink, much to Jones' regret.  A small silver lining comes in that the frigate Pallas does indeed join the battle, capturing Countess of Scarborough after an hour's action.  The nearly three dozen ships of the Baltic Fleet would arrive safely at their intended destinations despite the loss of their escorts, for which Captain Pearson would eventually be knighted. Knowing that news of the battle would soon bring enemy reinforcements, the weary squadron makes for neutral waters.

Sketches from the port records
of Texel, Netherlands depicting
the flags flown by Alliance and
the captured Serapis.
The remaining ships of Jones' squadron arrive at the port of Texel in the Netherlands on October 3.  Almost immediately, British officials there begin pressuring the Dutch government to have Jones arrested as a pirate, noting he wasn't sailing under a recognized flag.  The Dutch promptly send an artist out to sketch the flags being flown from the captured Serapis and the Alliance, inserting these sketches in their record books after the fact. The Dutch government can now claim to recognize these flags, essentially making Jones' capture of the Serapis a legitimate wartime action.  In the weeks that follow, the Dutch will treat Jones as a conquering hero, which he allows to distract him from worsening conditions aboard his ships, from a lack of winter clothing to a constant arrears in pay for the men to the gruesome fact that Serapis had not even been cleaned after the horrific battle. Eventually, Jones' increasing notoriety in the eyes of the Dutch public and constant pressure from the British will convince the Dutch to expel Jones and his squadron from the port. Meanwhile, while Jones is distracted by his newfound laurels, French officials will sell Serapis out from under him, then reclaim Pallas, Vengeance, and Cerf, leaving him Alliance (the only American-build and owned vessel of the squadron) to command.  Jones' command of Alliance will be brief but noteworthy, as he brazenly races past the British vessels sent to capture him and well within sight of the British fleet at the Downs before arriving safely at Coruna, Spain on January 16, 1780.

The Battle of Flamborough Head is arguably the most iconic American naval victory during the American Revolution, and John Paul Jones won it in a sluggish old tub.  In 1788, Thomas Jefferson would write of Jones, "I consider this officer to be the principle hope of our future efforts on the ocean."  The inscription on Jones' tomb at the United States Naval Academy goes on to assert that "He gave our navy its earliest traditions of heroism and victory."  Jones is among a handful of names that historians mention when referring to the father of the American Navy; certainly his future-mindedness in regards to naval power, dedication to the American cause, superb shiphandling skills, and unwavering courage in battle are certainly traits worthy of emulation.  Jones had his share of faults as well, often related to allowing his ego to overcome his judgement.  While I personally wouldn't style Jones the ONLY father of the United States Navy (John Barry for example, known for courage, seamanship, and professionalism is another contender for the title), he is certainly one of several men the USN can look to as an early example of its guiding principles.

1. Thomas, Evan.  John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy.   (Simon and Schuster, 2003).
2. McGrath, Tim.  Give Me a Fast Ship: The Continental Navy and America's Revolution at Sea.  (The Penguin Group, 2014).
3. Mastai, Boleslaw and Marie-Louise D’Otrange.  The Stars and the Stripes.  (Knopf, 1973).
4. Journal of the American Revolution.  The Real Immortal Words of John Paul Jones, (January 19, 2015).

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

The Turtle and the Eagle

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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Full scale reproduction of the submarine Turtle
from the Turtle Project (2007).  The submarine,
piloted by Roy Manstan, was launched on November 10, 2007
at the Connecticut River Museum in Essex, Connecticut.
With the outbreak of the American Revolution in April of 1775, thirteen North American colonies suddenly found themselves at odds with one of the foremost military powers of the 18th century.  In order to combat the marked disadvantage with which Continental forces fought the British Army and Royal Navy, numerous innovations are thought up and implemented, with varying degrees of success.  One of the more curious schemes of the American Revolution would take place on the night of September 6-7, 1776 in New York Harbor.

David Bushnell was a Connecticut farmer turned student, beginning his studies at Yale at age 31 in 1771.  A great admirer of Benjamin Franklin, Bushnell hoped to become an inventor himself. While at Yale, Bushnell made waves (literally) with a number of experiments demonstrating that gunpowder could be detonated underwater.  Hoping to put his inventive mind to use several years later, Bushnell develops a "Submarine Vessel" with which to attack British forces in New York harbor in late 1775/early 1776 named the Turtle.

For a description of Turtle, I think an excerpt of a letter from Dr. Benjamin Gale (a doctor at Yale) to Silas Deane written on December 9, 1775 serves best:

"The Body, when standing upright in the position in which it is navigated, has the nearest resemblance to the two upper shells of a Tortoise joined together. In length it doth not exceed 7-1/2 feet from the stem to the higher part of the rudder: the height not exceeding 6 feet. The person who navigates it enters at the top. It has a brass top or cover, which receives the person's head as he sits on a seat, and is fastened on the inside by screws. In this brass head is fixed eight glasses, viz. two before, two on each side, one behind, and one to look out upwards. In the same brass head are fixed two brass tubes, to admit fresh air when requisite, and a ventilator at the side to free the machine from the air rendered unfit for respiration. On the inside is fixed a Barometer, by which he can tell the depth he is under water; a Compass, by which he knows the course he steers. In the barometer and on the needles of the compass is fixed fox-fire, i.e. wood that gives light in the dark. His ballast consists of about 900 wt. of lead which he carried at the bottom and on the outside of the machine, part of which is so fixed as he can let run down to the Bottom, and serves as an anchor, by which he can ride ad libitum. He has a sounding lead fixed at the bow, by which he can take the depth of water under him; and to bring the machine into a perfect equilibrium with the water, he can admit so much water as is necessary, and has a forcing pump by which he can free the machine at pleasure, and can rise above water, and again immerge, as occasion requires.

In the bow, he has a pair of oars fixed like the two opposite arms of a wind mill, with which he can row forward, and turning them the opposite way, row the machine backward; another pair fixed upon the same model, with which he can row the machine round, either to the right or left, and a third, by which he can row the machine either up or down; all which are turn'd by foot, like a spinning wheel. The rudder by which he steers, he manages by hand, within board. All these shafts which pass through the machine are so curiously fix'd as not to admit any water to incommode the machine. The magazine for the powder is carried on the hinder part of the machine, without board, and so contrived, that when he comes under the side of the Ship, he rubs down the side until he comes to the keel, and a hook so fix'd as that when it touches the keel it raises a spring which frees the magazine from the machine and fastens it to the side of the Ship; at the same time, it draws a pin, which sets the watchwork agoing which, at a given time, springs the lock and the explosion ensues."

General George Washington was intrigued by Bushnell's vessel, giving him money and personnel to assist in its development.  Beginning in the late summer of 1775, Bushnell began testing Turtle, but was frequently delayed by various setbacks.  Finally, by early September 1776, Turtle was deemed ready to face the enemy.  David Bushnell himself was too large to fit through Turtle's hatch, so his brother was initially slated to pilot the vessel into combat.  When Bushnell's brother was stricken with the same "indisposition" ravaging Washington's camp, Sergeant Ezra Lee of the Continental Army was selected to take his place.  The plan was to launch Turtle into New York harbor, affix the 150-pound gunpowder charge to the hull of HMS Eagle, a 64-gun ship of the line and flagship to Admiral Howe.  If the mine was detonated successfully, Eagle would surely sink.

Unfortunately, the attack did not go as planned.

Two whale boats were enlisted to tow Turtle from Manhattan, arriving in the waters near the British warships at around 11:00 PM on the night of September 6.  Almost immediately upon being cast loose, Turtle was swept up in the strong tidal currents and carried far beyond his intended position. Sergeant Lee spends several hours rowing back into position, surfacing repeatedly to confirm his position and check his bearings.  Finally, the submarine is alongside Eagle.  Lee makes numerous attempts to drill into the warship's hull far enough to affix the mine, set the timer and depart, but the drill doesn't want to bite, having apparently struck metal.  Eagle was known to have a coppered hull at this time, but the sheathing was thin enough for the drill to penetrate...some historians suggest that the drill encountered certain iron fittings connected to the ship's rudder, while others point out a vessel Turtle's size could only contain about a half hour of good air and that Sergeant Lee was undoubtedly suffering from carbon dioxide inhalation at this point.  In either case, with dawn approaching, Lee abandons the attack and begins rowing towards an agreed upon rendezvous point some four miles away.

Once again current and tide conspire to make Turtle's path a difficult one.  Despite phosphorescent needles, Lee has difficulty reading his instruments, forcing him to surface and continually correct his course.  Turtle's erratic course soon draws the attention of British soldiers at Governor's Island, who board a barge to pursue the curious craft.  Unable to outrun his pursuers, Lee decides to release his mine in their midst so "we should all be blown up together."  Upon sighting the released charge, the British barge rows clear.  Lee immediately takes that opportunity to make his escape, safely reaching his rendezvous to be towed safely home.  Not long after, the mine explodes, sending a plume of planks and water high into the morning air.  (Though British reports do not document the alleged detonation.)

Even though Turtle failed to destroy the Eagle, George Washington would write of the submarine years later, "I then thought, and still think, that it was an effort of genius." This was also not the last nautical scheme Bushnell would be involved with during the war; his underwater mines would provide the catalyst for the 1778 "Battle of the Kegs" in Philadelphia.  Over the years, numerous groups have taken an interest in Turtle's exploits: full scale replicas have been constructed for the Royal Navy Submarine Museum and the Connecticut River Museum (which actually launched theirs in 2007), and the submarine was dramatized in an early episode of TURN: Washington's Spies.  While later submarines would earn the distinction of being the first to sink an enemy warship, Turtle remains the first documented use of a submarine in combat.

1. McGrath, Tim.  Give Me a Fast Ship: The Continental Navy and America's Revolution at Sea.  (The Penguin Group, 2014).
2. Naval History and Heritage Command, The Submarine Turtle: Naval Documents of the Revolutionary War, (May 21, 2015).

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

An Arctic Summer: August 11-22, 1773

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!

Track of the Racehorse and Carcass
with position plots from throughout the
expedition from 6/13 to 8/22 of 1773.
Following their labors in getting free of the polar ice the previous week, the ships of the Phipps Expedition arrive at the port of Smeerenberg in Spitsbergen (part of the Svarlbard archipelago in northern Norway). The five journal entries in today's blog post mark the end of my series of posts chronicling "An Arctic Summer." Hopefully you've had a good time following the expedition's progress.

"11th.  Came to an anchor in the harbour of Smeerenberg, to refresh the people after their fatigues. We found here four of the Dutch ships, which we had left in the Norways when we sailed from Vogel Sang, and upon which I had depended for carrying the people home in case we had been obliged to quit the ships.  In this Sound there is good anchorage in thirteen fathom, sandy bottom, not far from the shore: it is well sheltered from all winds.  The island close to which we lay is called Amsterdam Island, the Westernmost point of which is Hacluyt's Head Land: here the Dutch used formerly to boil their whale-oil, and the remains of some conveniences erected by them for that purpose are still visible.  Once they attempted to make an establishment, and left some people to winter here, who all perished. The Dutch ships still resort to this place for the latter season of the whale fishery."

Meteorological Data:
8/11 Weather on Expedition: 33°F at noon, winds from the ENE, hazy weather.
8/11 Weather in Williamsburg (Weather Channel App): 79°F at noon with a heat index of 87°F, 5 mph winds from the S, clear.

Phipps and company will spend more than a week in and around Smeerenberg; both to allow the exhausted crews of Racehorse and Carcass to recover from their recent near marooning, and to take observations with a variety of scientific instruments and conduct a survey of the flora and fauna found nearby.  Be sure to take note of how Phipps had laid plans from the very beginning to return the crews safely to England if his own vessels had been lost...if circumstances earlier in the month had not improved, they may well have had to make use those Dutch ships waiting at Smeerenberg.

"18th.  Completed the observations.  Calm all day.  During our stay, I again set up the pendulum, but was not so fortunate as before, never having been able to get an observation of a revolution of the sun, or equal altitudes for the time.  We had an opportunity of determining the refraction at midnight, which answered within a few seconds to the calculation in Dr. Bradley's table, allowing for the barometer and thermometer.  Being within sight of Cloven Cliff, I took a survey of this part of Fair Haven, to connect it with the plan of the other part.  Dr. Irving climbed up a mountain, to take its height with the barometer, which I determined at the same time geometrically with great care.  By repeated observations here we found the latitude to be 79°44', which by the survey corresponded exactly with the latitude of Cloven Cliff, determined before; the longitude 9°50'45"E; dip 82°8'3/4; variation 18°57'W; which agrees also with the observation made on shore in July.  Opposite to the place where the instruments stood was one of the most remarkable Icebergs in this country.  Icebergs are large bodies of ice filling the vallies between the high mountains; the face towards the sea is nearly perpendicular, and of a very lively light green colour.  That represented in the engraving, from a sketch taken by Mr. D'Auvergne upon the spot, was about three hundred feet high, with a cascade of water issuing out of it.  The black mountains, white snow, and beautiful colour of the ice, make a very romantic and uncommon picture.  Large pieces frequently break off from the Icebergs, and fall with great noise into the water: we observed one piece which had floated out into the bay, and grounded in twenty-four fathom; it was fifty feet high above the surface of the water, and of the same beautiful colour as the Iceberg.

An engraving "View of an Iceberg" published with the expedition journal.

A particular description of all the plants and animals will have a place in the Appendix.  I shall here mention such general observations as my short stay enabled me to make.  The stone we found was chiefly a kind of marble, which dissolved easily in the marine acid.  We perceived no marks of minerals of any kind, nor the least appearance of present, or remains of former Volcanoes.  Neither did we meet with insects, or any species of reptiles; not even the common earthworm.  We saw no springs or rivers, the water, which we found in great plenty, being all produced by the melting of the snow from the mountains.  During the whole time we were in these latitudes, there was no thunder or lightning.  I must also add, that I never found what is mentioned by Marten (who is generally accurate in his observations, and faithful in his accounts) of the sun at midnight resembling in appearance the moon; I saw no difference in clear weather between the sun at midnight and any other time, but what arose from a different degree of altitude; the brightness of the light appearing there, as well as elsewhere, to depend upon the obliquity of his rays.  The sky was in general loaded with hard white clouds; so that I do not remember to have ever seen the sun and horizon both free from them even in the clearest weather. We could always perceive when we were approaching the ice, long before we saw it, by a bright appearance near the horizon, which the pilots called the blink of the ice.  Hudson remarked, that the sea where he met with ice was blue; but the green sea was free from it.  I was particularly attentive to observe this difference, but could never discern it.  The Driftwood in these seas has given rise to various opinions and conjectures, both as to its nature and the place of its growth.  All that which we saw (except the pipe-staves taken notice of by Doctor Irving on the Low Island) was fir, and not worm-eaten.  The place of the growth I had no opportunity of ascertaining.  The nature of the ice was a principal object of attention in this climate.  We found always a great swell near the edge of it; but whenever we got within the loose ice, the water was constantly smooth.  The loose fields and flaws, as well as the interior part of the fixed ice, were flat, and low: with the wind blowing on the ice, the loose parts were always, to use the phrase of the Greenlandmen, packed; the ice at the edges appearing rough, and piled up; this roughness and height I imagine to proceed from the smaller pieces being thrown up by the force of the sea on the solid part.  During the time that we were fast amongst the Seven Islands, we had frequent opportunities of observing the irresistible force of the large bodies of floating ice.  We have often seen a piece of several acres square lifted up between two much larger pieces, and as it were becoming one with them; and afterwards this piece so formed acting in the same manner upon a second and third; which would probably have continued to be the effect, till the whole bay had been so filled with ice that the different pieces could have had no motion, had not the stream taken an unexpected turn, and set the ice out of the bay."

Meteorological Data:
8/18 Weather on Expedition: 46°F at noon, winds from the NE, clear.
8/18 Weather in Williamsburg (Weather Channel App): 88°F at noon with a heat index of 104°F, light winds from the SSW, clear and humid.

After a much-needed break in Smeerenburg, Racehorse and Carcass put back to sea, once again trying to penetrate the North Pole to the ocean on the far side of the world.

"20th.  At midnight, being exactly in the latitude of Cloven Cliff, Mr. Harvey took an observation for the refraction; which we found to agree with the tables.  The wind Southerly all day, blowing fresh in the afternoon.  About noon fell in with a stream of loose ice, and about four made the main ice near us.  We stood to the WNW along it at night, and found it in the same situation as we saw it before; the wind freshened and the weather grew thick, so that we lost sight of it, and could not venture to stand nearer, the wind being SSW."

Meteorological Data:
8/20 Weather on Expedition: 40°F at noon,  winds from the SW, cloudy.
8/20 Weather in Williamsburg (Weather Channel App): 87°F at noon with a heat index of 96°F, light winds from the E, clear.

"21st.  At two in the morning we were close in with the body of the West ice, and obliged to tack for it; blowing fresh, with a very heavy sea from the Southward.  The wind abated in the afternoon, but the swell continued, with a thick fog."

Meteorological Data:
8/21 Weather on Expedition: 40°F at noon, winds from the SE by S, foggy.
8/21 Weather in Williamsburg (Weather Channel App): 89°F at noon with a heat index of 100°F, 5 mph winds from the SSE, partly cloudy.

"22d.  The wind sprung up Northerly, with a thick fog; about noon moderate and clearer; but coming on to blow fresh again in the evening, with a great sea, and thick fog, I was forced to haul more to the Eastward, lest we should be embayed, or run upon lee ice.  The season was so very far advanced, and fogs as well as gales of wind so much to be expected, that nothing more could now have been done, had anything been left untried.  The summer appears to have been uncommonly favourable for our purpose, and afforded us the fullest opportunity of ascertaining repeatedly the situation of that wall of ice, extending more than twenty degrees between the latitudes of eighty and eighty-one, without the smallest appearance of any opening."

Meteorological Data:
8/22 Weather on Expedition: 37°F at noon, winds from the NE, hazy.
8/22 Weather in Williamsburg (Weather Channel App): 89°F at noon with a heat index of 100°F, 5 mph winds from the S, sunny and clear.

An excerpt from Purdie and Dixon's Virginia Gazette
from December 9, 1773.  As part of a larger
dispatch from September 20, it includes a brief summary
of the Phipps Expedition, though the ship Racehorse
is mistakenly identified as Seahorse.
Based upon Phipps' notes, following the main body of the ice in those latitudes means he followed the coast for a distance of approximately 198 nautical miles without finding any significant passages farther north.  After resolving to return to England, the ships sight their first star on August 24th (Jupiter) while passing 75°59' N...this is the first time they've seen a star aside from the sun, which has been above the northern horizon since June 19th.  The journal concludes with two pages of notes marked 'September' as Racehorse and Carcass wend their way back home.  More temperature and depth readings are taken of the ocean...sounding a depth of 683 fathoms at one point.  Towards the end of the month, much closer to England, both ships are caught in heavy seas and storms...Captain Phipps remarked that it is fortunate the vessels left home when they did, as if the two ships had encountered such weather earlier in the expedition when they were much heavier laden, they stood a good chance of foundering.  Even though the Phipps Expedition never made it across the North Pole, Captain Phipps seemed genuinely pleased with what his crews accomplished...confirmed navigational data, conducted important measurements and observations, catalogued various plants and animals in the Arctic, and brought both vessels safely home.

Now for our final comparisons between Williamsburg and Expedition weather: to be perfectly honest, I've experienced colder winters here in town, though admittedly I haven't had to deal with anything remotely as difficult as what Phipps and company experienced.  Despite a sudden increase of humidity and the heat index several days this week, Williamsburg's summer seems to be moderating as well.  After reading through this journal several times, I can see why participating in this expedition left such strong impressions on Nicholas Biddle, eventually of the Continental Navy.

The Phipps Expedition is a perfect example of the Age of Reason/Enlightenment, a period spanning the eighteenth century that placed an increasing emphasis on empiricism and rational thought over the mysticism and religion of previous centuries.  The Age of Reason saw a boom in scientific discovery, exploration, and the growth of various societies and academies that spread this knowledge to an increasingly literate population.  Think of two people contemplating some aspect of the unknown: "What happens if we do this?" "I don't know.  Let's try it and find out."  While the results weren't always predictable, people like Constantine Phipps and George Wythe (to name a Williamsburg naturalist of the time) continued to learn about the world around them through observation, experimentation, and experience: an example worth following indeed.

Phipps, Constantine John.  A Voyage Towards the North Pole Undertaken at His Majesty's Command. (J. Nourse, 1773.)

Thursday, August 10, 2017

An Arctic Summer: July 31-August 10, 1773

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!

Track of the Racehorse and Carcass with position plots
for 7/29 and 7/31.  Foggy weather described in the
meteorlogical journal likely prevented observations
in early August.  Red circle indicates islands off
"North East Land" where the ships were most likely
beset by ice as the journal describes on Ausgust 3-10.
The Phipps Expedition enters its third month at sea, continuing their attempts to penetrate the polar waters. They've been in close with the "main body" of the ice (which I take to be their encounters with the polar ice cap) for some time now, trying to explore small channels and bays in the hopes that they will prove to be an extended passage farther north.  Almost without fail, these passages are little more than a mile or two long before closing up.  As  we get into this post's journal entries, Racehorse and Carcass find themselves in an extensive field of loose ice near the main body, with the loose ice slowly packing closer and closer together around the ships.

"July 31st.  At nine in the morning, having a light breeze to the Eastward, we cast off, and endeavoured to force through the ice.  At noon the ice was so close, that being unable to proceed, we moored again to a field. In the afternoon we filled our cask with fresh water from the ice, which we found very pure and soft.  The Carcass moved, and made fast to the same field with us.  The ice measured eight yards ten inches in thickness at one end, and seven yards eleven inches at the other. At four in the afternoon the variation was 12°24' W: at the same time the longitude 19°0'15" E; by which we found that we had hardly moved to the Eastward since the day before. Calm most part of the day; the weather very fine; the ice closed fast, and was all round the ships; no opening to be seen any where, except an hole of about a mile and a half, where the ships lay fast to the ice with ice-anchors. We completed the water.  The ship's company were playing on the ice all day.  The pilots being much farther than they had ever been, and the season advancing, seemed alarmed at being beset."

Meteorological Data:
7/31 Weather on Expedition: 48°F at noon, light airs at E, fair.
7/31 Weather in Williamsburg (Weather Channel App): 82°F at noon with a heat index of 83°, light winds from the E, sunny.

"August 3d.  The weather very fine, clear, and calm; we perceived that the ships had been driven far to the Eastward; the ice was much closer than before, and the passage by which we had come in from the Westward closed up, no open water being in sight, either in that or any other quarter.  The pilots having expressed a wish to get if possible farther out, the ships companies were set to work at five in the morning, to cut a passage through the ice, and warp through the small openings to the Westward.  We found the ice very deep, having sawed sometimes through pieces twelve feet thick.  This labour was continued the whole day, but without any success; our utmost efforts not having moved the ships above three hundred yards to the Westward through the ice, at the same time that they had been driven (together with the ice itself, to which they were fast) far to the NE and Eastward, by the current; which had also forced the loose ice from the Westward, between the islands, where it became packed, and as firm as the main body."

Meteorological Data:
8/3 Weather on Expedition: 47° F at noon, light airs and fair weather.
8/3 Weather in Williamsburg (Weather Channel App): 89°F at noon with a heat index of 94°F, 7 mph winds from the SE, sunny.

After the light-hearted Arctic recreation of the 31st (I cannot help but picture Jack Aubrey and the crew of HMS Surprise staging a polar cricket tournament in such a setting), it seems the fears of the Greenland pilots have been realized; the ships are now trapped by pack ice.  As the ice drifts along in a large mass, the ships are carried with them, perhaps to as yet unseen shoals or fully aground, where they mat well be destroyed.  Light and flirty winds offer no help.  On the 5th, Captain Phipps sends Midshipman Walden and one of the Greenland pilots with a boat crew to a nearby island (which he now refers to as Walden's Island on his charts), instructing him to use the high ground there to search for a path back to open water.

"HMS Carcass Trapped in the Ice"
By Robert A. Wilson
The Mariner's Museum - Newport News, VA
"6th.  Mr Walden and the pilots, who were sent the day before to examine the state of the ice from the island, returned this morning with an account, that the ice, though close all about us, was open to the Westward, round the point by which we came in. They also told me, that when upon the island they had the wind very fresh to the Eastward, though where the ships lay it had been almost calm all day. This circumstance considerably lessened the hopes we had hitherto entertained of the immediate effect of an Easterly wind in clearing the bay.  We had but one alternative; either patiently to wait the event of the weather upon the ships, in hopes of getting them out, or to betake ourselves to the boats.  The ships had driven into shoal water, having but fourteen fathom.  Should they, or the ice to which they were fast, take the ground, they must be inevitably lost, and probably overset.  The hopes of getting the ships out was not hastily to be relinquished, nor obstinately adhered to, till all other means of retreat were cut off.  Having no harbor to lodge them in, it would be impossible to winter them here, with any possibility of their being again serviceable; our provisions would be very short for such an undertaking, were it otherwise feasible; and supposing, what appeared impossible, that we could get to the nearest rocks, and make some conveniences for wintering, being now in an unfrequented part, where ships never even attempt to come, we should have the same difficulties to encounter the next year, without the same resources; the remains of the ship's company, in all probability, not in health; no provisions; and the sea not so open, this year having certainly been uncommonly clear.  Indeed it could not have been expected that a very small part should survive the hardships of such a winter with every advantage; much less in our present situation.  On the other hand, the undertaking to move so large a body for so considerable a distance by boats, was not without very serious difficulties.  Should we remain much longer here, the bad weather must be expected to set in.  The stay of the Dutchmen to the Northward is very doubtful: if the Northern harbours keep clear, they stay till the beginning of September; but when the loose ice sets in, they quit them immediately. I thought it proper to send for the officers of both ships, and informed of my intention of preparing the boats for going away.  I immediately hoisted out the boats, and took every precaution in my power to make them secure and comfortable: the fitting would necessarily take up some days.  The water shoaling, and the ships driving fast towards the rocks to the NE, I ordered canvass bread-bags to be made, in case it should be necessary very suddenly to betake ourselves to the boats: I also sent a man with a lead and line to the Northward, and another from the Carcass to the Eastward, to sound wherever they found cracks in the ice, that we might have notice before either the ships, or the ice to which they were fast, took the ground; as in that case, they must instantly have been crushed or overset. The weather bad; most part of the day foggy, and rather cold."

Meteorological Data:
8/6 Weather on Expedition: No weather data recorded on August 6.
8/6 Weather in Williamsburg (Weather Channel App): 83°F at noon with a heat index of 85°F, light winds from the WSW, mostly cloudy.

"7th.  In the morning I set out with the Launch over the ice; she hauled much easier than I could have expected; we got her about two miles.  I then returned with the people for their dinner.  Finding the ice rather more open near the ships I was encouraged to attempt moving them.  The wind being Easterly, though but little of it, we set the sails, and got the ships about a mile to the Westward.  They moved indeed, but very slowly, and were not now by a great deal so far to the Westward as where they were beset.  However, I kept all the sail upon them, to force through whenever the ice slacked the least. The people behaved very well in hauling the boat; they seemed reconciled to the idea of quitting the ships, and to have the fullest confidence in their officers.  The boats could not with the greatest diligence be got to the water side before the fourteenth; if the situation of the ships did not alter by that time, I should not be justified in staying longer by them.  In the mean time I resolved to carry on both attempts together, moving the boats constantly, but without omitting any opportunity of getting the ships through."

Meteorological Data:
8/7 Weather on Expedition: 38°F at midnight, winds from the W, foggy.
8/7 Weather in Williamsburg (Weather Channel App): 82°F at noon with a heat index of 90°F, 10 mph winds from the SSW, rain.

From the first moment the Royal Society and other sponsors began planning the expedition, they realized that there was a very strong possibility that one or both ships might have to be abandoned.  As such, both Racehorse and Carcass were large enough to support both ship's companies, and enough boats were provided to accommodate everyone should the larger vessels need to be left behind.  The seamen were picked from experienced, reliable hands, and the officers were selected with equal care.  Even so, I find it worth mentioning that the crews are facing the possibility of such future hardship with relative aplomb.  Granted, British seamen of the time are known for their bravery and dedication, but one would have thought there would be at least a little grumbling.  I thing that this is owed in no small part to the leadership of Captains Phipps and Lutwidge and their officers, and the fact that they already had contingency plans in place for most situations they could expect to face.  Fortunately, as the launches are slowly dragged towards the open water, the ice binding both ships begins drifting to the west and loosening up a bit, hinting that the expedition's situation might not be so dire.

"9th.  A thick fog in the morning: we moved the ship a little through some very small openings.  In the afternoon, upon its clearing up, we were agreeably surprized to find the ships had driven much more than we could have expected to the Westward.  We worked hard all day, and got them something more to the Westward through the ice; ut nothing in comparison to what the ice itself had drifted.  We got past the Launches; I sent a number of men for them, and got them on board.  Between three and four in the morning the wind was Westerly, and it snowed fast.  The people having been much fatigued, we were obliged to desist from working for a few hours.  The progress which the ships had made through the ice was, however, a very favourable event: the drit of the ice was an advantage that might be as suddenly lost, as it had been unexpectedly gained, by a change in the current:  we had experienced the inefficacy of an Easterly wind when fa in the bay, and under the high land; but having now got through so much of the ice, we began again to conceive hopes that a brisk gale from that quarter would soon effectually clear us."

Meteorological Data:
8/9 Weather on Expedition: 34°F at noon, variable winds, foggy.
8/9 Weather in Williamsburg (Weather Channel App): 79°F at noon with a heat index of 82°, light winds from ESE, partly cloudy and mild.

"10th.  The wind springing up to the NNE in the morning, we set all the sail we could upon the ship, and forced her through a great deal of very heavy ice: she struck often very hard, and with one stroke broke the shank of the best bower anchor.  About noon we had got her through all the ice, and out to sea.  I stood to the NW to make the ice, and found the main body just where we left it.  At three in the morning, with a good breeze Easterly, we were standing to the Westward, between the land and the ice, both in sight; the weather hazey."

Meteorological Data:
8/10 Weather on Expedition: 33°F at noon, winds from the ENE, cloudy.
8/10 Weather in Williamsburg (Weather Channel App): 79°F at noon with a heat index of 82°F, light winds from the ESE, sunny.

We've had a fairly mild spell in Williamsburg weather-wise.  Still warm and occasionally humid, but this is definitely not characteristic of the early Augusts I've experienced here in the past.  Even Phipps and company seem to be enjoying relatively easy weather for the region...upper 40's then dropping into the low to mid 30's by the time they escape the ice.  Granted, they've got incredibly hard labor to deal with in dragging boats for miles and chopping at the pack ice in an attempt to get the vessels clear.  Luckily, the worst days of the expedition are behind them.  My next post will detail the final days of the expedition and bring "An Arctic Summer" to a close.  Stay tuned!

Phipps, Constantine John.  A Voyage Towards the North Pole Undertaken at His Majesty's Command. (J. Nourse, 1773.)

Saturday, July 29, 2017

An Arctic Summer: July 23-29, 1773

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!

Track of the Racehorse and Carcass with position plots
for June 29, June 30, July 5, July 10, July 23, and July 29.
Having finally reached the main body of northern ice, Captain Phipps and company waste little time in trying to penetrate through to the far side of the world.  Almost immediately, the work done to reinforce the hulls of Racehorse and Carcass comes in handy, as both ships collide with large bodies of ice.  Phipps had previously tried to penetrate the ice in this particular region on two occasions earlier in the month, but the advancing summer allows them to get just a bit farther.  As channels or streams appear to open up in the ice, the expedition explores each one as far as is practicable, hoping each time they'll discover a sea passage across the North Pole.

"23d.  At midnight, tacked for the body of the ice. Latitude observed 80°13'38"  Rainy in the morning; fair in the afternoon: still working up to the Northward and Eastward, with the wind Easterly.  At six in the evening, the Cloven Cliff bearing South about six leagues, sounded in 200 fathom, muddy ground; the lead appeared to have sunk one third of its length in the mud.  At two in the morning, with little wind, and a swell from the South West, I stood to the Northward amongst the loose ice: at half past two the main body of the ice a cable's length off, and the loose ice so close that we wore ship, not having room or way enough to tack; struck very hard against the ice in getting the ship round, and got upon one piece, which lifted her in the water for near a minute, before her weight broke it.  The ships had been so well strengthened, that they received no damage for these strokes; and I could with the more confidence push through the loose ice, to try for openings.  Hacluyt's Head Land bore S 50° W distant about seven leagues."

Meteorological Data:
7/23 Weather on Expedition: 36°F at noon, winds from the E, rain.
7/23 Weather in Williamsburg (Weather Channel App): 94°F with a heat index of 106°F at noon, 8 mph winds from the W, sunny.

"24th.  By this situation of the ice we were disappointed of getting directly to the Northward, without any prospect after so many fruitless attempts of being able to succeed to the Westward; nor indeed, could I with an Easterly wind and heavy swell attempt it, as the wind from that quarter would not only pack the loose ice close to the Westward, but by setting the sea on it, make it as improper to be approached as a rocky lee shore.  To the Eastward on the contrary it would make smooth water, and detach all the loose ice from the edges; perhaps break a stream open, and give us a fair trial to the Northward; at all events, with an Easterly wind we could run out again, if we did not find it practicable to proceed.  Finding the ice so fast to the Northward and Westward, it became a desirable object to ascertain how far it was possible to get to the Eastward, and by that means pursue the voyage to the Northward.  These considerations determined me to ply to the Eastward, and make another push to get through where I had been three times repulsed.  In working to the Eastward, we kept as near the body of ice as possible.  At noon the Cloven Cliff bore SWbS about seven leagues.  At six we were working to the NE, and at nine we steered to the SE, the ice appearing more open that way: we had fresh gales and cloudy weather.  The ship struck very hard in endeavouring to force through the loose ice. At midnight the wind freshened, and we double reefed the topsails.  It was probably owing to the fresh gales this day, as well as to the summer being more advanced, that we were enable to get farther than in any of our former attempts this way.  We continued coasting the ice, and at two in the morning the north part of Vogel Sang and Hacluyt's Head Land in one bore S 65° W; Cloven Cliff S 52° W; the nearest part of the shore about three leagues off.  When I left the deck, at four in the morning, we were very near the spot where the ships had been fast in the ice on the 7th in the evening, but rather farther to the Eastward; we had passed over the same shoal water we had met with that day, and we were now in twenty fathom, rocky ground; still amongst loose ice, but not so close as we had hitherto found it."

Meteorological Data:
7/24 Weather on Expedition: 39°F at noon, winds from the E, cloudy.
7/24 Weather in Williamsburg (Weather Channel App): 88°F with a heat index of 95°F at noon, 8mph winds from the WSW, partly cloudy.

"25th.  At seven in the morning we had deepened our water to fifty-five fathom, and were still amongst the loose ice.  At noon we had deepened our water to seventy fathom, with muddy bottom, at the distance of about three miles from the nearest land.  By two in the afternoon we had passed Deer Field, which we had so often before attempted without success; and finding the sea open to the NE, had the most flattering prospect of getting to the Northward.  From this part, all the way to the Eastward, the coast wears a different face; the mountains, though high, are neither so steep or sharp-pointed, nor of so black a colour as to the Westward.  It was probably owing to this remarkable difference in the appearance of the shore, that the old navigators gave to places hereabouts the names of Red Beach, Red Hill, and Red Cliff.  One of them, speaking of this part, has described the whole country in a few words: "Here (says he) I saw a more natural earth and clay than any that I have seen in all the country, but nothing growing thereupon more than in other places."  At two in the afternoon we had little wind, and were in sight of Moffen Island, which is very low and flat.

The Carcass being becalmed very near the island in the evening, Captain Lutwidge took that opportunity of obtaining the following exact account of its extent, which he communicated to me.

"At 10 PM, the body of Moffen Island bearing EbS distant two miles; sounded thirteen fathoms; rocky ground, with light brown mud, and broken shells.  Sent the master on shore, who found the island to be nearly of a round form, about two miles in diameter, with a lake or large pond of water i the middle, all frozen over, except thirty or forty yards around the edge of it, which was water, with loose pieces of broken ice, and so shallow they walked through it, and went over upon the firm solid ice.  The ground between the sea and the pond is from half a cable's length to a quarter of a mile broad, and the whole island covered with gravel and small stones, without the least verdure or vegetation of any kind. They saw only one piece of drift wood (about three fathom long, with a root on it, and as thick as the Carcass's mizen mast) which had been thrown up over the high part of the land, and lay upon the declivity towards the pond.  They saw three bears, and a number of wild ducks, geese, and other sea fowls, with birds nests all over the island.  There was an inscription over the grave of a Dutchman, who was buried there in July 1771.  It was low water at eleven o'clock when the boat landed, and the tide appeared to flow eight or nine feet; at that time we found a current carrying the Ship to the NW from the island, which before carried us to the SE (at the rate of a mile an hour) towards it.  On the West side is a fine white sandy bottom, from two fathoms, at a ship's length from the beach, to five fathoms, at half a mile's distance off."

The soundings all about this island, and to the Eastward, seem to partake of the nature of the coast. To the Westward the rocks were high, and the shores bold and steep to; here the land shelved more, and the soundings were shoal, from thirty to ten fathom.  It appears extraordinary that none of the old navigators, who are so accurate and minute in their descriptions of the coast, have taken any notice of this island, so remarkable and different from everything they had seen on the Western coast; unless we should suppose that it did not then exist, and that the streams from the great ocean up the West side of Spitsbergen, and through the Waygat's Straits, meeting here, have raised this bank, and occasioned the quantity of ice that generally blocks up the coast hereabouts.--At four in the afternoon, hoisted out the boat, and tried the current, which set NEbE, at the rate of three quarters of a mile an hour. At midnight, Moffen Island bore from SEbS to SbW, distant about five miles."

Meteorological Data:
7/25 Weather on Expedition: 39.5°F at noon, winds from NWbN, hazy.
7/25 Weather in Williamsburg (Weather Channel App): 89°F with a heat index of 92°F at noon, 2mph winds from the SSW, mostly cloudy.

"Nelson and the Bear" by Richard Westall, 1806.

Somewhere near this point in the voyage, one of the more popular anecdotes of Horatio Nelson's early life is said to have taken place.  Robert Southey tells the story best in his 1813 The Life of Horatio Lord Viscount Nelson:

"One night, during the mid-watch, he stole from the ship with one of his comrades, taking advantage of a rising fog, and set off over the ice in pursuit of a bear.  It was not long before they were missed. The fog thickened, and Captain Lutwidge and his officers became exceedingly alarmed for their safety. Between three and four in the morning the weather cleared, and the two adventurers were seen, at a considerable distance from the ship, attacking a huge bear.  The signal for them to return was immediately made; Nelson's comrade called upon him to obey it, but in vain; his musket had flashed in the pan; their ammunition was expended; and a chasm in the ice, which divided him from the bear, probably preserved his life.  'Never mind,' he cried; 'do but let me get a blow at this devil with the butt-end of my musket, and we shall have him.'  Captain Lutwidge, however, seeing his danger, fired a gun, which had the desired effect of frightening the beast; and the boy then returned, somewhat afraid of the consequences of his trespass.  The captain reprimanded him sternly for conduct so unworthy of the office which he filled, and desired to know what motive he could have for hunting a bear.  'Sir,' said he, pouting his lip, as he was wont to do when agitated, 'I wished to kill the bear, that I might carry the skin to my father.'"

A more recent biography of Lord Nelson states that no record exists of Nelson venturing out on his own to shoot a bear; the story first appears in 1809 as part of The Life of Admiral Lord Nelson, KB, from His Lordship's Manuscripts by James Stainer Clarke and John McArthur.  The authors attribute the story to Captain Lutwidge of the Carcass himself, so who knows what really happened?  It certainly makes for a great seaman's yarn.

"29th.  At midnight the latitude by observation was 80°21'.  At four, tacked close to the ice, hauled up the foresail and backed the mizen topsail, having too much way amongst the loose ice.  At noon, latitude observed was 80°24'56".  An opening, which we supposed to be the entrance of Waygat's Straits, bore south; the Northernmost land NEbE; the nearest shore distant about four miles.  In the afternoon the officer from the deck came down to tell me, we were very near a small rock even with the water's edge; on going up, I saw it within little more than a ship's length on the lee bow, and put the helm down: before the ship got round, we were cloe to it, and perceived it to be a very small piece of ice, covered with gravel.  In the evening, seeing the Northern part of the islands only over the ice, I was anxious to get round it, in hopes of finding an opening under the land.  Being near a low flat island opposite the Waygat's Straits, not higher, but much larger than Moffen Island, we had an heavy swell from the Southward, with little wind, and from ten to twenty fathom: having got past this island, approaching to thee high land to the Eastward, we deepened our water very suddenly to 117 fathom. Having little wind, and the weather very clear, two of the officers went with a boat in pursuit of some sea-horses, and afterwards to the low island.  At midnight we found by observation the latitude 80°27'3", and the dip 82°2'1/2.  At four in the morning I found, by Bouguer's log, that the current set two fathom to the Eastward.  At six in the morning the officers returned from the island; in their way back they had fired at, and wounded a sea-horse, which dived immediately, and brought up with it a number of others.  They all joined in an attack upon the boat, wrested an oar from one of the men, and were with difficulty prevented from staving or oversetting her; but a boat from the Carcass joining ours, they dispersed.  One of that ship's boats had  been attacked in the same manner off Moffen Island.  When I left the deck at six in the morning, the weather was remarkably clear, and quite calm. To the NE, amongst the islands, I saw much ice, but also much water between the pieces; which gives me hopes that when a breeze sprung up, I should be able to get to the Northward by that way."

Meteorological Data:
7/29 Weather on Expedition: 42°F at noon, winds from the ESE, clear.
7/29 Weather in Williamsburg (Weather Channel App): 74° at noon, 9mph winds from the N, overcast with intermittent rain.

An example of the "sea-horses" engaging
the men from Racehorse and Carcass.
In the portion of the appendix relating to natural history, Phipps refers to Trichechus Rosmarus (from Linneus) or the Arctick Walrus, which the Russians refer to as Morse, corrupted by British sailors to sea-horse.  Apparently these animals are found "every where about the coast of Spitsbergen, and generally where-ever there is ice, though at a distance from the land.  It is a gregarious animal, not inclined to attack, but dangerous if attacked, as the whole herd join their forces to revenge any injury received by an individual.  The incident of Racehorse's boat provoking an attack by a herd of walrus and subsequently being rescued by reinforcements from Carcass may well have been young Nelson's first taste of combat; Southey mentions that Nelson unhesitatingly "exposed himself to danger" coming to the aid of his comrades.

The summer is heating up in both locations; literally in Williamsburg with heat indexes well above 100°F for several days before a slightly cooler front rolled through, figuratively on the Phipps Expedition as the crews contend with the ice and rampaging arctic fauna.

1. Phipps, Constantine John.  A Voyage Towards the North Pole Undertaken at His Majesty's Command. (J. Nourse, 1773.)
2. Southey, Robert.  The Life of Horatio Lord Viscount Nelson.  (Amazon Digital Service, 2012.)
3. Knight, Roger.  The Pursuit of Victory: The Life and Achievement of Horatio Nelson.  (Basic Books, 2005.)

Sunday, July 23, 2017

"Stone Walls Do Not A Prison Make"

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!

A plan of Mill Prison near Plymouth, England.
As the American Revolution raged from 1775 to 1783, combatants on both sides discovered just how fickle the fortunes of war could be.  Depending on the day, the Continental Army is driven out of New York, General Burgoyne is captured at Saratoga, the Continental Navy is sent running from Penobscot, John Paul Jones captures the Serapis in a dilapidated old tub, Charleston is besieged and taken by the British, and the combined Franco-American army is victorious at Yorktown.  Thousands of prisoners were taken on both sides, marched to remote camps, held aboard disease-ridden prison hulks, and incarcerated in prison facilities on both continents.

However, for some in the Continental and Virginia Navies, being taken prisoner was not the end of the story...

On February 6, 1777, the Virginia Navy brig Mosquito departed the Virginia Capes, bound for the West Indies to cruise against British shipping.  In late March, Mosquito captures the transport Noble bound for Antigua carrying beef, bacon, candles, flour...and smallpox.  With her crew quarantined and forced to undergo inoculation, Mosquito is held at Guadeloupe for nearly three months.  Shortly after departure on the evening of June 4, Mosquito is sighted, overhauled, and captured by the 20-gun HMS Ariadne.

Her officers, including Captain John Harris, Lieutenants Byrd Chamberlayne and George Chamberlaine, and Marine Captain Alexander Dick are conveyed to Forten Prison in England while the rest of Mosquito's crew languishes in Barbados.  Considered rebels rather than prisoners of war, the Virginia officers are only granted two thirds of the rations normally allotted.  Despite severe punishments including solitary confinement and even further reductions in rations, Captain Dick and several other prisoners manage to get away:

     "The pavements of the lower floors were all laid with bricks.  Some managed to take up the bricks,      and dig down until they got below the wall, then dig outside the pickets.  This was all done by        concealing the dirt in some parts of the prison....At this time ten men....all officers, made          their escape, to wit: Second Lieutenant Benjamin Chew, Jess Harding, Robert Ewart, Benjamin            Whalen...Captain Meredith of Hampton, Captain Dick, a Mr. Moore, a Mr. Martin, Colonel Webber and      Colonel Bibbitrong."

Lieutenants Chamberlayne and Chamberlaine also somehow managed an escape and were back in Virginia before June 25, 1778.  At this point, the Navy Board Journal mentions they were "given leave of absence for a fortnight."  Duty called, apparently.

Richard Dale, veteran of the
Virginia Navy, Continental Navy,
and a future Commodore
in the United States Navy.
Richard Dale joins the Virginia Navy in late 1775, but is captured by the crew of HMS Liverpool in March 1776.  While confined in a prison ship off Norfolk, Dale is compelled by a former schoolmate serving with the British to take part in an engagement against rebel forces on the Rappahannock River.  Dale is wounded, but resolves to return to the patriot cause at the earliest opportunity.

After the British vessel Dale is travelling aboard is captured by Captain John Barry of the brig Lexington, he volunteers to serve in the Continental Navy.  Serving well under Barry, Dale is rated midshipman and later master's mate by Lexington's next captain. Unfortunately, in late 1776, Dale is captured by the British a second time along with several other members of Lexington's crew.  His second incarceration is short; Dale is exchanged in January 1777 and returns to his ship.  Later that year, under Captain Henry Johnston, Lexington is cruising with a small squadron off Ireland where their exploits quickly draw the attention of the Royal Navy. Lexington is pursued and captured in September 1777, and Dale's third round of incarceration begins at Mill Prison.

As at Forten Prison, American prisoners are forced to subsist on reduced rations and punished harshly for attempting escape.  Dale and another prisoner manage to dig a tunnel under the prison walls, but are recaptured in London while attempting to find passage to Dunkirk.  Dale spends forty days confined in a pit known as the "Black Hole" as a reward.  Following this round in solitary confinement, Dale begins keeping a journal which he uses to continue his education in mathematics, stocks and barter, and a dictionary of naval terms necessary for commanding a ship.  In February of 1779, Dale escapes for good: he never records the exact details, but is able to steal the uniform of a British officer and simply walk out of the prison.

Dale eventually makes his way to L'Orient, where he joins the crew of Bonhomme Richard as master's mate and later first lieutenant under John Paul Jones. In the later years of the American Revolution, Dale serves aboard the frigate Trumbull (where he is briefly captured a FOURTH time) and ascends to command the privateer Queen of France.  In the early 1790's, Dale becomes one of the first six officers of the United States Navy, supervising construction of the USS Chesapeake in Virginia.

Captain Gustavus Conyngham
became one of King George's
most hated rebels after commanding
a series of successful privateer
cruises along the British coast.
Gustavus Conyngham has been referred to as "the most successful of all Continental Navy captains."  (Not a difficult title to earn given the poor caliber of captains such as Dudley Saltonstall and James Nicholson, but this is beside the point.)  Born in Ireland in 1747, Conyngham immigrates to Philadelphia, learning the shipping trade and eventually rising to the command of a small merchant vessel named the Charming Peggy.  Conyngham is in Britain at the outbreak of the American Revolution, and attempts to load his vessel with a cargo of various good and stores that he believes will be of great use to the American war effort.  Nearly captured and trapped in Dutch waters, Conyngham sells Charming Peggy to Dutch officials to avoid its seizure by the British.

Eventually travelling to Paris and meeting with Benjamin Franklin, Conyngham is commissioned as a captain in the Continental Navy and appointed to command the lugger Surprise on March 1, 1777.  Cruising in Surprise and later Revenge (mounting political pressure from the British nearly results in his imprisonment by the French as an attempt to maintain their 'neutrality' at the time, causing his original commission to be confiscated and relinquishing command of Surprise) off the British Isles, Conyngham takes approximately two dozen prizes, causing the costs associated with shipping to rise to a (then) all-time high in Britain. Conyngham is frequently denounced as a pirate in the British press, and King George himself reputedly expressed a desire to personally witness Conyngham's hanging.

His Majesty almost gets his wish; having crossed the ocean and completed a successful cruise in the West Indies, Revenge is captured by HMS Galatea off New York on April 27, 1779.  British leaders are ecstatic at his capture; Conyngham spends weeks nearly starving in a New York prison before being taken to the waterfront in a hangman's cart, and put aboard a packet for London to be tried and hanged as a pirate.  Mounting political pressure from America and France prevent Conyngham's execution (General George Washington himself threatens to execute six captured British officers if Conyngham is hanged), and he is incarcerated in Mill Prison instead.  Like other inmates of Mill Prison, Conyngham was offered his freedom if he would consent to join the Royal Navy; not only does he refuse, Conyngham encourages many other American prisoners to sign a document stating their refusal to join the Royal Navy no matter how terrible conditions become. Conyngham is tossed into the "Black Hole" mentioned earlier for his trouble, repeating the experience following each of many attempted escapes.

In one instance, Conyngham mingles with a group of visitors, and simply walks out of the prison gates, though he is recognized by a woman before he can leave the crowd and quickly apprehended.  Later, Conyngham attempts to disguise himself as one of the prison doctors by dressing in a suit of dark clothes and wire-rimmed frames (without the glass) and imitating the doctor's peculiar gait; he passes through the prison gates and makes it as far as nearby Plymouth before being recognized by one of the prison peddlers.  Conyngham and fifty-three other sailors finally escape Mill Prison for good by tunneling beneath the walls on November 3, 1779.  (Perhaps he heard about Captain Dick's escape from Forten Prison the previous year.)

Conyngham successfully makes his way to the continent, sails with John Paul Jones aboard Alliance for a time...only to be captured aboard Experiment on March 17, 1780 and returned to Mill Prison.  Conyngham is eventually exchanged and begins fitting out the Dutch vessel Layona for another cruise, when word of a peace treaty reaches him. Conyngham returns to America, serving in the United States Navy during the Quasi-War with France, and is later elected to the Common Council of Philadelphia.

While some of these stories may read like historical fiction or even tragi-comedy at times (thinking of Conyngham imitating the prison doctor always makes me smile), the great perseverance in adversity and unwavering dedication to duty demonstrated by these early Americans helped create the traditions of service and personal sacrifice still followed by the US Armed Forces today.  My ongoing respect and thanks for all who serve or have served.

1. Cross, Charles B.  A Navy for Virginia: A Colony's Fleet in the Revolution.  (The Virginia Independence Bicentennial Commission, 1981).
2. Stewart, Robert A.  The History of Virginia's Navy of the Revolution.  (Mitchell and Hotchkins, 1933).
3. McGrath, Tim.  Give Me a Fast Ship: The Continental Navy and America's Revolution at Sea.  (The Penguin Group, 2014).