Thursday, February 14, 2019

Ranger's First Salute

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

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John Paul Jones circa 1781
by Charles Wilson Peale.
On 1 November 1777, Captain John Paul Jones set out across the Atlantic in command of the 18-gun sloop-of-war Ranger.  As Jones had recently written to the Marine Committee, "I have before me the pleasing prospect of being the welcom Messenger at Paris of the Joyful and important News of Burguoyne's Surrender &c &c. I have received dispatches from the Council of the Massachusetts for the Commissioners & Express.  -I shall not therefore go out of my Course Unless I see a fair Opportunity of distressing the Enemy and of rendering Services to America."

Approximately halfway across the Atlantic, Ranger nearly rolls over in the aftermath of a heavy gale; her tiller rope parted and she very nearly broached to, rolled nearly onto her beam ends.  Fortunately, Ranger righted herself, having confirmed Jones's initial opinion that she was over-sparred and top heavy...he would never stop tinkering with Ranger's rigging and trim during his time in command.

The remainder of the passage goes smoothly until Ranger is approaching Land's End off the British Isles.  A lookout sights seventeen sail, and Jones promptly orders his crew to give chase.  It isn't long before the crew discovers this is a homeward bound merchant convoy, escorted by the 74-gun ship-of-the-line HMS Invincible.  Ranger's crew, once eager for prize money, now finds themselves terrified for their lives.  In no circumstance could an 18-gun sloop-of-war expect to engage an enemy 74.  Fortunately, though, Jones keeps his cool.  As one of Ranger's crew later writes, "Our Captain took a very wise Step, which was, to heave to with the Convoy, and there lay with our Prizes, 'till the Commodore of the Fleet made Sail, which was in about two Hours; we then made Sail with the Convoy and tarried with them until almost Night, and then tackt Ship to the Southward, and got clear."  Invincible was apparently none the wiser at having escorted a rebel cruiser for several hours.  While Jones was disappointed at not having the chance to take any merchantmen from the convoy, he apparently used the episode as an excuse to exercise his men in night operations.

Ranger arrives at the port of Nantes, France on 2 December 1778, apparently one day after another American vessel had arrived and spread word of the victory at Saratoga.  Upon arrival in France, Jones expected to be granted command of the frigate Indien, recently built in Amsterdam.  Unfortunately, British officials learned of the intended sale of the vessel, and pressured the Dutch to back out of the deal and maintain their neutrality; Indien is sold to the French, but several years later ends up in American service as the South Carolina.  In late December, Jones travels to the suburbs of Paris to meet with American commissioners and share his ideas for the next year of the war, from planned raids along the British coast to prisoner exchanges.

"First Recognition of the American Flag by a Foreign Government."
Painting by Edward Moran circa 1898.

On 16 January 1778, Jones is issued orders to cruise with Ranger "in the manner you shall judge best, for distressing the Enemies of the United States, by Sea or otherwise, consistent with the Laws of War, and the Terms of your Commission."  Given Jones's plans to raid British ports and coastal towns, the American commissioners warn him not to return directly to France after such expeditions, so as not to damage their neutrality.  (The alliance between France and the United States had yet to be formalized at this point.)  He spends the next few weeks adjusting Ranger's masts, rigging, and trim, and taking her on several problematic shakedown cruises in Quiberon Bay.  

While on one such cruise on 14 February, Jones fires thirteen guns in salute of a French warship, and receives nine in return.  Jones proudly reports "this was the first salute received by the American flag from any sovereign power."  This applies only to the Stars and Stripes, officially adopted by the Continental Congress in June of 1777.  The Grand Union Flag, while never officially adopted, had received its first salute aboard the brig Andrew Doria from the Dutch in November of 1776.

A Whitehaven statue depicting Jones
spiking the guns in April 1778.
The summer of 1778 would be an active season for the crew of Ranger, at least one attempted mutiny notwithstanding.  Jones would lead a raid on the port of Whitehaven on 23 April, when his two lieutenants claimed to be "too fatigued to perform their duties."  The raid did little actual damage beyond the harbor guns being spiked and several ships being set afire, but it alarmed British citizens up and down the coast that the American Revolution had come to their very doorstep.  The following day, Ranger would defeat the sloop-of-war HMS Drake near Carrickfergus in Ireland.  Avaricious sailors from Ranger would plunder the Earl of Selkirk's family silver when the nobleman himself proved so inconsiderate as to not be home so he might be abducted.  These actions, along with numerous merchant captures by Jones and crew during 1778 and 1779 would cause insurance rates to skyrocket, and cement Jones's reputation as a pirate among the British populace.  (One engraving would represent John Paul Jones as a reincarnation of Blackbeard himself.)  These are, of course, stories for another day.

1.  Crawford, Michael, ed.  Naval Documents of the American Revolution, Volumes 10 and 11.  (Washington: Naval Historical Center, 1996 and 2005.)
2.  Thomas, Evan.  John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy.  (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.)

Friday, January 11, 2019

The Navy's First Prize

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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With the 1794 "Act to Provide a Naval Armament," the construction of six frigates was authorized by the U.S. Congress to protect American merchantmen from the depredations of the Barbary Pirates.  In 1796, construction on the frigates was halted once a treaty was struck with Algiers.  Through the influence of President George Washington, construction was permitted to continue on the three frigates closest to completion: United States, Constitution, and Constellation.  The first vessels of the United States Navy would soon be called upon to fire their first shots in anger...not against corsairs from the Barbary Coast, but against corsairs from France.

Following the outbreak of war between Great Britain and Revolutionary France, tensions between the United States and their former mother country ratcheted up once again over issues such as impressment and the rights of neutral merchant vessels.  The 1796 Jay Treaty did much to alleviate these tensions (temporarily at least), but had the unfortunate consequence of aggravating the French Directory.  In turn, the French began aggressively policing neutral merchant vessels (especially American ones), and threatened to seize any vessel that did not provide a list of their crew's nationality on demand.  The United States sent a delegation to Paris to resolve these difficulties, but they immediately returned home following their refusal to pay $220,000 before even being allowed to meet with French officials.  French privateers then began seizing and condemning American merchantmen, especially those in the Caribbean Sea.  In the Caribbean alone, French privateers had taken some 300 vessels between July 1796 and March 1797.  

A new Naval Act dated 1 July 1797 empowered the president to man, outfit, and employ the three frigates named above to protect American shipping against the growing threat.  In addition, completion of the frigates President, Congress, and Chesapeake was authorized, construction of additional smaller vessels was begun, merchant vessels were converted for military use, and numerous vessels of the United States Revenue Service were transferred to the newly formed Navy Department.

Stephen Decatur, Sr., USN.
Revolutionary privateer turned
captain of USS Delaware.
Among the merchant vessels brought into the nascent United States Navy is the Hamburgh Packet; after bring armed with 16 nine-pound and 4 six-pound cannon, she is commissioned as the sloop-of-war Delaware and placed under the command of Stephen Decatur, Sr.  Decatur had previously served at sea as a privateer captain during the American Revolution, and his son Stephen Decatur, Jr. would soon rise to prominence during the First Barbary War and the War of 1812.

On 6 July 1798, the American merchantman Alexander Hamilton is making a voyage between New York and Baltimore when she is stopped by la Croyable, a French privateer schooner of 10 guns.  She was apparently a Baltimore schooner of new construction, and likely one of the many American vessels recently seized in the Caribbean.  La Croyable chooses not to take Alexander Hamilton as a prize, instead plundering her of a portion of her cargo (wine, brandy, sweetmeats, etc.) worth some $140 and sending her on her way.  The incensed American crew soon meets the Delaware, relates their story, and tells Captain Decatur where la Croyable and several of her prizes might be found.  Sure enough, Decatur comes up with four schooners the next day.

Not certain which of the four schooners is la Croyable, Decatur played the part of a fat, lazy, merchantman (a function Delaware had served in the past), and affected alarm at the possible sighting of armed vessels.  La Croyable takes the bait and sets off in pursuit.  The privateer sees through the ruse as she draws closer, noting that Delaware is somewhat over-manned for a merchantman and armed to boot.  Not yet realizing that the United States has established a naval force, the French captain mistakes Delaware for a British man of war, and bears for coastal waters in the hopes that the Royal Navy would not violate American neutrality by capturing a vessel in their territorial waters.  Naturally, Delaware keeps up the chase, and after firing several shots, compels la Croyable to surrender.

As Boston's Columbian Centinel reports on 8 August, "The Captain of the French privateer, taken a few days ago, seemed astonished when he went on board of Capt. Decatur's sloop of war, at his being taken by an American vessel, and said he knew of no war between the two republics.  Decatur observed that the French had been making war upon us for a long time, and it was now necessary for us to take care of ourselves.  The Frenchman seemed to be vastly mortified at seeing his Colours hauled down, and wished he had been sunk.  Decatur told him he should have been gratified if he had stood on board his vessel and fought her!"

La Croyable is purchased by the American government and enters the United States Navy as USS Retaliation.  Now armed with 4 six-pound and 10 four-pound cannon, she is placed under the command of Lieutenant William Bainbridge as part of a small squadron operating in the Caribbean under Captain Alexander Murray.  

Unfortunately, Retaliation's service would be brief; on 21 November 1798, Retaliation and her consorts retake the Fair American, a merchant ship recently captured by a pair of French privateers.  The two privateers make for the shallows, pursued by USS Montezuma and Norfolk, while Retaliation is left to protect the prize.  The next morning, Murray in the Montezuma notices Retaliation and Fair American in the distance being pursued by two large frigates.  He moves closer and hails Bainbridge, who insists they are two British warships the squadron had sighted the day before.  Murray raises British recognition signals but gets no response...just then, the two French corsairs try to break from the shallows, so Montezuma and Norfolk resume the chase.  They look on in consternation as the two frigates come up with Retaliation and open fire, quickly leading Bainbridge to strike his colors.  It is not until the Fair American sneaks away and rendezvouses with Murray that he learns the two frigates are the French warships la Volontaire and l'Insurgente.  The first prize taken by the United States Navy has also become the first ship taken from it.

Believe it or not, the beleaguered schooner's story is not over.  The French re-christen her la Magicienne, arm her with 12 guns of their own and a crew of 163.  On 28 June 1799, she runs afoul of Captain Moses Brown commanding the 28-gun USS Merrimack.  As Captain Brown notes in his journal, "Gave chase fir'd 23 Shott at her at 1/2 past 5 came up with her & gave her part of a Broadside which obliged them to hall down their colours."  Retaliation was back in the U.S. Navy, performing convoy duty in the Caribbean until returning to Philadelphia in August.  She would be sold out of the service on 29 November 1799.

By that point, the French Directory had been overthrown, and Napoleon Bonaparte established as First Consul of France.  Foreign Minister Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-PĂ©rigord reopens negotiations with the United States, resulting in the Convention of 1800 and an end to the Quasi-War.  While the new United States Navy still had room to grow, they had proven moderately effective during their first days at sea.

1.  Palmer, Michael.  Stoddert's War: Naval Operations During the Quasi-War with France, 1798-1801.  (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987.)
2.  Swanson, Claude (Publication Ordered By).  Naval Documents Related to the Quasi-War Between the United States and France, Volumes 1, 2, and 3.  (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1935 and 1936.)

Monday, December 3, 2018

Hoisting the Flag of Freedom

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

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John Paul Jones circa 1780
as engraved by Moreau le Jeune.
John Paul Jones is often called a father of the United States Navy, along with John Barry and John Adams.  In late 1775, he is a little known merchant captain who had traveled to Virginia several years earlier to escape murder charges after killing a would-be mutineer.  With the outbreak of the American Revolution, he is quick to journey to Philadelphia and volunteer his services to the newly formed Continental Navy.  Jones is initially offered command of  the 12-gun sloop Providence, but he declines given his inexperience sailing fore-and-aft rigged vessels.  Instead, he accepts a billet as first lieutenant of the new Continental flagship Alfred (earlier that year, as the merchantman Black Prince under John Barry's command, she had logged the fastest day of sailing in the 18th century) slated to be commanded by Captain Dudley Saltonstall.

As a loyalist informant reports to Lord Dartmouth, the "Continental Flag" was raised aboard the Alfred moored at Philadelphia on 3 December 1775.  Nearly four years later, John Paul Jones recounts his role in the event in a letter to a Dutch admiral: "I had the honour to hoist with my own hands the Flag of Freedom, the first time it was displayed, on the Delaware; and I have attended it with veneration ever since on the ocean."

Continental Ship Alfred (1775-1778), by W. Nowland Van Powell
(U.S. Navy Art Collection)

The flag being raised aboard Alfred was likely the Grand Union Flag, also occasionally called the Continental Flag or the Cambridge Flag.  This was being flown over General George Washington's encampments at Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was also raised at prominent locations in Williamsburg, Virginia celebrating the signing of the Declaration of Independence in July 1776.  (Even now, guests to Colonial Williamsburg see this flag flying at the entrances to open sites.)  The Grand Union Flag features thirteen red and white stripes representing the United Colonies with the King's Colours of Great Britain in the canton.

Alfred was part of a squadron consisting also of the Continental vessels Colombus, Cabot, Andrew Doria, Providence, Fly, Hornet, and Wasp under the overall command of Esek Hopkins.  The squadron attempts to set sail in January 1776, but their departure is delayed for some time by the icy conditions in the Delaware River.  Initially, Commodore Hopkins is given orders to take his squadron into Chesapeake Bay to attack the forces of Virginia's erstwhile Royal Governor, Lord Dunmore, and then range along the Carolina coastline to do what damage to the British he can.  Rather than engage the British directly, Hopkins takes advantage of a discretionary clause in his orders to proceed to the West Indies in search of gunpowder and other military supplies.  After capturing several small sloops in the region, the squadron stages an attack on New Providence in Nassau to seize the gunpowder being stored there under supposedly light defenses.  While the Continental squadron was discovered early enough that the British were able to move a significant amount of supplies, a large amount of gunpowder and numerous cannon were successfully captured to serve the patriot cause.

Captain Nicholas Biddle of the
Continental Navy
Not long after, Hopkins' squadron would suffer a particularly ignominious episode when it engages HMS Glasgow on 6 April 1776.  The battle served to illustrate rather starkly the inexperience of the Continental crews when five ships of the squadron could not capture or destroy a single 20-gun warship.  Nicholas Biddle, in command of the brig Andrew Doria at the time, writes to a sister rather glibly on 26 April, "In the beginning of April one very fine morning we exercised Great Guns and small Arms and had two men hurt by it."  On 2 May, he is a little more adamant to his brother Charles, "A More imprudent ill conducted Affair never happend."  While patriot newspapers initially hyped the action up as a resounding victory for the Continental Navy, Commodore Hopkins' lack of organization and fire in command during the battle led to his eventual relief from command.  Captain Biddle, however, would command Andrew Doria until the autumn of 1776, when he would be selected to command the Continental frigate Randolph.

By October of 1776, Andrew Doria had been placed under the command of Captain Isaiah Robinson, under whom another important first for the Grand Union Flag would take place.  Robinson was under orders to sail to the Dutch island of St. Eustatius to purchase and bring home a cargo of gunpowder and other military stores, and also has a copy of the new Declaration of Independence on board.  On 16 November 1776, Andrew Doria fires a 13-gun salute while approaching Fort Oranje, which the Dutch return.  This is the first time a flag representing the United States of America was saluted by a foreign power while being flown aboard a ship of war.

On 14 June 1777, the Continental Congress would resolve "That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation."  This basis for the American Flag that we recognize today would receive its own first salute from a foreign power on 14 February 1778, when the sloop-of-war Ranger under the command of John Paul Jones entered the French port of Brest.  On occasion, an early 13 star flag (based on the design of Francis Hopkinson) has been seen flying from the Capitol at Colonial Williamsburg as well.

Just like our current American Flag, the Grand Union and Hopkinson Flags alike have flown over pivotal moments in our nation's history.  We would do well to study and remember these events as we write the next chapter of our history in the days to come.

1.  McGrath, Tim.  Give Me a Fast Ship: The Continental Navy and America's Revolution at Sea.  (The Penguin Group, 2014.)
2.  Thomas, Evan.  John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy.  (Simon and Schuster, 2004.)
3.  Van Powell, W. Nowland.  The American Navies of the Revolutionary War.  (Putnam, 1974.)
4.  "Original Correspondence of Paul Jones," The Edinburgh Magazine and Literary Miscellany (August 1817), 14-20.
5.  Clark, William Bell and Biddle, Nicholas.  "The Letters of Captain Nicholas Biddle," The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Volume 74 Number 3 (July 1950),  348-405.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

Birds of a Feather Ship Together

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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The inspiration for today's post comes from a favorite scene in the 1934 film adaptation of Treasure Island.  Long John Silver (for the moment keeping his piratical past a secret) has just signed on aboard Hispaniola as the ship's cook, and is having a friendly discussion in the galley with Jim Hawkins.  Captain Flint swings innocently from her perch.

Wallace Beery and Jackie Cooper star in 1934's
 Treasure Island, though several scenes were
stolen by Captain Flint.
Jim Hawkins: "I'm glad you like Doctor Livesey."
Long John Silver: "He's a pretty smart man, Jim."
JH: "He's not a sailor of course, but he can cut you open and sew you up again."
LJS: "Well that sewing up must be pretty difficult."
JH: "So's the cutting up part."
LJS: "Well, experience, Jim."
JH: "I couldn't do it."
LJS: "Oh no, neither could I.  Mmm...I'd swoon like a lady of quality, I would.  I guess I'm kinda sensitive-like..."

Numerous sources describing the Age of Sail suggest that nearly every sailing vessel had animals of some form aboard.  A lot of these tended to be livestock like chickens and cattle, but a few were kept as mascots and pets by the crew.  The esteem'd blogger Kyle Dalton of British Tars recently wrote a post on dogs and cats at sea, and my own post treats on birds and other animals.

Thomas Cochrane,
10th Earl Dundonald
Thomas Cochrane, Napoleon's "Sea Wolf" and the eventual 10th Earl Dundonald, takes the time to describe one ship's pet during his time as a midshipman aboard HMS Hind

"On board most ships there is a pet animal of some kind.  Ours was a parrot, which was Jack Larmour's [the first lieutenant's] aversion, from the exactness with which the bird had learned to imitate the calls of the boatswain's whistle.  Sometimes the parrot would pipe an order so correctly as to throw the ship into momentary confusion, and the first lieutenant into a volley of imprecations, consigning Poll to a warmer latitude than his native tropical forests.  Indeed, it was only by my uncle's [Captain Sir Alexander Cochrane] that the bird was tolerated.

One day a party of ladies paid us a visit aboard, and several had been hoisted on deck by the usual means of a 'whip' on the main-yard.  The chair had descended for another 'whip,' but scarcely had its fair freight been lifted out of the boat alongside, than the unlucky parrot piped 'Let go!'  The order being instantly obeyed, the unfortunate lady, instead of being comfortably seated on deck, as had been those who preceded her, was soused overhead in the sea!  Luckily for Poll, Jack Larmour was on shore at the time, or this unreasonable assumption of the boatswain's functions might have ended tragically."

At times equally as boisterous as parrots, different species of poultry could be found aboard ship as well.  Mainly to serve as provisions for the officers (eggs, fresh meat, etc.), these birds were kept in coops that could be carried on deck during the day.  Historian Janet Macdonald mentions several instances where these coops were broken during battle, allowing the birds to go free.  During the action on the Glorious First of June in 1794, a rooster was said to have gotten free of his coop, and found a prominent perch from which he crowed defiantly throughout the battle...perhaps being promoted from the wardroom bill of fare to a billet as mascot.

Parrots as well as monkeys tended to be popular shipboard pets when vessels touched at ports in the West Indies or South America, where these animals could be found.  In 1724, a somewhat macabre account describes a wrecked vessel having touched at Brazil because of the monkeys and parrots washing ashore.  While struggling with miserably cold and wet conditions sailing off Newfoundland in 1785, Samuel Kelly had the care of two white-faced monkeys tied up near his berth.  Apparently, these enterprising creatures would rub tobacco smoke and onion skins into their fur whenever it was presented to them, conceivably to combat the fleas.

On rare occasions, even more exotic animals could be found aboard ship.  While serving as a midshipman aboard the celebrated USS Constitution in early 1815, Pardon Mawney Whipple writes:

"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."

Many authors describing life aboard sailing ships mention intense boredom and monotony broken up by the occasional battle or foul weather.  One imagines that the occasional pet or mascot did much to brighten an otherwise dreary world.

1.  Cochrane, Thomas.  The Autobiography of a Seaman.  (Endeavour Compass, 2016.)
2.  Macdonald, Janet.  Feeding Nelson's Navy: The True Story of Food at Sea in the Georgian Era.  (Frontline Books, 2014.)
3.  Kelly, Samuel.  Samuel Kelly, an eighteenth century seaman, whose days have been few and evil, to which is added remarks, etc., on places he visited during his pilgrimage in this wilderness.  (Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1925.)
4.  USS Constitution Museum.  Pardon Mawney Whipple's Letterbook,  (Transcribed 2014).

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!

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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!

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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.)