Monday, December 25, 2017

"Wittles is Up..."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Time will tell...

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

Friday, October 13, 2017

"Haud crede colori..."

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

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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.)