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.)

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