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.)

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