The Old Merchant Marine
by Ralph D. Paine

Presented by

Public Domain Books

Chapter III. Out Cutlases and Board

Salem was the foremost privateering port of the Revolution, and from this pleasant harbor, long since deserted by ships and sailormen, there filled away past Cape Ann one hundred and fifty-eight vessels of all sizes to scan the horizon for British topsails. They accounted for four hundred prizes, or half the whole number to the credit of American arms afloat. This preeminence was due partly to freedom from a close blockade and partly to a seafaring population which was born and bred to its trade and knew no other. Besides the crews of Salem merchantmen, privateering enlisted the idle fishermen of ports nearby and the mariners of Boston whose commerce had been snuffed out by the British occupation. Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Charleston sent some splendid armed ships to sea but not with the impetuous rush nor in anything like the numbers enrolled by this gray old town whose fame was unique.

For the most part, the records of all these brave ships and the thousands of men who sailed and sweated and fought in them are dim and scanty, no more than routine entries in dusty log-books which read like this: “Filled away in pursuit of a second sail in the N. W. At 4.30 she hoisted English colors and commenced firing her stern guns. At 5.90 took in the steering sails, at the same time she fired a broadside. We opened a fire from our larboard battery and at 5.30 she struck her colors. Got out the boats and boarded her. She proved to be the British brig Acorn from Liverpool to Rio Janeiro, mounting fourteen cannon."* But now and then one finds in these old sea-journals an entry more intimate and human, such as the complaint of the master of the privateer Scorpion, cruising in 1778 and never a prize in sight. “This Book I made to keep the Accounts of my Voyage but God knows beste what that will be, for I am at this time very Impashent but I hope soon there will be a Change to ease my Trubled Mind. On this Day I was Chaced by Two Ships of War which I tuck to be Enemies, but coming on thick Weather I have lost site of them and so conclude myself escaped which is a small good Fortune in the midste of my Discouragements."** A burst of gusty laughter still echoes along the crowded deck of the letter-of-marque schooner Success, whose master, Captain Philip Thrash, inserted this diverting comment in his humdrum record of the day’s work: “At one half past 8 discovered a sail ahead. Tacked ship. At 9 tacked ship again and past just to Leeward of the Sail which appeared to be a damn’d Comical Boat, by G-d.”

* From the manuscript collections of the Essex Institute, Salem, Mass.

** From the manuscript collections of the Essex Institute, Salem, Mass.

There are a few figures of the time and place which stand out, full-length, in vivid colors against a background that satisfies the desire of romance and thrillingly conveys the spirit of the time and the place. Such a one was Captain Jonathan Haraden, Salem privateersman, who captured one thousand British cannon afloat and is worthy to be ranked as one of the ablest sea-fighters of his generation. He was a merchant mariner, a master at the outbreak of the Revolution, who had followed the sea since boyhood. But it was more to his taste to command the Salem ship General Pickering of 180 tons which was fitted out under a letter of marque in the spring of 1780. She carried fourteen six-pounders and forty-five men and boys, nothing very formidable, when Captain Haraden sailed for Bilbao with a cargo of sugar. During the voyage, before his crew had been hammered into shape, he beat off a British privateer of twenty guns and safely tacked into the Bay of Biscay.

There he sighted another hostile privateer, the Golden Eagle, larger than his own ship. Instead of shifting his course to avoid her, Haraden clapped on sail and steered alongside after nightfall, roaring through his trumpet: “What ship is this? An American frigate, sir. Strike, or I’ll sink you with a broadside.”

Dazed by this unexpected summons in the gloom, the master of the Golden Eagle promptly surrendered, and a prize crew was thrown aboard with orders to follow the Pickering into Bilbao. While just outside that Spanish harbor, a strange sail was descried and again Jonathan Haraden cleared for action. The vessel turned out to be the Achilles, one of the most powerful privateers out of London, with forty guns and a hundred and fifty men, or almost thrice the fighting strength of the little Pickering. She was, in fact, more like a sloop of war. Before Captain Haraden could haul within gunshot to protect his prize, it had been recaptured by the Achilles, which then maneuvered to engage the Pickering.

Darkness intervened, but Jonathan Haraden had no idea of escaping under cover of it. He was waiting for the morning breeze and a chance to fight it out to a finish. He was a handsome man with an air of serene composure and a touch of the theatrical such as Nelson displayed in his great moments. Having prepared his ship for battle, he slept soundly until dawn and then dressed with fastidious care to stroll on deck, where he beheld the Achilles bearing down on him with her crew at quarters.

His own men were clustered behind their open ports, matches lighted, tackles and breechings cast off, crowbars, handspikes, and sponge-staves in place, gunners stripped to the waist, powder-boys ready for the word like sprinters on the mark. Forty-five of them against a hundred and fifty, and Captain Haraden, debonair, unruffled, walking to and fro with a leisurely demeanor, remarking that although the Achilles appeared to be superior in force, “he had no doubt they would beat her if they were firm and steady and did not throw away their fire.”

It was, indeed, a memorable sea-picture, the sturdy Pickering riding deep with her burden of sugar and seeming smaller than she really was, the Achilles towering like a frigate, and all Bilbao turned out to watch the duel, shore and headlands crowded with spectators, the blue harbor-mouth gay with an immense flotilla of fishing boats and pleasure craft. The stake for which Haraden fought was to retake the Golden Eagle prize and to gain his port. His seamanship was flawless. Vastly outnumbered if it should come to boarding, he handled his vessel so as to avoid the Achilles while he poured the broadsides into her. After two hours the London privateer emerged from the smoke which had obscured the combat and put out to sea in flight, hulled through and through, while a farewell flight of crowbars, with which the guns of the Pickering had been crammed to the muzzle, ripped through her sails and rigging.

Haraden hoisted canvas and drove in chase, but the Achilles had the heels of him “with a mainsail as large as a ship of the line,” and reluctantly he wore ship and, with the Golden Eagle again in his possession, he sailed to an anchorage in Bilbao harbor. The Spanish populace welcomed him with tremendous enthusiasm. He was carried through the streets in a holiday procession and was the hero of banquets and public receptions.

Such a man was bound to be the idol of his sailors and one of them quite plausibly related that “so great was the confidence he inspired that if he but looked at a sail through his glass and told the helmsman to steer for her, the observation went round,’If she is an enemy, she is ours.’”

It was in this same General Pickering, no longer sugar-laden but in cruising trim, that Jonathan Haraden accomplished a feat which Paul Jones might have been proud to claim. There lifted above the sky-line three armed merchantmen sailing in company from Halifax to New York, a brig of fourteen guns, a ship of sixteen guns, a sloop of twelve guns. When they flew signals and formed in line, the ship alone appeared to outmatch the Pickering, but Haraden, in that lordly manner of his, assured his men that “he had no doubt whatever that if they would do their duty he would quickly capture the three vessels.” Here was performance very much out of the ordinary, naval strategy of an exceptionally high order, and yet it is dismissed by the only witness who took the trouble to mention it in these few, casual words: “This he did with great ease by going alongside of each of them, one after the other.”

One more story of this master sea-rover of the Revolution, sailor and gentleman, who served his country so much more brilliantly than many a landsman lauded in the written histories of the war. While in the Pickering he attacked a heavily armed royal mail packet bound to England from the West Indies, one of the largest merchant vessels of her day and equipped to defend herself against privateers. A tough antagonist and a hard nut to crack! They battered each other like two pugilists for four hours and even then the decision was still in the balance. Then Haraden sheered off to mend his damaged gear and splintered hull before closing in again.

He then discovered that all his powder had been shot away excepting one last charge. Instead of calling it a drawn battle, he rammed home this last shot in the locker, and ran down to windward of the packet, so close that he could shout across to the other quarter-deck: “I will give you five minutes to haul down your colors. If they are not down at the end of that time, I will fire into you and sink you, so help me God.”

It was the bluff magnificent--courage cold-blooded and calculating. The adversary was still unbeaten. Haraden stood with watch in hand and sonorously counted off the minutes. It was the stronger will and not the heavier metal that won the day. To be shattered by fresh broadsides at pistol-range was too much for the nerves of the gallant English skipper whose decks were already like a slaughterhouse. One by one, Haraden shouted the minutes and his gunners blew their matches. At “four” the red ensign came fluttering down and the mail packet was a prize of war.

Another merchant seaman of this muster-roll of patriots was Silas Talbot, who took to salt water as a cabin boy at the age of twelve and was a prosperous shipmaster at twenty-one with savings invested in a house of his own in Providence. Enlisting under Washington, he was made a captain of infantry and was soon promoted, but he was restless ashore and glad to obtain an odd assignment. As Colonel Talbot he selected sixty infantry volunteers, most of them seamen by trade, and led them aboard the small sloop Argo in May, 1779, to punish the New York Tories who were equipping privateers against their own countrymen and working great mischief in Long Island Sound. So serious was the situation that General Gates found it almost impossible to obtain food supplies for the northern department of the Continental army.

Silas Talbot and his nautical infantrymen promptly fell in with the New York privateer Lively, a fair match for him, and as promptly sent her into port. He then ran offshore and picked up and carried into Boston two English privateers headed for New York with large cargoes of merchandise from the West Indies. But he was particularly anxious to square accounts with a renegade Captain Hazard who made Newport his base and had captured many American vessels with the stout brig King George, using her for “the base purpose of plundering his old neighbors and friends.”

On his second cruise in the Argo, young Silas Talbot encountered the perfidious King George to the southward of Long Island and riddled her with one broadside after another, first hailing Captain Hazard by name and cursing him in double-shotted phrases for the traitorous swab that he was. Then the seagoing infantry scrambled over the bulwarks and tumbled the Tories down their own hatches without losing a man. A prize crew with the humiliated King George made for New London, where there was much cheering in the port, and “even the women, both young and old, expressed the greatest joy.”

With no very heavy fighting, Talbot had captured five vessels and was keen to show what his crew could do against mettlesome foemen. He found them at last well out to sea in a large ship which seemed eager to engage him. Only a few hundred feet apart through a long afternoon, they briskly and cheerily belabored each other with grape and solid shot. Talbot’s speaking-trumpet was shot out of his hand, the tails of his coat were shorn off, and all the officers and men stationed with him on the quarter-deck were killed or wounded.

His crew reported that the Argo was in a sinking condition, with the water flooding the gun-deck, but he told them to lower a man or two in the bight of a line and they pluckily plugged the holes from overside. There was a lusty huzza when the Englishman’s mainmast crashed to the deck and this finished the affair. Silas Talbot found that he had trounced the privateer Dragon, of twice his own tonnage and with the advantage in both guns and men.

While his crew was patching the Argo and pumping the water from her hold, the lookout yelled that another sail was making for them. Without hesitation Talbot somehow got this absurdly impudent one-masted craft of his under way and told those of his sixty men who survived to prepare for a second tussle. Fortunately another Yankee privateer joined the chase and together they subdued the armed brig Hannah. When the Argo safely convoyed the two prizes into New Bedford, “all who beheld her were astonished that a vessel of her diminutive size could suffer so much and yet get safely to port.”

Men fought and slew each other in those rude and distant days with a certain courtesy, with a fine, punctilious regard for the etiquette of the bloody game. There was the Scotch skipper of the Betsy, a privateer, whom Silas Talbot hailed as follows, before they opened fire:

“You must now haul down those British colors, my friend.”

“Notwithstanding I find you an enemy, as I suspected,” was the dignified reply, “yet, sir, I shall let them hang a little bit longer,--with your permission,--so fire away, Flanagan.”

During another of her cruises the Argo pursued an artfully disguised ship of the line which could have blown her to kingdom come with a broadside of thirty guns. The little Argo was actually becalmed within short range, but her company got out the sweeps and rowed her some distance before darkness and a favoring slant of wind carried them clear. In the summer of 1780, Captain Silas Talbot, again a mariner by title, was given the private cruiser General Washington with one hundred and twenty men, but he was less fortunate with her than when afloat in the tiny Argo with his sixty Continentals. Off Sandy Hook he ran into the British fleet under Admiral Arbuthnot and, being outsailed in a gale of wind, he was forced to lower his flag to the great seventy-four Culloden. After a year in English prisons he was released and made his way home, serving no more in the war but having the honor to command the immortal frigate Constitution in 1799 as a captain in the American Navy.

In several notable instances the privateersmen tried conclusions with ships that flew the royal ensign, and got the better of them. The hero of an uncommonly brilliant action of this sort was Captain George Geddes of Philadelphia, who was entrusted with the Congress, a noble privateer of twenty-four guns and two hundred men. Several of the smaller British cruisers had been sending parties ashore to plunder estates along the southern shores, and one of them, the sloop of war Savage, had even raided Washington’s home at Mount Vernon. Later she shifted to the coast of Georgia in quest of loot and was unlucky enough to fall athwart Captain Geddes in the Congress.

The privateer was the more formidable ship and faster on the wind, forcing Captain Sterling of the Savage to accept the challenge. Disabled aloft very early in the fight, Captain Geddes was unable to choose his position, for which reason they literally battled hand-to-hand, hulls grinding against each other, the gunners scorched by the flashes of the cannon in the ports of the opposing ship, with scarcely room to ply the rammers, and the sailors throwing missiles from the decks, hand grenades, cold shot, scraps of iron, belaying-pins.

As the vessels lay interlocked, the Savage was partly dismasted and Captain Geddes, leaping upon the forecastle head, told the boarders to follow him. Before they could swing their cutlases and dash over the hammock-nettings, the British boatswain waved his cap and yelled that the Savage had surrendered. Captain Sterling was dead, eight others were killed, and twenty-four wounded. The American loss was about the same. Captain Geddes, however, was unable to save his prize because a British frigate swooped down and took them both into Charleston.

When peace came in 1783, it was independence dearly bought by land and sea, and no small part of the price was the loss of a thousand merchant ships which would see their home ports no more. Other misfortunes added to the toll of destruction. The great fishing fleets which had been the chief occupation of coastwise New England were almost obliterated and their crews were scattered. Many of the men had changed their allegiance and were sailing out of Halifax, and others were impressed into British men-of-war or returned broken in health from long confinement in British prisons. The ocean was empty of the stanch schooners which had raced home with lee rails awash to cheer waiting wives and sweethearts.

The fate of Nantucket and its whalers was even more tragic. This colony on its lonely island amid the shoals was helpless against raids by sea, and its ships and storehouses were destroyed without mercy. Many vessels in distant waters were captured before they were even aware that a state of war existed. Of a fleet numbering a hundred and fifty sail, one hundred and thirty-four were taken by the enemy and Nantucket whaling suffered almost total extinction. These seamen, thus robbed of their livelihood, fought nobly for their country’s cause. Theirs was not the breed to sulk or whine in port. Twelve hundred of them were killed or made prisoners during the Revolution. They were to be found in the Army and Navy and behind the guns of privateers. There were twenty-five Nantucket whalemen in the crew of the Ranger when Paul Jones steered her across the Atlantic on that famous cruise which inspired the old forecastle song that begins

    ’Tis of the gallant Yankee ship
    That flew the Stripes and Stars,
    And the whistling wind from the west nor’west
    Blew through her pitch pine spars.
    With her starboard tacks aboard, my boys,
    She hung upon the gale.
    On an autumn night we raised the light
    Off the Old Head of Kinsale.

Pitiful as was the situation of Nantucket, with its only industry wiped out and two hundred widows among the eight hundred families left on the island, the aftermath of war seemed almost as ruinous along the whole Atlantic coast. More ships could be built and there were thousands of adventurous sailors to man them, but where were the markets for the product of the farms and mills and plantations? The ports of Europe had been so long closed to American shipping that little demand was left for American goods. To the Government of England the people of the Republic were no longer fellow-countrymen but foreigners. As such they were subject to the Navigation Acts, and no cargoes could be sent to that kingdom unless in British vessels. The flourishing trade with the West Indies was made impossible for the same reason, a special Order in Council aiming at one fell stroke to “put an end to the building and increase of American vessels” and to finish the careers of three hundred West Indiamen already afloat. In the islands themselves the results were appalling. Fifteen thousand slaves died of starvation because the American traders were compelled to cease bringing them dried fish and corn during seasons in which their own crops were destroyed by hurricanes.

In 1776, one-third of the seagoing merchant marine of Great Britain had been bought or built to order in America because lumber was cheaper and wages were lower. This lucrative business was killed by a law which denied Englishmen the privilege of purchasing ships built in American yards. So narrow and bitter was this commercial enmity, so ardent this desire to banish the Stars and Stripes from blue water, that Lord Sheffield in 1784 advised Parliament that the pirates of Algiers and Tripoli really benefited English commerce by preying on the shipping of weaker nations. “It is not probable that the American States will have a very free trade in the Mediterranean,” said he. “It will not be to the interest of any of the great maritime Powers to protect them from the Barbary States. If they know their interests, they will not encourage the Americans to be carriers. That the Barbary States are advantageous to maritime Powers is certain.”

Denied the normal ebb and flow of trade and commerce and with the imports from England far exceeding the value of the merchandise exported thence, the United States, already impoverished, was drained of its money, and a currency of dollars, guineas, joes, and moidores grew scarcer day by day. There was no help in a government which consisted of States united only in name. Congress comprised a handful of respectable gentlemen who had little power and less responsibility, quarreling among themselves for lack of better employment. Retaliation against England by means of legislation was utterly impossible. Each State looked after its commerce in its own peculiar fashion and the devil might take the hindmost. Their rivalries and jealousies were like those of petty kingdoms. If one State should close her ports is to English ships, the others would welcome them in order to divert the trade, with no feeling of national pride or federal cooperation.

The Articles of Confederation had empowered Congress to make treaties of commerce, but only such as did not restrain the legislative power of any State from laying imposts and regulating exports and imports. If a foreign power imposed heavy duties upon American shipping, it was for the individual States and not for Congress to say whether the vessels of the offending nation should be allowed free entrance to the ports of the United States: It was folly to suppose, ran the common opinion, that if South Carolina should bar her ports to Spain because rice and indigo were excluded from the Spanish colonies, New Hampshire, which furnished masts and lumber for the Spanish Navy, ought to do the same. The idea of turning the whole matter over to Congress was considered preposterous by many intelligent Americans.

In these thirteen States were nearly three and a quarter million people hemmed in a long and narrow strip between the sea and an unexplored wilderness in which the Indians were an ever present peril. The Southern States, including Maryland, prosperous agricultural regions, contained almost one-half the English- speaking population of America. As colonies, they had found the Old World eager for their rice, tobacco, indigo, and tar, and slavery was the means of labor so firmly established that one-fifth of the inhabitants were black. By contrast, the Northern States were still concerned with commerce as the very lifeblood of their existence. New England had not dreamed of the millions of spindles which should hum on the banks of her rivers and lure her young men and women from the farms to the clamorous factory towns. The city of New York had not yet outgrown its traffic in furs and its magnificent commercial destiny was still unrevealed. It was a considerable seaport but not yet a gateway. From Sandy Hook, however, to the stormy headlands of Maine, it was a matter of life and death that ships should freely come and go with cargoes to exchange. All other resources were trifling in comparison.


Chapter I. Colonial Adventurers in Little Ships  •  Chapter II. The Privateers Of ’76  •  Chapter III. Out Cutlases and Board  •  Chapter IV. The Famous Days of Salem Port  •  Chapter V. Yankee Vikings and New Trade Routes  •  Chapter VI. “Free Trade and Sailors’ Rights”  •  Chapter VII. The Brilliant Era of 1812  •  Chapter VIII. The Packet Ships of the “Roaring Forties”  •  Chapter IX. The Stately Clipper and Her Glory  •  Chapter X. Bound Coastwise  •  Bibliographical Note

[Buy at Amazon]
Old Merchant Marine
By Ralph D. Paine
At Amazon