It was a fine October day in 1781 — clear, warm, with a pleasant breeze blowing from the Delaware shore — when Tom sailed his brand new ship, the St. James, out to sea, carrying with him as passenger Thomas Barclay, the new consul-general to France. The ship had just come from her builders, and her crew had been aboard for only a few days. Her guns had already been fired in anger, however, while she lay at anchor in a fog off Reedy Island. Just as the fog was lifting, Tom noticed that he was virtually surrounded by "refugee p43 galleys" — hostile, shallow draft gunboats manned by fugitive Americans who espoused the enemy cause. He scattered the galleys with a few shots because he was prepared for such an attack.1 However, it would take yet a few days at sea to shake down the ship and crew, and a few more to learn the many idiosyncrasies that, taken all together, made up the individual character of the ship itself.
The St. James was running before the wind, steering an easterly course. The great brick lighthouse on the dunes of Cape Henlopen was dropping rapidly astern. A lookout at the fore topmost head scanned the monotonous sea rim, from northeast to south, where it merged into the sky. As sailormen have done from earliest times, he was looking for a sail, for a cloud, for anything that time and the sea and the sky might choose to disclose.
The St. James was only three hours outside the capes when a scrap of sail appeared on the southern horizon. Keeping a close and anxious watch, Tom saw the sail grow larger. It appeared to belong to a ship at least as large as his. She might be friendly, but Tom decided it would be foolish to wait for her to come up to find out. Reaching up the coast as she was, apparently headed for a northern port, it was more likely that she was a British ship, either a man-of‑war or a New York privateer, with neither of which Tom wished to speak. Considering his new ship, his green crew, and his important passenger, he did not care to risk an action if he could honorably avoid it. Tom steered his ship away two points to northward, letting his sails take full advantage of every ounce of wind. He crowded on all the sail he could get — jibs, staysails, courses, topsails, topgallants, spanker, and ringtail.2
Throughout the afternoon and evening, the stranger slowly closed the distance between the two ships. At midnight, gazing astern, Tom imagined that his ship was outsailing the other by a slim margin. On through the small hours of the midwatch the chase continued. As the watch ended, at four in the morning, the breeze died down completely. When a new spurt of wind came up from the southwest, it caught the chasing stranger first, reducing the lead that Tom had been trying so hard to hold.
Now came the time for desperate measures. Knowing that his ship was slightly down by the head and hoping that by shifting his trim he might improve her sailing, Tom ordered the anchors cut from the bows; next he ordered every man on board, crew and passengers p44 alike, to sit down on the quarter-deck. Very quickly and effectively, Tom shifted some ten tons of weight to where it might do the most good. In spite of everything he could do, the stranger still gained, so at last Tom ordered all hands to quarters and "got every thing in as good order as was possible for a new Ship only out a few hours."
When the late dawn at last arrived, the stranger was scarcely •a mile away. The breeze was becoming fluky; a dead calm threatened. Since it appeared that an action could no longer be avoided, Tom hauled up his courses, hauled down jibs and staysails, hove to, and waited for the ship to come up alongside. He could see by this time that she was a copper-bottomed ship mounting twenty-four or twenty‑six guns — the St. James had but twenty — and that she was British; there was no mistaking the uniforms of the officers and marines on her quarter-deck.
She came up abreast of him, and as soon as he saw the British ensign being hoisted at the mizzen peak, Tom ordered his whole broadside fired into her. His laconic report of the action said simply, "She immediately returned it. This brought on a severe action for three glasses," an hour and a half. Early in the action a shot carried away the enemy's tiller ropes; after that she was unable to steer except with her sails. Tom took advantage of his antagonist's misfortune by maneuvering his ship into a raking position, athwart her hawse. He raked her thrice, pouring his whole broadside down her length while she was unable to bring any of her guns to bear to return his fire. He brought down her foreyard, he shattered her mainmast with three hits, and he cut her rigging to bits.3
The St. James fared not much better. Balls from the enemy's cannon were coming on board all too often. One man was killed instantly; four others were badly hurt. But the captain and his crew did not give up the fight. One tale, probably apocryphal, tells of a foremast hand who, in the thick of the action, found a spent ball lying against the mainmast. He took, carried it to the gunner, and said, "Here, gunner, take this shot, write post paid upon it, and send it back to the rascals."4
The action ended with both ships badly shattered. The enemy drifted into a raking position only twenty yards ahead of the St. James, and Tom was unable for the moment to move his ship because of her crippled condition. But the enemy did not rake. She had no fight left.
p45 Tom stood off a little way to refit in case the action should be resumed. His ship was a desolate sight. Her sails and rigging were cut to tatters; great Irish pennants were hanging everywhere. One man was dead and others were dying. In spite of all this, when the Britisher seemed to be making sail once more, Tom's crew gave her three cheers, "which she did not return."
This sea fight was one of those that established Tom's "character . . . as a brave and skilful commander." Almost thirty years later, one of his officers recalled this scene. "The impression of that character was indelibly stamped upon my youthful mind," he said, "in a contest [both] unequal and meritorious."5
The British ship, which turned out to be the Goodrich, a New York privateer, had three men killed and four wounded. According to a Loyalist who was in British-held New York when she arrived home from this action, she "was glad to get off."6
The St. James was less than a day's run from the Delaware capes, but instead of limping back into port to refit, Tom chose to continue his voyage as soon as he could make repairs at sea. After nearly three days of hard work — made more difficult by a worthless first mate — he was ready to sail on. As an anticlimax, the St. James had to battle contrary winds almost all the way to France. By the time she arrived in L'Orient, three of the injured men had died and another was not expected to survive. The final count was four or five killed and four injured. One of the passengers, Joseph Erwin, who was badly injured by a musket ball that came to rest in his shoulder, finally recovered after losing his right arm. When he offered Tom his passage money, Tom not only refused to accept it but also offered Erwin the privilege of shipping home a hundred guineas' worth of merchandise, freight free.7 Thomas Barclay, the consul-general, was unhurt but thoroughly shaken. He rested for several days in L'Orient before he set out for Paris.8
While Tom was in L'Orient, he took advantage of the generous offer made to him by the "Commandant of the Mareen" to break off from the French seventy-four, then under construction, enough caulkers and carpenters to sheathe the bottom of the St. James with copper. Tom was following the latest European practice of coppering the bottom of a ship to prevent its fouling.9 He was glad to spend the money on the St. James because, according to him, "Their is no p46 better ship than the St. James. She has every good Quality, sails verry fast and when Coppered may justly be called a Non‑such."10
Tom returned home just as winter was ending. By leaving his ship in New Castle and hurrying overland to Philadelphia, he was able to be present at a dinner given for General Washington on March 17, 1782, five months after Cornwallis's surrender at Yorktown. Many years later, Tom wrote about this meeting with the great General. "Washington . . . knew," he recalled, "the early and seasonal supplies I brought into the United States at different times, of powder, arms, cloathing, &c, &c, from the dawn, quite to the close of the revolution — [He] spoke of my conduct in the most honorary manner, and told me at a public dinner . . . that I had been as a regiment to the United States."11
It is evident that Tom carried many valuable cargoes. This latest one in the St. James was, according to him, the most valuable single cargo brought into the United States during the Revolution. No doubt it was, since cargoes are valued in terms of the money they will bring in the market place. But when this cargo is considered in terms of its usefulness to the Army, the ratio of "forty for one" comes immediately to mind.
No complete list of this cargo survives, but it was probably much like the cargo that he had brought from L'Orient a year or so before. That one consisted of "102 bales, 45 chests, 2 hogsheads, 3 trunks and 5 packages European merchandize, 20 pipes brandy, 10 chests tea, 9 bales linen, 9 bales sail cloth, 9 casks allum, 5 casks copperas, 16 baskets oil, 1 box olives, 39 boxes window glass, 8 bags shot, 3 kegs musket balls, 2 kegs and 24 sheets lead, 20 barrels gunpowder, 10 cases claret, 1 case spices, 2 trunks thread, 476 bags salt."12 The "European merchandize" included Britannia linens, Flanders sheeting, white swanskins, elegant embroidered waistcoats, Paris ruffles, white silk hose, elegant artificial flowers, and gold and silver laces.13
Lest General Washington's praise sound too extravagant, it must be remembered that service in the Revolution was a relative thing. One can accept his estimate with confidence, even though it must be admitted that he was forever the perfect diplomat. However, one wonders, if Tom had been more patriot and less merchant, whether he might not have been as a division rather than a regiment.
Tom Truxtun, in 1782, appears neither worse nor better than other p47 prosperous men whose profits were not in proportion to their patriotism. Captain Truxtun the patriot did not appear until later; but on these voyages Captain Truxtun the commander appeared in unmistakable terms. In his report of his action with the Goodrich, he used the personal pronoun throughout. He shared with no one the responsibility for heaving overboard two large anchors. Never while he commanded a ship did he mention what was in his lifetime customary — the conference of officers to decide on a course of action when an emergency arose or disaster impended. Even the redoubtable John Paul Jones was quick to call a conference of his officers, and then he was careful to gather evidence in writing to show that his officers felt that his decisions were beyond reproach.14 Tom experienced many disappointments as a result of mistaken judgment or failure of his plans. As long as he held the deck as captain, however, he blamed no man but himself for his failures.
If he had not survived the Revolution, he would have left a few years' record of good seamanship, of fearlessness and enterprise. He assumed command wherever he went not because of his family or his connections — he had none of the former and he had not yet developed the latter — but because of his talent for command. All of that, however, is not enough to give a man a place in history. It took a long period of maturing judgment; it took endless nights of crowding thoughts on a lonely plunging deck in the seas beneath the Southern Cross; finally it took another war to bring out in him the fervent patriot spirit that shines through the record that his deeds — not he, for he was not concerned about posterity's judgment — wrote for the future.
1 MassHS: Pickering Papers, Truxtun to Pickering, December 8, 1807.
2 Franklin Institute, Philadelphia: Lenthal Collection, Mast yard papers of Turner & Thompson, "Dementions of [masts and spars of] the Ship Sainte James Capt. Truxon."
3 Truxtun Hare Collection: Truxtun to A. & J. Caldwell, November 17, 1781; Pennsylvania Packet, Philadelphia, October 23, 1781.
4 Charles W. Goldsborough, United States' Naval Chronicle (Washington, D. C., 1824), I, 28 n.
5 HSPa: Jones & Clarke Papers, William Jones to Truxtun, January 18, 1809.
6 Diary of Frederick Mackenzie [1775‑81] (Cambridge, Mass., 1930) II, 660‑61.
7 Truxtun Hare Collection: Truxtun to A. & J. Caldwell, November 17, 1781; Pennsylvania Mag. of Hist. and Biog., Philadelphia, XIX (1895), 399.
8 APS: Franklin Papers, vol. 23, fol. 45, Thomas Barclay to Franklin, November 15, 1781.
9 Frederick B. Laidlaw, "History of the Prevention of Fouling," U. S. Naval Inst. Proceedings, LXXVIII (July, 1952), 772.
10 Truxtun Hare Collection: Truxtun to A. & J. Caldwell, November 17, 1781.
11 Thomas Truxtun, Reply of Commodore Truxtun to an Attack Made on Him in the National Intelligencer, in June 1806 (Philadelphia, 1806), pp23 ff.
12 Pennsylvania Packet, Philadelphia, January 6, 1781.
13 Ibid., March 19, 21, 1782.
14 For example, LC: Continental Congress Papers, vol. 193, fol. 311, John Paul Jones to Board of Admiralty, October 26, 1780.
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