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Chapter 6

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Truxtun of the Constellation

by
Eugene S. Ferguson

published by
The Johns Hopkins Press
Baltimore, Md.
1956

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 8
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

p23 Chapter 7

Congress and Chance

Heading south from Delaware Bay, holding a fair wind day after day, the Congress and the Chance saw nothing to interest a prize master until after they reached their chosen cruising grounds. Coming onto the coast of Cuba, the two privateers, still sailing in company, were ready to patrol the tract of sea between Florida and Cuba called the Gulf of Florida. It would be hard to find a better place to cruise at this particular time of year. The Jamaica fleet, homeward bound for England, heavily laden with tropical plantation products, p24sailed unescorted up through these waters. If there were slave ships bound for home after selling their human cargo in the Islands, they would be carrying hard money — gold doubloons and Spanish milled dollars — in addition to exotic produce. Best of all, they would be entirely unaware that American privateers might be cruising here. The news that the colonies had decided to venture out with privateers was brought by the Congress and the Chance themselves.1

The first prize to be taken was not a Jamaicaman, however. The Thistle, a small schooner from Mobile bound for the Leeward Islands, was brought to by the Congress, which pretended to be a tender for a British frigate. The master of the Thistle was ordered to come on board. When he clambered over the rail onto the deck of the little privateer, he was prepared to display his papers and receive clearance to sail on with no further ado. When he found that this was not a British tender and that he was about to lose his own vessel, he turned livid, screaming execrations at his captors. "Pirates," he called them; "worse than Pirates and Highway Robbers." He was no enemy, he argued. He was merely taking a cargo of flour and lumber to be traded off in St. Kitts for a cargo of sugar and rum. Mobile was a British city, to be sure, and not in the thirteen united colonies; but the owners of his vessel, said the master of the Thistle, were merely peaceful merchants who were not in the least angry at the colonies. Furthermore, he was not carrying supplies to the British Army. If his flour should eventually find its way to the Army, that was entirely beyond his control. Captain McAroy of the Congress listened to this tale but decided to send the Thistle into an American port. The Court of Admiralty in Philadelphia could decide whether she was an enemy vessel.

Just after this prize schooner, sailed by a prize crew, had been dispatched to a friendly port, two more strange sails appeared on the horizon; the Congress filled away in pursuit, carrying with her the master of the Thistle, his clothes, his papers, his money, his negro man named Lewis, and his negro man named Jack.2

The two strange sails vanished, and another week or ten days of empty cruising brought the Congress and the Chance up to the ninth of May, 1776, with no further captures. On that day, however, three ships of the Jamaica fleet hove into sight. Each of them was larger than the privateers, but two of them were completely unarmed and the other was not much better off. Without a struggle, the Congress p25took the Reynolds, largest of the three, while the Chance took the Lady Juliana. The third ship, the Juno, was armed with "two Great Guns and six Swivel Guns"; but the two privateers together, mounting a total of ten guns, had little trouble persuading the master of the Juno that a fight would be futile. He promptly struck his colors and surrendered his ship.3

There was no question about the status of these ships. Coming from Jamaica as they had and being bound for their home ports in England, they carried contraband cargoes toward enemy ports. This first privateering cruise, less than a month old, would turn out to be a fabulous success if only these prizes could be gotten safely into friendly American ports. Three more prize crews would be needed; one had already been sent off in the Thistle; and some men would have to remain in the privateers to sail them home. Here was reason enough for the magnitude of the privateers' original crews.

The prisoners from the three ships just captured were disposed of at once. The master of the Juno, the mate of the Reynolds, and twenty sailors were put off in a large boat. They had no trouble pulling into the harbor of Matanzas, nearby.4 Ten hands, shifting their allegiance as ready as they shifted their clothes, entered immediately into the privateers' service.5 The masters of the other two ships, the rest of their crews, and their passengers were placed in a passing "Spanish vessel that was leaky," which put them ashore in one of the Bahama Islands where they could arrange for passage home to England.6 The master of the Lady Juliana, who was returning home with his new Jamaican bride, was permitted to take her with him, but her dowry, a considerable fortune in cash and silver plate, was taken from him by the privateers.7 The ships were then dispatched under prize crews for American ports.

Tom was told off as prize master of the Reynolds, largest of the ships. Going on board with his prize crew, Tom surveyed the ship with a critical eye; he checked to make sure that he had ample stores and water on board. No doubt he was pleased with what he found. The ship was larger than any he had sailed in, save only the British man-of‑war. The living quarters were the best he had ever had in any vessel; and the stores, intended to be sufficient for the British officers and passengers for two months or more, would keep him and his small crew well fed for as long as his voyage might conceivably last. When he was satisfied that he had ship enough and crew enough p26to make a safe voyage reasonably certain, he laid down his course and got his ship under way. With a wave of his hand he dismissed the tiny fleet that had brought him here to find his latest command.

In order to avoid the risk of running the blockade off the Delaware capes, he chose to take his ship to a New England port. After nearly three weeks of uneventful sailing, steering toward the Massachusetts coast, he made a landfall on the island of Martha's Vineyard. He anchored there for a few days, until he could make sure that there were no British ships lurking between the island and the mainland; then he sailed into the closest mainland harbor, which was Bedford in Dartmouth — now New Bedford.8

The other two prize ships also arrived safely in American ports. The Lady Juliana went to Boston. She was accosted off Boston by a "Scotch vessel of force" carrying soldiers and supplies to the British Army in amm. The prize master of the Lady Juliana told the Scottish captain that he was bound from Jamaica for London, but because he thought his cargo of sugar and rum might bring a better price in Boston, he was going to call there first. The Scotsman, thinking that the British still held Boston, asked the prize master to lead him in to Boston, since he was not acquainted with these waters. The result of this encounter was that the Lady Juliana arrived safely in port and the Scottish vessel fell prey to two vessels of the Continental Navy that were cruising nearby.9 The Juno, last of the prize ships to be accounted for, eluded the blockading frigates and made her way into Philadelphia.

Eventually Tom would get a share of the prize money realized from the sale of all the ships and cargoes. The owners of the Congress and Chance claimed half of all prize moneys; the other half was to be divided among the officers and crews. The total prize was rich indeed. Over $22,000 in cash and 180 pounds of silver plate were taken from the Lady Juliana.10 The cargo of Tom's ship, typical of the others, consisted of "302 Hogsheads of choice Sugars, 74 Puncheons of Rum; 52 Pipes, 10 half Pipes, 10 Butts and 4 Hogsheads of Wine; 42 Bags of Pimiento, 40 Planks and 11 Logs of Mahogany, 16 Tons of Lignum Vitae, and 7 Tons of Fustick."11

Before there was any money to be divided, the prize ships and their cargoes had to be libeled by the captors, regularly condemned by a Court of Admiralty, and then sold at public auction. Long before the Reynolds was condemned and sold, Tom had turned over to somebody p27else the paper work, the waiting upon judges, and the attendance at auction sales that had to be done by a member of the captor's crew. He was in a hurry to get back to New York; he had not seen Mary for at least three months and possibly not since the previous fall; and if the Congress and Chance were going out for another cruise he would want to be ready to go with them. But while he was in New York he talked to Isaac Sears. He decided then and there that the Congress and Chance could sail without him, because he had more important business to attend to. Sears, in company with two other merchants in New York and one in New Haven, was nearly ready to send out the first vessel of what eventually became an extensive privateer fleet. Would Tom like to command this privateer? Yes! How soon could she be made ready for him?


The Author's Notes:

1 Lowell J. Ragatz, The Fall of the Planter Class in the British Caribbean, 1763‑1833 (New York, 1928), pp89‑90; John Almon, ed., Remembrancer, or Impartial Repository of Public Events (London, 1775‑82), III, 238.

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2 HSPa: Court of Admiralty Docket, June 24, July 1, 1776.

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3 New England Chronicle, Boston, June 8, July 4, 18, August 2, 1776.

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4 Almon, op. cit., III, 174, 238.

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5 New York Gazette, and the Weekly Mercury, June 10, 1776.

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6 Almon, op. cit., III, 174.

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7 Daily Advertiser, London, August 5, 1776.

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8 Pennsylvania Gazette, Philadelphia, June 19, 1776; New England Chronicle, Boston, August 15, 1776; Pennsylvania Evening Post, Philadelphia, June 13, 1776.

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9 Pennsylvania Gazette, Philadelphia, June 19, 1776.

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10 Peter Force, ed., American Archives (Washington, D. C., 1837‑53), 4th ser., VI, 1026‑27.

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11 New England Chronicle, Boston, August 15, 1776.


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