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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 5

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Truxtun of the Constellation

Eugene S. Ferguson

published by
The Johns Hopkins Press
Baltimore, Md.

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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please let me know!


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Chapter 7
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p20  Chapter 6

Round the State House Yard

The islands of St. Christopher, commonly called St. Kitts, and St. Eustatius lie side by side in the chain of Leeward Islands; Antigua lies nearby. Since the Dutch were neutral in the argument between England and her colonies, St. Eustatius had become one of the busiest spots in the West Indies. The Dutch proprietors reaped a handsome profit while trade that could no longer be carried on directly between the mainland and the British islands was shunted through their warehouses.​a It was primarily to St. Eustatius that Tom was bound, searching for a cargo of arms and powder, the shortage of which was the most serious and immediate threat to the success of American campaigns.

When she was approaching St. Eustatius, the Charming Polly was brought to by a British sloop-of‑war, the Argo of 28 guns. A 28‑gun ship — twelve guns on a side and at bow and stern a pair of chasing guns — was a small one in a Navy that boasted hundred‑gun line-of‑battle ships; but to Tom, who may have had not even so much as a pistol in his own vessel, the Argo was a formidable antagonist. When he carried his papers on board the warship, he no doubt vociferated his protest at being molested, but the British commander would hear none of it. Since the colonies were in a state of rebellion, all rebel vessels were being seized. The fact that there was no law permitting the Royal Navy to take private property from a British subject — this was still 1775 — did not disturb the Argo's captain. His admiral was confident that there soon would be such a law. All of Tom's arguments fell on deaf ears. The Royal Navy was willing to let him wait awhile until the proper law had been enacted, and then the question could be settled in a British Court of Vice-Admiralty. Tom had no choice but to sail his vessel down to St. Kitts. There he lost her.

For more than two months he languished in the Islands waiting  p21 for the Court to release his property. He was not alone in his misery, however; twenty or thirty other American vessels had been captured. Back home, it was reported that some of the Americans were shackled and thrown into dungeons "for only expressing their sentiments." This report no doubt was greatly exaggerated; but the loss of a score of vessels was no exaggeration. In mid‑March, the Charming Polly was condemned as a prize of war. It was only then that he learned that word had just arrived from England authorizing the capture of American merchantmen. The British admiral had anticipated the action of his government by almost three months; his clairvoyance had cost Tom dearly. His vessel and cargo were gone, irretrievably lost.1

A commander with nothing to command, Tom's next move was clear enough. Going to neutral St. Eustatius, he took passage in the first vessel he could find that was bound for an American port. Early in the spring of 1776, Tom arrived in Philadelphia, where the Second Continental Congress was in session.2

The grass and trees in the State House yard were beginning to take on the green of another season. Inside the State House the representatives from the colonies, in congress assembled, were debating issues that would be remembered for an age. Outside, a fiery pamphlet that argued openly for independence of the colonies was selling by the thousands. Advertised in newspapers and ale houses, Tom Paine's "Common Sense for eighteen pence" was helping to push the Congress toward the brink of independence.​3 The colonies actually had been at war with England since that memorable nineteenth of April of the year before; but many people thought that there was still hope for reconciliation. Word had just been received from London that a shipload of Peace Commissioners was supposed to be on the way to bring the colonies back into the fold without any further bloodshed. But the Congress already knew — and this was no news to Tom Truxtun — that the King had suspended all trade with America and had made American vessels fair game for British guns upon the high seas.4

The merchants of Philadelphia decided that they too could play that game. They asked the Congress to let them send out privateers with authority to capture any British vessels they might find. After much discussion and some delay, the permission was granted.​5 Letters of marque and reprisal, which made legal the capture of enemy  p22 vessels by privately-owned American vessels, were prepared by the Continental Congress, and during the course of the Revolution many hundreds were issued.​b

Tom, still smarting from the loss of his sloop in St. Kitts, was ready for immediate action. When he heard that two privateers were to sail from Philadelphia, he went at once to the owners. The captains had already been chosen, but there was a place for a prize lieutenant in one of the vessels. Tom would have to sail as a subordinate officer. No matter: the sooner he got to sea the better.

The Congress and Chance were the first two privateers to be given letters of marque by the Continental Congress.​6 Tom was to sail on the Congress, under Captain McAroy. Both vessels were small; both were sloops. The Congress mounted six guns and the Chance had four. Each vessel carried a crew of forty-five, a multitude by peacetime standards. But these were vessels of war: the guns needed crews to serve them; and prize crews, to manage the vessels they might capture, had to be taken along.

It was an arduous task to fit out a war vessel in Philadelphia in 1776. The privateers had to share men and materials with the Army. There was no gunpowder to be bought at any price. The Continental Congress was figuratively sitting on all the powder in the city; a secret committee was responsible for its distribution.​7 In truth, the quantity at the disposal of the Congress was piti­fully small. The few vessels that could elude the British blockade off the Delaware capes brought in only a dribble of powder. The Continental Navy, which had sailed from Philadelphia in February, took with it its share of powder and ship's stores. The Pennsylvania fleet, to be used for river defense, was calling for materials and powder.

In spite of all these difficulties, the Congress and Chance were fitted out by the middle of April.​8 They had four hundred pounds of gunpowder and three hundred pounds of assorted shot between them.​9 Not a plenti­ful supply, but enough to cow a totally unarmed merchantman or two.

There remained one more obstacle in their way. A few miles down the river, the Committee of Safety had built a maze of chevaux-de‑frise to discourage any British vessels that might attempt to sail into the port of Philadelphia. The chevaux-de‑frise consisted of heavy timber caissons, anchored in position and topped by huge iron spikes, "the bigness of a Man's thigh."​10 Only the river pilots  p23 knew all the details of the works, and they could only guide the way of vessels approved by the Committee of Safety. This approval was forthcoming for the two privateers, however.​11 At last they were ready to sail.

On the very next tide the Congress and Chance dropped down the river together. They ran safely through the chevaux-de‑frise; they continued down the widening river, taking advantage of every slant of wind to speed them on their way. Keeping a sharp lookout for the blockading frigate, they discharged their pilot near Cape May and continued unmolested out into the open sea.12

Tom looked over the side at the clean white water, curling back from the bow‑wave, as the Congress heeled to a stiff western breeze. He took a deep breath of the fresh sea air. His gaze drifted aloft as he noted the set of the sails. Once again he was going out to sail beyond the horizon, to learn a little more of the ways of the ever changing sea. His mind took him back ashore for a moment, to Mary. A new bride but a year before, Mary had spent most of the time since then waiting for her sailor husband to come home from the sea. Perhaps this time he could please her by bringing home a rich prize. At any rate, a prize would please him; it would help compensate for the loss of his first command.

The Author's Notes:

1 Pennsylvania Gazette, Philadelphia, February 21, 1776; Pennsylvania Evening Post, Philadelphia, April 23, 1776.

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2 Port Folio, Philadelphia, 2nd ser., I (1809), 31.

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3 J. Thomas Scharf and Thompson Westcott, History of Philadelphia (Philadelphia, 1884), I, 309‑10.

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4 Edmund Cody Burnett, ed., Letters of Members of the Continental Congress (Washington, D. C., 1921‑38), I, 399, 400; E. C. Burnett, The Continental Congress (New York, 1941), p138.

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5 Burnett, Continental Congress, p139.

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6 U. S. Library of Congress, Naval Records of the American Revolution 1775‑1788 (Washington, D. C., 1906), pp249, 258.

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7 W. C. Ford, et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774‑1789 (Washington, D. C., 1904‑37), IV, 250.

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8 [Colonial Records of Pennsylvania, 1683‑1790] (Philadelphia, 1852‑53), X, 542.

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9 Ibid., X, 536; Ford, op. cit., IV, 250.

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10 Robert W. Neeser, ed., Despatches of Molyneux Shuldham (New York, 1913), p128.

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11 [Colonial Records], X, 542.

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12 Ibid.

Thayer's Notes:

a See "St. Eustatius in the American Revolution", American Historical Review, VII.683‑708.

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b The essentials of American privateering during the Revolutionary War are entertainingly covered by D. B. Chidsey, The American Privateers, Chapters 7‑10.

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Page updated: 13 Jun 13