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Chapter 7

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 9
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p27  Chapter 8

Independence to Mars

Tom knew, when he sailed in his new privateer, that he might not be able to return to New York when his cruise was over. This was the summer of 1776. General Howe, with his army in transports, had arrived off Sandy Hook at the end of June. After being driven from Boston by General Washington's troops, Howe had repaired to Halifax. Now he was back; on the eighth of July he landed his men on Staten Island, athwart the entrance to New York Bay.​1 George Washington already had his army in the city, at the upper end of the Bay.

On the eighth of July, in Philadelphia, the Declaration of Independence was, according to one eye witness, "published and proclaimed from that awful stage in the State House yard."​2 On the ninth, General Washington had it read to his troops in New York.3

It was about this time that Tom received a letter of marque for his privateer. It arrived when he was almost ready to sail. His vessel, a seventy‑ton sloop called — as one might expect — the Independence,  p28 was complete with arms and provisions. For a crew of sixty men, he had on board thirty barrels of salt beef and fifteen of salt pork; for the ten carriage guns, he carried five hundred pounds of powder and a quantity of four-pound shot — about three inches in diameter; if a fight at close quarters developed the crew could make good use of the thirty muskets and twenty pistols in the arms chest.4

Since the British controlled the entrance to the Bay, it would be foolish to try to run through their blockade as long as there was another way out. Rather than risk being captured before his voyage was fairly under way, Tom sailed the Independence up the East River, through the narrow and treacherous strait called the Hell Gate, and out into the Sound safely beyond the reach of British guns.5

Crossing and recrossing the tract of sea where the Gulf Stream veers eastward from the American coast, Tom captured a brig that had strayed from a homeward bound convoy of British merchantmen from the West Indies. On board this vessel he had the good fortune to find a copy of the signals being used in the convoy, a fleet of nearly eighty sail. Nonchalantly he sailed the Independence into the convoy and took up a station at its center. Knowing what the signals were, he had no fear of being challenged. All day he sailed along peacefully in this fleet, arousing no suspicion, answering every signal that was addressed to him. As evening approached, he began to drop back toward the rear, keeping a sharp eye peeled for a ship that would make a likely prize. When it was quite dark, he worked his way over toward a ship that appeared to be both valuable and vulnerable. Coming close alongside, he menaced her with his guns and ordered her to surrender. Without alarming the rest of the convoy, he managed to cut this ship out from its rear. Before morning he had a prize crew in the ship, the ship's company was imprisoned aboard the Independence, and the convoy, after plodding on throughout the night, was nowhere to be seen.6

Tom cruised in the Independence for about two months. He captured two brigs and two ships, all of them British merchantmen homeward bound from the West Indies.​7 One of the ships was recaptured by a British man-of‑war before her prize crew could bring her into an American port;​8 and one of the brigs Tom returned to her crew after taking out a few bags of cocoa, a bale of cotton, some quarter-casks of wine, and after he had relieved himself of his prisoners.9  p29 Probably this brig was the last of the four captures. If so, he had already dispatched three prize crews and had taken as prisoners, on board the Independence, the officers and crews from the three prize vessels. Short of men for prize crews and long on prisoners, he again chose a prudent course of action. He took out of the brig only such cargo as he could conveniently carry, then gave the vessel over to the prisoners and headed for home.

This cruise, like the first cruise of the Congress and Chance, was success­ful and immensely profitable. In addition to the cocoa, cotton, and wine that he took from the brig, Tom sent into New England a cargo of whale oil in the other brig, and a cargo of sugar, rum, and cotton in the ship. The vessels themselves undoubtedly brought a good price because they could be refitted as privateers and, in their turn, they could bring in more prizes and more prize cargoes.

Putting into Boston at the end of his cruise in the Independence, Tom was greeted by Isaac Sears, who had recently fled from New York when the British took the city in September, 1776. The two of them, jubilant at their success in privateering, were full of schemes for bigger and richer enterprises in the future. The Independence had grown too small for Tom. The number of men and guns he could carry were limited; and as for prizes out in the sea, waiting to be taken, there seemed to be no end to them. Besides, if British sail were plenti­ful in American waters, how much more plenti­ful they must be in British waters. Tom proposed to take the war to the British, but he decided he would need a bigger ship to do it. Very well; let someone else take the Independence out next time; meanwhile, find a ship to suit the appetite and talents of this able commander.

Sears and company were not the only people who talked, ate, and slept privateering. It had spread like a rash over the whole eastern seaboard. The fabulous profits that the privateers were making distressed the leaders who were trying to organize the war against the British Army and Navy. The American Commissary-General found it virtually impossible to buy supplies because he could not outbid the privateers.​10 One American general said, "Nothing impedes the recruiting of the Army so much as the present rage for privateering."​11 Another said, "The success of privateering has set all the troops distracted." It was said that many of the men "pant for the expiration of their inlistments," in order that they might go out in privateers.​12 A man could not be expected to enter or stay in the Army  p30 while he was reasonably sure of earning a handsome share of prize money in a privateer. No money could be borrowed by the government at a moderate rate of interest because merchants seemed to be concerned only with "privateering, buying up prize cargoes, and monopolizing them at any price."​13 On the other hand, some of the leaders of the Revolution, like John Adams, felt that the privateers would shorten the war. "It is by cutting off supplies," he said, "not by attacks, sieges, or assaults, that I expect deliverance from enemies."14

Tom, in his early twenties, had in the privateer service a better opportunity to further the cause of the thirteen United States than in any other place he might have served. In either the Army or Navy he could have been only a very junior officer. But in privateers he was in a position where his audacity and ability to lead men could pay dividends to his country in destruction of the enemy's commercial fleet. His job also paid Tom good dividends; but that is not to his discredit. It is not always necessary to starve in order to be useful.

In the months following his arrival at Boston, he must surely have gone home to see Mary, but not for long. After the prize business of the Independence was completed in December, the fitting out of his next ship demanded all of his time in order to have her ready for departure early the following spring.15

In May, 1777, Tom was about to depart for a six months' cruise in European waters. His ship was ready for sea. The Mars, a ship of 280‑tons burden, was probably somewhat larger than the British traders in which he had served as an apprentice. She had a battery of 22 carriage guns and 12 smaller swivel guns, enough to subdue almost any merchantman afloat. Somewhere he had located more than a ton of gunpowder. His ship, staunch and roomy, was well found with provisions enough to last his crew of 150 men for the full six months.16

Captain Tom Truxtun, aboard his ship Mars in Boston harbor, comes into sharp focus for the first time as he strides his quarter-deck, giving orders to cast off all lines and to spread sail enough to get his ship under way. He is only twenty‑two years old, yet already he is accustomed to command. His two lieutenants and 150 men look to him as the ultimate authority in his ship. His position is secure; it  p31 is based on respect for the reasonableness of his orders and his discipline. He derives none of his power from the fear of the cat. Flogging, a common punishment for seamen, is practically unknown in his ship. Not that he is afraid to rule by force should it ever become necessary. If his authority were challenged directly, he would not hesitate to break a man's jaw or his head. Something about his demeanor tells a man that this is so: his orders are never challenged. He does not understand fear in a personal sense. Cowardice is a trait that he cannot comprehend.

He is a man of medium height, about five feet seven inches tall, well built, with brown hair, a fresh complexion, tanned by the sun and bleached by the constant sea wind, and blue eyes that are never at rest.​17 Telling him, as they must, many things about his men and his ship and the sea, his eyes shift constantly, from a hand at the pin‑rail to a loose rope‑end he had not noticed before; from a hand on the ratlines to the water beyond the ship, where he continually studies and tries to interpret the face of the sea. His gaze is forever drifting aloft, noting the set of his sails and the condition of his rigging.

His appearance arrests the attention because he is mounted on his own quarter-deck. He carries easily his responsibility; he is accustomed to endless days and nights of constant vigilance. He is the master of the fate of his men and his ship.

He will grow as he goes from command to command, each little more important than the last. He will show his mettle when the full shattering force of a hurricane finds him undismayed. Finally, he will attain his full stature when the noise of war engulfs all those around him and leaves him cool, calm, and in full command.

The cruise of the Mars, which occupied the latter half of 1777, was Tom's last and most success­ful adventure in privateering. He cruised for several weeks at the western end of the English Channel, where most of England's trade routes converged. The Mars was but one of many American privateers in these waters, and several vessels of the Continental Navy were here also, preying upon British commerce; but Tom managed to capture five vessels — two sloops, two brigs, and a ship — all of which his prize crews took safely into the nearby friendly ports of France.18

It was convenient to send captured vessels into Nantes and other  p32 French ports, where they could be disposed of and turned into cash and supplies without having to risk the rigors of the long passage across the Atlantic or the danger of recapture by British men-of‑war. The British Ambassador to France, Lord Stormont, complained bitterly about this use of French ports by the Americans. It was contrary to treaties, he reminded the French Minister; furthermore, it did not comport with "the General Interest of all civilized Nations."​19 This traffic was responsible in part for the open French alliance with the United States and her declaration of war against Great Britain during the following year.

Tom was in Nantes in September to replenish his supplies and to look after the business of disposing of his prizes.​20 One prize at least, the sloop Jenny, he sent back to America, perhaps because his own ship could not carry all the prize freight that wanted to send home.​21 In January, 1778, he returned to Boston in the Mars. The ship was repaired and refitted and in a few months went out to cruise again, but Tom did not go along. He decided, for reasons unknown, to quit the privateering trade, to leave the expanding fleet of Isaac Sears, and to depart from the city of Boston.22

At this point, he took time out from the war to attend to some personal business. When the British Army had departed from Philadelphia in the spring of 1778, after holding the city captive throughout the winter — this was the winter that General Washington and his ragged army had spent at Valley Forge — Tom took Mary and their belongings and moved to Philadelphia. Here, in the largest city in America, they soon had for the first time — after more than three years of married life — a home. That fall, when the first frosts were painting the Pennsylvania countryside with streaks of crimson and patches of brown and when the days were warm and the nights crisp and clear, the Truxtuns were happily together, awaiting the arrival of their first-born. On the twenty-fourth of October, 1778, the baby arrived. They named her Sarah, after Tom's mother. She was baptized by the Reverend Mr. William White, rector of Christ Church in Philadelphia.23

Now that Tom was a family man as well as a success­ful shipmaster, he probably considered his duty to his family when he chose his next job. From the many opportunities he had for employment, he decided on a connection in Philadelphia with the Caldwell brothers, whose merchant ships were bringing in war supplies. He abandoned  p33 privateering and returned to a merchant captain's berth, but this had no noticeable effect upon his opportunities for adventures at sea nor upon his capacity for being at the scene of action when action was imminent.

The Author's Notes:

1 B. J. Lossing, Pictorial Field Book of the Revolution (New York, 1860), II, 594.

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2 E. C. Burnett, ed., Letters of Members of the Continental Congress (Washington, D. C., 1921‑38), II, 7.

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3 Lossing, op. cit., II, 79.

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4 Peter Force, ed., American Archives (Washington, D. C., 1837‑53), 5th ser., I, 374.

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5 Port Folio, Philadelphia, 2nd ser., I (1809), 32.

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6 Thomas Truxtun, Instructions, Signals, and Explanations Offered for the U. S. Fleet (Baltimore, 1797), p35.

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7 Public Advertiser, London, October 2, 1776; Newport Mercury, September 30, 1776.

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8 Whitehall Evening Post, London, November 5, 1776.

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9 Independent Chronicle, Boston, October 24, 1776; Newport Mercury, September 30, 1776.

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10 Force, op. cit., 5th ser., III, 1498.

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11 Ibid., 5th ser., III, 872.

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12 Ibid., 5th ser., III, 1072, 1513.

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13 Ibid., 5th ser., III, 1223.

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14 G. W. Allen, A Naval History of the American Revolution (Boston, 1913), p50.

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15 Independent Chronicle, Boston, October 31, November 21, 1776.

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16 Secretary of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Archives Division: Petition of Isaac Sears for letter of marque for Mars, May 24, 1777.

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17 Samuel Hazard, et al., eds., Pennsylvania Archives (Harrisburg, 1852‑1949), 5th ser., I, Letters of Marque, October 25, 1781, St. James.

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18 Public Advertiser, London, August 23, September 8, 1777; Independent Chronicle, Boston, July 10, October 30, November 13, December 4, 1777; February 26, 1778.

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19 Allen, op. cit., p258 and chap. 8.

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20 New York Hist. Soc., Collections (New York, 1887), Deane Papers, II, 143.

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21 Independent Chronicle, Boston, November 13, 1777.

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22 Of the twenty‑one ships owned by Sears & Co. from 1776 through 1782, none was larger than the Mars. For list of vessels, see U. S. Library of Congress, Naval Records of the American Revolution 1775‑1788 (Washington, D. C., 1906), passim; and G. W. Allen, "Massachusetts Privateers of the Revolution," Massachusetts Hist. Soc., Collections, LXXVII (1927).

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23 Truxtun Family Bible, in private collection of Truxtun Brodhead, Esq.

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