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Chapter 8

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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Chapter 10
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p33  Chapter 9

Andrew Caldwell

As the War of Revolution dragged on into its fifth year in the spring of 1779, Tom sailed a new ship over the familiar route to the West Indies. The Andrew Caldwell, armed with ten guns to protect her from British privateers and the "refugee galleys" that infested the lower reaches of the Delaware River, carried a crew of only thirty or forty men, not enough to be engaged in a privateering voyage; but she carried a letter of marque in order to legalize any prizes she might happen to take in the course of her normal business.1

Tom, seeking a cargo of rum and salt, was bound for the Dutch island of St. Eustatius. The island was in sight, barely an hour's sail away, when he repeated his experience of three and a half years before. While he was yet trying to reach the haven of the neutral roadstead, he found himself under the guns of another warship of the Royal Navy. To give battle with his few small guns would be but a futile gesture; bowing to the inevitable, he surrendered his ship. Once again he sailed under guard down to St. Kitts, where the Andrew Caldwell was taken over by a British crew.

Tom was detained in St. Kitts for a short time only.​2 When he was released he hurried back to St. Eustatius in order to find passage to Philadelphia, or at least to North America. St. Eustatius, seven miles northwest of St. Kitts, was a rocky, barren island ending abruptly at a bold coast line, a rough stone in a jewel-like setting. All the nearby islands were lush and green, capped with verdant mountain peaks that pierced low‑hanging clouds. On the lower slopes were plantations, neatly kept and prosperous in appearance. But not  p34 St. Eustatius. One traveler who visited the island about this time described it as "a place of vast traffick from every quarter of the globe. The ships of various nations which rode before it were very fine, but the Island itself the only ugly one I have seen. . . . It is however an instance of Dutch industry little inferior to their dykes; as the one half of the town is gained off the Sea, which is fenced out by Barracadoes, and the other dug out of an immense mountain of sand and rock; which rises to a great height behind the houses, and will one day bury them under it."3

There was only one street in the town. Lined with the stalls of shopkeepers from many lands, the narrow street was a cosmopolitan bazaar. "Here hang rich embroideries," the traveler observed, "painted silks, flowered Muslins, with all the Manufactures of the Indies. Just by hang Sailor's Jackets, trousers, shoes, hats, etc. Next stall contains most exquisite silver plate, the most beauti­ful indeed I ever saw, and close by these iron-pots, kettles and shovels. But it were endless to enumerate the variety of merchandize in such a place, for in every store you find every thing, be their qualities ever so opposite."4

Contemplating his next move, Tom no doubt wandered past the color­ful shops; his way led him at length to the trading firm of Aull and Morson. After explaining his predicament to the merchants, he received from them a bold offer which he promptly accepted. Aull and Morson advanced him money to buy another vessel to replace the Andrew Caldwell and to buy a cargo to take back to Philadelphia. It was only a matter of days, after that, until he bought the Lydia.​5 She may have already carried the name — many other vessels did — but it is perhaps significant that Andrew Caldwell's wife was named Lydia. At any rate, he loaded her with salt, rum, and some loose freight, including "A Package containing a Bible in Twelve Volumes" for a Jewish merchant in Philadelphia, and in September, 1779, he was homeward bound, carrying to the Caldwells the news that they had just bought another ship.6

The voyage was a hard one. The Lydia met with foul winds; she was becalmed; several times she was chased out of her way by British men-of‑war; and finally, off Cape Hatteras in the middle of September, the hurricane month, she found herself in a roaring gale.

Tom took in sail as the wind increased. When the first full fury of  p35 the storm hit his ship, he brought her head up into the wind's teeth to avoid being swamped. The gale mounted to hurricane force and for more than two days and two nights the Lydia lay to, drifting steadily to leeward, not daring to show a rag of canvas. The hurricane pounded the little ship unmerci­fully; the wind thrummed a terrifying tune in the rigging. Stays, stretched taut as wires, strained against the wind's force until they reached their limit and parted with reports like cannon shots; then masts and spars, lacking any support, gave way with a series of splintering shocks. There was nothing Tom could do to save his upper works from destruction; his ship lost all her masts — fore, main, and mizzen — and her bowsprit as well.

On the third day, when the hurricane blew itself out, the hulk of the Lydia lay helpless somewhere at sea. Surveying the wreckage and deciding what next to do, Tom placed no blame on his ship. "If she had not been the best sea boat in the world," he recounted later, "we never could have survived the tempest." Fortunately, he had had enough sea room to avoid being driven ashore on Diamond Shoals off the pitch of Cape Hatteras.

Within a short time he had lashed together the few small spars that remained on board and had fished those to the splintered stump of a mast. On this jury-mast he was able to hoist a small spread of sail. Thus he continued on his way, slowly and laboriously working the Lydia up the coast toward Norfolk, a hundred miles distant. He sailed under the jury‑rig day after day while the wind came out of the north, making headway almost impossible; it was almost two weeks before he finally reached the sheltered waters of Chesapeake Bay. During this time he was carefully inspected, at a safe distance, by two privateers. One of them, a brig of twelve guns, hovered about all one night, then at daylight came up fast as though she were going to attack. She held the weather gauge; that is, she had the advantage of being able to close the action or avoid it as she chose. Tom, slogging along with barely enough sail to steer by, could not maneuver his ship; but he was not content merely to wait for the attack. He bore away to leeward, losing precious headway, and at the same time hoisted his colors and "gave her a shot." The brig made no reply, but hauled her wind and went off. She chose not to come to action with a captain who, in spite of the shattered condition of his ship, had the audacity to invite an attack. For fifteen days Tom slept  p36 only when exhaustion forced him to it; even then he turned in all standing, completely dressed — coat, shoes, and all — and ready to tumble out on deck at an instant's notice.7

When at last the Lydia arrived in the bay, Tom took her up to Portsmouth, opposite Norfolk, where he could obtain the materials he would need to refit her. With furious energy, hardly taking time even to eat, he supervised every detail of the repairs and refitting. He disposed of the cargo, storing some, sending some up to Baltimore. He expected at first to offer the rum and salt to the government for army supplies, but upon learning that prices had risen because of "some speculators from the Noreward" he decided it would be to his owners' advantage to send it up the James and Rappahannock rivers to be traded for tobacco, which he could sell for a substantial profit on his next voyage to the West Indies.

As soon as he felt he could be spared at Portsmouth, he took the rest of his cargo up to Baltimore. It would then take him but two or three more days to make the journey to Philadelphia to see his wife and year‑old baby. If he was home at all, it was only for a few days, because he was soon back in his ship, sailing again to the West Indies to recoup some of the losses he had suffered in his scrapes with the Royal Navy and the angry sea. One thing more he did before he departed from Portsmouth. To change his luck, he changed the name of his ship. Looking back upon his privateering days, he borrowed the name of a happier vessel. The Lydia became, for better or worse, the Independence.8

It seemed, for a time, that it was definitely for worse. Returning to Philadelphia from his second voyage to St. Eustatius early in February, 1780, the perils of the sea once again threatened to put an end to his ship. This time it was ice that plagued him.

All the way up through the wintry seas north of the latitude of the Bahamas, the Independence had been battling one continuous gale of wind. Fifty miles offshore from the Delaware capes, Tom saw a sight that strikes terror in the very soul of a deep-water sailor. White water — breakers — appeared on the horizon. Knowing that there were no charted shoals in these waters, he ventured closer and found the sea breaking over great islands of ice. The Delaware Bay was a field of broken ice; when Mike Dawson, the pilot who conned Tom's ship up the bay, came aboard from the pilot boat, he told Tom that  p37 he had never seen anything like it. At Philadelphia, the river had been frozen over since before Christmas.9

Creeping slowly along through the drifting ice in the bay, the Independence rammed into one huge cake that refused to give way. As the ship came to a shuddering halt, the ice tore a gaping hole through her planking below the water line. Water immediately began to pour into the hold; almost as quickly Tom sprang to action. Upon his order a loose sail — any sail that happened to be handy — was lowered down around the bows of the ship; it was then made fast by lines leading aft to the deck. In casting about for something else to help check the rush of water into the ship, Tom thought of his mattress. In an instant it was snatched from the Captain's bunk and was lowered over the side to stanch the flow; but in spite of all his exertions the ship continued to fill. Within fifteen minutes there was five feet of water in the hold. There was only one thing left to do. With his ship settling rapidly, Tom with great difficulty ran her aground before she foundered.

At low water he was able to patch the leak and pump out the hold. As soon as she was refloated, he sailed up the river to a wharf in New Castle. Later, when he sat down in his cabin to write a report of the accident to his owners, he explained all the circumstances and described his actions. "I must add," he added, "that I believe few ships in a similar situation wasº ever saved."10

Tom made a third voyage to St. Eustatius that spring with happier results. All the way down to the Islands he chased and brought to every vessel he saw except one, and that one, a British frigate, chased him for half a day but failed to overtake him. He had decided before he left home that he needed a prize to ease the pinch of "the variety of vicissitudes I went through with that ship."​11 He carried a letter of marque, which permitted him to take prizes, if any should offer, in the course of his regular trading voyage. But all the vessels he saw were friendly except the frigate. On the return passage, however, while she was sailing in company with two brigs, the Independence took a prize.​12 The prize was a brig named Clyde, and she put up no resistance. Nevertheless, Tom watched her closely all the way up to Philadelphia. The proportion of the prize that each of the captors was entitled to was decided by the Court of Admiralty, but in view of his "extraordinary Care, and attention" to bringing the prize in  p38 safely, the others who were present when the capture was made decided that Tom should have a larger share than the Court had awarded him.13

The cargo of the prize brig, consisting entirely of rum, was sold for a fantastic price. It was valued at more than £300,000, almost a million dollars.​14 Nearly eighty dollars a gallon for rum sounds impossible; but this was June, 1780.

Prices had been rising ever since the Continental Congress started to print paper money almost five years before. Price fixing had been tried, but merchants with few goods and customers with many wants had soon wrecked that system. The individual states had followed the lead of the Congress, and printing presses in every state were spewing out money by the bushel. Now the spiral of inflation whirled through every town in the land, accelerating with each new day. In March, 1780, when the Congress created a new Continental dollar, it publicly admitted that its money was backed by nothing but lame faith. This new dollar was to be worth, by law, forty of the continentals then in circulation. Already, the old continentals were "not worth a continental." They found their way to the trash barrel when the rate finally fell to a thousand to one.15

This explosive inflation was but one indication of the low ebb to which the American cause had fallen after more than five years of war. The patriotic spirit of '76 had, according to one observer, "given place to avarice and every rascally practice. . . . Its depreciation," he said, "is equal to that of the currently — forty for one."16

Tom Truxtun did not seem to be much concerned about his country's fortunes at this time. His next voyage, in the course of which he deliberately got himself into a scrape with John Paul Jones, added no luster to his career; but eventually he was a better man for having exchanged words with that ardent patriot.

The Author's Notes:

1 U. S. Library of Congress, Naval Records of the American Revolution 1775‑1788 (Washington, D. C., 1906), p226; Samuel Hazard, et al., eds., Pennsylvania Archives (Harrisburg, 1852‑1949), 2nd ser., I, 1779 — Pennsylvania Navy commissions.

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2 Truxtun Hare Collection: Truxtun to William Constable, September 23, 1779.

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3 Evangeline W. Andrews, ed., Journal of a Lady of Quality (New Haven, 1934), pp135‑36.

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4 Ibid., pp136‑37.

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5 The name Lydia appears only in HSPa: Etting Papers, Navy, p82, August 26, 1779, a bill of lading.

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6 Ibid.; Truxtun Hare Collection: Truxtun to William Constable, September 23, 1779.

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7 Truxtun Hare Collection: Truxtun to William Constable, September 23, 1779; Truxtun to A. & J. Caldwell, April 21, 1780.

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8 Truxtun to A. & J. Caldwell, September 25, October 2, 1779; April 21, 1780.

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9 Ibid., February 11, 1780; Hazard's Register of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia, 1828‑35), VIII, 384.

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10 Truxtun Hare Collection: Truxtun to A. & J. Caldwell, February 11, 1780.

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11 Ibid., April 21, May 3, 1780.

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12 Pennsylvania Packet, Philadelphia, June 22, 1780.

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13 HSPa: Misc. Ship Papers [Am 677], Thomas Truxtun, re brig Phoenix and prize brig Clyde, June 16, 1780.

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14 HSPa: Admiralty Court Papers, June 7, 1780; R. V. Harlow, "Aspects of Revolutionary Finance," American Historical Review, XXXV (1930), 49‑51.

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15 John C. Miller, Triumph of Freedom (Boston, 1948), pp440‑45. Chapter 22, "Inflation and its Consequences," is outstanding on this subject.

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16 Josiah Quincy, ed., Journals of Major Samuel Shaw (Boston, 1847), p58. The actual statement, altered for the sake of uniformity, was "30 for 1."

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Page updated: 13 Jun 13