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Random Adventures






The newspapers published during the War of 1812, granted even that they
were vastly prejudiced of course, contained so much of thrilling
interest, and so much that is now forgotten, that a complete file, for
instance, of "Niles's Register" is a mine of wealth to a student of the
times. Every week a stirring chapter was added to the records of Yankee
ships and Yankee sailors. Fabulous sums were paid in prize money,
fortunes were made often in a single venture.

One of the luckiest cruises of the war, so far as rich returns are
concerned, was made by a little squadron of four vessels that sailed
from Boston on October 8th under the command of Commodore Rogers. It
consisted of the President, the United States, and the Congress
frigates, and the Argus sloop of war. Five days after sailing the
United States and the Argus became separated from the others in a
gale of wind, and afterwards cruised on their own account. On the 15th,
the President captured the British packet Swallow, having on board
two hundred thousand dollars in specie--a rich haul, indeed. On the
31st of the month, the Congress captured a South Sea ship loaded with
oil that was being convoyed by an English frigate, the Galatea; the
latter made off and left her consort to her fate. The President, on
the 25th of October, captured the fine English frigate Macedonian,
and sent her safely into New London harbor. After taking one or two
smaller prizes, the President and Congress sailed into Boston the
last of December, having covered over eight thousand miles. The landing
of the money taken from the Swallow and the other prizes was made
quite a function. It was loaded into several large drays, and escorted
from the Navy Yard to the bank by the crews of the frigates and a
detachment of marines, "drums beating and colors flying," as an
old-time account has it. The gold dust and specie amounted to the value
of three hundred thousand dollars, besides the value of the vessels
taken.

But the little Argus, under the command of Captain Sinclair, had
some adventures worth the telling, before she returned to port laden
with the fruits of war. After parting company with the squadron, she
laid her course for the coast of Brazil, then one of the most
profitable cruising grounds, although the waters swarmed with British
war vessels. From Cape St. Roque to Surinam she sailed and there made
two prizes; thence she cruised through the West Indies and hovered in
the vicinity of the Bermudas; afterwards she went as far north as
Halifax along the coast before she turned her head towards home.

The Argus must have been a nimble vessel, for, according to her
logbook, she had escaped imminent capture a score of times, owing to
her speed and capacity for sailing close on the wind. Once she had
fallen in with a British squadron of six sail, two of them being ships
of the line. For three days and nights they pursued her closely. One of
the big fellows, proving to be a very fast sailer, outstripped the
others, and twice was almost within gunshot. On the fourth day the
Argus came up with a large English merchant ship about sunset. The
wind had shifted so as to give her the windward gage of the pursuing
battle-ship. In full sight of her, and of the others that were distant
some ten or twelve miles, the Argus captured the merchantman; and,
under cover of the dark, stormy night that shut down, she made her
escape with her prize. After a cruise of ninety-six days, she put into
the harbor of New York. The actual value of the prizes she had captured
amounted to upwards of two hundred thousand dollars--more than enough
to pay for her original cost three times over.

But to leave the deeds of the regular navy and take up those of a few
of the private armed vessels: less is known of their doings, of course;
they should be given a separate volume to themselves in writing the
history of our wars with England--and the volume is yet unwritten, but
some day it may be. Bravely they fought, often against odds, and more
than once they contributed to the defence of our coast in cooperation
with the regular navy and the land forces. Take operations of the
English blockading squadron under Admiral Warren that was sent to
close up the waters of the Chesapeake. Many were the times that the
privateers eluded his watch-dogs and sailed in and out through his
fleet, and more than once did he have a chance to test their metal. The
schooner Lottery, of Baltimore, mounting six guns and having a crew
numbering but thirty-five, in February, 1813, was attacked by nine
large British boats containing over two hundred and forty armed men.
For an hour and a half the privateer stood them off, and before she was
finally captured, she had killed more of the enemy than her own crew
numbered! The privateer Dolphin, also hailing from Baltimore, was
taken after the same heroic defence, and Admiral Warren must have found
such work to be rather uncomfortable experience. The United States
schooner Asp, three guns and twenty-one men, was pursued up a shallow
creek by a detachment of boats from the English fleet; and, after
beating off her pursuers for some time, she was taken by superior
numbers and upon her capture was set on fire. But the Americans, who
had retreated to shore, returned and succeeded in extinguishing the
flames and saving their vessel. A remarkable thing in connection with
the presence of the English fleet in the Chesapeake was the attempt to
blow up the flagship Plantagenet with a torpedo. The news that
Americans were working upon such a line of invention had filled the
English with dread and horror, they declared that any one captured
while engaged in such a work would be hanged at once without a trial,
for they denounced such methods of warfare as "crimes against
humanity." But this did not deter an adventurous projector by the name
of Mix from trying to rid the bay of its unwelcome visitors. For a long
time he had been at work perfecting a "new explosive engine of great
destructive powers," and on the 18th of July, at midnight, he dropped
down with the tide alone in a small rowboat, and, when within forty
fathoms of the Plantagenet, he put his torpedo into the water with
the intention of having it drift with the tide athwart the flagship's
bows. But an alert sentry on one of the guard boats discovered him and
hailed; Mix drew his infernal machine into his boat and escaped. Every
night for a week the inventor tried his luck, but was spied before he
could complete his preparations, and was forced to draw off. But once
he so frightened the English officers that they made sail and shifted
their anchorage, and upon another occasion the flagship let go a
pell-mell broadside, and threw up rockets and blue lights to ascertain
the whereabouts of the lone adventurer.

On the night of the 24th Mix came very near to accomplishing his
purpose, and a contemporary printed account gives such a vivid
description of it that it is well worth quoting: "When within one
hundred yards the machine was dropped into the water, and at the same
moment the sentinel cried, 'All's well,' the tide swept it towards the
vessel, but it exploded a few seconds too soon. A column of water full
fifty feet in circumference was thrown up thirty or forty feet. Its
appearance was a vivid red tinged with purple at the sides. The summit
of the column burst with a tremendous explosion, and fell on the deck
of the Plantagenet in torrents, while she rolled into the yawning
chasm below and nearly upset." Then the account shortly remarks, "She,
however, received but little injury." But this early attempt at waging
submarine warfare made the British exceedingly weary of anchoring in
our ports, which was to our advantage.

But to leave this digression and return to the privateers again:
justice has not been done them, as we have said. But to take the names
of a few and tell of their experiences is perhaps a good idea. Well
known were they to the public eighty odd years ago. For instance, the
schooner Atlas, of nineteen guns, that sailed from Philadelphia soon
after war was declared with England--she was famous! Her captain's name
was David Moffat, and he was a fearless commander and a "right good
seaman." The Chronicle and the Naval Temple, published in 1816,
give each a short account of one of his encounters with the enemy; to
quote from the latter:--

"On the third of August at eight A.M., the Atlas discovered two sail,
for which she bore away. At eleven o'clock the action was commenced
with a broadside and musketry. She continued engaged with both ships
till noon, when the smaller one struck her colors. The Atlas then
directed the whole of her fire against the large ship, when the small
one, although her colors were down, renewed her fire on the Atlas,
which had to recommence firing on her; in a few minutes every man was
driven from her decks. Twenty minutes past twelve the large ship
struck. Possession was immediately taken of both of them. One proved to
be the ship Pursuit, Captain Chivers, of four hundred and fifty tons,
sixteen guns, and thirty-five men. The other was the ship Planter,
Captain Frith, of two hundred and eighty tons, twelve guns, and fifteen
men." They proved to be richly laden, and with both of them in her wake
the Atlas started for home; she had lost but two men killed and five
wounded. The Pursuit arrived safe in port on the same day as the
privateer, but the Planter was recaptured off the cape of the
Delaware.

The privateer Decatur under command of Captain Divon, after a long
and severe fight, captured a schooner of the English service that
mounted fifteen guns--over twice as many as the Decatur carried. The
Saratoga of New York, Captain Aderton, took the Morgania, a British
packet of eighteen guns, off Surinam, and in the action both vessels
were nearly dismantled. The Comet, of Baltimore, had a running fight
with three English merchant-men and a Portuguese sloop of war; she beat
off the latter, who officiously interfered, and compelled all three of
the Englishmen to strike their colors. The Young Eagle took two
British ships at once--one quite as large and as powerful as she was.
The Montgomery, Captain Upton of Boston, mounting twelve guns, fought
yard arm to yard arm with a fine sloop of war belonging to the English
navy, mounting twenty guns. The Surinam, for that was her name, gave
up the fight, and, much crippled, put in at Barbadoes. They were rare
good fighters--these privateers.

But perhaps one of the strangest adventures was that of the Young
Teazer--what a saucy, impudent name for a vessel; but, according to
account, it suited her to a nicety. Captain Dobson of New York was part
owner and commander, and while cruising off Halifax he was chased by a
large armed ship, the Sir John Sherbroke. As she kept gaining
steadily, Dobson headed his own vessel straight for Halifax harbor; he
passed the lighthouse, and as he did so hoisted up English colors over
the American in order to lead his pursuer to suppose he was an English
prize. As if in disgust at having wasted so much time, the Sir John
Sherbroke hove about and put to sea, and as soon as she was at a
safe distance, Dobson hauled down his misleading colors and did
likewise, successfully escaping.

The journals of the time are crowded with adventures such as these, and
the few here referred to have been selected merely at random. But they
give an idea of the adventurous spirit and daring enterprise of the
Yankee tars and captains.





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Previous: The Rival Life-savers



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