The Escape Of Symington

Captain Myron Symington was a long-legged Yankee. There was no

mistaking him for anything else but an out-and-out downeaster. As to

the length of his underpinning, that was apparent also. When seated, he

did not appear above the average height; but when erect he stood head

and shoulders above the crowd, so of course it was in his legs.

Symington spoke English with a lazy drawl, and conversation ebbed from

him much after the manner that smoke issues from a tall chimney on a

perfectly still day--it rolled forth in slow volumes. But Symington's

French was very different; he could be clearly understood, for he spoke

it well; but he discharged every word like a pistol shot, and he paused

between each sentence as if he had to load and prime, and cast loose

for the next.

Since the beginning of the war Symington had not been to America. But

he had sent many messages thither; and although his headquarters were

at Brest when ashore, and the English Channel and the Bay of Biscay

when afloat, his name had become well known in the United States, and

he had done a thriving international business on his own account--which

may require some explaining.

The little privateer Rattler (of which he was owner and commander)

had sent home no less than twenty vessels that had been snapped up when

almost under the guns of England's coastwise fortresses. Whenever he

needed provisioning or recruiting, Symington would make for one of the

French ports, run the blockade that the English had established the

whole length of the coast, drop his anchor in the harbor, and then get

anything he chose for the mere asking for it; for Symington's name was

as good and in fact better than the promise of some governments. Years

before the outbreak of the war Symington had commanded the fastest and

luckiest Yankee craft engaged in the European trade that sailed from

Baltimore or Boston. He was a good seaman, it was reputed that he was

immensely wealthy, and many believed also that he possessed some charm

or fetich that insured success. Certainly it had crowned his endeavors

to divert the direction of Great Britain's proper freight ships.

Symington was sitting at a table in one of the cafes off the Rue

Bonaparte in the city of Brest, and he had just finished a very heavy

noonday meal. Suddenly glancing up, he saw a man go past the door

leading from the hallway into the garden. Lengthening himself to his

full height by a succession of jerks, in a couple of strides he had

caught the man by the elbow and almost pulled him back into the room.

"Just back, ain't ye, Captain Edgar?" he drawled.

"Post haste," the man replied, "from Paris."

"Any news?"

"Well, I should say there was. By Hickey, Captain, Napoleon's jig is

up! Already the people are showing the white cockade, and those who yet

fly the tricolor have the other in their pocket."

"So!" exclaimed Symington, prolonging the syllable until it sounded

like a yawn; "then our friends the English will have a finger in the

pie in short order. It is a shame that they will have to break up such

a harmless and profitable business, this Channel cruising."

It was April of the year 1814. Europe had completed the humiliation of

the little great man who had come nigh to conquering her, unaided. And

as soon as the last of his ramparts were down, any one with common

sense could see what would be the outcome of it all. The exiled King,

Louis the Eighteenth, who had been hiding in London, would be placed

upon the throne! To Great Britain more than to any other power he would

owe his translation from debt, poverty, and seclusion to position,

affluence, and a crown. From being England's enemy, France would become

her ally. Could it be expected of her to continue to harbor in her

ports those ocean pests, the Yankee privateers, who had compelled

England to give the services of two-thirds of her fighting force to

convoying and guarding her merchant fleets?

Symington and his friend, the short man, seated themselves at a table

and continued the conversation.

"I'd put to sea to-morrow if I had enough of a crew to work the old

Siren," said the little Captain. "I had hard enough work getting

into port after manning all my prizes. But if I could get four more

good hands, I'd have enough."

"There are just fourteen men-o'-war and three battle-ships off the

harbor mouth, and what chance would ye have of gettin' through this

open weather?" grumbled Symington. "We'll have to wait until we get a

good blow out of the southeast; that'll scatter 'em, and then, by Hick,

we can make a try for it. Two weeks longer, and we'll probably have no


"I'll be startin' for Boston town some dark night this week, Captain

Symington, just as soon as I get men enough to handle the Siren's

main sheet, as I told ye."

"And I, too, Captain Edgar, as soon as I get enough hands to get up the

Rattler's anchor. But I'll choose my weather, sir!"

After a few words more the two skippers shook hands and left the cafe,

each bound to the waterfront by a different direction. It was certainly

a peculiar position that the Yankee craft found themselves occupying

about this time in European waters. Sometimes they would be in a port

where lay eight or ten half-dismantled frigates, and over twice as many

smaller cruisers and merchantmen belonging to the Empire, all cooped up

and kept in there by four or five English sloops of war, or perhaps a

guard ship of fifty or sixty guns patrolling up and down the harbor

mouth. On the other side of the water, however, the English had

succeeded in blockading but one American frigate, the Constellation,

early in the war. Afterwards for a few months they hemmed in the

United States, the Macedonian, and the little Hornet in the

harbor of New London; but what would not the United States have given

to have possessed those thousands of idle guns that lay in the French

naval stations? She would have manned the helms, spread the sails, and

put those great hulks into motion. She might even have done a little

"fleet sailing" on her own account.

But there was some excuse for France. Napoleon had depleted his

seacoasts to fill his armies. There were not sufficient able seamen to

answer the demand, and besides, so long had the French run away from

the English at sea, that a thirty-eight-gun frigate of the Empire had

been known to escape a meeting with a British twenty-gun sloop by

turning tail and making off. The French flag was a rarity afloat. So

every time the Yankee privateers entered or left a port it was

necessary to run the blockade that the British had established at the

entrance. As this was the state of the home ports also, they had become

quite used to it. Seldom or never were they caught in the act.

But the day came, as the Yankee captains had agreed it would, when

Napoleon succumbed entirely. Out came the white cockades; the tricolor

disappeared. No longer was it "the Emperor," but "the King," and the

first request that England made was that the Yankee shipping in French

ports should be confiscated and the privateers detained. Great was the

consternation of the skippers; some who had crews sufficient in number

to man their vessels put to sea instanter and were taken in by the

Channel squadron forthwith. Others remained waiting for the weather to

thicken and trusting that King Louis would hesitate long enough to give

them a chance for life. But the order came at last. The privateers were

to be allowed to leave the harbor any time they found a chance to do

so; but before they left, the French King, who was holding fast to his

rickety throne, and was merely kept in place by the supporting arms of

England, Russia, and Germany, issued a decree. It was to the effect

that the vessels should sail unarmed; that their broadsides should be

taken from them, their cutlasses and small-arms removed, and thus shorn

of their teeth and claws, they should be allowed to depart. As every

merchantman, almost without exception, in those days carried at least

four or five guns handy on the spar deck, this decree was equivalent to

presenting them to any English vessel that might get range of them.

Before the order could be executed more of the vessels got to sea, and

not a few were gobbled up at once by the English cruisers; some were

forced to put back again, and only one or two ever reached the shores

of America.

The day the news arrived early in May, Captain Edgar was one of the

first to get his anchor in and make out past the headland as soon as

dusk had settled. In a few minutes Symington, also, although his vessel

was very short-handed, was getting up his mainsail, and he too would

have sailed no doubt, had there not suddenly arisen a sound of firing

from the offing. Of course there being now peace between France and

England, it was possible for the English ships to anchor beside the

Americans if they had chosen to do so, and in fact in some of the

harbors so penned in were the privateers, that, as one captain

expressed it, "they would have to sail across the deck of a

seventy-four to escape to sea." England had respected the neutrality of

the French ports thus far; but if an American vessel was seen preparing

to get under way, she would be watched carefully, and if not

accompanied by an English ship, her going out would be signalled to the

blockaders off the shore. As the cannonading was kept up for so long a

time, Captain Symington supposed, or at least hoped, that the Siren

had escaped her enemies. Perhaps the confusion that followed would be a

good moment for him to take advantage of, and he determined to sail out

at once.

But it was not to be; for hardly had he got under way when he was

boarded by a cutter filled with armed men, under the command of a

Frenchman, dressed in a voluminous coat and a huge cocked hat, who

described himself in a breathless sentence as "Monsieur le Capitaine

Georges Binda, Inspector of the Port for His Majesty, King Louis." But

a few months previously he had been at Napoleon's beck and call, having

been one of the recruiting officers of the district.

Captain Symington's expostulations were of no avail, although owing to

his peculiar manner of speech, they appealed to the whole harbor.

His long twelve-pounder was taken from him, and his neat little battery

of carronades, six on a side, were confiscated also. Before noon of the

next day the Rattler had been changed from a tiger cat to a harmless


The discomforting news also arrived that Captain Edgar had been blown

out of the water, after he had almost succeeded in getting past the

English line. This was most disheartening, and that very day many of

the Americans, despairing of ever getting free, attempted to dispose of

their ships by sale. But not so with Symington. He determined not to

give up until compelled to; to hold out until the very last minute.

The Rattler was light in ballast, and in trim for fast sailing. There

were enough men now on board of her to handle her at a pinch, and she

could have shown a clean pair of heels to any one of the English

cruisers then afloat. Although not altogether a beauty to look at, for

she was a comparatively old vessel, she was marvellously quick in

stays, and came about like a sharpie. In pointing, too, she was a

marvel, and once given the windward gage she could choose her own

distance. No man could sail the Rattler the way Symington could, and

no skipper ever knew the capacities or character of his craft better

than did the lank Yankee. She was his pet; why give her up to be sailed

by a lubberly Frenchman? The very first chance he saw he was going to

take. It arrived no later than the second evening after the despoiling.

The moon came up early in the morning; but about an hour or so before

the time for her appearance a soft gray fog blew in from the sea. At

first the great outline of a British troop-ship close alongside on the

Rattler's port hand disappeared gradually. Then the numerous anchor

lights and the lanterns of the town that had been twinkling brightly in

the darkness became but hazy blurs of light through the thickening

mist. But when the moon began to cast her silvery light, a marvellous

thing happened that caused the second mate, who was on watch, to hurry

down into the cabin and call Captain Symington to the deck. The rays of

moonlight in the fog caused an opaque, impenetrable veil to surround

the ship. So thick was it, that the sensation was as if a white cloth

had been tied across the eyes. The masts disappeared a few feet above

the deck. If one turned around, it was impossible to tell in which

direction the vessel extended. The Rattler lay but a few hundred

feet astern of a big French brig that was anchored with a stream anchor

over her side to keep her from swinging in toward a point of rocks

which was surmounted by a small battery. As soon as Captain Symington

reached the deck he stepped across to the bulwarks, and lowering

himself down as far as he could go by the chains he perceived what

often happens in thick weather: the fog was lifted some feet from the

surface of the water, and close to the water objects could be discerned

at some distance. There was not wind enough to sail; to use the sweeps

would have called down on him a fleet of armed small craft in an

instant! Well he knew that rather than see him escape, the transport

would go afoul of him and try to explain matters afterwards.

Now Captain Symington had a remarkably retentive memory. It was said

that he never had to look at a chart more than twice; that he could

take a vessel over shoals where he had been only once before, and that,

years previously. Now this gift stood him in good stead. Just ahead of

him lay the big French brig. Within a cable's length of her, a large

French man-of-war, but half dismantled; beyond, an English sloop; then

two more vessels. Once outside of them, and there was nothing to

prevent him from gaining the mouth of the harbor! How was it to be

done? The fog might last for two or three hours, and yet again it might

disappear at any moment. But Symington was not discouraged; a brilliant

idea came to him; the crew were called into the cabin, and there by the

dim light of a lantern Captain Symington explained his plan.

The men listened in astonishment. Many stories of wonderful escapes had

they heard, and many adventures had they been through; but such a bold

plan of action they had never heard proposed before.

When all hands returned to the deck, there was not a sound. Although

having almost to feel their way, a light new cable was brought up and

flaked neatly up and down the deck. Then Captain Symington took the end

of it into the stern sheets of his gig, which was silently dropped into

the water, and with four men pulling at the carefully muffled oars he

made off from beneath the bows, heading for the big French brig, the

cable noiselessly paying out into the water over the Rattler's bows.

It did not take him long to make fast to the moorings of the brig. This

done, he waited anxiously.

"They are heaving away now, sir," whispered one of the men in the bow

of the boat. Sure enough, the cable had tautened under the strain that

was being put upon it. Symington at first feared that some attention

might be attracted on board the Frenchman; but there came no sound, and

he knew that his people on board the Rattler had silently slipped

moorings and that she had way upon her.

On board the privateer's deck, barefooted men were walking away with

the cable over their shoulders and causing their light vessel to come

boldly along through the water. At a certain length from where the

cable was to be made fast, a bit of marline had been tied, and when

this came inboard the orders were to 'vast heaving, belay, and drop the

anchor that had been only "hove short"; that is, lifted from the sand.

Soon this point was reached. Symington, cast loose, came on board; a

second cable was prepared and spliced to the first, and off he started

to make fast to the next vessel lying farther out.

And thus did Symington warp himself beyond the mouth of the inner

harbor to a place where he considered it safe enough to get out his

sweeps. Manning these, for an hour and more he kept at it. But it was

dangerous work. The tides were going down, and although he kept the

lead going, he might run on one of the sand-bars at any moment. That he

was well out of the channel he knew to a certainty. So at last he

dropped anchor, silently, and patiently waited for the fog that had

saved him so far, to clear up enough for him to get his bearings.

Toward daylight a slight breeze sprang up, and to his alarm Symington

found that a stretch of low beach was under his lee, and it behooved

him well to work the Rattler farther out. Getting sail enough up to

enable him to trip his anchor, he drew away from shore. Slowly the fog

closed down upon him again quite as thick as it had been some hours

previously; but all at once the First Mate, who was forward, cried out

in fright:--

"Starboard your helm! Hard a starboard!"

The Rattler's bow fell off a few points, and at that instant there

came the shock of a collision, followed by a hail in good sea-faring

English, seemingly from up in the air.

"What are you doing there? What vessel is that?" Then there was some

bawling and much noise of movement and another hail in a voice that had

not yet spoken.

"On board that vessel! answer me, or I'll blow you out of the water!"

By this time Captain Symington was firing off his explosive French

sentences, which, as it is impossible to give their full force even in

the language in which they were spoken, we will translate.

"Who are you and what are you doing here? Answer."

"The Cigalle of Havre. I try to get into the harbor here."

There came a laugh from the direction of the strange vessel. "Strange

sort of weather for a Frenchman to be sailing in, sir," some one

observed. "More than likely one of the Yankees trying to get out."

That was exactly what Captain Symington was trying to do, but the

collision with the stranger had carried away his port cathead, and with

it the anchor had gone to the bottom. By the effect of this unfortunate

accident, and the force of the tide, which was now against her, the

Rattler's head was swung around again, and before anything could

prevent it, she once more went afoul of the big vessel, whose decks

towered higher than her cross-trees. There she hung, under the other's

lee, while the English commander, sometimes in French and sometimes in

English, was cursing Symington for a clumsy Frenchman and threatening

to send a shot on board of him.

It was daylight almost and the wind was freshening. Clearer and clearer

the outlines of the great vessel could be seen.

She was an English seventy-four, that, trying to make the harbor, had

been headed off by darkness and had anchored in the roads.

In ten minutes after the breeze began to blow, the air was free from

mist. There was no use in trying to indulge in any deception now. The

character of the small vessel had been discovered by the big one. A

crowd of laughing officers lined the rail, and on her gallery appeared

a number of ladies bound most probably for the new court of the new

King. The wind was off shore. From the shrilling of whistles and

babbling of orders it was seen that the battle-ship was getting under

way. A man in gold lace leaned out over the rail and said in an

off-hand manner:--

"On board the Yankee there! Keep under our lee and return to the

harbor, or we'll sink you instantly; play no tricks, if you value your

safety. Mark you that."

Why it was that the Englishman did not drop a boat and put a prize crew

on board the Rattler, it might be hard to guess. Symington feared

that this would happen, and, although he gave no answer to the

imperious order, he set about obeying it with every evidence of haste

and alacrity.

But such clumsy work had never been seen before on board a Yankee

privateer. Often in naval actions in the old sailing days, when orders

were blared through a speaking-trumpet, and not given by little

electric bells and signals, as now we have them, the "rule of contrary"

was passed in order to deceive the enemy who might overhear and thus


"Hard a port" meant "hard a starboard." A vessel that was supposed to

be on the point of luffing would bear away, sheets flying.

Now, on board the Rattler, although no such order had been passed,

the men had understood well enough the whispered word. It is a

well-known fact that the fore-and-aft rig was best understood in

America, where it had really been brought to perfection. The English,

after they had captured a vessel of the Rattler's class, never

succeeded in getting the same sailing qualities out of her, and the

upshot of it was that they generally changed her rigging and cut down

her masts and sail plan. But no crew was ever clumsier than was the

privateer's on this occasion. They tumbled over one another, they got

the halliards twisted, they pretended to be breaking their backs in

getting in the anchor when they were not lifting a pound, and all the

time the First Mate was running hither and thither like the busy man at

the circus, chattering a jargon made up of scraps of Portuguese, Dutch,

and Spanish, while above all the confusion, Captain Symington's

explosive French adjectives rang out like snaps of a whip.

There had not been the least doubt in the English officers' minds a

moment since that the little vessel they were looking down upon was an

American; but now they were somewhat puzzled, and the whole scene was

so laughable that very soon the taffrail was lined again with a

tittering crowd, who discussed, in very audible tones, their varying


But lazily the great ship was swinging about with a great creaking of

yards and flapping of sails. Soon she was moving through the water. A

few minutes later and the Rattler was in her wake, and Captain

Symington, who certainly did not look French, despite his wonderful

vocabulary, made a proud and elaborate bow, and lifted his great beaver

hat to the ladies who were now on the quarter-deck enjoying the sight.

But if the English officers had been puzzled at first and amused

afterwards, there was one person on board H.M.S. Ajax who had enjoyed

the same sensations in a more intensified fashion. He was looking out

of one of the stern ports on the lower gun-deck. A short, thickset man,

who did not belong to the battle-ship's company, for he was a prisoner.

It was Captain Edgar, and it was the Ajax that had picked up the

Siren in a sinking condition after she had sustained the fusillade of

two nights previously. But every foot the Rattler sailed brought her

further into the harbor and lessened the ultimate chances for escape.

But that there was a plan in Captain Symington's mind, Edgar did not

doubt. He knew that the Rattler was as handy as a whip, and he kept

his eyes open for any sudden development. He did not have to wait long;

there came an unexpected shift of the wind more to the southward just

as the Ajax was slowly heaving about to go off on the other tack. It

caught her all aback; the great sails clattered, and her headway

stopped. She had missed stays.

It is no laughing matter for a big ship to have this happen to her when

approaching a harbor or nearing shallow water. At once the boatswain's

whistle began piping away; orders were shouted, and there was trouble

below and aloft.

But what happened to the clumsily handled craft astern? She was

immediately under the port galleries, within half a cable's length,

doddering along under foresail and mainsail. At the first sign of what

had occurred to the battle-ship there ensued a transformation scene.

Have you ever seen an unwilling dog accompanying its master on a walk?

how he sneaks close at the heels, watching his chance when the

attention is not directed to him? How suddenly he turns tail, and after

a few cautious movements that bring him beyond the reach of stick or

arm, he breaks into a run at full speed, disdaining call or whistle,

and puts back for home? That is exactly what the Rattler did.

Scarcely had the canvas of the Ajax begun the ominous fluttering

that showed the change of the wind's direction, than the privateer

swung off to meet it.

Slowly at first and then with a rush she came about like a peg top.

Without an order being given, out broke the great foresail, the

topsails dropped from the gaskets and were sheeted home, and with a

lurch to leeward the Rattler stretched out back over her course

for the harbor entrance, setting her flying kites as she bowled along!

So busy was everybody on board the three-decker, who had troubles of

her own to look after, that no one noticed the sudden manoeuvre of the

privateer; no one except one of the ladies who happened to be the wife

of the Admiral, for the Ajax was a flagship. She, after a minute,

succeeded in attracting the attention of one of the lieutenants, who

with the rest had gone forward to the break of the poop and was

watching what was going on below and above him.

"The little ship," she inquired innocently, "where is she going?"

The officer turned and immediately had to beg the lady's pardon most

abjectly, for he broke forth into an oath.

"Tricked, after all!" he exclaimed, grasping one of his companions by

the arm and pointing.

But there was one other person who had noticed all these goings on. It

was the prisoner on the lower spar-deck.

"You can soak me for a squilgee if that weren't neat," he chuckled, and

then lifting his hands to his cheeks, he roared out something through

the port.

The Rattler's Captain, who was at the wheel, had jumped as if the

Ajax had suddenly whirled about and let fly a broadside at him, for

he heard the words as plain as could be.

"Good-by, Captain Symington! Give my regards to all at home!"

He recognized his old friend Edgar's voice, and it gave him a thrill of

pleasure to know that he was alive even if he was a prisoner.

The Ajax was still in stays; but her commander found time to fire his

battery of stern-chasers, the balls whistling harmlessly past the

Rattler's stern, missing her widely. In reply to this Captain

Symington again lifted his old beaver hat.

Far away to the leeward were the sails of the blockading squadron.

Attracted by the firing of the Ajax, they flew their little flags and

crowded on their canvas. But by this time the Rattler had doubled the

point and was making out into the dancing waters of the Channel. And

who was going to touch her where she had sea-room? As if anxious to

have everything understood, Symington raised his ensign. The English

captain, who had been forced to boxhaul his great vessel in order to

avoid running on the shoals, cursed beneath his breath. One of the

ladies turned to the Admiral's wife.

"I wonder why we did not start after her, Madame?" she asked.

"Oh, because we couldn't turn round quick enough, I suppose," she

rejoined. Then turning to her spouse she asked:--

"Was not that it, Sir John?"

"Yes, my dear," responded the Admiral, grimly; "that was just it."

Down below, Captain Edgar had not yet recovered from his laughing fit;

and when he and Captain Myron Symington met again, as they did many

times afterwards, they used to laugh over it together.

The Cruise Of The Coracle The Escape Of The American Frigate Alliance facebooktwittergoogle_plusredditpinterestlinkedinmail