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Lieutenant James - New York Press Gangs

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  • Bart Reynolds
    List, In late April of 1781 Lieutenant James was once again serving on HBMS CHARON. The CHARON a 44-gun frigate has been detached from the fleet for
    Message 1 of 1 , Nov 5, 2000

      In late April of 1781 Lieutenant James was once again serving on
      HBMS CHARON. The CHARON a 44-gun frigate has been detached from the
      fleet for reconnaissance duties as had the CHATHAM. Captain John Orde
      commanded the CHATHAM, a larger 50-gun ship, but was junior in rank to
      Captain Symonds who had command of the CHARON. Orde, who has learned
      that a Continental supply convoy sailing from St. Domingo is in the
      general vicinity, proposes to Symonds that both ships operate in concert
      off the Delaware capes to intercept this fleet. Symonds, who is the
      senior captain, declines Ordes request and both ships continue to cruise
      independently. In this instance we are not told exactly why Symonds
      took this course of action but a reasonable assumption is that obtaining
      a larger share of the prize money was a contributing if not deciding

      The eternal quest for prize money was a driving force in the Royal
      Navy during the AWI and indeed during the 18th century in general. If a
      ship was detached from a fleet and acting alone it generally received a
      much larger share of any prizes taken. The ship's captain, being the
      senior officer, received the largest share with lesser amounts being
      awarded to each officer and crew member in proportion to their rank. It
      was a complicated system and one that was sometimes tampered with and
      manipulated by admirals and others with the authority to do so.
      Admirals having overall command of a station or fleet were not averse to
      cutting themselves in for a sizable amount of prize money even when they
      took no part in the action itself and in some instances were safely at
      their moorings or ashore far from the actual place of capture. Rank has
      always had it privileges and that was certainly the case in the Royal
      Navy in the 18th century.

      It was a system that made sizable fortunes for many admirals and a
      number of lucky captains. On occasion even junior officers did well
      financially in this form of trickle down economics. It certainly
      provided motivation for the entire crew of many ships and probably
      increased the aggressiveness of some captains, who might have lacked
      such qualities without a firm financial incentive. The down side of
      this policy was that greed tended to drive many decisions. This all too
      often caused ship's captains to try and act independently rather than
      jointly which was not always in the best interest of the service.

      In this instance we see that Captain Symonds decision to continue
      to act independently is counterproductive. The CHARON does take a small
      prize but misses the opportunity to share in the much larger number of
      rich prizes from the St. Domingo supply convoy. A decision which
      probably accounted for more than a little grumbling in the wardroom and
      on the mess deck. The Continental ship CONFEDERACY, which was part of
      the convoy escort, was one of those prizes.

      Once in port at New York James then finds himself on the always
      unpopular assignment of press gang duty. He offers us some descriptions
      of the unlucky and unhappy individuals who were the object of such
      sweeps by the Royal Navy. While it is certainly true that the Royal
      Navy was desperately short of seamen, able bodied or otherwise, such
      actions were not going to have a positive impact on the Loyalist
      community nor send others flocking to join its numbers. It was a very
      poor system of recruitment but one which continued in the Royal Navy
      long after the end of the AWI.

      James then takes us on a series of cruises between New York and Virginia
      where the CHARON is engaged in protecting troop convoys and taking an
      occasional prize. Finally he sets the stage for the debacle at
      Yorktown. During the siege of Yorktown it is his activities in
      establishing and operating the naval shore batteries for which he is
      best known to students of the AWI.


      Captain Orde very prudently proposed to Captain Symonds to cruise
      off the capes of Delaware for a few days, to intercept this valuable
      convoy of the enemy's, which, unfortunately for us, was refused by the
      latter, who was the senior captain; at the same time, allowing Captain
      Orde to act himself as he pleased, we made sail and stood to the
      northward. On the 13th [April, 1781] we gave chase to a brig, which we
      pursued for seven hours and captured, which proved the PEGGY, rebel
      privateer of fourteen guns and seventy men, loaded with rum and indigo,
      from Carolina bound to Philadelphia. We arrived at New York the 18th
      with our prize, where we learned that the admiral had not only approved
      of Captain Orde's conduct, but had dispatched the ROEBUCK and ORPHEUS to
      put themselves under the command of Captain Symonds, which we had
      prevented by returning into port, which lost us the share of the
      CONFEDERACY and several of her convoy, who was taken by the above ships.

      On the 27th, all the boats of the fleet having assembled by break
      of day on board the RAINBOW, we landed at New York, and commenced a very
      hot press for six hours, having in that time taken four hundred seamen.
      The business of this morning furnished us with droll yet distressing
      scenes --- the taking the husband from the arms of his wife in bed, the
      searching for them when hid beneath the warm clothes, and, the better to
      prevent delay, taking them off naked, while the frantic partner of his
      bed, forgetting the delicacy of her sex, pursued us to the doors with
      shrieks and imprecations, and exposing their naked persons to the rude
      view of an unfeeling press gang.

      May 12 we fell down to the Hook with the whole squadron, and on the
      13th sailed thence for Virginia with a convoy of transports having on
      board two thousand troops. The 14th we took a brig, by boarding her
      with the boats of the squadron in a calm, loaded with flour from
      Philadelphia; and on the 15th, the commander-in-chief having gave up the
      charge of the convoy to the CHARON, we parted company with the admiral
      and proceeded to the southward, having with us the ROEBUCK and

      The 20th we anchored with the convoy off Sewell Point, and remained
      with the command of the squadron in the Chesapeake until the 30th, when
      the arrival of the RICHMOND took that charge from Captain Symonds.
      During our stay here I twice visited Hampton with flags of truce, and
      again experienced the most friendly treatment from the Miss Joneses, who
      filled my boat with green peas and all the rarities of the season,
      inclusive of several red and mocking-birds, prodigiously fine of the

      On June 4 we sailed for New York with a convoy of thirty sail of
      transports, and on the 10th chased a rebel privateer for eleven hours,
      which for want of wind in the end escaped us; and on the 11th we arrived
      at New York, and having watered and refitted the ships, sailed again for
      Virginia on the 24th. On the 26th of this month we spoke the SOLEBAY
      and WARWICK with a convoy from Europe, and the same day, after a chase
      of four hours, the CARTERET packet from Falmouth [England], bound to New
      York, who gave the account of the death of my father.

      July 9 we arrived at Virginia, and again joined the RICHMOND,
      GUADELOUPE, FOWEY, and VULCAN fire-ship. The commander-in-chief, having
      directed that the post of Portsmouth should be evacuated, and the army
      removed to York-town, supposed to be much better calculated for the
      reception of the ships of war, we were employed on this business till
      July 30, when we sailed from this place with the first division of
      transports, having on board a part of the army under the command of my
      Lord Cornwallis, who was himself in the RICHMOND.

      [The Journal of Vice-Admiral Bartholomew James, p. 109-111.]

      This concludes the installments from the memoirs of Lieutenant James. I
      hope that this has been of interest to the readership of the List and
      has hopefully contributed to a better understanding of another side of
      the war. We too often tend to relegate the role of the Royal Navy
      during the AWI to the few large naval engagements with the French.
      However, the role of the Royal Navy throughout the war was really much
      wider and deserving of more attention than it generally receives.

      Bart Reynolds
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