Tuesday, June 25, 2019

"The Armed Schooner Success" - How a Newburyport Privateer Caused a Diplomatic Dispute with Spain

The Privateer Success was a schooner that was owned by the wealthy Newburyport merchant Nathaniel Tracy. In May of 1776, Tracy decided to convert the vessel into a warship and outfitted it with two cannons and eight swivel guns. The ship was commanded by John Fletcher and had a crew complement of two lieutenants and fourteen men. After securing a letter of marque and paying a $5000 bond, the vessel left Newburyport in search of British supply vessels.

Captain Fletcher’s first cruise was uneventful and ended in the Spanish port of Bilbao. While there, the Success rendezvoused with the Massachusetts Privateer Hawke, which was under the command of Captain John Lee. The two captains agree to sail together on a return cruise and left Bilbao on October 23, 1776. Unfortunately for both privateers, several English supply vessels received intelligence on the privateers whereabouts and altered their respective courses to avoid the rebel ships.

However, on January 20, 1777, while off the New England coast, the two vessels encountered the British 100-ton brigantine Betty. After a brief chase, the vessel was captured and escorted into Newburyport as a prize.

Shortly thereafter, the Succes made a second voyage to European waters. By June 16, 1777 she was once again in Bilbao. The following month, she was patrolling off the coast of Ushant, France with the Massachusetts Privateer General Mifflin.

On September 18, 1777 the 120-ton brigantine Isabel was captured by the two privateers. A week later the Success captured the Endeavour as it was travelling from London to Villavisiosa, Spain. Three days later, on September 28th, the privateer captured two more vessels, the William and Polly and a French vessel sailing from the Isle of Jersey to La Rochelle, France.

On September 2, 1778, the Success was back in Newburyport for refit and repairs. A period account suggests that the Success upgraded its armaments and now had “eight guns and ten swivel guns mounted”. Likewise, the privateer’s crew size more than doubled from sixteen men and officers to forty-three.

While in port, command of the ship was turned over to Captain Phillip Trask of Beverly, Massachusetts.

Captain Trask departed from Newburyport on October 4, 1778. (Interestingly, prior to the Success’ departure, Nathaniel Tracy took out not one but two bonds for her ship: a $5000 Continental bond and a “£4000 Massachusetts” bond.) At first, the privateer’s cruise was uneventful and was marked by humorous events such as the sighting of “a damn d Comical Boat by G..d”. 

However, two months later, the activities of the Success nearly triggered an international incident between the soon to be American ally Spain and the United States.

On December 30, 1778, the Newburyport privateer encountered the brigantine Santander y los Santos Martires. The Spanish vessel was en route from London to Cadiz and was loaded with commercial goods. 

When it was sighted by the Success, it was flying a Spanish flag. Nevertheless, the Newburyport privateer bore down on the brigantine and intercepted it. The Americans then boarded the vessel, examined the cargo manifests and declared the ship and all the goods on board were to be seized because they were British in origin.

Horrified, the Spanish captain assured Trask that the cargo was Spanish owned and provided invoices in support of his position. He also provided proof that the vessel was owned by the Spanish merchant Don Philip Aguixxe de San Fadder. Surprisingly, Captain Trask ignored the Captain’s pleas and declared the Santander y los Santos Martires a captured prize. The vessel was escorted back to Boston where it was formally forfeited in April 1779. 

The Spanish shipowner appealed the decision to the Massachusetts courts.

Understandably, the Spanish government was outraged at the incident and submitted a formal protest through Don Juan Miralles, the unofficial Spanish representative to Congress. It also submitted a protest through their French allies. On April 24, 1779, the French diplomat to the United States, Conrad Alexander Gerard, submitted a second objection to the seizure of the Santander y los Santos Martires.

Congress was confronted with a diplomatic dilemma. On the one hand, Massachusetts representatives argued that the owner, officers, and crew of the Success were entitled to keep the proceeds of its prize. On the other hand, Spain demanded that the vessel and its cargo be returned to its rightful owner. 

After several competing memorials from Don Philip Aguixxe de San Fadde, Nathaniel Tracy, Captain Trask and several other individuals were submitted, Congress ordered a special committee be formed to determine how it should best respond. Ultimately, the committee recommended that the Massachusetts appellate courts should decide the fate of the Santander y los Santos Martires. It also recommended that Congress should assure Spanish officials that it would reimburse the aggrieved party if he did not prevail on appeal. Congress quickly agreed to the recommendation.

In October 1779, the Massachusetts appellate court ruled “that the brigantine Santander y los Santos Martires [Holy Martyrs] was Spanish property but that her cargo was British. The court therefore awarded the cargo to Nathaniel Tracy and John C. Jones, merchants and owners of the armed schooner Success, commanded by Philip Trask, which had captured the Holy Martyrs on December 30, 1778”.

Following the ruling, Congress once again intervened in the matter. On November 9, 1779, the American government declared “that the said Brigantine or Vessel called the Holy Martyrs, her tackle, Apparel and Furniture and all and singular the Goods, Wares and Merchandizes laden and found on board her at the Time of her Capture as mentioned in the said Bill be forthwith restored and redelivered and the said Joseph De Lano the Claimant in the said Cause his Agent or Attorney to and for the Use of himself and all others on whose Behalf he claims and appeals.”

Congress then issued a resolution ordering Nathaniel Tracy pay for the legal costs incurred by 
Don Philip Aguixxe de San Fadde. “And We do further order and decree that the party Appellant pay unto the party Appellee one thousand and fifty six Dollars for his Costs and Charges by him expended in defending the said Appeal in this Court &c.”

Not surprisingly, Tracy refused to pay the costs and petitioned the Massachusetts congressional delegation for assistance. After extensive negotiations, Congress eventually backed down and formally recognized the ruling of the Massachusetts courts regarding the seizure of the Santander y los Santos Martires.

Whether Don Philip Aguixxe de San Fadde was ever reimbursed by Congress for his loss remains unknown.

The Success continued to engage in privateer operations until 1780 when it was retired from service.

Friday, June 21, 2019

"Scabbards and Tann’d Leather Slings" - Did Massachusetts Militiamen Use Musket Slings on April 19th?

Every now and then, the nerds will go down the rabbit hole of obscurity to discuss miniscule details of the arms and equipment of Massachusetts militia and minute companies on the eve of the Battles of Lexington and Concord. This is one of those occasions.
About six months ago, we received an inquiry as to whether or not Massachusetts militiamen utilized musket slings on April 19, 1775. Admittedly we put aside the question for far too long and are finally getting off our collective butts to address this issue now.

The short answer is musket slings were likely not in widespread use on the eve of Lexington and Concord. A careful examination of pre-Revolutionary War Massachusetts militia laws, Provincial Congress and town resolutions, invoices, and lost property claims reveal that the use of musket slings by Massachusetts militia and minutemen was almost unheard at the outset of the war.

First, a review of late 17th and 18th century Massachusetts militia laws for the term “sling” or “slings” surprisingly comes up with no results. For example, a late 17th century militia law stated “Every listed souldier ... shall be alwayes provided with a well fixt firelock musket, of musket or bastard musket bore, the barrel not less then three foot and a half long, or other good firearms to the satisfaction of the commission officers of the company, a snapsack, a coller with twelve bandeleers or cartouch-box, one pound of good powder, twenty bullets fit for his gun, and twelve flints, a good sword or cutlace, a worm and priming wire fit for his gun.” Similarly, a 1733 militia law that appeared in the Boston Newsletter makes no reference to musket slings. “Every listed Soldier, and other Householder shall be always provided with a well fixt Firelock Musket, of Musket or Bastard-Musket bore, the Barrel not less than three Foot and an half long, or other good Fire Arms to the satisfaction of the Commission Officers of the Company; a Cartouch Box: one Pound of good Powder: Twenty Bullets fit for his Gun, and twelve Flynts; a good Sword or Cutlass; a Worm, & priming Wire, fit for his Gun, on Penalty of six Shillings.” 

Likewise, when the Massachusetts Provincial Congress issued a list of recommended arms and equipment for its minute companies, musket slings were conspicuously absent. Similarly, there is not a single reference to musket slings in any of the forty Massachusetts town resolutions the nerds reviewed. For example, On November 21, 1774, the Town of Danvers resolved its minute companies would be equipped with “an effective fire-arm, bayonet, pouch, knapsack, thirty rounds of cartridges and balls”, but no musket slings. In Bradford, the town voted to only supply its men with “bayonets and cartouch boxes for the Minute-Men on the town cost” but never ordered the procurement of slings. On October 24, 1774, the Town of Newburyport resolved to equip its militia companies “with arms and ammunition according to Law, and that they have, also, Bayonets fixed to their Guns as soon as may be.” Consistent with other Massachusetts communities, the resolution made no reference to militiamen being supplied with slings for guns. Finally, in Brimfield, the town declared it would “provide for 50 minute men a Cartridge Box, Knapsack, and thirty rounds of cartridge and ball a sett for each private in said Company to be provided imemdiately.” Again, there is no reference of musket slings.

Many, if not most, Massachusetts towns were making or providing arms and equipment to those residents who either could not afford or did not own such items. Each town subcontracted the work to skilled residents within their respective communities. For example, John Parker of Lexington was making powder horns, Phineas Carlton of Bradford was repairing bayonets and Israel Litchfield of Scituate was making cartridge boxes. In almost every instance, the makers submitted bills to their respective towns for services provided. A review of those invoices suggests that musket slings were not high priority. In Bradford, residents were compensated for repairing bayonets and carriages to carry them, but not for slings. “Voted, To Phineas Carlton, for 22 Bayonets fitted with Scabbards and Belts, 8l. 5s. 0d. Voted, To Phineas Carlton, for Scowering the old Bayonets, and fitting with Belts, 4l. 4s. 0d. For 2 Scabbards and Belts, 0l. 3s. 0d. Wm. Greenough, for fitting one Bayonet and one belt, 0l. 2s. 8d.” In Springfield, several individuals were compensated for making cartridge boxes and knapsacks, repairing bayonets and securing muskets. However, there is no reference to musket slings being made or repaired.

Similar requests for compensation in Haverhill, Ipswich, Methuen, Chelmsford and Lexington also lack references to slings.

Following the Battles of Lexington and Concord, many militiamen submitted financial claims for lost or stolen property to either the Massachusetts Provincial Congress or the Massachusetts Legislature. Similar claims were also submitted following the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, 1775. Once again, references to musket slings were noticeably absent. For example, several families from Lexington submitted claims for property stolen from the dead or wounded during the Battle of Lexington. According to one such claim, “Petition of Benja Wellington, & others of Lexington, setting forth that they sustained the aforementioned losses by the Kings troops on the 19th of April 1775 viz: Benja Wellington, a gun, bayonet, &c. … Jno Muzzy, a gun, powder horn, &c. Taken from his son … Lucy Parker, a musquet, &c. Taken from her husband … Marrit Munro, a gun & hat taken from him.” 

Nathan Putnam took out a newspaper advertisement describing his “French Firelock”. Although he describes certain markings on the gun, he makes no reference to a sling. Finally, claims for property lost at Bunker Hill included the terms “gun”, “knapsack”, “hat”, “Jaccat”, “tumpline”, “stockens”, “breeches” and “hankerchief”. Unfortunately, we could not locate any reference to slings.

We do want to stress that this does not mean that musket slings were simply non-existent within the ranks of Massachusetts forces in 1775. There is evidence that musket slings were issued to Massachusetts provincial troops in the spring of 1756. The shipment sent to the colony included “Land service muskets of the King’s pattern with brass furniture, double bridle locks, wood rammers with bayonets & scabbards and tann’d leather slings.” It is possible some of these issued slings survived to see service on April 19th.

Of course, more research needs to be conducted on this issue. If you happen to have any additional information or insight, we’d love to hear from you!