This week, we head back to the 18th century for part one of a three-part miniseries that looks at two of my favorite things, the history of Prince Edward Island and the American Revolution, and how they combined one fall day in 1775 to create a unique story of high seas adventure, kidnapping, and -believe it or not – espionage. George Washington himself even plays a role in a tale fit for the big screen. Without further ado, I give you the first act of one of my personal favorite events in Island history.
Charlottetown, the newly settled capital of St. John’s Island, was only a few years young – and not much to look at! – in 1775 when tensions finally erupted in the Thirteen Colonies and the American Revolution got underway. No doubt out of eagerness to please the Crown, and a sense of patriotic duty, the government began to actively recruit able-bodied men when word was received that Britain was in need of troops. While the establishment of a “recruiting station” constituted an action against the rebellious colonies to the south, the location of the Island, nestled in the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, lent itself to an air of security. And besides, the government authorities had more important things to worry about than considering the implications of choosing sides in a war that would drastically alter the course of human history. Unbeknownst to them, however, they had placed Charlottetown on a collision course with the Revolution and a gang of sailors cum privateers from Marblehead, Massachusetts, and a first in American naval history…
Meanwhile, in the Thirteen Colonies…
After the ambush of British troops at Lexington and Concord in April of 1775, there was no going back for the rebels. It had been one affront after another, and Britain wasn’t about to stand for it anymore. Its upstart cousins had to be taught a lesson. The rebels, of course, now realized the gravity of their situation, and a mad scramble began in an effort to prepare themselves for inevitable conflict. Compared to Britain, however, they were poorly equipped, and in desperate need of supplies.
The situation had not much improved when, on October 5th, John Hancock (merchant, statesment, President of the Second Continental Congress, and signer of the Declaration of Independence) wrote to George Washington on behalf of Congress to inform him that intelligence had been received which indicated that on August 11th, two brigantines had departed from England loaded with supplies (arms, ammunition etc.), bound for Quebec. Hancock urged him to apply to the Council of Massachusetts Bay for two vessels to be armed and sent off in pursuit of the British ships in order to cut them off and lay hold to their provisions, and the provisions of any other vessels they might encounter.
This was not news Washington wanted to hear. If the British supply vessels made it to Quebec, Britain could simply march south down the Hudson River Valley, cut the Colonies in half, and the rebel cause would be over. Luckily for him, however, he had already had the foresight to begin arming a few ships to be used in this very situation, which would be sea-worthy in a few days. He assured Hancock that two of them would be dispatched post-haste to intercept the British ships.
The task of stopping these transports fell to Colonel John Glover of Marblehead, and his militia regiment, composed of 500 men, almost all of whom were sailors and fisherman who had signed up to fight in the Continental Army. Glover quickly prepped two ships, the Lynch and the Franklin, commanded by Captains Nicholas Broughton and John Selman, respectively. Broughton, the senior of the two at age 50, had previously been given command of the Hannah by Washington himself, and had engaged HMS Nautilus in Beverley Harbour not long before. Selman, 20 years his junior, was regarded as an experienced seaman, although impulsive by times. But Glover felt confident that they would get the job done.
Shortly before their departure, Broughton and Selman received their terms of service from Washington. Their primary objective, of course, was to seize the two transport vessels, but they were also tasked with taking any other vessels flying British colours; however, under no condition were they to harass the inhabitants of Canada (then British North America), as Washington was hoping to convince them to join his cause.
With orders in hand, the Lynch and the Franklin, the first naval vessels in American history to be authorized and armed by Congress, set out from Marblehead for the Gulf of Saint Lawrence on October 22. Manned by sailors whose entire lives had been spent at sea, their hopes were no doubt high; but their morale quickly subsided when they ran afoul of a nasty Atlantic gale which greatly impeded their progress, forcing them to anchor outside of Halifax in order to repair their vessels. And then, as luck would have it, they hit a second storm off of Cape Breton, putting an end to their hopes of making it into the Gulf in time to encounter the British ships, which ended up making it to Quebec. (Side note: It was just as well for Broughton and Selman that they missed their targets, since the informant who had originally tipped off Congress about the cargo vessels was not aware the Jacob and the Elizabeth were being escorted by HMS Lizard, a man ‘o war mounting 26 heavy guns that would have made mincemeat of two schooners with ten light guns apiece.)
In their last communication with Washington on November 6, in the Gut of Canso, Broughton and Selman notified him of their trouble with storms, but that they had succeeded in capturing a sloop owned by John Denny, “esteem’d by the Government an Inhabitant of Quebec”, which they were sending back to him. They ended their communique by stating that, once the winds subsided, they would push on into the Gulf as per his orders. They then signed off as his “Excellencys most obedient & very humble Servants”, highly ironic given their actions ten days later that would threaten to destroy Washington’s hope for a Canadian alliance.
(I’m going to end here for this week, mainly because this particular story is a lengthy one. Also, who doesn’t like a little cliffhanger now and then? Stay tuned!)
PEI History Guy