J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Friday, December 07, 2007

Endeavour’d to Escape by Flight

According to Boston selectman Timothy Newell’s diary, most of the military action around the town in early December 1775 was taking place at sea. On the 7th he wrote:

A Brigt. Privateer called the Washington brot. in here Martindale, Captain, with six carriage guns and seventy five men taken by the Fowey man of war. The People sent to England in a man of war.
The same day, Capt. John Barker of the 4th Regiment recorded in his diary:
The Fowey brought in a Privateer; she carried 10 six pounders and 8 swivels and had 75 Men; she made no resistance but endeavour’d to escape by flight.
Capt. Sion Martindale was from Rhode Island, though his ship Washington had been outfitted in Plymouth harbor. He had spent many weeks requesting more sails, guns, crewmen, even a fife and drum, and had finally sailed on 28 November. The ship quickly returned with a small sloop that had been disabled by lightning, but captain and crew got into a dispute about how the value of that prize would be distributed.

Threatened with replacement, Capt. Martindale sailed again on 2 December. The next day, H.M.S. Fowey chased down the Washington, and Martindale surrendered without firing a shot. He was probably the captured ship’s captain that Lt. William Feilding said had seen British ordnance on Cambridge common.

In mid-December, the Washington’s crew were put on board H.M.S. Tartar along with Ethan Allen and other American prisoners from Quebec, and sent to England. About half of the 74 crewmen quickly died of smallpox, and another 15 were recruited or impressed into the Royal Navy. In February 1776, the remaining 21, including Capt. Martindale, were shipped to Halifax to be exchanged for British prisoners.

Martindale escaped from the Halifax jail, along with several other men, and made his way to Maine. On 8 Sept 1776, Gen. Nathanael Greene wrote to the President of the Continental Congress:
This will be handed you by Captain Sion Martindale and Lieutenant Moses Turner, that were taken in the brig Washington, in Boston Bay, last Fall. They were sent home prisoners to England and ordered back to Halifax, where they were confined in gaol for some time; at last they found means to cut a passage out, and made their escape, and have got safe home. . . .

They apply to Congress for their wages and rations due during their captivity. They also apply for an allowance for the losses they met with, and for several advancements they made for the brig Washington and the crew, during the time they were fitting for the cruise; all which, doubtless, the Congress will take under consideration, and grant what justice and equity entitle them to.

They all belonged to the Rhode-Island regiments, and while they were under my command, they discharged their duty as became good and faithful officers. How they behaved after they entered on board the brig Washington, I am not able to say. They are men who have families, and no means of support for them but their industry.
Capt. Martindale got some pay and took up shore-based military duty for a while as captain of the fort at Bristol, but in 1779 he was once again commanding a privateer, this time the Bradford, out of Providence.

On 8 Dec 1775, the day after Timothy Newell recorded the Washington’s capture by the British, he was able to report more captures by the Americans:
Three Ships, from London, Glasgow and Liverpool, with stores for the army—a Brigt. from Antigua with Rum, taken by the whale boats &c. in our Bay.
What strikes me about these events is how close the privateer war was to shore at that time. I used to imagine ships cruising for weeks or months, but these guys were sailing for just a few days before coming back into port, lucky or unlucky.

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