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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Sunday, May 03, 2015

Hyder Ally on Patrol in Delaware Bay

In April 1782, the port of Philadelphia was under the protection of an armed ship named Hyder Ally, after Hyder Ali Khan, the sultan of Mysore in India.

When I first read this fact, I was struck by how Americans were honoring the Muslim governor of a monarchy on the other side of the world. Hyder Ali had succeeded in fighting off Britain’s attempts to take over Mysore, so he had become an emblem of anti-British resistance all over the world. John Willcocks had even chosen that name for a ship he used to trade with the Caribbean.

By early 1782 Willcocks and his fellow Philadelphia merchants were losing a lot of ships to the Royal Navy and Crown privateers waiting at the mouth of Delaware Bay. So they agreed to pool their money, buy the Hyder Ally, and fit it out for fighting. The last step of their plan was to ask the Pennsylvania government to reimburse them; the legislature did so on 9 April, after the ship had already left port.

Willis J. Abbott’s Naval History of the United States (1890) says of the Hyder Ally, “She was in no way calculated for a man-of-war; but…she was pierced for eight ports on a side, and provided with a battery of six-pounders.” The exotic name remained.

To command this small, slow armed vessel, the state appointed Joshua Barney (1759-1818, shown above). A Maryland native, he had embarked on a naval career in early 1776, when he was only sixteen, serving under Esek Hopkins, the Rhode Islander who was first commander of the Continental Navy. In 1779 Barney was captured and imprisoned in Britain, and in 1781 he escaped back to America, ready to go into the fight again.

Barney’s version of what happened next was printed in his daughter-in-law’s A Biographical Memoir of the Late Commodore Joshua Barney in 1832. A more recent study is Hulbert Footner’s Sailor of Fortune: The Life and Adventures of Commodore Barney, U.S.N. from 1940.

On 7 April, the Hyder Ally led a fleet of seven Philadelphia merchant ships out of the city harbor and down into Delaware Bay. They anchored at Cape May to wait for better winds. An eighth merchant vessel joined them. Barney’s mission was to get all those ships safely to sea and then return to the bay for the next batch.

Meanwhile, the commanders of the British frigate Quebec and armed sloop General Monk spotted this fleet and its lone protector. The next morning they brought in another armed vessel, the privateer Fair American. That ship had been an American privateer under the same name until the previous fall, when it had been captured; now it was financed by Loyalists in New York City. Likewise, the General Monk had been the Rhode Island privateer General Washington.

At ten o’clock Barney glimpsed the three British ships. By noon it was clear that the two smaller ones, the General Monk and Fair American, were heading for his fleet while the big frigate kept to deep water and maneuvered to cut off the route to the sea. The young captain signaled for all the merchant ships to sail back up the Delaware, staying as close to the shore as possible. One, the General Greene, was equipped with twelve cannons, and its master offered to stay with the Hyder Ally and fight. As the two Crown vessels bore down, those two smaller American ships lingered behind the trading ships to protect them.

That plan worked right up until the battle started. The Fair American approached, guns primed. Instead of fighting, the General Greene tried to slip out of the bay. It ran aground, its crew jumping off over the bowsprit. The Fair American fired broadsides at the Hyder Ally as it raced upriver after the merchant prizes—but then it ran aground, too.

That left the Hyder Ally and the General Monk still under sail in the bay. The Royal Navy ship was clearly larger, faster, and more maneuverable. It had twenty-four guns, the Pennsylvania ship sixteen or eighteen. The General Monk approached the Hyder Ally, expecting a surrender since Barney’s gun-ports weren’t even open yet.

But then Barney ordered a broadside. The two ships exchanged cannon fire at the distance of a pistol shot, sailing closer. According to Footner, the General Monk’s guns were six-pounders rebored to accommodate nine-pound balls; some were overheating and jumping out of their carriages. Still, it was the stronger ship.

Barney told the Hyder Ally helmsman, “Follow my next order by the rule of contrary.” Then the General Monk came up close beside them. Barney shouted, “Hard a-port your helm—do you want him to run aboard us?” His helmsman made a sudden turn to starboard.

TOMORROW: Well, that’s enough for one day, don’t you think?


Peter Ansoff said...

Barney's life story reads like a Hornblower novel -- it would make a great movie. He was an incredible guy.

There's an aspect of the General Monk/Hyder Ally battle that I've been curious about for some time. Before the 20th century, the standard form for helm orders was to refer to the movement of the ship's tiller, which was opposite to the rudder. Thus, "Hard aport" meant turning the wheel (and the rudder and the ship) to starboard. Mary Barney's description of her father-in-law's stratagem seems to assume that he actually meant to turn the Ally to starboard, for which "hard aport" would have been the normal order. I wonder if something got mixed up in the retelling.

The reference to the helm rather than the rudder survived for a while even after tillers disappeared. The movie "Titanic" correctly shows the sequence: the watch officer orders "hard a-starboard", and the helmsman turns the wheel (and the ship) to port to avoid the iceberg.

J. L. Bell said...

It's possible that Mary Barney's description would have been better understood by her readers than by me. But she certainly stated that Capt. Barney and his helmsman were acting by "the rule of contrary."