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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Thursday, July 23, 2015

Dividing the Prizes from Scotland

In June 1776, Gen. Artemas Ward wrote to his commander-in-chief, Gen. George Washington, with news of the fight in Boston harbor:
P.S. June 17. I have just received information that the Continental Privateers have taken and brought into Nantasket in this Harbour a Ship and a Brig from Glasgow with two hundred and ten Highland troops on board, with their baggage; the Ship mounted six carriage guns, and fought the Privateers some time before she struck, we had four men wounded, the Enemy had three privates killed and a Major, and eight or ten men wounded. The prisoners are coming up to Town among whom is a Colonel. Any further particulars that may be of importance I shall forward as soon as I can learn them.
This was news not just because of the prisoners, but because of the military supplies on those ships. The Continental Army had first claim on those useful supplies.

For example, the ship George was inventoried on 22 June and found to contain:
20 fusees; 31 small-arms; 6 kegs bullets and shot; 6 bundles paper for cartridges; part of a bag flints; 2 kegs part filled with cartridges; a cask containing a few books and 1 bundle bedding; 2 trunks and 2 portmanteaus; 1 black trunk; 1 bundle; 1 black canteen; 1 red bundle; 1 chest; 1 portmanteau; 3 casks porter; 1 cask hams; 3 casks bottled wine; 7 hogsheads and part of a hogshead rum; 361 black shoulder belts; 74 bundles and 1 bag gun straps; 1 field bed and 2 bundles binding; 4 markees; the Quartermaster’s camp equipage; Colonel [Archibald] Campbell’s ditto; a bundle ditto not directed; 3 field tents and materials; 6 bundles tent poles for markees; 12 bundles common tent poles; 7 bundles leather bullet pouches; 3 cartouch boxes; 6 kegs bullets and shot; 23 camp tents; a remnant of ticklenburg; 1 cask and 2 bundles tent-pins; 1 cask tin canteens, and 69 loose; 10 tin pans; 23 camp kettles; 1 package tent stools; 82 canvass knapsacks; 199 hair knapsacks; a bale containing 80 blankets; a bale containing 50 watch-coats; 1 box black plumes; 4 bundles soldiers’ clothing; 1 bundle stockings; 3 pair shoes; 2 bags with belts and knapsacks; 2 pieces plaid; 7 bonnets; 2 pieces and part of a piece duffel; 144 soldiers' blankets; 33 beds; 85 pillows; a bale of brown paper; 44 hatchets; 1 bundle twine; 1 cask sheathing nails; 2 casks five-penny nails; 1 set small weights; 2 iron spades; part of a cask currants; 15 barrels pease; 6 barrels flour; 2 barrels barley; 9 barrels pork; 27 barrels beef; 19 kegs butter; 15 barrels oat meal; 2 tierces and part of a tierce vinegar; 2 barrels herring; 1 bag rice; 74 bags bread; 14 hogsheads bread; water cask.
Washington’s aide Samuel Blachley Webb asked the Continental agent in Massachusetts to send “From Ship George All the Fuzees, Small Arms & Bayonetts, Shoulder Straps, Gun Straps—Leather Bullet pouches, hair knapsacks, Canvass Knapsacks, Belts, Flints, Marquees, and Soldiers Tents, Common Tent Poles, Tin Canteens, Camp Kettles, Blankets, Watch Coats, Soldiers Cloathing, Stockings[,] Black Plumes.”

The rest of the cargo and the ships themselves were to be auctioned off, as announced in the 15 August New-England Chronicle. The proceeds were to be divided up between the local government and the captains and crews involved in capturing them.

However, as Jackson Kuhl explained in this Journal of the American Revolution article:
Everything else was sold but because the transports were Royal Navy[-leased] ships, the money first had to flow through the office of the naval agent in Boston, where it evaporated — used to pay for expenses of the Continental navy. Neither the state of Connecticut nor the men of Defence ever saw a penny of it.

So afterwards, Captain [Seth] Harding, along with Governor [Jonathan] Trumbull and the Council of Safety, made a very conscious decision not to strike military targets but instead to pursue merchant ships.
That’s one of the results of a privateering and prize system: it creates incentives for warships to seek the biggest profits rather than the biggest military benefits.

TOMORROW: Assessing the evidence.


Don N. Hagist said...

A note on the information from Jackson Kuhl's article:
The British transports captured in Boston harbor in June 1776 were not Royal Navy ships per se, but privately owned ships operating under contract to the Royal Navy. In general, the Royal Navy did not own or operate transports, but instead contracted private vessels. For more on the subject, see The Royal Navy in American Waters 1775-1783, by David Syrett (1989).

J. L. Bell said...

Thank you! That makes more sense. I hadn't found any mention of the Royal Navy in the sources I was looking at, but I don't claim to know the naval war well at all, and I thought I must have missed something.