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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Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Captains Confront Their Commander in Cambridge

Yesterday I left Capt. Nicholasson Broughton and Capt. John Selman, the first officers to command schooners for Gen. George Washington, on their way to confront the commander-in-chief about their voyage north in the fall of 1775. They had captured seven ships, spiked the guns in the fort at Charlottetown, and brought back two royal officials from that town.

Yet Washington saw nothing but headaches in those actions. On 7 December he wrote to John Hancock, President of the Continental Congress:

My fears that Broughton and Selman would not effect any good purpose were too well founded: they are returned and brought with them three of the principal inhabitants from the Island of St. John’s [now Prince Edward Island]. Mr. [Philip] Callbeck is President of the Council and acted as Governour. They brought the Governour’s commission, the Province seal, &c. As the captains acted without any warrant for such conduct I have thought it but justice to discharge these gentlemen, whose families were left in the utmost distress.
Twelve days later the commander’s secretary made a terse note of a message to Jonathan Glover, Continental Army agent for the port of Marblehead: “Ordered to deliver up the vessels sent into Marblehead by Broughton and Selman to their owners.” (Jonathan Glover was brother of Col. John Glover, who commanded the regiment that the captains came from.)

Broughton and Selman felt they and their crews had served the American cause, and probably wanted to make their case to the commander-in-chief. In addition, their commissions were due to run out at the end of December, so they needed to know if they were going on other naval missions. This is how Selman remembered the discussion many years later:
This year being nearly up Commodore Broughton and myself went to Head-Quarters at Cambridge to see the General,—he met us on the steps of the door—we let his Excellency understand we had called to see him touching the cruise,

he appeared not pleased—he wanted not to hear anything about it and broke off abruptly to me, Sir, says he will you stand again in Col. Glover’s Regiment [i.e., return to the army, with no chance of the privateering profits, or the independence of commanding your own ship]—

my answer to him was, I will not, sir.

He then accosted Commodore Broughton—You sir—have said that you would stand;

Com. Broughton said, I will not stand,

thus ended the matter relative to the cruise.
Funny thing is, when a general has a difference of opinion with a captain (or even with two captains), the general gets to decide.

(Photo of Washington’s headquarters in winter by j-fi, available through Flickr under a Creative Commons license.)


T Macy said...

Poor Broughton and Selman... getting such a bad reputation, and after performing a great service to their country. The "capture" of silverware, bed curtains, looking glasses, rugs, women's clothing, etc. from an unarmed population at St. John's certainly must have caused a great deal of hardship for the British troops in Boston. Apparently history doesn't record how well Mrs. Broughton liked Mrs. Callbeck's gowns.

J. L. Bell said...

Washington’s influence on how Americans write history is so strong that most accounts of the early navy seem to adopt his view of things.

Thus, the general was right to return Broughton’s first capture, the Unity, to John Langdon, ignoring any signs that its captain was trading with the British. The St. John’s officials weren’t legitimate military targets, though no one seems to have asked whether they were sending men to Québec.

I was pleased to find Selman’s perception of his last cruise, even though it’s self-serving (a bit too much praise for the martyred Gen. Montgomery, who hadn’t even been martyred when the captains returned to Massachusetts). At least it shows the other side of the argument they were ready to make in Cambridge. And apparently never got to.