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, April 14, 2010

The Somerset Repaired for “Considerable Service”

H.M.S. Somerset arrived in Boston harbor in December 1774, carrying 68 cannon and a contingent of British Marines under the command of Maj. John Pitcairn. By the end of that year all those men had been landed and housed in barracks. As for the ship itself, Adm. Samuel Graves reported to London in January:

The Somerset was so leaky at Sea that two Hand Pumps were continually at Work, and it is the constant Employment at present of one hand to pump to Keep her free.
This Somerset was thirty years old that year, as described on this website of a group that reenacts its crew.

Spring weather allowed the navy to do some repairs. On 31 March, Graves wrote to Gen. Thomas Gage that he wanted to take off all the ship’s guns and most of her cargo “that by heeling her, when lightened, they may caulk as much of her bottom as possible.” The general and admiral weren’t on good terms, but they tried not to actively interfere with each other’s work, so Gage assigned the navy two transport boats to move its heavy equipment.

On 11 April, Graves reported to the Admiralty in London about the Somerset:
Upon stripping the sheathing from her Bottom, we found the Ocham in her seams entirely rotten and the Butt Ends open; these Defects have been repaired, her Decks and sides well caulked and I have placed her, where the Lively and Canceaux formerly lay, between Charles Town and Boston. It is very likely that in this situation she will be of considerable service.
In a long, self-justifying report Graves wrote later, he explained what sort of “considerable service” he had in mind:
as the situation of things became more and more critical, and he was solicited to guard Boston against any attempt [i.e., attack] from Charles Town side, he caused the channel of the [Charles] river to be sounded, and, finding there was room enough for a large ship to swing at low water, ordered Captain [Edward] Le Cras to place the Somerset exactly in the Ferry way between the two towns, which he accordingly did.
This information is useful in understanding the mindset of the British military commanders in Boston 235 years ago. They weren’t expecting an imminent attack by rebellious provincials, but they felt they had to guard against one.

In fact, the navy had stationed one or two warships at the mouth of the Charles since the Powder Alarm of the previous September. But the Lively had twenty guns, the Canceaux eight. By replacing them with the Somerset’s 60+, Graves was making a very intimidating statement.

TOMORROW: The Somerset on 18-19 Apr 1775.

(The photo above shows H.M.S. Victory a full century after our Somerset had wrecked on Cape Cod. As I understand it, the two warships were about the same size, but if anyone has pictures of a ship of the Somerset’s class please let me know.)


Anonymous said...

The Somerset (a "Third Rate")would have been much smaller than the ship in the photo, the Victory (a "First Rate").

First Rate=100 guns; Second Rate=84 guns; Third Rate=74 guns.

J. L. Bell said...

Thanks! I actually found this photo Googling “third rate,” but I don’t think it was labeled one way or the other. It appeared similar to an eighteenth-century third-rate ship in a battle painting, but then they may well have been all built along similar lines.

Are there clear images of third-rate warships from the late 1700s? The only way I could see finding one is searching under individual ships’ names, which meant searching for those names to begin with, and I thought that whole process would take too much time.

J.M. Nathan said...

Regarding images of Third Rate warships:
I could be wrong, but I believe an accurate depiction of the HMS Somerset can be found by searching Google for: H.M.S. Agamemnon. She was also a 64 Gun Third Rate, Ship of the Line. Additionally, she was also built at the Chatham Shipyard, starting in 1781.
On a personal note, I was lucky enough to see the Somerset first hand in Sept. 2010 while at the Cape. I've always found it to be amazing that we have so much vital history all around us here in New England which many people don't begin to recognize. We spent about an hour exploring the intimate details of the remaining hull timbers, dowel holes, carved Roman Numerals, to photographing the hull timbers 'head on' so as to count the number of growth rings...
It was simply amazing to experience a piece of the American Revolution in this manner.
Tons of pictures if you're interested. Let me know.

J. L. Bell said...

Sounds very interesting! Those photos could be the basis of a “guest blogger” entry. Please email me if you’re interested. (I can’t contact you directly through Blogger.)

Anonymous said...

The ship in the photo is the HMS Victory, I might suggest that you label the photo as such to not mislead those who wish to find an accurate visual reference of the Somerset:


J. L. Bell said...

For the last ten years this posting has included the note at the end identifying the ship in the photograph as H.M.S. Victory.

Since this series of postings discusses how H.M.S. Somerset was wrecked decades before the invention of photography, I don’t believe attentive readers will be misled into believing that’s a photo of the Somerset.