RIVER FIGHTS: The Early Days

The purpose of the United States Navy is to defend America’s shores; the best way of doing that is by prosecuting war in the other fellow’s backyard.  American sea power achieves its greatest advantage by keeping an enemy’s main force away from America’s shore.  Our Navy controls the oceans for America’s use; it denies to our every foe access to the oceans and skies.  The enemy’s coastline is America’s naval frontier.  Our history over the past few hundred years tells us that our Navy’s strategy has worked out quite well for the American people.

The U. S. Navy is no one-trick pony and naval warfare isn’t confined to vast oceans or hostile coastlines.  Whether projecting naval power at sea, in the air, or ashore, the Navy is prepared to employ the full spectrum of its arsenal: surface ships, submarines, amphibious ships, naval guns, sophisticated aircraft, missiles, and shallow draft watercraft.  And then, whenever our enemies need a real ass­-kicking, the Navy asks for a handful of Marines.

Our understanding of the past helps us to better serve the future.  Naval technology in our early days was somewhat limited to ships of the line, cutters, barges, experimental submarines, and small boats (craft suited to rivers and estuaries).  Today we refer to combat operations on rivers as “Riverine Warfare,” and the US Navy has been doing this since the Revolutionary War.  In the modern day, watercraft intended for this purpose is designed and constructed for a specific operational environment.  In earlier times, watercraft used for riverine operations involved whatever was readily available at the time. 

Revolutionary War

The first significant example of riverine operations occurred on Lake Champlain in 1775-76.  Lake Champlain is a 136-mile long lake with connecting waterways north into Canada and southward toward New York City.  They were waterways that offered a prime invasion route to early settlements and colonies and involved a bitter struggle through the end of the War of 1812.  Our revolutionary-period leaders understood that the British would attempt to separate New England from other colonies by controlling Lake Champlain waterways.  Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold seized Ticonderoga on 19 May 1775 and Crown Point a few days later.  These were audacious operations that provided American patriots with badly needed cannon and munitions.

Arnold made a bold move to control Lake Champlain.  He hastily armed a captured schooner, pressed north to St. John’s on the Richelieu River, and in a pre-dawn riverine raid, surprised the British garrison.  He captured a 70-ton British sloop, seized numerous small boats, and helped himself to military stores, provisions, and arms before returning to Lake Champlain.  In one  stroke, the Americans had gained control of Lake Champlain, which thwarted British plans for their upcoming campaign season.

Arnold’s success at St. John’s was followed up with failure at Quebec, which precipitated the American evacuation of that city.  British and American interests initiated a vigorous ship/boat-building effort on Lake Champlain.  In the British mind, control of Lake Champlain had not been finally settled, but they did look upon Arnold as someone who needed their close attention.  For the British to utilize the Lake Champlain-Lake George-Hudson River highway to split the colonies, they had to first dispose of Arnold’s naval force.

From their base at St. John’s, the British rapidly constructed 29 vessels (some had been built in England and assembled in St. John’s).  The British squadron included Inflexible, Maria, Carleton, Thunderer, Loyal Convert, twenty gunboats, and four long boats.  Under Captain Thomas Pringle, the squadron commander, were 670 well-trained sailors and Marines.  In total, Pringle commanded 89 6-24-pound cannon.

The arms race of 1776 was on.  Spurred by the restless driving force of Benedict Arnold, the Americans sought to keep pace with the British at their Skenesborough shipyard, near the southern end of Lake Champlain.  They worked with scant resources, green timber, and a hastily assembled force of carpenters.  Drawing on his own experience as a sailor and his newly acquired knowledge of the waters in which he would fight, Arnold prepared specifications for a new type of gondola particularly suited to his task.  He wanted a small vessel of light construction that would be fast and agile under sail and oar. He hoped to offset the disadvantages of restricted waters with greater maneuverability against the slow moving, deeper draft British ships whose strength he could not match.

In all, Arnold fought fifteen American vessels, including the sloop Enterprise, the schooners Royal Savage, Revenge, and Liberty, eight of his newly designed gondolas, and three galleys.  He manned his squadron with 500 men from troops made available to him by General Philip Schuyler and from whatever was available from along waterfront taverns. With pitch still oozing out from the planking in his ships, Arnold, now a brigadier general, set a northward course.  On 10 October, Arnold stationed his flotilla west of Valcour Island where the water was deep enough for passage yet narrow enough to limit British access.  Pringle’s main failure was in conducting a proper reconnaissance of the area, so his fleet sailed past Valcour Island under a strong north wind, which required that he return direction from a leeward position.  The battle raged for most of the afternoon.  Arnold expended 75% of his munitions and his ships were badly cut up.  Taking advantage of the north wind and a foggy night, Arnold slipped through the anchored British ships and escaped.  By the 13th, British ships began to overhaul Arnolds fleet, or ran them aground.  Arnold managed to escape to Ticonderoga with six ships and the loss of (an estimated) 80 men.

Having regained control of Lake Champlain, the British quickly seized Crown Point.  General Horatio Gates and Arnold prepared to defend Ticonderoga but the British instead returned to Canada and went into winter quarters.  Circumstantially, Arnold had been thoroughly beaten on the “inland sea” but had scored a strategic victory.  A British advance southward was delayed for another year and the Continental Army had additional time to build its strength.

During the War of 1812, restricted naval warfare was again seen on Lake Erie and Lake Champlain.  This strategy also focused on inland waterways.  Initially, the British controlled the Great Lakes, which facilitated their capture of Detroit and the invasion of Ohio.  In September 1812, Commodore Isaac Chauncey, USN took command of the lakes along the Erie-Ontario frontier in order to thwart a British invasion from that direction.  Both sides strengthened their positions.  Master Commandant Oliver H. Perry, USN assumed command of all naval activity on Lake Erie, under the direction of Commodore Chauncey from Lake Ontario.  Commanding British naval forces was Commodore R. H. Barclay, RN operating on Lake Erie.  Barclay and Perry both began vigorous ship-building programs; neither side could well afford men or supplies, so corners were cut whenever possible.  Barclay had an advantage over Perry in ships, but through remarkable leadership and effort, Perry closed that gap.

On 10 September 1813, Perry joined Barclay in a desperate battle.  Perry had nine ships to Barclay’s six and an advantage in weight of broadside.  Barclay’s guns had a greater range, however, and Perry was always in danger of being destroyed.  In fact, Perry’s star came very close to setting on Lake Erie.  One of his two heavy ships failed to close with the British, rendering Perry’s flagship Lawrence a shamble.  Decks ran red with blood; 80% of his crew became casualties; defeat seemed inevitable—but not to Master Commandant Perry.  Embarking with a courageous boat crew, he rowed across the shot-splashed water, boarded the uninjured Niagara issued his orders, and steered the ship to victory.  Within a few short months, Perry had assembled a fleet, gave the United States control of Lake Erie, the upper lakes, all adjacent territory, and guaranteed to the United States its freedom of movement on these vital waterways.  Through Perry’s efforts, the United States also laid claim to the Northwest Territory.

Commodore Joshua Barney distinguished himself during the War of 1812, as well.  See also: The Intrepid Commodore.

In the defense of New Orleans, Commodore Daniel T. Patterson demonstrated keen insight and raw courage against attacking British ships.  Patterson correctly predicted that the British would assault New Orleans rather than Mobile and further, that their advance would be along the shortest route, through Lake Borgne and Lake Ponchartrain.  He deployed a riverine force of five gunboats, two tenders, and his two largest ships as a means of forcing the British to delay their arrival in New Orleans.  In doing so, he gave General Andrew Jackson time to complete his defensive works in Chalmette.  See also: At Chalmette, 1815.

The shoreline of the modern United States is 12,383 miles.  Even in America’s early days, the US shoreline was a considerable distance to protect and control.  Before and after the War of 1812, buccaneers, filibusters, and other intruders plagued the United States.  Using longboats, the Navy hunted down pirates through coastal estuaries, Caribbean inlets and lagoons, or waging guerrilla war against hostile Indians.  Their mission took sailors and Marines into the dank and dangerous swamps and bayous of Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.  Whether employing large ships, ironclads, tin cans, rafts, or canoes, the Navy proved time and again that it had flexibility and adaptability in riverine operations, which has become part of the Navy’s proud heritage. 

The Pirates

Pirates had long infested the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, fueled in no small measure by the rapid growth of American commerce.  In the early 1820s, pirates attacked merchant ships nearly 3,000 times.  The associated financial losses were staggering; murder, arson, and torture were commonly inflicted upon American seamen.  Commodore James Biddle, USN, took on the pirates, filibusters, and free-booters.  In command of the West Indies Squadron, Biddle mounted raids in open longboats, manned by sailors for days at a time in burning sun or raging storm.  He reached into uncharted bays, inlets, and small but treacherous rivers—to locate, close with, and destroy the buccaneer menace.

Biddle utilized his heavy ships as the backbone of his riverine force and as sea-going bases for smaller craft.  This strategy steadily reduced piracy through such stellar efforts of Lieutenant James Ramage, USN and Lieutenant McKeever, who commanded the Navy’s first steamship to see combat action on the high seas, USS Sea Gull.  McKeever levelled the pirate base at Matanzas, Cuba in April 1825.  When buccaneers realized that their occupation was becoming less profitable and increasingly hazardous, they started looking around for other work.

Swamp Wars

Between 1836-42, Seminole and Creek Indian wars in the Florida Everglades produced a conflict uncannily like that waged in Southeast Asia 125 years later.  In 1830[1], the US Congress passed the Indian Removal Act to remove Florida tribes to reservation lands west of the Mississippi River.  Shockingly, many of these Indians refused to cooperate with the Congress.  Unsurprisingly, a band of Seminoles attacked and massacred a US Army detachment under the command of Major Francis Dade.  The event occurred in Tampa in December 1835.  Almost immediately, the US government moved more soldiers into Florida and Commodore A. J. Dallas’ West Indies Squadron landed parties of Marines and seamen to add weight to the military presence there.

The frustration of fighting a shadowy enemy who was completely at home in the swampy wilderness and rivers in West Florida prompted the Army to ask for naval assistance delivering supplies, establishing communications, and mounting operations along the Chattahoochee River.  One of the first naval units assigned was led by Passed Midshipman[2] J. T. McLaughlin.  In addition to his duties, McLaughlin served as Aide-de-Camp to Lieutenant Colonel A. C. W. Fanning.  McLaughlin was seriously wounded by Indians at Fort Mellon in February 1837.

As the pace of war quickened, the Navy’s riverine force grew.  The Navy purchased three small schooners in 1839, which operated in the coastal inlets to chart the water, harass the Indians, and protect civilian settlements.  In addition, McLaughlin, then a lieutenant, commanded many flat-bottomed boats, plantation canoes, and sharp-ended bateaux which he used to penetrate the Everglade Swamps.  In effect, McLaughlin commanded the “mosquito fleet,” a mixture of vessels manned by around 600 sailors, soldiers, and Marines.

Sources:

  1. Affield, W. Muddy Jungle Rivers: A River Assault Boat’s Cox’n’s Memory of Vietnam. Hawthorne Petal Press, 2012.
  2. S. Army Field Manual 31-75: Riverine Warfare. Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Army, 1971
  3. Friedman, N. US Small Combatants.
  4. Fulton, W. B. Vietnam Studies: Riverine Operations, 1966-1969.  Washington: Department of the Army, 1985
  5. Joiner, G. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy: The Mississippi Squadron.  Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.
  6. Marolda, E. J. Riverine Warfare: U. S. Navy Operations on Inland Waters.  Annapolis: Naval History and Heritage Command, 2006
  7. Rowlands, K. Riverine Warfare: Naval War College Review, Vol 71, No. 1. Art. 5., Annapolis: Naval War College, 2018

Endnotes:

[1] In 1830, Democrats controlled the US House of Representatives.  Another shocker.

[2] In the 19th century, this term was used to describe a midshipman who had passed the examination for appointment to ensign but was waiting for a vacancy in that grade.  A passed midshipman was also occasionally referred to as a “sub-lieutenant,” but neither of these were ever official naval ranks.

The Intrepid Commodore

Joshua Barney c. 1800I initially introduced my readers to Commodore Joshua Barney while recounting the Battle of Bladensburg, which occurred in 1814.  His command of the Marines at Bladensburg (where the President of the United States placed himself under Barney’s command) piqued my interest in this heroic figure from America’s past.  As it turns out, Commodore Barney was not simply a highly skilled naval officer, he was gutsy, determined, and resourceful, as well.

A son of Baltimore, Maryland [1], Joshua Barney (1759-1818) initially went to sea at the age of 12 in 1771.  Four years later, he served as second-in-command to his brother-in-law aboard a merchant ship involved in European trade.  When the brother-in-law died, Barney assumed command of the ship and navigated the ship to Nicard Occitan (Nice).  There is much about his early years that we do not know, but he did marry twice and had children with both his wives.

Beginning in 1776, Barney served as a commissioned officer in the Continental Navy, the master of the Hornet, and at the time, the youngest commander of a Continental warship.  In this capacity, he participated in the raid on New Providence, in the Bahamas, under the command of Commodore Esek Hopkins.  The Navy promoted him to lieutenant in recognition of his gallantry in the action between Wasp and the British brig [2], HMS Betsey.  Later, while serving aboard Andrew Doria, he played a prominent role in the defense of the Delaware River.  The British took Barney as a prisoner (and exchanged him) on several occasions during the Revolutionary War.  In 1779, the British held him at the Old Mill Prison at Plymouth, England until he escaped in 1781.  Barney wrote a memoir about his adventures, published in 1832 by his relatives, long after his death.

In April 1782, the Navy placed Barney in command of the Pennsylvania ship Hyder Ally.  During the Battle of Delaware Bay, Barney captured the better-armed HMS General Monk.  Monk was renamed General Washington and Barney was rewarded by giving him command of that ship.  With orders to deliver dispatches to Benjamin Franklin in France.  Barney’s return voyage to the United States carried news of peace with Great Britain and the end of the Revolutionary War.

After the war, Barney joined the French navy.  The French appointed him to serve as a squadron commander with the rank of captain.  From June through October 1796, Barney commanded the frigate [3] Harmonie, which was serving on station in the Caribbean and Chesapeake Bay.  As the Napoleonic Wars did not begin until 1803, it does not appear that Captain Barney served under the French flag at that time.

The United States had no interest in becoming involved in the Napoleonic Wars, but the loss of commercial ships to British raiders, the illegal impressment of American sailors into the Royal Navy, and the insult to national pride eventually brought the United States back to war with Great Britain in 1812.  Even so, the United States was ill-prepared for another war, either on land or at sea.  Were it not for the fact that the British were fully engaged with France in Europe, it might have gone very badly for the fledgling United States in the early days of this conflict.  The Royal Navy was, at that time, the strongest navy in the world.  In comparison, the United States Navy was but a flea on the backside of a rogue elephant.

Without a navy of any substance, the United States began to construct, commission, and capture ships to serve as warships.  One of the more successful privateers was Joshua Barney of Baltimore, Maryland, who in 1812 was 53 years of age and living near Elk Ridge, Maryland.  Because he had served under a foreign flag as a naval commander, the US Navy denied Barney command of a United States Navy ship; instead, the Navy offered him command of the privateer schooner Rossie.  As a privateer, Barney excelled.  On a single voyage, Barney captured four ships [4], eight brigs, three schooners [5], and three sloops [6], a total value of around 1.5 million pounds.  By December of 1812, the Royal Navy was rampaging the Chesapeake Bay, blockading ports and taking what they wanted from shoreline villages and towns.  Their first defeat came at the mouth of the Elizabeth River when the Royal Navy failed to seize Norfolk, Virginia —but as an act of revenge, the British sacked the town of Hampton.  The American army’s commitment to operations in Canada left the Chesapeake Bay undefended, allowing the British navy to invade the American shore with impunity.

Despite its few resources and very little money, the United States government resolved to do something.  This is when Captain Barney stepped forward with a plan to defend the Chesapeake.  In those days, it was easy for a citizen to approach the President of the United States.  Barney drew up his plan and delivered it personally to President Madison.  It was as detailed a plan as anyone had ever seen, including sketches of gunboats that were like river-barges [7], equipped with oars and light sails, and armed with one large gun.  As Barney envisioned it, these small vessels would be manned by local men, would draw attention to themselves but they would also be proficient in keeping an eye on the British navy.  With a shallow draft, the barges would be able to withdraw close to shore where the British could not follow.  One of Barney’s selling points was that the barges were relatively inexpensive to build and, once the war was over, the vessels could go on the block for commercial use.

President Madison was suitably impressed.  He appointed Barney as Commander of the Chesapeake Bay Flotilla.  Construction of the barges began in earnest and bounties were offered to entice men who would otherwise have served as privateers, or enlisted men in the land forces.  News of the flotilla quickly spread, and this prompted the British to construct barges of their own on tangier Island.  Within a short time, Barney had seven (7) 75’ barges, six (6) 50’ barges, two gunboats [8], one row galley [9], a lookout boat, and his flagship USS Scorpion [10].

With eighteen vessels (but scant supplies), Barney led his flotilla from Baltimore to attack Tangier Island and destroy the British efforts there.  With the discovery of British reconnaissance troops near St. Jerome’s Creek, Barney decided to attack these men.  The surprise was that a British warship was in hiding not far distant, causing Barney to make a rapid withdrawal into the Patuxent River.  British captain Barrie, in command of HMS Dragon, blockaded the mouth of the Patuxent River and waited for reinforcements from HMS Jaseur and HMS Loire.  Barney continued his withdrawal to the shores of St. Leonard’s Creek.  Initially, with the realization that the British out-gunned him four to one, Barney saw little chance of besting the British, but his position offered an excellent defense.  We remember this three-day battle as the Battle of the Barges.  The conflict ended in a draw, but Barney did not lose a single man to British fire, while the Royal Navy suffered numerous casualties.

In August of 1814 48-British ships arrived in the Chesapeake with a contingent of 5,400 soldiers under the command of Major General Robert Ross.  These troops landed at the little down of Benedict and began their march northwards.  Admiral Sir George Cockburn, serving as overall commander-in-chief, sailed up the Patuxent River … altogether setting into motion the Battle of Bladensburg —the defense of the City of Washington.  Given the timidity of the undisciplined American militia, all that really stood between General Ross’ army and Washington was Commodore Barney and around 500 sailors and Marines.  Of course, we know that it was a futile defense and Barney was (once more) captured by the British.  Although seriously wounded, Barney was well-treated by the British, who congratulated him on his gallantry under fire.  Before his capture, Barney ordered his flotilla burned to keep them from falling into the hands of the British; the remnants of this force remain at the bottom of the Patuxent River today.  With the peace came Barney’s release from captivity and he returned to his home in Anne Arundel County.

The wound he received in 1814 eventually killed Commodore Barney, who at his death was only 59 years old.

Sources:

  1. S. Naval History and Heritage Command, Joshua Barney, online resource.
  2. Barney, M. A Biographical Memoir of the Late Commodore Joshua Barney From Autographical Notes and Journals in Possession of His Family and Other Authentic Sources.  Gray and Bowen, publishers, 1832.
  3. Shomette, D. Shipwrecks on the Chesapeake.  Centerville, MD: Tidewater Publishers (1982)
  4. Ellis, J. J. His Excellency, George Washington.  New York: Vintage Books, Random House, 2004

Endnotes:

[1] When Baltimore was still an American city.

[2] A brig is a two-mast square rigged ship.

[3] A frigate in the age of sail was a warship built for speed and maneuverability and could be a vessel of several sizes.  Their principle batteries could be placed on a single deck, or on two decks with smaller guns.  They were generally two small to stand in the line of battle.  They were full rigged with square sails on three masts and mostly used as escort ships and patrolling.  They usually carried 28 guns.

[4] In context, ship meaning ships of the line or full-rigged vessels with three or more full-rigged masts.  Ships of the line were generally categorized as first, second, or third-rate vessels (more than 64-guns).  Fourth-rate ships came into being in the mid-18th century (50-60 guns).

[5] A schooner is a fore and aft-rigged vessel with two or more masts, of which the foremast is shorter than the main.

[6] Sloops were fore-and-aft rigged vessels with a single mast.  They were later powered warships between corvettes and frigates in overall size.

[7] Essentially, shoal-draft flat bottom boats normally constructed as river or canal transport of bulk goods.

[8] Gunboats were of various sizes and armaments with a single mast.

[9] An armed craft that used oars rather than sails but was often fitted with sails in addition to its oars.

[10] Scorpion was a self-propelled floating artillery battery, sloop rigged with oars.  As part of the Chesapeake Bay flotilla, Scorpion was commanded by Major William B. Barney, Commodore Barney’s son.

An Age of Patriotism

Burrows WW 001
William Ward Burrows I

William Ward Burrows (16 Jan 1758 – 6 March 1805) was born in Charleston, South Carolina.  He served with distinction in the Revolutionary War with the South Carolina state militia.  After the war, he moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to practice law.  On the day following an act of Congress to establish a permanent United States Marine Corps (11 July 1798), President John Adams appointed Burrows Major Commandant.  During his tenure as Commandant, the manpower strength of the Marine Corps never exceeded 881 officers, noncommissioned officers, privates, and musicians.  Note that by tradition, Samuel Nicholas was the first officer to serve as Commandant of Continental Marines, but Burrows was the first appointed Commandant of the U. S. Marine Corps.  In history, Burrows is regarded as the Second Commandant of the Marine Corps.

After the United States won its independence from Great Britain, America no longer benefitted from the protection of the British Navy.  America was suddenly facing the arduous and expensive task of protecting its own seacoast and merchant fleet.  Few American ships were available to take on this task, and few were even capable of such a mission.  The Kingdom of France was a crucial ally of the United States during the Revolutionary War, had loaned the Continental Congress large sums of money, and in 1778, signed an agreement with the United States for an alliance against Great Britain.  In 1792, Louis XVI was overthrown during the French Revolution and the French monarchy was abolished.

In 1794, the United States forged an agreement with Great Britain in the Jay Treaty, which was ratified in the following year.  The Jay Treaty resolved several issues between the US and Great Britain that had lingered since the end of the revolution.  The Jay Treaty encouraged bilateral trade and expanded trade between the two nations, the effects of which stimulated America’s fledgling economy.  Between 1794 and 1801, the value of American exports tripled.  Not every American supported the Jay Treaty, however. Jeffersonian Democrat-Republicans were pro-French and fought an alliance with Great Britain at every turn.

France and Great Britain were at war, but the United States declared neutrality.  As US legislation was being formulated for a trade deal with the British, Congress refused to continue making payments on the debt owed to France from the Revolutionary War.  The United States argued that their obligation was to the King of France.  Since there was no longer a king in France, the United States no longer had an obligation to pay this debt.

France was not pleased. Initially, the French government authorized privateers to seize American ships trading with Great Britain, taking the ships to France as prizes of war, and sold for compensation.  Next, the French refused to receive the United States Ambassador to France, Charles C. Pinckney.  The effect of this was the complete severance of diplomatic relations between the United States and France.  President John Adams delivered his annual message to Congress, reporting to them that France refused to negotiate a settlement.  Adams warned Congress: the time had come “to place our country in a suitable posture of defense.”  The so-called XYZ Affair (French agents demanding bribes before engaging in substantive negotiations with US diplomats) incensed members of Congress and the general population.

It was in this setting that the Navy and Marine Corps had their humble beginnings.  The Navy had few ships, and the Marines had few troops.  Still, six or so months in advance of hostilities with France, the War Department began recruiting and enlisting able seamen to serve as Marines aboard frigates that had been authorized by Congress to meet the French threat.  These initial units were small detachments assigned to ships of the U. S. Navy; ships that were still under construction.

During Major Burrows first several months, his principal concern was supplying men to serve with sea-going Marine Detachments.  At this time, Headquarters Marine Corps was situated at a camp near Philadelphia until the national capital in Washington was ready to receive the government in 1800.  Burrows sent a Marine guard detail to the Washington Navy Yard in March to protect government property.  Burrows and his staff relocated to Washington in late July, settling into what today is called the Marine Barracks, 8th& I Streets.

Burrows was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel on 1 May 1800.  The Quasi-War with France continued until September when the two countries finally settled their differences —and once these matters were resolved, Congress had no further interest in maintaining a naval establishment. Congressional attitudes embarrassed Burrows because he was trying to establish a war-ready Marine Corps on a peace time budget.  The Barbary Wars broke out soon after the end of the Quasi-War.  Adams lost the Presidency in 1801, and Thomas Jefferson, who was no friend of the Navy or Marine Corps, was inaugurated as President.  In spite of Jefferson’s lack of interest, Burrows continued his struggle to man the much needed ship’s detachments gearing up for duty in the Mediterranean.

Lieutenant Colonel Burrows’ stewardship is credited with beginning many of the Marine Corps’ institutions, most notably the U. S. Marine Corps Band (now called the “President’s Own”). To create the band, Burrows relied heavily on personal contributions from his officers.  Burrows was also a disciplinarian, demanding high standards of professional conduct from his officers.  Due to ill health, which may be related to his relocation to Washington City, then an insect infested swamp, Burrows resigned his office on 6 March 1804.  He died a year later while still residing in Washington.  He was initially buried in the Presbyterian Cemetery in Georgetown, but on 12 May 1892, his remains were re-interred at the Arlington National Cemetery.

Part of Colonel Burrows’ legacy is his son, William Ward Burrows II (1795 – 1813), who served in the United States Navy from 1799 to his death in 1813.  Lieutenant Burrows distinguished himself at Tripoli while serving aboard the USS Constitution.  He died from wounds received during an engagement with HMS Boxer, while in command of the brig [1] USS Enterprise during the War of 1812 (derisively known at the time as Mr. Madison’s War).  Burrows was buried at Eastern Cemetery in Portland, Maine, next to the slain commander of HMS Boxer, Samuel Blyth.

In recognition of his courage under fire, Lieutenant Burrows was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal [2]:

Congressional Gold Medal
Congressional Gold Medal; See endnotes for attribution.

That the President of the United States be requested to present to the nearest male relative of lieutenant William Burrows, and to lieutenant Edward R. McCall of the brig Enterprise, a gold medal with suitable emblems and devices; and a silver medal with like emblems and devices to each of the commissioned officers of the aforesaid vessel, in testimony of the high sense entertained in the conflict with the British sloop Boxer, on the fourth of September, in the year one thousand eight hundred and thirteen. And the President is also requested to communicate to the nearest male relative of lieutenant Burrows the deep regret which Congress feel for the loss of that valuable officer, who died in the arms of victory, nobly contending for his country’s rights and fame.

Endnotes:

[1] A brig is a sailing vessel with two square-rigged masts.  They were fast and maneuverable and used as both warships and cargo vessels.  Brigs were among the first casualties of the age of steam because they required relatively large crews for their small size, and they were difficult to sail into the wind.  A war brig was outfitted with between ten and eighteen guns.

[2] Since the American Revolution, Congress has commissioned gold medals as its highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions. Shown above is the gold medal issued to John Paul Jones, the only Continental Navy Officer to receive this award. I could not find a likeness of the medal issued to Lieutenant Burrows.  Credit for the image of the gold medal belongs to Jules Jaquemart, Loubat, J. F.  Medallic History of the United States of America, New Milford (1878).

Retribution

Just north of the equator on the island of Sumatra is a rich pepper-growing region known as Acheen. It has been part of the American trade routes since the 1790s when New England merchant ships stopped along the island’s west coast to exchange Spanish silver for the spice used to flavor and preserve food. It was all part of a lucrative trans-Atlantic trade arrangement with Northern European trading partners.

In January 1831, the American merchantman Friendship dropped anchor off the Sumatran town of Quallah Battoo to take on a load of pepper. However, instead of pepper, Malay pirates boarded the ship, murdered most of its crew, absconded with its cargo, beached the ship, and ran away laughing. The ship was eventually recaptured and returned to her owner, but not before the owner sent a vigorous protest to President Andrew Jackson demanding retribution.

At the time of the protest, the American frigate Potomac was tied up at New York, rigged and ready to sail to China via Cape Horn and the Pacific. Navy officials soon changed her route to the Cape of Good Hope and the Indian Ocean. After five months at sea, Potomac anchored five miles off the coast of Quallah Battoo disguised as a Danish East Indiaman.

Quallah Battoo 1832At two on the morning of 6 February 1832, nearly 300 sailors and Marines entered the ship’s boats and moved off to attack the Malay pirates. In command of the Marines were First Lieutenant Alvin Edson and First Lieutenant George Terrett. Once ashore, the assault company was divided into four platoons, each of these assigned to one of the forts guarding the town of Quallah Battoo. As the first streaks of daylight appeared, Edson led his contingent to a fort nestled in the jungle behind the town. Within minutes of the Marine’s approach, Malays were alerted and intense fighting ensued. Rushing forward, significantly outnumbered Marines exhibited superior discipline and enthusiasm managed to breach the outer walls and capture the fort. Edson, leaving Terrett in charge at Tuko de Lima, took with him a small guard and proceeded through the town to join in efforts to capture the second fort.

It was not long before kris-wielding Malays accosted the small detachment of Marines. Lieutenant Edson was proficient in the use of his Mameluke Sword to dispatch the attackers. Within moments, the second fort fell to the Americans. Then, having dismantled the forts and set the town ablaze, sailors and Marines were recalled to the Potomac, their mission accomplished by 10:00 a.m.   Later in the day, ship’s company stood to render honors to the killed in action, one sailor, and two Marines. The next morning Potomac moved to within a mile of the town and shelled it … a final parting shot to remind the Malay pirates: do not mess with the United States of America.

Endnote: this all occurred back when the American people elected strong presidents who were themselves proud to be an American.

Sources:

  1. D. Philips, Pepper and Pirates: Adventures in the Sumatra Pepper Trade of Salem, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1949)
  2. N. Reynolds, Voyage of the United States Frigate Potomac, Under the Command of Commodore John Downes, During the Circumnavigation of the Globe, in the years 1831, 1832, 1833, and 1834 (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1835)

Painting by Colonel Charles H. Waterhouse, USMCR (Deceased)