The West Florida Expedition

American history is quite fascinating —I would say even more so than the revisionist accounts offered in our public schools and universities over the past sixty years.  Two of my interests are the colonial and early founding periods of the United States.  History isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, of course, but there is so much we can learn from it —lessons that would positively contribute to modern society.  Ut est rerum omnium magister usus[1], and if true, if experience is the teacher of all things, then our learning from past mistakes can only aid us in the future.

One of the things I find interesting about the American Revolutionary War is how little attention historians have paid to the British loyalists.  After all, they too were part of that story.

1763 was a banner year for the British because, in that year, England finally triumphed over France after fighting one another to a standstill since 1689.  In the Treaty of Paris of 1763, England acquired Spanish Florida and French Canada.  British divided Florida into two provinces: West and East Florida.  West Florida included the southern half of present-day Mississippi, a rectangular region straddling the Gulf of Mexico from Lake Pontchartrain and Maurepas and the Mississippi River in the west, to the Chattahoochee and Apalachicola rivers on the east.  It extended northward to an imaginary line running east from the confluence of the Mississippi and Yazoo rivers, including the old Spanish port of Pensacola and the former French settlements of Mobile, Biloxi, and Natchez.

In the late 1760s, West Florida was sparsely settled because, except for a narrow strip of land along the eastern bank of the Mississippi River, the soil was unsuitable for agriculture, which led settlers to rely on raising livestock.  The British anticipated settling West Florida effortlessly and for reasons of security, they reserved the area west of the Appalachian Mountains for Indians.  British policy at that time intended to avoid confrontations with the Indians by channeling white settlers either to Canada or to one of the two Florida settlements.  The British also decided to offer land to members of the British court as a reward for faithful military service.  As an example, 40,000 acres were set aside for the Earl of Eglinton near the Natchez and Pensacola settlements.  An untended consequence of land grants to noblemen was that they almost immediately began selling these lands, and by every measure, they were quite successful in doing so.

The British accorded settlers of lesser rank, 100 acres to the head of household and 50 acres for each member of his family, including slaves.  The head of a family could also purchase an additional 1,000 acres for a reasonable price —but clear title to this land was withheld until the settlers had cultivated their land for three to five years.  The settlement of West Florida increased steadily, especially in the Natchez area, until in 1773 when the foreign office inexplicably canceled the governor’s authority to grant land.

In 1775, with the outbreak of the American Revolution, the situation in West Florida changed rapidly.  Both Florida provinces were converted into sanctuaries for British loyalists escaping from colonial terrorists.  After 1775, West Florida enjoyed its greatest period of growth, an attraction among sturdy pioneers of Englishmen and Scotsmen.

Who were the loyalists, and why weren’t they interested in freedom from Great Britain?  They were generally older people, conservative by nature, well-established in the colonies with long-standing business interests in England.  Older people tend to resist change and the Revolutionary War period was nothing at all if not an era of momentous changes.  In the minds of British loyalists, a rebellion was not only morally wrong but also unwarranted.

Taxation without representation was a key issue at the outset of the American Revolution.  Parliamentary taxation affected everyone, including loyalists.  There was no overwhelming repudiation of taxes among the loyalists because, in the first instance, Parliament had the right to tax colonists.  Second, the colonists had long benefitted from the security provided by the British Army.  Among loyalists, it was entirely reasonable that Parliament expected colonists to help pay for the costs of maintaining these forces.  The loyalists also had no objection to “quartering soldiers in private homes.”  These were young men from back home who had come to America to protect British citizens from the ravages of the French and Indian attacks, why not give them a nice place to sleep?  Besides, which would be cheaper (tax-wise)?  Quartering soldiers in the homes of citizens, or constructing barracks for the same purpose?  Since everyone benefitted from these tax levies, why object to them? Of course, the British Parliament could have addressed this issue with greater sophistication, but the British people (especially those living in England) were used to an authoritarian legislature.

When the so-called “American patriots” resorted to violence against the Crown and those who remained loyal to Great Britain, the older, conservative, well-settled colonists felt alienated —and with good reason.  The patriots burned down their homes, torched their businesses, and physically and verbally assaulted them.  In many ways, patriot behavior was more like that of  hooligans and domestic terrorists than of good neighbors with interesting ideas about government and society[2].

Many loyalists, at least initially, were fence-sitters.  Among those, optimists who believed that if there was to be a separation from the mother country, it should take place naturally and amicably, under circumstances mutually beneficial to both sides of the Atlantic.  Some pessimists believed that the only possible result of revolutionary thought and action would be chaos, corruption, and mob rule[3].  In either case, when patriots began terrorizing them, they either became apathetic to the cause, or they moved even further to the right.  Some returned to England, others decided to stay in the colonies and fight for their King.  In New York, many loyalists were part of influential families, some of these with unmistakable ties to the French Huguenot-Dutch De Lancey[4] faction supporting the British Crown.  There were also “black” loyalists —slaves who had been promised freedom from slavery by the British government.  Colonial patriots made no such promises, from any quarter —north or south.

There were many prominent families among American patriots[5].  One of these was the family of a man named James Willing … a wealthy Philadelphia family.  His father Charles twice served as Philadelphia’s mayor; his mother was Anne Shippen, the granddaughter of Philadelphia’s second mayor.  James’ older brother was a merchant, a business partner with Robert Morris[6], and a delegate to the Continental Congress from Pennsylvania.  In his younger years, James sought his fortune in British West Florida operating a general store within the Natchez settlement.  The folks of Natchez were happy to live in America, but they were loyalists —and intensely so.  Willing, not being able to share those sentiments, and being rudely vocal about it, soon decided to return to Philadelphia[7].

In 1777, serving as a congressional spokesman, Willing returned to Natchez to convince the residents there to join the American independence movement.  His proposals rebuffed, he returned to Philadelphia with greatly exaggerated claims that the people of West Florida posed a serious threat to the cause of American independence, although he was probably right in thinking that loyalists would interrupt trade on the Mississippi River, a major source of colonial resupply.

Oliver Pollock, meanwhile (an Irish-born colonist with many years devoted to trading with the Spaniards in the West Indies), established a close working relationship with Alejandro O’Reilly[8] and other Spanish-Louisiana officials.  Granted the privilege of free trade with New Orleans, Pollock became a successful businessman, married, and raised his family there.  In 1777, Pollock was appointed Commercial Agent of the United States in New Orleans.  He used his influence and wealth to help finance American operations in the west, including the campaign by Major General (militia) George Rogers Clark[9].  In September 1778, Pollock introduced Colonel David Rogers and Captain Robert Benham to Louisiana Governor Bernardo de Gálvez.  Rogers delivered a letter to Governor Gálvez from Virginia patriot Patrick Henry —a letter that led to Spain to join the war against England.  In the British view, there could be no better example of treason than that.

In 1778, James Willing was calling himself a naval captain[10] in the service of the United Independent States of America[11]  Pollock received a letter from Robert Morris stating that Willing would be leading an expedition against loyalist settlements above New Orleans.  In his capacity as a naval captain, Willing led 29 men of the 13th Virginia Regiment from Fort Pitt and sailed down the Ohio River[12].  Willing’s mission may have been more on the order of moving supplies from New Orleans to Fort Pitt than it was conquering West Florida, but the correspondence Willing carried with him to Florida could be construed as authorization to punish British loyalists.  With his desire for adventure and a somewhat reckless nature, Willing boarded the gunboat Rattletrap[13] with his Virginians, now dubbed “marines.”

Willing and his marines departed Fort Pitt early on the night of 10 January.  A short distance from where the Wabash empties into the Ohio River, the Willing Expedition seized the large bateau[14] belonging to the Becquet Brothers, which was laden with pelts.  They also arrested a man named  La Chance and impounded his cargo of brandy —which Willing and his crew subjected to extensive tests for impurities.  Willing’s notoriety thus established, off they went into the Ohio River and southward.  The commander at Fort Kaskaskia, a Frenchman named Rocheblave, suspected that the Willing Expedition was moving toward Illinois and believed that the sort of insults offered to Becquet and La Chance was the sort of thing frontier settlers could expect from colonial hoodlums should they ever achieve a foothold into the western (French) colonies.

Painting by Charles Waterhouse

By the time the expedition reached the Mississippi River, Willing had added two canoes and ten recruits to his entourage.  One of these was a youngster named George Girty, whom Willing commissioned a second lieutenant.  George was the youngest of four brothers, a family whose only claim to history was that they all became British loyalists.  Historians know that Willing stopped at a Spanish post at the mouth of the Arkansas River, where, having warned the few American settlers living there that their lives were in peril from British loyalists, proceeded on his journey.  The then-petrified settlers ended up petitioning Spanish officials for their protection.

Willing arrived at the Natchez plantation of Colonel Anthony Hutchins[15], a loyalist, on 19 February, promptly arrested him and seized his property —including his slaves.  Willing then divided his force by sending two canoes on a scouting mission further south to the Natchez settlement —a farming community populated by American, English, and French settlers (all of whom lived together in harmony) —and until recent times, the home of James Willing.  The scouting party, well-armed and dressed as hunters, arrested all settlement inhabitants and secured their property.

Willing and his main body arrived the following morning.  According to later testimony, captive townspeople sent a delegation of four citizens to parlay with Willing.  They agreed to surrender and promised their neutrality if Willing restored their property.  Willing agreed, adding these stipulations: (a) that the settlers must agree to re-provision his expeditionary force, (b) that single men join the expedition, and (c) that all married persons relocate to Spanish territory within fifteen days.  From among the single men who joined the expedition, Willing appointed Richard Harrison a lieutenant of marines.

South of Natchez, Willing carried out a campaign of destruction to crops, livestock, and the homes of Loyalist settlers and carried off their slaves (likely sold in New Orleans).  William Dunbar and Frederick Spell, who witnessed Willing’s behavior, suggested in their later testimony that Willing was more interested in enriching himself than he was in any patriotic endeavor (which, by every account, seems to have been the case).  Willing, however, did not molest any “patriotic” Americans.

By this time, the British were aware of Willing’s marauders —which given the expanse of the territory and poor communications back then, is quite amazing.  In any case, the British dispatched their sloop Rebecca (well-armed with sixteen 4-pound and six swivel guns) up the Mississippi to interdict Willing’s campaign.  On 23 February, 18 marines under lieutenants McIntyre and Harrison captured Rebecca, which for a time ended Great Britain’s control of the Mississippi River.  McIntyre and Harrison sailed the vessel to New Orleans as a prize of war.  The ship would be renamed, Morris.

Oliver Pollock established and maintained a close relationship with Governor Bernardo de Gálvez.  During a future Spanish campaign against the British, Pollock would serve as Gálvez’ aide-de-camp.  When Pollock received word that Willing was approaching New Orleans, he recruited an additional 40 men to join the expedition and assisted him in transporting “British” property to New Orleans.  Of these 40 men, 26 men took it upon themselves to float downriver to join McIntyre and Harrison.  McIntyre’s group soon came upon the British Brig Neptune and seized her.  Neptune was laden with lumber and a handful of passengers bound for Jamaica.  McIntyre off-loaded the passengers, retained the cargo, and sailed her to New Orleans —the expedition’s second prize.

News of Willing’s expedition quickly spread throughout British West Florida and caused some panic among the loyalists.  They abandoned their large plantations, loaded their slaves, livestock, and valuables on boats and barges, and headed toward New Orleans where they petitioned Spanish officials for protection.  For their part, at least initially, Spanish officials were intent on remaining neutral in the conflict between the British and Americans, so they graciously received these refugees and accorded them Spanish hospitality.  Governor Gálvez similarly welcomed James Willing, which in large measure as a result of Oliver Pollock’s efforts.

Willing and his men were granted freedom of the city, provided with housing, and they were allowed to auction the property taken from loyalists, including their slaves[16].  The precise amount of the profits gained by Willing’s auction is unknown, but some estimates ranged as high as £60,000.00.  While appreciative of the courtesy and hospitality accorded to their subjects, British officials strongly protested the fact that Gálvez extended those same courtesies to James Willing, who in their view was nothing more than a pirate.  Neither were the British pleased about Willing’s auctioning British property.

Gov. Gálvez ignored British protests, and the longer he did so, the louder their protests became.  Within a short time, British petitions for redress were filed almost every day.  Finally, Gálvez appointed a commission to consider the merits of British complaints.  Until mid-March, Gálvez remained unconcerned with British protests.  But then came the arrival of the British sloop Sylph under the command of Captain John Ferguson.  In addressing the problem, Ferguson was simple and direct:

Having the honor to command one of His Britannic Majesty’s ships in this river, and having information that your excellency has received into your government a body of armed men, enemies to my Sovereign and that you have suffered them from the Spanish Territory to commit depredations on this River by forcibly seizing upon the vessels, property, and persons of British subjects, in violation of the Treatise of Peace, the Law of Nations, and the Rights of Men.  I cannot help looking at such conduct on your part, as a tacit if not an open declaration of war against the King, my master.

Governor Gálvez answered Ferguson with equal fervor[17].  He had no obligation (he said) to protect British citizens residing on British soil but (pending the report by his commission), Gálvez offered to return British goods and property seized by Willing.  This decision came as a blow to the Willing/Pollock clique.  They offered a stout defense of their activities, particularly as it related to the capture of the two British ships.  Neptune, argued Willing, having been seized on open water in British territory, was a  lawful prize of war.  Gálvez remained inflexible; Neptune must be returned.  When it appeared that Morris (formerly Rebecca) seemed more secure, Oliver Pollock proceeded to refit and man her.  William Pickles was selected to serve as Morris’ Captain, and Robert Elliott was chosen to serve as Commanding Officer of Marines (Daniel Longstreet was appointed to serve as Marine First Lieutenant)[18].

In April, Captain Ferguson and Sylph was relieved by Captain Joseph Nunn, commanding HMS Hound.  Nunn continued to press Gálvez on the issues raised by Ferguson; Gálvez continued to resist all British suppositions and remained firm with the Americans.  Nevertheless, believing that the British would initiate military action, Governor Gálvez requested reinforcements from the Viceroy of New Spain and began working on New Orleans defenses.  He also demanded that every British/American person living in New Orleans take an oath of neutrality or leave the city.  A few British departed the city, but most remained.  Americans were unanimous in their acceptance.

Gov. Gálvez felt better once the American and British had offered their oaths respecting Spanish neutrality.  Captain Nunn, on the other hand, did not feel better.  In his view, Gálvez had openly demonstrated his support for the colonial rebellion, and this placed Spain in opposition to the British Crown.  It wasn’t enough to cause Captain Nunn to initiate war with Spain, of course, but Gálvez’s cozy relationship with the colonists did prompt the British into reasserting their authority on the Mississippi River.

Before dawn on 19 April, Nunn sent a force of fifty men to recapture Fort Bute at Manchac (115 miles north of New Orleans) which had been seized by Willing’s expedition.  British riflemen killed two men and a woman and wounded ten others.  Fourteen Americans were taken, prisoner.  Willing was, by this time, concerned about retaining control of Natchez, which led him to dispatch a force of marines under Lieutenant Harrison to observe whether Natchez loyalists were keeping their oaths of neutrality.

Meanwhile, Colonel Hutchins had violated his parole by returning to his plantation.  In Natchez, Hutchins agitated among the citizens and urged them to take up arms against American colonists.  We do not know what Hutchins told these people, but we do know that he alarmed them to the point of organizing a stout defense at a location known as White Cliffs.

En route to Natchez, Lieutenant Harrison was forewarned by a man named John Talley of Colonel Hutchins’ mischief.  Harrison sent Talley ahead to offer assurances that his intentions were peaceful.  Hutchins’ work was well done, however, and upon Harrison’s approach, loyalist gunfire inflicted a heavy toll on the marines.  Harrison lost five men killed with several more wounded and captured; Harrison returned to New Orleans with only a few of his remaining force.

British West Florida Governor Peter Chester (—1799), with service between 1770-81, encouraged British settlers to return to their homes and “restore yourselves to that full allegiance and fidelity which you owe to your sovereign and country.”  And, he added, that should these citizens not comply with Chester’s advice, then they would be judged guilty of criminal neglect of their solemn duty.  With a British army garrison of  110 men from Pensacola guarding Fort Bute at Manchac, a British ship with a crew of 150 men, and 200 British militia protecting Natchez, loyalist settlers finally felt secure.  Thus renewed, British presence also stopped the flow of goods between New Orleans and Fort Pitt.

The Willing Expedition had aroused British loyalists along the river to such extent that Willing could no longer return to Philadelphia via the Mississippi.  And, the longer Willing remained in New Orleans, the less Gálvez and Pollock wanted to deal with him.  Gálvez was highly incensed when Willing circumvented the governor’s prerogatives by issuing a proclamation to Americans living in New Orleans.  The proclamation not only violated Willing’s oath, a condition of his being allowed to remain in New Orleans, it was also a violation of Spanish sovereignty.  But if the rift between Willing and Gálvez was significant, the break with Pollock was even worse.  With some justification, Willing criticized Pollock for his poor administration and questionable financial accounting[19].  Willing’s unpaid marauders were displeased to the point of deserting in large numbers.  It was only the consistent discipline and fair treatment of Lieutenant Harrison and Lieutenant George that kept most (not all) marines on duty.  In any case, Pollock was anxious to be rid of Willing and did not hesitate to express his annoyance with Willing in his reports to Congress.

Hoping for James Willing’s departure from New Orleans was one thing; witnessing his departure was another.  Effectively, Captain Willing had become a prisoner in New Orleans, but he had no one to blame but himself.  It was his actions that caused the British to block the Mississippi.  Willing had but two options for returning to Philadelphia: an overland march, or by sea.  Willing had no interest in walking back to Pennsylvania.

By mid-June, Oliver Pollock decided he’d had enough of James Willing and formally petitioned Governor Gálvez to allow work to proceed on Morris so that it might carry Willing and his men back to Philadelphia.  Without much consideration, Gálvez consented and the ship’s refit was soon started.  Unhappily for both Gálvez and Willing, the refit project experienced several delays.

Fed up with life in New Orleans, Lieutenant George and Lieutenant Harrison requested the governor’s permission to leave New Orleans via the overland route.  Governor Gálvez gave his consent conditionally: George and Harrison had to give their oath not to cause further dismay to any British subject.  Having offered their oaths, the officers soon departed.  After a year of overland travel, the marines finally returned to Fort Pitt.  After the marine detachment was officially disbanded, George accepted an appointment as a captain of an artillery in the Continental Army.

Accompanied by Lieutenant McIntyre, James Willing finally departed New Orleans in mid-November carrying dispatches for the Continental Congress.  The ship, however, was captured by a British privateer off the coast of Delaware and Willing was taken as a prisoner to New York where he remained until exchanged for British Lieutenant Governor Henry Hamilton.  Some historians contend that Willing spent two years as a prisoner of war.  If this is true, when one considers his many depredations imposed on Mississippi River settlements, then a reasonable man might conclude that his internment was warranted.

James Willing died at his home in Haverford Township, Pennsylvania in 1801.  He was 51 years old.  For additional insight into the corruption of early-American officials, see also:  James Wilkinson, Image of Respectability.  The amount of dishonesty during the Revolutionary and early founding periods of the United States could lead one to conclude that as despicable as James Willing was, he had much in common with more than a few of our founding fathers.

Sources:

  1. DuVal, K. Independence Lost: Lives on the Edge of the American Revolution.  Random House, 2016.
  2. Eron, R. Peter Chester, Third Governor of the Province of West Florida Under British Domination 1770-1781.  Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 1925.
  3. Haynes, R. V. The Natchez District, and the American Revolution. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2011.
  4. James, A. J. Oliver Pollock, Financier of the Revolution in the West.  Mississippi Historical Review, 1929.
  5. Smith, C. R. Marines in the Revolution: A History of the Continental Marines in the American Revolution.  Washington: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1975. 

Endnotes:

[1] Attributed to Julius Caesar, De Bello Civille.

[2] The same thing is happening today within the so-called Progressive Movement; modern conservatives (the classic liberals of the colonial era) are being regularly attacked because of their values.  Progressivism, as it turns out, is not very enlightened.

[3] It is impossible to say the pessimists were completely wrong about the level of political corruption in America.

[4] Followers of Oliver and James De Lancey.  Oliver was a wealthy merchant, politician, and British Provincial soldier; James was his nephew.

[5] Modern leftists define “patriotism” as an anti-government “far right” movement.  In 1775, it was a far-left movement.

[6] Robert Morris, Jr., (1734-1806) was an English-born financier who served in the Pennsylvania legislature, the Second Continental Congress, and the United States Senate.  He was a signer to the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, and the U. S. Constitution.

[7] According to his “friends and neighbors” in Natchez, Mr. Willing drank too much, talked too much, and thought too little.  This may be a fair assessment.

[8] O’Reilly (1723-1794) was born in Ireland became the Inspector-General of Infantry in the Spanish Empire, served as Captain-General and the second Spanish governor of Louisiana, and the first official to exercise power in Louisiana after France ceded it to Spain.  He was later made a count of Spain but known to creoles as “Bloody O’Reilly.”

[9] The older brother of William Rogers Clark.  A surveyor and militia officer who became the highest-ranking officer of the Revolution in the western frontier.  Most of his accomplishments occurred before his 40th birthday; subsequently, his drinking and indebtedness destroyed his reputation.  When Virginia refused to pay him for his Revolutionary war  expenses, he turned his attention toward the Spanish as a source of income, but mostly through questionable land speculation schemes.  His is not one of the great American stories of our founding years.

[10] James Willing is not listed as a commissioned officer of the Continental Navy.

[11] The title claimed was something Willing made up.  There is an organization today with a similar title claiming to consist of ten states, five provinces of Canada, and Guam.  ISA announced its independence in 2007 where its officials all wear tin foil hats.

[12] What the Continental Congress did not want was a sizeable expedition to West Florida to attack Pensacola and Mobile, an ambitious plan that had the support of Benedict Arnold.  Congress decided instead on a more modest expedition and placed Willing in charge of it.

[13] I’m not sure how to respond to questions about the naming convention involve with this vessel, but Rattletrap was purchased from John Gibson for 300 pounds in Pennsylvania currency.  It was a galley-type vessel with ten oars, and she/it was armed with two ¾-pound swivel guns.

[14] A long, light, flat bottom boat with a sharply pointed bow and stern.

[15] Colonel Hutchins was a retired British Army officer whose grant of land for military  service was 250,000 acres.  His home was located at White Apple Acres, which he occupied in 1773.  He served as a representative representing the Natchez district in the provincial assembly in Pensacola in 1778.  At times during the Willing Expedition, Hutchins was the de facto governor of the Natchez district.  He remained active in political and military affairs in present-day Mississippi for many years.

[16] Despite Spanish law, which forbade commerce with foreigners.

[17] The British were hardly in a position of strength in West Florida.  Eventually, Gálvez would seize both Pensacola and Natchez (1779).

[18] Both Robert Elliott and Daniel Longstreet’s names appear in the lineal list of officers of the Continental Navy and Marine Corps.

[19] Pollock was, as previously stated, a businessman whose every action was motivated by profit.  He is not remembered as a man having an abundance of scruples.

The Captain …

… was as Mad as a Hatter[1]

Pierre de Landais (1731-1820) was born in Saint-Malo, Department d’Ille-et-Vilaine, Bretagne, France.  He was the son of one of Normandie’s oldest families whose wealth enabled him to attend the Ecole de la Marine.  Pierre might have had a notable career in the French Navy were it not for the fact that his father exhausted the family fortune providing a brilliant display of fireworks to entertain Mme. De Pompadour[2].  Under these circumstances, Pierre was unable to purchase promotion[3] and Pierre remained a midshipman until he was 32-years old.

In 1762, Pierre served aboard a French ship during France’s unsuccessful defense of Quebec.  During an engagement with a British warship, Landais was wounded, taken prisoner, and transported to England.  As a midshipman, Landais had no value as a prisoner and he was soon returned to France.  He later participated in the first French circumnavigation of earth (1766-1769), sponsored and led by Admiral Louis-Antoine, Comte de Bougainville.

French Lieutenant Landais

In 1775, aged 44-years, Lieutenant Pierre was discharged from the French Navy.  Two years later, Pierre accepted an appointment to command a merchantman for Hortalez et Cie —a shell company controlled by French entrepreneur Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais[4] (1732-1799).  Through the shell company, Beaumarchais smuggled arms and money to America through the West Indies.  Landais delivered his illicit goods to an American agent at Portsmouth, New Hampshire, which made him a hero among the American rebels.

Massachusetts was so pleased that they granted Pierre “honorary citizenship” and paid him in French currency the equivalent of £12,000.  To these grateful people, Landais proudly proclaimed that he “had served as a captain in the royal navy of France, had commanded a ship of the line, had served as chief officer of the port of Brest, and was of such worth and estimation for his great abilities at sea that he could have any honors or advancement in his own country that he pleased to accept.”

In 1777, the gratitude of Americans toward the French was such that they looked for ways of manifesting their appreciation in some public act.  In Massachusetts, Landais spent a great deal of time in the company of John Adams[5], who later observed that Landais was an enigma: he was frustrated in his ambitions, disappointed in love, unable to win the affection or respect of his officers, and intensely jealous of everyone else.  From John Adams diary, “There is in this man an inactivity and an indecisiveness that will ruin him.  He is bewildered and possesses an embarrassed mind.”  Worse, perhaps, Landais was deeply paranoid, convinced of plots against him.

In 1778, someone (we aren’t sure who) encouraged Landais to apply for a commission in the Continental Navy.  The Marine Commission of the Congress dutifully considered his application and initially rejected it (for reasons unknown[6]), but six weeks later, on 9 May, Congress did offer him a captain’s commission to serve as the officer commanding USS Alliance.

USS Alliance, 1778

Alliance was a 36-gun frigate originally named Hancock.  Her keel was laid in 1777 on the Merrimack River near Amesbury, Massachusetts.  The ship was launched on 28 April 1778, renamed Alliance on 29 May.  Alliance is believed to have been the first warship built in America.  She was brought down the Merrimack River from Salisbury to Newburyport and then to Boston in early August.  In Boston, the ship was ordered to prepare to receive the entourage of the Marquis de la Lafayette[7] and transport them to France; Lafayette’s mission was to petition the French Court for increased financial support for the American cause.  Preparations for sea did not proceed very well because not long after taking command of his new ship, Captain Landais encountered problems with his officers, which delayed the marquis’ departure.

Captain Matthew Parke American Marine

Apparently, the Alliance’s officers were happy to remain aboard ship, but unhappy with serving under Landais.  These were all experienced seamen.  We do not know their specific complaint, but I assume that they were underwhelmed, either by the quality of Landais’ seamanship or his leadership.  The officers probably anticipated that this would not be a happy cruise.  In any case, Landais requested that Congress replace several of his officers.   At an inquiry to determine the cause of this unhappy relationship between Alliance’s Captain and his officers, Marine Captain Matthew Parke[8] served as spokesman for disgruntled ship’s officers.  In Parke’s view, if even one officer was replaced, then the Navy Committee would have to replace them all.  Ultimately, Landais withdrew his demand for the removal of officers, but the animosity between Landais and his officers continued; Captain Parke of the Marines had earned no favor with Captain Landais.

Worse than Landais’ dysfunctional relationship with ship’s officers was his poor treatment of the crew.  Port towns are renowned for rumor, innuendo, and the rapid transmission of unhappy news.   It did not take long for word of Landais’ shoddy treatment of the crew to spread among those looking for birthing.  Consequently, Alliance was unable to recruit a full crew for service at sea.  Although, part of this was that eligible crewmen preferred instead to join privateers, where the pay was better.

Significantly short of the number of crewmen needed to man a frigate, Alliance was forced to draft seamen from USS Boston, and an additional 30 French crewmen from the squadron of Admiral d’Estaing —all of whom were recovering from some sickness.  Additional shortages remaining, Alliance took onboard British prisoners who opted for service in the Continental Navy rather than spending their days locked up in rat-infested holding cells.  Most British prisoners “signed on” as Marines.

Alliance finally shoved off on 14 January 1779 and for the most part, the journey was peaceful and calm —although Alliance did seize two Swedish vessels as prizes and the frigate lost her topmast in a storm.  During the early morning hours of 2 February, a mutinous plot was uncovered among the ship’s English-speaking crew.  All hands were called on deck and held there while officers searched personal belongings for weapons and evidence of the conspiracy.  Landais convened a court of inquiry to question alleged ringleaders.  Two of the ringleaders were Master at Arms John Savage and Marine sergeant William Murray.  Eventually, Sergeant Murray admitted that he and Savage (along with 70 men) intended to seize the ship and sail her to England.  Lafayette, Murray said, was to be placed in irons and delivered to the British government.  Landais ordered the mutineers placed in irons and the ship continued to Brest, France —arriving on 6 February.

Commodore Jones

In Brest, Alliance remained in port for a month while undergoing repair.  In early April, John Schweighauser, an American commercial agent, informed Captain Landais that he was to proceed to port on the Loire River.  There, John Adams had arranged for a swap of prisoners with the British at Nantes.  Adams boarded Alliance expecting to return with Landais to America, but while in port, Landais received new orders directing that he report to Commodore John Paul Jones[9] at L’Orient.

At L’Orient, Captain Landis and Mr. Adams called upon Captain Jones, who was then aboard his ship Bonhomme Richard.  At this meeting, Landis learned that he would be placed under the command of Captain Jones.  Captain Landais did not want to serve in a squadron; he preferred to sail on his own and he deeply resented having to join Captain Jones’ flotilla.  Added to this, from every account, Landais and Jones detested one another almost from the start.  For his part, Mr. Adams was disappointed in not being able to return to America aboard Alliance.

Disagreement between Jones and Landais wasn’t long in coming.  In terms of modern command relationships, disagreement between commodore and captain may seem strange.  In 1779, Captain Jones served as commodore of a flotilla of American and French naval vessels, but he did not command them because each ship’s captain was free to act as he pleased irrespective of the commodore’s wishes.  On 25 August, Jones’ flotilla was at sea and Jones became troubled by the fact that several of his squadron’s small boats were lost in the dense fog off the Irish coast[10].  Captain Landais desired to pursue a prize vessel into the treacherous waters along the coast with limited visibility, but Jones, fearing the loss of Alliance, ordered Landais to remain with the fleet.  Landais was not obliged to obey, arguing that he had the right to pursue when and where he thought proper “in this and every other matter.”

Jones, with a full realization that the command relationship was at best tentative, tried to reason with Landais, but Captain Landais was adamant and proceeded to accuse Jones of incompetence in losing the small boats, to begin with.  Jones, now in a fury, responded that Landais had slandered his superior officer and would not have it.  Both officers believed themselves affronted, and according to the code of gentlemanly behavior in 1779, Landais challenged Jones to a duel … choosing the sword.  This would, of course, give Landais an advantage given the French tradition of swordsmanship.  Jones was known as a hothead, but at this moment, there were larger fish to fry.  Jones suggested that duty must be their priority; he suggested they put aside their animosity until they were on land, where they could resolve the matter —as gentlemen.

American Sailor 1778

During the Revolutionary War period, sailing ships were crewed by seaman representing a variety of countries.  With the naval powers of Europe being constantly at war, neutral seaports in the North Atlantic abounded in captured ships, taken to port as prizes of war, auctioned and sold with some proceeds distributed among the officers and crew.  Once the ships were sold, the men who crewed them were left stranded in the neutral port until they could sign on to another ship.  It was in this way that the number of seafaring men increased; it also explains why there was among them no sense of national allegiance.  Captain Jones’ crew aboard Bonhomme Richard was a crew like this.  They were multilingual, scurvy-ridden, argumentative louts; they obeyed orders because they would have a close encounter with a cat o’ nine tails[11] if they didn’t.  To keep the crew in line, Jones divided them into watches with one of these always keeping a wary eye on the other.

During one foray, Jones’ squadron searched for British shipping in the Bay of Biscay.  During a squall, both Bonhomme Richard and Alliance were blinded and on a collision course.  The bow watch aboard Bonhomme Richard gave shouts of warning in a language other than English or French.  Captain Landais assumed that Bonhomme Richard was under siege of a mutinous crew and left his quarterdeck to retrieve weapons from his cabin.  The bowsprit of Bonhomme Richard tore into Alliance’s rigging, which damaged her mizenmast.  At that moment, Jones was asleep in his cabin.  It was no more than an accident at sea, but the incident did nothing to ease the tension between Jones and Landais.

On the late afternoon of 23 September 1779, sailing off Flamborough Head, England, Commodore Jones’ squadron came across the 44-gun HMS Serapis[12] and her consort HMS Countess of Scarborough.  The British ships escorted 44 small merchant vessels carrying naval stores.  The unarmed or poorly armed cargo ships hastily changed course for the nearest British port for safety.  Jones hoisted his signal lantern ordering Alliance to join Bonhomme Richard in the upcoming battle, but Captain Landais ignored Jones’ signal and maintained his course.  The battle was joined when Serapis opened fire, blasting Bonhomme Richard in a devastating broadside.  Jones lost several guns and crew in the first volley.  Worse for Bonhomme Richard, her hull was breached, and her rudder was badly damaged.  Alliance finally joined the battle, approaching from Bonhomme Richard’s stern.  Serapis, intending to fire on Alliance, raked Bonhomme Richard again.  Jones ordered identity lanterns hoisted higher to keep Captain Landais from getting confused.  Captain Landais was not confused, however, when he fired point-blank into Bonhomme Richard and then, turning away, unleashed a second barrage into his commodore’s ship.

Captain Richard Pearson, Royal Navy

The British Officer commanding HMS Serapis, Captain Richard Pearson[13], RN, was horrified by the damage done to Bonhomme Richard, but the two ships were locked together in a desperate struggle, each ship hoping to survive.  Jones’ Marines were killing the crew of Serapis from their perches in the topsails.  The crew of Bonhomme Richard continued to fight valiantly even as the ship began to sink beneath them.  The battle lasted more than four hours.  HMS Serapis finally struck her colors and Captain Pearson surrendered his sword to Captain Jones.  When morning arrived, the American ensign was flying over both ships, but Bonhomme Richard was sinking and would not last the day.  After the battle, Captain Landais confided to one of his officers that he intended to help Serapis sink Bonhomme Richard.

British flotilla operating nearby posed a serious threat to Commodore Jones’ squadron, so he was anxious to depart, but before Jones could return to the sea, the captured Serapis needed considerable rework to make her seaworthy.  The work took seven days.  Jones’ squadron then consisted of Serapis, Alliance, Countess of Scarborough, Pallas, and Vengeance.  His orders were to put in at Texel[14], but Jones preferred instead to call at Dunkirk where his prizes and prisoners could be placed under French jurisdiction.  His captains refused, however, insisting that Jones follow his original instructions; if the commodore did not wish to follow those orders, then he must proceed to Dunkirk alone.  Jones opted to accompany the squadron to Texel.

The American fleet’s very presence in Texel made his Dutch hosts nervous.  They agreed to allow the refitting of the squadron’s damaged ships but refused to accept any of his 500 prisoners.  Consequently, Jones was forced to retain his prisoners in the cold, damp, rat-infested hold of Serapis.  Many of these men were sick, but the Dutch remained adamant.  In late October, Jones’ Dutch hosts finally allowed him to remove wounded men and house them in the fort.  If Jones wanted these men cared for, then he would have to do that himself; Jones assigned this task to his Marines, which were also employed as guards for the prisoners at Texel, the prisoners aboard Serapis, and as members of the work crew repairing damaged ships.

On 15 October, when American Commissioner Benjamin Franklin[15] received charges of cowardice against Captain Landais, which were validated by the statements and oaths of several squadron officers, he ordered Landais to Paris.  Based on the evidence presented, Franklin suspended Landais from command of Alliance, which infuriated Landis to no end.

Captured British Ship HMS Serapis

Once France agreed to assume financial responsibility for the squadron (all except for Alliance), and to avoid rupturing the delicate relations between France and Holland, Captain  Jones transferred his flag, all American officers and crew (and most of the ship’s stores) from Serapis to Alliance.  Captain Jones was not pleased with the state of the discipline of Alliance’s crew; he wasn’t encouraged by the conduct of Landais’ officers, either.  They were too fond of rum.

Disgusted with the Dutch, Captain Jones sought the first favorable wind to depart from Texel; he waited four weeks.  Jones finally made his break, escaping through British pickets without incident but Alliance was not a happy ship.  Quarrels broke out between ship’s officers, one group supporting Landais, the other devoted to Jones.  The primary issue was Landais’ cowardice in the fight off Flamborough Head.  Jones instructed his officers to carry out their orders smoothly, professionally, and quietly and dispense with petty arguments with Landais’ officers.

On 10 February 1799, Jones put in at L’Orient and moored beside Serapis, which was awaiting condemnation.  Alliance underwent repairs and refit.  By mid-April, Jones received orders to return Alliance to America with large supplies of arms and clothing for General Washington’s army.  There was still the question of prize money[16], however, and to resolve the issues, Captain Jones frequently traveled to Paris.  Captain Landais, meanwhile, plotted to regain command of Alliance.

It was not difficult for Landais to agitate the crew against Jones; he convinced them that Captain Jones had neglected their interests in the matter of prize money.  The crew even wrote to Benjamin Franklin declaring that they would not raise the ship’s anchor until their wages and prize money had been paid, or until their captain (Landais) was restored to duty[17].  Marine Captain Matthew Parke was vocal about his refusal to sign such a letter.

On 12 June, Captain Jones returned to L’Orient, assembled his crew, and solicited whether anyone had any complaints.  The crew remained silent; their stillness gave no occasion for Captain Jones to act on their behalf.  After Jones went ashore, Landais went aboard and seized control of Alliance.  All officers of the Bonhomme Richard were sent ashore.  Landais then ordered Captain Parke to arm his Marines with bayonets and station them to guard the gangplank.  Anyone attempting to board without Landais’ permission was to be impaled.

Neither Jones nor any of his officers made any attempt to regain control of Alliance.  Instead, Jones returned to Paris to ask for increased authority from Commissioner Franklin.  But, by the time Jones returned, Landais had already departed L’Orient for Port Louis.  French authorities responded to Franklin’s request for assistance by laying a boom across the narrow strait outside Port Louis, through which Landais would have to travel.  The boom would force Alliance to pass within cannon shot of two French forts guarding the straits.  The French also stationed a gunboat to guard the boom, as well.  Suddenly, surprising everyone, Captain Jones gave up his intent to regain Alliance.  According to Jones, he did not want squabbling between American and French officials to give aid to their common enemy.

No sooner had the French removed the barrier, Captain Landais sailed through the strait, destination America.  En route, Landais placed Captain Parke under arrest in quarters for eleven days as punishment for his refusal to take an oath of obedience to Landais.  Parke’s arrest soured the officers and crew of Alliance.  To emphasize his authority, Landais ordered into irons any crewman who complained about Parke’s treatment.  On 11 August, the ship’s officers and crew revolted.  By this time, the ship’s crew were convinced that Captain Landais was utterly mad.  According to the testimony of Seaman John Kilby, “Landais conduct was such that … [it convinced the officers and passengers] that he was in a measure beside himself.”

Dismissed Captain Landais

Upon Alliance’s arrival in Boston, the Navy Board ordered Captain John Barry to relieve Landais of his command.  Landais refused to resign, however, so three stout Marines under the command of Captain Matthew Parke dragged him out of his cabin and took him ashore.  At his court-martial, even Pierre’s friends opined that he was probably insane.  The verdict?  Landais was judged guilty of allowing private goods shipped aboard a warship, of being incapable of handling a ship.  He was “broke in rank” and judged unfit of serving in the Continental Navy.

Pierre Landais later became a resident of New York; his share of prize money paid him an annual annuity of $100.00.  From this amount, he saved enough to afford an annual visit to the seat of government (first, Philadelphia, and later the federal city named Washington) to petition the Congress for their reconsideration of his dismissal.  He asked for the restoration of his rank and payment in arrears.  Congress would not hear of it … and Captain Pierre de Landais went to his grave with an intense hatred of John Paul Jones. 

Sources:

  1. Allen, G. W. A Naval History of the American Revolution.  Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1913
  2. Crocker, III. H. W. Don’t Tread on Me.  New York: Crown Publishing, 2006
  3. Ford, W. C. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789.  Washington: Government Printing Office, 1937
  4. Norton, L. A. The Revolutionary War’s Most Enigmatic Naval Captain: Pierre Landais.  Journal of the American Revolution, Online
  5. Meany, W. B. Commodore John Barry: Father of the American Navy.  New York/London: Harper Brothers, 1911
  6. Morison, S. E. John Paul Jones: A Sailor’s Biography.  Boston: Little/Brown, 1999
  7. Smith, C. R., and Charles H. Waterhouse. Marines in the Revolution: A History of the Continental Marines in the American Revolution, 1775-1783.  Washington: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U. S. Marine Corps, 1975.
  8. Thomas, E. John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy.  Waterville: Thorndike Press, 2003.

Endnotes:

[1] This is a British phrase used to suggest that a person is suffering from insanity.  The phrase is thought to have originated from Bedfordshire where local men worked in the hatter business, which used mercury in the hat making process.  Their exposure to mercury caused symptoms like madness.  Louis Carol’s reference to a character in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is only casually related to Hatter’s Disease.

[2] Jeanne Antoinette Poisson, Marquise de Pompadour (1721-1764) was the official mistress of Louis XV (1745-51) and remained a favorite at Royal Court until her death.  Official mistress … those French!

[3] In these days, military officers purchased their promotions rather than earning them.

[4] Beaumarchais was a polymath with skills in watchmaking, invention, playwright, musician, diplomat, spy, publisher, horticulturist, arms dealer, satirist, financier, and revolutionary.

[5] In 1777, Adams was a delegate to the Continental Congress serving on as many as 90 separate committees, one of these being Chair, Board of War and Ordnance.  It was likely that in this position, Adams met with Landais.  In late 1777, Adams was appointed US Envoy to France, serving until March 1779.

[6] Rejection may have come from John Adams, who was a member of the Marine Commission.

[7] Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier.

[8] As one of the first Marine officers, Matthew Parke served alongside John Paul Jones on the Ranger during his highly successful cruise in British home waters, as well as serving on Alliance during the Battle of Flamborough Head.  The Continental Marine uniform consisted of green coats with white facings and tall leather collar to protect the neck from sharp edged weapons (hence, the term “Leatherneck”).  Captain Park’s portrait dates to around 1800.  Portraits of Continental Navy officers are rare; portraits of Continental Marines even more so.

[9] In 1778 “commodore” was an honorific title bestowed upon navy captains appointed to lead several ships, also referred to as a squadron.  The relationship between a commodore in command of a squadron and his subordinate captains was more on the order of a loose confederation since each ship’s captain was free to ignore the commodore and go their own way as they saw fit.  This was probably the result of the fact that one or more ships were captained by French officers who owed no allegiance to the birthing United States.

[10] It was customary in those days to lower boats, particularly in dense fog, to search for the presence of enemy ships.

[11] A multi-tailed flail commonly used to administer punishment in the British and Continental army and navy.

[12] HMS Serapis was named after the god Serapis in Greek and Egyptian mythology.  Captured by Jones, Serapis was later transferred to the French Navy serving as a privateer.  She was lost in 1781 to a fire.

[13] Pearson (1731-1806) was an experienced naval officer.  After his fight with Bonhomme Richard, the English people embraced him as a true British hero.  He was knighted and received many accolades from the English people.  Responding to a question about how he felt that the officer he defeated in battle received a knighthood, Captain John Paul Jones answered, “If he’ll meet me on the high seas again, I’ll make him a Lord.”

[14] Today, the Netherland’s largest and populated island.

[15] Franklin served as U. S. Commissioner to France from 1776 to 1785.  Among his accomplishments was the securing a critical military alliance between France and the United States, and the Treaty of Paris in 1783.

[16] Given the fact that France financially supported the combined American/French naval fleets, captured ships not converted to war ships or cargo vessels (and their cargoes) were sold at auction.  The proceeds from these sales were then divvied up between the treasury of France, and the officers and crews who had made the capture.  Delays in making these payments to crewmen was common and, not surprisingly, a major source of the crewmen’s complaints.

[17] It is almost laughable to imagine that this rather unsophisticated group of crewmen wanted (either) their money, or Captain Landais.  One suspects that Captain Landais himself slipped that one in …

Gooch’s Colonial Marines

First, some background …

As everyone knows, the British and Spanish have been at one another’s throats since Moby Dick was a minnow, so we’ll just fast-forward to the conclusion of the War of Spanish Succession in 1713.  The Treaty of Utrecht gave the British a 30-year right of access to supply slaves to Spanish colonies and up to five hundred tons of goods per year.  The effect of this arrangement was that it gave British merchants (and smugglers) inroads to previously closed markets in Spanish America.  In spite of the treaty, however, Great Britain and Spain continued to be at odds during this period, including such conflicts as the War of the Quadruple Alliance, the Blockade of Porto Bello, and the Anglo-Spanish War, which ended in 1729.

Following the Anglo-Spanish War, Britain accorded Spanish warships so-called visitation rights —which is to say the right of Spanish vessels to inspect British trading vessels, operating along the Spanish Main, for smuggled cargoes.  Over time, Spain began to suspect that British traders were abusing certain tenets of this treaty (with some justification).  Stepping up their inspections, Spanish coast guard authorities began confiscating British cargoes.

In 1731, Spanish officials boarded the British Brig Rebecca off the coast of Florida looking for contraband.  At some point in this confrontation, a Spanish customs officer sliced off the ear of the ship’s captain, a man named Robert Jenkins.  While the incident proved somewhat traumatic to Captain Jenkins, no one back home in England really cared about Captain Jenkins’ ear. In fact, Sir Robert Walpole [1] gave his support to Spain during the War of Polish Succession (1733-1735).

In seeking greater access to Spanish markets, however, political and trading interests began to exert pressure on Walpole to take a more aggressive stance with Spain.  Walpole initially remained reticent, but as opposition to Walpole increased, so too did anti-Spanish sentiments among the British public —and the British South Sea Company [2].  Quite suddenly, Captain Jenkins’ ear became the focus of anti-Walpole political factions. Eventually, owing to these public sentiments, Walpole succumbed to public pressure and approved sending troops to the West Indies and a navy squadron to Gibraltar.  The Spanish monarchy responded by seizing all British ships in Spanish harbors.  The War of Jenkins’ Ear [3] thus began in 1739 —but it was little more than a continuation of the grab for America’s resources by the British, French, Dutch, and Spanish.

Vernon 001One of the first major actions of the war was the British capture of a silver-exporting town on the coast of Panama on 22 November 1739.  The purpose of this operation was to damage Spain’s economy and weaken its maritime capacity.  The poorly defended port was attacked by six ships of the line under the command of Vice Admiral Edward Vernon.  The port was quickly captured and within three weeks, British forces successfully destroyed its fortifications, port facilities, and warehouses.  At the completion of these depredations, the British withdrew leaving Portobelo’s economy was so damaged that it did not fully recover until construction of the Panama Canal two hundred years later.

The Vernon action caused Spain to change their trade practices.  Rather than conducting commerce at centralized ports with few large treasure fleets, they employed a larger number of convoys and increased the number of port facilities.  The Spanish also devised new trading routes, including navigation around Cape Horn to establish trading facilities along South and Central America’s western coast.

Meanwhile, back in Great Britain, Admiral Vernon became the man of the hour and his victory was widely celebrated by folks who weren’t even sure where Panama was located.  In 1740, at a dinner in Vernon’s honor the song “Rule Britannia” was performed for the first time.  Patriotism was widespread in London; Robert Walpole was pressed to launch an even larger naval expedition to the Gulf of Mexico.

Nevertheless, Admiral Vernon and the governor of Jamaica, Edward Trelawny, believed that rather than focusing their attention in the Gulf of Mexico (Cuba, for example) they should give their attention to Spain’s gold coast and this became Vernon’s primary objective.  Admiral Vernon planned a major assault on the city of Cartagena de Indias (in present day Columbia) because it was the location of the Spanish Viceroyalty and the main port of the West Indian fleet sailing for the Iberian Peninsula.

Admiral Vernon launched three assaults against Cartagena between 13 March 1740 and 20 May 1741.  Requiring information about Cartagena, Vernon’s first assault was limited to a reconnaissance in force.  He needed coastal surveys, and he needed to understand Spanish naval routines near Playa Grande.

The purpose of his second assault on 18 March 1740 was to provoke a Spanish response.  By bombarding the city, Vernon hoped to be able to evaluate Spain’s defensive capabilities.  In Cartagena, Admiral Blas de Lezo [4] anticipated Vernon’s intentions.  Rather than responding to the naval bombardment, Lezo ordered the removal of cannon from ships and placed them as coastal defense batteries at likely avenues of a British approach.  When Vernon initiated his anticipated amphibious assault, Lezo was waiting for him and the landing force was defeated.  Vernon then commenced a naval bombardment that lasted twenty-one days, after which he withdrew the bulk of his forces.

Vernon returned to Cartagena with thirteen ships of war intending to re-initiate a bombardment of the city.  This time Admiral Lezo reacted; he deployed six ships of the line so that the British fleet was kept beyond the firing range of the port city. Vernon, now frustrated, again withdrew leaving Admiral Lezo with confidence in his defensive capabilities.

So, what happened …

It was at this point that Admiral Vernon began to formulate plans for a third assault of Cartagena.  To achieve this goal in terms of manpower, however, Great Britain was forced to urge its North American colonies to raise 3,000 soldiers to participate in the expedition [5].  There was no shortage of volunteers as thousands of men stepped forward to serve King and Country [6].  In total, the British raised 40 companies forming four battalions within an American regiment—paid for by the British taxpayer.  Of significance, the regiment’s officers were granted the right to half-pay [7].

Sir William Gooch
Sir William Gooch

Appointed to command the Colonial regiment was Alexander Spotswood, a lieutenant colonel of the British Army and a former lieutenant governor of Virginia [8].  Spotswood, a noted explorer, also established the first colonial iron work in North America. He gained political standing for his skill in negotiating acceptable treaties with the Iroquois Nations.  After Spotswood’s death in 1740, Sir William Gooch was appointed to replace him.  At the time of his appointment, Sir William was the serving lieutenant governor of Virginia.

Lawrence Washington 001
Lawrence Washington

All of Gooch’s field officers were detailed to the American regiment from the British Army; his company grade officers (excepting one lieutenant and one sergeant from the British Army in each company), were all appointed from among the colonial elite.  Of these, the best known was a Lawrence Washington [9] (pictured left), who was George Washington’s older half-brother.  When formed, the colonial regiment contained one colonel, four lieutenant colonels, four majors, thirty-six captains, seventy-two lieutenants, four adjutants, four quartermasters, one surgeon, four surgeon’s mates, 144 sergeants, 144 corporals, 72 drummers, and 3,240 privates (then called sentinels).  Colonel Gooch’s immediate superior was Admiral Edward Vernon, Royal Navy —and for the purposes of this account, Gooch’s superior is relevant because Admiral Vernon intended Gooch’s regiment to perform as Marines, rather than as land infantry.

Lord Charles Cathcart
Charles Cathcart, 7th Lord Cathcart

The British home contingent, under the command of Lord Cathcart, was delayed by four months —finally sailing from England in November 1740.  After joining the fleet in Jamaica in January 1741, Admiral Vernon commanded one of the largest fleets ever assembled.  He commanded 186 ships, 3,000 pieces of artillery, and 27,000 men: 12,000 sailors, 10,000 soldiers, 1,000 Jamaican slaves, and the 4,000 troops of the American regiment.  On paper, the numbers seem impressive, but the reality was another matter. Sickness and scurvy [10] were epidemic among the troops; Lord Charles Cathcart, the British army commander died from this disease.

Goochs Marines 001
Uniform of the American Regiment, War of Jenkins’ Ear

The American regiment went ashore in Jamaica, but it was far from ready for combat service.  Lacking sound officer and NCO leadership, the troops were ill-disciplined and inefficient in the art of war.  Making things worse, the British government made no effort to pay or feed the colonials, which brought the colonial troops near to mutiny.  Sickness was even more rampant within the American ranks than it was in the British. Yet, in spite of this, by 11 March Vernon positioned his fleet off the coast of the Spanish Main [11].

In order to reach Cartagena, Vernon had to force entry through a small passage at Boca Chica, which was defended by three forts; he had to defeat each of these fortifications.  Accordingly, Vernon landed his troops —exempting the American Regiment [12]— and opened the critical passage.

In late April, Lieutenant General Thomas Wentworth, having replaced Lord Cathcart, led an attacking force to the outskirts of Cartagena.  During this assault and owing to their lack of esprit de corps and overall tactical incompetence, Wentworth relegated the Americans to the menial task of carrying scaling ladders and woolpacks.  During the assault Americans threw down their ladders and fled the battle.  British forces were now left without the means to carry the walls of the city.

When a Spanish counter-attack threatened to isolate British forces from their ships, Wentworth was forced to withdraw.  To make matters worse, yellow fever was now epidemic among the troops —American and British alike. Half of the landing force was incapacitated, which forced Admiral Vernon to withdraw his fleet to the coast. There, soldiers lay dying without medical attention by the hundreds.  In early May, Vernon embarked the survivors of his land forces and returned to Jamaica. The sickness could not be contained, however, and the British force was soon reduced to around 2,700 men (roughly 1,300 English, 1,400 American).

In August, having decided to invade Cuba, Vernon’s fleet entered the Gulf of Mexico.  On 29 August 1741 the British fleet anchored at Cumberland Bay, 90 miles from Santiago de Cuba.  Troops and supplies were landed, but the sickness continued unabated.  Vernon kept his soldiers in camp until November when they returned to their ships and the fleet sailed back to Jamaica. Three-thousand reinforcements arrived from England in February 1742, but they too fell ill.  In October 1742, Gooch’s regiment was disbanded, and the officers and men were discharged.  Of the 4,163 officers and men in the American regiment, only 10% survived.  The regiment’s surviving officers did receive half-pay for the rest of their lives, but not before they appeared before a board of general officers in London to plead their case.

By succumbing to their natural fears and running away in the face of battle, Gooch’s regiment disgraced itself —but having said that, we cannot say that their training was adequate to the purpose of producing effective soldiers.  Moreover, British treatment of these troops was equally outrageous.  While it is true that Wentworth’s army distrusted these colonial marines, there were plenty of reasons for the Americans to distrust and feel betrayed by their British officers —even discounting the onset of disease.  The Americans were inadequately clothed, fed, and cared for and they served without pay. At Cartagena, the Americans were relegated to work alongside Jamaican slaves.  They were placed on ships and forced to work as seamen —a breach of the terms of their enlistments.  Aboard ship, the colonials were refused berthing spaces or hammocks, assigned to do the work that ship’s crew didn’t want to do, and they were often moved from ship to ship without their own officer’s knowledge.

The men who formed the colonial regiment may have been detailed to serve Admiral Vernon’s fleet as marines, but there is no way to equate them with modern day American and British Royal Marines [13].

Notes:

[1] Robert Walpole, 1st Earl of Oxford (1676-1745) was Great Britain’s first prime minister.

[2] The South Sea Company was a joint-stock company formed in 1711, created to consolidate and reduce the cost of national debt.  The company was granted a monopoly to trade with South America and nearby islands—the genesis of its name.

[3] Robert Jenkins was called to testify before the Parliament in 1738, and according to some accounts, he produced his severed ear as part of his presentation.  This account has never been verified.  The Jenkins incident was considered along with various other examples of Spanish depredations upon British subjects and the incident, some eight years later, was popularly perceived as an insult to British honor.

[4] Admiral Blas de Lezo y Olaverrieta (1689-1741) was a Basque officer in service to the King of Spain.

[5] Until 1740, North America’s military contribution to Great Britain had mostly come from privateers[5], who were sanctioned by the British government during time of war.  At other times, the British referred to such endeavors as piracy.  Traditionally, colonial militia in North America were recruited and paid for by local governments to protect local jurisdictions; the British Army and Navy handled international conflicts.  Thus, British expeditionary operations during the War of Jenkins’ Ear opened a new chapter in an old story —but with a significant shift: the employment of colonial ground forces.  The use of American colonists as British ground forces had not been previously attempted —and, as it turns out, was never attempted again.

[6] Virginia was the only colony having to rely on impressment to meet expected quotas.

[7] Half-pay was a term used in the British Army and Royal Navy referring to the pay and allowances an officer received when in retirement, or not in active duty service.

[8] Spotswood was appointed lieutenant governor under the nominal governorship of George Hamilton, 1st Earl of Orkney in 1710.  As Hamilton never ventured to the American colonies, the lieutenant governor, upon appointment, became the de factoCrown authority within the colony.  Owing to his adversarial relationship with the Virginia Council, and with James Blair in particular —a very powerful adversary, Spotswood was recalled in 1722.

[9] Lawrence Washington (1718–1752) was an American soldier, planter, politician, and prominent landowner in colonial Virginia. As a founding member of the Ohio Company of Virginia, and a member of the colonial legislature representing Fairfax County, he also founded the town of Alexandria, Virginia on the banks of the Potomac River in 1749.  Lawrence was the first of the family to live at the Mount Vernon estate, which he named after his Commanding Officer in the War of Jenkins’ Ear, Admiral Edward Vernon. When Lawrence Washington became ill with tuberculosis, he and his brother George travelled to Barbados, expecting that the warm climate would alleviate his ill health.  Lawrence died at Mount Vernon the following year.

[10] Scurvy is a disease resulting from a lack of vitamin C.  Early symptoms include weakness, tiredness, and soreness in the arms and legs. Without treatment, affected individuals experience decreased red blood cells, gum disease, loss of hair, and bleeding from the skin.  If conditions worsen, poor healing of wounds occurs, personality disorders appear, and finally death from bleeding and infection.

[11] Spain’s mainland coastal possessions.

[12] In the entire regiment, Gooch trusted only 300 troops to perform their duties ashore.

[13] The Royal Marines were formed in 1755 as the Royal Navy Infantry.  However, these Marines can trace their origins to the formation of the British Army’s Duke of York and Albany’s maritime regiment of foot on 28 October 1664. The Royal Marines have close ties with allied marine forces, particularly the United States Marine Corps and the Netherland’s Marine Corps (Korps Mariniers).  Today, although have undergone many substantial changes over time, the Royal Marines remain an elite fighting force within the British armed forces.