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Massachusetts Privateer Brig Yankee Hero





Yankee Hero

(1) Commander Thomas Thomas

Sloop-of-War [Brig/Sloop]

13 January 1776-20 February 1776

Massachusetts Privateer Brig [Brigantine]

2) Commander James Tracy
20 February 1776-6 June 1776


Commissioned/First Date:

13 January 1776

Out of Service/Cause:

6 June 1776/captured by HM Frigate Milford


Owners:

Jackson, Tracy & Tracy of Newburyport, Massachusetts


Tonnage:

120


Battery:

Date Reported: 20 February 1776

Number/Caliber  Weight        Broadside

14/

Total: 14 cannon/

Broadside: 7 cannon/

Swivels:


Date Reported: 22 February 1776

Number/Caliber  Weight        Broadside

14/

Total: 14 cannon/

Broadside: 7 cannon/

Swivels:


Date Reported: 6 June 1776

Number/Caliber  Weight        Broadside

17/

Total: 17 cannon/

Broadside: 8 cannon/

Swivels: twelve


Date Reported: 25 June 1776

Number/Caliber  Weight        Broadside

12/

Total: 12 cannon/

Broadside: 6 cannon/

Swivels:


Date Reported: 25 June 1776

Number/Caliber  Weight        Broadside

18/

Total: 18 cannon/

Broadside: 9 cannon/

Swivels:


Date Reported: 29 June 1776

Number/Caliber  Weight        Broadside

18/

Total: 18 cannon/

Broadside: 9 cannon/

Swivels: ten


Crew:

(1) 20 February 1776: 41 [total]
(2) 6 June 1776: 52 [total]


Description:

Fine, large brig.


Officers:

(1) First Lieutenant [William] Main [Mains], -6 June 1776; (2) Second Lieutenant Robert Tracy, -6 June 1776; (3) Prize Master Davis, -6 June 1776


Cruises:

(1) Newburyport, Massachusetts to sea and return, [February] 1776-[March] 1776

(2) Newburyport, Massachusetts to sea, 6 June 1776


Prizes:

(1) British Transport Snow James (William Littledale), [February] 1776

(2) British Transport Brigantine Sally (Alexander Wilson), off Newburyport, Massachusetts, 16 February 1776

(3) British Transport Brigantine Nelly (John Robinson), in Massachusetts Bay, 26 February 1776


Actions:

(1) Action off Cape Ann, 6 June 1776


Comments:


Massachusetts Privateer Brig Yankee Hero was commissioned on 13 January 1776 under Commander Thomas Thomas1 of Newburyport, Massachusetts.2 Her battery and crew were not stated in her bond, but she was listed as 120 tons (another source indicates 150 tons).3 Jonathan Jackson, Nathaniel Tracy, and John Tracy, all of Newburyport, and Thomas, signed her £1000 Massachusetts bond. Although the owners were not stated, they were clearly the house of Tracy and Tracy.4


Yankee Hero made at least one cruise under command of Thomas, with some success. The 180 ton5 [British Transport] Snow James (William Littledale), from Whitehaven to Boston6 with a cargo of provisions was captured and sent into Newburyport. She must have been captured in early February 1776, for she was libeled on 26 February7 with her trial set for 21 March 1776.8 On 16 February the Yankee Hero sent into Newburyport a “Bark” of about 300 tons, with a cargo of coal, pork and flour. This was the [British Transport] Brigantine Sally (Alexander Wilson), bound for Boston.9 On 26 February 1776, a provision vessel bound to Boston after a short passage from England was captured. This was [British Transport] Brigantine Nelly (John Robinson).10 Nelly, 200 tons, was out of Whitehaven with a cargo of cheese, coal and provisions. She was sent into Newburyport.11


A second commission was obtained on 20 February 1776 for the Yankee Hero, this time with James Tracy as commander. The brig was listed as 120 tons, with a battery of fourteen guns and a crew of forty men. Her £1000 Massachusetts bond was executed by James Tracy, Jonathan Jackson, Nathaniel and John Tracy (all of Newburyport) and John Lee of Marblehead.12 This commission was probably obtained before Thomas had returned to port from his cruise in the Yankee Hero.


James Tracy was a relative of Jonathan Jackson’s wife, and had served in the British navy in some capacity. He was not born in America, but was a “warm Friend for it’s Liberties.”13


By early June 1776 the Yankee Hero was completely fitted out for a six-month cruise14 in the West Indies, Tracy’s intended cruising ground.15 However, he had been unable to recruit a full crew in Newburyport.16 He wanted a hundred men, but had only a quarter that number aboard.17 Tracy decided to go round to Boston and complete the crew there.18 He sailed out of Newburyport on 6 June under the green and white Pine Tree Flag19 with only twenty-six men, officers included, aboard.20 Among the officers were First Lieutenant [William] Mains21 (or Main),22 Second Lieutenant Robert Tracy23 and Prize Master Davis.24


At dawn on 6 June, HM Frigate Milford was patrolling off Cape Ann. She was a large frigate, armed with twenty-eight 9-pounders, with a crew of 280 men. Her commanding officer, Captain John Burr, was a seasoned and experienced veteran. Milford set easy sail and stood west, her deck officer noting that she was twelve miles ESE of Cape Ann.24 By afternoon the Yankee Hero was going around Cape Ann and Tracy saw the sails of a large vessel in the distance. Without a full crew aboard he was reluctant to chase. Soon after the brig overtook two boats, full of armed men, which had been pursuing the vessel. These men informed Tracy that several transports had been in close to the Cape earlier in the day, and offered to join him if he would pursue the stranger. Tracy agreed, and fourteen of the men boarded the Yankee Hero, sending their boats ashore.25 The brig now set off for the stranger, which was fifteen miles away to the ESE, the wind blowing from the west.  Aboard the Milford Burr’s lookouts noticed the stranger bearing down in chase about 1400. Burr held to his course, concluding that the chase (if it were American), could be lured closer by imitating a merchant vessel.26


The area around Thacher’s Island. The battle took place to the south and east of Thacher’s.



Yankee Hero Spoon: “A silver teaspoon with the figure of the privateer Yankee Hero in bas relief on the convex surface of the bowl of the spoon was manufactured and sold by an enterprising silversmith soon after the close of the Revolutionary war . . .” They are somewhat worn but have the figure of a vessel with the name Yankey Hero on them . . .” From Currier, John James, History of Newburyport, Mass 1764-1909

When Yankee Hero had closed to within six miles of the stranger he discovered her to be a large ship, and soon after, from her actions, he concluded she was a warship. Yankee Hero immediately came about and headed for the distant shore. No one aboard the American thought the warship could catch the brig, but the wind died after about ten minutes.27 Aboard the Milford, the master noted that the chase had tacked at 1500. Yankee Hero was to the southwest of Milford when she turned away. Burr immediately followed and set all sail.28 Milford caught a fresh south wind and was coming up very fast, intending to get between Tracy and the shore, thus cutting off the Yankee Hero’s retreat. The warship had gotten into the brig’s wake when the west wind sprang up again. Tracy angled for the shore with the most direct tack possible. The ship pursued. An hour went by.  An agonizing hour of watching the pursuit steadily draw closer. At a distance of half a mile the warship opened fire with her bow chasers.29 Milford’s master noted that they fired four shots at 1530 and four more at 1600. An hour later Milford had pulled alongside Yankee Hero.30

When the Milford opened fire with her bow chasers, Tracy had his crew reply: with one swivel gun. As Milford closed in, she kept up a constant long range fire (probably ranging shots). Tracy prepared for a desperate fight. When the Milford had closed to within pistol shot on his lee quarter, he opened fire with guns, swivels and muskets, and kept firing continually. The frigate soon pulled alongside: with twelve 9-pounders to the side, forecastle and quarterdeck guns, and Marines in her fighting tops high above the brig’s decks, Tracy was overmatched and knew it.31 Burr noted that Milford was alongside the Yankee Hero at 1700, when several shots were fired at the frigate, upon which he "came to Action"32 Milford kept up a rapid and continuous fire. Burr turned his ship into the wind, cutting Tracy off from shore and forcing him to conform or collide with Milford. First Lieutenant Main was struck and wounded. Yankee Hero was now unable to fight her lee guns. Tracy quickly backed sail, and ran under the frigate’s stern to escape.  However, Milford sailed quicker and worked just as fast as the brig and soon had her on the broadside again. Tracy could not evade Burr.33 Milford’s master simply recorded that, at 1730, the brig wore ship and bore away, Milford following. Milford got alongside within pistol shot, firing “Great Guns and Musquets” for about thirty minutes.34

The two vessels lay a hundred feet apart, yawing back and forth in the wind, for an hour and twenty minutes, all the while keeping a steady fire upon each other. When the Milford’s foremost guns slackened fire, Tracy saw a glimmer of a chance. He tacked under Milford’s stern again and got clear of the smoke and fire that hung in a cloud over the water. As he ran clear Tracy saw that Yankee Hero’s rigging was cut to pieces: yards were flying without braces, sails tattered. Dead and wounded men lay on the deck: it looked as if half the crew were down. Prize Master Davis had fallen in the last fighting.35

Tracy set his men collecting the wounded and getting them below, and refitting the brig’s rigging. Milford was now some way off and had no guns bearing at the moment. She soon came around and got underway. As the ship came up Tracy sent his men back to the guns, but kept a few hands at work on the rigging. Hardly had two broadsides been fired when Tracy was hit in the thigh. In a few minutes he could not stand, then he fainted and had to be helped below. When he came to, he was in the Yankee Hero’s cockpit, surrounded by dead and dying men, and the brig’s guns were silent. Tracy had himself carried to the deck in a chair, to resume the action. On deck he fainted again, briefly, then looked around his vessel, and gave the order to surrender.36


Detail of a postage stamp issued by Paraguay in 1976, showing the fight between Yankee Hero and Milford. The original painting is by Nowland Van Powell. Note that Yankee Hero is incorrectly shown as flying the “Grand Union” flag. There is specific testimony that she was flying the “Pine Tree” flag. Accurately shown is the deadly full broadside being fired by Milford. To see the original image from shipstamps.co.uk click here.


The action seemed shorter aboard Milford, her master noting the American surrendered after a half an hour, about 1800. Burr sent his first lieutenant over to take charge of the prize. The lieutenant reported that Yankee Hero had seventeen guns, twelve swivels, and a crew of fifty-two men. The lieutenant found twelve wounded and four dead among the prisoners.37 While removing the prisoners, another man died.38


The length of the battle was variously reported as one and three-quarter,39 two40 and two and a half hours.41 It might have seemed that long to the Americans, being shot to pieces by Milford’s heavy battery. As for the crew, despite the careful statements of the Americans, which generally agree to about forty men,42 Milford reported fifty-two prisoners, in addition to four dead.43


The casualty list was reported even more variably. Milford reported four Americans killed and twelve wounded, but failed to note the mortally wounded man who soon died.44 A more detailed report notes five killed or died and seventeen wounded.45 Other reports note four46 or five killed47 and eleven or twelve48, thirteen,49 or sixteen50 wounded. The prisoners were well treated by Burr, who had a reputation for abuse of prisoners.51 Milford had one Marine wounded52 and was damaged in her sails and rigging.53


Yankee Hero’s battery was subject to the same variable reporting. She was listed as having twelve guns and six swivels on 25 June54 or, simply, eighteen guns.55 Another report indicates eighteen guns and ten swivels (29 June).56


Milford stood to the south at 2100, steering for Nantasket with her prize close behind.57 On 8 June she anchored in the roads and sent thirty-five of the prisoners aboard the flagship of Acting Commodore Banks, HM Frigate Renown.58 On 10 June the Americans began to take steps to arrange an exchange of prisoners. Owner Nathaniel Tracy suggested this in a letter to the Massachusetts Council, which approved at once.59 On 11 June60 a party under a flag of truce visited the Renown to negotiate an exchange of prisoners. Banks was willing, but had no authority, stating he would have to contact his superiors before granting an exchange.61 Banks took the opportunity to comment to the Americans that “no men could fight better than ours on board the Yankey Hero.”62


Before any further action on a prisoner exchange could take place, the British were driven from Boston Harbor on 14 June.63 They headed for Halifax and Yankee Hero arrived there on 23 June.64 Massachusetts and the Tracys continued to seek an exchange. On 18 July the Massachusetts Council contacted George Washington about an exchange.65 On 9 August it was reported that Tracy and Main were recovering their wounds at Halifax, where all the wounded were. Twelve of the crew had been kept on the Milford, under pressure to enlist with the British.66 At least three men enlisted aboard the Renown, being in the capacity of British sailors on 27 March 1777.67 Second Lieutenant Tracy was kept aboard the Renown.68


The Yankee Hero was eventually tried and condemned. In early August 1776 she was sold for £850 to a Loyalist, to be made into a privateer.70 In fact, she was purchased into British service on 15 August 1776 as HM Schooner Postillion, armed with ten 4-pounders, and served on the Newfoundland station until 9 September 1779 when she was condemned and sold at Halifax for £450.71


Meanwhile, about the end of July 1776, Tracy and Main were ordered sent to Staten Island in preparation for an exchange, which, however, did not occur.72 By mid-October 1776 Tracy was hoping to be exchanged for Lieutenant John Knight (former commander of the Diligent,73 a hope that was still being expressed at the end of November 1776.74


Tracy and the other officers from the Yankee Hero were eventually paroled on 4 November 1776, when a cartel arrived at Marblehead from Halifax.75 Tracy had been exchanged by 16 January 1777, when his former employer and kinsman, Jonathan Jackson, solicited a command in the Continental Navy for him.76



1 NDAR, “Public Advertiser, Wednesday, March 5, 1777,” VIII, 637-639

2 Allen, Massachusetts Privateers of the Revolution, 329

3 NDAR, "Public Advertiser, Wednesday, March 5, 1777," VIII, 637-639

4 NDAR, “Colony Bond for the Massachusetts Armed Brig Yankee Hero,” III, 764

5 NDAR, “Advertisement of Libels filed in the Admiralty Court of Suffolk, Middlesex and Essex Counties, Massachusetts,” IV, 81-82 and 82 note. Identification of captor of the James is incorrect in the note. see also NDAR, “Providence Gazette, Saturday, April 20, 1776,” IV, 1174-1176

6 NDAR, “Captain William Littledale to the Massachusetts Council,” IV, 389

7 NDAR,  “Advertisement of Libels filed in the Admiralty Court of Suffolk, Middlesex and Essex Counties, Massachusetts,” IV, 81-82 and 82 note

8 The New England Chronicle, Wednesday, March 6, to Thursday, March 14, 1776

9 NDAR, “New England Chronicle, Thursday, February 8 to Thursday, February 22, 1776,” IV, 34-35 and 35 note

10 NDAR, “Providence Gazette, Saturday, March 2, 1776,” IV, 136 and note

11 NDAR, “Boston Gazette, Monday, March 4, 1776,” IV, 157 and note

12 NDAR, “Colony Bond for the Massachusetts Brig Yankee Hero,” IV, 19

13 NDAR, “Jonathan Jackson to Elbridge Gerry,” VII, 969-970

14 NDAR, “Essex Journal and New Hampshire Packet, Friday, August 9, 1776,” VI, 126-128; “Massachusetts Spy, September 11, 1776,” VI, 778-780

15 NDAR, “Cotton Tufts to John Adams,” V, 580-582

16 NDAR, “Cotton Tufts to John Adams,” V, 580-582; “Essex Journal and New Hampshire Packet, Friday, August 9, 1776,” VI, 126-128; “Massachusetts Spy, September 11, 1776,” VI, 778-780

17 NDAR, “Essex Journal and New Hampshire Packet, Friday, August 9, 1776,” VI, 126-128; “Massachusetts Spy, September 11, 1776,” VI, 778-780

18 NDAR, “Cotton Tufts to John Adams,” V, 580-582; “Essex Journal and New Hampshire Packet, Friday, August 9, 1776,” VI, 126-128

19 NDAR, “London Chronicle, Tuesday, August 13 to Thursday, August 15, 1776,” V, 724-725

20 NDAR, “Essex Journal and New Hampshire Packet, Friday, August 9, 1776,” VI, 126-128; “Massachusetts Spy, September 11, 1776,” VI, 778-780

21 NDAR, “Continental Journal, Thursday, June 13, 1776,” V, 507-508. His first name is not given in this source, but William Main later commanded the Bilboa Packet in November 1776, and was a native of Newburyport. Claghorn, Naval Officers of the American Revolution, 193

22 NDAR, “Essex Journal and New Hampshire Packet, Friday, August 9, 1776,” VI, 126-128; “Massachusetts Spy, September 11, 1776,” VI, 778-780

23 NDAR, “Essex Journal and New Hampshire Packet, Friday, August 9, 1776,” VI, 126-128; “Massachusetts Spy, September 11, 1776,” VI, 778-780

24 NDAR, “Essex Journal and New Hampshire Packet, Friday, August 9, 1776,” VI, 126-128; “Massachusetts Spy, September 11, 1776,” VI, 778-780

25 NDAR, “Master’s Log of H.M.S. Milford,” V, 391-392

26 NDAR, “Essex Journal and New Hampshire Packet, Friday, August 9, 1776,” VI, 126-128; “Massachusetts Spy, September 11, 1776,” VI, 778-780

27 NDAR, “Master’s Log of H.M.S. Milford,” V, 391-392

28 NDAR, “Essex Journal and New Hampshire Packet, Friday, August 9, 1776,” VI, 126-128; “Massachusetts Spy, September 11, 1776,” VI, 778-780

29 NDAR, “Master’s Log of H.M.S. Milford,” V, 391-392

30 NDAR, “Essex Journal and New Hampshire Packet, Friday, August 9, 1776,” VI, 126-128; “Massachusetts Spy, September 11, 1776,” VI, 778-780

31 NDAR, “Master’s Log of H.M.S. Milford,” V, 391-392

32 NDAR, “Essex Journal and New Hampshire Packet, Friday, August 9, 1776,” VI, 126-128; “Massachusetts Spy, September 11, 1776,” VI, 778-780

33 NDAR, “Master’s Log of H.M.S. Milford,” V, 391-392

34 NDAR, “Essex Journal and New Hampshire Packet, Friday, August 9, 1776,” VI, 126-128; “Massachusetts Spy, September 11, 1776,” VI, 778-780

35 NDAR, “Master’s Log of H.M.S. Milford,” V, 391-392

36 NDAR, “Essex Journal and New Hampshire Packet, Friday, August 9, 1776,” VI, 126-128; “Massachusetts Spy, September 11, 1776,” VI, 778-780

37 NDAR, “Essex Journal and New Hampshire Packet, Friday, August 9, 1776,” VI, 126-128; “Massachusetts Spy, September 11, 1776,” VI, 778-780

38 NDAR, “Master’s Log of H.M.S. Milford,” V, 391-392

39 NDAR, “Continental Journal, Thursday, June 13, 1776, V, 507-508

40 NDAR, “David Cobb to Robert Treat Paine,” V, 576-577

41 NDAR, “Nathaniel Tracy to the Massachusetts Council,” V, 446-448 and 448 note; “Continental Journal, Thursday, June 13, 1776, V, 507-508

42 NDAR, “Nathaniel Tracy to the Massachusetts Council,” V, 446-448 and 448 note

43 NDAR, “David Cobb to Robert Treat Paine,” V, 576-577; “Cotton Tufts to John Adams,” V, 580-582; “Essex Journal and New Hampshire Packet, Friday, August 9, 1776,” VI, 126-128; “Massachusetts Spy, September 11, 1776,” VI, 778-780

44 NDAR, “Master’s Log of H.M.S. Milford,” V, 391-392

45 NDAR, “Master’s Log of H.M.S. Milford,” V, 391-392; “Continental Journal, Thursday, June 13, 1776, V, 507-508

46 NDAR, “Continental Journal, Thursday, June 13, 1776, V, 507-508

47 NDAR, “Cotton Tufts to John Adams,” V, 580-582; “Extract of a Letter from Capt. Rogers, of the ship John, dated Halifax, June 29,” V, 810; “Essex Journal and New Hampshire Packet, Friday, August 9, 1776,” VI, 126-128; “Massachusetts Spy, September 11, 1776,” VI, 778-780

48 NDAR, “David Cobb to Robert Treat Paine,” V, 576-577

49 NDAR, “Cotton Tufts to John Adams,” V, 580-582

50 NDAR, “Extract of a Letter from Capt. Rogers, of the ship John, dated Halifax, June 29,” V, 810; “Essex Journal and New Hampshire Packet, Friday, August 9, 1776,” VI, 126-128; “Massachusetts Spy, September 11, 1776,” VI, 778-780

51 NDAR, “David Cobb to Robert Treat Paine,” V, 576-577

52 NDAR, “Continental Journal, Thursday, June 13, 1776, V, 507-508; “Essex Journal and New Hampshire Packet, Friday, August 9, 1776,” VI, 126-128; “Massachusetts Spy, September 11, 1776,” VI, 778-780

53 NDAR, “Master’s Log of H.M.S. Milford,” V, 391-392

54 NDAR, “Master’s Log of H.M.S. Milford,” V, 424 and note

55 NDAR, “London Chronicle, Tuesday, August 13 to Thursday, August 15, 1776,” V, 724-725

56 NDAR, “Journal of Captain Henry Dearborn,” V, 807-810 and 810 note

57 NDAR, “Extract of a Letter from Capt. Rogers, of the ship John, dated Halifax, June 29,” V, 810

58 NDAR, “Master’s Log of H.M.S. Milford,” V, 391-392

59 NDAR, “Master’s Log of H.M.S. Milford,” V, 424 and note

60 NDAR, “Nathaniel Tracy to the Massachusetts Council,” V, 446-448 and 448 note; Also see NDAR, “James Warren to Elbridge Gerry,” V, 490

61 NDAR, “David Cobb to Robert Treat Paine,” V, 576-577

62 NDAR, “Continental Journal, Thursday, June 13, 1776, V, 507-508

63 NDAR, “Extract of a letter from Boston, dated June 12,” V, 491

64 NDAR, “Journal of H.M.S. Renown, Captain Francis Banks,” V, 524-525; “Dr. Samuel Cooper to John Adams,” V, 577-579

65 NDAR, “Journal of Captain Henry Duncan, R.N.,” V, 691

66 NDAR, “Massachusetts Council to George Washington,” V, 1122-1123

67 NDAR, “Essex Journal and New Hampshire Packet, Friday, August 9, 1776,” VI, 126-128; “Massachusetts Spy, September 11, 1776,” VI, 778-780

68 NDAR, "Petition of Ebenezer Cleaveland to the Massachusetts Council," VIII, 209-210. This was a request for exchange of the men. The request was approved, and an equal number of prisoners were ordered sent to Newport to effect the exchange on 30 May 1777. NDAR, "Journal of the Massachusetts Council," VIII, 1044.

69 NDAR, “Essex Journal and New Hampshire Packet, Friday, August 9, 1776,” VI, 126-128; “Massachusetts Spy, September 11, 1776,” VI, 778-780

70 NDAR, “Extract of a Letter from Halifax, Aug. 25,” VI, 297-298

71 Winfield, Rif, British Warships in the Age of Sail 1714-1795: Design, Construction, Careers and Fates. Seaforth Publishing/MBI Publishing, St. Paul, Minnesota: 2007

72 NDAR, “New-England Chronicle, Thursday, September 12, 1776,” VI, 787-788

73 NDAR, “Sir George Collier’s Instructions to Thomas Stone,” VI, 1268-1269

74 NDAR, “Committee of Correspondence of South Hadley to the Massachusetts Council,” VII, 94-95

75 NDAR, “Boston Gazette, Monday, November 11, 1776,” VII, 104-105 and 105 note

76 NDAR, “Jonathan Jackson to Elbridge Gerry,” VII, 969-970


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