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Incidents
Yankee Hero Fights Milford





Massachusetts Privateer Brig Yankee Hero Fights HM Frigate Milford
6 June 1776



By early June 1776 the Massachusetts Privateer Brig Yankee Hero (Commander James Tracy) was completely fitted out for a projected six-month cruise1 in the West Indies.2 However, he had been unable to recruit a full crew in Newburyport, Massachusetts, his base.3 He wanted a hundred men, but had only a quarter that number aboard.4 Tracy decided to go round to Boston and complete the crew there.5 He sailed out of Newburyport on 6 June under the green and white Pine Tree Flag6 with only twenty-six men, officers included, aboard.7 Among the officers were First Lieutenant [William] Mains8 (or Main),9 Second Lieutenant Robert Tracy10 and Prize Master Davis.11


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.12 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.13 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.14


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


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.15 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.16 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.17 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.18


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.19 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"20 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.21 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.22


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.


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.23


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.24


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.25 While removing the prisoners, another man died.26


The length of the battle was variously reported as one and three-quarter,27 two28 and two and a half hours.29 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,30 Milford reported fifty-two prisoners, in addition to four dead.31


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.32 A more detailed report notes five killed or died and seventeen wounded.33 Other reports note four34 or five killed35 and eleven or twelve36, thirteen,37 or sixteen38 wounded. The prisoners were well treated by Burr, who had a reputation for abuse of prisoners.39 Milford had one Marine wounded40 and was damaged in her sails and rigging.41


Summary Table

Vessel

Tons

Guns

Broadside

Men

Killed

%

Wounded

%

Total

%

Yankee Hero

120

12

[24]

40-52

5

10%

12

25%

17

35%

Milford

589

28

114

280

1

.3%

1

.3%

Time: 30 minutes to 1 hour



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

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

3 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

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

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

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

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

8 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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

30 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

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

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

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

34 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

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

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

37 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

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

39 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

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

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


Posted 31 January 2011 © awiatsea.com