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Thorn’s Christmas Day Fight





Massachusetts Privateer Ship Thorn Fights British Privateers Sir William Erskine and Governor Tryon
25 December 1779



Massachusetts Privateer Ship Thorn (Commander Daniel Waters) was commissioned on 11 November 1779.1 She was armed with eighteen 6-pounders.2 Thorn was the former HM Sloop Thorn, captured in September 1779.3


Thorn sailed on a patrol in December 1779. On Christmas Eve Thorn was sailing along under light winds, on a clear and pleasant day. At 1000 two sail were sighted to windward, bearing NNW from the Thorn. Waters lay to, waiting. The two strangers were soon made out to be armed brigantines. By 1600 they were about four miles away, on Thorn’s weather quarter. Waters made sail and steered away from them, to draw down the presumptive enemy down within range. By 1900 the ship had been cleared for action and all was ready, “the men at their quarters, and in high spirits for engaging.” Night had fallen and the weather remained calm all night.4


Meanwhile the enemy, for such they were, prepared for action too. The two brigantines were the New York Privateer Brigs Governor Tryon (George Sibbles5 [Stebbins])6 sixteen guns, twelves, sixes, and fours, with a crew of eighty-six men;7 and the 100-ton8 Sir William Erskine9 (Alexander Hambleton10 [Hamilton])11 eighteen guns, 6-pounders and 4-pounders, with a crew of eighty-five men.12


On Christmas morning 1779, at 0600, the brigs were seen on Thorn’s port beam, two miles off. They were seen preparing to engage. The wind was light, from the west. At 0900 the wind came up from the southwest and Thorn steered down toward the British. At 1000 Thorn closed with the aftermost British brig, “as she was the heaviest,” the Governor Tryon. The Britisher hailed, stating he was from White Hall, and demanded of Waters “what right he had to wear the 13 stars in his pendant.” Waters answered “I’ll let you know presently.”  The ensign was shifted and Thorn fired a full broadside within pistol shot range. Governor Tryon returned the broadside, as did the Sir William Erskine, now on Thorn’s weather bow. Governor Tryon dropped back to Thorn’s weather quarter. A hot fire began which lasted about an hour (two glasses).  About thirty minutes or an hour into the fight Waters was wounded in the knee. After about an hour, the Governor Tryon laid the Thorn on board on Thorn’s weather quarter, while Sir William Erskine continued to fire on her weather bow. Governor Tryon’s crew was quickly defeated in their attempts to board, “receiving such a warm and well directed fire from our marines” and her boarders “running about deck with pikes in their backs instead of their hands” that they broke away. After falling back, Governor Tryon, shot up alongside Thorn and renewed the action “with surprising spirit. . .” After two or three broadsides from the Thorn, Governor Tryon struck her colors, blood running out of her scuppers.13 Sibbles was killed before she surrendered.14  Sir William Erskine, seeing her consort had surrendered, made sail and tried to run for it. It was now about two hours (four glasses) since the action had begun.15


Waters ordered the captured brig to follow and began to chase Sir William Erskine. At 1500 Thorn came up with the fleeing brig, after hitting her several times with bow chasers. The Sir William Erskine immediately surrendered. Meanwhile the Governor Tryon was now trying to make off. The wind had freshened and the sky was clouding up. Waters sent his first lieutenant aboard the Sir William Erskine, and, after the officers were sent to the Thorn, Waters made sail after the Governor Tryon. At 2000 the Thorn hove to, losing sight of the chase, and the Britisher made off in the haze.16


During the night the weather turned squally and boisterous. The next morning the Governor Tryon was nowhere to be seen. A cursory search revealed much floating debris on the sea, including oars and spars and it was assumed by the Americans that the brig had gone down. The fight had been most difficult. Thorn had eighteen men killed or wounded out of a crew of perhaps 120 men (15%). Sir William Erskine had twenty killed and wounded (23%).17 Casualties aboard the Governor Tryon were probably somewhat more than the captured brig.


Summary Table

Vessel

Tons

Guns

Broadside

Men

Killed

%

Wounded

%

Total

%

Thorn

305

18

54

120

[5]

4.2

[13]

10.8

18

15

Sir William Erskine

100

18

[48]

85

[7]

8.2

[13]

15.3

20

23.5

Governor Tryon

16

[44]

86

[10]

11.6

[15]

17.4

[25]

29.1

Time: [3] hours



1 Allen, Massachusetts Privateers of the Revolution, 299-300

2 Allen, Naval History of the American Revolution, ii, 415

3 Allen,  Naval History of the American Revolution, ii, 402, 414-415. The information about Thorn in the description is from a worksheet by R. C. Brooks on the Thorn, furnished March 2007.

4 The details are from the First Lieutenant’s log, published widely in the newspapers. The Continental Journal [Boston], Thursday, February 24, 1780

5 The Continental Journal [Boston], Thursday, February 24, 1780, always here referred to as the Tryon.

6 Maclay, History of American Privateers, 89

7  The Continental Journal [Boston], Thursday, February 24, 1780

8 The Independent Chronicle and the Universal Advertiser [Boston], Thursday, 30 March 1780

9 Allen, Naval History of the American Revolution, ii, 417

10 The Independent Chronicle and the Universal Advertiser [Boston], Thursday, 30 March 1780

11 The Continental Journal [Boston], Thursday, February 24, 1780

12 The Continental Journal [Boston], Thursday, February 24, 1780

13 The Continental Journal [Boston], Thursday, February 24, 1780

14 Maclay, History of American Privateers, 89

15 The Continental Journal [Boston], Thursday, February 24, 1780

16 The Continental Journal [Boston], Thursday, February 24, 1780

17 The Continental Journal [Boston], Thursday, February 24, 1780


Posted 30 January 2009 © awiatsea.com