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An American Convoy Destroyed





An American Convoy Destroyed
27/28 September 1782



A number of vessels were loading with flour in the summer of 1782 at Baltimore, Maryland. As they began to complete their lading the merchants of Baltimore asked the Count De Rochambeau if an escort could be arranged. Rochambeau wrote to the Chevalier De Quèmÿ, commander of HMCM Frigate L’Emeraude, to escort the vessels clear of the coast of America.1


The owners of the Maryland Privateer Ship Matilda (Commander James Belt), one of these vessels, instructed Belt, before he left Baltimore, to sail with, or without the escort, “as he should in his descretion think proper, on his arrival near the Capes.” Matilda was loaded with a cargo of 1800 barrels of flour for her voyage and sailed from Baltimore on 2 September 1782, bound for Havana, Cuba.2 Among the other vessels also loading with flour for Havana was Maryland Privateer Ship Jolly Tar (Commander Charles Harrison), twenty 9-pounders and sixty-five men. Jolly Tar sailed the next day, 3 September.3 A third privateer was the Maryland Privateer Brigantine New Orleans (Commander John Carey), lading with flour and bound to New Orleans, Louisiana.4


On 9 September, Matilda arrived in Mobjack Bay, Virginia. Belt decided to sail, without the escort, at the first fair wind. The next day, 10 September, L’Emeraude came in and anchored in Mobjack Bay.5 Presumably other American vessels had arrived in Mobjack Bay by this time, or were arriving each day.


The wind was fair for sailing on 13 September. Matilda raised anchor and made sail, but didn’t get far. Belt was “prevented by the Chevalier De Quémÿ from passing and detained by force . . .” The Chevalier was informed that Matilda was under discretionary orders from her owners, to sail with or without escort, which de Quémÿ ignored. Chase said that “repeated applications were made to him by Captain Belt to permit the Ship to proceed on her Voyage . . .” but de Quémÿ was unmoved. To make matters worse, he allowed several flags of truce to proceed to sea. Men aboard these vessels had certainly noted the collecting convoy.6


The convoy dropped down to Lynnhaven Bay and anchored. At 1100 on 26 September the convoy raised sail and exited the Virginia Capes: ten merchant vessels and privateers, and the escort, Emeraude. By 1880 the convoy was five or six miles east of Cape Henry, sailing along under light winds, which lasted all night. At daylight a sail was seen to the southwest which gave chase to the convoy. About noon the ship in chase was seen to be making signals “as it were to a Consort of an Enemy fleet and fired Several Guns . . .” Harrison’s men could see nothing from the mastheads but their own convoy and the vessel in chase.  Harrison spoke to the “Commodore,” de Quémÿ, several times.7 De Quémÿ now sailed close to the Matilda and asked Belt if he would “Assist him in Engaging the Enemy . . .” which Belt promised to do.8 De Quémÿ then closed Jolly Tar. “The Commodore asked him if he would assist him to fight the ship if she came up with them which he the deponant consented to do—,” said Harrison.9


About 1700 De Quémÿ again hailed the Jolly Tar and asked Harrison “what he intended to do—he told the Commodore he woud do what he pleased and if he woud fight the Ship they woud assist him—upon which he the Commodore made a Signal for to form the line . . .” Both Jolly Tar and Matilda formed a line of battle on the Emeraude and began clearing for action, taking in sails and booms.10 But L’Emeraude had a peculiar way of preparing for action: “the Chevalier employed himself in Rigging out steering Sail Booms, and getting Steering Sails ready to set.”11 L’Emeraude seemed to be preparing to run.


About 173012 or 1800,13 the British frigate had closed to within four miles,14 (“the chase then being aback two Guns shot” said Harrison)15 and was clearly seen to be a frigate. L’Emeraude lowered the signal for line of battle and raised the signal for the convoy to run “and each to shift for himself; and immediatly crowded all his sail and fled as fast as he could, and deserted the fleet, which he had delayed by his signal to heave to, and prepare for action, . . .” 16


The Jolly Tar set all sail she could and ran, but the chasing ship, HM Frigate Jason (Captain James Pigot), still gained on the privateer. Harrison began throwing some of his cargo into the sea to lighten his ship. A fresh breeze from the west came up and more sail was set. About midnight a heavy squall rolled in and some of the sails were taken in. “At half past twelve the Wind blew hard and shifted to the Northward and carried away his Mizin top Mast the long tail Boom and fore top Mast staying sail Boom at which time he was Obliged to Clew up top Gallarts top sails and fore sails and keep the Ship before the Wind to get the sails handed in . . .” This made Jolly Tar bear down on the frigate which was still in chase. Jason was now seen to be firing at another vessel from the convoy, the brig New Orleans,17 which was captured.18 Harrison hauled his wind, but the Jason was soon within gunshot. The first round went overhead, but the second struck the ship “and forced to bring him too . . .”19


The Matilda steered the same course as the reluctant de Quémÿ. On 28 September L’Emeraude parted company and returned to the Virginia Capes. Matilda turned for Havana but was captured on the 29th by HM Frigate Perseverance (Captain Skeffington Lutwidge). All the convoy, with the exception of one or two were captured. Chase estimated the loss of the Matilda at £9000 and the loss of the convoy as £100000.20


Joseph Smith, aboard the Jolly Tar, blamed the cowardly conduct of the French captain for the capture, in a letter to Benjamin Franklin.21 So did others. Samuel Chase considered de de Quémÿ’s conduct so egregious that, in a letter to Benjamin Franklin dated 18 September 1783, he wondered if the Americans could not obtain redress for the loss of the Matilda from the French government.22



1 Letter, Chase to Benjamin Franklin, 18 September 1783, in http://franklinpapers.org/franklin/framedVolumes.jsp

2 Letter, Chase to Benjamin Franklin, 18 September 1783, in http://franklinpapers.org/franklin/framedVolumes.jsp

3 Capt. Harrison’s Protest , 24 October 1782, in http://franklinpapers.org/franklin/framedVolumes.jsp

4List of Vessels captured by the Ships of His Majesty’s Fleet, under the Command of Hugh Pigot, Esq., Admiral of the Blue, Commander in Chief, &c. &c. &c.,” in The London Gazette, Tuesday, November 12, to Saturday, November 16, 1782; also see New Orleans.

5 Letter, Chase to Benjamin Franklin, 18 September 1783, in http://franklinpapers.org/franklin/framedVolumes.jsp

6 Letter, Chase to Benjamin Franklin, 18 September 1783, in http://franklinpapers.org/franklin/framedVolumes.jsp

7 Capt. Harrison’s Protest , 24 October 1782, in http://franklinpapers.org/franklin/framedVolumes.jsp

8 Letter, Chase to Benjamin Franklin, 18 September 1783, in http://franklinpapers.org/franklin/framedVolumes.jsp

9 Capt. Harrison’s Protest , 24 October 1782, in http://franklinpapers.org/franklin/framedVolumes.jsp

10 Capt. Harrison’s Protest , 24 October 1782, in http://franklinpapers.org/franklin/framedVolumes.jsp

11 Letter, Chase to Benjamin Franklin, 18 September 1783, in http://franklinpapers.org/franklin/framedVolumes.jsp

12 Letter, Chase to Benjamin Franklin, 18 September 1783, in http://franklinpapers.org/franklin/framedVolumes.jsp

13 Capt. Harrison’s Protest , 24 October 1782, in http://franklinpapers.org/franklin/framedVolumes.jsp

14 Letter, Chase to Benjamin Franklin, 18 September 1783, in http://franklinpapers.org/franklin/framedVolumes.jsp

15 Capt. Harrison’s Protest , 24 October 1782, in http://franklinpapers.org/franklin/framedVolumes.jsp

16 Letter, Chase to Benjamin Franklin, 18 September 1783, in http://franklinpapers.org/franklin/framedVolumes.jsp

17 Capt. Harrison’s Protest , 24 October 1782, in http://franklinpapers.org/franklin/framedVolumes.jsp

18List of Vessels captured by the Ships of His Majesty’s Fleet, under the Command of Hugh Pigot, Esq., Admiral of the Blue, Commander in Chief, &c. &c. &c.,” in The London Gazette, Tuesday, November 12, to Saturday, November 16, 1782

19 Capt. Harrison’s Protest , 24 October 1782, in http://franklinpapers.org/franklin/framedVolumes.jsp

20 Letter, Chase to Benjamin Franklin, 18 September 1783, in http://franklinpapers.org/franklin/framedVolumes.jsp

21 Letter By Joseph Smith of the Ship "Jolly Tar." to Franklin, 13 January 1783, in http://www.amphilsoc.org/library/mole/f/franklin/haysmisca.htm

22 Letter, Chase to Benjamin Franklin, 18 September 1783, in http://franklinpapers.org/franklin/framedVolumes.jsp. See also the protest of James Belt, 28 October 1782, extracted in Hays, I. Minis (ed.), Calendar of the Papers of Benjamin Franklin in the Library of the American Philosophical Society, Volume IV, The American Philosophical Society: Philadelphia, 1908, 332: Letter, James Belt to Benjamin Franklin, October 28, 1782.


Posted 21 November 2008 © awiatsea.com