Continental Navy Brig Active


Captain Corbin Barnes

Trading.Dispatch Vessel

July 1779-23 March 1781

Continental Navy Brig

Commissioned/First Date:

July 1779

Out of Service/Cause:

23 March 1781/captured by HM Frigate Proserpine




Date Reported:

Number/Caliber  Weight      Broadside










(1) Boston, Massachusetts to New London, Connecticut

(2) New London, Connecticut to La Coruņa, Spain, -2 May 1780

(3) La Coruņa, Spain to Bilbao, Spain, 2 May 1780-10 May 1780

(4) Bilbao, Spain to Boston, Massachusetts, -August 1780

(5) Boston, Massachusetts to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, -18 December 1780

(6) Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Nantes, France, -April 181

(7) Nantes, France to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

(8) Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to sea, -23 March 1782




In early 1778 the Continental Congress had a desire to establish a regular packet service with the newly allied France. Therefore, on 1 May 1778, Congress Resolved, That the Marine Committee be directed to procure immediately six of the best and swiftest sailing pacquet boats, for conveying despatches to and from France and Spain and the West Indies.1 This business was fulfilled, in part, by the Navy Board of the Eastern District.

The Continental Navy Brigantine Active was constructed at Marshfield, Massachusetts on the orders of the Continental Congress and was launched in July 1779. She was intended as a packet between America and Europe. Active was placed under the command of Corbin Barnes, who had previously commanded another packet, the Dispatch. Active was listed as measuring 60 tons and as having a crew of fifteen men.2

The first job for the Active was hauling cannon, cables, and assorted stores from Boston to New London, Connecticut for the frigates Trumbull and Bourbon.. The Navy Board of the Eastern Department informed the Marine Committee of this on 7 April 1780.3

Following this, Active made a voyage to Bilbao, Spain 1n 1780, sailing from Boston, Massachusetts and from New London, Connecticut. She first stopped at La Coru*a, Spain on 2 May 1780, where Barnes put various letters in the local post office. He then proceeded to Bilbao, arriving on 12 May. and turned his dispatches over to Gardoqui & Sons, the local agents for the American Commissioners in France. She was to return with sundry articles for the Navy.4

Active was back in Boston before 7 August 1780, with the valuable naval stores. After the Navy Board of the Eastern Department reported this to the Marine Committee the latter noted that all these supplies were much wanted. The Marine Committee also inquired as to the tonnage of the Active and how many hogsheads of tobacco might be shipped in her.5

In a letter of 5 September 1780 from the Marine Committee to the Navy Board of the Eastern Department, the Marine Committee mentioned that it was searching for a cargo for the Active.6 On 19 September the new Board of Admiralty, in a letter to the Navy Board of the Eastern Department, noted their efforts to find a cargo for the Active and suggested she might have to come to Philadelphia to get one.7

Active did indeed travel around to Philadelphia. She arrived there on 18 December 1780 from Boston. The Board of Admiralty delivered two reports to Congress on 23 December, one of which concerned the Active:

“The Board beg leave to inform Congress that the Brigantine Active Packet belonging to the United States, arrived yesterday from Boston, and that the Board propose to send her immediately to Amsterdam, with a view to the importation of Naval Stores which are much wanted. That they are possessed of a small quantity of Pearl-Ash, which they intend to send in her, and to fill up with tobacco on freight as they have not money to purchase it. That the amount of her Freight, and of the Pearl-Ash will not be sufficient to procure the several articles wanted and load the Active back. The Board therefore request the Honorable Congress to order that a sett of exchange be issued in favor of the Board of Admiralty for the use of the United States of America upon the Honorable John Adams, or whom else, for one thousand pounds Sterling to enable the Board to load the Active on her return voyage.” The Board of Admiralty noted that a “A Bill for £1000 Sterlg. was the last summer issued by order of Congress, upon the Honorable John Jay Esqd. in favor of the Honorable Henry Laurens Esqr. for the purpose of procuring a cargo for the Mercury Packet, which was unfortunately taken on her voyage to Amsterdam. The Board suppose that the capture of Mr. Laurens has put it out of his power, to negotiate that Bill, and that if it should be negotiated it cannot be applied to answer the present purposes of the Board.”8

This report was read 24 August 1781 and never acted upon.9

A cargo was found and Active sailed for Nantes, France in early 1781. She was there in April 1781, preparing for the return voyage.10   She was still there on 23 April but was supposed to sail soon.11 When Active arrived at Nantes, Barnes had demanded some sort of gratuity. On 3 May 1781, Benjamin Franklin destroyed that notion by stating that he had no orders respecting such advances.12 Active eventually returned, probably to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Active returned to Philadelphia. Here she was prepared to send a cargo to Havana, Cuba. On 23 March 1782, whileapproaching Havana, she encountered HM Frigate Proserpine (Captain Thomas Taylor), a 28-gun vessel, and was captured. The British warship took her into Jamaica where she was condemned as a prize and sold.13

1 JCC, 10:414, May 1, 1778

2 Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. Available here.

3 Paullin, Out Letters of the Continental Marine Committee, II, 180-182

4 Letter, Joseph Gardoqui & Sons to John Adams, 13 May 1780 at Adams Papers - Digital Edition Here

5 Paullin, Out Letters of the Continental Marine Committee, II, 249-251

6 Paullin, Out Letters of the Continental Marine Committee, II, 258-263

7 Paullin, Out Letters of the Continental Marine Committee, II, 270-272

8 JCC, 18:1188-1189

9 JCC, 18:1188-1189

10 Letter, Jonathan Williams, Jr. to William Temple Franklin, 10 April 1781 at Franklin

11 Letter, William Temple Franklin to George Fox, 23 April 1781 at Franklin

12 Letter,  Franklin to Jean-Daniel Schweighauser, 3 May 1781 at Franklin

13 Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. Available here.

Posted 8 December 2018 ©

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