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Captain Ashmead had cause to be concerned as he focused his glass on the two sailing ships some distance off his port bow. Moments before, he had been watching a sail some eight miles off his stern to the northeast, when his lookout called out the sighting of two sails almost dead ahead. Their riggings identified the two as a brig and a schooner, and motion atop its foremast reveal­ed the brig was exchanging signals with the ship off his stern. From the evidence the three ships were operating together, ” … he discovered them to be Cruizers and Con­sorts, all making what sail they could for him, and having the wind about east south east, so that he could not lay up for the Road of Statia (a near island). neither could he get the brig (his ship) upon a wind either way, which was the best of her sailing, to clear the enemy.”

On October 26, 1779, John Ashmead of Philadelphia, Master of the Continental Packet Brigantine Eagle, had cleared his ship from the Capes of the Delaware bound for the Dutch-owned island of St. Eustatius, southeast of Puerto Rico. These were dangerous waters for an American privateer as a majority of the Leeward Islands in this chain of the Lesser Antilles were owned by the British, and many British privateers put into the islands for water and provi­sions. The King’s loyal subjects would have liked nothing better than to pounce upon an audacious rebel sailing in His Majesty’s waters. Not only would the Eagle be a val­uable prize for the British to refit as a privateer, but the cargo-“consisting of 200 barrels of pork, 60 barrels of bread, 4 hogsheads of tobacco, besides other articles” – would bring a good price when sold on condemnation by a British Admiralty prize court. James Searle of Philadel­phia, the owner of the Eagle, had mounted ten carriage guns on her deck when she was commissioned by the Continental Congress on June 12, 1779. They would stand her well in a fire fight against any other 100-ton brigantine, but to take on three enemy ships that could catch her in a cross fire would be foolhardy.

It was shortly after dawn on November 13, eighteen days out from Philadelphia, when Captain Ashmead’s attention was called to the sail that appeared off his stern. The presence of the single ship had caused him no concern at first, as he was within ten miles of his destination on St. Eustatius. But now with the two ships off his bow, it was evident to the Captain that some evasive action must be taken. He called his junior officers, Chief Mate John Taylor and Gunners Mate James Brown, for a conference to discuss the situation. No flags aboard the three ships had yet identified them as British, but the fact that the three were obviously about to intercept the Eagle could only be taken as an indication of hostile intent. The officers decided that the only course open to them was to head for the neutral Dutch island of Saba about nine miles west of their present position. Accordingly, the course was changed but none too soon, as the three ships were drawing closer with the wind in their favor. The light morning winds did not afford the Eagle much headway and shortly after nine o’clock the ships had approached the Eagle to near cannon range. The boom of cannon aboard the nearest ship left no doubt in Captain Ashmead’s mind that the ships were British, but as the cannon balls fell short of his ship, he estimated he could bring the Eagle to the protec­tion of the fort on Saba Island before any harm was done.

It was between ten and eleven o’clock when the Eagle finally dropped anchor under the Saba fort. Thomas Dinzey, the Dutch governor of Saba, was waiting on shore, having been called to the tort when the guard heard the cannons being fired at the Eagle. The Governor had watched the flight of the Eagle coming in from some distance out and was waiting to render what protection a neutral port could offer. By the laws of the nations, enemies must not carry on their contests in the waters of a neutral power, and if two adversaries entered a neutral port they must not molest each other within the harbor. As soon as the Eagle had secured her anchorage, the Governor sent Capt. Thomas Winfield of the Burghers of Saba in a canoe to the Eagle re­questing advice of Ashmead’s intentions and asking that gunpowder be sent ashore as there was none in the fort. Captain Ashmead gave Winfield fifty pounds of powder and related that “immediately on his [Winfield’s] returning on shore to the fort, a shot was fired from the fort ahead of the [British] ship, when she hauld off. The governor then sent a canoe off twice desiring this deponent [Captain Ashmead] to send a few muskets and cartridges ashore, which he did, delivering to Captain Winfield … nine muskets and about sixty rounds of cartridges. By this time the brig and schooner had joined the ship, and as they lay off, and on close to windward, he [Captain Ashmead) thought it would be prudent to lodge his letters and papers on shore.”

Shortly before noon, Captain Ashmead “gave his papers and letters to the governor, at the same time reporting his vessel by her proper name, the brig Eagle from Philadelphia bound for St. Eustatius, but being chased into Saba desired the governor to take his report and enter her there with the cargo.” While the Captain was entering his papers, the three ships changed their courses and signaled that they were about to peaceably enter the harbor. The Governor expressed his concern that there might be trouble anyway and asked Captain Ashmead if he intended to defend himself should the privateers attempt to board his vessel. The Captain replied that since he was in a neutral harbor, he could not fire on them unless they fired first, and since his crew of thirty men would be no match for the far superior force of the three ships’ crews, he would just have to trust to the rights and protection of a neutral harbor. Assured by the Governor that he would do all within his power to pro­vide that protection, Captain Ashmead returned to his ship to prepare for any hostile actions by the British privateers.

The first such action occurred a short time later when the British brig was swinging in to anchor. Evidently in order to provoke the Americans into some forceful reaction, the brig swung toward the Eagle in such a manner that a collision would have occurred had not the Eagle played out her anchor line to avoid the contact. As it was, the Eagle could play out only twenty fathoms of cable or risk strik­ing some dangerous rocks and the brig caught and snapped off her ring sail boom under the Eagle‘s foreyard arm. Probably smarting from the miscalculated ramming, the brig pulled off but came to anchor closer to the Eagle than ships usually spaced themselves.

About two o’clock in the afternoon, three more British ships appeared off the Saba harbor – a schooner and a sloop coming in to anchor near the Eagle – while the third ship stayed outside the harbor. The British privateers now assembled at Saba were:

Ship ROBUST, Captain Payne out of Bristol, England.
Brig TRY ALL, Captain Saunders out of Bristol, England.
Schooner FAME, Captain Rivers out of Antigua.
Schooner GREYHOUND, Capt. Robert Dunlap out of St. Kitts.
Sloop HAWKE, Capt. Isaac Hartman out of Antigua.
Sloop (no name given), Captain Bell out of Antigua.

Surrounded now by a vastly superior enemy force, Captain Ashmead was certain that some action was being planned against the Eagle. However, as the afternoon wore on and five o’clock approached with no indication that any attack would be made that day. Captain Ashmead decided to go ashore again. His purpose was to send a message to the Governor at St. Eustatius concerning his predicament, hoping some assistance would be sent. His first call was at the secretary’s office to obtain certified copies of his report and entry filed earlier. Next he sought to hire a boat owner to take the copies and message to St. Eustatius. The later effort proved fruitless and at eight o’clock that evening, Captain Ashmead found himself back at the Governor’s house to discuss what further might be done.

Nothing had been resolved when the conversation was suddenly interrupted by shouts of alarm in the courtyard, and the Governor opened the door to admit a messenger from Captain Winfield at the fort. The British appeared to be making some move against the Eagle, and the Captain was requesting reinforcements for the guard at the fort. No sooner had the message been delivered than three seamen, John Callahan, James Quality and Francis Lange of Captain Ashmead’s crew came running up the pathway. Breathlessly they informed the captain that the crew of the British brig Tryall had swarmed over the rails of the Eagle in such superior numbers that they and nine others of the Eagle‘s crew had jumped overboard to escape by swimming ashore. They could not tell Captain Ashmead anything of the fate of Chief Mate John Taylor and the men who had remained on board, and so to Ashmead it appeared “that Captain Saunders was in full possession of the Eagle, whereupon the governor fired three muskets at his door as an alarm, and a number of Burghers immedi­ately appearing, he ordered them to repair to the fort with the utmost expedition, and if the British privateers did not relinquish the Eagle to fire upon them.”

The crew of the Eagle had remained on board under the command of Chief Mate Taylor when Captain Ashmead went ashore to attempt to send the message to St. Eustatius. A watchful eye was maintained on the activities aboard the British brig Tryall, but nothing of alarm was noted until shortly before eight o’clock in the evening. At that time several seamen appeared on deck and proceeded to veer out cable allowing the Tryall to drift sideways toward the Eagle‘s bow. Fearing that some hostile action was about to take place, Taylor ran forward and was immediately “hailed from the Tryall, and told that they were coming aboard him, and if he made any resistance they would give him no quarter. The Tryall‘s men immediately boarded on the Eagle‘s bow, and secured himself [Taylor], with as many of the Eagle‘s men as they could catch. but twelve of her men found means to escape by jumping overboard.” Cap­tain Payne of the Robust had boarded with Captain Saun­ders and his men and proceeded to take command of the Eagle. He ordered the captured crew to be placed down the Eagle‘s steerage, and from the commands Taylor could hear through the deck, began to reeve the sails in an at­tempt to get the Eagle under way.

After a half-hour in the steerage, the Eagle‘s crew was brought on deck to be transferred to the Robust. As he walked across the Eagle‘s deck. Taylor could see that the British crew was having some difficulty with the rigging, and that it would be a while yet before she could be gotten under way. About fifteen minutes after Taylor was moved to the Robust, he heard a voice on shore hail the British privateers asking what they were doing aboard the Eagle and demanding that they return to their own vessels. The hail and demand was repeated several times but due to the noise aboard the Eagle. Taylor could not hear any reply, if there was any. Shortly after the calling ceased, he heard shots from the fort and the British ships returned the fire.

At the time that Captain Saunders began to swing the Tryall into position to board the Eagle, there was evident­ly no watch being kept over the ships by Captain Winfield in the fort. Earlier, at about seven o’clock, the fort watch had observed two of the British ships up anchor and sail out of the harbor, and thinking this meant there was no danger of hostilities any more this night, they relaxed their watch. The first warning of any trouble aboard the Eagle came when Captain Winfield heard “a terrible cry as if it were a cutting with cutlasses by which means there was an alarm fired, and we appeared in the battery and hailed the English brig and asked what hostilities they were using.” From the activity aboard the Eagle, it was evident to Cap­tain Winfield that the crew of the Tryall had taken possess­ion of the Eagle and were preparing to move her out of the harbor. At the first outcry, Captain Winfield had dispatched the messenger to the Governor and in a short time twenty of the Burghers had reported at the fort. Several of the Eagle‘s crew who had jumped overboard had come into the fort and were put to work loading the cannon.

Since the British privateers had refused to respond to his hail and persisted in their preparations to take the Eagle out of the harbor, Captain Winfield felt obliged to fire at the Tryall hoping his show of force would cause them to desist. He had fired four shots before Captain Ashmead arrived at the fort from the Governor’s house, and just at that point “there was a terrible outcry heard on board the Tryall, and the fort ceased firing, and in my [Ashmead’s] hearing some of the Burghers ordered them repeatedly to send their boat ashore, which they on board the Tryall answered in a con­temptuous tone, ‘aye, aye, tomorrow morning.’ but still persisted in carrying off the Eagle.” (It is probable that the outcry was the result of a cannon ball as Captain Saunders later claimed he had one seaman killed and several others wounded in the fight.) At this, Winfield ordered the firing continued, the British ships responding with many broad­sides.

If any further damage was inflicted on either side, the fact was not recorded and the firing stopped after an hour and a half when the fort ran out of ammunition. All during the fire fight, the British aboard the Eagle continued their efforts to get the Eagle under way, finally resorting to tow lines to the British ships to haul her out. With no more powder for the cannon, there was nothing Captain Ashmead and his twelve crewman could do but watch their ship and eighteen compatriots being carried off to a Brit­ish prize court.

Despite the protests lodged by the Dutch Governor of St. Eustatius with the English Governor at Antigua, to the effect that the Eagle had been seized in a neutral port con­trary to treaty, the Eagle was condemned at the British island of Nevis. Chief Mate John Taylor and apparently the other crew members captured by the British were later released as Taylor was back in Philadelphia on March 21, 1780, to give his account of the Eagle‘s flight and capture in an affidavit before Thomas McKean, Chief Justice of the State of Pennsylvania. On the same date, Captain Ashmead also appeared, having sailed from St. Eustatius on January 18, 1780, for Philadelphia aboard a brig command­ed by a Captain Hocker.

 

The quotations in this story were taken from these affidavits and from the letters and papers that Captain Ashmead brought back from St. Eustatius. The originals are today on file in the Papers of the Contin­ental Congress at the National Archives in Washington, D.C.

 

Albert G. Overton, whose professional background is in engineer­ing and law, has long been intensely interested in history and is a life member of the Warren County (Pa.) Historical Society. His home is in Florissant, Missouri.