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Andrew Sherburne’s Experiences on a Privateer During the Revolutionary War

General George Washington and the patriot leaders faced an enormous challenge in mounting a military campaign against the British forces during the revolutionary war. For soldiers, they drew upon existing state militias and also raised a Continental army. But no such source for a naval force existed. Instead, Washington’s officers acquired the services of American captains and sailors by commissioning them as privateers, or private citizens authorized to attack a military enemy. Colonists had long experience serving as privateers for the British forces during numerous eighteenth-century wars against Spain, France, and the Netherlands. They now turned their skills against Great Britain. Andrew Sherburne’s memoirs capture the youth’s enthusiastic desire to participate in the military campaign against the British; many others were less enthusiastic about their military service due to its infrequent pay and poor living conditions.

I was about nine years of age when Gen.Gage, with a land and naval force took possession of Boston, which has been termed the “cradle of American independence.” The seizure of Boston exasperated the feelings of the colonists in every section of our country. I distinctly recollect the period when the farmers of Londonderry could scarcely settle themselves to their work. They felt that their rights-were invaded. Many persons of talents or influence were friendly to the measures pursued by the British parliament, they were termed “Tories.” Another class which remonstrated against those measures, received the name of “Whigs.” My uncle with whom I resided was a decided Whig. Having formed acquaintances in Boston, where he had served his time at the cabinet maker’s business, he felt a deep interest in the events which occurred there. He took the newspapers; (there were comparatively few published at that day,) his neighbors assembled about him, and the fire-side conversation turned on the rights of the people, the injustice of parliament, the detection of Tories, &c. The conflicts at Lexington and Bunker’s Hill, and the burning of Charleston, roused the Irish “Yankies‘ ’of Londonderry. The young men posted off to the battle ground, prompted by their sires who followed them with their horses laden with provisions. My ears were open to all the passing news. I wished myself old enough to take an active part in this contest. Little did I realize at that time the horrors of war. I had not yet heard the clash of arms, the groans of the dying and the shouts of the victors. Nor did I imagine at this period, when I so much abhorred swearing, that the time would arrive when I should become a profane sailor. What is man? ”At his best estate he is altogether vanity."

In Londonderry the influence of Doct. Matthew Thornton, one of the signers of the declaration of independence, was exerted with great effect on the side of liberty. When I was about eleven years of age my uncle removed from Londonderry to Epsom. Here another distinguished patriot had resided, Capt. Mc’Leary. He fell with General Warren, on Bunker’s Hill. I recollect the four following lines of a dirge commemorative of the death of Warren and Mc’Leary.

"My trembling hand and aching heart,

O how it throbs this day;

Their loss is felt in every part

Of North America."

These lines indicate the spirit of the times, rather than the poetic talent of their author. A martial spirit was diffused through the little circle of my acquaintances. As the men were frequently called together for the purpose of acquiring military discipline, their example was not lost upon the boys. Lads from seven years old and upwards were formed into companies and being properly officered, armed with wooden guns and adorned with plumes, they would go through the manual exercise with as much regularity as the men. If two or three boys met, their martial ardor showed itself in exercising with sticks, instead of muskets. Many a bitter sigh and broken heart, however, testified in the end the result of this military excitement.

Parents saw with pain their sons advancing from childhood to youth. My reader can but faintly imagine the feelings of an aged father or an affectionate mother, perhaps a widow, when news arrived that a son had fallen in the field of battle, or had languished and died in an hospital, or still remained a prisoner in the hands of a foe, whose tender mercies were cruel. Danger however did not deter our young men from pressing forward to the battle ground, or sailing to meet the foe upon the ocean...

Soon after this 1 returned to my parents in Portsmouth. An abundance of new objects was here presented to my view. Ships were building, prizes taken from the enemy unloading, privateers fitting out, standards waved on the forts and batteries, the exercising of soldiers, the roar of cannon, the sound of martial music and the call for volunteers so infatuated me that I was filled with anxiety to become an actor in the scenes of war. My eldest brother, Thomas, had recently returned from a cruise on board the “General Mifflin,” of Boston, Capt. Mc’Neal. This ship had captured thirteen prizes, some of which, however, being of little value were burnt, some were sold in France, others reached Boston, and their cargoes were divided among the crew of that ship. On my brother’s return I became more eager to try my fortune at sea. My father, though a high Whig, disapproved the practice of privateering. Merchant vessels, at this period, which ran safe, made great gains, seamen’s wages were consequently very high. Through my fathers influence, Thomas was induced to enter the merchants 'service. Though not yet fourteen years of age, like other boys, I imagined myself almost a man. I had intimated to my sister, that if my father would not consent that I should go to sea, I would run away, and go on board a privateer. My mind became so infatuated with the subject, that I talked of it in my sleep and was overheard by my mother. She communicated what she had heard to my father. My parents were apprehensive that I might wander off and go on board some vessel without their consent. At this period it was not an uncommon thing for lads to come out of the country, step on board a privateer, make a cruise and return home, their friends remaining in entire ignorance of their fate until they heard it from themselves. Others would pack up their clothes, take a cheese and a loaf of bread and steer off for the army. There was a disposition in commanders of privateers and recruiting officers to encourage this spirit of enterprise in young men and boys. Though these rash young adventurers did not count the cost, or think of looking at the dark side of the picture. yet this spirit, amidst the despondency of many, enabled our country to maintain a successful struggle and finally achieve her independence.

The continental ship of war, Ranger of eighteen gun«, commanded by Thomas Simpson, Esq. was at this time shipping a crew in Portsmouth. This ship had been ordered to join the Boston and Providence, frigates and the Queen of France of twenty guns, upon an expedition directed by congress. My father having consented that I should go to sea, preferred the service of congress to privateering. He was acquainted with Capt. Simpson. On board the ship were my two half uncles, Timothy and James Weymouth. Accompanied by my father I visited the rendezvous of the Ranger and shipped as one of her crew. There were probably thirty boys on board this ship. As most of our principal officers belonged to the town, parents preferred this ship as a station for their sons who were about to enter the naval service. Hence most of these boys were from Portsmouth. As privateering was the order of the day, vessels of every description were employed in the business. Men were not wanting who would hazard themselves in vessels of twenty tons or less, manned by ten or fifteen hands. Placing much dependence on the protection of my uncles, I was much elated with my supposed good fortune, which had at last made me a sailor.

I was not yet fourteen years of age. I had received some little moral and religious instruction, and was far from being accustomed to the habits of town boys, or the maxims or dialect of sailors. The town boys thought themselves vastly superior to country lads; and indeed in those days the distinction was much greater than at present. My diffidence and aversion to swearing, rendered me an object of ridicule to those little profane chaps. I was insulted, and frequently obliged to fight. In this 1 was sometimes victorious. My uncles, and others, prompted me to defend my rights. I soon began to improve in boxing, and to indulge in swearing. At first this practice occasioned some remorse of conscience. 1 however endeavored to persuade myself that there was a necessity for it. I at length became a proficient in this abominable practice. To counterbalance my guilt in this, I at the same time became more constant in praying; heretofore I had only prayed occasionally; now I prayed continually when 1 turned in at night, and vainly imagined that I prayed enough by night to atone for the sins of the day. Believing that no other person on board prayed, I was filled with pride, concluding I bad as much or more religion than the whole crew besides. The boys were employed in waiting on the officers, but in time of action a boy was quartered to each gun to carry cartridges. I was waiter to Mr. Charles Roberts, the boatswain, and was quartered at the third gun from the bow. Being ready for sea, we sailed to Boston, joined the Providence frigate, commanded by Commodore Whipple, the Boston frigate, and the Queen of France. I believe that this small squadron composed nearly the entire navy of the United States. We proceeded to sea some time in June, 1779. A considerable part of the crew of the Ranger being raw hands and the sea rough, especially in the gulf stream, many were exceedingly sick, and myself among the rest. We afforded a subject of constant ridicule to the old sailors. Our officers improved every favorable opportunity for working the ship and exercising the guns. We cruised several weeks, made the Western Islands, and at length fell in with the homeward bound Jamaica fleet on the banks of New-Foundland. It was our practice to keep a man at the mast head constantly by day, on the look out. The moment a sail was discovered a signal was given to our consorts and all possible exertion was made to come tip with the stranger, or discover what she was. About seven o’clock one morning, the man at the fore-topmast head cried out “a sail, a sail on the lee-bow; another there, and there.” Our young offices ran up the shrouds and with their glasses soon ascertained that more than fifty sail could be seen from the mast-head. It should here be observed that during the months of summer, it is extremely foggy on the banks of New-Foundland. Sometimes a ship cannot be seen at the distance of one hundred yards, and then in a few moments you may have a clear sky and bright sun for half an hour, and you are then enveloped in the fog again. The Jamaica fleet which contested of about one hundred and fifty sail, some of which were armed, was convoyed by one or two line of battle ships, several frigates and sloops of war. Our little squadron was in the rear of the fleet, and we had reason to fear that some of the heaviest armed ships were there also. If I am not mistaken the Boston frigate was not in company with us at this time. My reader may easily imagine that our minds were agitated with alternate hopes and fears. No time was to be lost. Our Commodore soon brought too one of their ships, manned and sent her off. Being to windward he edged away and spoke to our captain. We were at this time in pursuit of a large ship. The Commodore hauled his wind again and in the course of an hour we came up with the ship, which proved to be the Holderness, a three decker, mounting 22 guns. She struck after giving her several broadsides. Although she had more guns, and those of heavier mettle than ourselves, her crew was not sufficiently large to manage her guns, and at the same time work the ship. She was loaded with cotton, coffee, sugar, rum and alspice. While we were employed in manning her out, our Commodore captured another and gave her up to us to man also. When this was accomplished it was nearly night; we were however unwilling to abandon the opportunity of enriching ourselves, therefore kept along under easy sail. Some time in the night we found ourselves surrounded with ships, and supposed we were discovered. We could distinctly hear their bells on which they frequently struck a. few strokes that their ships might not approach too near each other during the night. We were close on board one of their largest armed ships, and from the multitude of lights which had appeared, supposed that they had called to quarters. It being necessary to avoid their convoy we roll to leeward, and in an hour lost sight of them all. The next day the sky was overcast, and at times we had a thick fog. In the afternoon the sun shone for a short time and enabled us to see a numerous fleet a few miles to windward, in such compact order, that we thought it not best to approach them. We were however in hopes that we might pick up some single ship. We knew nothing of our consorts, but were entirely alone. Towards night we took and manned out a brig. On the third morning we gained sight of three ships to which we gave chase, and called all hands to quarters. When they discovered us in chase, they huddled together, intending, as we supposed, to fight us; they however soon made sail and ran from us; after a short lapse of time we overhauled and took one of them, which we soon found to be a dull sailor. Another, while we were manning our prize, attempted to escape, but we found that we gained upon her. While in chase, a circumstance occurred which excited some alarm. Two large ships hove in sight to windward, running directly for us under a press of sail. One of them shaped her course for the prize we had just manned. We were unwilling to give up our chase, as we had ascertained from our prize that the two other ships were laden with sugar, rum, cotton, &c, and that they were unarmed. We soon came up with the hindmost, brought her too, and ordered her to keep under our stern while we might pursue the other, as our situation was too critical to allow us to heave to and get out our boat.

The stranger in chase of us was under English colors; we however soon ascertained by her signal, that she was the Providence frigate, on board of which was our Commodore. This joyful intelligence relieved us from all fear of the enemy, and we soon came up with our chase. In the mean time the prize which we had taken, (but not boarded) sought to get under the protection of the Providence, mistaking that frigate for one of the English convoy, as he still kept their colors flying. Our prize therefore as she thought eluded us, and hailing our Commodore, informed him, “that a Yankee cruiser had taken one of the fleet!” Very well, very well, replied the Commodore, I’ll be along side of him directly. He then hauled down his English colors, hoisted the American, and ordered the ship to haul down her flag and come under his stern. This order was, immediately obeyed. We now ascertained that the strange ship, which was in chase of our first prize, was another of our consorts, the Queen of France. Having manned our prizes and secured our prisoners, we all shaped our course for Boston, where we arrived some time in the last of July or beginning of August, 1779.

Source: Andrew Sherburne, Memoirs of Andrew Sherburne; a Pensioner of the Navy of the Revolution, Written By Himself (Utica, N.Y.: W. Williams, 1828), 16–23.