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On Local History: Manchester,

The Revolution, and The War at Sea

 

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American privateer brigantine attacking an armed British merchant vessel 

(IMAGE COURTESY OF MANCHESTER HISTORICAL MUSEUM)

By Robert Booth

This article, and some to follow, will look at the adventures of Manchester men during the Revolutionary War (1775-1783), as it was fought at sea.  There was no U.S. navy, but there was privateering, a time-honored method of creating a seagoing fighting force.  The rebel government set up a court system under which private armed warships could be registered and their officers held accountable for their actions in preying on enemy merchant shipping.  Little Manchester produced extremely capable and brave men who entered wholeheartedly into this hazardous method of damaging the enemy and earning money (sometimes lots of it) in the sale of captured “prizes” and their cargoes.

 

After the Boston Massacre of March 1770, Massachusetts turned openly hostile to the British authorities, and the clouds of war gathered on the horizon. Manchester was a thoroughly rebel village—not one man remained loyal to the King.  In May 1774, a town meeting affirmed Boston’s call for independence. John Lee Jr., Andrew Marsters, and Andrew Woodbury were chosen representatives to the upcoming Essex County Congress of liberty-men, and the latter was elected to the rebel legislature.  A nine-man Committee of Correspondence communicated with rebel leaders in other towns.

In June 1774, London closed down the port of Boston and relocated the seat of provincial government to Salem, with Marblehead as the official port of entry, guarded by a British warship in the harbor.

With bloodshed at Lexington and Concord in April 1775, the die was cast. Manchester’s company of militia marched off that morning but did not arrive in time for the fighting.  All told, 224 able-bodied men and boys (pop. 800) signed up for the fight against the King’s army and navy.

Capt. William Tuck (1740-1826) of Manchester was chosen to command a merchant vessel on a perilous voyage to Bilbao, Spain, in 1776.  There, acting in secrecy as the agent of the independent state of Massachusetts, he exchanged a load of salt fish for a cargo of gunpowder, essential to the fighting capability of the rebel army.

Once the government authorized privateering, Tuck, Jeremiah Hibbert, Benjamin Kimbell, Amos Hilton, and John Lee, all of Manchester, were commissioned as captains of private warships, sailing, with crews that included many other Manchester men, out of large seaports like Gloucester, Newburyport, and Marblehead.

These captains and their men were very tough.  While being pursued by a British vessel, Capt. John Lee Jr. (1738-1812), with shots flying thick on the quarter-deck, noticed that his young son was ducking the fusillade. In the thick of the action, Lee thrashed the boy with a rope’s end, saying, “This will teach you to dodge the balls of your country’s enemy!”

Captain Lee (he would move to Marblehead) first commanded the privateer schooner “Hawke,” 6 guns and 30 men, out of Newburyport, and then, on a cruise begun in May, 1777, he commanded the larger privateer brigantine “Fancy”, 12 guns, 75 men (May 1777). While cruising for prey, the “Fancy” was captured by a Royal Navy battleship, and Lee and his men were incarcerated at Mill Prison in Plymouth, England. Immediately, Capt. John Lee began plotting his escape.

The Continuing Saga of Manchester’s Privateers in the Revolutionary War

 

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It was from this house, One School Street, Manchester, that young Capt. Jeremiah Hibbert would say farewell to his wife, Patty Lee (who ran a store here, the first known in Manchester), as he departed in command of privateers cruising against enemy shipping.

By Robert Booth

We’ve been talking about Manchester’s men and boys during the Revolutionary War (1775-1783), and how they took to the seas in privateers based in the seaports of Boston, Salem, Marblehead, Gloucester, and Newburyport. During the long years of warfare, a few Manchester men became soldiers in the continental army, but most stayed home to support their hard-pressed families. In the absence of sea-borne trade and deep-sea fishing, the men found that farming and privateering were the main means of earning a wartime living. Several Manchester families went off to Hopkinton, NH, to engage in farming; the rest stayed in town, with the men shipping out on the privateers for a small share in the value of whatever “prizes” were captured—the value of the vessel as well as its cargo, both of which were auctioned off at wharf-side.

Usually, privateering cruises were to last 90 days, but as the war went on some might extend to European waters as the Americans pursued opportunities to prey on British merchant shipping while avoiding the much larger and better-armed vessels of the Royal Navy. Even a small privateering vessel required a large investment from its merchant owners: in munitions, extra sails and rigging, reinforcement of the hull and bulwarks, and food and drink for the many men on board.

As we have seen, a few Manchester men rose to command the privateers of other ports, while most of the rest of the townsmen shipped out as deckhands and on-board gunners, usually in groups together on the same vessel. One of the commanders was Jeremiah Hibbert (1753-1778), of 1 School Street, who, in October 1776, had married Martha (Patty) Lee, sister of his fellow privateer captain, John Lee Jr. A privateer lieutenant on board the privateer schooner “Franklin” out of Marblehead, Captain Hibbert was given command of the 75-ton privateer schooner “Hawke,” of Newburyport, carrying 10 cannons and eight swivel-guns, in June 1777. Four of his officers were Manchester men, as were some of the crew.

Captain Hibbert, 24, was extremely bold and ambitious: by October 1777, four months at sea, they were off Bilbao, Spain, capturing British vessels coming in with cargoes of fish. After many adventures, naval and diplomatic, Hibbert left Spain for home, having captured several very valuable prizes. In early summer, 1778, he took command of the privateer brigantine “Civil Usage,” 14 guns and 75 men, and cleared away from Newburyport for more adventures on the high seas. The vessel and her men ran into a terrible gale off Portland; heavily laden with food and munitions, she battled to fight her way through high cresting waves, but at last was smashed in. Captain Hibbert, just 25, and all of his men were lost in the sinking of the “Civil Usage.”

These lives, given in the cause of independence, would not be the last from Manchester.

Peek Into History: The Last of The Privateers of Manchester in the Revolutionary War

 

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From this front door at 8 Washington Street, Dr. Joseph Whipple bade farewell to his young children and pregnant wife Eunice and went off to Gloucester to go privateering at the head of a band of Manchester men. (Courtesy photo)

by Robert Booth

After the Revolution began at Lexington and Concord in April, 1775, the war for independence went on for eight long years.  The land battles were fought in other colonies; but the war at sea was carried on largely from the ports of New England, notably from Salem, Boston, Portsmouth, and Newburyport.  For seafaring men and boys, the fishermen and merchant mariners who made up most of the male inhabitants of Cape Ann, their usual livelihoods had been shut down, so privateering was the way forward.  At first, the rebelling united colonies had no navy at all; then a few battleships were built by order of the Continental Congress; but the main naval force throughout the war was made up of the relatively small vessels—fishing schooners and freighters and, later, captured (former) British merchant vessels—that were fitted by their owners with deck cannon and rail-mounted swivel guns and sent out as licensed privateers to prey on relatively defenseless enemy merchant shipping. 

Among the military leaders of the town was its physician, Dr.  Joseph Whipple, the father of several young children, all residing at now-8 Washington Street (then called High Street).  In July 1777, 19 Manchester men and boys—including Doctor Whipple, bidding farewell to his pregnant wife Eunice—joined a large crew on board the privateer brig “Gloucester.” They had good success at first, capturing two British vessels which arrived in port as prizes; but then came silence.  The silence persisted, and dread set in, and then despondency visited the towns of Cape Ann, for the “Gloucester” never returned—she had gone to the bottom with all on board.

At now-96 School Street, young Andrew Leach signed on board a Newburyport privateer in 1779 with nine fellow townsmen.  Manchester, lacking a real harbor at that time, had no privateering vessels, but sent out many young men like Andrew, who was married to Jenny (Jane) Sample and the father of an infant daughter.  Crowding on board with high hopes of easy victories, the men prepared for a cruise of about three months; but we will never know how long they were at sea, for their vessel, evidently hit by a terrible storm, was seen no more.

Andrew Leach’s brother, Ezekiel (1755-1822), began the war as a soldier and remained so into 1776; thereafter, he went privateering.  He was captured with the rest of a crew and spent years as a prisoner of war.  He survived to be repatriated; and he resumed his sea-roving as a Manchester privateer.  He and his wife Susannah (Sukie) Hilton would have seven surviving children—including a son Andrew, named for his lost brother—all of whom got to hear their father curse out anyone who would even mention the word England. 

After the war ended in 1783, he shipped out as a sea captain, and then became a shoreman, owning fishing vessels and supervising the curing of salt codfish in a fishyard.  Residing in the family home at 96 School Street, he prospered, and came to own trading vessels: the 54-ton schooner “Jane,” and the 90-ton “Active.” After the conclusion of the war in 1783, Capt.  Ezekiel Leach was notable for his generosity to the numerous poor, of whom many were young widows and fatherless children.  The town had lost at least 50 aof its men and boys, gone privateering; the extent of their sacrifice cannot be overstated.

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