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The Ship Americans Forgot

Historians/History
tags: American Revolution



Larry W. Waterfield is a journalist, editor, author and illustrator.

Illustration by Larry W. Waterfield


In 1775 rebellious Americans from Boston to Charleston provoked the King of England, insulted his ministers, and teetered on the edge of revolution.

Rather than react in conciliatory fashion the King took a hard line. He declared the colonies to be in a state of “open and avowed rebellion.”

Things deteriorated rapidly after that. That was particularly true in New York. Americans who had cried “God Save the King” could now see that the king had no interest in saving them.

In New York two governments emerged—the royal colonial government, and a new Revolutionary government. Both sides prepared for armed conflict. Both sides drew up lists of those on the other side subject to arrest. The revolutionaries formed congresses and committees, raised militias, stockpiled arms. They planned and plotted. The British colonial government, aided by a number of Loyalists who stayed with the King, aimed to remain in power as the lawful government.

The city festered with intrigues, plots, rumors. There had already been acts of rebellion. Like Boston, New York had its own Tea Party, with rebels tossing taxed tea into the harbor.

Among those caught up in the struggle was a young college student, Alexander Hamilton. He would go on to become a hero of the revolution, aide-de-camp to George Washington, the leader of a famous attack on the British lines at Yorktown. He would champion New York in the new nation, organize business and finance and become the nation’s treasurer.

On the other side were equally brave and committed loyalists, soldiers and sailors in the service of the King, and plenty of people simply waiting and watching to see which side would prevail.

Fiery revolutionaries were ready to fight for liberty. Even families were split between loyalty to the status quo and a move for independence. Those of Dutch descent could look back to the founding of New Amsterdam, which later became New York. Maybe independence would give the old Dutch name back to the city.

No one could predict the outcome as passions bloomed.

The Asia Arrives

Into this tense situation sailed a major British war ship, the 64-gun ship of the line, Asia , carrying soldiers, weapons, stocks of ammunition. It anchored in New York harbor at the Battery at the tip of New York City and Manhattan island.

It was there to send a message of power and warning. It would protect other British ships in the harbor, and its guns could easily subdue a rebellious city. It could distribute weapons and powder to supporters of the king.

The Americans were intimidated but far from subdued. They continued to form their own government and institutions.

That intimidated the British colonial governor, William Tryon, who realized he was highly vulnerable and liable to be captured and interned by revolutionaries. Such things had happened in other colonies.

With the formidable Asia in the harbor to protect him, Tryon moved his office onto one of the British ships anchored nearby. It became the de facto colonial government of New York, a strange turn indeed because officials, generals, petitioners, councilors had to be rowed out to see the governor.

At this point it was the guns of the Asia that ruled over New York. The governor was an after thought compared to “gunboat government.”

On land the revolutionaries realized their predicament. They needed heavier weapons if they were going to challenge This “battle” ship of the line, His Majesty’s Ship Asia .

There were heavy guns mounted at the Battery. American officers, led by John Lamb, vowed to seize and remove the cannons that now were in easy range to the Asia ’s guns.

They grabbed the Battery cannons in a night raid and began to cart them off. They were spotted by the Asia . Captain George Vandeput ordered an armed barge to intercept the Americans. The barge fired on them and several Americans were killed. Still, they managed to escape with 21 cannons.

This was the first violent clash in New York. Fighting had already broken out in New England.

A kind of low-level civil war broke out between Loyalists and the Revolutionaries, who more and more saw themselves as a new breed, independent Americans and nobody’s subjects. Some towns and villages remained loyal to the King and rejected the idea of revolution.

One ditty sung by Loyalists said,

I fret, I storm,
I spit, I spew
at the sound of
YANKEE DOODLE DOO!

The city of New York was particularly vulnerable, and could easily be panicked. Many had fled the city after the clash with the Asia .

The warship did not turn its guns on the city, which consisted of several thousand wooden, brick and stone houses and buildings that housed fewer than 30,000 people.

The Americans tried to sink the Asia and were almost successful. An American officer, Silas Talbot, got ahold of an old ship and outfitted it with combustibles. He then sailed this “fire ship” into the Asia . He set the warship on fire, but the crew managed to put out the flames.

Talbot’s near success got him promoted to Major.

The crisis continued to deepen well into 1776. Things came to a head in July. The Americans drafted and approved a Declaration of Independence. Both sides had now made reconciliation all but impossible. The King’s hard stance, and now the Americans’ Declaration cut off any meaningful chance of a peaceful outcome.

Crush the Revolution

The British decided to crush the revolution. They would start with New York with its grand harbor and mighty river.

In July and over the next weeks New Yorkers were stunned and awed by what they saw. A series of mighty Armadas sailed into New York harbor in several waves. By the end of the invasion nearly 400 ships had arrived, carrying 32,000 troops and 10,000 sailors.

The commanders and the troops waited to attack until the full massive force was in place. They then landed assault troops in Brooklyn. One of the participating warships was the Asia .

The Americans, now formed into a Continental Army, stood and fought under George Washington. They were no match for the larger, stronger British force. Washington could muster around 20,000 soldiers. Many were poorly trained and untested. Some broke ranks and fled in the face of the enemy.

The Americans fought but lost in Brooklyn, in Manhattan, Harlem, White Plains, Washington Heights. Finally, he abandoned the fight and led his wounded army to safety in the south.

Occupation

New York settled in for a long and often unpleasant occupation under British military rule. It would last 7 years. The city would serve as the British headquarters. There were already bitter and sweet memories. Part of the city burned and was in ruins. The Americans had toppled the statue of the King, dressed as a Roman emperor and cast its lead into 45,000 bullets. The British had hanged a young patriot, Nathan Hale, as a spy. Many people left to be replaced by Loyalists, runaway slaves, thousands of British troops and Hessian mercenary soldiers, and American prisoners of war.

Occupations seldom go well. This one didn’t go well either. As New York historian Frank Mann points out the British never restored civil government in New York and failed to win hearts and minds even of the Loyalists. Professor Mann extensively documented the British occupation.

New York became a sort of British Baghdad Green Zone cut off from the wider war. The city was “party central” for British generals and officers. They put on military balls, feasts, festivals, organized plays, dances and entertainments. They celebrated holidays and honored the king in lavish ways that shocked even their supporters. Ordinary soldiers, bored and often poorly paid and supplied, foraged, requisitioned, stole or simply grabbed what they needed from the populace.

There was a housing shortage and soldiers were quartered in people’s houses. Civilians were often badly treated. Women and girls were not safe. One British officer wrote that a woman or girl who slipped into the woods “to pluck a rose is in imminent risk of being ravished.”

Military court martials were convened but punishments seldom fit the crimes.

A preacher complained that while he was preaching the gospel from the pulpit he could see soldiers stealing from his garden.

While a lively social life swirled, on the outskirts of the city an atrocious tragedy was unfolding. During the occupation the British held almost 13,000 American soldiers and sailors prisoner. Thousands of Americans were captured during the British Brooklyn-Manhattan campaign against Washington’s army.

The prisoners were held on board derelict ships off the Brooklyn shore. As many as 12,000 died during the occupation, the greatest loss of life in the war.

Feeble attempts at peace got nowhere. The two sides now were so hostile to one another they could not even agree on simple terminology. Correspondence broke down over names and titles. If the British acknowledged the titles of the Americans— general, commissioner, and so on, they were indicating the American government and Congress were legitimate. They mocked General Washington as a “provincial major of colonial militia” who now demanded the lofty title of general.

When not “partying heartily” in New York, the British were showing an ineptitude that would lose them their American empire. The Americans won few battles, but the ones they did win were catastrophic for the British. General Burgoyne started south from Canada with 10,000 men. He lost his entire army, with the final surrender coming at Saratoga, New York.

In 1781 General Cornwallis, with a 10,000 man army chased the Americans around the Carolinas and Virginia until he was trapped at Yorktown, Virginia by Washington and his French allies. He surrendered nearly 8,000 soldiers and all of their equipment and cannons.

A British relief force under Admiral Graves was on its way from New York with 25 warships and 7,000 soldiers to rescue Cornwallis, but was checkmated by a French fleet at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. It was a double disaster—defeat on sea and land. The news shocked London. The French had blockaded the Chesapeake with 36 warships. The British, who relied on sea power, would face a powerful French fleet and American ships whenever they left New York.

At this point it became clear that the American colonies could not be held. Peace negotiations ended in the Treaty of Paris, which recognized American independence, and in a serendipitous outcome extended the new nation’s boundaries to the Great Lakes and Mississippi River.

Evacuation

It would take many months for the British to leave the former colonies. In 1783 they sent General Guy Carleton from Canada to New York. Carleton had fought the Americans in Canada and upstate New York. At one point he headed an army of 13,000 troops.

Now his task was to withdraw from the last British stronghold, New York. He negotiated with the Americans, including Washington. He worked to get as many as 100,000 loyalists out of the country. He looked for ways to keep freed slaves from being given back to their owners.

On November 25, 1783 the last British troops evacuated New York and the newly independent United States of America. They marched down to the harbor to long boats that took them out to waiting ships.

There were two famous flag incidents that day, plus a famous parting shot. A woman raised an American flag before the appointed hour for the British to leave. A British officer tried to remove the flag. The woman fought him off with a broom. He retreated.

At the harbor, instead of lowering the Union Jack the British left it up, removed the rope halyard used for lowering, and then greased the flagpole.

An American soldier nailed cleats to the pole, climbed it and took down the flag.

As the ships left the harbor, a parting shot was fired toward the shore. It fell short.

Was it a final act of defiance, or was it a left-handed salute to their former countrymen? Maybe it was both.

As soon as the British sailed away, Washington and his troops entered the city in triumph. There were great celebrations. Washington would give an emotional farewell to his officers at Fraunces Tavern. Some had been with him in the dark days of 1776 when he fought futilely across Brooklyn and Manhattan. Now was their moment of glory and honor.

The day the British pulled out for the last time, Evacuation Day, was celebrated as a holiday for a century. It was a kind of mini-Fourth of July, with parades, speeches, fireworks.

Today it is barely remembered, and scarcely celebrated.

The warship Asia would go on to other actions in the empire. It would wind up being dismantled in a shipyard in Chatham, England. Other ships would bear the same name. Its captain in New York, Vandeput, would go on to become an admiral, and late in his life would again sail on the Asia as part of the British North American Squadron, which he commanded. He died suddenly at sea in 1800 while aboard the Asia .

Few would remember the days when the Asia and its guns ruled over New York and its harbor.

Illustration by Larry W. Waterfield



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