Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Abraham Whipple Papers Finding Aid

The Swain Report, Number 12

Abraham Whipple Papers

by David Swain

Background Information

Abraham Whipple (1733-1819) was a native Rhode Islander and a “native” seafarer. Early in life he sailed on merchantmen, captaining a ship for wealthy Providence merchants and slave traders Moses and John Brown in the West Indies trade. During the French and Indian War, he turned to privateering, at which he was enormously successful (and lucky), capturing 23 French ships during one particularly lucrative six-month period.

By 1772, he had changed the country whose shipping he hunted from France to England—and, in the process became an early revolutionary patriot. In June 1772, he and John Brown led a party who burned the grounded British revenue cutter Gaspée off of Warwick, RI. The Gaspée had been chasing an American packet boat, seeking to enforce British customs collection and cargo inspection laws. Thus, the act of arson was recognized as a politically defiant, even revolutionary act.

In 1775, the Rhode Island General Assembly decided to take direct action against the British Frigate HMS Rose, which had been “interfering” with Rhode Island trade. It chartered two sloops to do the job, the Katy, owned by John Brown, and the Washington. Abraham Whipple was made captain of the Katy and commodore of the fleet of two. This “Rhode Island Navy” promptly captured the Rose.

As the US Navy began to be created in late 1775, the Katy became one of its first ships, renamed the Providence (a modern replica now floats by the quay in downtown Providence) Whipple also joined the nascent navy as captain of another ship, the USS Columbus. Both ships participated in a 1776 raid on the British military garrison at Nassau, Bahamas, successfully seizing supplies badly needed by the Americans.

Sometime during 1776, Whipple was accused of mistreating his crew. The matter was serious enough that a committee of the Continental Congress summoned him to Philadelphia to answer charges. He was cleared of the charges but was instructed by the committee to “cultivate harmony with his officers.” This matter did not deter his seafaring/navy career. By 1778, he was back in home waters and had captured five British ships before the Columbus itself ran aground on Rhode Island shoals. Not long after, Whipple was assigned to command the Providence (previously his ship the Katy). On the Providence, Whipple continued his “naval privateering,” hunting and capturing British ships all up and down the Atlantic Ocean.

Note: All of the above background information is gleaned from other sources. The microfilmed papers (originals at the Rhode Island Historical Society) that are owned by the David Library pertain to the period in 1779-1780 described next.

Summary of events covered in the Microfilmed Papers

In late 1779, the Continental Congress authorized a fleet of four US Navy ships to protect Charleston, SC from expected attack by the British. The four ships assigned for this duty were the USS Providence, the USS Ranger, the USS Boston, and the USS Queen of France. Whipple was designated captain of the Providence and commodore for the fleet. Most of the microfilmed manuscript papers consist of a single copy notebook in which are carefully and clearly penned copies of letters to and from Whipple. With very few exceptions, all are naval communications and reports. Dates on these correspondences run from September 6, 1779 through April 23, 1780.

These letter copies provide a detailed and probably fairly complete chronicle of official decision making and actions taken during this period in the US naval effort to resist British naval invasion at Charleston. Apart from the frequent communication between Whipple and the captains of the other ships in the fleet of four, the most important correspondences are with General Benjamin Lincoln and with SC governor John Rutledge. Lincoln was the commander of American forces at Charleston. Since the navy did not yet have a higher command structure of admirals, Commodore Whipple reported to the army commander, Lincoln. Rutledge was not a major player until British forces started squeezing Charleston, after which Rutledge, through Lincoln, transferred command of the state’s ships, boats, etc. to the US Navy under Whipple.

Other important correspondents were the Navy Board (also called the Navy Board and Department, the precursor of the modern-day Department of the Navy), and the Maritime Board (or Committee), which was a committee of Continental Congress members appointed by their peers to provide oversight for the new navy and its Navy Board. The copied letters contain several communications from these two boards, as well as periodic reports by Whipple of naval actions taken under his command. These reports provide useful continuity of information with their summaries of the Charleston naval operations.

The letters begin as Whipple’s fleet of four was harbored at Boston. Initially, Whipple was being badgered by the Navy Board to get out of the harbor, go to sea, and protect American interests. Then, the fleet was assigned to sail to Charleston. The letters describe happenings during the voyage down, via Bermuda. Then they document the fleet’s activities at Charleston to prepare for an expected British naval invasion, up until the collapse of these efforts in late April 1780:

Between January and mid February, General Lincoln pushed Whipple to send ships out beyond the bar outside of Charleston bay to look for British ships, to “annoy” them if possible, and to report back any important reconnaissance information. Once the British Navy showed up, the fleet tried, in late February, to position ships so that the British could not make soundings for safe passage over the bar outside the harbor entrance. (See the map below for locations of places mentioned below.)

Map source: printed in Harper’s Weekly, January 19, 1861

Once that effort failed, an attempt was begun on about March 11 to construct a chain barrier across the incoming channel between Fort Moultrie (on the northern side of the harbor entrance, controlled by the Americans) and the “middle ground,” then a rocky outcrop at the center of the harbor’s entrance, on which Fort Sumter was later constructed, beginning in 1828. The deeper, main channel ran between Fort Moultrie and the middle ground. The chain was not completed before the British successfully occupied and fortified the partially destroyed Fort Johnson (on the southern side of the harbor entrance, with a clear line of fire across the water to the middle ground and the chain-building process). As a result, work on the chain was abandoned on March 20, and Fort Moultrie had to be evacuated shortly thereafter.

On April 6, efforts were started on another chain, this one from the Exchange (near the tip of Charleston; the building still stands) across the mouth of the Cooper River. Not long after, this too was abandoned as the British Navy tightened its seaward noose. A final effort was made, reported on April 23, to sink boats across Log Island Creek (a tidal estuary that surrounded the island) to impede British land progress toward the city. By then, ship cannons had also been removed and set up in the city as land batteries, manned by sailors.

The irony of all these naval activities, and their ultimate futility, is demonstrated by the fact that Charleston eventually succumbed to a land siege by General Clinton’s British army. The British Navy’s noose-tightening pressure on the sea side created an effective blockade on that side, but it alone would not have brought the city to its knees, until it was surrounded as well on the land side.

Clinton’s land siege soon caused serious shortages in supplies inside Charleston, and Whipple began issuing orders demanding “economy and frugality.” On April 6, he wrote to his ship captains “…and well knowing the scarcity of stores which a lengthened siege may produce, I have tho’t proper to direct that in future you deliver one half allowance of Rum, and as a substitute in its place issue two quarts of Beer per man.---” Later in the month, more than beverages had become scarce. By early May, the Americans were desperate, and events soon confirmed the inevitable. The American surrender at Charleston on May 15, 1780 of 5,000 army and navy combatants represents the single largest numerical surrender in American history until the Union surrender at Antietam in 1862. It also appears to have been the largest surrender, in terms of percentage of all American combatants at the time, in all of American history.

Selected Details from the Papers

Several specific aspects of and quotations from the microfilmed papers deserve mention:

-- Privateering: Copies of letters to Whipple from Nantes, France, dated January 31 and May 19, 1779, pertain to his previous involvement in privateering. An apparent agent for Whipple reported that the prize Lord Governor had yielded £15,012, although the wine cargo had fetched only £220 per pipe rather than the £250 expected. This is the only correspondence relating to privateering.

-- “Naval privateering:” During October 1779, Whipple was recruiting crew members for the USS Providence, then anchored in Boston harbor. A primary incentive he used was the promise of prizes and wealth. This, of course, was the lure of privateering. However, as revealed in some of the subsequent copied letters, the nascent US Navy sought to clarify proper procedures for capture of enemy ships by naval ships, as opposed to privateers. Naval procedures called for prize ships to be sailed into the nearest friendly port, where captured crew members, the ship, and its cargo were to be turned over to public officials on shore. The papers do not suggest that Whipple abused this procedure, but who knows what actually happened that went unreported.

After Whipple’s fleet arrived in Charleston, the letters reveal concern on the part of General Lincoln of the US Army in early 1780 to understand the policy on prizes. As Whipple’s commanding officer, he felt he needed clarity on this policy to ensure that Whipple’s privateer-bred fleet did not cross the line beyond their naval duty. His learning on the subject soon came into use, as Whipple’s fleet captured two sloops in waters off of Charleston during January 1780.

-- Going to sea: By late October 1779, the Navy Board was anxious for Whipple’s ships to get out of Boston harbor, wishing them to engage the enemy and protect Boston. In their opinion, delays to date were “evil.” “The Ships being completely manned and Victualled the Expenditure of Provisions is daily very great….” “The general uneasiness and discontent which prevails at present on board the Ships must if not speedily remedied be productive of the wont of consequences which an order for sailing would effectively prevent, as our officers and Men animated with an ardent desire of being in actual service prefer the fatigues of duty at sea to the disgrace of being unemployed in Port.” Whipple replied in early November, stating in effect that he would leave the harbor when he was ready. This pungent exchange suggests that both obtuse communication and strong wills have been a part of the US Navy’s history from its beginning.

-- Sailing to Charleston: Whipple’s orders to sail his fleet to Charleston were approved by the Continental Congress on September 20, passed on by the Marine Board to the Naval Board on September 22, but not sent to Whipple until November 20, 1779. Rather than just ordering him to sail, the orders contained a list of rules, including the following: “You will observe the greatest frugality, and strict discipline on board, taking care at the same time to use your Officers and Men well and your Prisoners with Humanity.---” Were they perhaps thinking back on Whipple’s earlier difficulties over on-board discipline and humanitarian treatment, or had this already become standard jargon in such orders? The voyage to Charleston was not routine. Along the way, the ships captured several enemy ships, stopped in at Bermuda, and endured a serious storm with gale winds. Upon arrival in Charleston on December 18, the first order of business was repairing masts.

-- Discipline: Some serious discipline problems, including the death of a crew member in a fight with another one, occurred on at least two of the four ships during the voyage to Charleston. No mention of these problems is found in Whipple’s January 8, 1780 report to the Marine Committee after he arrived in Charleston. During January, discipline problems continued to be a problem, and Whipple sought to clamp down and control it (perhaps the tactic that got him in trouble before).

On January 19, he wrote pointedly to the captain of the Queen of France, after a discipline incident, his “absolute orders and injunctions” on the subject, concluding that “An Attention to these orders is strictly enjoined and positively required.” The very next day, Whipple himself was forced to write to the troop commander at Georgetown (up the river from Charleston), informing him that 18 of Whipple’s men had deserted and requesting the army commander’s assistance in rounding them up. After this communication, no further ones on discipline are found in the papers. Perhaps preparing for British invasion preoccupied all minds in the weeks that followed.

-- National-state cooperation: As the British noose tightened around Charleston, South Carolina Governor John Rutledge sought to use the state’s resources in Charleston to assist in defending the city. The actions he took provide an early look at intergovernmental relations between a state and the US/Continental military of army and navy. Born of necessity, not preference, Rutledge’s decisions had the effect of diminishing sovereign state power by delegating it to the national military. (How different things would be here 81 years later during the Fort Sumter crisis.) The copied letters document Rutledge’s decisions 1) to transfer authority over state ships to Whipple’s fleet, 2) to allow state lighthouses and beacons to be destroyed so the British could not navigate by them, and 3) to give Whipple’s fleet authority to commandeer any private boat needed.

-- Whipple’s surrender and aftermath: Whipple was among those who surrendered at Charleston. That very day, he wrote to the British naval commander in charge at Charleston, Vice Admiral Arbuthnot, requesting parole for himself and his officers. His letter begins “The Continental Frigates in this department having been ceded by Capitulation to the Arms of his Britannic Majesty….” Whipple sent a copy of his letter to General Lincoln, requesting that he use his influence on behalf of Whipple’s parole request. Arbuthnot responded that only General Clinton could act on Whipple’s request. On July 10, the British Board of Admiralty wrote to the US Navy Board saying that the American prisoners had no rights, except to their pay, until exchanged. Whipple remained imprisoned by the British until the end of the war. This correspondence is the last of the letters copied into the copy book.

-- Odds and ends: At the end of the microfilmed papers are found a few loose ends. One is an unrelated letter dated October 6, 1786 (see below). Two others are additional pages from the copy book that apparently became unattached. One contains a table of moon phases for 1780 and the other the list of crew members assigned on December 5, 1779 to crew one of the Providence’s prizes into port.

Completing the story of Abraham Whipple’s life

Whipple returned to Rhode Island after the war, briefly commanded merchant vessels again, but soon abandoned his life-long seafaring career for farming. After a short time working on the land in Cranston, RI, he joined so many other Americans at this time, turning his face westward to seek a late-in-life future in America’s landlocked interior. On October 6, 1786, a friend named Charles Scott, who identified himself as a “fellow sufferer” wrote to Whipple in Rhode Island, seeking to interest him in coming west to settle along the Kentucky River. This original letter appears after the copy book (except for the last two separate pages) in the microfilm papers. Whipple didn’t make it to the Kentucky River, but he did settle as a farmer in Marietta, OH, on the Ohio River, about half way between Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. He died there in 1819.

Have something you want to share, such as a question, research find, or a personal story about the Library? Email Will Tatum at tatum@dlar.org

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