Beset by a sudden squall in April 1775, a small British sloop, “very much torn to pieces by the gale of wind,” ducked into the sheltered bay off Beverly, Massachusetts, sometime after dark. It proved a false refuge, for the next morning two fishermen armed with pistols rowed out from the town wharf and claimed the beleaguered vessel as a war prize. After its crew of five men and two women surrendered without protest, the event went down as Beverly’s first capture of enemy loot–a single barrel each of flour, tobacco, rum, and pork.
Citizens excitedly kept watch on the bay in anticipation of more prey. Their vigilance was rewarded when His Majesty’s ship Nautilus
ran aground while pursuing Hannah
, an armed schooner recently commissioned by George Washington to hijack enemy transports supplying British troops in Boston, twenty-five miles south.
People flocked to the beach and began shooting at the stranded warship “very badly many times” with household muskets and a motley battery of antiquated cannon. “’Tis luck they fired so high,” Nautilus
’s captain wrote afterward. Even so, one of his seamen lost a leg in the barrage and another was killed before the vessel rose off the sand on the incoming tide and fled to open water. Ashore, men had body parts “blowed off” by misfires of gunpowder and by accidentally shooting one another.
The mad fervor of the region’s saltwater colonials was well known to British authorities. There’d been incidents of government supply crews abandoning ship down one side as marauders in converted fishing boats clambered up the other side wielding clubs and cutlasses. In response, the Royal Navy’s commander in Boston, Admiral Samuel Graves, had directed his captains to “burn, sink, and destroy” suspicious vessels and to “lay waste and destroy every town or place from whence pirates are fitted out.”
The spiraling violence made everyone cry foul. Americans cursed “Graves and his harpies.” The British retorted that “a thief might with as much truth and reason complain of the cruelty of a man who should knock him down for robbing him!”
British leaders told themselves “those vermin” would be easily crushed, “especially when their loose discipline is considered.” But an unsigned letter from a naval officer stationed in Boston and published that winter in a London newspaper gave a darker assessment. “They are bold enough to dare and do anything,” he wrote of the American sea raiders. “Whatever other vices they may have, cowardice is not one of them.”
Excerpted from Patriot Pirates by Robert H. Patton. Copyright © 2008 by Robert H. Patton. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.