By Charles W. Brewster
Editors Note: C.W. Brewster was a Portsmouth columnist in the mid-1800's. This article includes his opinions and may not reflect current research or current values.
A ramble or two among some of the islands in our harbor before we part with our readers. And first to Badger's, formerly Langdon's Island, where master William Badger built a hundred ships, reserving the hundredth to bear his own name. But all this great fleet has not so much historical interest as the building of one other vessel on that island about eighty years ago.
On the 9th of November, 1776, the American Congress ordered the building or purchase of three ships of seventy-four guns, five of thirty-six, one of eighteen, and one packet. Under this order, the keel of the America was laid soon after at Badger's Island, in our harbor. The island was then owned by John Langdon, who was the agent for supplying material, and it bore his name. The America was, in her time, the heaviest ship that had ever been laid down on the continent for which she was named, and she was, also, the first ship of her class ever built by the Confederated colonies after their rupture with the mother country; and moreover, the only one of the three seventy-fours authorized that was built, or even begun upon. A year and a half after she was authorized, on the 29th of May, 1778, the Marine Committee reported in favor of making her a two-decker, carrying twenty-eight twenty-four-pounders on the lower battery, and twenty-eight eighteen-pounders on the upper deck - in the whole fifty-six guns. This suggestion appears, however, not to have been adopted, and we learn nothing more about the ship until the 2nd of June, 1779, when it was resolved in congress, "that Robert Morris should be authorized to take measures for speedily launching and equipping for sea the America, then on the stocks at Portsmouth, N. H. ;" and on the 26th, John Paul Jones was unanimously elected to command her.
Jones proceeded to Portsmouth about the end of August, and found the America - instead of being ready to be launched, as he had supposed - was not half built; and there was neither timber, iron nor any other material for finishing her. Money would not have procured the necessary articles of equipment and men before winter; but money was wanting; for the Navy Board at Boston had otherwise applied the funds which the Minister of Finance had destined for the America, and he found it impossible to make the necessary advances. The business was, however, begun immediately, and some progress made in construction before winter. It was a service not suited to his impatient temper, and Jones says that the task of inspecting her construction was "the most lingering and disagreeable service he was charged with during the period of the Revolution."
As soon as the enemy had advice that there was a prospect of the America's being finished, various schemes were suggested for her destruction, intelligence of which was sent in cypher to Portsmouth by the Minister of Marine. Jones applied to the government of New Hampshire for a guard to protect the vessel, and the Assembly voted to comply with his demand. None was however furnished, and on the second alarm sent by General Washington, the master builder, Mr. Hackett, and his associate were prevailed upon to mount guard with a party of carpenters by night. For some time Jones paid this guard himself, and took command of it in turn with the master builders. Large whale boats with muffled oars, full of men, came into the river, and passed and re-passed the America at night without daring to land.
When the birth of the Dauphin of France was officially communicated to Congress in the summer of 1782, several of the States celebrated the event with public rejoicing, and Jones seized the opportunity to "testify the pleasure and gratitude" - as he expressed it "which he really felt." At his private expense he had artillery mounted on board the America. She was decorated with the flags of different nations, displaying in front that of France; fired salutes as often as the forts, and thirteen royal salutes at a toast drunk at a public entertainment, and afterwards continued a 'feu de joie' until midnight. When it became dark the vessel was brilliantly illuminated and displayed fireworks, which had a very fine effect, for it was a very dark night. All the inhabitants of the town and its vicinity were assembled on the banks of the river, and testified their admiration by every possible show of applause. On the anniversary of our independence the same year, Jones, who was fond of show, made a similar rejoicing.
The America had only single quarter galleries, and no stern gallery; and both stern and bows were made very strong, so that the men at quarters might be everywhere under good cover. The plan projected for the sculpture, expressed dignity and simplicity. The head was a female figure, crowned with laurels. The right arm was raised, with forefinger pointing to heaven, as appealing to that high tribunal for the justice of the American cause. On the left arm was a buckler with a blue ground and thirteen silver stars. The legs and feet of the figure were covered here and there with wreaths of smoke to represent the dangers and difficulties of war. On the stern, under the windows of the great cabin, appeared two large figures in bas-relief, representing tyranny and oppression, bound and biting the ground, with the Cap of Liberty on a pole above their heads. On the back part of the starboard quarter gallery was a large figure of Neptune, and on the starboard gallery was a large figure of Mars. Over the great cabin, on the highest part of the stern, was a large medallion, on which was a figure representing Wisdom surrounded by danger, with the bird of Athens over her head. The danger surrounding Wisdom was probably emblematically expressed by flashes of lightning.
The America was fifty feet six inches in extreme breadth, and measured one hundred and eighty-two feet six inches on the upper gun deck. Yet this ship, though the largest of seventy-four guns in the world, had, when her lower battery was sunk, the air of a delicate frigate, and no person at the distance of a mile could have imagined that she had a second battery.
But Jones was not destined to command this beautiful ship, whose construction he had watched and guarded. At the close of the summer of 1782, the Magnifique, a seventy-four gun ship belonging to the French Squadron under the Marquis de Vaudreuil, was lost by accident in the harbor of Boston. Policy, and perhaps equity, rendered it expedient for Congress to present to France their solitary ship-of-the-line, and a resolution to that effect was passed on the 3d of September. Other motives may have had their weight in making this disposition of the America. Thus passed out of their hands the only ship-of-the-line of the Revolution.
This resolution was the more disappointing to Jones as this was the tenth command of which he had been deprived in the course of the Revolution. He continued, however, to urge forward the launch with the utmost energy. The difficulties were great. Langdon's Island was small, and between the stern and the opposite shore, Church hill, which was a continued rock, the distance did not exceed one hundred fathoms. From a few feet above the stern, a ledge of rocks projected far into the river, making an angle of twenty degrees with the keel; and from a small bay on the opposite shore, the flood tide continued to run with rapidity directly over this ledge, for more than an hour after it was high water by the shore. It was necessary to launch the ship exactly at high water, and to give her such a motion as would make her pass around the point of the ledges of rock without touching the opposite shore - then a difficult matter. When everything was prepared, Jones stood on the highest part of the prow, or gangway that ascended from the ground to the bow of the ship, a position where he could see her motion, and determine by a signal the instant when it was proper to let go one or both of the anchors that hung at the bows, and slip the end of the cable that depended on the anchor fixed in the ground on the island. The operation succeeded perfectly to his wish, and to the admiration of a large assembly of spectators.
Thus was the America launched, with the flags of allied France and America displayed from the poop. After seeing her safely moored, Jones the same day (Nov. 5, 1782) delivered her to the Chevalier de Martigne, who had commanded the Magnifique. The next morning he set out for Philadelphia. Jones highly commended the perseverance of the master builder, Major Hackett, who had never seen a ship-of-the-line when he drew her plan; and who had no more than twenty carpenters at work at any time while her construction was in progress, and says the workmanship on her was far superior to any before seen in naval architecture. For the main facts in the above account we are indebted to a correspondent of the Boston Journal.
After various adventures and cruising in the French navy, she was captured by the British in Lord Howe's engagement of the 1st of June, 1794. Cooper so says in his Naval History, but some doubt the fact. John Elwyn, who has looked into the history of this famous vessel, says that on the first of June, and in a list of the English Royal Navy in 1799, she comes up with two others after this fashion, from which it looks as if the English did not bear in mind that she was not a French built ship. Why they changed her name is that they had already a sixty-four gun ship America; and as the real Impetueux, exactly the counterpart of the America, was burnt at Portsmouth soon after they got in there, they called our Piscataqua ship the Impetueux after her. In this English list we read thus:
"Le Sanspareil of eighty guns, L' Impetueux of eighty guns, Le Pompee of eighty guns; the two first ships were among those taken by Lord Howe in 1794, and the last by Lord Hood at Toulon; they may be considered as the three marine rivals. The stern of the Impetueux is extremely beautiful; it is executed by the French in their best manner. Before she came out of the dock in 1796, the Prince of Wales crest was added to it. She was originally L' Amerique, and was named after the Impetueux that was burnt in Portsmouth harbor."
The Impetueux, under her new name, held the highest possible reputation, and was sometime commanded by Sir Edward Pellew. "She was afloat we believe in the last war, and we have reason to think is now a large fifty gun ship of the Queen's, with her name back again, and is still afloat. She was in the Pacific a few years back, near the same time as the Congress, also built here, and just about her bigness. Be she the same ship through all this," says Mr. Elwyn, " she was an honor to Piscataqua shipwrights and to our coast oak."
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