While American soldiers were fighting the British at Brandywine, Germantown, Saratoga, and Monmouth, this brave young Philadelphian was striking hard blows, all alone, at the same powerful enemy off their own coasts. During this period his fame, in the line of his service, was exceeded by that of no one, not even by that of John Paul Jones.
Through one of those unknown processes by which certain men seem to be raised up for certain emergencies, such a man appeared in Gustavus Conyngham. Feared by the British. Adored by the French. Celebrated by the Americans. He soared to the pinnicle of fame during his prime, then, like so many heroes of the Revolution, without whom we would still be subjects, he faded from memory. He deserves our sincere gratitude.
Taken from: Jones, Charles Henry, "Captain Gustavus Conyngham: A Sketch of the Services He Rendered to the Cause of American Independence" (Philadelphia: Sons of the Revolution, 1903). Edited by Gary M. Bohannon.
When the difficulties with the mother country reached the stage of active hostility it was clearly the policy of the Colonies to attack her at sea, where she was most vulnerable. Being a great commercial nation, anything that would interfere with her commerce would be most disastrous in its effects, and would be most keenly felt by her people in their homes. It was, indeed, about the only way the Colonists had of making the English people feel directly some of the horrors and inconveniences of war which were being inflicted upon them by an invading army. During the war, therefore, privateers under letters of marque were sent out in great numbers to prey upon English commerce wherever it could be found.
The opportunities for this were not so great in American waters. There was comparatively little trading between the Colonies and England, but her commercial intercourse with the whole world was concentrated in the English and Irish Channels and the adjacent seas. This, therefore, was the most inviting place for this kind of attack, but it was at the same time the most perilous, for these channels were narrow and these seas were limited in their area, and they were all carefully guarded by large, vigilant, and fully equipped English fleets. It therefore required qualities of the very highest order in the man who could successfully venture upon the perilous undertaking of attacking British commerce in this restricted field.
Through one of those unknown processes by which certain men seem to be raised up for certain emergencies, such a man appeared in Philadelphia in 1775, by the name of Gustavus Conyngham. Born in County Donegal, in the far north of Ireland, in 1744, he had emigrated to America some time before the Revolution, with his father, and settled in Philadelphia, where he married Ann Hockley.
Late in 1775 we find him on his way from Philadelphia to Holland in the brig "Charming Peggy," upon what he supposed was an errand to bring back a cargo of powder, saltpeter, arms, and clothing. Such a cargo could not be openly procured, and he was obliged to run the "Charming Peggy" stealthily in behind Texel Island, where, after some delay, the cargo was brought out to her by two Dutch vessels employed for the purpose. Through the treachery of one of his crew, his vessel was seized by the authorities, and he was put under arrest. But this reverse of fortune could not subdue him. Favorable winds at last springing up, he disarmed the guard that had been placed on board, and escaped.
When the American Commissioners, Dr. Benjamin Franklin, Silas Deane, and Arthur Lee, reached France, early in 1776, they found Conyngham there and filled out one of the blank commissions that had been entrusted to them by Congress with his name as commander of an armed vessel called "Surprise," a fast English cutter of about one hundred tons, that had been purchased by the Commissioners. Captain Conyngham recruited his crew from among the idle American sailors that were detained in the ports of France and Belgium, - completely fitted out "Surprise" as an armed cruiser, and sailed in her out into the narrowest part of the English Channel on May 1, 1777. Skillfully eluding the British cruisers that guarded the harbor, he sailed up along the coast of Holland, and captured the English packet "Prince of Orange," and the brig "Joseph." With these important prizes he returned to Dunkirk within the week, to the surprise of the Commissioners, the uneasiness of France, and the indignation of England.
The relations between France and England at that time were very critical. They had reached a stage when the possibility of war was freely discussed between them, but neither country seemed quite ready for an open rupture. The policy of France was like the character of its aged Prime Minister, the Count de Maurepas, — vacillating, weak, timid. He was afraid to offend England by too open an exhibition of friendship for the Colonies, and he was afraid he would give offense to the people of France if he favored England too much at their expense. So he was trying to occupy a middle ground between them.
Captain Conyngham had now boldly supplied England with another substantial grievance, which caused France great embarrassment. By her treaties she had agreed not to receive privateers or allow the sale of any prizes they might bring into her harbors, and she was afraid to disregard the obligations of these treaties. France had shown her friendship for the Colonies in many ways, and it seemed to her that now the Commissioners, by placing her in this awkward position, were lacking in a proper appreciation of the obligations of that friendship.
This feeling at the court, however, was not shared by the masses. As the news of these bold and daring captures spread, the fame of Conyngham went with it. He became the hero of the hour. His deeds were discussed in the coffeehouses, and prints representing him with his rattlesnake flag and his captures were displayed in the shop windows. They hated England, and he had defied her in places where she was feared by them. She had undertaken to subdue her Colonies, and this man had retaliated by striking a blow at her for them on her own coasts. It gave them an opportunity to sneer at England, and they improved the opportunity.
The English were now in a feverish state of apprehension. They had demanded that Conyngham be delivered up to them for summary punishment, and were deeply chagrined that he was not. Now that he was again at liberty they were sure he would be heard from again, but they were in a state of anxious perplexity because they could not tell when or where he would strike. His movements were closely watched by British spies and agents, and he was denounced in their diplomatic correspondence as a pirate and a corsair, but in their fears they respected his courage and skill, and they did not question his motives. They were so impressed with his merits that they intimated to him that he might have a place in their navy if he would swear allegiance to the King.
Although Conyngham's brief and successful cruise in "Surprise" was a financial failure, its political results were important. The blows he struck were keenly felt by England, and they had materially widened the breach between England and France, and had given the Commissioners assurance that they could depend upon him for very important results. The difficulty in getting an armed cruiser to sea had been greatly increased, so they were obliged to resort to every form of deception. The Commissioners secretly purchased in the name of their agent, Mr. Hodge, a French cutter called "Greyhound," which they proceeded to arm and equip under the secret supervision of Conyngham.
Hodge went through the forms of a sale of "Greyhound" to an English subject named Richard Allen, who presented his papers in regular form to the Admiralty and asked for a clearance to Bergen in Norway, which was duly granted, and "Greyhound" sailed as a merchantman on July 15, 1777. Conyngham had received from the Commissioners another commission, dated May 2, 1777, "as captain and commander of the armed vessel or cutter called the 'Revenge.' " He boarded "Greyhound," changed her name to "Revenge," and put out to sea. Her coming out was signaled to the British fleet, and she was pursued and fired upon, but succeeded in making her escape.
It will thus be seen how the troubles of the Colonies were agitating Europe as well as America, and that Conyngham was one of the chief causes that produced this agitation. His movements were a constant source of uneasiness and apprehension, often as fanciful as real. The English were always dreading his appearance, not only in the places to which he came, but in the places where it was not at all likely he would be.
In the meantime Conyngham was pushing his crusade against English shipping with unrelenting vigor and zeal. He sailed boldly along the east coast of England into the North Sea and the region of the Baltic, and back again through the Strait of Dover, into the Irish Channel, and from there across the rough waters of the Bay of Biscay. Reports (some of them, no doubt, exaggerated) constantly came of the arrival of his prizes in large numbers at Corunna, Ferrol, and Bilbao.
Over these narrow seas Conyngham set the sails of his aggressive little cutter, training his guns upon British merchantmen, and was beaten about by winds and weather, month in and month out, often suffering from a scarcity of supplies. The comforts of convoys or reinforcements were unknown to him. His resources were all included within the limits of his own gunwales. He captured many prizes, and those he could not capture he destroyed, and thus became an ever-increasing menace and terror to British commerce. The King of England is reported to have said to his Minister that it would give him pleasure to be present at the hanging of Conyngham, if he could only catch him.
The last half of the year 1777 was now gone, and Conyngham had been on his cruises throughout the whole of it. He had met with so much success in the Channels and to the northward that English merchantmen were becoming scarce in those waters. So he concluded to cruise in a new field. Early in 1778 he left Bilbao and sailed down the coast of Portugal, over a thousand miles, to the Strait of Gibraltar. During this cruise he captured many vessels. Upon his arrival at Cadiz he learned of a plot to burn "Revenge" at night, by boats from the British war vessels in the harbor. The small boats did appear about midnight, but finding the crew of "Revenge" prepared, the attempt was abandoned.
From there he cruised out into the open Atlantic. All these seas were covered with British cruisers of every description, under instructions to pursue "Revenge" into any harbor and destroy her, so he left European waters and sailed across the Atlantic to Martinique. From this point he made several cruises among the Windward Islands, protected American shipping, convoyed them clear of the islands, and captured, among other vessels, two British privateers.
Leaving the West Indies in 1779, Conyngham sailed for Philadelphia, where he arrived in February, — more than three years after he had sailed from there in "Charming Peggy." He had spent nearly the whole of those memorable years, 1777-1778, in foreign parts, cruising in the waters along the coasts and through the narrow seas of Europe and Africa, encountering almost every danger and difficulty an enterprise of this kind involves, and overcoming them with the most complete success. While American soldiers were fighting the British at Brandywine, Germantown, Saratoga, and Monmouth, this brave young Philadelphian was striking hard blows, all alone, at the same powerful enemy off their own coasts. During this period his fame, in the line of his service, was exceeded by that of no one, not even by that of John Paul Jones.
England was alarmed and greatly exasperated. English ships were afraid to put to sea. The rates of insurance became almost prohibitory. No man was dreaded more in England at this time than Conyngham. The Commissioners had come to look upon him as invincible. He had swept these seas with such intrepid energy that the attention of all Europe was called to his movements, and they gave rise to protracted discussion and diplomatic correspondence between the statesmen of England, France, and Spain.
It is easy to understand the service Conyngham rendered his country by his wholesale destruction of British shipping, the effect of which was immediate, but his services to the Colonies were more far-reaching. It was the policy of the American Commissioners in sending "Surprise" and "Revenge" to sea, to irritate as well as injure England, in the hope that she might be driven into war with France, and Conyngham did much by his dash and heroism to bring about this important event, which resulted in the French-American alliance and the surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown.
Conyngham did even more. He supplied, by his prizes, the funds out of which American vessels of war putting into Spanish ports in distress were repaired and supplied; out of which destitute American citizens landed by British cruisers on the shores of Gralieia were relieved. When John Adams landed in Spain on his way to Paris to take the place of Silas Deane, he received money out of these funds from the agents of the Commissioners at Corunna and Bayonne. What other needs of the Commissioners in France Conyngham supplied the money for by his cruises is not known, but they were, doubtless, great and important. "Revenge" was the only vessel that took prizes at that time in those waters. There were no funds provided from any other source for any of these necessary purposes, not even to defray the heavy expenses of "Revenge" herself. The value and importance of Conyngham's contribution cannot be overstated.
Upon his arrival in Philadelphia, in February, 1779, "Revenge" was turned over to Congress and sold at public auction in March, purchased by a firm of Philadelphia merchants who intended to use her as a privateer. Conyngham took her to sea in April as a privateer for her owners, under his old commission.
Upon this cruise Conyngham's good fortune seems to have forsaken him, for, while in the vicinity of New York harbor, "Revenge" was captured by the British frigate "Galatea." Conyngham was put in heavy irons and thrown into a dungeon beneath the British prison in New York City, where for fourteen days he lived on a scant supply of bread and bad water. He records in his diary how lie was transferred to prison in England, where he was constantly reminded of the gallows that awaited him. At the least displeasure of his captors he was thrown, in his heavy irons, into a dungeon for forty-two days at a time, on an allowance of three ounces of beef and bread of the worst quality a day. In describing the severe and cruel treatment he received, he says, in his journal, that "dogs, cats, rats, even the grass, were eaten by the prisoners; this is hard to be credited, but is a fact."
He also tells how, with strength greatly impaired by sickness and this cruel treatment, but with spirit unbroken, he finally succeeded, after many fruitless attempts, in making his escape on November 3, 1779. While he was in London, in disguise, he was entertained by the prints he saw of himself, in the shape of a monster, in the shop windows. When Congress heard that the English proposed to try Conyngham as a pirate, the British Ministers were informed that he was a commissioned officer, and that three English officers had been placed in confinement to await his fate. He was also supplied with money by his friend Dr. Franklin and others.
Congress had from time to time neglected to settle Conyngham's claims for pay and prize money. Under the Continental regulations a Captain and his crew were entitled to one-half the value of all uncommissioned vessels captured by them. Of this the captain was to have two-twentieths. They put off the consideration of every claim they were not obliged to meet, as the treasury was empty, and it was not until towards the close of the century that Conyngham's claims were finally adjudicated. His commissions had been taken from him by his captors, and never returned. The circumstances and conditions surrounding his brilliant services were such that it was difficult to produce legal proofs in support of his demands. Congress should have recognized all this, but they were not able to do so. They accepted the benefits of all his heroic efforts, and withheld the reward. His claim was rejected. Much of his later life was devoted to unsuccessful efforts to obtain justice, but it still remains a reproach to his country that he never received proper pecuniary reward for his valuable and patriotic services.