Heroic and Mock Heroic Exploits of 1813

From the Norfolk Herald, as reprinted by the Wilmington American Watchman, April 21, 1813:

The Tug of War — Several of the enemy’s boats (the number we cannot positively state, as some people are of opinion there were three, some five, some ten, some fifty, some an hundred, and so on)–all well manned and provided with munitions of war, proceeded up Nansemond river but a day or two ago, as far as Chuckituck creek, when espying a comfortable looking mansion on the margin of the river, entirely undefended, they resolved to make a descent, for which purpose a detachment of marines were landed to reconnoitre, covered by two pieces of cannon, and meeting with no obstruction, orders were given for a general debarkation, when the whole marched resolutely up and took possession of the farm yard in the name of their sovereign lord king George the Third; nobody but an old negro woman appeared to dispute their title.  All except a corps de reserve left in the rear to secure a retreat in case of accident, the commanding officer arranged the plan of attack on the fortifications in the following order.   The marines being most accustomed to that kind of warfare were sent round to the rear of the house by a private avenue, under an officer of great experience, to surprise the hen-house; another party composed of the most resolute spirits, were ordered to storm a neighboring pig sty, and the third, being the remaining disposable force, headed by the commander in chief, proceeded to sack the dairy and smoke house.–The arrangement was excellent, but unfortunately the marines, by omitting to send out an advance guard, were surprised while defiling through a narrow pass, by a flock of turkies, who charged them furiously in the flank and rear.  After a sharp engagement of near half an hour, however, the assailants were either killed, taken prisoners, or put to flight, without the smallest injury to his majesty’s troops, except a violent palpitation of the heart and a cold sweat, common on such occasion.  The antipathy which turkies have for a red coat is remarkable ever since the last war, when the British soldiery were so famous for their depredations on that species of the feathered race.  This will account for the obstinacy with which they maintained the conflict with the British marines–But to proceed–the turkies having been defeated, the hen roosts were soon taken possession of; the pig sty was carried after a slight resistance, the store houses were sacked, and the whole of the forces retreated in excellent order, laden with spoil, and without the loss of a man!”

Account of a Heroic Exploit of an Artilleryman, from the National Advocate, August 11, 1813:

“Extract of a letter from a gentleman near Hampton, to his friend in this place, dated August 2d, 1813.

I cannot but wonder that so brave a man as JOHN S. PARKER, a Sergeant of Artillery, should have been so entirely forgotten as not to have been mentioned in a public manner–He deserves as much as any Officer or Soldier, who fought in defence of Hampton on the 25th of June.  This man was ordered by his Capt. (Pryor) with a six pounder to Thompson’s white gate on the stage road leading to Hampton & very near the town.  He there planted his piece in such a position as to have command of the road and waited until the enemy came trotting towards town in close order filling up the road completely, thinking to meet with no more obstacles.

This brave fellow, true to his trust, deliberately waited until they got 30 or 40 yards within the cross-roads, when he opened a deadly fire upon the enemy, and continued it until his ammunition was expended; which was after 11 or 12 fires, slaying them at every discharge of his piece, and they advancing upon him with a heavy fire of musketry and grape which fortunately injured none of his men.  He then retreated with his piece for some distance to hide her, but was obliged to abandon her.  He says, and I believe him to be a man of truth, that whenever he fired (to use his expression) he made a lane through them, and that many of them would squat when they expected a fire.  You have had all the details of the conduct of the enemy at Hampton, which have been so often recapitulated, that I shall say nothing of it, only I hope before I die we shall have it in our power to inflict vengeance upon the monsters.”

Encounter between an American privateer and a British frigate, December 25, 1813:

The following letter was frequently reprinted in various contemporary newspapers.   I have copied that printed by the Wilmington American Watchman of February 26, 1814.  The author, Nathaniel Shaler, is writing to his owners in New York City.  His ship, the Governor Tompkins, was named for New York’s governor.  According to Wikipedia, HMS Laurel was “a 36-gun fifth rate frigate launched in 1813.”

“At Sea, January 1st, 1814.

Two days after despatching the Nereid, I took a whaleman from London, bound for the South Seas, but being of no value, I took out such stores &c. as I could stow; and being much lumbered with prisoners and baggage, I put them on board, and ordered her for Falmouth.

The chasing this ship had taken me some distance off my ground; and owing to calms, I could not regain it until the 25th ult. when at sunrise three sail were discovered ahead, and we made sail in chase.  The wind being light we came slowly up with them.  On a nearer approach they proved to be two ships and a brig.  One of the ships had all the appearance of a large transport; and, from their manoeuvres, they appeared to have concerted measures for a mutual defence and the large ship appeared prepared to take the bulk of the action.  Boats were seen passing to & from her:  she had boarding nettings almost up to her tops; she had also her topmast studden sails boom out, with the sails at their ends, ready for a running fight.  Her ports appeared to be painted and she had something on deck resembling a merchant’s boat; and after all, what the deuce do you think she was?–Why have a little patience and I will tell you.

At 3 P.M. a sudden squall struck us from the northward, and the ship not yet having received it; before I could get in our light sails, and almost before I could run round, I was under the guns–not of a Transport, but of a LARGE FRIGATE!!! and not more than one third a mile from her.  I immediately hauled down English colours, which I had previously had up; set three American ensigns, trimmed our sails by the winds and commenced a brisk fire from our little battery; but this was returned with woeful interest.  Her first broadside killed two men and wounded six others, two of whom severely, one since dead.  It also blew up one of my salt boxes with two nine pound cartridge.  This communicated fire to a number of pistols and three tube boxes which were lying on the companion way, all of which exploded, and some of the tubes penetrated through a small crevice under the companion leaf, and found their way to the cabin floor, but that being wet, and the fire screen being up, no further accident took plus.

This, together with the tremendous fire from the frigate, I assure you, made warm work on the Tompkins‘ quarter deck; but thanks to her heels, & the exertions of my brave officers and crew, I still have the command of her.

When she opened her fire upon me it was about half past three.  I was then a little above her beam.  To have attempted to tack, in a high squall, would at least have exposed me to a raking fire; and to have attempted it, and miss, would have been attended with the inevitable loss of the schooner.  I therefore, thought it most prudent to take her fire on the tack on which I was and this I was exposed to from the position which I have mentioned until I passed her bow; she all the while standing on with me, and almost as fast as ourselves; and such a tune as was played round my ears I assure you I never wish to her again on the same key.

At 4 her shot began to fall short of us.  At half past four the wind dying away, and the enemy still holding it, his shot again began to reach us, got out sweeps, and turned all hands to.  I threw over all the lumber from the deck, about 200 wt of shot from the after hold.  From about 5 A. M. [?] all his shot fell short of us.  At about 25 minutes after 5 the enemy hove about, and I was glad to get so well clear of one of the most quarrelsome companions that I ever met with.

After the first broadside from the frigate, no shot struck the hull of the Tompkins; but the water was literally in a foam all round her.  The moment before the squall struck us, I told Mr. Farnum that she was too heavy for us and he went forward with the glass to take another look; when the squall took the schooner as if by magic, and up with her before we could get in our light sails.

My officers conducted themselves in a way that would have done honour to a more permanent service.   Mr. Farnum, first lieutenant, conducted himself with all his usual vigour.  Mr. Atcheton, sailing master, performed his part in the style of a brave and accomplished seaman.  Messrs. Miller and Dodd, 2d and 3d Lieutenants, were not so immediately under my eye; but the precision and promptitude with which my orders were executed, is sufficient proof that they are to be relied on.  Mr. Thomas, boatswain, and Mr. Caswell, master’s mate were particularly active, and deserve encouragement.  The name of one of my poor fellows who was killed ought to be registered in the book of Fame, and remembered with reverence as long as bravery is considered a virtue.  He was a black man of the name of John Johnson.  A shot struck him in the hip, and took away all the lower part of his body.  In this state the poor brave fellow lay on deck; and several times proclaimed to his shipmates, ‘Fire away my boys! no haul a color down!’

The other was also a black man by the name of John Davis, and was struck in much the same way.  He fell near me, and several times requested to be thrown overboard, saying, ‘He was only in the way of others.’  Whilst America has such tars, she has little to fear from the tyrants of Europe.

From the circumstance of her shot being _______ [illegible] (which I assure you is the case as we have _____ and weighed them) I am of opinion it was the Laurel, a new frigate, which I had information of.  A gentleman whom I took told me she was in the fleet; that she was built & manned on purpose to cope with our frigates; and that, if she got sight of me, would certainly take me as she was the fastest sailing ship he ever saw.

Yours respectfully,
Nathaniel Shaler”

About the Author

Mary Bowden is a researcher working at the Texas Collections Deposit Library at the University of Texas. A little-known but invaluable treasure of U.S. history and the history of American journalism is archived in the collection of bound United States’ Newspapers at the University of Texas at Austin. The collection began more than a century ago and has been stored in recent years in the Texas Collections Deposit Library on the campus of the University of Texas. The sizeable archive is currently in the early stages of being digitized before being moved to a more climate-controlled environment at the J.J. Pickle Research Campus of the University, on the north side of Austin.

Mary Bowden