“We was amazingly fortunate”

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Being an account, based upon his own journals, of a young British naval officer’s adventures in love and war. How he helps take New York—and is almost bayonetted by Hessians while scavenging for souvenirs. How he sets a prize afire, and the lamentable results when she proves to be loaded with gunpowder. How he takes command of a prize fleet with a most intoxicating cargo. How he sails to the West Indies and there makes the grievous error of wooing two Creole ladies at the same time. The tale of a night with an “amiable fair,” and of how he escapes her father’s rebel militiamen. The tale of his perilous escape from the French off the Chesapeake Capes only- alas!—to see his ship destroyed by Monsieur. And how at last, serving ashore at Yorktown, he witnesses the twilight of Britain’s cause.

Bartholomew James was a swashbuckler. He was also at times a low comedian, a confirmed girl-chaser, and an old salt at the age of twenty-three. These are not unique talents in time of war, but James is nevertheless a very rare character, one who ought to be beloved of historians, for he kept a vivid record of how it feels to be an ordinary man in the midst of great events. His period was the American Revolution, far away in time but right before our eyes in the splendid journal he somehow found time to keep. Under the circumstances, which seem to form a steady series of vehicles for the varied talents of an Errol Flynn or a Buster Keaton, it is a wonder he wrote a line. If the subject of his grammar comes up, let us look the other way.

A mere midshipman in the Royal Navy, James makes no attempt to penetrate Sir William Howe’s strategy or to analyze why Cornwallis was trapped at Yorktown; instead, he tells us only what a young subordinate officer knew and saw at the time, and does so with an eye for vivid detail surpassed by few Revolutionary War diarists, British or American. Yet most historians have ignored him. In the latter part of the nineteenth century a British writer, W. H. Kingston, borrowed large portions of the journal for a tale called Hurricane Hurry. The results were described at the time as “unfortunate.” This may have prompted James’ descendants, who included several admirals, to persuade the Navy Records Society to publish the complete journal in 1896, and from this our excerpts are taken.

We first meet our hero aboard His Britannic Majesty’s ship of the line Chatham, escorting General William Howe’s army off Sandy Hook, near the entrance to New York Harbor, on July 2, 1776. James was already a veteran, for, like many other young men in the eighteenth century, he had joined the Royal Navy at a very early age. To be exact, at eleven. In 1773 he had spent a year on active duty in the West Indies. He was short and stocky, with a bulldog jaw and lively, popping eyes. James had come from one of those genteel English families who lived a step ahead of their creditors, and for him the war was a long-awaited chance to win honor, promotion, and prize money from captured American ships.

Not long after his arrival in New York, James transferred to the frigate Orpheus. He and his fellow sailors were not needed to help Howe trounce the Americans in the Battle of Long Island. But after a month’s lull, the British plan for the capture of New York brought orders for the Orpheus and four other ships to proceed up the East River and anchor off “Kippes Hay.”

“The 21st [of September] about three o’clock in the afternoon, his lordship made the signal for us to weigh with a very light air from the westward. At half past three the enemy’s batteries opened and commenced a prodigious heavy cannonade on us until seven o’clock; and though the shot went through and through us we experienced little loss except in our rigging which was terribly cut fore and aft, the people being all directed to lie down.

“We anchored in Kippes Bay at half past seven where the rebels were entrenched along the shore of York Isle [Manhattan Island] some two miles to the number of some 15,000, and amused us all night with a constant fire from an eighteen-pounder, with which, from the darkness of the night or bad conduct, they only hit us twice.

"The 23rd at six in the morning, we weighed and anchored a little below Blackwell’s Island [Welfare Island] on the York side about fifty yards from the enemy’s entrenchments, to which place the whole body as above immediately moved, frequently making signs and calling to us to come on shore. We continued without firing at each other until eleven o’clock when the first division of flat boats appeared coming down Bushwick Creek having on board 4,500 men under the command of General Howe. As soon as the boats arrived within fifty yards of the ships, the signal was made from the Phoenix to begin the attack on the enemy’s lines.