“We was amazingly fortunate”

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Early in 1778, after Burgoyne had blundered into defeat at Saratoga, James and his mates were ordered to the West Indies where, to his considerable delight, he was made acting lieutenant of the sloop Chameleon. One hot night in August, Lieutenant James was summoned to Admiral Peter Parker’s quarters and told the stunning news that France was entering the war on the side of the colonies. James was ordered to take command of the tender Dolphin , with a crew of two men and a boy, and to put to sea to inform all British ships that the French were now enemies.

The Dolphin was a wreck, with “grass on her bottom a foot long,” and poor James, instead of finding other British ships, was himself found by a French squadron and promptly captured. For a year he languished on the island of Santo Domingo watching his fellow captives die of starvation and fever. He was finally exchanged, and Admiral Parker, obviously feeling guilty, greeted him like a long-lost son, and gave him his long-sought lieutenant’s commission.

After more cruising and a largely fruitless attack on the Spanish settlement of Omoa in the Bay of Honduras (Spain had now entered the war on the American side), Lieutenant James was shifted to convoy duty aboard the frigate Charon. This produced a welcome trip home to England, but James soon found himself, in October of 1780, once more in American waters.

Early in December the Charon sailed for the Chesapeake, convoying the renegade General Benedict Arnold and 2,000 redcoats for a campaign in Virginia that was eventually to have fateful consequences for British arms. It was also the beginning of Lieutenant James’ most noteworthy American adventures.

A successful raid up the James River in Virginia captured six American ships loaded with tobacco. The British heard there were more ships in Hampton Creek, and they ordered James and Captain Hawthorne of the 80th Regiment to take 300 men and reconnoiter them.

“At seven o’clock in the evening (December 30th, 1780) we completed the landing at Newport News without any opposition, and at eight began our march; the Rangers in front, seamen in the centre, and the 80th in the rear, with advance and flanking parties from the Rangers.

“Having marched through a thick wood, we discovered a house from which we took a rebel prisoner as a guide, amidst the deep lamentations and cries of his disconsolate wife and children, whom we endeavoured in vain to comfort by every possible assurance of his safety. We continued during our march to examine all the houses and take into custody all those we found therein, to prevent their alarming the country, which though absolutely necessary and unavoidable was distressing beyond measure to those unfortunate inhabitants, who was too much alarmed even to speak.

“At twelve o’clock in the night we entered the town of Hampton, dividing ourselves in three divisions and surrounding with a profound silence the chief streets and houses, and taking out of their beds the principal inhabitants. We again formed on the parade; and at two o’clock quitted the town without committing any other outrages than those that are ever unavoidable with such a body of men, in an enemy’s town in the dead of night.

“Before I proceed on our retreat, I shall make some remarks on the consequences arising from this night’s business to myself, during my remaining in Virginia. On entering the house of Mr. Jones in the above town we unfortunately alarmed the family so much that the ladies were almost in fits, which gave me an opportunity, from a very particular attention on this night, to become a favourite of the family; having relieved them from all the fears and apprehensions our visit had thrown them into by directing the soldiers and seamen to remove to the bottom of the street, and sitting with them myself in a friendly manner upwards of an hour. This will be found productive of many favourable circumstances hereafter, as I was frequently obliged in my turn to visit Hampton with flags of truce and solicit for myself that civility which my inclination had taught me to show my enemy on this night.”

The very next night, Lieutenant James found his instinctive gallantry had even more substantial rewards. Leading five boats on an exploration of the Nansemond River, which flows into the James, he rowed half the night before finally finding in the total darkness a house at which he could seek information, “entering which we found the most lovely young lady alone, sitting by the fire weeping immoderately. Having by every possible means and persuasive argument removed her apprehensions, and dried up the tears of her distress, I requested to be informed with the cause of her being up at so unusual an hour, as I could not conceive it was on our account, as no person knew of our being in the Nansemond River; and that having come there with a view rather to relieve than distress the inhabitants, I flattered myself she would discover to me, though a stranger, wherein she was unhappy, that I might have the felicity of sympathizing with so amiable a fair.