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“We was amazingly fortunate”
—OR—Through the American Revolution with Pluck & Cheek
October 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 6
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.
“It is hardly possible to conceive what a tremendous fire was kept up by those five ships for fifty-nine minutes, in which time we fired away in the Orpheus alone 5,376 pounds of powder. The first broadside made a considerable breach in their works and the enemy fled on all sides, confused and calling for quarter, while the army landed, but, as usual, did not pursue the victory, though the rebels in general had left their arms in the entrenchment. The havock was by no means so great as it would have been had we not been obliged to cease firing on the landing of the troops; however, the ground in some places was filled with the slain and numbers got off with the loss of arms, etcetera.
“As soon as the firing ceased from the ships I was sent in the barge to tow on shore the flat boats, when curiosity led me to follow the army through the works where I saw a Hessian sever a rebel's head from his body and clap it on a pole in the entrenchments. While I was amusing myself with these sights, and picking up some curious trifles, several volleys of musketry was fired from a boat belonging to the Orpheus at us, who had, in rowing along shore, taken us for rebels as I had on a white linen jacket which I wore at my quarters and which was all colors at this time with powder and dirt.
“As I knew the boat I made signs of friendship, but all in vain; and I was obliged to throw away my little affairs and take to my heels, as the enemy had done before, amidst a constant fire from the boat who fortunately only wounded one man slightly in the leg. On my arrival on board I found the second lieutenant amusing the captain with an account of his attack on a body of rebels, which I gave him to understand was myself and the barge’s crew, by which I had lost some valuable swords and little trifles, which in the precipitate retreat before his arms I had left behind me. Captain Hudson permitted me to go again on shore with the above lieutenant but all our little matters were taken and we procured only nine drums and some fusees.
”Mr. Barton [the lieutenant] leaving me by accident on shore, I rambled into the woods with one of the midshipmen of the Phoenix who had with him the gunner and seven men. On our entrance into an orchard we took a rebel prisoner who had lain concealed there for some time. From this man we learned there had been a skirmish in the woods with the rebels and a body of the Hessians and that the former was dispersed all round the woods. Having consulted each other on the consequences of advancing further from the ships, and pleased in some measure with the success of taking the above man, we determined to go in quest of some more and shortly after heard several voices in an orchard at the end of the wood on which we assembled with our muskets presented to the gate and levelling at some men we saw in the grass were about to fire, when up start two or three hundred Hessians with flaming large brass caps on and with charged bayonets advanced rapidly towards us.
“The sudden unexpected surprise of such a visit alarmed us prodigiously, and we made signs of being friends, which had little or no effect in our favour, as on their coming close to us they knocked us down with their muskets, frequently using the word ‘rebel’ for which they really took us. In vain I assured them with signs that we were part of the British navy and pointed to my white cuff, having changed my clothes on going on board, that I might not a second time be taken for an American. But I was much surprised, and in fact at a loss how to act, when they pointed out a rebel officer who lay there with a leg shot off, who had on the very exact uniform of a midshipman, which having explained to each other, they again beat us unmercifully and would undoubtedly have put their bayonets through us had not General [Robert] Pigot, who commanded that party and who knew me when in the Chatham, have come to our relief, when they made a thousand ridiculous apologies for their treatment, and we returned to our ships in need of both cook and doctor, and totally weary of our expedition.”
Not satisfied with harrying James on land, the God of War now proceeded to give him a bad time on the water as well. “The 25th I was sent down to Lord Howe with some dispatches, having ten miles to row; and on my return, the people having got drunk, mutinied and made an attack on me which obliged me to use my hanger [short cutlass] and by cutting them over their hands, disabled them, in doing which I broke my hanger in two pieces, but first had very fortunately got the better of the most insensible part of them, two having promised to row on board, where I arrived in a most fearful situation about half past one in the morning, when I had them sufficiently punished for their infamous conduct.”
A few days later, James went ashore again and “walked out to the encampment of our army at Kingsbridge, and having viewed the situation of both armies, whose advanced sentinels were within call of each other, saw, in returning, a rebel spy taken and hung immediately to a tree [almost certainly not Nathan Hale, who had been hanged shortly before, on September 22]; he died with great heroism, lamenting only that he could not communicate his intelligence to his commander, as he had done with success twice before.”
For the next few months, James and his shipmates did blockade duty along the American coast, ranging from Rhode Island to the mouth of the Delaware. Their experiences give a lively glimpse of a little-known part of the Revolution, of days full of chases and captures of ships and of sharp skirmishes with American militia. In October, 1776, they drove an American sloop ashore near Cape May, New Jersey. James was ordered aboard her to see if he could get her off.
“We boarded amidst a heavy fire from [rebels on] the shore. Finding it impossible to get her off, we set her on fire, with orders to quit her without loss of time as we found her cargo consisted of 360 barrels of powder, with some saltpetre and dry goods; but, unfortunately, before we had all left her she blew up, and a mate and six men was blown to pieces in her. The oars of the other boats were all knocked to atoms, and two men had their ribs broke; but considering the whole, we was amazingly fortunate, as the pieces of the vessel was falling all round for some time, and the air was totally darkened with the explosion. As soon as she blew up we gave the rebels three cheers and returned to our ships.”
A few weeks later, the Orpheus took five prizes in quick succession, including a sloop from Martinique carrying claret and a schooner from St. Eustatius with a cargo of rum and gin. To Midshipman James’ delight he was put in charge of this little fleet and ordered to sail it to New York.
“Here commences the most agreeable time I have experienced during my servitude as a midshipman, as I was in possession of almost every luxury of life without one anxious care, one unhappy moment to embitter it. I had a most elegant cabin with a comfortable stove.
“Among the innumerable good things I was in possession of there was on board one of the prizes three cases of the best Bordeaux claret which Captain Hudson had directed to be sent to him and Captain Chinnery of the Daphne. We were keeping as usual Christmas Day, anil were desirous to drink good wine; we therefore drank the three cases out and the following day filled them with claret of a very inferior sort out of the casks, corking them with the same long corks, and sealing them all over with a deal of attention and care; which answered every purpose, as the captains, on drinking the wine, observed, ‘It might be very good claret but for their parts they found very little difference in that and the cask claret.’
“Thus we passed our jovial days till in an evil hour our summons came to join the ship, and I do not remember a greater change than to be transported in a second from those luxurious scenes to a cold, distressed midshipman’s habitation, and to be subject to the variety of causes that make them lead an unpleasing life. It was some days before I could in any way reconcile myself to the uncomfortable change. However, I at last rubbed on as usual, flattering myself the fickle goddess Fortune would soon again favour me.”
James yearned above all else for promotion. He had almost won it in 1773 on his West Indian tour aboard the sloop Falcon when he was made an acting lieutenant. But, as he tells us in his journal, his prize was lost when he decided to “push forward among the Creole ladies” ashore.
“Having been invited among the other officers of the ship to a supper and ball it fell to my lot to dance with a Miss D., who, being an invalid, quitted the company at a very early hour and had a black servant with a gig in waiting to take her to her father’s house which was about a mile out of town. I insisted upon having the honour of seeing her safe to the pen, and drove off in the best style I was capable of, which I soon perceived was, in the lady’s opinion, a very hazardous one, as she very kindly advised me to let the boy lead the horse as the road was both intricate and much out of repair. Vanity, however, construed this apprehension into a desire of being better acquainted with me, and without having the smallest idea of her before, I no sooner quitted the reins than I swore in the handsomest manner that I was deeply in love, and that unless it was reciprocated I should be the most miserable youth existing.
” ‘Dear sir,’ replied the sweet girl, ‘we are nearly at my father’s door. I have no time to answer now but if you will drink tea with me at my aunt’s tomorrow, in the town, at six o’clock, I will be there to receive you. This card will point you out the house.’
“Taking a delicious kiss to seal the contract I sprung from the carriage and gently travelled back to join my friends flattering myself I soon should learn the art of love. On my return to the festive dance I soon engaged another partner, and, without considering once how deeply I had been wounded by Miss D. the hour before, I fell most desperately in love again, and with the same artful tale won again my second partner’s heart. The honour of leading her home some distance through the town gave me an opportunity of requesting permission to pay her my respects on the following day, which I obtained, with an invitation to tea; but recollecting that at six I was engaged with my friend Miss D., I apologized for declining that honour by saying I was obliged to be on board at six, but that I would make my bow to her between the hours of four and five. Begging she would allow me the felicity of a salute as a prelude to our future happiness I proceeded to the inn, and from thence with my messmates returned on board.
“The captain was on the following day to dine with the governor, and had ordered the barge at three o’clock, Lieutenant Dobbs having been invited to accompany him. I was therefore obliged to wait until they had left the ship, fearing the consequence of a refusal had I asked to go under the circumstances, leaving the ship without a lieutenant.
“Now, whilst we are waiting for the tedious departure of the captain, let me take you back, my friend, to the two ladies, who (oh! unfortunately to relate) were first cousins, and their appointments both made at one house, their Aunt D’s, where the one from the country had arrived at noon; suppose them both delighted with the idea of having made a conquest of a young lieutenant of twenty-one, and that they had determined to make each other their confidant. (They did so; and on discovering the state of the case they resolved to tell the whole story to their friends and all together to receive me on my arrival and laugh me out of the town.)
“Now to return on board and prepare for the captain’s departure, which took place exactly at three, after having directed me to send the barge on shore for him at eight o’clock. No sooner was he off from the ship’s side than I flew to my cabin, and expended the next hour in decorating and equipping my person for the ladies. I left the ship without leaving the necessary orders for the barge to go for the captain; and unmindful of any other but the great and important event of meeting the dear girls, I hastened to the door where I had the evening before parted from what I thought then the loveliest of her sex. Oh, my friends, had I known the storm that was hanging over me, had I but the smallest idea of the dreadful trial I was to experience, or had I but considered names and circumstances, I would sooner have suffered short allowance and confinement for a year than have ventured before this awful tribunal.”
It hardly needs adding that his enraged captain saw to it that Acting Lieutenant James soon found himself enduring “the horrid snubs” of a midshipman’s life again. But if he was unlucky in promotion and love, the goddess Fortune wove a protective spell around James in other, more important ways. On the fourteenth of July, 1777, on blockade duty off Massachusetts, he had as narrow an escape as any sailor wants to encounter. The Orpheus ran ashore a rebel brig, a schooner, and a sloop near Truro on Cape Cod. Most of the Orpheus’ boats concentrated on the brig, which was quickly captured and floated free. James meanwhile was ordered to take a boat and burn the sloop. Since most Americans in sight were trying to protect the more valuable brig, James foresaw no problems.
“I advanced within musket shot and was fired on by three men who daringly remained in the vessel, which however I soon dispersed with a swivel shot and a volley of musketry from the boat, and had approached so near to her that we were about to board her, when to my great astonishment a vast number of men arose from behind a sandhill and saluted me with three cheers, a volley of musketry and two pieces of cannon. The sudden surprise of this unexpected attack which wounded two of my people and threw us all into confusion, together with the little probability there was of escaping, made me determine on a surrender, as I thought it would be madness to lose my people’s lives in a fruitless attempt to escape, which appeared to me totally impossible. I therefore called for quarter and offered to come on shore; but the firing still continuing and two more of my men being wounded, I was under the necessity of seeking that safety in flight which the enemy ungenerously refused me by an offer to surrender; and having at the distance of a few yards stood their fire for some time, I got the foresail hoisted and with the wind in my favour ran off shore, having six men dangerously wounded out of seven and the boat almost knocked to pieces.”
In the autumn of 1777, James commanded one of four boats sent to burn the British frigate Syren, which had run onto the rocks near Point Judith, Rhode Island, and been forced to surrender to the Americans. “We left the ships at eleven o’clock and rowed towards the Syren amidst a heavy fire from the enemy of cannon and musketry, and found a heavy sea running alongside of her, that her masts were made a stage to walk from the ship on shore, and that they had got out a quantity of her stores and provisions. In this situation we boarded her, and each of the officers, as directed by the admiral, carried his basket of combustibles into the ship and fired her in different places; though our retreat was necessarily so precipitate that we were obliged to get into the first boat we could find and put off with all speed, as the fire had communicated to her guns, which were then going off both sides; and we completely destroyed her without any accident but that of the first lieutenant of the Flora , whose face and hands were much burnt by the explosion of the combustibles.”
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.
”‘Indeed,’ replied this good girl, ‘my own fears being removed and my apprehensions of your using me ill totally vanished, gratitude obliges me to feel for the safety of so generous an enemy in return. You are much mistaken,’ continued this generous fair, ‘if you think your being in this river is a secret, for know, sir, it has been discovered ever since you entered it and the country some hours alarmed. My father, who is a colonel in the militia, is gone with several detachments down the river to cut off your retreat, and upwards of four hundred men are posted at MacKay’s Mills for the same purpose; and in hopes of your staying till daylight in the river, they do not mean to attack you till that time.’
“Whether this was an absolute fact or not, it was necessary for me to guard against its consequences; and having found also from this lady that there was a ship, brig and sloop at Suffolk, about four miles above us, and thanked her for her very friendly and seasonable information, I joined in the opinion of the different lieutenants I had then the honour to command that a precipitate retreat was absolutely necessary, having performed the service we came on. At half past three in the morning we was all in our boats and under way down the river and, agreeable to the information we had received from our female friend, were warmly attacked by the enemy at MacKay’s Mills, who kept a heavy and regular fire on us. The rapidity of the ebb tide and the extreme darkness of the night prevented the execution of the enemy’s fire and we passed the whole river as well as the town of Nansemond with no other accident than one man wounded and several shots through the boats.”
A few days later James visited Hampton under a flag of truce and came back “loaded with presents from Mrs. Jones and her amiable daughters with whom I spent the greatest part of the day.” In the next few weeks he paid the Jones household many more visits, never failing to come back “with the best of its produce.”
While James was ingratiating himself, Benedict Arnold was devastating Virginia, burning vast quantities of stores and tobacco at Richmond and elsewhere. James and his mates were busy with convoy and blockade duty all through the spring and summer of 1781 as the British poured more men into the Virginia campaign. There is not the slightest hint of oncoming disaster in James’ journal as he tells how the Navy helped move the Army to the sleepy port of Yorktown and joined with the soldiers in toiling on the exhausting work of fortifying the place. Then comes the entry which carries the seeds of events that would alter everything, both in James’ journal and in the history of the Revolution.
“30th August— The Guadeloupe and Bonetta [British frigates] returned again into port, having been pursued by a fleet of French ships, consisting of twenty-six sail of the line besides frigates, fire ships, bombs [ketches mounted with bomb-throwing mortars] and transports who chased them to the mouth of the harbour and took the Loyalist [another frigate] within three miles of the town, who engaged their advanced ships until all her masts went by the board. Three ships of the enemy’s line anchored at the mouth of the harbour, and the main body of the fleet anchored in Lynnhaven Bay [the roads at the mouth of the Chesapeake].
“September 1st—The enemy landed six thousand French troops up James River which joined the rebels at Williamsburg, and the same night I was sent to guard an express boat, which was sent to New York, until she had safely passed the advance ships of the enemy, which she accomplished at midnight, and I arrived on board at daylight in the morning.”
James saw nothing of the sea battle between the French and British off the Chesapeake on September 8. He only knew that “Admiral Graves having appeared off the Capes with about twenty sail of the line who after some slight skirmish with them [the French] was obliged from their superiority to retreat.”
James now proved his seamanship—and luck—once more as commander of a tender sent out to reconnoiter the enemy’s fleet. “The French fleet from Rhode Island having now joined their force by sea consisted of thirty-six sail of the line besides frigates, fireships, bombs, and transports. On this night I made signal to the garrison of the enemy’s remaining at anchor in Lynnhaven Bay, and stood off and on in sight of them all night.
”[September] 10th--Made the signal to the garrison of the enemy’s movements from Lynnhaven Bay, and soon after of their anchoring at the Shoe [the Horseshoe, a more sheltered portion of the Chesapeake].”
The next morning James had another of his hair-raising escapes.
—[September] 11th—Calm, moderate weather. At four o’clock in the morning the enemy began to advance from the Shoe, at which time the schooner lay becalmed about three miles from them, and by bringing with them a sea breeze, they came very near me before I could get any wind; at six o’clock one of the headmost ships fired a shot at me at which time, having received a wind, I cut away my boat and hopped off, with all I could drag on her, and fortunately escaped ‘Monsieur.’ At noon I made the signal for a further advancement of the enemy and at four o’clock ran up the harbour like a scalded cock, the French fleet having anchored in the mouth of the harbour.”
The anchored French ships made an inviting target for a fire-ship raid. James and two fellow lieutenants promptly volunteered for this dangerous duty. With them came a Mr. Campbell, a lieutenant aboard a Loyalist privateer. James wanted them all to be placed under the command of Captain Palmer of the Vulcan, an established fire ship. But the British commodore decided to let each man operate independently. James describes the British effort, which came on the night of September 22.
“The wind being between the north and west on this evening, it was judged practicable to attack the advanced ships of the enemy and, having assembled on board our vessels, we cut our cables at midnight and ran down the river. At two o’clock we came within sight of the enemy, and were advancing with every probability of success, when from some cause, unaccountable as strange, Mr. Campbell, of the privateer, set fire to his vessel. This proved as unfortunate as dangerous, for the enemy, who was before keeping no lookout, cut their cables, beat to quarters, and having fired twenty or thirty shot at us, retreated in a precipitate and confused manner. Mr. Conway at this time set fire to his vessel, and soon after Mr. Symonds to his; when, seeing the French launches rowing towards us, and no probability of grappling the enemy and running a risk of my retreat being cut off, in which case no quarter is gave, I set fire to my vessel with no other view than to prevent her falling into the hands of the enemy. However, bad as this sad business ended, we ran two ships of the line on shore, and, if pursued with any enterprising people, in that situation [they] might, in my opinion, have been destroyed at last. We arrived at our tents about six in the morning with the loss only of one man wounded who was blown up in setting fire to the vessel, and not much satisfied with the expedition, from which we at first promised ourselves honour and promotion.”
On September 25 James and eight other naval officers took command of the Yorktown batteries and exercised the guns to the satisfaction of Lord Cornwallis. On September 28, Washington and Rochambeau appeared before Yorktown, and James was among the first to open fire on them with his guns. A week of cannonading followed while the Americans and French labored on their siege trenches. On the fourth of October, James notes in his journal his first sign of alarm: “We kept up as heavy a fire on them as our want of ammunition would allow.”
On October 9 the French and American batteries began to return the British fire. James and his naval friends, used to fighting their battles with cannon, soon realized they were in for a pasting. Their guns were simply no match for the allies’ heavier weapons, and their dwindling ammunition rendered them even more impotent.
On the tenth, James had to sit and watch while French gunners set his ship, the Charon, on fire with hot shot. “From our being quartered at the guns in front of the army, that timely assistance could not be given her which was necessary to extinguish the fire, and she broke adrift from her moorings and drove on board a transport to which she also set fire, and they both grounded on the Gloucester side where they burnt to the water’s edge. The loss of our things in the Charon are so very trivial when compared to the more distressing scenes of the garrison that I shall say no more on this head than that we saw with infinite concern one of the finest ships in the navy of her rate totally destroyed on this day.”
That same evening the first lieutenant of the Charon was forced to quit his battery, “the shot and shell having dismounted his guns and tore up his platforms.” It was an experience that would soon be repeated all along the British line. By October 11, James was writing, “I now want words to express the dreadful situation of the garrison. Upwards of a thousand shells was thrown into the works on this night, and every spot became alike dangerous. The noise and thundering of the cannon, the distressing cries of the wounded, and the lamentable sufferings of the inhabitants, whose dwellings were chiefly in flames, added to the restless fatigues of the duty, must inevitably fill every mind with pity and compassion.”
On October 12, the seamen from the transports simply refused to man their batteries in the “hornwork,” as the British called the projecting angle in the center of their lines. It was the most exposed position in Yorktown, open to devastating fire from both right and left. Lieutenant James immediately volunteered to replace them, and with Cornwallis’ warm approval led a midshipman and thirty-four seamen to the fray.
The next eight hours were the most harrowing in James’ life. “In fifty-two minutes after my arrival in the hornwork the enemy silenced the three left guns by closing the embrasures, shortly after which they dismounted a twelve-pounder, knocked off the muzzles of two eighteens, and for the last hour and a half left me with one eighteen-pounder with a part of its muzzle also shot away, with which I kept up a fire until it was also rendered useless.” Every man in his party was killed or wounded except James, and “most of the wounded lost an arm or leg and some both.” As the first lieutenant of the Charon relieved him at six o’clock that night, even James’ luck ran out. A shell burst between them, and gave him “a contusion” of the face and leg. “In short,” declared James, “myself and the midshipman, both wounded, were the only two that returned out of thirty-six, having stood a close cannonade with the enemy for eight hours, who had ninety-seven pieces of heavy cannon playing on us all that time. I quitted the works about a quarter after six, having received the thanks of Lord Cornwallis, who was in the redoubt during the greatest part of the time.”
For the next few days, James manned other batteries on the Yorktown ramparts, but it was clear to him that the British cause was sinking fast. On the night of the sixteenth, James and his fellow sailors stood by their guns, maintaining what fire they could, while Cornwallis ferried the elite of his army across the York River to Gloucester in a last desperate attempt to break out of the trap. A violent midnight storm ruined the operation, and the next day Cornwallis asked for terms.
The surrender was only mildly mortifying for James, since Yorktown was an Army failure. Moreover, his American friends, notably the indefatigable Jones family, rushed to his aid with food and money the moment Cornwallis’ men laid down their arms. Mr. Jones, perhaps with an eye toward marrying off one of his daughters, even declared that if Lieutenant James was to be imprisoned in America, he would ask General Washington to parole him to his house. But under the terms of the surrender, naval officers were permitted to return to Europe, and Lieutenant James sailed out of American history on December 9, 1781.
His adventures were by no means over, however. When war broke out with republican France, James took to the sea once more, and survived another series of narrow escapes and even livelier escapades. His remarkable good luck was climaxed by a cruise as captain of the raider Corso , on which he amassed some £25,000 prize money. After the Treaty of Amiens in 1802, he built himself a handsome house near the seaport of Falmouth in southwestern England, where he settled down contentedly with his wife and two daughters. He held a desk job at Falmouth throughout the Napoleonic Wars and became a rear admiral on the retired list two years before his death in 1828 at the age of seventy-six.
Afloat or ashore, in peril of his life or enjoying himself with an “amiable fair,” Bartholomew James never lost his genial good humor. Summing up his “hazardous battles and skirmishes” in America, he declared himself “fortunate in all cases but that of promotion.” It is hard to think of such a likable young man as an enemy.