- Historic Sites
“We was amazingly fortunate”
—OR—Through the American Revolution with Pluck & Cheek
October 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 6
“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.”