Eleven Guns For The Grand Union


Summer was on the wane in wartime Philadelphia, 1776, and the city which had startled the world with the Declaration of Independence was alive with purposeful activity. To John Trottman, age seventeen and on vacation from the college at Princeton, its bustle and excitement were in welcome contrast to the quiet atmosphere of his home in Barbados.

During his stay in America, Trottman’s guardians were theoretically the Messrs. James & Dunker, Philadelphia merchants; but these gentlemen were too deeply engrossed in more pressing affairs to pay much attention to their ward. Or perhaps they were just indulgent where he was concerned. In any case, he was allowed to roam the city of Philadelphia in the company of his friend George West of Carolina.

One late September afternoon, the boys were exploring the water front, their attention absorbed by vessels discharging their varied cargoes or by shipyards such as that of Wharton & Humphreys, where the first warships of the infant American Navy had been converted from merchantmen less than a year earlier. Whatever the attraction, they lingered until dark in a locale which held considerable danger lor able-bodied young men.

Before they were aware of what was happening, a group of rough characters materialized out of the gloom, barring their way. A few abrupt questions and the lads were suddenly seized and forcibly propelled in the direction of an empty wharf. There they were tumbled into a ship’s longboat, where a hard fist or belaying pin could discourage any outcry they might make. After an hour of steady rowing, a vessel loomed dark at anchor in the river, and waiting hands hauled them aboard.

Thus, somewhat unceremoniously, John Trottman and George West entered the service of the Continental Navy aboard the brigantine Andrew Daria , Captain Isaiah Robinson commanding. Then lying at Gloucester, New Jersey, awaiting orders from the Marine Committee of Congress, the vessel on which Trottman and West found themselves had some claim to distinction. Supposedly named for the great admiral of the Genoese republic, Andrea Doria, she kVas nevertheless referred to—in diplomatic and intelligence reports and by those who served aboard her—as Andrew Doria . She was one of several assorted craft purchased the preceding year as a nucleus of the new Navy, and in the conversion to a ship of war her sides and bulwarks had been reinforced, with the latter pierced for fourteen guns. The crew consisted of 130 officers and men, including 30 marines. Details of the ship’s construction are lacking, but it was reportedly similar to that of the Cabot , another of the converted vessels, which was 75 feet long on deck, 25 feet abeam.

Captain Nicholas Riddle had been the Andrew Doria ’s first commander, and he had taken her on the raid on Nassau in March, 1776, as part of Commodore Esek Hopkins’ small fleet. The ship had suffered minor damage in an indecisive engagement with the frigate Glasgow off Block Island in April; then had made three short cruises, capturing ten prizes, of which two were transports loaded with British troops. Returning to the Delaware from his last cruise, Captain Biddle anchored off Chester, Pennsylvania, on September 17, 1776, and shortly thereafter placed the brigantinc in a shipyard lor refitting. Here Biddle left the Andrew Doria to assume command of the frigate Randolph , which was nearing completion.

Captain Isaiah Robinson was thus newly in command, busily engaged in organizing and manning the brigantine, fresh from overhaul. Under the circumstances he was probably glad to have as his first lieutenant Joshua Barney, who had received his commission in the Navy at the hand of Robert Morris. Barney had served with Robinson aboard the Sachem , and at seventeen he was already an experienced ship’s officer and a veteran of sea warfare.

The skipper of the Doria was, however, having trouble completing his crew. It was almost impossible to induce experienced seamen to serve aboard warships of the Continental Navy, where discipline was more severe, the term of enlistment longer, and the prospect for prize money appreciably less than aboard privateers. It should not be assumed, however, that Ca2Jtain Robinson had sent out a press gang to fill his urgent need. This form of recruiting was in the hands of water-front gangs who deemed it their patriotic duty to supply the Continental Navy with needed hands. There was grim humor in waylaying known or suspected Tories and delivering them aboard Navy ships to serve, perforce, the cause they opposed. It could be profitable, too, for it would be naive to imagine that the victims arrived aboard ship with anything left in their pockets.

On October 17 the Marine Committee wrote Robinson, informing him that he was to make a voyage under orders from the Secret Committee of Congress. On this mission he was to collect and transmit useful intelligence; take good care of the Andrew Doria , her supplies, and equipment; maintain good discipline among his crew, while using them well; treat any prisoners he might take with “tenderness and humanity”; and upon his return deposit a copy of his log and journal with the Marine Committee. Orders from the Secret Committee reached him soon afterwards. They are not in the records, but other references and the course of events reveal their substance.