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Soldier In A Longboat
Three times John Glover’s Marblehead fishermen saved Washington’s army; in a final battle, the “amphibious regiment” rowed him to victory across the Delaware
February 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 2
Glover not only studied but looked the part of a soldier. He was reputed to have been “the most finely dressed officer of the army at Cambridge,” and like that Essex County general of a later day, George S. Patton, he wore a pair of silver pistols into battle. He was also known to carry a Scottish broadsword and a bayonet imported from Genoa.
The Marbleheaders’ first assignment was to guard their home town, and after remaining there until June 21, 1775, the unit marched off to join the Army at Cambridge. For the next six months most of Glover’s men helped fill the lines in the siege of Boston, while others were assigned to special duties away from camp. Frequently, Marbleheaders were picked lor a post of honor to guard the headquarters of the commander in chief himself. One observer who saw Glover’s men at Cambridge described their offduty behavior as “most extravagantly excentric and sportful. … The men were not vitious, but all the time in motion, inventing and contriving amusements and tricks.”
However, it was as a naval unit rather than an army regiment that Glover and his men made their first significant contribution to the patriot cause. After Washington assumed command of the Army in July, 1775, he quickly foresaw the possibility of attacking the enemy on water as well as on land. The British Army was cooped up inside Boston and was forced to rely upon supplies brought in by sea. Congress had taken no steps to set up a navy, so Washington decided to send to sea a fleet of his own to cut off the enemy’s lines of supply. His commission said nothing about commanding sea forces, but Washington found a way to get around that. He detailed soldiers to serve as sailors aboard his ships, employed army officers as seagoing commanders, and used army funds to charter civilian vessels. To create what came to be known as Washington’s fleet, the general from Virginia found himself relying heavily upon the Marblehead seamen.
Washington picked Glover as one of the key officers to outfit and man the fleet, and the stocky Marbleheader made available his own trading schooner Hannah , converting her into an armed warship at his wharf in Beverly. When she sailed on her first cruise in September, 1775, the Hannah was commanded and manned by Marbleheaders from Glover’s regiment. By the end of October, Washington’s fleet had grown to six vessels—half of them with crews mustered from Glover’s unit.
Among their exploits as sea raiders was the Marbleheaders’ capture of the first important iminitions prize of the war. There was an acute shortage of powder at the time, and Washington hoped that ”… a fortunate Capture of an Ordinance Ship would give … an immediate turn to the Issue of the Campaign.” Some of Glover’s soldiers aboard the Lee made a “fortunate Capture” indeed when they took the British storeship Nancy in November. She was a floating arsenal carrying 2,000 muskets, 30 tons of musket balls, 30,000 round shot, 100,000 flints, and a monstrous brass mortar weighing 10,000 pounds. One American general claimed he could not have made out a better invoice if he had tried. Had he given such an order to the infant industries in America, it would have taken eighteen months to fill.
While their comrades served on shipboard, the rest of the regiment was soon employed on another mission associated with the sea. They were rushed to the Essex County coast in mid-December to forestall a threatened invasion by three British men-of-war. For the next seven months they manned the coastal defenses at Beverly, a major naval base for Washington’s fleet, guarding the little flotilla and its captured enemy vessels. Not until July so, 1776, did the regiment set out for New York to rejoin the main army that had left in March.
The regiment was not engaged in the Battle of Long Island that took place on August 27, 1776—a debacle that brought Washington’s army to the brink of disaster. When the smoke cleared, a tight little defensive perimeter barely two miles wide and a mile deep, near the Brooklyn Ferry, was the only territory on the island left in American hands, and had the British stormed the American lines immediately, they might have pushed the patriots into the bay. Instead, British General William Howe switched to siege tactics. With 15,000 men to Washington’s 9,000, he felt it was only a matter of time before the Americans would be overwhelmed.
As if matters on land were not desperate enough, the situation in the surrounding waters was worse. The British fleet had complete control of the sea and was maneuvering to enter the East River. If it succeeded, any retreat from Long Island by water was doomed. What was even more dangerous, the warships would be in position to shell the Brooklyn defenses from the rear. And since Washington had divided his forces between Long Island and Manhattan, possession of the East River by the British fleet would prevent them from joining, and allow Howe to deal with them piecemeal. The only thing that kept the enemy ships from reaching their objective was an unfavorable wind from the northeast. “When once the wind changed,” noted an English historian, “and the leading British frigates had … taken Brooklyn in the rear, the independence of the United States would have been indefinitely postponed. …”