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A Yankee Skipper Who Preyed On British Shipping Relates His Wartime Experiences
American sea captain George Coggeshall tells of his experiences evading the British navy during the War of 1812 and spending over half a century at sea.
October 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 6
The next day after this conversation, namely December 8th, Capt. Wise said, “Captain Coggeshall, it is necessary that you and your officers should go on shore to the Admiralty Office, there be examined with respect to the condemnation of your schooner, your late cruise, etc., and if you will pledge me your word and honor that you and your officers will not attempt to make your escape, I will permit you and the other two gentlemen to go on shore without a guard.” I told him at once that I would pledge myself not to attempt in any way to make my escape and would also be answerable for Mr. de Peyster and Mr. Allen. This ready compliance on my part was only a ruse to gain an opportunity to reconnoitre the garrison or, in seamen’s phrase, “to see how the land lay,” in order to profit by the first chance to make my escape.
We accordingly went on shore without a guard and were conducted to the Admiralty Office. I was first examined and was asked a great many questions, the greatest part of which were printed; the answers were written down opposite the questions. It seemed to me to be more a matter of form than for any other purpose. By the by, many of the enquiries appeared to me very silly.
After they had finished with me they commenced with Mr. de Peyster, and after asking him a few questions the court of enquiry was adjourned until the next morning at ten o’clock; and after notifying us to be there precisely at the time appointed they dismissed us. We then took a stroll about the town for an hour or two, returned on board and reported ourselves to Capt. Wise. Up to this time not a shadow of suspicion was visible on the countenance of Capt. Wise or his officers that either of us would attempt to make our escape.
In the evening I consulted with Messrs, de Peyster and Allen on the subject of giving them the dodge the very first opportunity. I told them that if the Captain required my parole the next morning I would not give it, neither would I advise them to pledge their word and honor that they would not make their escape. I told them further that I was resolved to decamp the first moment I saw a favorable opportunity and would advise them to do the same, and not, from any motives of delicacy, to wait a moment for me.
The next morning when I dressed myself, I put all the money I had, say about 100 twenty-franc gold pieces, in a belt around my person, and some 15 or 20 Spanish dollars in my pocket with some other little relics and trifling keepsakes, and being thus prepared went to breakfast in the wardroom. About nine o’clock Capt. Wise sent for me into his cabin, when the following dialogue ensued: “Well, Coggeshall, I understand you and your officers are required at the Admiralty Office at ten o’clock, and, if you will pledge your honor as you did yesterday that you will neither of you attempt to make your escape, you may go ashore without a guard; otherwise I shall be obliged to send one with you.” I watched his countenance closely for a moment to ascertain his real meaning and whether he was determined to adhere strictly to the words he had just uttered, and then replied, “Captain Wise, I am surprised that you should think it possible for anyone to make his escape from Gibraltar.” He instantly saw I was sounding him, when he pleasantly but firmly said, “Come, come, it won’t do. You must either pledge your word and honor that neither you nor your officers will attempt to make your escape, or I shall be compelled to send a guard with you.” I felt a little touched, and promptly replied, “You had better send a guard, sir.”
Accordingly he ordered the 3rd lieutenant to take a sergeant and four marines with him and conduct us to the Admiralty Office to finish our examination.
At the hour appointed they commenced where they had left off the day before with Mr. de Peyster. I was sitting in the courtroom and Mr. Allen standing at the door, when he beckoned to me. I instantly went to the door and found the lieutenant had left his post and was not in sight. I then asked the sergeant whether he would go with us a short distance up the street to take a glass of wine. He readily complied with my request, leaving the marines at the door to watch Mr. de Peyster, and walked along respectfully a few paces behind us up the street.
We soon came to a wine shop on a corner with a door opening on each street. While the soldier was standing at the door, Mr. A. and myself entered and called for a glass of wine. I drank a glass in haste but unfortunately had no small change, and this circumstance alone prevented my worthy friend from going with me. I hastily told him I would cross the little square in front, turn the first corner, and there wait for him to join me. I then slipped out of the shop, passed quickly over the little park, and turned the corner agreed upon, without being seen by the sergeant while he was watching at the opposite door. I waited some minutes on the corner for Mr. Allen and was sadly disappointed that he did not make his appearance.
I had now fairly committed myself and found I had not a moment to spare. I therefore walked with a quick step towards the Land-Port-Gate, not the one leading to the peninsula, but the gate situated at the N.W. extremity of the town. My dress was a blue coat, black stock, and black cockade with an eagle in the centre. The eagle I took care to remove and then it was tout à fait an English cockade, and I had altogether very much the appearance of an English naval officer. I said to myself when approaching the guard at the gate, now is the critical moment, and the most perfect composure and consummate impudence is necessary to a successful result. I therefore gave a severe look at the sentinel when he returned me a respectful salute, and I was, in another moment, without the walls of the garrison.