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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
I have seen them walking in the morning at a distance when the weather was a little foggy, when they absolutely appeared like immense giants walking over the tall grass and small trees. I used frequently to ask them why they preferred walking on stilts; their answer generally was to keep their feet dry, and remarking also that they could travel much faster and with more ease than with their feet on the ground. This region is very unlike any other part of France, and should a stranger visit the Landes without seeing any other part of the kingdom, he would naturally conclude that the French nation was only about half-civilized.
The pilot that took my vessel into port came off in a boat rowed (I liked to have said manned) by four females; and after the schooner came to anchor, I took one of my sailors with me and returned to the shore in the pilot’s boat. We landed on a sand beach where the water was too shallow for the boat to come to the beach, when one of the women immediately jumped into the water, took the huge pilot on her back and carried him some distance to the dry land. Another female offered to carry me in the same way; to this I would not consent. The sailor, like myself, appeared ashamed to see a female carry a man on her back through the surf and instantly jumped out and took me on his back to the dry beach.
It is true, these women were coarse and rough, but still they were females and clad in petticoats, and it appeared wrong to my mind thus to degrade and debase the female character. All along the road from Lateste to Bordeaux I rarely saw a man at work in the fields. Nearly all the labor of cultivating the lands at that time was performed by females; now and then, it is true, I saw an old man and perhaps a boy, but this did not often occur. All the men from sixteen to sixty were pressed into the military service. It was often a melancholy sight, when passing through the towns and villages, to see mere boys forced from their parents and taken to some military depot, there to be drilled for a few weeks and then sent to some of the numerous armies to be slaughtered like so many sheep and cattle.
Although at this period the Austrian and Russian armies were in the neighborhood of Paris, and Lord Wellington was marching at the head of his victorious army, overrunning the south of France, it was astonishing to see how little was known to the country people in this region about the military state of the kingdom. Perhaps not a man in a thousand knew that there was a Russian or an English soldier within a hundred leagues of France.
I recollect one day, passing through a small village, I stopped at a house to get some water. There I saw a poor woman wringing her hands and weeping ready to break her heart. I could not refrain from enquiring the cause of her grief, when she said: “Sir, they have just taken away my son to join the army, and I have already lost two of my children in the same way. Oh! I shall never see him again!”
Although at some hazard for my own safety, I voluntarily offered the poor woman all the consolation I could. I told her I was a stranger and had no right to interfere with the affairs of another nation, but at the same time, if she would keep quiet, I could assure her that there was no danger of losing her son; that the wars were nearly at an end, and that peace, in all human probability, would be concluded in a few weeks, when her son would be restored to her again. At these words the poor creature was completely overjoyed. She blessed me a thousand times over, and when I mounted my horse and rode off, I was filled with indignation at what men call military glory; but at the next moment I felt self-reproved that I too commanded an armed vessel and was perhaps going out in a few days to distress the enemies of my country. Oh! then, how strange and inconsistent is poor short-sighted man, always condemning others, when often committing the same crime that he would fain fasten on his neighbor.
I soon saw that the French ladies and the working women are removed an immeasurable distance from each other, almost as much so as though they did not belong to the same species. I used often to pass a social evening at the hospitable mansion of my worthy consignee, Madame Campos, and frequently saw there assembled some fifteen or twenty young ladies and generally not more than three or four gentlemen, and these were military officers who had been wounded and disabled in the wars and were now here attached to the custom house. This was certainly a sad state of society in a national point of view, when there were no young men to marry the fair daughters of France.
[As the British approached, Coggeshall hastened to Bordeaux to prevent the landing of the wine shipment at Lateste. He ordered it sent instead to the heavily fortified port of La Rochelle, which was not yet in danger. Then he made ready to sail—and got away just in time, for the British occupied Lateste the day after he left.]
On my arrival at Lateste, I lost no time in preparing for sea. There was no other ship or vessel lying here, and no stone ballast. I was therefore compelled to take in sand ballast in my own boat and fill up our water casks. We had no biscuit on board and there was but one baker of any consequence in the whole town. I hastened to this important character and agreed to take all the bread he could make in two days, and thus by hurrying and driving I got ready for sea on the 11th of March. At the end of two days I called on the baker for my supply of bread, when to my great mortification and disappointment I could get only loaves enough to fill two bags, and this for a vessel bound to La Rochelle with a crew of thirty-five in number was certainly a very small allowance. It is true I had salt beef and pork enough on board, but no vegetables or rice.