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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
We had now time to look into our own situation, when to my great regret, in lieu of leaving four casks of water, the carpenter in the confusion had only left two, and as the wind freshened I found the schooner so light that it was unsafe to haul upon the wind [to turn the ship to windward].
And now I will leave the seafaring men to judge of my unfortunate situation: Thus, wide off to sea in the Bay of Biscay, with a light vessel with scarcely ballast enough to stand upon her bottom, with a crew of thirty-five men and only two casks of fresh water and a few loaves of soft bread.
The wind was light during the night, and towards morning it became almost calm. At daylight, to our unspeakable joy, we were in the midst of a small fleet of merchant ships. They had left England under convoy of a frigate and a sloop-of-war, and had separated in a gale of wind a few days before I fell in with them, and were now like a flock of sheep without a shepherd. This little fleet was bound to St. Sebastian, and many of them were loaded with provisions for the British Army. The first one I captured was a brig, principally laden with provision. After taking possession, I agreed with the captain that if he would assist me with his boats and men to transport his cargo from his vessel to my schooner, I would let him go; otherwise I would take what I wanted and destroy his brig. Of course he was glad to make the best of a bad bargain, and thus, with the boats of both vessels, in two hours we had provisions enough for three months’ cruise. His cabin was filled with bags of hard biscuit, and as this is considered the staff of life we took it first and then got a fine supply of butter, hams, cheese, potatoes, porter, etc., etc., and last, though not least, six casks of fresh water.
After this was done the captain asked me if I would make him a present of the brig and the residue of the cargo for his own private account, which I willingly agreed to in consideration of the assistance I had received from him and his men.
I showed him my commission from the Government of the United States, authorizing me to take, burn, sink, and destroy our common enemy, and satisfied him that he was a lawful prize to my vessel. I then gave him a certificate stating that though his brig was a lawful prize, I voluntarily gave her to him as a present. (This, of course, was only a piece of foolery, but it pleased the captain, and we parted good friends.)
This was on the 16th of March, the day after my escape from the British frigate.
I had now got as much water and provisions as I wanted, and made sail for a ship and two brigs, a mile or two off on our lee beam. Although the wind was very light, I soon took all three of them and made the same agreement with them as with the other captain, that if they would assist me with all their boats and help me to load my schooner with such part of their cargo as suited me, I would let them go; otherwise I would send them into port as prizes or destroy their vessels. This was a bitter pill, but they had the choice of two evils and of course complied with my request.
After having taken out a considerable quantity of merchandise, a fresh breeze sprang up from the S.W. and the weather became dark and rainy, which rendered it difficult to continue transporting any more goods from the prizes to our schooner.
At five o’clock in the afternoon a large ship hove in sight to windward. From aloft, with a spyglass, I clearly made her to be the same frigate that had chased me the day before. I recognized her from the circumstance of her having a white jib; all the sails were dark colored except this jib, and this was bleached. From this remarkable fact I was quite sure it was the same ship.
We of course cleared the decks and got ready for another trial of speed; but as my schooner was now in good trim, and night coming on, I had no doubt of dodging him in the dark. He came rapidly down within five or six miles of us when I ran near my prizes and ordered them all to hoist lanterns. Neither of them up to this time had seen the frigate; and thus while the lanterns showed their positions, I hauled off silently in the dark. Very soon after this I heard the frigate firing at his unfortunate countrymen, while we were partaking of an excellent supper at their expense.
The next day, March 17th, it was dark, rainy weather, with strong gales from the S.W. Saw nothing. Stood to the northward under easy sail, waiting for better weather to complete loading my little schooner with something valuable from another prize.
I would here remark that small guns, that is to say, 6- or 9-pounders, are of little or no use on board of small vessels, for if the sea is rough they cannot be used at all; in a word, I have found them of no service but rather in the way. My only dépendance was on my 18-pounder, mounted amidships on a pivot. This gun I could use in almost any weather.
With this gun and forty small arms, I found no difficulty in capturing merchant ships. I selected ten of the largest and strongest of the men I had on board to work the center gun. One of these was a huge black man, about six feet six inches in height and large in proportion. To him I gave the command of the gun. Although so powerful a man, he was the best-natured fellow in the world and a general favorite with both officers and men.