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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
Back in Bordeaux in September, he was informed that both the Porter and the Ida had reached America safely. The Porter had captured several British prizes and arrived at Gloucester with considerable booty and several prisoners. Meanwhile Coggeshall decided not to take immediate passage home, and instead assumed command of the American schooner Leo.]
The Leo was a fine Baltimore-built vessel of 320 tons burthen, sailed remarkably fast, and was in every respect a very superior vessel. This schooner was lying in L’Orient on the first of November, 1814, and then belonged to Thomas Lewis, Esq., an American gentleman residing in Bordeaux. She was purchased on the 2nd of November by an association of American gentlemen from Mr. Lewis and placed under my command. The commission of this vessel was endorsed over to me, and the whole transaction acknowledged and ratified by our Minister at Paris, the Honorable Wm. H. Crawford.
The object of the voyage was to make a little cruise and, if possible, take and man a few prizes, then proceed to Charleston for a cargo of cotton, and return from thence as soon as possible to France; and, as there was quite a number of American seamen in Bordeaux, Nantes, and L’Orient, supported by the Government of the United States through the consuls at the before-mentioned ports, it was desirable to take home as many as the vessel could conveniently accommodate.
After the arrangement was made to perform the voyage, I took with me as first officer Mr. Pierre G. de Peyster, and left Bordeaux for L’Orient. On our way we stopped a day or two at Nantes, where I agreed with forty seamen and two petty officers to go with me in the Leo on our intended voyage. The arrangement with these men was made with the consent and sanction of our resident consul at that place.
Mr. Azor O. Lewis, a fine young gentleman, brother to the former owner of the Leo, was one of my prizemasters, and to him I committed the charge of bringing about forty seamen from Bordeaux to this place. The residue of the officers and men were picked up at L’Orient, with the exception of four or five of my officers who came from Bordeaux and joined the vessel at this place.
Early in November we commenced fitting the Leo for sea. We found her hull in pretty good order, but her sails and rigging in rather a bad state. I, however, set everything in motion, namely sailmakers to repair the sails, block-makers, blacksmiths, etc., etc., while others were employed taking in ballast, filling up water casks, etc., in fine, hurrying on as fast as possible before we should be stopped. The English had so much interference with the new government of Louis XVIII that we, as Americans, felt extremely anxious to get out on the broad ocean as soon as possible, and therefore drove on almost night and day. After ballasting, we took on board 3 tons of bread, 30 barrels of beef, 15 ditto of pork and other stores to correspond; in short, I ordered stores enough for fifty days.
Our crew including the officers and mariners numbered about one hundred souls, and a better set of officers and men never left the port of L’Orient. But we were miserably armed. We had, when I first took the command of this schooner, one long brass 12-pounder and four small 4-pounders, with some fifty or sixty poor muskets. Those concerned in the vessel seemed to think we ought with so many men to capture prizes enough even without guns. With this miserable armament, while I was lying at anchor at the mouth of the harbor, waiting only for my papers from Paris, I was ordered by the public authorities to return to port and disarm the vessel. I was compelled to obey, and accordingly waited on the commanding officer and told him it was a cruel case that I should not be allowed arms enough to defend the vessel. He politely told me he was sorry, but that he must obey the orders of the government and that I must take out all the guns except one; and at the same time laughingly observed that one gun was enough to take a dozen English ships before I got to Charleston. I of course kept the long 12-pounder, and during the night we smuggled on board some twenty or thirty muskets. In this situation I left the port of L’Orient on the 8th of November, 1814, and stood out to sea in hopes of capturing a few prizes.
After getting to sea we rubbed up the muskets, and with this feeble armament steered for the chops of the British Channel. We soon found that when the weather was good and the sea smooth we could take merchantmen enough by boarding, but in rough weather our travelling 12-pounder was but a poor reliance and not to be depended upon, like the long counter gun that I had on board the David Porter. It is true, my officers and men were always ready to board an enemy of three times our force, but in a high sea if one of these delicately Baltimore-built vessels should come in contact with a large, strong ship, the schooner would inevitably be crushed and knocked to pieces.
[At this point in his narrative, Coggeshall introduces several weeks of entries from the log of the Leo. Entries of weather, latitude and longitude have been omitted here .]