October 1957 | Volume 8, Issue 6
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.
George Coggeshall of Milford, Connecticut, was a sea captain in the great Yankee tradition. His father had been a successful shipmaster but was ruined by repeated confiscations of his cargoes by British and French vessels in the years after the Revolution. Young George, too poor to attend school, had been sent to sea as soon as he was old enough to carry a message from the quarter-deck to the forecastle. In 1809, when he was only 25, he received his first command and altogether spent some sixty years of his life at sea.
Like so many American shipmasters, Coggeshall turned to privateering after the War of 1812 began. It was a risky business, but a profitable one if managed right. With regular channels of trade closed by hostilities, it was a financial necessity for most shipowners. During the war years American privateers ranged the oceans of the world from the Bay of Biscay to the China Sea and captured some 1,350 prizes. By 1814 privateers were bagging an average of three merchantmen a day. In fact, they did more actual damage to British shipping than the much-publicized American Navy.
The two vessels which Coggeshall commanded in these troubled times, the David Porter and the Leo, were known as letter-of-marque schooners. While armed and commissioned to capture and destroy enemy commerce, they differed from conventional privateers in the respect that they carried cargoes and sailed for more or less set destinations.
Thirty years after the war, Captain Coggeshall, who had a lively pen and an eye for interesting detail, put his memories and old logbooks together in book form. AMERICAN HERITAGE is happy to be able to print here certain of the more exciting portions of his wartime adventures, taken directly, with very slight modernizations in the text, from the original Coggeshall manuscript, now in the possession of Colonel A.C.M. Azoy of Ardsley-on-Hudson, New York.
At this period of the war [the fall of 1813] there were but three ways for captains of merchant ships to find employment in their ordinary vocations: namely, enter the United States Navy as sailing masters, go privateering, or command a letter-of-marque—carry a cargo and, as it were, force trade and fight their way or run, as the case might be; and thus, as the last alternative I chose the latter.
I gave myself some weeks of leisure, and then consulted a few friends on the subject of purchasing a pilot-boat schooner and going into the French trade. After looking about for a suitable vessel, I at length met with a fine schooner of about 200 tons burthen, called the David Porter. She was built in Milford, my native town, and had made but one voyage, namely, from New York to St. Jean de Luz, France, from thence to St. Bartholomew, and from that place to Providence, R.I., where she then lay. She was a fine, fast-sailing vessel, and tolerably well armed, namely, a long 18-pounder on a pivot amidships, four 6-pounders, with muskets, pistols, etc. I purchased one half of this schooner for $6,000 from the former owners in Milford, Connecticut. They retained the other half for their own account. My New York friends, Messrs. Lawrence and Whitney, and James Lovett, Esq., bought one quarter, and I retained the other quarter for my own account.
We finally decided on a voyage from Providence to Charleston, S.C., and from thence to France under my command. I forthwith proceeded to Providence and arrived at that place on the 21st of October, 1813. Here I purchased 1,500 bushels of salt, and after getting the salt on board we filled up the vessel with potatoes, butter, cheese, etc., the whole cargo amounting to $3,500. I took with me as first lieutenant my former mate in the Canton, Mr. Samuel Nichols, Joseph Anthony 2nd lieutenant and Charles Coggeshall 3rd lieutenant, with a complement of about 30 petty officers and men. My boatswain, carpenter and gunner, with several of the men, had just been discharged from the frigate President and were very efficient and good men.
I left Providence on the 10th of November with a fine fresh gale from the N.N.W., and in a few hours got down to Newport, there to lie a few days to get ready for sea and wait a favorable time to go out the harbor, that is to say, a dark night and a N.E. snow storm; for in these days to avoid the vigilance of the enemy we were obliged to wait for dark stormy nights to leave or enter our ports. On the morning of the 14th I met with a New York friend, and to this gentleman I committed what little treasure I had left after getting ready for sea. The whole consisted of 30 gold guineas, sundry bank notes and my gold watch, with a request that he would stop at Stamford, Connecticut, on his way to New York, and leave the above-mentioned articles with my sister.
At this time there was a British 74 and a frigate cruising off the harbor of Newport to blockade the port and watch the movements of the United States frigate President, which ship was then lying at Providence.
Towards evening on the 16th of November, I got under weigh, with the wind at E.N.E. At this time no vessel was permitted to go to sea without first presenting a clearance to the commanding officer at the outer fort, at the entrance to the harbor. Consequently, I ran down near the fort just before dark and, for fear of any mistake or detention, took my papers and went myself to the commanding officer and got permission to pass the fort by exhibiting a lantern in the main shrouds for a few minutes. It soon commenced snowing, with a fresh gale at N.E. We ran rapidly out of the harbor and soon got outside of the blockading squadron, and now my greatest fear was running on to Block Island. Fortunately, however, at daylight we saw no land; neither was there a single sail in sight.
On the 17th of November was chased by a man-of-war brig. He being to windward, I hove off, and soon had the pleasure to run him out of sight. On the 24th off Georgetown, was chased all day by a man-of-war brig, with a schooner in company. They being to leeward, consequently I tacked and plied to windward and made good my retreat before night. I could have got into Georgetown the next day, but fearing my cargo would not sell as well as at Charleston, I stood on for that port.
November the 26th, at six o’clock, daylight, in 10 fathoms of water off Cape Romain, saw a man-of-war brig on our weather quarter [that is, to windward], distant about three miles. He soon made sail in chase; I kept wide off to leeward in hopes of drawing him down, so that I could weather him on the opposite tack. This manoeuvre did not succeed, as the enemy only kept off about four points. We both therefore maintained our relative positions, and the chase continued for four hours. I had determined not to run to leeward for fear of coming in contact with another foe, but to hug the wind and run in shore. At 10 A.M. I saw Charleston Lighthouse, bearing north, about ten miles distant. I set my ensign and hauled close upon the wind. This brought the enemy on my starboard beam at long gun-shot distance. I then fired my center gun but could not quite reach him, the wind being light from the northward. At half past ten, I gave him another shot, and though it did not take effect, with a spyglass I saw the shot dash water on his quarter.
I suppose the reason he did not fire was that he could not reach me with his carronades. At eleven, within five miles from Charleston Bar, I saw two schooners coming over the bar and bearing directly down upon the brig, when he squared his yards and ran away to leeward. The two schooners were the famous privateer Decatur of Charleston, with 7 guns, and a complement of over a hundred men; and the other schooner was the letter-of-marque Adaline, Capt. Craycroft of Philadelphia, bound to France. The schooners took no notice of the brig, hauled to the eastward and were soon out of sight. I crossed the bar and got up to Charleston without any further difficulty; and then I was told that the man-of-war brig was the Dotterall, carrying 18 guns.
[Coggeshall remained in Charleston for three weeks. There he disposed of the salt and foodstuffs at a good profit and took on a fresh cargo consisting of 331 bales of compressed cotton, 16 kegs of potash, and 25 tons of pig iron for ballast.]
The Congress of the United States had lately assembled at Washington, and great fears were entertained by many that an embargo would soon be laid. I was of course extremely anxious to get out of port, as such a measure would have been ruinous to myself and the other owners of my vessel and as it was impossible to get out over the bar while the wind was blowing strong directly into the harbor. I therefore, to avoid being stopped by an embargo and to keep my men on board, judged it best to drop as low down the harbor as possible and watch the first favorable moment to proceed to sea. Fortunately the weather cleared up the next day, and with a favorable breeze and fine weather I left the port of Charleston on the 20th of December, 1813, bound to Bordeaux.
I had a good run off the coast and met with nothing worth remarking until the 27th, namely about a week after leaving port, when I fell in with a small English brig from Jamaica, bound for Nova Scotia.
As it was about four o’clock in the afternoon, and at this time blowing a strong gale from the N.W. with a high sea running, I did not think it safe to board him until the gale should moderate and the sea became smoother, and therefore ordered him to carry as much sail as possible and follow me on our course to the eastward until better weather. He reluctantly followed, and once before dark I was obliged to hail and give him to understand that if he shewed too great a disposition to lag behind or did not carry all the sail his brig could bear, he would probably feel the effect of one of my stern guns. This had the desired effect and he followed kindly at a convenient distance until midnight, when it became very dark and squally and we soon after lost sight of our first prize, which I did not much regret, as I could not conveniently spare men enough to send him into port.
From this period until we got near the European coast, we scarcely saw a sail and did not meet with a single man-of-war. Thus while the whole coast of the United States was literally lined with English cruisers, on the broad ocean there were very few to be seen; a clear proof that the risk of capture between Newport and Charleston was infinitely greater than going to France.
At this period we were not obliged to deliver the goods on freight at any particular place or port, but to some port in France, even from one extreme of the empire to the other: as for example, anywhere on the western coast from St. Jean de Luz to Ostend.
My bills of lading were filled up upon this principle to Bordeaux or a port in France, and so that on the arrival of the goods, the owners or agents were bound to receive them at any port or place where the vessel was fortunate enough to enter. My object was to get as near Bordeaux as possible; still I did not like to attempt entering the Garonne, as the English generally kept stationed several frigates and smaller vessels directly off the Cordovan Light, which rendered it extremely difficult and hazardous to enter. I therefore decided to run for the harbor of Lateste.
About a week before we got into port, while in the Bay of Biscay, namely on the 19th and 20th of January, we encountered one of the most severe gales from the westward that I have ever experienced. It commenced early on the morning of the 19th and blew a perfect hurricane, which soon raised a high, cross sea. At 8 A.M., I hove the schooner to under a double reefed foresail, lowered down the foreyard near the deck and got everything as snug as possible. At 12 o’clock noon a tremendous sea struck her in the wake of the starboard fore-shrouds. The force of the sea broke one of the toptimbers or stanchions [uprights which support a ship’s deck] and split open the planksheer [the heavy plank forming the outer edge of the deck] so that I could see directly into the hold. The force of the sea and the weight of the water that came on board threw the vessel nearly on her beam ends. Fortunately the weight of water that fell into the foresail split the sail and tore away the bulwarks; and being thus relieved, she gradually righted.
We then threw overboard two of the lee guns, water casks, etc., and after nailing tarred canvas and leather over the broken plank-sheer, got ready to wear ship [to change course by turning the stern to windward], fearing the injury received in the wake of the starboard fore-shrouds would endanger the foremast. We accordingly got ready to hoist a small piece of the mainsail, and thus kept her off before the wind for a few minutes, and watched a favorable smooth time to bring her to the wind on the other tack. During the time that the schooner ran before the wind she appeared literally to leap from one sea to another. We soon, however, brought her up to the wind on the other tack without accident, and thus under a small piece of the mainsail she lay to pretty well. But as the gale continued to rage violently, I feared we might ship another sea, and therefore prepared, as it were, to anchor the vessel head to the wind.
For this purpose we took a square sail boom, spanned it at each end with a new four-inch rope and made our small bower cable fast to the bight of the span; and with the other end fastened to the foremast, threw it overboard and payed out about 60 fathoms of cable. She then rode like a gull on the water, and I was absolutely astonished to see the good effect of this experiment. The spar broke the sea and kept the schooner nearly head to the wind until the gale subsided.
The next day in the afternoon, January 20th, we again made sail, and on the 26th, six days after this dreadful tempest, got safe into Lateste, 37 days from Charleston.
While we providentially escaped destruction, other ships were not so fortunate; many were wrecked and stranded along the coast, and five sail of English transports were thrown on shore near Lateste, and most of their crews perished in the same gale. On my arrival at Lateste, all my papers were sent up to Paris; and although we were all well, still we were compelled by the government to ride quarantine for six days.
Lateste is a poor little village principally supported by fish and oysters taken in its waters and sold in Bordeaux, from which city it is distant 30 miles and 56 miles from the mouth of the Garonne. With a bad sand bar at the mouth of the harbor, it is only a fit entrance for small vessels of a light draft of water, and even for small vessels it is dangerous to approach in bad weather.
[Coggeshall landed to find Napoleon’s empire on the verge of collapse as the Allied Armies pressed in on France from all sides. Austrian and Russian troops were advancing on Paris and Wellington’s British army was moving up from Spain. For the moment, however, Coggeshall was more concerned about his business difficulties with the Bordeaux merchants to whom his cargo was consigned. They flatly refused to handle it; although after much bickering they did advance him enough money to purchase a small cargo of wine and brandy. Coggeshall’s plan was to send the Porter and her new cargo back to America, while he remained to look after the cotton. He knew that the sooner his ship set sail the better, for detachments of Wellington’s forces were already reported close to Bordeaux.]
In the midst of all my trouble and confusion, I will devote a few moments to relate some of the peculiarities of this part of France. The large tract of country lying between Bayonne and Bordeaux is familiarly called the Landes. It is bounded on the west by the Bay of Biscay and extends about 25 leagues east into France. The face of the country is generally low, flat, sandy and barren. Its forests consist principally of pine or fir trees, and the land is generally miserably cultivated. The peasantry are wretchedly poor and mostly clothed in sheep skins. The Basque is the language of the country, and it is only the upper classes or educated people that speak French.
In the summer season the sands are extremely hot, and in the spring and fall months the country being low is often wet and muddy, which I suppose is the cause of so many of the country people—particularly the peasants and shepherds—walking on stilts, a foot or two above the ground, with a long balance pole to support them and regulate their movements.
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.
On the 11th in the evening, by letters from Bordeaux, I learned that the day before, on the 10th, the town had surrendered by capitulation to a portion of Lord Wellington’s army, that no person had been molested, and that perfect good order was observed throughout the city.
All this appeared very well with respect to Bordeaux, but still I was fearful that the English would come down and take Lateste before I could get to sea. The next day, March 12th, the wind was from the westward and the pilot would not take my vessel to sea. He said that it was impossible to get out, that there was too great a swell on the bar, etc. The next day, the 13th, the weather was clear and the wind fresh at N.N.E. In the morning I prevailed on the pilot to come on board. He told me that the tide would suit at five o’clock in the afternoon, and if there should not be too much sea on the bar at that hour, he would take the vessel out. Accordingly, at four o’clock I requested him to get under weigh and be ready to pass the bar at five. I now found he was unwilling to go out at all.
He said, “Captain, if we should succeed in getting out, it would be impossible to land me.” I then offered him double pilotage, told him I was fearful the English would come down in the morning and make a prize of my vessel, and that I would treble his pilotage, and pledged him my honor that if I waited a week outside, I would land him in safety. At last my patience was exhausted, and I found the more I coaxed and strove to persuade him to go, the more obstinate he became. At length I said, “If you will not go to sea, pilot, just get the schooner under weigh, and go down below the fort and anchor there within the bar.” To this proposition he consented.
While getting under weigh, I went below and put into my pocket a loaded pistol and again returned on deck. We soon got below the fort, and it was five o’clock, precisely the hour he had named as the most suitable to safe out over the bar. I then placed the pistol to his ear and told him to proceed to sea, or he was a dead man, and that if the schooner took the ground his life should pay the forfeit. The poor fellow was terribly frightened and said he would do his best; and thus, in less than fifteen minutes from the time we filled away, we were fairly over and outside of this dreadful bar. I then discharged the pistol and assured the pilot I would do him no harm, and that I would wait a week if it was necessary for good weather to land him in safety. He now appeared more tranquil and composed but could not refrain from talking occasionally of his poor wife and children and seemed to have a lurking fear that I would carry him to America.
I stood off and on during the night and in the morning, March 14th. The wind was light off shore from the eastward. As the sea was smooth I stood close in to the beach and got our boat ready to land the pilot. I gave him several letters to my friends and an order for a considerable sum over and above his regular pilotage, notwithstanding I had compelled him to take my vessel to sea. At eight o’clock in the morning, my second officer with four men took Mr. Pilot on shore. I gave the officer of the boat positive orders to back the boat, stern on to the shore, and let the pilot jump out whenever he could do so with safety. I took a spyglass and soon had the pleasure to see the man land and scamper up the beach.
The boat soon returned and was hoisted on board when we made sail and stood off in a N.W. direction. The wind was light from the eastward and the weather fine and clear. During the night we had not much wind and of course made but little progress. At daylight, March 15th, 1814, saw a large ship on our weather quarter. I soon made her out to be a frigate, distant about two miles. We were now in a very unpleasant position: early in the morning, with a frigate dead to windward. I manoeuvred for some ten or fifteen minutes in hopes of drawing him down to leeward so that I should be able to weather him on one tack or the other. (This was often done at the commencement of the war, with American schooners, for if the pilot boats could succeed in getting the enemy under their lee, they would laugh at their adversary.) This manoeuvre, however, did not succeed. He only kept off about 4 or 6 points, and I have no doubt he thought it impossible for me to elude his grasp. All this time I was losing ground, and the ship not more than two gun shots to windward.
I held a short consultation with my officers on the subject of attempting to get to windward, namely by receiving a broadside, or by running off to leeward. They all thought it best to ply the windward and receive his fire. I stated that we should have to pass him within pistol shot, and the probability was that he would shoot away some of our spars, in which case we should inevitably be captured. I knew the schooner sailed very fast off the wind, and I thought the chance of escape better to run to leeward. I accordingly gave orders to get the square sail and studding-sails all ready to run up at the same moment. The frigate, not dreaming of my running to leeward, was unprepared to chase off the wind, and I should think it was at least five minutes before he had a studding-sail set, so that I gained about a mile at the commencement of the chase.
The wind was light from the E.N.E. and the weather very fine. I ordered holes bored in all the water casks except four and the water pumped into buckets to wet the sails, also to throw overboard sand ballast to lighten the schooner. After this was done we began to draw away from the frigate, so that at noon I had gained eight or ten miles on the chase. At four in the afternoon he was nearly out of sight and appeared like a speck on the water.
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.
March the 18th, still a continuation of bad weather with a strong gale from the westward. At 4 P.M. saw a frigate and a brig-of-war off my lee beam, distant about five miles. They made sail in chase, but under my three lower sails, namely mainsail, foresail and jib, I had no fear of them. I showed my ensign for a few moments and then plied to windward, taking short tacks; and in a few hours they gave up the chase, when I again pursued my course to the northward under easy sail. Next day, March 19th, the wind moderated, but still there was a very high sea and very unpleasant weather.
March 20th, moderate breezes from the westward and unpleasant weather. This day I came to the conclusion to land myself somewhere on the coast of France and to send my vessel home under the command of my first officer, Mr. Samuel Nichols; and on an examination of a chart of the coast, I concluded to run for l’Ile d’Yeu [an island lying below the mouth of the Loire River] and land there. Accordingly I shaped my course for the island, and without meeting with any incident worth relating made the land on the 23rd of March at four o’clock in the afternoon, and at six landed on the island in my own boat. It soon became dark and I was obliged to remain on shore with my boat’s crew all night.
I took with me my clearance and other papers from Bordeaux, with sundry newspapers, and was well received by the governor and commissary of Marine.
March 24th at six o’clock in the morning, although the weather was thick and rainy and a strong breeze from the S.W., I sent my boat on board the schooner with a pilot, with orders to get the vessel into the roads near the town, which is situated on the N.E. end of the island. At two o’clock in the afternoon the schooner came directly off the town, close in with the fort, where with our own boat we took on board six casks of fresh water, some fresh provisions, and sundry small stores. I then obtained liberty from the public authorities to dispatch my vessel to the United States.
When I landed at l’Ile d’Yeu, I took with me as one of the boat’s crew the large black man Philip, and I was astonished to see the curiosity expressed here at the sight of a Negro. He was followed at every step by a crowd of men, women and children, all desirous to see a black man; and I soon received a pressing message from the governor’s lady to see him. I accordingly took Philip with me and repaired to the residence of the governor, where were assembled all the first ladies of the island. They had a great many questions to ask about him respecting the place of his birth, whether he was kind and good-natured, etc. When their curiosity was gratified, the fellow begged of me as a favor to be allowed to go on board, as he did not like to be exhibited as a show. This request I readily granted, telling the ladies and gentlemen that I had an Indian on board, and that I would send for him. The Indian came directly on shore, but to my surprise there appeared but little curiosity on the part of the inhabitants to see the savage.
When I came to reflect a little on the subject, I was not at all surprised at the novelty of seeing a black man. This island had been, as it were, shut out from the rest of the world for twenty-five or thirty years with little or no commerce or communication with other nations, and it is therefore highly probable that very few of its inhabitants had ever seen a Negro, and they were, of course, eager to behold one.
At five o’clock in the afternoon of March 24th, 1814, I repaired on board in a shore boat, and after writing a few hasty letters to my friends in the United States and making a short address to my officers and men, I resigned the command to my first lieutenant, Mr. Samuel Nichols, and returned on shore with a heavy heart at parting with my little band of faithful followers.
The schooner was soon out of sight as she stood round the south end of the islands, and here I should be doing injustice to the memory of these brave men did I not give my feeble testimony to their good conduct from the time we left Charleston until parting with them at l’Ile d’Yeu. I never saw one of them intoxicated in the slightest manner, nor did I ever see one of them ill-treat a prisoner or attempt to plunder the smallest article. In a word, from the first lieutenant to the smallest boy on board, they were faithful, good and true men, and to the best of my knowledge and belief were all born and bred in the United States.
[Coggeshall proceeded to La Rochelle. While arranging for the transportation of his wine cargo on another letter-of-marque schooner, the Ida, he heard of the capture of Paris and the fall of Napoleon and his subsequent exile to Elba. The Ida and Coggeshall’s uninsured property barely escaped capture. The schooner had to make a dash through a squadron of British men-of-war stationed at the mouth of the harbor; and though some of her rigging was shot away by cannon fire, she managed to outdistance her pursuers.
When Coggeshall returned to Bordeaux, he was gratified to learn that most of his cotton had been sold. Next he journeyed to La Rochelle, Nantes, and finally. Paris, in an unsuccessful attempt to secure passage home. Nantes he found “the most moral town of its size in the kingdom”—but perhaps the reason was that “there appeared to be about three women to one man. …” Paris was, in his opinion, “astonishing,” a city of “astounding sublimity.” There Coggeshall purchased 5,000 francs worth of French silks, shawls, and silk stockings, which he sent to Bordeaux for shipment to the United States. Then he went sight-seeing.
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 .]
SUNDAY NOV. 13TH. At 6 A.M. saw a brig to windward. At seven she set English colors—gave her a gun when she struck her flag. She proved to be the English brig Alexander, Captain Grain, from Leghorn bound up the Channel. It now commenced blowing a strong breeze from the N.W. and soon there was a high sea running. Saw a large ship steering up the Channel; left the prize, made sail in chase of her. At 10 A.M. she set English colors and fired a gun. Had the weather been smooth, I think we could have carried her by boarding in fifteen minutes, or had I met her at sea I would have followed her until the weather was better and the sea smooth; but being now in the English Channel, with a high sea, it would have destroyed our schooner if she had come in contact with this wall-sided ship. He showed six long nines on each side. Thus after exchanging a few shot I hauled and let him go, and then returned to our prize. Fresh gales and cloudy weather.
MONDAY NOV. 14TH. At 2 P.M., the weather moderated, when I took out of the Alexander the captain, mate and crew, and put on board of her Mr. Turner as prize-master and seven men, with orders to proceed to a port in the United States.
TUESDAY NOV. 15TH. As it was now the middle of November and no prospect of much fine weather, and my schooner so badly armed, I concluded to leave this rough cruising ground and run to the southward in hopes of finding better weather.
WEDNESDAY NOV. 16TH. Saw a sail to the eastward, made sail in chase; at 9 A.M. boarded her. She proved to be the Spanish brig Diligent, Captain José Antonio de Bard, from Bilbao bound to London—put eight English prisoners on board of her with a tolerable supply of provisions, and let him proceed on his course. At 10 A.M. saw two sail to the westward when we made sail in chase.
THURSDAY NOV. 17TH. Four sail in sight, light airs and fine weather. Made sail in chase of the nearest vessel at noon. The chase hove to and hoisted Spanish colors. When about to board this brig we discovered an English man-of-war very near, in full chase of us.
FRIDAY NOV. 18TH. The man-of-war brig still in chase of us about two miles distant at 8 P.M. Passed near a brig standing to the eastward. Had not time to board her, as the man-of-war was still in chase. At midnight the wind became fresh from the W.S.W. with dark rainy weather. Took in all the light sails, and hauled close upon the wind to W.N.W. At 7 A.M. saw a small sail on our weather bow, made sail in chase. At ten, came up with the chase, found it was the English sloop Brilliant, Captain John Pétrie, from Teneriffe bound to London with a cargo of wine.
SATURDAY NOV. 19TH. At meridian took out of the prize twenty quarter-casks of wine, together with her sails, cables, rigging blocks, etc., and after removing the prisoners, scuttled her. At 1 P.M. she sank. Strong gales from the northward and rainy weather during the night.
SUNDAY NOV. 20TH. At 7 A.M. saw a sail to windward, tacked ship to get the weather gage [that is, to get the advantage of the windward position]. At eleven, got her on our lee beam when we made her out to be an English brig-of-war of 16 guns. I commenced firing my long 12. At noon, after receiving about thirty or forty shot from this brig without any material damage, I hauled off. Some of his shot passed over us, some fell short; and only one of his shot hulled us; this shot passed through our bands amidships and lodged in the hold. I could outsail him with the greatest ease and if I had had a long, well-mounted centre gun, I could have annoyed him without receiving any injury by just keeping out of the reach of his cannonades.
MONDAY NOV. 21ST. At meridian saw a sail bearing W.S.W. Made sail in chase. At 4 P.M. , she being directly to leeward, I ran down to discover the character of the chase. I soon made her out to be a frigate. When within three miles distance I hoisted an English ensign. The frigate showed Portuguese colors and resorted to every stratagem in his power to decoy us down within the range of his shot. Finding I could outsail him with ease, I hauled down the English colors, set an American ensign, and hauled close upon the wind, and soon lost sight of him. During the night we had fresh gales at E.N.E. and squally weather.
TUESDAY NOV. 22ND. At 7 A.M. made a small sail bearing S.S.W.; made sail in chase. We soon came up with and boarded the English schooner Hannah, Patrick Hodge, master, from Malaga bound to Dublin with a cargo of fruit. Took out the prisoners and a supply of fruit and then manned her and gave orders to the prize-master to make the best of his way to the United States of America. At 3 P.M. came up with and boarded a Danish galliot; at midnight put ten English prisoners on board of this galliot. I supplied them with provisions and a quarter-cask of wine and allowed him to proceed on his voyage. She was from Marseilles bound to Hamburg, with a cargo of wine and oil. At 8 A.M. saw a sail bearing N.N.E. Made sail in chase; at eleven boarded her. She proved to be a Swedish barque from St. Ubes bound to Stockholm.
WEDNESDAY NOV. 23RD. At 1 P.M. wore ship to the S.E. in chase of a brig. She proved to be a Russian from Oporto bound to Hamburg, with a cargo of wine and fruit. At noon discovered two frigates to leeward. They both made sail in chase of us. I plied to windward, tacking every hour, and beat them with great ease, but as there were two of them I was not quite at ease until I had got out of their neighborhood.
THURSDAY NOV. 24TH. Showers of rain and a high head sea running—the two frigates still in chase of us. At 5 P.M. the weathermost frigate was about ten or twelve miles distant to leeward. Finding I could beat them with so much ease, I reefed the sails and plied to windward. Towards morning the wind moderated and at daylight there was nothing in sight.
FRIDAY NOV. 25TH. At 3 P.M. discovered a sail bearing about S.E. Made sail and bore easy in chase. At half past three, made her out to be a frigate, when I hauled upon the wind. At four, she fired a gun and showed American colors. I set an American ensign for a few minutes, and then hauled it down and hoisted a large English ensign. He fired three or four shot, but finding they fell short, stopped firing and crowded all sail in chase. Night coming on, I soon lost sight of him. During the night we had fresh breezes and cloudy weather. At daylight there was nothing in sight; took in sail.
SATURDAY NOV. 26TH. At 1 P.M. discovered a sail to windward bearing N.W. Made sail in chase, tacking every hour. At five made him out to be a ship standing upon the wind to the N.E. At half past nine o’clock, after getting on his weather quarter, ran up alongside, hailed him, and ordered him to heave to, which order was immediately obeyed. I sent my boat on board and found her to be the English ship Speed, burthen about 200 tons. Captain John Brown, from Palermo bound to London with a cargo of brimstone, rags, mats, etc., etc. She mounted six guns with a crew of about twenty men. We kept company through the night.
SUNDAY NOV. 27TH. In the forenoon of this day removed the prisoners from the ship Speed and put Mr. Azor O. Lewis on board as prize-master, and a crew of ten men. I also took out his guns, powder, shot, and some fruit and then ordered Mr. Lewis to proceed to the United States. At 2 P.M. made sail and steered to the S.W. and at five lost sight of the prize.
THURSDAY DEC. 1ST. At 1 P.M. saw a ship on our weather quarter coming up with us very fast. I made sail upon the wind to the westward, to get to windward of the ship in order to ascertain her character.
It was then blowing a strong breeze from the N.N.W. and was somewhat squally with a head sea running. About half past two our schooner gave a sudden pitch, when to the astonishment of every person on board the foremast broke about one third part of the way below the head, and in a moment after it broke again, close to the deck. While in this situation I had the mortification to see the other ship pass within pistol shot, without being able to pursue her. I believe she was an English packet just out of Lisbon and bound for England, and I have not the smallest doubt, if it had not been for this dreadful accident, we should have captured her in less than one hour from the time we first saw her. At this time the packets transported large quantities of specie to England, and this ship would, in all human probability, have proved a rich prize to us.
[Here Captain Coggeshall resumes his narrative.]
I have no doubt the mast was defective and that it should have been renewed before leaving port; and to this circumstance I attribute all the misfortune attending the cruise. I cannot express the disappointment and mortification I now felt, not so much on my own account as on account of the loss incurred by the worthy gentlemen who planned and fitted out the expedition. Our only hope was to get into Lisbon or St. Ubes before daylight the next morning, and thus escape capture. We accordingly cleared away the wreck, rigged a jury-foremast and bore away for Lisbon. At 4 P.M., an hour after the accident occurred, we were going at the rate of seven knots, and had the breeze continued through the night we should have got into port by daylight next morning. But unfortunately the wind became light during the night and we made but little progress. At 5 A.M., daylight, made Cape Espartel and the Rock of Lisbon, when it became almost calm. We then commenced sweeping and towing with two boats ahead until 1 P.M., when a light air sprung up from the westward and I had strong hopes that we should be able to get into port or run the vessel on shore and destroy her, and thus escape capture.
At 2 P.M., being about four miles from the land, received a Lisbon pilot on board. At this time the ebb tide commenced running out the Tagus, when I had the mortification to see a frigate coming out with the first of the ebb, with a light air of wind from off land. Soon we were under her guns. She proved to be the Granicus, 38 guns, Captain W. F. Wise. We were all removed to the frigate and the schooner taken in tow for Gibraltar.
Two days after our capture, namely, the 3rd of December, we arrived at Gibraltar. All my officers and men were distributed and sent to England in different ships; myself and the first and second lieutenants were retained on board the Granicus to undergo an examination at the Admiralty Court at Gibraltar. The next day after our arrival the frigate left port for Tetuan Bay, Morocco, opposite Gibraltar, to water and paint the ship. We were taken on this little voyage, and had I not been a prisoner I should have enjoyed very much the novelty of this excursion, which occupied three or four days, after which time we again returned to Gibraltar.
Capt. Wise was a fine gentlemanly man and always treated me and my officers with great respect and kindness; we messed in the wardroom, and I had a stateroom to myself and was as comfortable and happy as I could be in the circumstances in which I was placed. I used to dine with Capt. W. almost daily; he frequently said to me, “Don’t feel depressed by captivity, but strive to forget that you are a prisoner and imagine that you are only a passenger.” He also invited my first lieutenant, Mr. de Peyster, occasionally to dine with him, and said he would endeavor to get us paroled and thus prevent our being sent to England.
We stated to him that we had voluntarily released more than thirty British prisoners, notwithstanding that the American government gave a bounty (to letters-of-marque and privateers) of one hundred dollars per head for British prisoners brought into the United States. These facts Capt. Wise represented to the governor and also added that the five English prisoners found on board the Leo said they had been very kindly treated, and he hoped his Excellency would release me and my two lieutenants upon our parole and let us return to the United States. The governor refused to comply with the kind request of Capt. Wise and said he had positive orders from the British government to send every American prisoner brought to that port to England.
When Capt. Wise informed us that he was unable to obtain our liberty on parole, he gave me a letter of introduction to a friend in England, requesting him to use his best interest to get myself and my first and second lieutenants released on parole and thus enable us to return forthwith to the United States.
Mr. Daly, an Irish gentleman, second lieutenant of the Granicus and a fine fellow, who was connected with several persons of distinction in England, also gave me a letter to a noble lady of great influence at Court. I regret I do not recollect her name but I clearly recollect the emphatic expression of the kindhearted and generous Daly when he handed me the letter to his noble friend. “Cause this letter to be presented,” said he, “and upon it this lady will never allow you or your two friends to be sent to prison in England.”
Mr. de Peyster was a high-spirited man, and when he learned that we could not obtain our liberty on parole, he became extremely vexed and excited and told the wardroom officers that, if it should ever please God to place him in command of a letter-of-marque or privateer during the war, he would never again release one English prisoner, but would have a place built in the vessel to confine them until he should arrive in the United States—that the bounty of $100 given by the United States government was nearly equal in value to an African slave, and therefore it became an object to carry them into port; but from motives of humanity we had released many of their countrymen and now they refused to parole three unfortunate men who were in their power. I said but little on the subject but from that moment resolved to make my escape the first opportunity.
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.
I walked deliberately down on the mole or quay, where I was accosted by a great number of watermen, offering to convey me on board of my vessel. I employed one, and after getting off in the bay, he said, “Captain, which is your vessel?” Here again I was at a loss to decide on an answer, but after gazing for a few moments on the different ships and the flags of different nations, my eye caught sight of a galliot with a Norwegian ensign flying, and I said to myself, “The Norwegians are a virtuous, honest people and I am not afraid to trust them.” I had been in Sweden and understood the character of these hardy, honest-hearted sons of the North; and thus, after a moment’s hesitation, I replied to the boatman, “That is my vessel,” pointing to the friendly galliot, and we were soon alongside.
I jumped on board and enquired for the captain, who soon made his appearance. I told him I had something to communicate to him. He told me to follow him into the cabin. I immediately asked him whether he was willing to befriend a man in distress. He said, “Tell me your story, and I will try to serve you.” I frankly told him I was the captain of the American letter-of-marque schooner lately sent into port by the frigate Granicus, and that I had made my escape from the garrison and desired to get over to Algeciras as soon as possible, that I had money enough, but still I wanted his friendship, confidence and protection.
The good old gentleman had scarcely waited to hear my story to the end, before he grasped me by the hand and said in a kind, feeling manner, “I will be your friend, I will protect you. I was once a prisoner in England, I know what it is to be a prisoner. Rest assured, my dear sir, I will do all I can to assist you.” I offered him a dollar to pay and discharge the boatman and remained myself below in the cabin. He said, “Put up your money, I have small change and will pay him what is just and right.”
After dispatching the boatman he returned below and said, “Now take off your coat—put on this large pea-jacket and fur cap.” In this costume, and with a large pipe in my mouth, I was in less than two minutes transformed into a regular Norwegian. Returning again on deck, I asked my good friend the captain whether I could rely on his mate and sailors not to betray me. He said, “They are honest and perfectly trustworthy, and you need be under no apprehension on their account.” We took a social dinner together, when he observed, “I will now go on shore for an hour or two and hear all I can about your escape, and will come back early in the evening and relate to you all I can collect.”
In the evening the old captain returned pleased and delighted. He said he never saw such a hubbub as there was about town: that the whole garrison seemed to be on the lookout—that the town major with the military and civil police were searching every hole and corner in Gibraltar for the captain of the American privateer—that both of my officers were put in confinement, and that the lieutenant of the frigate who had the charge of us had been arrested; in short, there was the devil to pay, all because the captain of the privateer could not be found.
The next morning I stated to my worthy friend how extremely anxious I was to go over to Algeciras, and how mortified I should be to be taken again on board the Granicus. He answered, “Leave that to me—I am well acquainted with a gang of smugglers that belong to Algeciras and often sell them gin, tobacco and other articles of trade. They will be here on board of my galliot at nine o’clock this evening and will probably start for Algeciras about midnight after they have made all their purchases. When they come, I will arrange with them to take you as a passenger.”
About nine o’clock that evening a long, fast-rowing boat came silently alongside filled with men, and certainly a more desperate, villainous looking set were never seen. Their leader and several of his men came on board the galliot, and, after having purchased several articles and taken a glass of gin all round, the old captain enquired of the patroon of the boat what hour he intended to start for Algeciras, and said that the reason of his asking the question was that his brother wanted to go to that place for a few days upon business, and wished to engage a passage for him, and that he should be glad if his brother could lodge for a few days with his family. He answered that he should return again about midnight and would willingly take his brother, and that if he would put up with common rough fare, he was welcome to stay at his house as long as he pleased.
I accordingly got ready my little bundle which consisted of a few little things such as a shirt or two (for I did not forget to wear three at the time I left the Granicus ) stowed away in my hat, and then tied up in a handkerchief, and this constituted the whole of my wardrobe. I agreed with my friend the Norwegian to leave the cap and pea-jacket with the American consul at Algeciras, to be returned to him by some safe conveyance in the course of a few days. Agreeable to promise, the boat came on board precisely at twelve o’clock, and after my friend the captain had again cautioned the patroon of the boat to take good care of his brother, we started.
The water in the bay was smooth, though the night was dark and favorable to the safe prosecution of the passage across the bay. The distance is about 8 or 10 miles from Gibraltar, and after rowing about two hours we arrived near the harbor, when we showed a light in a lantern for a minute or two and then covered it with a jacket. This signal was repeated two or three times until it was answered in the same way from the shore. We approached the port cautiously and landed in silence. The patroon took me by the arm and led me through many a dark winding passage.
On our way we passed by several sentinels and were frequently hailed with the shrill sound of “Quien viva?” To these salutations some friendly answer returned, and thus everything passed smoothly on, until at length we arrived at the humble dwelling of the smugglers.
In Spain the contrabandistas are a desperate class of men and often spread dread and fear through a wide region of the country. In many instances, they are so numerous and strong that they often put the whole power of the government at defiance. The gang that brought me to Algeciras was about twenty in number, all armed to the teeth with long knives, pistols, swords, etc., and had no doubt made their arrangements during the day with the officers and sentinels that were to mount guard that night. They, of course, made them a compensation in some way or other, in order that they should meet with nothing to interfere with or obstruct their nocturnal enterprises.
Early in life I had made several voyages to Spain and its colonies in America and had thus acquired a pretty good knowledge of the Spanish character. I had also picked up enough of the language to enable me to make my way among them without difficulty.
There is something about the Spaniard that immediately inspires confidence, so much so, that although surrounded by this desperate and daring gang of smugglers, I had not the smallest fear for my safety. It was now near three o’clock in the morning when we entered the small, low cabin of the patroon. The interior consisted of one tolerable size room with a mat hung up to serve as a partition to separate the different members of the family, which consisted of the patroon, Antonio, his wife and two children.
With this family I was soon placed upon the most friendly and intimate footing: a straw bed was prepared for me behind the neat screen. Before saying good night, Antonio told me he should leave the house very early in the morning to look after his boat and smuggled goods, and should not return until noon next day. He said his wife and little daughter would provide breakfast for me and would purchase whatever I wished at any time. After these preliminaries were settled, we all said “ Buenos noches ” and dropped asleep. About seven o’clock the next morning I furnished the smuggler’s wife with money to purchase bread, butter, eggs and coffee; and when breakfast was prepared we all ate our social meal together, that is to say, the mother, the two children and myself. I then took a stroll about the town of Algeciras in my Norwegian costume and silently observed what was going on, without conversing with any person; and when I entered a coffee house, I took a newspaper and, as I said nothing, no one appeared to notice me. I had broken the quarantine laws and therefore deemed it prudent to keep on my disguise for a few days and continue to live in perfect seclusion.
Antonio was absent almost all the time during the three days I remained in his family. I furnished money for every meal, and the good Maria purchased and prepared our frugal meals. When I returned from a stroll about the town I always took care to provide cakes and bonbons for the children, so that we soon became good friends and all lived very happily together and upon terms of the most perfect equality.
After remaining here for a period of three days, I began to tire of this mode of life and was now determined to ascertain how I should proceed to get to Cadiz, where I knew I should find friends and be farther removed from the mortifying scenes through which I had so lately passed. Accordingly, on the morning of the fourth day after my landing at Algeciras, I repaired to a café and enquired of one of the servants whether there was an American consul residing in the city. The boy seemed intelligent and instantly replied that Don Horatio Sprague, the former consul at Gibraltar, was residing here, and that he was “un hombre de bien.” I asked for his address when he called a boy to show me the house, so that in fifteen minutes after I was knocking on Mr. Sprague’s door.
He was of course surprised to see a man of my appearance walk boldly into his parlor. I soon however explained that I was not exactly what I appeared to be, that I was an American in distress, and throwing off my great fur cap and pea-jacket, looked somewhat more like an American. I told my story and was received and treated like a brother. He was just going to take breakfast and said, “You will breakfast with us, and then I will send my nephew, Mr. Leach, with you for your bundle, and you will then return and take up your abode with me during your stay at Algeciras.”
After a social breakfast, I doffed my cap and peajacket, and being supplied with a hat and other articles of dress to correspond, Mr. Leach kindly accompanied me to the humble dwelling of Maria. To my great surprise, on entering the cabin, the poor woman was very distant, curtseying with profound respect, and appeared altogether like another person. The children were shy and appeared to avoid me. At first, I felt hurt at the alteration, but a moment’s reflection convinced me that the scene was quite natural, and I loved them not the less for their distant behavior. While in my disguise they looked upon me as one of the family, and now that the scene was changed, they looked upon me in quite another light; and I felt for a moment that the artificial rules of society were chilling to a generous heart. Maria told Mr. Leach that she always thought I was a gentleman, and that she was quite happy to serve me. After making the family suitable presents I took my leave, promising that they should frequently see me while I remained in Algeciras, which promise I took care rigidly to fulfill.
I had now entered as it were upon a new life, was quite at home with one of the best of men whose greatest pleasure has ever been to make others happy. His excellent nephew, William Leach, Esq., was also a fine young gentleman, and as we were all Americans together the most perfect confidence reigned throughout this delightful family.
During my stay here I was exceedingly amused with a little incident that occurred while at dinner at Mr. Sprague’s table. A young English friend came over one Sunday to dine with Mr. S. During the dinner, Mr. S. asked the young man what was said in Gibraltar about the captain of the American letter-of-marque making his escape from the garrison. He said that it caused a great deal of excitement and speculation. Some said the lieutenant that had charge of him was very culpable and even insinuated that there must have been bribery connected with the business, that it was altogether a very strange affair that a man should be able in open daylight to make his escape from Gibraltar; and thus, after answering many questions on the subject, he wound up by saying that the captain must be a very clever man, and for his part he wished him God-speed. The young man had not the least suspicion that I was an American or had any connection with the business. During the conversation, whenever I caught the eye of Mr. Leach, it was with the greatest difficulty I could command my countenance. Everything, however, passed off very well, and we often joked on the subject of the honest simplicity of their young English friend.
I remained from day to day at Algeciras, anxiously waiting to hear from my two lieutenants, Messrs. de Peyster and Allen, in hopes by some means they would be able to make their escape and not be sent prisoners to England.
I used frequently to ride in the country with Mr. Sprague in the evening, and we frequently made up an agreeable whist party, and among other social enjoyments my young friend Leach introduced me to two or three respectable and very agreeable Spanish families. In these families I spent many pleasant evenings in the society of several young ladies and gentlemen, and had my officers and crew been at liberty, I should have been quite contented and happy. At length, after waiting here about ten days, I learned with pain and sincere regret that all my officers and men had been sent prisoners to England, and I now seriously began to think of leaving this place for Cadiz.
There are but two ways of travelling with safety in Spain: one way is genteel and expensive, namely, with a strong guard of soldiers. The other is in simple disguise, so that no robber can feel any interest in molesting you on the road. This mode I determined to adopt.
After remaining in Algeciras about a fortnight, I hired a mule and a guide (through Mr. Sprague) to Cadiz. My kind friends furnished me with provisions and stores for a journey of two days. I procured a dress such as the peasants wear in this part of Andalusia, and thus equipped, on the morning of the 25th of December, 1814, I bade adieu to my two excellent friends from whom I had received so many disinterested favors.
After leaving the town, we travelled about a league on a tolerable smooth road and then turned off into a winding footpath, myself on the mule, and my guide, a merry fellow, trudging along on foot, sometimes by my side, sometimes a few yards ahead, and when we came to a smooth path I allowed him to ride on the mule behind me. The distance from Algeciras to Cadiz is about 40 miles, and I soon found we had a very intricate and difficult journey to perform. The whole country had a most wild and desolate appearance. In fact it seemed to me that there could have been little or no change in this part of Spain for the last five or six centuries. There were no public roads, a very thin and scattered population, and these living in a wretched state of poverty. Sometimes we travelled through deep and dark ravines, overgrown with trees and bushes; and after passing through a deep and gloomy dell, where we lost sight of the sun at times for a space of half an hour, we would then commence ascending a high mountain. We generally found a time-worn footpath running in a zigzag direction up these dreary mountains. This mode of ascending would, in seaman’s phrase, be called “beating up.” It certainly is a slow and fatiguing mode of ascent, but the traveller is richly rewarded for all his toil when once on the top of one of these stupendous mountains. Here he has a splendid view of the Strait of Gibraltar and the broad Atlantic, on the south and east, while the wild and unbroken scenery of the surrounding country is truly magnificent.
I will here remark that the people of the United States can scarcely believe that an old country like Spain should be in such a wretched condition as I found this part of the country, without roads, the land generally uncultivated, no hotels or taverns to accommodate strangers, and infested with robbers and banditti. Even in the vicinity of cities and towns, there is no safety in travelling without a military guard. This is certainly a dark and gloomy picture of poor Spain, once so great and powerful, now distracted by factions and civil war, divested of the greatest part of her once rich colonies, her government weak, without money and without credit.
If asked what is the cause of her degradation and dreadful downfall, I answer, there are many, but the principal ones are ignorance, idleness, superstition, priestcraft and bad government. I here involuntarily exclaim, oh! happy America! how glorious art thou among the nations of the earth! Long may an all-wise Being shower His benign blessings upon thee!
Postscript: Coggeshall arrived safely in Cadiz after an uneventful trip. Two months later he sailed to Lisbon and there embarked for America on a Portuguese brig. “On the 19th of May ,” he wrote, “we got a Sandy Hook pilot on board and the same day arrived in New York, and I was rejoiced to land once more in the United States after an absence of sixteen months and twenty-one days.” During that time he could boast of the capture of nine British prize ships. To be sure, the Leo had been lost, but the ship itself was to blame. The warrior merchant Coggeshall had also made a small but respectable profit, for he had not forgotten what Calvin Coolidge would remind the nation of over a hundred years later—that the business of America is business.
After a long, arduous, and reasonably successful career at sea, Coggeshall retired in 1841. Always an avid reader and an indefatigable journal-keeper, he turned to writing in his declining years. Among his published works are Voyages to Various Parts of the World and History of American Privateers. Coggeshall died in Milford on August 6, 1861, at the age of 77.