Thursday, March 22, 2012

Belcher's Privateers

Piecing together the Revolutionary service record of Constant Belcher from the disordered and fragmentary leaves of his Journal has proved a considerable challenge. Thus far,  investigation of the Belcher Journal has revealed that he enlisted with the 1st NJ Regt. in its 2nd establishment, in which he was the servant or waiter to his cousin Lieutenant (and later Brigade Major) Aaron Ogden, in January, 1777 and was still in service in the Fall of 1780.  

Having now transcribed several excerpts from 1776, it seems quite clear that Belcher was not present with the regiment during its 1st establishment.  Nor have we yet discovered anything in his Journal to indicate militia service during this period.  Belcher did take part in at least two military enterprises as a civilian volunteer in 1776, however; namely, the Blue Mountain Valley Whaleboat Raid , and against the British Fleet off Staten Island in an experimental demi-submersible of his own design

Belcher appears to have been something of a waterman - at least, he had an affinity for fishing and was comfortable enough in boats to fall asleep in one small watercraft on a January evening, and to put to sea largely beneath another.  Thus it is perhaps to be expected that he might have found the prospect of privateer service attractive, and indeed in the Fall of 1776 we find a Journal entry that confirms that Constant Belcher entertained notions of freebooting for Liberty.  It is fortunate for him, and for posterity, that it proved but a passing fancy, for the vessel in question was the scummiest he'd ever seen, and as aficionados of seafaring folk songs know full well, she was lost with nearly all hands (and all legs) in her first engagement.

"Sept . 21th 1776 -   Went to Paulus Hook this day to see New Yorck Town afire – a most baleful & affecting sight / Prodigious smoke & genrl destruction at North River side /  Providence or some Friend of Government mayhap strikes the Invader a sharp blow leaving them but a moiety of the City.
Did see a Broadside whilst at this Place a-callin for young fellows of Courage so bold to smite the usurper’s pilferers and enter on board The Antelope, a Privateer /  Understand the Master one Elcid Barrett to be a congenial Captain and free with the Grog / Was sore tempt d  to list, but upon viewing the Vessel in question  found her a most sickening sight,  a-listin herself to Port / She is armed with but trifling four pounders of grate antiquity an sure to crack at the first fireing / What sails had she would not fashion a serviceable market wallet,  an’ only the Cook has got his Topgallant Sails.

The lure of Prize money  did draw on board a ducid curious collection of Bergen Dutchmen, the larger part fisherman an by their talk no friends of Liberty / Found upon examination  Letter of Marque  affixd with stamp of the Crown / Slipped my cable lest I fall into ruinous company and returnd  Eliza. Town full glad to be free of that nest of Tories / Predict our shiping will have little to fear from that rum crew as but one fat ball will serve to stove her in.”

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

"A Mashine to Blow up Shiping": Constant Belcher's "Submarine"

The American Revolution was fought largely with smooth bore muskets and light artillery and produced few military innovations.  Patrick Ferguson's breech loading rifle and David Bushnell's submarine and the advances he made in underwater demolitions are notable exceptions, but for the most part the fight for North America came down to conventional military technology.

There were other inventors, however, who sought Congressional contracts for everything from backpacks to musket tools.  In the autumn of 1775, Captain John MacPherson proposed to Congress that he had developed a method which  could "take or destroy every Ministerial armed vessel in North-America" and proposed that he try out his theory in and around Boston Harbor.  Washington, however, got a second opinion from his artillery commanders that determined " in as much as he set out upon wrong principles, the Scheme would prove abortive."

Another inventor, Joseph Belton, even proposed in April, 1777 that he could manufacture a musket with a sliding lock and superimposed loads capable of firing "up to sixteen or twenty [balls] in sixteen, ten, or five seconds of time." 

Belton impressed Benjamin Franklin as "a very ingenious Man" and he did not confine himself merely to muskets.  Like his fellow Nutmegger David Bushnell, he took a strong interest in submersibles.   In July, 1776, he sought a Congressional contract to

"make a Machine by the help of which, I will carry a loaded cannon, two or three miles up or down any of our harbours without any other assistance, and all the way there should appear nothing above the surface much larger than a man's hat and...would wholly descend under water for some time, and by expanding, would rise to the surface at pleasure, and by this means, to avoid any discovery when I had arrived within an hundred and fifty, or two hundred yards of a Ship, I could descend under the surface and go alongside of her bottom against which, I could discharge the cannon, that should be prov'd large enough to send a ball through any ship's side."

There is no evidence that Belton's theories of underwater gunnery were any sounder than MacPherson's, nor yet that he ever developed even a working prototype of his invention.  A close reading of the Belcher Journal, however, indicates that he, too, should be listed among the inventors of the era who, like Bushnell and Belton, experimented with submarine warfare.

“Jul 24th 1776 – Sum Associators arrivd to Day in Eliza. from Penna  to jine the Flying Camp /  Our neighbours the British are snug enuf from these Heroes on Staaten Island /  Did hear from them much talk of the learned Dr. Franklin & his wonderful mashine to Blow up Shiping / An enterprise of this nature might be advanced in these waters to our credit with the right backing /  As the Great men of this Town are either off asoldierin' in Canady or have removed their House holds to the Interior, there is none left to venture me the Capital.  Necessity must be midwife of invention.”

Jul 25th 1776 – To Day began a-foragin' such small things as shall not be missed & necessary to build my Mashine to Blow up Shiping / Laid by diverse articles suitable to my Purpose in the reeds by D’Hart’s Point /  Told any who enquired of my business in the marsh that was after the Fiddler Crab, a most excellent bait for Rockfish.

July 30th 1776 – My Mashine now takes shape /  Have determind to name it “The Flounder” for it shall  lie flat on the water and show little more above the surface than an egg basket, which I foraged from Mrs. Hetfield & reliev d  of her also the eggs /  This basket I have affixed bottom side up over a hole in the deck through which a man might thrust his Head to navigate by /  His other parts are to remain below and propel the Mashine by means of vigorous kicks of the leggs, much as we did do as boys in the surf down the Shore /    Right pleased with progress & believe sum Gentlemen in Congress may find it to their satisfaction to grant me a commission to deliver  up a fleet of such Mashines in consideration for good Continental money.

August 12th 1776 – Construction delays due to a lack of suitable oilcloth water-Proofing for the frame of The Flounder /  This having been happily discovered behind Spenser’s Sail Loft, am now painting it Blue that the enimy shall misapprehend my Mashine to be merely water /  Still seeking suitable armament to take on Man ‘o War.

August 19th 1776 – Have mounted two wall guns or Amusettes to either side of egg basket which shall fire by means of strong hempen cords held between the teeth /  Still seeking heavier artillery / Time short before the Invader must make his move from Staaten Island on New Yorck or to wherever he will.

August 26th 1776 – Have affixd a cross bow fashiond  from barrel staves to deck before egg basket / Tho it obscures the view somewhat forward it will fire a spear tipped with burning pitch /  Must remember to light a slow match before launching The Flounder this night with the Tide.

August 27th 1776 – Did set out on maiden voyage of The Flounder /  Found that hanging below deck neck deep in water was much colder than expected and did Chatter most alarmingly and experienced considerable shrinkage of my manly parts /  Much to be regretted, tide did convey me not in the direction intendd  to where the Shiping lay by the Watering Place across from New Yorck Town, but in Stead down the Kill toward Spanktown where I was forcd to part company with The Flounder lest I proceed with it even to Sandy Hook and thence  mayhap to Spain /  Went to bed much discomfited and troubled with ague. 

Aug 28th 1776 - Ministerial army did cross to Long Island unmolested, and even now we hear the sounds of Battle across the water /  Would that the Flying Camp was truly capable of flight, for then we might devise a Mashine to Blow the Enimy up from above, but that is just idle Fancy /  Must be the fever talking.”

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Constant Belcher and the Legend of Molly Pitcher

It has taken me several months to piece together the fragmentary record of the Battle of Monmouth recorded in Constant Belcher's Journal.  When Larry Schmidt and I divided up the loose leaves of the Belcher document, he was particularly interested in those sections that mentioned the regimental colors of the 1st NJ Regt. to which Belcher belonged, as none survive today and there is much speculation as to what they may have looked like and when during the war they were carried.

I share his interest in this topic, but was also keen to see whether Belcher had anything new to say about the Monmouth campaign in which he was a participant.  It turns out that his Journal entries for the Battle of Monmouth that Larry and I have been transcribing not only include new evidence about the fate, if not the design, of the regimental flag, but also reveal that Belcher has a central, if unwitting role in the creation of the Molly Pitcher legend.

"Jun 23rd -  To Day we marcht In light order without baggage / pull’d up the bords over Crosswicks Crk / soon thair came sum  Engineers to put them back agin with some Green dragoons,  Highlanders,   lt. infantry also 3 small pieces lit artillery /Gave us a brisk fire but had trifling loss, save one militiaman and Col. Dayton’s horse.  We annoy'd them ourselves and drop't one officer with the Lights before leaving them to thair work.

Jun 24th - Took up the Bridge at Docktor’s Crk /  to Day much as before we swarmd  in front of Enimy advance with Militia / afternoon excessive warm, not slightest breeze to temper the march.

Jun 25th - This day on left flank of Ministerial army  / such heat as Parson C[aldwell?] warns Hellfire to be / my sory Mount having  succumbd  to the Infernal wether did  replace  her with a Spavined mule / Maj Ogden  much amus d  at this an being much a-given to High oratory, did declaim him ‘the Dappled one’ and myself also named Sancho to his Donkey Hoe Cake/  Doubtless Cozen Aaron, being a College boy, is sensible to the meanin of this but I can make No thing of it, unless he Desires me to cook for him this mule in the Spanish fashion with fire cake / an it be so he can wish away for I'll not tag-rag by his stirrup whilst he gallops hither and Yon.  Campt this Night at Risin Sun Tavern an still so hot it feels the sun never Sett. 

Jun 26th - Skirmishd this Day with Jaegers an Rangers  / vry rainy an Sharp lightnin and thunder overnight /  Maxwell's and Wayne's Brigades ordered up to Genl Lee who succeeds to the Division of Mr. Fayette the Frog-lander who stood with us at Brandywine.

Jun 27th  - Marcht this Day to jine Genl Lee with Fayette’s division.  The Invader stays in place and his baggage thot to be a-danglin in his rear /   Our new position on left and nearer to Englishtown / At Noon Cookd  2 day’s rations /  Did attend Maj. Ogden at council of War /   Genl Lee instruct d to attack rear of Enimy in morning /  Maxwell did afterward say to Maj. Howell [of 2nd NJ] ‘very well for you we will have a hot fight tomorrow’ in answer to request  that he go to Black Horse tavern to see his brother thot to be dying /   Night very hot no breeze. 

Jun 28th - Such a day as I scarce hope ever to see Agin / Maxwell did receive orders to prepare to March at 5 but Genl Lee did not begin until 7 by the Clock / Much marchin an counter marchin before abt 2 miles East of court House came at last into open field in full view of court house with the Eminy to our front / Halted with morass on right flank and dense thicket on left /  Here Col. Rhea [of the 4th NJ] being something advanced of our position did engage in a Duel with a Dragoon but, having misshis shot and not having a sword was compelld to make a Hasty withdrawl through a barn with the other in Hot Pursuit / Tho near 100 muskets of the Jersey Line did fire upon the other as they past through the other side nary a one found a mark, which sad to say shows the quality of the many new recruits in our Ranks / The fightin Commensd with some roundshot passing here an thair until Genl Scott came up to say the Enimy had past on his right and was now in the rear and our men were seen to withdraw on the far side but no orders did come from Genl Lee /  Maxwell and he did agree to send our guns back over the Causeway and soon the withdrawal was seen to be general and all much disordered .

At this time came 2 from His Excellency asking the reason for the Retreat /  Cosen Matt Ogden [ of the 1stNJ] did reply most warmly that they were flying from a shadow /  Then came Genl Washington Himself and none could give the reason for the retreat /  He berated Genl Lee in most singular terms, and I noted a few Choice phrases that may see good service when next I go a-mule skinnin.  

In the confusion, it seems that the Ensign of Col. Ogden's rigiment had gone astray an with him the colours /  Cosen Matt was most irate an Maj Ogden did order me back up the column to locate them /  The Enimy by this time was pressing most closely an our men in the cause way over the morass wair all in disorder / I did see several men dropt down from the Heat an whilst searchin them for our Ensign found them dry and cold to the touch / I hid in the mire as some Grenadiers past by an then saw our own banner cast aside hard by the roadside / it being too much to carry the pole I tyed it about my waist and skirted the Enimy to rejoin my fellows / 

Coming through a field I found Some of Proctor's guns playing smartly with the Enimy in an orchard behind me / Col. Proctor did order me to serve as Matross as he was then shorthanded / A roundshot came so close to me as to pass between my legs  and tho it spared me it tore the colours all to shreds/ A gunner did remark on my good luck an I said in return I was lucky it did not pass a little higher, for in that case it might have carried away something else/  He told me I was a brave lass, which I did think strange but then it was a hot day an Too warm to think straight /  Have heard since that one of the women of the Army served Proctor's guns at Monmouth but I think this just a soldier fancy for I was thair an did not observe her.