Samuel Smedley and Prize Division

This portrait by William Lee is based off the only known image of Samuel Smedley: an ivory miniature, one-inch long, said to have been painted while he was in Holland. Smedley's second command of a privateer ended with his capture and imprisonment in England. He soon escaped to France where Ben Franklin gave him the command of two ships full of supplies, which Smedley sailed from Amsterdam to Philadelphia in 1782.
This portrait by William Lee is based off the only known image of Samuel Smedley: an ivory miniature, one-inch long, said to have been painted while he was in Holland. Smedley’s second command of a privateer ended with his capture and imprisonment in England. He soon escaped to France where Ben Franklin gave him the command of two ships full of supplies, which Smedley sailed from Amsterdam to Philadelphia in 1782.

“I never Emplored my pen in writing more Disagreeable News than at this time,” wrote Samuel Smedley, captain of the Connecticut state ship Defence, to Connecticut governor Jonathan Trumbull in March 1779. “According to your Excellencys Orders I got the ship Defence in Readiness for Sea & having no men Belonging to the ship it was thought proper to Man her from the Detachment Stationed here, & by Orders received… went into the Sound in Order to watch the motions of the Enemy, & in returning into port Unfortunately struck on Goshen Reef where she soon over set & bilged.”[1]

Four or five men drowned. “[F]inding my Situation such as there was no Possibility of Saving the ship, I immediately Dispatched Capt Lloyd of the Detachment to Mr. Shaw for Lighters which was soon supplied & after about thirty hours Fatigued up to our Middels in water we secured all our Guns Riging warlike stores Sails Provisions & every thing of any Value above water.”[2]

The ship, battered by the waves, broke apart on the shoal.

At the beginning of the American Revolution, the ship Defence had been specifically commissioned as “an armed vessel for defence of this Colony” — to protect the Connecticut shoreline against British attack.[3] But the mission transformed over the years, such that, if everything had gone according to plan, Defence shouldn’t have been anywhere near Connecticut at all in 1779. So why did the Defence wreck off New London in Long Island Sound?

The answer comes down to money.

At the outbreak of war, the Connecticut Assembly voted to construct its own navy. The backbone was two ships: one which they purchased and outfitted — the 16-gun brig Defence — and a second built to order — the 20-gun Oliver Cromwell.

Governor Trumbull, aided in his prosecution of the war by a handpicked Council of Safety, appointed Seth Harding and Ebenezer Bartram as Defence‘s captain and first lieutenant. Both were respected and experienced merchant captains. They also appointed Samuel Smedley as lieutenant of marines. Smedley was the cousin of Bartram’s wife and the son of James Smedley, a French and Indian War vet who, along with Bartram, owned shares in the Upper Wharf along Black Rock Harbor, a well-developed port in Fairfield, Connecticut. Like his father, Samuel was also an investor in maritime commerce — he and a friend co-owned a large storehouse along the wharf — but unlike him, Samuel seems to have had some sailing experience as well.

Almost immediately after the initial appointments, the second lieutenant dropped out and Smedley was promoted to his spot. By the end of the year, both Bartram and Harding also quit due to illness. Each time, Smedley climbed a rung of the ladder until he was finally commissioned as Defence‘s captain in the spring of 1777. He was 23 years old. Defence went on to take a total of seven prizes under his command.

From Defence to Offense

Both Defence and Oliver Cromwell were intended “for the defence of the sea-coasts in this Colony.”[4] Yet over the course of the war, their military mission soon evolved into a pecuniary venture.

It happened like this. In June 1776, under Captain Seth Harding, Defence attacked and captured three Scottish troop transports in Boston Harbor. The ships were brought into Boston and libeled — that is, processed through the admiralty court and, if judged a legitimate prize and not an act of piracy, liquidated. Much of the equipment for the troops (tents, pots, pans, bags, and so forth) was requisitioned by the naval agent and sent to General Washington in New York, who was preparing for what would become the Battle of Brooklyn. Everything else was sold but because the transports were Royal Navy ships, the money first had to flow through the office of the naval agent in Boston, where it evaporated — used to pay for expenses of the Continental navy. Neither the state of Connecticut nor the men of Defence ever saw a penny of it.

So afterwards, Captain Harding, along with Governor Trumbull and the Council of Safety, made a very conscious decision not to strike military targets but instead to pursue merchant ships. Britain still had its colonies in the West Indies and there was robust traffic moving back and forth across the Atlantic. Not only did merchantmen have rich cargoes that could be sold but also since they were not Royal Navy ships, none of the proceeds would have to pass through the office of the naval agent.

The ship Defence by William Lee. Originally a two-masted brig, in late 1777 Defence was lengthened and a third mast added, transforming her into a proper ship.
The ship Defence by William Lee. Originally a two-masted brig, in late 1777 Defence was lengthened and a third mast added, transforming her into a proper ship.

By the time Smedley became captain in 1777, this was established precedent for Defence. Smedley immediately took it a step further and instead of going into the mid-Atlantic to catch ships as Harding had done, Smedley went straight down to the Caribbean to capture ships as they headed into or from island ports. And he was very good at it: on his first voyage as captain, Smedley captured four prizes in the West Indies — to the enrichment of both the state and the sailors.

But there was a problem. It was a big problem and it ultimately undid Defence and the Connecticut state navy: how the money from prizes was divided.

The system of prize division originally came from the Continental Congress, which established rules for the division of prizes for both the Continental and state navies. After an American vessel took a prize, the prize ship would be brought back to port and submitted to the admiralty court, which would judge whether it was a lawful prize. If so, then the ship and its contents were sold. One-twentieth was taken off the top of these proceeds for the admiral of the navy. All legal costs were then subtracted. The remaining sum was divided between the government and the actual sailors on the ship. For merchant vessels, two-thirds went to the Congress or the state and one-third went to the captors. For ships of war — like the Royal Navy or English privateers — each side received half. The money was then further divvied into shares among the crew according to the ship’s articles. This was the system Connecticut used.

But on October 30, 1776, Congress abandoned the two-thirds/one-third model and issued new rules for prize division for the Continental navy. For “merchantmen, transports, and store ships,” the government and the captors each received half.[5] One-hundred percent of a warship would be awarded to the officers and crewmen as an incentive for their valor. This was to encourage attacks on the Royal Navy and enemy privateers.

Congress altered the rules because they discovered the Continental navy couldn’t recruit enough men — the navy had to compete with American privateers for sailors.

Congress had established the terms of privateer commissions in April 1776. Privateers were warships completely outfitted at private expense. They didn’t pay anything to the government and all the profits were theirs to keep, although the ship owners or investors had to post bonds to obtain a privateer commission. There were very strict rules of conduct for the sailors: they couldn’t abuse or strip the prisoners; they had to keep the cargo intact; and just like the navies, they had to bring the prize back to port, where the admiralty court would examine the paperwork and interview officers from both ships. If the rules of conduct had been followed, the prize would be awarded to the captors. Failure to abide by the rules meant loss of the bond and potential prosecution.

There was no official division scheme for privateers but customarily prizes were divided half for the owners and investors and half for the crew. This stands in contrast to the two-thirds/one-third system of the navies.

All the sailors did the math and realized going on a privateer was the better option. That’s why Congress abandoned the two-thirds/one-third model and adopted a half-and-half system for merchant ships — they had to be competitive with privateers for recruitment.

Connecticut did not follow Congress’s example. They stubbornly stuck to the original two-thirds/one-third model. They wanted that extra sliver, that extra sixteen percent.

This greatly inhibited Smedley’s ability to recruit sailors for Defence. On his very first voyage, Smedley had trouble finding enough men. Just as they were prepared to sail from New London, the man Smedley thought was going to be his first lieutenant — a man by the name of Henry Billings — suddenly refused the job. Billings returned the commission in a letter to Trumbull in February 1777, writing, “I am offered the Command of a Burmudian Built Sloop fixing out as a Privateer — And I think to do Justice to myself & family I must except of the offer.”[6]

Smedley also had trouble recruiting common sailors. William Coit, then captain of Oliver Cromwell, wrote, “[T]he Engaging of men if they were not taken from me by every species of designing men, Who with large promises entice them away would be very easy to engage Mr Elderkin will inform you of Mr Smedleys behaviour!”[7]

In contrast to modern perceptions of democracy during the Revolution, the war in Connecticut was very authoritarian. Governor Jonathan Trumbull and his hand-selected Council of Safety acted as a kind of star chamber, often meeting in Trumbull's store in Lebanon (known as the War Office) where they would write and send letters, discuss strategy, and even try and sentence suspected Loyalists. Still, Connecticut's role as "The Provision State" was due in great part to the logistical management of Trumbull and his Council. Photo by author.
In contrast to modern perceptions of democracy during the Revolution, the war in Connecticut was very authoritarian. Governor Jonathan Trumbull and his hand-selected Council of Safety acted as a kind of star chamber, often meeting in Trumbull’s store in Lebanon (known as the War Office) where they would write and send letters, discuss strategy, and even try and sentence suspected Loyalists. Still, Connecticut’s role as “The Provision State” was due in great part to the logistical management of Trumbull and his Council. Photo by author.

Smedley managed to recruit enough crewmen to make that cruise in the spring of 1777 in which Defence captured four prizes in the West Indies. But after their return, the crew was angry to learn they would only receive one-third of those prizes. Samuel Eliot, Jr., who was Connecticut’s agent in Boston and responsible for overseeing liquidation of the prizes and other business for the state, wrote to Trumbull, “I was in hope of hearing from your Honor respecting the division of Prizes.”[8] He goes on to describe a mob scene at his office in which the sailors swarmed through his doors, demanding half of the prizes.

“I mention’d some time since the cause of their murmuring to be the report of their being intitled to only one third of the Prizes,” Eliot wrote. “[S]ome brot Copys of the Shipping papers, which mentions ‘they were on the Same footing as the Continental Navy’.”[9]

These were the “large promises” Coit had complained about. In order to recruit enough sailors, Smedley had promised them half the prizes instead of one-third. As a result, they descended upon Eliot insisting the deal be kept. “I did all in my power to make Officers and privates easy,” Eliot wrote.[10] To keep the sailors from violence, he distributed £1,200 among them. “[I]t was,” he wrote, “the most weighty argument I could make use off.”[11]

By the fall of 1777, Smedley had yet to make another cruise because once again he couldn’t find enough men to crew the ship. He only recruited three or four men in Boston. He complained to Trumbull there were fourteen other vessels in the harbor with which to compete, and he begged for more money because he had spent the ship’s provisioning funds recruiting far from the city in places like Falmouth, Cape Cod, and Martha’s Vineyard.

Trumbull and the Council granted the money, and to assist Smedley and Timothy Parker, the new captain of the Oliver Cromwell, they made a special exemption for Defence and Oliver Cromwell for half on all prizes (war and merchant) for one cruise. That cruise took place in the spring and summer of 1778.

The Only Means

Defence captured three vessels, making the cruise a wild success. By September 1778, Smedley was back in Fairfield attempting to recruit for another voyage. Yet even though Smedley and Defence had established reputations for putting prizes under the gavel — and living to collect the proceeds — the same old obstruction again confounded him: prize division. The fifty-fifty scheme under which Defence and Oliver Cromwell had sailed south in the summer of 1778 had been for that cruise only. Now, the state ships were once again on the two-thirds/one-third formula. As such, they couldn’t compete with either the Continental Navy or privateers. In his home port of Black Rock, Smedley only found two men willing to sign aboard Defence. He wrote to Trumbull, “The Last Cruize, I had from this, & the neighboring Towns near one half of my Crew, the greater part of which are now in the Continental and other state service, owing to the Singular Laws of this state.”[12] The governor apparently agreed with Smedley but his Council of Safety did not — doing so meant surrendering money the state desperately needed for the war effort. But there wouldn’t be any prize money to begin with if Defence and the other state ships didn’t have enough men to sail them out of the harbor. If Connecticut adopted the Continental model, Smedley wrote, “I can assure [the Council] it would be the only means of upholding our Navy.”[13]

Timothy Parker on the Oliver Cromwell had a similar complaint: Between New London and Norwich, Parker could find only seven men. He wrote, “Several that have been at work on board with Intention to go in the Ship finding her going on the old plan, have since left her and gone to the Confederacy,” which was the Continental Navy’s new 32-gun frigate.[14] Parker and Smedley’s first lieutenant, James Angell, co-signed a letter to Trumbull asking for the ships to go back on the half-and-half model. They wrote, “Our opinion Unless that is the case they cannot be got to Sea without great Delay and Extraordinary Expence if at all.”[15]

Trumbull and the Council of Safety refused. So Defence and Oliver Cromwell lay idle for five months.

Finally the Connecticut Assembly grew so frustrated that they appointed a commission to discover why the ships weren’t sailing. The commission investigated and quickly reported back: the reason the ships were idle was because “that tis extreamly difficult to procure Men to enter on board.”[16]

The commission recommended “that the same Dividend of the prizes which the Ships shall take, be made to the Crews which has been usually made on board private Ships of Warr, viz. one Moiety to the Crew or Captors, after Deduction for the necessary Expence of libelling, Condemnation, &c. be made; the other Moiety to the state.”[17]

The Assembly voted and the resolution passed. But it was too late. The captains couldn’t find enough men who hadn’t made other commitments. Without enough sailors, Defence sailed to New London, where the ship was manned by Connecticut detachments of the Continental army garrisoned in the forts. In February 1779, Defence was ordered “to go on an expedition in the Sound against the enemy in company with the continental ships and troops”;  as pay, the soldier-sailors were promised that “the shares of plunder &c. shall be as the other ships” — that is, on the Continental system.[18]

That’s why Defence was in New London and not out taking prizes in the Caribbean when she wrecked in March 1779. Some accounts say she was chased, although Smedley never mentions that. He blamed the pilot, “whose knowledge in Pilotage I had Reason to Believe was good but to my Sorrow found he knew not what he Pretended.”[19]

A court of inquiry exonerated Smedley. Months later, Oliver Cromwell was captured by the British. Smedley would fight on by later commanding two privateers — but for the Connecticut state navy, the war was over.

 


[1] Samuel Smedley to Jonathan Trumbull, 12 March 1779, vol. 9, part 1 of Jonathan Trumbull Papers (Hartford, CT: Connecticut State Library, State Archives), 95.

[2] Ibid.

[3] General Assembly, 14-28 December 1775, vol. XV of The Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut (Hartford, CT: Case, Lockwood & Brainard Co., 1890), 200-201.

[4] General Assembly, 1 July 1775, vol. XV of The Public Records of the Colony of Connecticut, 99-100.

[5] Continental Congress, vol. VI  of Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1906), 913.

[6] Henry Billings to Jonathan Trumbull, 8 February 1777, vol. 6, part 1 of  Jonathan Trumbull Papers, 33.

[7] William Coit to Jonathan Trumbull, 24 February 1777, roll IX of Revolutionary War Series 1 (microfilm, Hartford, CT : Connecticut State Library, State Archives), 131.

[8] Samuel Eliot Jr. to Jonathan Trumbull, 10 May 1777, roll IX of Revolutionary War Series 1, 107.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Samuel Smedley to Jonathan Trumbull, 17 September 1778, vol. 8, part 2 of Jonathan Trumbull Papers, 184.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Timothy Parker, et al. to Jonathan Trumbull, 6 January 1779, vol. 9, part 1 of Jonathan Trumbull Papers, 2.

[15] Ibid.

[16] S.M. Mitchell, Committee Clerk, to the General Assembly, January 1779, roll XIII of  Revolutionary War Series 1, 359.

[17] Ibid.

[18] The Governor and Council of Safety, 17 February 1779, vol. II of The Public Records of the State of Connecticut (Hartford, CT: Case, Lockwood & Brainard Co., 1895), 215-216.

[19] Samuel Smedley to Jonathan Trumbull, 12 March 1779, vol. 9, part 1 of Jonathan Trumbull Papers, 95.

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1 Comment

  • A small – and rather belated – note:
    The British transports captured in Boston harbor in June 1776 were not Royal Navy ships per se, but privately owned ships operating under contract to the Royal Navy. In general, the Royal Navy did not own or operate transports, but instead contracted private vessels. For more on the subject, see The Royal Navy in American Waters 1775-1783 by David SYRETT (1989).

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