“Strange Mismanagement”: The Capture of HMS Syren

A 32-Gun Frigate taking in sail and other shipping off the coast. An oil painting by Thomas Luny (1759-1837).

After a British fleet of seventy-one warships and transports entered Narragansett Bay on December 7, 1776, and the next day landed soldiers that occupied Newport, Rhode Island, as well as the rest of Aquidneck Island, the Royal Navy had an excellent port for its ships to spend the winter. In addition, the fleet’s commander, Commodore Sir Peter Parker (later promoted to admiral) stationed four to six British frigates in the channels of Narragansett Bay in an attempt to blockade Providence and other bay ports. Meanwhile, opposing New England forces manned guard posts on the mainland.

While American naval forces were no match for the Royal Navy, from the commencement of the occupation Patriot forces tried to sink or capture British warships. When the 32-gun frigate HMS Diamond accidentally grounded itself in January 1777 off of Warwick, and local artillery was brought up on a beach to fire at it at low tide, it appeared the Americans would succeed in their quest. But due to poor shooting, lack of coordination by American forces, and a rising tide, the Diamond escaped. The Americans later tried to send fire ships down the bay but that effort failed too. Finally, in the Fall of 1777, the Americans had another realistic chance to capture a British warship, this time due to poor sailing.

At about 1 a.m. on November 6th, in rainy and windy nighttime conditions, Captain Tobias Furneaux of the frigate HMS Syren ordered seven transports and several other private vessels in Newport harbor to prepare to get under way. The small fleet intended to sail to Shelter Island off Long Island on a wood-cutting expedition. The cut wood, to be carried back to Newport, was crucial for soldiers and civilians to heat their homes and cook their food.  The Syren, with 28 guns and a crew of about 140, including twenty-eight marines, was to convoy the small fleet and protect it from pesky Connecticut privateers. The Syren brought up the rear of the convoy.[1] Admiral Parker also directed Furneaux to depart Newport at an unusually early hour so the small convoy could complete the trip in a single day before darkness fell.[2]

The ships got under way around 2 a.m. After the Syren had cleared the lighthouse at Beavertail Point on Conanicut Island (Jamestown), Captain Furneaux went to his quarters to catch up on sleep. Before retiring, just before 4 a.m., he ordered his first lieutenant, Thomas Newton, to steer the ship southwest-by-south, to lower some sails due to the squally weather, and to consult with the ship’s pilot regarding the best course to steer to Long Island Sound.

About thirty minutes after Furneaux retired to his quarters, Newton was relieved by William Edwards, the Master, who was soon joined by Thomas Smith, the pilot.[3] Edwards then asked Smith if he thought the ship had cleared Point Judith, a peninsula seven miles southwest of Beavertail Point that jutted out into Long Island Sound which was and still is a peril to all vessels coming near it. Smith, although he could not see any landmarks in the driving squall, responded that he thought the ship was clear of Point Judith. Edwards then ordered the course to be altered to southwest-south. It was a disastrous misjudgment.

As a result of this “strange mismanagement,” as Admiral Parker later called it, the Syren, followed by the small transport Sisters and a small private schooner called Two Mates, veered towards the dangerous rocks off Point Judith. At about 5 a.m., each ship ran aground on the eastern side of Point Judith, with the Syren lying “broadside to the shore” and “not above pistol shot from the shore, on the rocks.”[4]

Jolted awake by his ship driving into sand and rock, Captain Furneaux rushed to the quarterdeck where he directed several desperate attempts to dislodge the Syren. He immediately ordered all sails to be furled. Then, using an anchor and two cables, he tried to winch his vessel off the sand bar, but failed due to roaring winds and high seas. Realizing that relief would not be immediate, the captain sent Lieutenant Newton in a pinnace (a small boat powered by about eight oars or by sails) to inform Admiral Parker of the situation. Because of the intensity of the squall, the lieutenant was delayed in departing and ultimately decided to take a larger sloop to sail the twelve miles to Newport. Unfortunately for the crews of the three stranded vessels, his progress in the face of the gale winds was agonizingly slow. In the meantime, Furneaux ordered the ship’s gunner “to fire away guns, and keep loading and firing as fast as possible” in order to signal other British ships of her distress.[5]

On the shore, Rhode Island militia was alerted to the grounding probably by the firing of the Syren’s guns. The 2nd Regiment of King’s County militia maintained a guard post at Point Judith.  The ships must have run ashore close to the post, as in a short time, despite the stormy conditions, the beach was swarming with troops led by Colonel Charles Dyer of North Kingstown, with assistance from Colonel Ray Sands and Captain Samuel J. Potter of South Kingstown. Potter’s company alone had forty-two soldiers at the site.[6] They were joined by a company from Colonel John Robinson’s Massachusetts State Regiment. At some point on the 6th, Rhode Island artillerists opened fire on the Syren and the other two stranded vessels with at least one artillery piece.[7]

Concluding that the Syren was firmly grounded and could not be freed, Captain Furneaux turned his attention to saving the Two Mates. The small schooner from Newport was freed, but accurate artillery fire from the shore battery shot away her fore and peak halyards, resulting in the vessel losing control and drifting ashore. The militia on shore then easily captured the Two Mates and her crew. The small transport vessel Sisters was swamped and sank under the waves, but not before those on board were rescued by a British sloop whose crew had heard the first distress signals.[8] Meanwhile, aboard the Syren, Captain Furneaux, despite his worries about the safety of his crew under the bombardment from the shore artillery, decided not to surrender in the hope of also being rescued by British ships.[9]

It was not until 4 p.m., approximately ten hours after leaving the Syren off Point Judith, that Lieutenant Newton finally reached Admiral Parker aboard HMS Chatham and informed him of the grounding. Parker immediately dispatched the 32-gun frigates Lark and Flora the scene for assistance.[10] The two frigates got under way at 5 p.m., passed the light house at Beavertail Point on Conanicut Island at 6 p.m., and saw the lights of the Syren at 8 p.m. Flora and Lark fired signal guns which were answered by the Syren. At about 9:30 p.m., the two frigates anchored within viewing distance of the Syren but were still at least two miles from shore, not close enough to provide support. Their pilots determined that this was as close as they could safely go.[11]

Captain Furneaux sent a long boat with a petty officer and four men to inform the frigates that he was still in possession of the Syren. After receiving this message, the Lark launched its small cutter with the hope of assisting the Syren. But just then the weather turned against the rescuers. The wind shifted to the northwest and began to blow with gale force. The cutter returned to the Lark, and the Flora decided not to even try hoisting its own cutter in the face of the fierce wind and raging sea.[12] Realizing that assistance was not forthcoming, Furneaux became even more concerned for the safety of his men.[13]

On shore, more cannon were brought to bear on the Syren. One local man organized the carrying of an eighteen-pound gun from North Kingstown, about ten miles away, using ox teams in relays.[14] By 12 midnight on November 6, the Americans had in place three eighteen-pound cannon. Once the Rhode Island artillerists commenced fire with all three guns, Captain Furneaux realized he was in a truly precarious position. As a result of holes in his ship’s bottom from the grounding, the Syren’s hold was filling with water that had reached five feet ten inches deep. As cannon fire punched more holes in the ship, the water level inside rose dramatically, so that “all the people were ordered to the quarterdeck.”[15] Moreover, as the ferocity of the storm increased, powerful waves began breaching over his ship.

Cannon fire began to exact a toll among the crew, killing two sailors and wounding the ship’s master and four others. In the face of this deteriorating situation, Furneaux ordered a gunner to destroy all small stores, muskets and pistols and to spike some of the cannon. At 2 a.m. on November 7, fearing for the safety of his crew, Furneaux signaled to the shore battery that he wanted to surrender. The cannon fire stopped and the militia must have cheered mightily.[16]

With this surrender, the immediate concern was to evacuate safely the British sailors and marines in the midst of breaking waves. The militia on shore provided crucial assistance. In a letter to Parker several days later, Furneaux stated that he likely would have lost many men had not the militia exerted “the greatest diligence” in aiding them. However, once on shore, the men of the Syren were apparently the victims of plundering by the same militiamen who had saved them. One of the survivors of the wreck later reported to the Newport Gazette that “Captain Furneaux and his officers were stripped of what little baggage they were able get on shore.” This same survivor reported that a prominent member of the Rhode Island General Assembly “was detected going off with a bag filled with precious spoil.”[17]

Once the British sailors and officers were secured as prisoners, the militia turned to rescuing what equipment they could from the Syren. Enterprising Rhode Islanders knocked over the mast and made it a narrow bridge on which to carry out rigging, stores, seventeen “puncheons of rum,” and other items.[18] But the waves crashing over the Syren prevented bringing ashore the valuable guns and anchor. Meanwhile, the British warships standing about two miles away could only watch helplessly. The Flora fired two twelve pounders at the Americans stripping the Syren, but the shots fell short. Seeing “a great number of armed men onshore” and “the sea making a passage over the ship,” Captain John Brisbane of the Flora and Captain Richard Smith of the Lark ordered their frigates to return to Newport.[19]

Two days later, on November 9, with improving weather, Parker ordered Brisbane to attempt to set fire to the Syren to prevent its seizure by the Americans. At 7 p.m., the Flora and Lark, and the small tenders Lady Parker and Warren, set sail from Newport for Point Judith. At around 9 p.m. the vessels reached their destination about two miles from shore. Marines and sailors filled four long boats, carrying “combustibles,” and started rowing toward the Syren. The Americans on shore spotted the raiding party. One of the boat’s commanders, midshipman Bartholomew James, recalled that the boats approached the Syren “amidst a heavy fire from the enemy of cannon and musketry, and found a heavy sea running alongside of her.”  Despite the danger, the officers of each of the four launches tied up to the Syren and boarded it.  Carrying baskets of combustibles, the planted them in assigned places throughout the ship and set matches to the delayed fuses. The resulting explosions triggered an immediate fire that ignited some of the ammunition, forcing each officer to hurl himself into the nearest long boat he could find. Only one of the party was injured, a lieutenant whose “face and hands were much burnt by the explosion of the combustibles.” The long boats returned to their ships at about 11 p.m.[20]

The members of the British party who set fire to the Syren were satisfied that they had “completely destroyed her.”[21] But, as was often the case with shipwrecks, it was difficult to entirely burn a stranded ship still in water. The Syren’s partially submerged lower decks were not destroyed, enabling guns and other equipment to be salvaged by the Americans. While the transport Sisters was damaged beyond repair, the Americans salvaged the schooner Two Mates.[22]

As was the case with most significant events in King’s County, which by New England standards had a high proportion of slaves, African Americans played a role.  Among the soldiers of Robinson’s Massachusetts regiment who marched to the beach to assist in the capture of the Syren were three African Americans.[23] In addition, at least three local African American slaves were ordered by their South Kingstown masters to help for several days unloading the Syren and the Two Mates.[24] Furthermore, the “property” that militia leaders listed as booty to be sold—with cash from the sale to be divided among the militia who helped capture the vessels—included two African American male slaves.[25] They likely were slaves to one of the private ship masters or to a civilian on board.

In total, the Rhode Island militia captured about 136 sailors and marines. The prisoners were marched under guard north to Providence on November 9.[26] The Syren’s officers were kept in houses in Providence until arrangements could be made to send them into the countryside, where it would be harder for the British to try to rescue them.[27] The state purchased medicines to care for the Syren’s wounded and sick.[28] In addition, fourteen New Englanders who had been prisoners on board the Syren were set free and later given money by the state to return to their homes.[29]

British prisoners were valuable because they could be exchanged for American prisoners, many of them sailors from privateers and commercial ships that had been sent by British cruisers into Newport. The captive Americans were sitting in filthy and diseased prison ships in Newport harbor, and their suffering started to increase with the onset of the colder fall weather. On November 19, 1777, fifty-five sailors from the Syren were put aboard “cartel” ships to be exchanged. As they left Providence, they gave three huzzahs for King George III.[30] In return, on November 21 and 22, the British sent to Providence forty-three prisoners from the prison ship in Newport harbor, all of them taken from Massachusetts vessels at sea.[31] An additional exchange of fifty-nine men from the Syren, including twenty-seven British marines, occurred on December 11, 1777, and a small exchange occurred on January 12, 1778. However, the Americans allowed three of the British marines at their request to remain in the United States and not be part of the exchange.[32] Captain Furneaux was moved to Lebanon, Connecticut until he was exchanged for prominent Continental navy captain John Manley in April 1778.[33]

As occurred when any British ship was lost, a court martial was held to determine whether any officer was to blame. Held on board a frigate just outside Newport Harbor on May 11, 1778, six officers sat in judgment of Captain Furneaux, Master Edwards, and Smith, the pilot. Furneaux was found innocent of any misconduct, but the other two men were found negligent and summarily dismissed from the Royal Navy.[34]  The Syren was one of the few Royal Navy warships captured by the Americans, and it only happened because of the “strange mismanagement” of Edwards and Smith.

[Featured Image at Top: A 32-Gun Frigate taking in sail and other shipping off the coast. An oil painting by Thomas Luny (1759-1837).]

 


[1] J. Knowles to Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, Nov. 16, 1777, in Michael J. Crawford (ed.), Naval Documents of the American Revolution, vol. 10 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of the Navy, 1996), 511.

[2] Testimony of Captain Tobias Furneaux, Court Martial Record, May 11, 1778, British National Archives, ADM 1/5309, p. 405-10. The author thanks Don N. Hagist for discovering the court martial record for the Syren and providing a copy of it to him.

[3] Testimony of Lieutenant Thomas Newton, ibid.

[4] J. Knowles to Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, Nov. 16, 1777, in Crawford (ed.), Naval Docs 10:511 (“ran on shore a little to the northward of Point Judith, within pistol shot of the beach”); P. Parker to R. Howe, Nov. 22, 1777, in id., 566 (“strange mismanagement”). The Sisters was commanded by William Trattles, and the Two Mates was commanded by Jonathan Layton.

[5] Testimony of Alexander McIntire, Gunner and William Sier, Carpenter, Court Martial Record, May 11, 1778, British National Archives, ADM 1/5309, p. 405-10.

[6] William Davis Miller Papers, Mss 673, series 4, sub-series C, box 3, folder 56, R.I. Historical Society.

[7] Depositions of Edward Lock and Martin Murphy, undated (probably in 1778 or 1779), William Davis Miller Papers, Mss 629, sub-group 12, box 2, folder 7 & Mss 673, series 4, sub-series C, box 3, folder 57, R.I. Historical Society.

[8] Diary Entry, Nov. 7, 1777, in Frederick Mackenzie, Diary of Frederick Mackenzie . . ., vol. 1 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1930), 210.

[9] T. Furneaux to P. Parker, Nov. 10, 1777, in Crawford (ed.), Naval Docs. 10:452-53.

[10] P. Parker to R. Howe, Nov. 22, 1777, in ibid., 566; Log of the HMS Chatham, Nov. 6, 1777, in id., 415-16; Log of the HMS Lark, Nov. 6, 1777, in id., 416; Log of the HMS Flora, Nov. 6, 1777, in id., 416.

[11] Log of the HMS Lark, Nov. 6, 1777, in ibid., 416; Log of the HMS Flora, Nov. 6, 1777, in id., 416-17.

[12] Log of the HMS Lark, Nov. 7, 1777, in ibid., 428; Log of the HMS Flora, Nov. 6, 1777, in id., 416-17.

[13] Log of the HMS Lark, Nov. 7, 1777, in ibid., 428; Log of the HMS Flora, Nov. 6, 1777, in id., 416-17; T. Furneaux to P. Parker, Nov. 10, 1777, in id., 452-53.

[14] Statement for Payment, William Davis Miller Papers, Mss 673, series 4, sub-series C, box 3, folder 57, R.I. Historical Society.

[15] T. Furneaux to P. Parker, Nov. 10, 1777, in Crawford (ed.), Naval Docs. 10:452-53.

[16] Ibid; see also Log of the HMS Flora, Nov. 7, 1777, in id., 418 (“saw … the sea making a passage over the ship”); William Steadman Rev. War Pension Application, National Archives Building (“They fired on the British with 18 pounders, in consequence of which they [the Syren crew] surrendered”); Testimony of Alexander McIntire, Gunner and of William Sier, Carpenter, Court Martial Record, May 11, 1778, British National Archives, ADM 1/5309, p. 405-10.

[17] Newport Gazette, Nov. 27, 1777; see also Connecticut Gazette, Nov. 14, 1777.

[18] Providence Gazette, Nov. 15, 1777.

[19] Log of the HMS Flora, Nov. 7, 1777, in Crawford (ed.), Naval Docs. 10:428.

[20] Diary Entry, Nov. 1777, in in John K. Laughton (ed.), Journal of Rear-Admiral Bartholomew James, 1752-1828, in Publications of the Navy Records Society, vol. 6 (London: Navy Records Society, 1896), 48-49.

[21] Diary Entry, Nov. 1777, in ibid.; see also Log of the HMS Flora, Nov. 9, 1777, in Crawford (ed.), Naval Docs. 10:440-41; Diary Entry, Nov. 10, 1777, Journals of Christopher French, Library of Congress.

[22] Providence Gazette, Nov. 15, 1777.

[23] List of Men at Point Judith on Nov. 6, 1777 from Col. John Robinson’s Regiment of Militia, Massachusetts, Capture of the Syren, Marched to the Assistance of Col. Dyer on 6 Nov. 1777, March 7, 1778, Elisha R. Potter Papers, box 3, folder 150, R.I. Historical Society. Of the sixty-seven men listed, the last three were Prince Pero, Primus Atkins and Boston Foye; these names indicate that that they were former slaves.

[24] Providence Gazette, Nov. 15, 1777; Deposition of Martin Murphy, undated, William Davis Miller Papers, Mss 629, sub-group 12, box 2, folders 7 and Mss 673, series 4, sub-series C, box 3, folder 57, R.I. Hist. Soc. (“I saw at said Point [Judith] Jacob and Pharoah, two Negro men belonging to Carder Hazard of said town and the next day saw at said point Jacob and Pharoah and another negro man called Quaco, belonging to said Carder Hazard and see them all that day and afterwards at work there in helping to unload said ships”).

[25] Providence Gazette, Nov. 15, 1777 (advertisement of auction of property taken from the Syren, including “one Negro man slave”); see also List of Prisoners Sent to Sir Peter Parker in a Cartel Vessel Under the Direction of Capt. Joshua Sayer, Dec. 11, 1777, Council of War Papers, Exchange of Prisoners, Miscellaneous Papers, 1775-1781, folio #119, R.I. State Archives (32 petty officers and sailors, and 27 marines, belonging to the Syren in prisoner exchange; John Primus and Thomas Brigel, described as “Negroes,” were “not sent” in the exchange). The author presumes the two black men were not sent in the exchange because they were treated as slaves and not free men.

[26] J. Spencer to R.I. Council of War, Nov. 9, 1777, Letters to the Governor, XI, R.I. State Archives; List of Prisoners Late Belonging to His Majesty’s Ship Syren, Undated, Council of War Papers, Exchange of Prisoners, Miscellaneous Papers, 1775-1781, folio #82, R.I. State Archives (108 sailors and 28 marines); List of Vessels Seized, Destroyed or Retaken by the American Squadron Between October 25, 1777 Through September 28, 1778, Oct. 30, 1778, Admiral Howe Correspondence, British Public Records, ADM 1/488, transcript, Library of Congress (about 160 prisoners).

[27] R.I. Council of War Records, Nov. 13, 1777, R.I. State Archives.

[28] R.I. Council of War Records, Nov. 10, 1777, ibid.

[29] R.I. Council of War Records, Nov. 13, 1777, ibid. (fourteen captives aboard the Syren paid from $4 to $6 each so they could travel home to Salem, Marblehead, Plymouth, etc.); List of Americans Released from Captivity at Point Judith and to be Returned, 1777, Council of War Papers, Exchange of Prisoners, Miscellaneous Papers, 1775-1781, folio #86, R.I. State Archives (seven men captured by the Syren, including one sailor who had been pressed and forced to serve as a seaman).

[30] Newport Gazette, Nov. 27, 1777; List of Prisoners Sent on the Flag under the Direction of Lt. Brown, Nov. 19, 1777, Council of War Papers, Exchange of Prisoners, Miscellaneous Papers, 1775-1781, folio #117, R.I. State Archives (55 British prisoners taken on board the Syren).

[31] Log of the HMS Chatham, Nov. 21-22, 1777, in Crawford (ed.), Naval Docs. 10:565 and n. 1; R.I. Council of War to P. Parker, Nov. 19, 1777, in id., 537 (sending 70 prisoners under Lt. Brown); P. Parker to N. Cooke, Nov. 22, 1777, in id., 566-67; Diary Entry, Nov. 21, 1777, in Mackenzie, Diary 1:214. The Rhode Island prisoners had previously been sent to Halifax and New York. N. Cooke to Mass. Council, Dec. 10, 1777, in Crawford (ed.), Naval Docs. 10:698.

[32] List of Prisoners Sent to Sir Peter Parker in a Cartel Vessel Under the Direction of Capt. Joshua Sayer, Dec. 11, 1777, folio #82, Council of War Papers, Exchange of Prisoners, Miscellaneous Papers, 1775-1781. R.I. State Archives (three officers and three seamen from the Syren exchanged in Narragansett); List of Prisoners, Jan. 12, 1778, folio #119, id. (32 petty officers and sailors, and 27 marines, belonging to the Syren; three of the marines “not come”).

[33] Newport Gazette, Nov. 27, 1777; J. Trumbull to N. Cooke. Dec. 8, 1777, Letters to the Governor, II, R.I. State Archives; E. Boudinot to N. Cooke, March 28, 1778, in Crawford (ed.), Naval Docs. 11:819; R.I. Council of War Records, April 21, 1778, R.I. State Archives.

[34] Court Martial Record, May 11, 1778, British National Archives, ADM 1/5309, p. 410.

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4 Comments

  • Mr. McBurney, thank you for a most interesting article. Rhode Island’s role in the revolution often takes a lower position to its neighbors and articles like your help to demonstrate that the state did play an important role.

  • Christian,
    Very interesting story. I was particularly drawn to it because a ship named Syren was one of three royal ships involved in the Acadian expedition of 1755 out of Boston assisting in the removal of inhabitants from Nova Scotia that year. I am wondering if it was the same ship in your story or if it was just a case of recycling the name after the first one went out of service. I don’t profess much knowledge on the matter, but believe it was not uncommon for the same name to be used on various ships; whether of the same class or not is also a mystery to me.

    • Different ships – if the wikipedia entry for “HMS Siren” is accurate. The ship in the Acadia expedition was launched in 1745 and sold off by the navy in 1764. The name was taken by a new ship commissioned in 1773 – the one that grounded and burned on Point Judith, Rhode Island. A new frigate bearing the name was launched in 1782. And so on, for another century and a half.
      The spelling of the name seems to vary; almost all writings I’ve encountered from the American Revolution use “Syren.”

    • Gary,

      Indeed, the Brits not only recycled names but there are examples of two ships bearing the same name in service at the same time. From what I know, one would be part of one of the Royal Navy fleets while the other served in a local capacity in some theater somewhere around the world.

      I’ve done some reading on the Acadian Expulsion and what I have says the “Syren” used in that happening was a small sloop whereas the “Syren” in this account is a frigate. One will see “sloop of war” used to describe ships rigged other than as a sloop but, in this case, the earlier 20-gun “Syren” had a rating of only 30 tons–much smaller than a 28-gun frigate. I doubt they are the same.

      By the way, while visiting the Acadian Museum of Prince Edward Island, I picked up “A Great and Noble Scheme” by John Mack Faragher. It’s a fine study of how the Acadians got to the Maritimes, how they ended up being expelled by the British, and what became of them. Well worth the read.

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