Captain Septimus Noel: Ordnance Fleet Commodore

Conflict & War

March 21, 2019
by William W. Reynolds Also by this Author


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History occasionally provides a pleasant surprise by revealing the record of an ordinary person who, thrust into a unique role, performed extraordinary services for his country. In researching the movement of American ordinance from the Hudson River and Philadelphia to Yorktown in 1781, this author discovered that the commodore appointed to lead the ordnance fleet, Capt. Septimus Noel, was such a man. An unheralded, though experienced, Chesapeake Bay ship captain, he was quite unexpectedly placed in command of a disparate collection of vessels and tasked with transporting down the Chesapeake Bay the only siege guns and related supplies possessed by the Continental Army, and he completed that assignment promptly and efficiently.[1] The circumstances that resulted in that contribution are worth exploring.

Gen. George Washington decided on August 14, 1781, to march the Continental and French armies to Virginia, after learning that a French fleet under Adm. Francois Joseph Paul, comte de Grasse-Tilly was on its way to the Chesapeake Bay to isolate the British force at Yorktown under Lt. Gen. Charles, Earl Cornwallis. Gen. Henry Knox was one of his earliest confidants in this decision, since he had to obtain the siege ordnance, ammunition, and supplies that would be required for the Continental Army’s use. Knox made the necessary arrangements for that materiel to be provided from the army’s artillery park at New Windsor, New York, the Department of Military Stores in Philadelphia. His 2nd Continental Artillery Regiment provided the leadership and much of the manpower to move it to Head of Elk, Maryland. Washington preceded the army to that port at the head of the Chesapeake Bay to oversee arrangements to ship both men and materiel directly to the James River. At his request numerous private sloops and schooners were gathering at Elk Landing, near Head of Elk, and while their capacity proved inadequate to transport the entire Continental-French force, it was sufficient to haul about 2,000 men and the 545 tons of ordnance materiel.[2] Washington realized he needed an effective leader to ensure that the required fleet of fifty-plus vessels delivered its essential cargo expeditiously and issued orders for the appointment of a fleet commodore.

A New and Accurate Chart of the Bay of Chesapeake, Anthony Smith
(London, 1776), with north to the right. Elk River is near the far
right (1) and James River is at the left (2). The ordinance fleet disembarked
its troops in the creek near Williamsburg (3). Trebell’s Landing is near
the point marked “Bray” east of Williamsburg (4). (Library of Congress)

Washington issued those orders on September 7, 1781 in the form of a memorandum to Gen. Benjamin Lincoln, his second-in-command, concerning the movement of men and materiel to James River. The memo’s first item concerns the commodore and states:

A skillful Navigator, and a man of respectable character, should be appointed Commodore. He is to give to each Skipper his orders; fix Signals for the whole to be governed by; To keep them in compact order; Run them to Burwells ferry, or James town on James River, where they are to debark unless they meet other orders on the passage. And to return with all possible expedition to Baltimore for the remaining troops.[3]

Lincoln drafted a longer set of instructions for a commodore the next day, expanding on Washington’s instructions and adding requirements concerning magnitude of troop loading and fresh water stores.[4] By September 8, about ninety-five vessels had arrived at Elk Landing from the northern Chesapeake Bay, providing Lincoln with a large number of ship captains from which to choose.[5] Lincoln undoubtedly consulted with Col. Donaldson Yates, the deputy quartermaster general for Delaware and Maryland, who was then based at Head of Elk and knew the captains of many of the local vessels. Yates recommended the man who had piloted an armed schooner from Head of Elk to Annapolis during General Lafayette’s expedition to Virginia earlier in 1781 and was currently master of one of the largest vessels at Elk Landing, Capt. Septimus Noel of Baltimore. Lincoln probably selected Noel later on September 8 since the commodore’s input was essential to the selection of the vessels to carry the ordnance and to the distribution of materiel among those vessels.[6]

Noel was born in Dorchester County on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, to a family with maritime experience. He had been sailing the Chesapeake Bay for over thirty-five years, principally from Annapolis though more recently from Baltimore. His early experience was on voyages between Maryland and Virginia ports, but soon he was the master of vessels sailing to Barbados and Antigua. By the 1760s Noel was sailing to Dublin with occasional trips back to Barbados.[7] Later he also engaged in shipbuilding and in February 1776 offered to build an armed vessel for Maryland authorities during Lord Dunmore’s depredations on the Chesapeake Bay.[8] Since the beginning of the war he had served the Continental cause in a Chesapeake Bay vessel at least three times: transporting troops in 1776; hauling a load of flour to Virginia in 1779; and in the 1781 Lafayette expedition. Noel clearly had the navigational skills required for the Chesapeake Bay and his long career as successful ship’s master demonstrated his character.[9]

Captain Noel arrived at Elk Landing from Baltimore soon after September 1 in response to the request from Washington that was relayed to Maryland officials on August 28 by Robert Morris, the Continental superintendent of finance. Noel was not the owner of the ninety-six-ton schooner Sky Rocket (or Skyrocket) and in fact may have accompanied that vessel from Baltimore as a supernumerary, since her master on August 30 is recorded as Thomas Moore. That role would have been in character since the request for shipping to aid the Continental cause would have appealed to him based on his previous service. Moore may have been the vessel’s owner since, after Noel was appointed commodore, he was also named master of the Sky Rocket.[10]

The Little Elk Creek roadstead at Elk Landing in 2017. On September 11, 1781 this reach, then much deeper than now, was packed with vessels about to depart for James River. (Author)

Since ordinance and supplies began arriving at Elk Landing from the Delaware River about September 3, Noel may have been advising the 2nd Artillery’s Lt. Col. Ebenezer Stevens, whom he knew from the Lafayette expedition, on selection of vessels and their loading prior to the time he was selected to be commodore. Although 120 vessels had arrived there by September 12, only 46 met their requirements for size and seaworthiness to transport the ordnance; these were designated the “First Division” and departed Elk Landing beginning September 11. Noel knew that the channel immediately south of the landing was shallow and difficult to navigate, so he had the troops he was to transport march several miles south to Plum Point to embark. Even so several vessels managed to ground before getting clear of the upper Elk River.[11]

Thirty of the First Division’s vessels departed Elk Landing during the afternoon of September 11 under Commodore Noel, followed the next day by sixteen vessels under General Lincoln. After embarking troops at Plum Point, Noel’s command sailed uneventfully to Annapolis where it arrived at sunset on September 12. It was just leaving that harbor on September 13 when authorities there learned that the French fleet had sailed from Chesapeake Bay on September 5 to challenge a British fleet; the ordnance fleet was immediately recalled due to uncertainty about the outcome of that action, and it is a tribute to Noel’s signaling system that nearly all of his command immediately returned to Annapolis.[12] The next day General Lincoln’s contingent arrived there, uniting the First Division under Commodore Noel. News that the French fleet had returned to the Chesapeake arrived on September 15, so Noel made signal to sail on the morning of September 16.[13]

The First Division’s 230-mile voyage down the Chesapeake was not entirely without event as the fleet twice encountered gales, one of which, off the mouth of the Rappahannock River, damaged the rigging of several vessels; others grounded temporarily during the voyage. Nevertheless, Noel was able to maintain some semblance of the “compact order” specified and had most of the fleet at the mouth of the James River on September 20, where it encountered a northwest gale that delayed its arrival at Burwell’s Ferry.[14] On September 23, sixteen days after Washington ordered the appointment of a commodore, the fleet with the exception of a few laggards “from the Dullness of their Sailing” began disembarking its troops in College Creek, south of Williamsburg.[15] Lieutenant Colonel Stevens, probably accompanied by Captain Noel, then led an expedition to find a suitable location at which to land the ordnance, and identified Trebell’s Landing, less than two miles downstream from Burwell’s Ferry. Unloading commenced September 29 and shore parties immediately began moving the siege guns, ammunition and supplies to the Artillery Park at Yorktown; the first American guns fired at the British on October 9.[16]

James River anchorage of the ordinance fleet, looking southwest from Trebell’s Landing in 2017. (Author)

Captain Noel had completed the task defined by Washington by leading the forty-six vessels in the ordinance fleet’s First Division from Elk Landing to Trebell’s Landing. This resulted in delivering all of the embarked materiel, an accomplishment that exceeded the expectations of Washington’s staff.[17] Quartermaster General Timothy Pickering, who dealt with Noel at Trebell’s Landing, testified that the captain “shewed an attention to his duty, & great chearfulness” in his role as ordnance fleet commodore.[18] Under less-momentous circumstances Noel might have received public commendation; however, though many people made outstanding contributions to the American cause during the Yorktown Campaign only a few were named in post-siege commendations. Today we are honored to recognize this Patriot’s essential contribution to the success of that campaign.

Signature of a Patriot. From Septimus Noel’s October 15, 1781 letter to Timothy Pickering. (MNR 23933. National Archives)

Noel advised the quartermaster general as to the seaworthiness of vessels in James River that were about to be sent for provisions for the allied army, before leaving on October 4 as “acting commodore” of a ten-vessel flotilla dispatched to Maryland for that purpose.[19] He was entrusted with a “packet” addressed to Admiral de Grasse that he delivered on the voyage north as his flotilla passed the blockading French fleet north of Horseshoe Shoal.[20] Despite his desire to return to Yorktown to continue his support of the siege, lack of financial backing prevented that effort, bringing his contribution to an end.[21] Clear public recognition of his skill and character came six years later when Maryland passed its first act establishing a board of Chesapeake Bay pilot examiners; Septimus Noel was named one of the initial seven members of that board, which was the forerunner of today’s State Board of Pilots.[22]

Noel had lived in Baltimore since the 1760s or before, in a “mansion house” on Camden Street. He and his wife, Ruth, died in that city in 1794 and 1787, respectively, leaving children Bazil (Basil), James, Martha and Margaret.[23]


[1]William W. Reynolds, “Logistics of Victory: Moving the American Siege Artillery to Yorktown,” Military Collector & Historian, Vol. 70, No. 4 (Winter 2018), 372-374.

[2]Ibid. The average capacity of the vessels in the ordnance fleet, comprised of sloops and schooners, was twenty-six tons.

[3]The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745-1799, John C. Fitzpatrick, ed. (Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1937), 23: 98.

[4]“Commodore’s Instructions,” September 8, 1781, The Benjamin Lincoln Papers, Massachusetts Historical Society.

[5]“Acct of Vessels taken up at Baltimore Autumn 1781,” Miscellaneous Numbered Record (MNR) 26675, U.S. Revolutionary War Miscellaneous Records (Manuscript File), 1775-1790s, Records Pertaining to Continental Army Staff Departments, Record Group 93, National Archives Publication M859; “Register of Vesells taken into the Service of the United States by Colo Donaldson Yates,” MNR 26800. The number of vessels arrived at Elk Landing on various dates is based on combining the two records, sorting by date, and allowing two days for those requisitioned at Baltimore to reach Elk Landing.

[6]Donaldson Yates to Timothy Pickering, March 10, 1781, MNR 23089; The American Historical Record, Benson L. Lossing, ed., (Philadelphia: John E. Potter and Company, 1874), 3: 554. Noel is identified as the ordnance fleet commodore in Pickering to Yates, February 13, 1782, Numbered Record Book 83:91, Records Relating to Supplies and Stores, Record Group 93, National Archives Publication M853, found at, accessed February 1, 2018.

[7]Archives of Maryland(Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 1894-1925), 426: 615; Maryland Historical Magazine (September 1931), 26: 245, 261; The Maryland Gazette, entries for August 16, 1745, March 31, 1747, April 4, 1754, June 27, 1754, January 16, 1755, April 17, 1755, June 12, 1755, July 11, 1765, July 30, 1767; and Vaughan W. Brown, Shipping in the Port of Annapolis 1748-1775(Annapolis: U.S. Naval Institute, 1965), entry for Brigantine Achsah. Since the earliest recorded mention of Noel as a ship captain is in 1745, he was probably born in the early 1720s.

[8]Naval Documents of the American Revolution(Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1969), 4: 91. Noel’s offer was made as the Maryland ship Defencewas being fitted-out in Baltimore so it was not accepted. See Myron J. Smith, Jr. and John G. Earle, “The Maryland State Navy,” in Chesapeake Bay in the American Revolution, Ernest McNeill Eller, Ed. (Centreville, Maryland: Tidewater Publishers, 1981), 215-223.

[9]Archives of Maryland, 12: 71 and 43: 436.

[10]“Acct of Vessels taken up at Baltimore Autumn 1781,” MNR 26675; “A list of the Vessels appropriated to the American Army, loaded with Ordnance & Stores &c &c,” GLC02437.01202, Henry Knox Papers, Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, New York. The former names Moore as master of the Sky Rocketwhile the latter names Noel as master.

[11]Lafayette to George Washington, March 7, 1781 and March 9, 1781, Founders, accessed March 1, 2018; Benjamin Lincoln to Washington, September 11, 1781, Founders Online, accessed February 11, 2018. The Second Division of the ordnance fleet, comprising twelve vessels, departed Elk Landing September 27 under the 2nd Artillery Regiment’s Capt. Edward Stevens, and arrived in James River on October 9. See Reynolds, “Logistics of Victory,” 373-374.

[12]Lincoln to Washington, September 11, 1781, Founders Online, accessed February 11, 2018; “A list of the Vessels appropriated to the American Army, loaded with Ordnance & Stores &c &c,” GLC02437.01202, Knox Papers; James Thacher, Military Journal During the American Revolutionary War from 1775 to 1783(Boston: Richardson and Lord, 1823), 329-333; “Journal of the Siege of York in Virginia by a Chaplain of the American Army,” Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, First Series, 9: 102-103; Claude Blanchard, The Journal of Claude Blanchard, trans. William Duane (Albany: J. Munsell, 1876), 139. The latter indicates that at least one vessel missed the signal to return to Annapolis and continued alone to James River.

[13]Though General Lincoln was the ranking Continental Army officer present afloat, he no doubt deferred to Commodore Noel concerning management of the ordnance fleet.

[14]Thacher, Military Journal, 329-333; “Diary of Captain James Duncan of Colonel Moses Hazen’s Regiment, in the Yorktown Campaign, 1781,” Pennsylvania Archives, Second Series, 15:745-746; Mary Louise Benjamin (compiler), A Genealogy of the family of Lieut. Samuel Benjamin and Tabitha Livermore, his wife(Winthrop, Maine, 1900), 33.

[15]Writings of George Washington, 23: 128. The ordnance fleet departed Elk Landing on September 11 and arrived in James River on September 23 with a three-day delay in Annapolis, requiring nine days to sail 230 miles.

[16]John Lamb to Knox, September 28, 1781, GLC02437.01194, Knox Papers; Orderly Books for Col. John Lamb’s Second Regiment of Continental Artillery, New Jersey & New York, New York Historical Society, 10: Entry for September 29, 1781.

[17]“A list of the Vessels appropriated to the American Army, loaded with Ordnance & Stores &c &c,” GLC02437.01202, Knox Papers. Concerning the expectations of Washington’s staff who were apprehensive about the arrival of the cargo, see “Minutes of Occurrences respecting the Siege and Capture of York in Virginia, extracted from the Journal of Colonel Jonathan Trumbull, Secretary to the General, 1781,” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 14 (1875-1876), 334. Trumbull apparently thought the fleet had experienced a certain amount of loss when he made his journal entry of September 23, but that was before the slower vessels arrived in James River.

[18]Pickering to Yates, February 13, 1782, Numbered Record Book 83:91.

[19]Septimus Noel to Pickering, October 2, 1781, MNR 24996; “Copy of Agreement with the masters of ye shallops. Septr. 27. 1781,” MNR 22936; [List of vessels] for Baltimore or Elk (undated but about October 4), MNR 26833; Pickering to Washington, October 5, 1781, Numbered Record Book 82: 211. Noel’s advice to the Quartermaster General led directly to the discharge of vessels from Continental Service according to “Discharge of Vessels &c,” MNR 28365.

[20]Pickering instructed Noel to make his small fleet available to de Grasse for transporting French marines to the mainland but that proved unnecessary. See Pickering to de Grasse, October 3, 1781, NRB 82: 206 and Noel to Pickering, October 15, 1781, MNR 23933. The “packet” with which Noel was entrusted probably included Washington’s October 3 letter to de Grasse, which concerned the former’s earlier proposal for sending French ships up York River, the only recorded Washington letter to de Grasse of October 3-4. De Grasse’s response to it, dated October 5, stated that Washington’s letter was delivered earlier that evening, which is consistent with the timeframe of Noel’s voyage to Maryland. These letters were accessed January 11, 2019 at Founders Online. The French fleet had moved to a location between Horseshoe Shoal and Middle Ground on September 25 according to The American Campaigns of Rochambeau’s Army 1780, 1781, 1782, 1783, Howard C. Rice, Jr. and Anne S.K. Brown, eds. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972), 2: 156.

[21]Noel to Pickering, October 15, 1781, MNR 23933. Neither the owners of Noel’s vessel nor the deputy assistant quartermaster general would advance funds to pay Noel’s crew for the return voyage. Noel himself had not been paid by the owners as captain as of December 12, 1781, nor by Continental authorities for his service as commodore as of February 13, 1782. See Noel to Pickering, December 12, 1781, MNR 23829 and Pickering to Yates, February 13, 1782, Numbered Record Book 83: 91.

[22]“An Act to establish pilots, and to regulate their fees,” Archives of Maryland, 204: 277; Amanda M. Mock, Preliminary Evaluation of the State Board of Pilots(Annapolis: Maryland Department of Legislative Services, 2009), 2-3. The act passed December 16, 1787.

[23]Archives of Maryland, 61: 520; The Baltimore Sun, October 21, 1873; Maryland Journal, April 3, 1787; Baltimore Daily Intelligencer, May 17, 1794; Baltimore County Register of Wills (Wills, Original), Septimus Noel, Box 49, Folder 21, 5/21/1794.


  • “Captain Noel had completed the task defined by Washington by leading the forty-six vessels in the ordinance fleet’s First Division from Elk Landing to Trebell’s Landing.”
    As he had been appointed Commodore, and was acting as such, would not it be proper to refer to him as such? I am not as familiar with Revolutionary War ranks, but in our modern Navy, a Commodore, ranking between Captain and Rear Admiral, would be entitled to one star.
    Many thanks to men such as Commodore Noel for helping us to form a new Nation.

    1. Craig,
      Since the appointment was made by the Army it seemed to me not to have the same standing as an appointment made by Naval authorities. I found no mention of him as Commodore Noel in the scant records I located. (Pickering identifies him as the person who filled the role of commodore for the ordnance fleet.) Hence I stayed on safe ground with “Capt. Noel.”

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