Silas Talbot was a remarkable Revolutionary War notable who was astute and tactically flexible. He was at various times an artisan, entrepreneur, privateer, Rhode Island Militia officer, Continental Army officer, Continental Navy officer, United States Navy captain and United States Congressman. Talbot’s multifarious vocations, extraordinary exploits and changing fortunes reflect the intrepidity of one unusual Revolutionary War commissioned army officer. Born in 1751 in the Massachusetts Bay colony village of Dighton, Talbot had little formal education and became a self-taught tradesman, stonemason, and mariner. In 1772 he married the daughter of a prominent Rhode Island merchant providing him wealth and an entrance into Providence society. Talbot soon developed a reputation as a clever businessman by speculating in mercantile goods and successfully predicting their demand in the prosperous and growing coastal city.
In spite of his financial achievements under British rule, Talbot joined the Rhode Island militia in anticipation of the revolution. In recognition of his social position, he was commissioned as captain. Talbot’s first assignment was to support General George Washington’s troops in their siege of Boston. Washington learned that the Rhode Islander had both logistical and maritime experience. The general decided to gamble by using a multitalented man, who had, up until this point, very limited military command experience. Talbot was reassigned to move 200 volunteers from New London to Providence, re-organize them, then sail them to Brooklyn Heights fortifications in New York and across the Hudson River at Paulus Hook, New Jersey. In June 1776, a British fleet carrying Gen. William Howe arrived in New York’s harbor transporting a large force whose mission was to sweep American rebel forces out of Brooklyn and lower Manhattan.
Talbot successfully landed the American troops, but in an attempt to break the British naval lines that had assembled off Staten Island, he and another officer were now ordered to reconfigure an expendable American vessel into a fireship. During the predawn hours of a September morning militia Captain Talbot took the helm of this floating terror weapon, a throwback from ancient maritime warfare, an update of fire pots, Greek Fire, and Chinese fire-rafts. A harmless-appearing merchantman, it was structurally modified to contain fuel and provide moving air to amplify the spread of fire. Fire-barrels were placed below deck in a grid of long troughs to multiply the extent of the flames. Gunpowder, saltpeter (potassium nitrate), pine resin, and sulfur were mixed with linseed oil or turpentine, placed in barrels or crocks, and covered with dry tinder. Old sailcloth smeared with flammable substances was nailed to beams to funnel below-deck drafts. A designated “fire-worker” placed fuses near open windward ports to ensure an ample supply of oxygen for the burning fuses. Crude chimney starters were also placed over open hatches to aid air circulation and fan the conflagration. The bowsprit and the yardarms had grapnels lashed to them in order to fasten the attacking vessel to its target while some crewmen stood ready to swing hand-grapnels to help secure the fireship to the quarry. Finally, a jollyboat was in tow to enable the crew to rapidly take flight.
Talbot, his crew and their fireship sailed south in darkness from Fort Washington, a fortified position near the north end of Manhattan Island fifteen miles north up the Hudson. They drifted silently down river with the outgoing riverine tide in darkness. The American captain steered his hazardous vessel on a collision course toward an anchored warship to grapple her and then tether them together. When this was accomplished, the incendiary devices were ignited. An ensuing shipboard fire presented the choice between immolation or drowning—a source of nightmares among sailors.
Talbot lingered on the flaming deck of his fireship to make certain that she was firmly attached and had a good chance to cripple the enemy vessel. As the last to abandon ship and reach the escape boat, Talbot suffered burns over much of his body and was temporary blinded. His crewmen found shelter for him on the New Jersey shore. Gen. Henry Knox and his surgeon Dr. William Eustis provided treatment and arranged safe evacuation to nearby Hackensack. Eustis described Talbot as “burnt in a most shocking manner.”
Talbot’s mission was courageous, but only partly successful. Only a British tender was destroyed. British Admiral Richard Howe nonetheless noted the vulnerability of his fleet to fireships and moved his warships and transports to a more defensible point below the city. Militia officer Talbot was cited by Congress for his boldness, was given a vote of thanks for his “spirited attempt” at a maritime action and promoted to the rank of major on September 1, 1777— but now in the Rhode Island Continental Army Regiment.
Talbot recovered from his wounds and was called into action near his Rhode Island home. The British held Aquidneck, the island in Narragansett Bay that controlled the waterway to its major towns Providence and Newport. When France agreed to an alliance with the Americans, Comte d’Estaing brought a fleet into Narragansett Bay in late July 1778. Gen. John Sullivan, American commander of the Rhode Island forces, planned a coordinated attack on Newport with the French. Talbot was put in charge of procuring boats to be used in landing the American troops to assault the British garrison commanded by Gen. Sir Robert Pigot, near the city of Newport. Sullivan was able to borrow eleven barges from a nearby Massachusetts coastal town and Talbot assembled carpenters and craftsmen who built eighty-six flat-bottomed boats. Under cover of darkness, the amphibious force crossed onto the eastern shore of Aquidneck Island on August 8. Talbot joined a light infantry corps to serve as major under Col. Henry Laurens.
When the large British fleet appeared in Narragansett Bay, the French stopped landing troops and the allied warships set out to engage them, but a fierce summer storm interrupted the battle scattering both fleets. This left the Americans without ground support. Many disheartened American militia disserted. When the British troops reassembled, Sullivan found himself at a huge disadvantage and his plan to take control of Newport was doomed. On August 29, 1778, Talbot’s unit was ordered to provide cover for the tactical withdrawal of the American forces. He succeeded in this mission and the troops were transported in a safe and orderly retreat from the island.
The British had constructed an effective defense of the eastern shore of Narragansett Bay by arming the galley Pigot, named after the garrison’s commandant. The vessel was commanded by Lt.William Dunlop with a crew of forty to forty-five men and patrolled near the mouth of the Sakonnet River. Pigot was equipped with twelve 8-pounders, two 18-pounders and several swivels and bound with heavy anti-boarding nets making the floating battery difficult to attack. Sullivan called upon Talbot to break the blockade. Continental soldiers were to be his mariner-crew, but interestingly his vessel the Hawke was a private financial venture with civilian partners. One half the value of any capture would go to the consortium of partners and half to Talbot and his men. The merchant sloop Hawke was re-fitted for battle, armed with two 3-pounders and manned with a crew of sailors and a boarding party of sixty men.
On Sunday October 25 Hawke cast off from her Providence pier and rode the outgoing tide down the bay. Using the darkness of night and careful maneuvering, Talbot planned to ram Pigot with a kedge anchor tied to the end of the jibboom then send his men to board her. He first reconnoitered the area to get his bearings on his target by drifting into the Taunton River. In the early morning of October 28, Dunlop was wakened and informed that a strange vessel was approaching. He went on deck and discovered that only four men were on deck and that Pigot’s guns were not primed. He and his crew on deck fired small arms, but a return volley of small arms fire from Hawke drove all the sailors to scurry below deck except for Dunlop. When Hawke encountered Pigot, the kedge anchor tore a wide hole through the British galley’s daunting netting. As the American raiding party successfully breached the nets, the British lieutenant attempted to resist. He was soon overpowered and, without a cannon being fire on either side, the enemy vessel and crew were captured without loss of life.
Talbot ordered the prisoners locked up below and sailed his prize on a southerly course around Point Judith to a safe harbor at Stonington, Connecticut. The sale of Pigot, her arms and miscellaneous equipment brought in over 500 pounds, a relatively lucrative business deal for those involved. This quasi-naval engagement brought Talbot another letter of commendation from Congress, a promotion to the rank of lieutenant colonel, and the Rhode Island General Assembly awarded Talbot with a sword of honor in recognition of his exploit.
These incidents are just a few soldier-mariner operations that were undertaken by Silas Talbot, a man who would become a hero of the Revolution and later on the second captain of the famed frigate Constitution. More important, this is an excellent example of the role of military flexibility and tactical perspicacity during the Revolutionary War, the use of a versatile army officer as both a soldier and mariner to further the rebel cause. As Thomas Paine wrote, “It is not a field of a few acres of ground, but a cause, that we are defending, and whether we defeat the enemy in one battle, or by degrees, the consequences will be the same.”
The name of the British warship that Talbot attacked is not definitively known. Conflicting references suggest it was Asia or Renown. Talbot himself appears to have identified her as “Asia Man of War.” Naval Documents of the American Revolution (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1964—), 10:122. The British ships Phoenix and Rose were attacked by these two fireships on the night of August 17, 1776. Only the tender to the Rose was destroyed as a result of this action. Silas Talbot manuscript collection, item #18, G. W. Blunt White Library, Mystic Seaport Museum.