BOOK REVIEW: Captain John Peck Rathbun, Revolutionary War Naval Hero & Man of the Sea by Frank H. Rathbun (privately published, 2022)
John Paul Jones understandably dominates the field when it comes to full-length biographies of Continental Navy commanders. However, there is an excellent biography of the very worthy John Barry by Tim McGrath, and a good one of Abraham Whipple of Rhode Island by Sheldon S. Cohen. There is also a new biography of another worthy Continental Navy captain, John Peck Rathbun. Rathbun was not the self-promoter that Jones was, and did not have Jones’s penchant for a great quote, but he too showed courage and boldness as a ship commander, as well as when he was Jones’s second in command.
Rathbun was born in Exeter, Rhode Island, in 1746. Orphaned at a young age, he was taken to Boston and raised in the family of his uncle, merchant Thomas Peck. Rathbun learned the ropes of a mariner and by age twenty-seven he was in command of a coastal trading schooner.
After war broke out in Boston, Rathbun returned to Rhode Island where a sister of his lived in South Kingstown. Rathbun brought with him his new wife, Polly Leigh. Fortuitously, Rhode Island’s Esek Hopkins was just appointed commander in chief of the new Continental Navy. Hopkins tasked Abraham Whipple with the recruitment of officers for the sloop Katy, based in nearby Providence. In November 1775, Rathbun enlisted as an officer on board the Katy, which later became the Continental Navy sloop Providence. He became a second lieutenant on board the sloop, which fell under the command of the erratic Capt. John Hazard.
In 1776 Rathbun first participated in the bold and somewhat successful raid on the Bahamas by a small squadron of Continental Navy ships under Hopkins’ command. After Hazard washed out, command of the Providence was assumed by John Paul Jones. Rathbun rose to first lieutenant, becoming Jones’s able second-in-command. The two men and their crew had a successful voyage raiding the Canadian coast. After Jones was promoted to command the frigate Alfred, Rathbun again joined him as first lieutenant. The two had more adventures and “good” trouble.
After Jones moved on, Rathbun lobbied Hopkins and was assigned to command the Providence. His captain of Marines was John Trevett of Newport, Rhode Island. Rathbun quickly showed aggressiveness, going after a larger and better armed merchant ship off Sandy Hook, New Jersey.
Next, Rathbun persuaded an at first reluctant Trevett to return to and raid the island of New Providence in the Bahamas. It was the second amphibious landing by the Marines in that Corps’ history. Trevett captured Fort Nassau, as well as smaller Fort Montagu, allowing the Continentals to wreck parts of the forts and some of their guns, and capture some ammunition and naval supplies. Only Trevett’s bluffing and Rathbun’s audacity avoided the pitifully small party holding the fort from being overrun by some five hundred angry locals.
Rathbun commanded the Providence on two more successful voyages before taking command of the 28-gun Queen of France in 1779. Sailing in a heavy fog with two other Continental ships, he suddenly found himself in the middle of a British convoy being escorted by several Royal Navy frigates, each of which was stronger than his ship. Whipple came aboard Rathbun’s ship and recommended a sensible course—sneak away and live to fight another day. But Rathbun refused and Whipple acceded. Through the ruse of impersonating a British captain, Rathbun tricked four 300-ton merchantmen into surrendering. The other two Continental Navy ships captured six more prizes. Historian Eric Sterner called it “the Continental Navy’s richest haul during the entire war.”
Unfortunately, Rathbun’s next major role was in helping to defend the port of Charleston, South Carolina, from a siege by a British army and a fleet of Royal Navy ships. It turned out to be a bad decision to have Continental Navy ships participate in the defense, as all of them were captured, as well as their officers and crew.
After being paroled, and with few Continental Navy ships available, Rathbun took command of the impressive 34-gun privateer brig Wexford. But in August 1781, before he could attack a single enemy vessel on the coast of Ireland, Rathbun was caught and had to surrender to a more powerful Royal Navy ship. He spent the rest of the war in British prisons. Tragically, he died of disease in Old Mill Prison outside Plymouth, England, on June 18, 1782.
Rathbun’s story is ably told by his descendant, Frank H. Rathbun (1924-2010). The book is self-published and Frank Rathbun was not an experienced book author or a finished one. Still, if you are hungry for stories of courageous Continental Navy captains, this book is recommended. The writing and publication of Captain John Peck Rathbun is almost as remarkable as the captain’s brilliant but short naval career. Frank H. Rathbun (I will call him Frank below) spent nearly fifty years studying his descendent.
Most of what was generally known about Rathbun was from Hope Rider’s biography of the sloop Providence, Valor Fore and Aft, published by Seaport ’76 and Naval Institute Press in 1978. In her Acknowledgement, Rider thanked Frank for sharing his research with her.
Frank died in 2010. While rummaging through his research papers after his passing, a nearly finished manuscript of what would become this book was found. Through dint of hard work and determination, Frank’s wife, Hazel Rathbun, and his cousin, John Bayer, edited the manuscript and turned it into a published book. Great credit goes to Hazel and John. Authors who pass away with an almost finished manuscript can only dream of their relatives seeing their hard work come to fruition as a published book that will survive as a contribution to history by the book’s author.
Unfortunately, the manuscript was not entirely completed. Frank had only provided footnotes on two chapters. So Hazel and John dropped all footnotes. But they include a bibliography and, happily, many of the documents on which Frank relied are copied and placed in the appendices. It makes for more good reading.
The best parts of Frank’s narration are of Rathbun’s and Trevett’s raid on New Providence, the captures made by the Queen of France, Rathbun’s role in the failed defense of Charleston, and life in an English prison. Frank even discusses the cause of the illness that likely led to Rathbun’s death in Old Mill Prison:
the overcrowded prison, the lack of proper sanitary facilities for so many men, finally brought the inevitable result—disease, virulent and deadly. The virus may have been brought by the latest prisoners to arrive from Ireland, or possibly it was a final outbreak of an influenza pandemic which had swept the world in 1780-81. The pandemic rose up in China, spread to Russia, and then encompassed Europe and North America. At its peak, the infection struck 30,000 each day.
Written in 2010 or before, it is reminiscent of the pandemic that swept the world starting in 2020. In Rhode Island, even before Rathbun’s death, his wife Polly died during childbirth.
I have a few connections to Rathbun as well, albeit much more tenuous ones than Frank. After Rathbun captured a host of 300-ton merchant ships off the coast of Canada and was paroled after being captured in Charlestown, he spent six months in what is now Kingston, Rhode Island, where he bought what is now known as the Kingston Inn. I grew up in Kingston and during my high school years spent much time on the porch of the Kingston Inn waiting for the school bus. During high school I served as a reenactor marine on board the replica of the sloop Providence. As an adult, I wrote the history of my hometown, Kingston, and published it in 2004. Of course, I mentioned Rathbun, his impressive naval exploits, and his short time as a tavernkeeper.
The names of towns and villages in my hometown are confusing and Frank did not get them entirely right. He is not alone. During Rathbun’s time, the village in which the Kingston Inn was located was called Little Rest. Its name was later changed, in 1825, to Kingston. Little Rest (now Kingston) is one of several villages and towns within the township of South Kingstown (which Frank spells as South Kingston). (Also the county in which South Kingstown is located was called King’s County, before its name was changed after the war to Washington County. Yet the villagers of Little Rest insisted on renaming the village Kingston, resulting in confusion over the names of village and town for the next two hundred years.)
Happily, one of the documents copied at the end of the book is an inventory of the tangible personal property left by Rathbun at his death. There were more than a dozen pieces of mahogany furniture, including a bureau, desk, tables and chairs. Given the prize money that came his way, I believe Rathbun may have spent some of it on fine mahogany furniture made by the master colonial craftsmen of Newport, Townshend & Goddard. While each piece of the larger pieces was valued in the 1782 inventory at between £4 and £9, a surviving piece today is worth multiples of $1 million. Rathbun was not only a bold naval commander, he was a man of taste!
The U.S. Navy named two ships after Captain Rathbun, but remarkably each time misspelled his name as Rathburne. Frank tried unsuccessfully to get another ship named after his ancestor, but this time with the correct spelling.
Frank’s book ends by noting that Rathbun had been “responsible for the capture of 25 vessels and millions of dollars in cargo that aided the war effort. . . . Who knows what more he may have accomplished had he survived.”
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Eric Sterner, “Captain John Peck Rathbun: As Audacious as John Paul Jones,” in the Journal of the American Revolution (September 6, 2016), allthingsliberty.com/2016/09/captain-john-peck-rathbun-audacious-john-paul-jones/