Thursday, June 16, 2011

A not-so-quick rough look at James Biddle

I've been putting off my much anticipated (or not) brilliant narrative (or not) about the 'six degrees of separation' among Hornet's people and the early American navy. If you're a history nerd like I am, you'll enjoy these. If not, give it some time and I'll go back to talking about steam bending frames for Monomoy No. 3 - set to start within the next few weeks.

At any rate - I think we'll start with Hornet's second most famous commander - James Biddle. Why? Because the letter signed by Biddle that I bought off eBay just arrived and I'm all excited about the fact that I own something that (I think) he touched. Again - if you're not a history nerd, go ahead and tune out.

James Biddle was from a prominent navy family - his uncle Nicholas Biddle was one of the first five captains in the Continental Navy. Born in Philadelphia, he attended the University of Pennsylvania before applying for, and recieving, a warrant as a Midshipman in 1800 at age 17. I could go on and on, but for more detailed biographical information, try this and this.

Now, in order to really get a good bead on Biddle's early career, let's bring in another prominent officer with whom he was almost continually involved - Jacob Jones.

James Biddle was a midshipman aboard USS Philadelphia when she grounded and was captured by Tripolitans during the First Barbary War. Philly's second lieutenant was the 34-year-old Jacob Jones, a man old for his post who very likely joined the navy over grief from the death of his wife. Alexander Murray wrote he was "a good officer, but unaccommodating". He fought a duel with and seriously wounded fellow Lieutenant James T. Leonard in 1807, exchanging pistol fire at a reported distance of only nine feet (!). And I will admit, there is a lot I don't know about Jacob Jones, but what I've found thus far isn't bad, but isn't great either. Jones and Biddle spent more than 19 months in captivity in Tripoli - what surely must have been a frustrating experience. Of course, it was Stephen Decatur who led the daring raid to destroy the Philadelphia, but that event alone makes for a fascinating entry all by itself (several connections to Hornet in the people who were there). But I digress.

After their release, Biddle and Jones went back into the naval officer pipeline of their day, serving various functions as lieutenants. Jones was promoted to Master Commandant and given command of USS WASP (Hornet's sister) while Biddle was assigned as special diplomatic envoy to Napoleon at St. Cloud - who reportedly called him "a most remarkable young man".

Years later, Biddle joined Jones in Wasp as first lieutenant (there is an interesting age difference as Jones was 44 while Biddle was 29). In her first engagement with a warship, Wasp captured HMS Frolic but was so damaged herself that the subsequent arrival of a British 74-gun ship recaptured Frolic and took Wasp, too. We covered a bit of this yesterday. Biddle and Jones were going back to the slammer - this time in Bermuda at the hands of the British.

When released, Jones was given a congressional gold medal - precursor to today's Congressional Medal of Honor - and command of the captured USS Macedonian. Biddle recieved a silver version of the medal (which had Jones' image on it) and command of USS Hornet. Both were assigned to the same squadron under Stephen Decatur in USS United States, sailing out of New York via Hell Gate and Long Island Sound. Making a dash for the open sea, Decatur's timing was imperfect and the squadron was chased into New London by a superior British force. Decatur and Jones seem to have been resigned to the worst from the start, while Biddle applied that day to run the blockade and make for sea. Of course, Decatur declined.

Now the blockading force here is interesting from a couple of perspectives. First, it was commanded by none other than Sir Thomas Hardy. For those non-history nerds, this was the guy who held Admiral Nelson's head as he died - his flag captain and a close friend ("kiss me Hardy" were among Nelson's dying words. I won't go there.). Each of the three American COs seem to have ventured out to pay their respects - after all, Nelson was as much admired by the Americans as he was by the British, and this was a living legend. Second, Biddle and Jones must have felt a bit of a sting, as one of the ships that eventually made up the blockading force was HMS Peacock - not the Peacock that Hornet had sunk earlier that year, but another ship captured from the Americans and re-named after their own destroyed ship. Biddle and Jones instantly recognized her as the former USS Wasp. Biddle, in typical fashion (as I imagine him anyway - a bit of a smart ass), paid his respects to Hardy to ask permission to challenge Peacock, ex-Wasp to a ship-to-ship duel. After all, the pair were sisters. Hardy, knowing full well the record of both former Wasp and the challenging Hornet, declined. No stretch to imagine why. Hornet had decimated the last Peacock in 15 minutes. 15! Fought her to a sinking condition! Nope, won't do Jimmy - Hardy wasn't buying it. Ultimately, Hardy sent Peacock away southward - I think to save face. It's interesting to note that this might be the only instance in American naval history where one sister challenged her captured sister to a duel.

Hm. I covered this yesterday - I've probably beaten it enough.

I have no indication of what Jones thought of all this, or Decatur. Certainly they must have admired (or loathed) Biddle's initiative, his drive and his determination to get out. Or maybe they were threatened by it. I won't know - even if I do get some scraps of evidence there. The truth will never be known. But what is known is that Decatur kept the squadron bottled up, month after month. Biddle made so many applications to run the blockade that I've had no problem tracking down the manuscripts in three different collections. It must have been a regular theme - wake up, breakfast, quarters, beg Decatur to leave, drill the crew, eat, sleep, repeat.

Despite a few failed and - if I say so myself - feeble attempts to run the blockade with the whole squadron, Decatur chose to drag United States and Macedonian up the river into a backwater, strip their supplies and take the crews - toting everything including guns - overland to New York. Biddle, in what must have been a period of intense relief and pressure all at once - was set free to run the blockade - which he did, arriving back in New York in complete safety, ready to reprovision for another cruise. Jones was sent to Lake Ontario to serve as second in command to Isaac Chauncey - Hornet's first commader - where together they did nothing remarkable for the rest of the war. Decatur found himself another ship in New York - USS President - and together with Hornet and the new USS Peacock (named for the ship Hornet sank in 1813) along with the store ship Tom Bowline, recieved orders to sail for the East Indies (the far east) and destroy British shipping there. Decatur, for whatever reason, sailed ahead, grounded on Sandy Hook then fought a running battle with the British squadron that ran him down and captured him in the damaged President.

Biddle in Hornet , leading Peacock and Tom Bowline sailed from New York in the throes of a January gale under storm canvas, sailing straight past the anchored British ships who were helpless to follow them. To refesh your short term memory, this was the second time that year that Biddle had run the blockade in Hornet. Separating from Peacock and Tom Bowline for better hunting, Biddle in Hornet captured two British merchant vessels as they made their way South. On arriving at the rendezvous, Hornet was assailed by HMS Penguin - a picked ship sent to destroy the American privateer Young Wasp - both being heavier than Hornet. But like the engagement with Peacock, Hornet decimated Penguin in remarkably short order - 22 minutes - this time despite being the smaller ship and Penguin having the weather gauge (tactical advantage). It's interesting to note that Biddle was shot through the neck during the engagement, and tying a shirtsleeve around his neck, refused medical treatment until all of his wounded crew were cared for. The handwriting in the ship's log the following day (there is no entry for the day Hornet fought Penguin) is shaky - definately Biddle's - but strained. Having been shot the day before I can see why. But can anyone say 'badass'? Wow.

So - where did they end up? Jones went on to command USS Guerierre and several different squadrons, first in the Mediterannean, then the Pacific. And despite the string of usual commands you might expect the ranks of American commodores (we didn't have Admirals until 1862) to assume at some point or another. Still, he had a congressional gold medal under his belt and was still seen as something of a lessen-grade hero of the War of 1812 for the rest of his career. But you'll be hard pressed to find much bombast over him in the press after the war.

Biddle, on the other hand, made the ascention to commodore and followed many of the same commands that Jones occupied. He even had a congressional gold medal of his own. But in contrast, he seems to have been everywhere at the right time to leave the most indellible mark on his profession and the nation. In 1817 he was sent to the West Coast to take posession of the Oregon Territory on behalf of the United States, and in 1830 was a key player in the negotiation of a significant treaty with the Ottoman Empire (actually, the Sublime Porte, but the relationship is deeper than I can relate here). In 1845, he commanded a squadron in a circumnavigation of the globe, during which he sucessfully negotiated the first American treaty with China and attempted to open Japan to US trade (the latter less successfully, Biddle being reticent of using all-out open warfare to force a treaty).

End score - Jacob Jones, career officer. James Biddle, career officer, diplomatic pioneer, celebrated national hero.

I shouldn't criticize too heavily, as my own paltry career in the Navy hasn't had half the excitement or difficulty as Jones, let alone Biddle. But it is interesting to compare and contrast these lesser-known (at least in modern times) influencers of our early Navy, and nation.

1 comment:

Brianpby said...

Of some interest. From the Providence Gazette, Nov. 7, 1812 page 2: transcribed as written:PHILADELPHIA
Another Gallant Achievement
By the ship, Bengal, Warwick, from Lisbon, arrived here this morning, information has been received, that the U.S. sloop of war Wasp, carrying eighteen guns, commanded by Capt. Jones had met the British sloop of war Frolic, of 20 guns, and after a severe conflict of 43 minutes, captured her. The fire of Capt. Jones was certainly more skillfully directed than that of his antagonist; for the Frolic was completely dismasted, and of her crew, there were between 50 and 60 killed and wounded, and only five killed on the Wasp, and the Frolic had the misfortune to fall in with the Poicteurs, of 74 guns, Capt. Beresford, and both were captured, and ordered for Bermuda.

Capt. Jones is a native of the State of Delaware, and was deemed a brave and able officer before this brilliant victory added additional laurels to his brow. His first Lieut. is a brother of Commodore Rodgers, and is in all respects, a worthy associate of his gallant commander. Our distinguished and meritorious fellow-citizen, Mr. James Biddle, who ranks as first Lieut. in the navy, was on board the Wasp as a volunteer and has briefly narrated the occurrence in the subsequent letter to his father, Charles Biddle, Esq., of this city.

H.B.M. ship Poicteurs (74)
Oct. 21, 1812 - at sea.
My dear father, The fortune of war has placed us in the hands of the enemy, we have been captured by this ship, after having ourselves captured his Britannic Majesty's brig, Frolic. The Frolic was superior in force to us; sh mounted eighteen 32 pound carronades and two long nines. The Wasp, you know, is only 16 carronades. The action lasted 43 minutes; we had five killed, and the slaughter on board the Frolic was dreadful. We are bound into Bermuda. I am quite unhurt.
In great haste; your's very affectionately, J. Biddle