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The Irish in the American revolution, and their early influence in the colonies online

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went on, "you were bom in Ireland, but having married a wife
in Philadelphia, one might say that your better half is American."

"And seeing that the other is American by adoption also,"
returned Conyngham, "although I acknowledge my birthplace
and my speech at times betrayeth me, I can claim to be whole
American, and I have as little love for England as the best of

"Good," returned Dr. Franklin, "'tis the proper disposition.
And now, Mr. Hodge, I presume you have told Captain Conyng-
ham of the great difficulties with which we are surrounded. And
by the way," he added hurriedly, "you can do a favor for me if


rm'll be SO kind. Will you go to Mr. Deane and inform him tliat
shall not be able to keep my appointment, but kindly ask him to
return with you here, where you will find Captain Conyngham
and myself awaiting you ?"

Mr. Hodge acquiesced immediately, and in a minute or two
Franklin and the young captain were alone.

Then Dr. Franklin had a private talk with Conyngham as to
the merits of the Dutch and English smaller craft and gained the
information that the English were the best and that a ^st-sailing
cutter could be purchased without difficulty in Dover by any one
who could pass as an English merchant.

After more talk, in which Captain Conyngham detailed his
plans as to armament and outfitting, he came to the subject which
hitherto neither had touched upon.

"Of course. Dr. Franklin," he said, "no one realizes more
than I do the danger of such an enterprise, and mark you, sir, it
does not appeal to me, yet I might state that if I were captured,
not only I, but the men with me, should meet with short shrift at
the hands of the British. We should have few opportunities,
after such an event, to serve our country again."

Franklin paused and smiled. "We shall attend to that," he
said, turning to a large cabinet and unlocking one of the ponderous
doors. "And now I shall have to call upon your discretion. There
are a great many things nowadays that we have to keep secret
even from our friends, but I have here the very instrument we
need in our business."

As he spoke he drew forth from a large portfolio a printed
form and laid it on the table.

"This," he said, turning it so that Conyngham could read it,
"is a commission in the navy of the United Colonies. Thinking
that just this sort of a contingency might arise I armed myself
with a few of these papers in America. You see it is signed by
John Hancock as President of Congress and is attested by Charles
Thomson, of Baltimore, where Congress was in session. It is
dated the ist of March of this year. I have but to fill in your
name and the name of your vessel and you are a full-fledged
captain in the navy of the United Colonies from the moment.
Your name I know, but the craft is yet unchristened. What
shall we call her ?"

Conyngham paused a moment. "You have surprised me,
sir," he said, "and my wits for a moment were wool-gathering,
but the name would be an easy matter."

"And yx>u have suggested it. Captain Conyngham," returned
Franklin, chuckling. "We will call her the Surprise."


Quickly as he spoke he filled in the blank spaces and handed
the paper across the table.

"Captain Conyngham," he said, "I greet you. You will re-
ceive such orders as may come through our agents, but one thing
I admonish you — be cautious. You are not to venture to attack
a seventy-four nor even a sloop of war. There are plenty of
small fry about worth the having. Now," he went on, "another
thing of great importance. Except in case of dire necessity show
this commission to no one, not even to Mr. Hodge or our most
intimate friends. It is a secret for the nonce between you and
myself. You will readily understand the reason that I ask it.
It would not only embarrass me just at present, but might em-
barrass the French Government. Ah, here come Mr. Hodge and
Mr. Deane," he added, looking out of the window.

After Captain Conyngham had been presented to Mr. Deane
not a word was said about plans or plot by Franklin, but just as
they were leaving he spoke a few words which disclosed the

"Captain Conyngham," he said, "has undertaken to execute
a commission of great importance and danger and so, while it
may come under discussion at some length in tlie future, he will
need now nothing but our good wishes, and we will drink his
health." The toast was drimk and the gentlemen arose to take
their departure.

"The captain will accompany you to Dunkirk on your re-
turn, Mr. Hodge," said Dr. Franklin, as he said farewell, "and
Mr. Deane will instruct you as to your further procedure."

Conyngham never forgot the parting pressure of the doctor's

Under Franklin's directions an English vessel called the
Roebuck was purchased in Dover. Conyngham himself went over
for her in an open yawl, and, after many narrow escapes, con-
veyed her to Dunkirk, where she was speedily made ready for
sea as a warship and renamed the Surprise.

Conyngham was only three days aboard of her, sailing under
the American flag, with his commission in his possession, when
he captured the Harwich mail packet and another vessel, both
containing valuable cargoes. In order to turn his prizes into
money, so sorely needed by Franklin, he returned with them to
Dimkirk, but in doing so he made a fatal mistake. In the short
time he was away matters had changed considerably in France
and the government was now g^reatly concerned about the neu-
trality laws. Conyngham saw this change the moment he set
foot on shore, but he resolved to make the best of the situation.
He waa followed into Dunkirk by an English sloop of war and


the French authorities were about to hand him over, with his
prizes, to its commander, when by a bold stroke he completely
upset their programme and gained the sympathy of the French
people. In order, as he himself expressed it, to promote interna-
tional good feeling, he invited the populace to help themselves to
all the ^ood things on his ships.

"Citizens of Dunkirk, people of France," he shouted, ad-
dressing the multitude from the bulwark of his ship, "help your-
selves. Here are bales of fine English cloth and English cutlery.
Sure, they're things ornamental and things beautiful. Help your-
selves; they're yours for the taking, and the gift of the United
Colonies of America and Gustavus Conyngham, captain in the

It was enough. The crowd rushed upon the bales and boxes
and dived down the hatchway. Conyngham leaped to the wharf
and straight toward him came marching a company of French
soldiers. Turning to Ross, who stood beside him on the wharf,
the young captain spoke quickly.

"Here," he said, slipping a long sealed packet into his
friend's hand, "this is of the utmost importance. See that it
reaches Dr. Franklin's hands in Paris at once; it must not be
lost, for it may save my life."

"Come," replied Ross, hiding the paper in his pocket, "en-
deavor to hide — you may escape in the crowd."

"And be hunted like a rat with a ferret or taken like a crim-
inal. Never that in the world. Appear not to know me."

Stepping boldly out to meet the company, Conyngham drew
a short sword from under his long blue coat, and advancing to-
ward the officer, he extended him the hilt across the hollow of his
left arm. At the same time he spoke in a loud voice :

"Captain Conyngham of the American navy gives himself
and his sword into the keeping of the Government of France."

Leaving a guard of soldiers about the vessel, the officer and
part of his company walked back up the wharf. Before he had
gone many steps he returned the short sword to Conyngham, who
took it with a smile and walked off by the officer's side, chatting
pleasantly in French with a strong touch of Irish brogue.

The package which Conyngham sent to Franklin contained
his commission. To his great sorrow and humiliation it was lost
in the excitement and turbulence of the times and he never laid
eyes on it again.

Towards the middle of July, 1777, Conyngham was once
more a free man. Mysterious orders had come from Paris,
and to the surprise of every one he had appeared one day walking
the streets of Dunkirk, smilingly greeting the inhabitants, who


remembered well his giving the stores of the other vessels to the
populajce on the day of his arrest

During his imprisonment, while exercising one day at the
game of handball, he was approached by an agent of the British
government, who offered hmi a free pardon and a place in the
navy if he would betray the American cause and return to his
allegiance as a British subject.

"You may tell those who sent you," replied Conyngham to
the agent, "that His Majesty might offer me the position of an
admiral of the blue and I would tell him that I would rather
spend my days in the hold of a prison hulk than accept it. As
you will not play with me I shall have to ask you to stand aside.
Some day we may meet where the game will be for larger stakes
and there will be harder missiles flying. Good morning, sir."

When Conyngham came out of prison he found a new ship,
purchased by the orders of Franklin, being made ready for him
in Dunkirk. While looking over her with his friend Hodge the
latter asked him what name he intended to give her. "I would
be after calling her," he replied slyly and with the softest oS
brogues; "I'd be after calling her the Revenge."

The Revenge was made ready for sea without any opposi-
tion or interference on the part of France, and Franklin's sec-
retary, William Carmichael, had come down to Dunkirk to de-
liver the final instructions to Conyngham, which Mr. Barnes
prints in facsimile.

"There, Captain Conyngham," he said in handing over the
papers, "are your sailing orders. Of course, to a man of your
mtelligence there is no use of being more than explicit. Somehow
I am reminded of a story of one of your fellow-countrymen who
was accused of killing a sheep, and in explanation made the plea
that he would kill any sheep that attacked and bit him on the open
highway. So all you've got to do is to be sure that the sheep
bites first."

"There is another little adage about a wolf in sheep's cloth-
ing," replied Conyngham, laughing, "and sure there are plenty
of them in both channels, and in that case "

"Be sure to kill the wolf before he bites you at all. But
seriously — once away from the French coast you ought to have
a free foot. Here is a list of the agents of Lazzonere & Company,
Spanish merchants, and here is a draft of a thousand livre upon
them at Corunna. You will receive the usual percentage accru-
ing to the captain of a vessel making such captures."

Owing to the fact that Carmichael did not bring down his
commission Conyngham hesitated to sail, but he quickly made up
hia mind when news reached him that the French minister had


again shifted his position and was sending a messenger to Dun-
kirk to order the seizure of the Revenge.

"Gentlemen," he said to those around him in consultation,
"there is but one thing to do. Commission or no commission, I
sail from Dunkirk on the early morning tide. We have but a
few hours before us. May the Powers grant the messenger does
not arrive before then,"

Early in the morning, while still the mist hung over the har-
bor, a ghostlike vessel appeared in midchannel. It was the Re-
venge gliding swiftly out to sea, and once more Conyngham was
on the broad ocean in defense of the United States.

Conyngham sailed up and down the English Channel and
Irish Sea for over a year. More than once he came near cap-
ture, and many times administered severe chastisements to Eng-
lish warships twice his size, and on one occasion in order to es-
cape he had to throw over all his portable belongings, including
his anchors and guns. While fortune favored him not a little, he
left nothing to chance, and the success that attended him was the
result of hard and earnest work. He paid his long-promised
visit to Ireland, landing on the coast of Wicklow, and was cor-
dially received by the people, who cheerfully loaded his ship with
all the provisions he required.

After capturing more than two dozen prizes and delivering
them to his appointed agents in Spain, he sailed for the United
States, arriving in Philadelphia in February, 1779. He was well
satisfied with what he had accomplished in English waters, and
well he might be, for at one time, from the very fear of his name,
over forty vessels lay at anchor in the Thames, and on another
occasion he prevented the sailing of two loaded transports. Silas
Deane wrote to Robert Morris and to the Home Government,
"his name has become more dreaded than that of the great Thurot
and merchants are constrained to ship their cargoes in French or
Dutch vessels."

Not a guardship on the coast but had received specific orders
to be on the lookout for him, and yet he had cruised in the Eng-
lish and Irish Channels month after month. Another fact that he
regarded with satisfaction was that he had accomplished all this
not merely as a privateersman, but as a regularly commissioned
officer in the navy of his country. The prize money due him as
such, now amounting to a large sum, he regarded as safe in the
hands of the commissioners.

Notwithstanding this brilliant record, Conyngham received
but scant consideration at the hands of Congress. Franklin had
sent no official communication in regard to his commission and
his name was not recorded in the official list of captains.


At that time the hopes of America were at a very low ebb
and Congress was more anxious for money to feed the starving
armies than for ships. Consequently the Revenge was sold by
order of the Naval Committee. She was purchased by the firm
of Nesbitt & Company, who sent her out as a privateer, with Con-
yngham still in command, a third interest in the vessel being pre-
sented to him by the patriotic owners.

Conyngham s good fortune seems now to have utterly desert-
ed him. On the fourth day out from Philadelphia, while some
ten miles south of Sandy Hook, he was enveloped in a dense fog,
and when it lifted he found himself under the stern of a huge
English seventy-four-gun man-of-war, the Galatea. Nothing
could be done. In five minutes the Revenge was boarded and her
captain and crew placed in irons.

Mr. Barnes says it seems almost incredible that any human
being could survive the sufferings which Conyngham was com-
pelled to endure for the next few years and quotes as follows from
the gallant captain's own diary :

"Most of the crew were sent on board the prison ship with
the officers. After being in the East River I was detained on
board the Galatea myself, with one leg in irons. In a short time
I was sent to the provost prison. It was a dismal prospect. The
provost master said his order was to put me in the strongest room,
without the least morsel of bread from the jailer. The Conti-
nental prisoners found a method through the keyhole of the door
to convey me some necessaries of life, although a second door
obstructed the getting in of very much.

"On the 17th of June a deputy sergeant, a Mr. Gluby, desired
I should get ready to go on board the prison ship. After some
little time Mr. Lang came to the door, called to me, and I took
my leave of my fellow-prisoners. Went down stairs and was con-
veyed to another private apartment. There a large heavy iron
was brought with two large links and welded on. I was linked to
the jail door and when released found it impossible to walk. Got
into a cart that was provided for that purpose and led to the
water side by the hangman. Then I was taken in a boat along-
side the Commodores' ship, where I was shown an order to take
me on board the packet in irons. Up to this time I was made to
beUevc I was going on board the prison ship."

Instead of being taken to the prison ship, Conyngham was
sent in irons to England, where he arrived on July 7, 1779. He
was landed at Falmouth and on his way to his dungeon in Pen-
dennis Castle he was gazed upon by large crowds who had col-
lected for the purpose of feasting their eyes on "Conyngham the


Every night Conyngham was put in irons, and his diary is
but a record of hardships and suffering. On July 23 he writes :
"A sailor declared In Falmouth that he could take his oath
that I was with Captain Jones when he threatened to set White
Haven on fire. This was told me by Sergeant Williams of the
g^rd, and this day the irons on my hands were beat close to my

On July 24 Conyngham was removed to the notorious Mill
Prison, where he was confined in the black hole, an underground
dungeon without light or air. It was not until the 7th of Au-
gust that he was brought to a preliminary trial, and then he was
committed back to prison on a charge of high treason.

All this time Conyngham was planning to escape. His
treatment improving after his remand, he often had a chance to
converse with his fellow-prisoners, one of whom was a surgeon
from one of the captured French vessels, France being now at
war with England. To this Frenchman Conyngham suggested
that he might make his escape by imitating the prison doctor,
whose clothes were black like his own.

"All you need," said Conyngham, speaking in French, "is a
pair of huge horn spectacles, pull your hat well down over your
eyes and walk out of the door. I've studied the doctor's gait — ^he

walks like this "

Here Conyngham gave an excellent imitation of the prison
doctor's mincing step and the Frenchman laughed.

"My faith," he exclaimed, "it is to the life. I have observed
him. But remember this, mv friend ; I speak no^ English and
would be helpless ; they would discover me at once."

A day or so later Conyngham and the Frenchman met a^n.
"Here," said the captain, "with this wire I have made a pair of
spectacles and in the evening no one would notice that there is
not glass inside the rims." As he spoke he placed the wire upon
his nose, drew down his upper Up, and the Frenchman looked at
him and laughed. ,., ,, a j

"My faith," he said again, "it is the doctor to the life. And
then, as if an idea had suddenly dawned upon him, he touched
Conyngham on the shoulder, ''it is you who should try it," he
said. "You shall have my clothes. I can give them to you piece
by piece ; as tfiey have allowed me to keep some others I shall
not miss them."

Conyngham did try it, and he looked and acted so like the old
doctor that he passed out of the prison without attracting sus-
picion, but he was betrayed by a peddler and captured while mak-
ing inquiries for the London coach.


That night, shorn of his good clothes and in double irons,
he was placed once more in the black hole. He dreamed that
some one had restored to him the lost commission, and that in-
stead of being confined as a pirate and a man supposed to be
guilty of high treason he had been treated as an officer should
be and accorded the privileges of his position ; but he awoke cold
and stiff, with the knowledge that his captors would now be harder
upon him than ever, and as he wrote in his own diary, it was a
dismal prospect again.

Besides Conyngham there were three other American officers
and fifty seamen in the Mill Prison at this time. After his at-
tempted escape they were treated with increased harshness and
all of them were confined in a huge black hole underneath the
prison. But the door of this dungeon was scarcely locked upon
them when Conyngham proposed that they should make another
attempt to escape. As senior officer he was chosen leader of the
movement and right well did he perform his task. Under his
directions a tunnel was dug which led to the common beyond the
prison. Through this passage, guided by Conyngham, every
American prisoner gained his liberty and only fourteen out of the
fifty-four were subsequently recaptured.

While passing through London Conyngham had the pleasure
of seeing displayed, in the window of a prmt shop, a most fero-
cious picture of himself, underneath which was the legend, "The
Yankee Pirate, Conyngham, the arch-rebel. An admirable like-

Conyngham reached Amsterdam in safety and wrote a letter
to Franklin describing his escape. "The treatment I have re-
ceived is unparalleled," he writes. "Irons, dungeons, hunger,
the hangman's cart, I have experienced. I shall be happy to hear
from you. I shall always be ready to serve my country and happy
should I be to be able to come alongside some of these petty ty-
rants." His indomitable will was still unbroken and hope was yet
bright in his heart.

Under date of Passy, November 22, 1779, Franklin acknowl-
edged the receipt of Conyngham's letter. "It gives me great
pleasure," he writes, "to hear of your escape out of prison, which
I first learned from six of the men who broke out with you and
came to France in a boat. I was then anxious lest ycu should
be retaken, and I am very glad indeed to hear of your safe ar-
rival at Amsterdam. The Congress resented exceedinj^ly the in-
httman treatment you met with and it ordered three English of-
ficers to be confined in the same manner, to abide your fate."

After serving for some time with Paul Jones, who treated
him as an officer of the regular service, Conyngham decided to


return to America and sailed in the Experiment for Philadelphia.
But misfortune still pursued him. The Experiment was captured
by the British and within three weeks he was back once more in
his old quarters in the Mill Prison, where he was confined, though
with less rigor than before, until the war was over, when he was
allowed to retttm to the United States.

"And now," writes Mr. Barnes, "the tragedy of his life be-
gan. For year after year he prayed and petitioned Congress to
listen to his plea. Before the matter came actually to trial good
Dr. Franklin was dead. Many witnesses could not be procured,
and some of his earlier acquaintances and friends who had not
behaved in good faith toward him now deserted him completely.
The missing commission would have proved his position and the
search for it became almost the business of his life. A voyage
to Europe and a personal investigation of all clues failed to show
any trace. It had disappeared as completely as if it had never
existed — a fact which some of his enemies asserted to be the case.
"But now appears,*' concludes Mr. Barnes, "the strangest
part of the whole story — one of those remarkable instances that
so well prove the old adage of 'facts being stranger than fiction.'
It is the tragic epilogue to the play— the bitter end of the thread
that rims through the whole of the relation. It does not take
long to tell, and surely it speaks for itself.

"Only a short time ago there appeared in the catalogue of
M. Charavay, an autograph and print-seller in Paris, among the
hundreds of other notices, the following :

"143. Hancock (John) cekbre homme d'Etat americain,
gouvemeur du Massachusetts, signataire de la Declaration de
rindependence, — Piece signe comme president du congress ; Bal-
timore, I mars 1777, Ip. infol. obi. Rare.

"The connection of names and dates of course would attract
the attention of any collector. It would be seen that most pos-
sibly it had something to do with Franklin's sojourn in France.
It was only the price asked for John Hancock's signature — in fact,
much less than his signature usually brought in the autograph
marketr— ten francs. But what was the joy and surprise of its
present possessor, upon opening his new purchase, to find that it
was nothing more nor less than the missing commission of the
Surprise 1 Where it had been, what had been its history since it
was delivered at Versailles, how it came at last into the possession
of a little print-shop, no one can tell ; but that it had much to do
with the foregoing story any one can see. It lies before the author
as he writes, and is reproduced in these pages for the first time
that the court of public print may decide the question. That bold
Gustavus Conyngham was badly treated by his country and


hardly handled by Fate the reader can perceive. He had helped
the cause in the way it most needed help, but, notwithstanding,
unrewarded, the man who flew the flag in the Channel went brok-

Online LibraryJames HaltiganThe Irish in the American revolution, and their early influence in the colonies → online text (page 47 of 67)