The frigate’s captain ordered the best bower away immediately. The crash of the heavy starboard bow anchor hitting the water was lost in the hoarse growling of the wind in the rigging and the undulating hiss of gale-swept rain across the rushing water of the Oven’s Mouth. In the darkness and sheeting rain, neither bank of the river was visible, but the captain knew from the compass heading the frigate was off course. A local fisherman-turned-guide had lost his way. The ship’s cutting-out party would have to launch from this location, more than three leagues up the Sheepscot River in the heart of rebel territory.
What prize, located deep within the contested colony of Massachusetts near its border with Nova Scotia, was so valuable that a ship’s captain would risk sailing his 44-gun ship 15 miles up a rocky river with an 11-foot tidal range, at night, and in a storm? The answer was a mast ship named Gruel, bound for France, holding giant, single-stick masts from the forests of New England suitable for ships-of-the-line. And who was the commanding officer willing to take such enormous risks for a cargo of masts? He was Sir George Collier, captain of His Majesty’s Ship Rainbow and acting commodore of the Royal Navy’s forces based out of Halifax, and arguably the most successful British naval officer during the American Revolution. “I thought it highly necessary to attempt at any Hazard to take or destroy her [the Gruel],” Collier had decided upon learning about the mast ship.
While scholarly debate continues regarding Britain’s need for raw masts during the early part of the American Revolution, both Collier and Admiral Augustus Keppel risked their careers out of concern for masts and spars in short supply.1 Admiral Keppel knowingly chanced court-martial for retiring from a major fleet engagement with the French near the island of Ushant in 1778, fearing any further damage to his ships would be irreparable and leave Britain open to invasion. For Collier, a hazardous raid to capture a valuable mast ship was a military necessity and emblematic of his sea service in North America.2
Challenge, Risk, and the Operational Edge
Collier routinely engaged in aggressive and audacious action throughout his four years of service during the Revolutionary War, first in 1775 then later from 1776 to 1779.3 And he was successful in all of his major engagements, both at sea and during expeditionary operations ashore. HMS Rainbow’s foray up the Sheepscot River “to take or destroy” the Gruel provides not only an intriguing narrative of naval warfare in the Age of Sail for any naval history buff, it also contains a compelling case study for present-day naval officers to consider as well. Collier’s mast-ship raid is an example of how the best commanding officers are able to perceive and, when needed, act at the edge of their operational capability. Collier’s decisions and actions reflect an extraordinary understanding of his crew and ship’s capacity to perform within environments of enormous challenge and extreme risk—and succeed.
Posted to Halifax in September 1776 by Admiral of the Fleet Richard Howe, Collier relieved Commodore Marriot Arbuthnot and assumed command of a remote but active area of operations that stretched from Massachusetts Bay to Newfoundland. The section included the vital fisheries of the Grand Banks. While operations in the region during the Revolutionary War have received only modest interest from naval historians, the area was vital to both British and American interests. Halifax had the only royal dockyard in North America. And for more than 100 years, the Royal Navy depended on a steady supply of strategic, timber-related products from its colonies in North America, particularly white pine from the forests of Nova Scotia and New England for great masts.5
On 8 September 1777 Collier received intelligence from a local fisherman that a mast ship was hiding some 20 to 30 miles up the Sheepscot River. The fisherman agreed to guide the Rainbow up the Sheepscot so she could capture the mast ship, later identified as the Gruel. Sailing directions from local almanacs advised large vessels to only enter the Sheepscot with a flood tide and southerly winds if hoping to proceed any distance up the river, which mostly runs north-northeast until it reaches the town of Wiscasset, Maine. Whether or not Collier had access to a copy of The English Pilot or charts from the Atlantic Neptune to aid his entry into the Sheepscot is unknown, but some Royal Navy ships carried copies.
Intriguingly, the 1780 version of the Atlantic Neptune’s “Charts of the Coast and Harbors of New England” does show the “Sheepscutt” River. At 133 feet, 6 inches along the waterline and approximately 830 tons burthen, the two-decker Rainbow fit the classification of a large vessel for that river. Even with a favorable wind and tide, “there are many rocks and ledges, some above, and some underwater.” The greatest danger to vessels traveling at night was when a ship reached Deeker’s Narrows, just about ten nautical miles upriver, where the channel makes an abrupt turn to the west and a ship must avoid “two large rocks that lie W.S.W. of the these narrows; the tide of flood sets very strong for them.”6 But the Rainbow didn’t make the narrows that night.
‘The Very Brink of Destruction’
The frigate entered Sheepscot Bay around two bells into the first watch (2100 hours) on Tuesday, 9 September, with a first-quarter moon overhead amid gathering clouds and intermittent showers. She reached the rocky and shoal-guarded mouth of the Sheepscot River two hours later with the flood tide. By midnight, a late-summer squall attacked the rock-studded and deeply cut coastline. Encumbered by weather and darkness, the fisherman-pilot guided the ship past hazards that mostly lay to larboard (port).7
About four bells into the midwatch (0200), Collier noticed the ship heading easterly instead of northerly and ordered the lashings holding the “best bower” to the starboard foremast channel cut so he could anchor before his ship ran aground. At the same time, his sailing master ordered the crew to either douse or back what reefed sails were still set in order to kill any further headway into shoaling waters. The pilot had missed the proper channel and instead, the Rainbow had entered Cross River, heading to the east about halfway to Wiscasset, and was now anchored in 12 fathoms of water near the Oven’s Mouth, a perilously narrow and shallow channel.8
Collier thought there was still adequate cover from the storm and darkness to launch a cutting-out party in two of the ship’s boats, manned by about 100 sailors and marines (one third of his complement), with Lieutenant Haynes in command of the party and in charge of one boat and Lieutenant Dalton commanding the second. Once again, the anonymous fisherman-turned-pilot agreed to guide the boats upriver to the Gruel. Lieutenant Welsh led the marine contingent.9 In preparation for the raid, one boat had been “armored” with wooden barricades. Both boats shoved off, safely swathed in darkness and rain, with still two to three hours of a flood tide to aid their dangerous ascent upriver, past the slumbering town of Wiscasset, and beyond to the mast ship.
With dawn on the 10th of September, Collier and his remaining crew saw how close they had come to “the very brink of destruction.” The Rainbow barely had room to swing on her hawser without running aground on either side. Using his remaining cutter, Sir George and his crew managed to warp their ship out of the confines of Cross River and back into the main channel of the Sheepscot later that morning. By early afternoon, the Rainbow was anchored in eight fathoms of water off Wiscasset Point within easy cannon shot of the small town. Shocked by the Rainbow’s arrival, the townspeople waited as Collier sent a flag of truce ashore with a letter to a local magistrate, Judge Rice, demanding a temporary armistice, delivery of two small cannon, and the surrender of the mast ship’s own spars and rigging that Collier had intelligence were stored near town.10
What ensued was a deadly serious but highly formal and polite exchange with the judge, via handwritten letters, over the presence of the cannon and spars, and an attempt to avoid civilian casualties by one side and an attack on the ship by the other. Collier often determined real-time rules of engagement during his sorties into local ports. In this case, no cannon or spars were delivered, but neither was the Rainbow harassed. In return, Collier withheld any attack on the town by his ship’s guns while the crew of the Rainbow anxiously waited on the 10th for the barricaded flat-bottomed boat and the ship’s first cutter to return. All was shrouded in a tense quiet on board the Rainbow and in Wiscasset, but only a few miles away the prize party and rebels were desperately fighting for control of the mast ship.
The Little Matter of Escape
Lieutenant Haynes’ two boats ghosted past Wiscasset in a misty drizzle and the early gloaming before sunrise. Carried over mud flats flanking the sinuous turns of the main river channel by the diminishing surge of the flood tide, the sailors and marines in the two boats arrived at the Gruel near sunrise. The mast ship’s master, Joseph Procter; his boatswain; and two mates were quickly woken at pistol- or sword-point, and the ship was secured. Haynes’ crew managed to drag aboard a 3-pounder cannon posted for the very purpose of overwatch on the mast ship.11 The Rainbow’s sailors and marines then built a defensive bulwark from planks stacked as cargo on deck for protection from musket fire. They now turned their attention to escape.
Stripped of some of her masts and rigging and moored to shore by large hawsers, the Gruel, Haynes knew, required a favorable tide to reach the Rainbow. Purpose-built, mast ships often had square sterns with large ports that facilitated the stowage of giant single-stick mainmasts up to 40 inches in diameter.12 Even with the more modest eight-foot vertical range of neap tides along the Sheepscot, it was also likely the mast ship needed to be moved just as the slack water started to ebb so she could clear shallows and mudflats while carried by the tide to Wiscasset, where her mast and sails could more easily be retrieved and rigged. But that was not to be.
While the British cutting-out party was able to surprise the mast ship’s crew, they were unable to keep their presence unknown from the indigenous militia for very long. The ship’s cook discovered his shipmates’ plight and ran away to raise the alarm. He fled to Timothy Parsons, presumably a local quartermaster, who then arranged for the delivery of musket shot and powder and a second 3-pounder cannon with 15 rounds of ammunition to the gathering militia. Parsons then carried the cook’s message of the Gruel’s capture to Colonel William Jones’ 3rd Lincoln County Regiment of Militia.
By around 0900, local militia assembled and began to fire with increasing intensity from the heights above the river on the would-be prize crew on board the ship. Pinned down by musketry from more than 150 rebels lined along the shore and trapped by an ebbing tide, the prize crew was unable to warp the Gruel into the deeper channel of the river.13 What tipped the balance decisively in the militia’s favor was the appearance around noon of the second artillery piece to support Colonel Jones’ regiment. Soon, the second 3-pounder was blasting away at the improvised palisade surrounding the mast ship’s deck, driving Haynes and his men below. While sheltered for the time being, they knew they were “rather unpleasantly situated.”14
A Danger-Fraught Exit
Collier was growing increasingly concerned. Night had fallen around 1800 at the end of the first dog watch, and Sir George had expected Haynes hours before; he decided to launch his remaining cutter to see if additional crewmen could assist the safe return of his cutting-out party. It didn’t get far. Hearing a number of voices along the shore, the cutter’s crew decided to return, worried that they would be easily ambushed if they proceeded any farther. Soon after, a distant staccato of musket fire came closer and closer, then stopped. To everyone’s great relief on board the Rainbow, the flat-bottomed boat and the first cutter hove up alongside around 2300 with the Gruel’s prize crew, but without the mast ship.
Haynes reported what had transpired over the last several hours. Only nightfall had saved Haynes, Dalton, Welsh, and their men. While the Gruel’s hull had provided adequate cover from both musket and cannon fire, they could not hold out indefinitely. They had already determined that morning that the mudflats surrounding the twisting river channel and low tide precluded any chance of quickly towing the mast ship downriver. Waiting for the moon to set, Haynes opted to shove some of the masts and spars into the river, hole the mast ship, and scuttle her in the river.15 By 2200 the moon was setting and it was dark enough to attempt escaping. Haynes ordered his men into the barricaded flat-bottomed boat and cutter, sheltered in the lee of the mast ship. His crews then silently pushed off in an attempt to sneak away. In that they were successful, for a while.
Colonel Jones’ sentinels soon discovered the British sailors and marines had escaped, but the rebels had a backup plan. Not far downriver, militia hauled hard on a rope to pull a boom across the river to block the fleeing flat-bottomed boat and cutter. For a moment the cutter was trapped by the haul line before the crewmen were able to hack their way through.16 Caught in a steady stream of fire, both crews fought to free their boats. Once again, the flat-bottomed boat’s barricade successfully shielded the passengers.
This was the fusillade that alerted the men of the Rainbow that somewhere in the night, their shipmates were in a desperate fight. Sometime after midnight both boats, their crews, and the prisoners from the mast ship were recovered aboard the frigate. Only one member of the cutting-out party had been wounded. It had been a very long 24 hours. Collier had been awake for almost 36 hours while monitoring the tense and dangerous first leg to Wiscasset, and then many more hours of waiting for his landing party to return, interrupted only by the truce negotiations with Judge Rice.17 A chance to rest was welcome, but they still had a dangerous passage down the Sheepscot before they reached safety in the open sea.
By the morning of Thursday, 11 September, Colonel Jones’ Lincoln County 3rd Regiment and other militia were massing in and around Wiscasset. But without a “leading wind” the Rainbow could not safely navigate the narrow channel of the Sheepscot. Collier was waiting for the winds to shift to the west and a flood tide so the Rainbow could weigh anchor while under sail heading easterly, safely clear Deeker’s Passage, then bear up and reach down the river under sail to the southwest. Unable to get under way, Collier set his crew to barricading the fighting tops of each mast while at the same time sending a flag of truce ashore.18
In a number of locations the navigable channel of the river passed close to highlands that afforded plunging fire to the ship’s deck. Yet while the Rainbow remained at anchor only a few hundred yards from town and with prisoners on board, Collier still held substantial leverage over negotiations. He offered to leave the town unscathed if the militia desisted from attacking his ship and men. Trying to similarly leverage the hazard of the Rainbow’s exposed route to the sea, Colonel Jones demanded Collier surrender the masts and spars his crew had recovered from the river and turn over a small schooner Collier had seized at Wiscasset. Collier responded with a message to the colonel that he had an hour to evacuate the town in preparation for a bombardment. Just before the hour was up Collier sent Lieutenant Haynes ashore with the flag of truce offering a last chance for “a neutrality.” By this time a second, more senior militia colonel, Samuel McCobb, also known to Collier, entered into the negotiations. The parties agreed to an armistice.19
By the early hours of Friday, 12 September, the winds shifted and, with a favorable tide, at three bells into the morning watch (0530) the Rainbow weighed anchor and began her tricky passage back down the narrow, hazardous channel of the river “safe and unmolested.”20 At some point that day, Collier saw fit to release his prisoners, putting them aboard the captured schooner. No further mention is made of the fisherman-turned-pilot, and one wonders what his motivation was in not just offering intelligence about the Gruel, but personally guiding the Rainbow and her landing parties as part of the operation. By 2 October, the Rainbow reached Halifax with more than one third of her crew sick.
Grace Under Pressure Personified
Sometime on Friday, 9 October 1777, Collier sat in his cabin on board the Rainbow at anchor in Halifax Harbor. He reflected on the events of his raid on the Gruel, and no doubt realized how razor-thin the line had been between success and catastrophic failure. In his letter of that day to Philip Stephens, the first secretary of the Admiralty, Collier recounted events with more embellishment than his terse journal notes written the evening of the Rainbow’s escape. By his account, Collier recovered three large masts and one mizzenmast.21 The cost to his crew was only one man wounded. This was a successful mission, although it could have easily swung to extreme failure. Capturing even four masts meant that one or more British ships could sortie that were otherwise laid up.
It is interesting to note that raids such as Collier’s on the Gruel and Wiscasset were exerting tremendous pressure on the militia forces in the area, and as such pushed them almost to the point of physical and financial exhaustion as they tried to beat off continual raids by the ships and crews of Collier’s Halifax squadron.22 Taken by itself, the raid was only a modest success. However, the attempt to take the Gruel fits within a larger context of an expansive and aggressive strategy put in motion by Commodore Collier. The mast ship raid was one of many spoiling attacks by Collier against rebel forces and commerce, designed to force the militias to protect their own coastline and prevent colonial ground forces from attacking Nova Scotia.
Several factors seem worth considering when thinking about the Rainbow’s attack on the mast ship. We forget in this day of modern technology about the extraordinary seamanship, by both the captain and the crew, to navigate a river in a square-rigged sailing ship such as the Rainbow.23 Even with favorable winds and tide, navigating a narrow channel with the large tidal range and the current of the Sheepscot was an amazing feat. To have attempted that at night and in a storm seems evidence of commanding officer of either supreme recklessness, or supreme skill and exceptional confidence in his crew and ship.
How would a modern frigate, corvette, or littoral combat ship fare in similar circumstances? How many ships’ commanding officers are ready to lose two or three department heads and have division officers ready to immediately move in to take over not only the department-head duties, but more important, the key battle stations? Spectacular and equally daring raids in the 20th century like the one at St. Nazaire in 1941, where a small flotilla of Royal Navy ships and a crew of commandos sailed up the Loire River in France to attack a strategic dockyard come to mind, but that was a one-way trip. It may be hard to imagine a similar situation where a U.S. ship would need to penetrate as far up a river into enemy territory as the Rainbow.
Covert submarine operations may offer equivalent scenarios, similar to the escapades of the USS Halibut (SSN-587) in the Sea of Okhotsk to tap a Soviet underwater communications cable. And yet, the U.S. Navy is on the verge of ordering a large number of littoral combat ships that might very well need to operate in estuarine and riverine environments in alignment with a doctrinal shift toward operations in littoral regions.24 Could littoral operating environments demand a different or more flexible command mentality than blue-ocean operations, similar to the Royal Navy in the Revolutionary War?
Sir George Collier’s aggressiveness, balanced by his calm while under duress, and his ability to manage events to his plan are attributes worthy of emulation by commanding officers of any era.25 Though it happened more than 230 years ago, the mast-ship raid by the men of HMS Rainbow offers a compelling case study of extraordinary leadership and performance. Unlike the raid at St. Nazaire or the feat of tapping of the Soviet communications cable in the Sea of Okhotsk, Collier’s ship and crew were not specially trained and equipped for their mission, it was done as a routine operation, and that is something to think about. Although overshadowed by Collier’s well-known defeat of the Continental amphibious assault on Castine in 1779 during the Battle of Penobscot Bay, his mast-ship raid makes for an incredible tale all by itself.
1. Michael Crawford, ed., American and European Theater: October 1, 1777–December 31, 1777, vol. 10 of Naval Documents of the American Revolution (Washington, DC: Department of the Navy, 1996), 910. R. J. B. Knight, “New England Forests and British Seapower: Albion Revised,” The American Neptune, vol. 46, no. 4 (Fall 1986), 221–29.
2. Ibid., 223. Robert Greenhalgh Albion, Forests and Sea Power: The Timber Problem of the Royal Navy (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1926), viii. J. Ralfe, The Naval Biography of Great Britain: Consisting of Historical Memoirs of Those Officers of the British Navy Who Distinguished Themselves During the Reign of His Majesty George III (London: Whitmore & Fenn, 1828), 357, 361.
3. David Syrett, The Royal Navy in American Waters, 1775–1783 (Brookfield, VT: Gower Publishing, 1989), 128.
4. Ithiel Town, A Detail of Some Particular Services Performed in America, During the Years 1776, 1777, 1778, and 1779 (New York: G. F Hopkins & Son, 1835), 11–12. Christopher P. Magra, The Fisherman’s Cause: Atlantic Commerce and the Maritime Dimensions of the American Revolution (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 6, 15.
5. Albion, Forests and Sea Power, 233.
6. Lawrence Furlong, The American Pilot (Newburyport, MA.: Blunt and March, 1796), 17–18.
7. William J. Morgan, ed., American and European Theater: July 1, 1777–September 30, 1777, vol. 9 of Naval Documents of the American Revolution (Washington, DC: Department of the Navy, 1986), 910. Crawford, American and European Theater: October 1, 1777–December 31, 1777, 82. Furlong, The American Pilot, 17.
8. Morgan, American and European Theater: July 1, 1777–September 30, 1777, 910. Crawford, American and European Theater: October 1, 1777–December 31, 1777, 83. James Phinney Baxter, ed., Documentary History of the State of Maine (Portland, ME: Lefavor-Tower Company, 1910), vol. 15, 206. Town, A Detail of Some Particular Services, 52.
9. Crawford, American and European Theater: October 1, 1777–December 31, 1777, 83.
10. Town, A Detail of Some Particular Services, 52–55. Morgan, American and European Theater: July 1, 1777–September 30, 1777, 910.
11. Baxter, Documentary History of the State of Maine, 210. Crawford, American and European Theater: October 1, 1777–December 31, 1777, 83.
13. Albion, Forests and Sea Power, 149. Baxter, Documentary History of the State of Maine, 206, 210. Morgan, American and European Theater: July 1, 1777–September 30, 1777, 949.
14. Crawford, American and European Theater: October 1, 1777–December 31, 1777, 83. Town, A Detail of Some Particular Services, 59.
15. Baxter, Documentary History of the State of Maine, 207–11.
16. Town, A Detail of Some Particular Services, 61.
17. Ibid., 57.
18. John Harland, Seamanship in the Age of Sail (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1984), 276. Morgan, American and European Theater: July 1, 1777–September 30, 1777, 911. Crawford, American and European Theater: October 1, 1777–December 31, 1777, 84. Baxter, Documentary History of the State of Maine, 207.
19. Crawford, American and European Theater: October 1, 1777–December 31, 1777, 84.
20. Town, A Detail of Some Particular Services, 63. #20
22. Baxter, Documentary History of the State of Maine, 209.
23. Harland, Seamanship in the Age of Sail, 199–208.
24. James Stavridis and William P. Mack, Command at Sea (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1999), 291.
25. Ibid., 304–14.