Sailor, Prisoner, Captain, Spy

By Ensign Samuel Oat-Judge, U.S. Navy

Before long the war was felt immediately at home for Fanning and the other residents of Stonington. On 30 August the 20-gun frigate HMS Rose , commanded by Captain James Wallace, fired her broadsides into the town for an entire day and attempted an amphibious landing (which was repulsed by local militia). Wallace’s previous efforts to supply the hard-pressed British garrisons in Boston by stealing colonists’ sheep from nearby islands combined with this attack to incense the local population, who viewed his actions as excessively brutal and piratical. 3

The shelling of his town and his family’s homes had a profound impact on young Nathaniel Fanning, who left soon after to join a privateer crew. The “depredations” and “actions of the most wanton and barbarous kind” of “that noted plunderer, Wallace,” he recalled in his memoir, inspired him to seek vengeance six years later by attacking a village in Scotland’s Orkney Islands as captain of his own ship. 4

Privateering was a common practice in the naval warfare of the 17th to early 19th centuries; captains of privately owned vessels would receive government commissions to raid enemy commerce, taking ships as prizes that could be sold in port. At the Revolution’s outset, this was initially the only American means of challenging the British at sea. In commissioning an estimated 2,000 privateering vessels between the state governments, the Continental Congress, and France, American ships secured much-needed supplies and harassed enemy shipping. This had the dual effect of hurting British domestic resolve to continue the war and, most importantly, forcing the Royal Navy to keep its forces split across the Atlantic because of the raiding in British home waters. 5

Fanning sailed as a seaman on two privateering cruises between 1775 and 1778, but it was his third cruise that marked the beginning of years of sacrifice, bravery, and incredible heroism. After proving his skill at sea, he signed aboard the 18-gun brig Angelica of Boston in the spring of 1778 as a prize master, an officer who would take command of a captured vessel and sail her back to port. 6 On the third day of the Angelica ’s cruise, 31 May 1778 (coincidentally Fanning’s 23rd birthday), she was captured by the 28-gun frigate HMS Andromeda , denying Fanning the opportunity to exercise his new responsibility. 7

Involuntary Guests of the Crown

On board the Americans’ new floating prison was Major General William Howe, who had recently resigned as commander-in-chief of British forces in America and was returning to England. As Fanning recounted (with characteristic sardonic wit) in his memoir, the general “asked us a number of insignificant questions, among which was, ‘If we were willing to join his majesty’s service?’” It is telling of the resolve of Fanning and his fellow captives that such a question, and the ensuing threats of being hanged as pirates after a voyage on board “hell upon the seas,” would be seen as “insignificant.” Their British counterparts were so dissatisfied with life in the Royal Navy that a number of the crew secretly supplied the prisoners with pistols and cutlasses to seize control of the ship, but the Americans were betrayed by one of their own only hours before launching their attack. 8

Conditions for the prisoners in the hold of the ship were so squalid that “we were willing to be all cut to pieces in our intended attempt, rather than suffer in this dismal place any longer.” Their conditions only worsened, however, as “orders were given by this great and mighty general, to give us only as much provisions as would serve to keep us alive and to deal out to us no more water than half a pint per man per day.” Remarkably, however, they managed to break into General Howe’s personal storeroom. While much of the British crew died of scurvy during the voyage, the prisoners enjoyed “the table of an Emperor” and stayed healthy. When taken from the hold in Portsmouth, England, the Americans left General Howe “astonished on the score of our being all brave and hearty.” He lamented: “are none of them damned Yankees sick! Damn them, there is nothing but thunder and lightning will kill them.” 9

After spending just over a year (and his second birthday in a row) starving and cruelly treated in British custody, Fanning and 120 others were freed in a prisoner exchange on 2 June 1779. 10 He was released to America’s new ally, France, where John Paul Jones offered him a position as a midshipman on board the Bonhomme Richard . As they set sail from L’Orient on 14 August, Fanning had been a free man for only nine days. 11

Deadly Hail from the Maintop

Midshipman Fanning played a crucial role in the much-celebrated Battle of Flamborough Head on 23 September, when Jones’ ship captured the more heavily armed British man-of-war Serapis . Leading 15 men positioned in the Bonhomme Richard ’s maintop, Fanning directed an unrelenting fire down on the enemy ship that “cleared her decks so that not a man on board the Serapis was to be seen.” 12 He and his men then spent the fight clinging to the yardarms, hanging across over the enemy vessel and shooting their muskets at any who dared to show himself. One of Fanning’s men famously dropped a grenade down an open British hatch and gave the American ship a much-needed advantage by igniting open powder stores and killing a great deal of enemy sailors belowdecks. 13 John Paul Jones singled out Fanning and Midshipman John Mayrant (who led the boarding party) for their indispensable courage, writing after the battle:

In bravery, or, I should say in that cheerful kind of spirit that makes a man unable to believe there is such a word as danger in the dictionary, or if so, not able to see why it should be there, they were quite alike. Neither of them ever knew what the word meant, and either of them would have gone to certain death in the line of duty without realizing that he was doing anything out of the common run. . . . Both were alike ignorant of fear, and neither could be conquered alive. 14

The boldness and daring Fanning displayed in his cruise on board the Bonhomme Richard would not prove to be a singular occurrence; rather, he would only become more aggressive and daring in fighting the British after leaving Jones’ command on 15 December 1780. 15 His reputation as a seasoned mariner and fearless fighter was well known in France, where he was offered joint command of the 14-gun French-flagged privateer Count de Guichen . Because of citizenship requirements he could not be the captain of a French ship, so command was technically given to French Captain Pierre Anthon, while Fanning effectively ran the largely American-crewed vessel. 16

It was on this cruise that Fanning honed his remarkably cunning skills as a privateering captain, skills that would cost the British many ships. The Count de Guichen sailed on 23 March 1781 and captured four enemy ships on only the fourth day out. In his first experience as a commanding officer, Fanning displayed a daring aggressiveness that would characterize his actions at sea through the end of the war. When a much-heavier British privateer mounting 24 6-pounder guns (a broadside weight of 72 pounds to his 21) appeared in sight, Fanning immediately decided to pursue the enemy rather than sail to safety. With great impertinence, once within range he ordered the drummer and fifer “to play Yankee Doodle, which was continued through the action.” 17 Demonstrating superior shiphandling skills, Fanning raked the British ship three times from close range before the enemy surrendered with the Count closing to board.

After a month of such attacks the Count de Guichen encountered the 28-gun frigate HMS Aurora , whose superior armament Fanning could not overcome through tactical wit. On 4 May 1781, he became a prisoner of war for the second time. In an act of shrewd foresight, however, Fanning and Anthon managed to deceive their captors by surrendering falsified ransom notes from fictional captured ships while retaining the true notes hidden under their clothing. 18 It was a common privateering practice to allow a captured ship to sail free after securing a number of hostages and a ransom note for the vessel’s value (redeemable from the ship owners’ bank), as most privateers lacked sufficient crew to man every seized vessel.

Captured, Shipwrecked, Penniless—yet Unstoppable

This time Fanning was only held in prison six weeks before an exchange was arranged, and he returned to France able to cash in the true ransom notes. 19 Having spent three years away from home, over a third of that time as a prisoner, Fanning booked passage back to America “in high spirits, hoping once more to see my native country.” On 14 July, however, just two days out to sea, he was shipwrecked in a gale off the coast of Brittany. Fanning managed “not without the greatest hazard” to get ashore, but “every farthing of money and property which I possessed or owned in the world” was now at the bottom of the sea. 20 His spirit would prove indomitable, however, and he recalled:

I came to this determination, never to attempt again to cross the vast Atlantic Ocean until the god of war had ceased to waste human blood in the western world. I considered that it made but a little difference whether I fought under the French or American flag, as long as I fought against the English. 21

Back in France after his unsuccessful Atlantic crossing, Fanning immediately took a commission commanding the 18-gun cutter Eclipse with Anthon in December 1781. After capturing five ships, the Eclipse nearly sank in a storm and returned to France for repairs. Wasting no time while waiting for his ship to be ready for sea, Fanning took it upon himself to make multiple trips to London as a spy under the direction of Benjamin Franklin, America’s ambassador to France. Traveling ostensibly to collect on unclaimed ransom notes in English banks, Fanning actually undertook “this trip for the purpose of ascertaining the trend of public opinion in London regarding the continuance of the American war.” 22 Disguised as a Frenchman, he spent three weeks in London, where “I made it a custom to visit the coffee-houses, where I heard much said by British officers.” 23 Fanning’s success impressed Franklin, who next asked him to return to London and help arrange the release of two important prisoners. After delivering messages to sympathetic politicians in the British Parliament, Fanning remained incognito for a month while securing their support and “was the means of saving the lives of [prisoners] Ryan and McCarter.” 24

Returning to France in May 1782, Fanning had now attained French citizenship and took sole command of the repaired Eclipse . With a newfound liking for deception, he had the vessel’s sides painted to resemble a British cutter so she could more easily sneak up on unsuspecting merchant ships. His vessel gained notoriety for her fierce boarding party, whose members “stripped themselves naked, excepting a thin pair of drawers, and used no other weapons but a long knife” in a fight. 25

The decision to paint the Eclipse to resemble a British ship would save her on 11 August 1782 when being chased by the 50-gun HMS Jupiter . Though enemy pursuit was a common occurrence, this time Fanning could not escape out to sea, as the entire Royal Navy Channel Fleet was assembled ahead of him; audaciously, the Eclipse simply sailed directly through it (between two 74-gun ships, no less). The captain manned the helm through the entire chase and directed his crew to lie down on deck while under fire from the Jupiter ’s bow chasers, and he “received a flesh wound in the leg, and another in the forehead, by a splinter . . . which knocked me down, and stunned me (upon deck) where I lay sometime motionless.” 26 Regaining his senses, he out-tacked the Jupiter through the night, and the Eclipse sailed to freedom.

Two days after narrowly surviving the Jupiter , Fanning decided to pursue a clearly superior British vessel, the Lord Howe . During the ensuing fierce battle, Fanning “was wounded by a musket ball, which passed through my leg, which bled so fast that my shoe was instantly full of blood.” After plugging it with a handkerchief, he “found no inconvenience in remaining at my station,” and the Eclipse’s boarding party attacked so aggressively that the British struck immediately, despite having a crew of 87 sailors and 110 embarked soldiers to match the Eclipse ’s 72 men.

Coincidentally, Fanning’s last major capture of the war would be a ship named after the brother (Admiral Richard Howe) of the general (William Howe) who had been on board the ship that had captured Fanning when he was a new officer, more than four long years earlier. In his cruises commanding the Eclipse , Fanning took more than 50 ships as prizes and captured hundreds of enemy sailors, who were critical for securing the release of American prisoners of war. 27 For all the hardship that British power and random circumstance threw his way, he survived the war. He lived until 1805, felled in the end by yellow fever contracted while commanding a gunboat in the service of the nascent U.S. Navy.

Valor, Sacrifice, and ‘Enduring Vitality’

It is hard to imagine another naval officer of the American Revolution with such a range of experiences, beginning the war as 20-year-old sailor, ending it as a 28-year-old privateering captain, with three trips made to England in chains, two in disguise, multiple wounds, and dozens of enemy ships captured in between. Though few may have accomplished as much as Fanning did, the spirit in which he fought and his strength of character, willing to undergo the infamously inhumane British treatment of captured Americans time and again, was not unique to him. The sailors he led on his ever more daring and dangerous missions to cripple British shipping and bring an end to the war shared equally the risks of shipwreck, capture, or violent death in battle. Fanning’s heroic leadership of his crews in the face of battles, chases, and storms inflicted so much damage on the British that when brought ashore as captives in 1781, their infamy proceeded them and a mob was waiting on the docks to stone them upon arrival. 28

Setting out from home as a young man, stirred by belief in the American cause and anger at British treatment of the colonies, Nathaniel Fanning epitomized the spirit of the young nation’s sailors. Battle at sea is by nature democratic, in that all share equally in the risk of death and victory depends on the ship fighting as a single being, with no front lines and rearguards, and this particularly suited the egalitarian character of the emergent American identity. The selfless dedication of men like Fanning who devoted their lives to serving their country at sea, even when suffering in English prisons, is a powerful testament to the enduring vitality of America’s character. The sacrifices of American sailors imprisoned in England so powerfully affected Benjamin Franklin that, at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, he would cite their character as the reason to allow universal male suffrage (as opposed to limiting voting rights to property owners, as some argued), imploring:

The revolutionary war is a glorious Testimony in favor of Plebeian Virtue—our military and naval men are sensible of this Truth. I myself know that our Seamen who were Prisoners in England refused all the allurements that were made use of, to draw them from their allegiance to their Country—threatened with ignominious Halters, they still refused. This was not the case with the English Seamen, who, on being made Prisoners entered into the American Service and pointed out where other prisoners could be made—and this arose from a plain cause. The Americans were all free and equal to any of their fellow citizens. 29

Keeping alive the history of heroes like Nathaniel Fanning and his fellow sailors is important as it gives reminder that, beyond the household names of iconic leaders, America’s past is rich with the sacrifices made by its everyday citizens. Their stories continue to inspire.

1. Gardner Allen, “State Navies and Privateers in the Revolution, Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society , vol. 46 (1912), 188.

2. Walter Brooks, History of the Fanning Family: Genealogical Record to 1900 (Worcester, MA: privately printed, 1905), 601, 786, 715.

3. Norman Boas, “Stonington in Rebellion, 1775,” Stonington Historical Society, .

4. Nathaniel Fanning, Fanning’s Narrative: The Memoirs of Nathanial Fanning, Officer of the American Navy 1778–1783 (New York: William Abbatt,1913), 164, 194.

5. Allen, “State Navies and Privateers,” 186.

6. “Massachusetts Privateer Brig Angelica ,” American War for Independence at Sea,[Dennis].html.

7. Brooks, Fanning Family , 715.

8. Fanning, Narrative , 2, 6.

9. Ibid., 4–6.

10. Ibid., 11, 17.

11. James Volo, Blue Water Patriots: The American Revolution Afloat (Westport, CN: Praeger, 2007), 223.

12. Fanning, Narrative , 40.

13. Volo, Blue Water Patriots , 223.

14. Charles W. Turner, “The Founder of the American Navy,” The Sewanee Review , vol. 3 (1904), 300.

15. Brooks, Fanning Family , 726.

16.Volo, Blue Water Patriots , 224.

17. Fanning, Narrative , 115.

18. Ibid., 126.

19. Volo, Blue Water Patriots , 225.

20. Fanning, Narrative , 130–31.

21. Ibid., 131.

22. Brooks, Fanning Family , 728, 730.

23. Fanning, Narrative , 151.

24. Brooks, Fanning Family , 730.

25. Fanning, Narrative , 177, 173.

26. Brooks, Fanning Family , 733. Fanning, Narrative , 180.

27. Volo, 229.

28. Fanning, Narrative , 194.

29. “Notes of Rufus King in the Federal Convention of 1787,” Yale Law School Avalon Project, .



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