1776 naval heroics far from the front lines remembered
Next Tuesday is the 230th anniversary of one of the few Vineyard battles in the Revolutionary War. On March 7, 1776, captain Benjamin Smith of Edgartown sailed out on a small sloop with about 40 men and captured a British store ship that was at anchor on a shoal off Nantucket. The story is told in Charles Banks's "History of Martha's Vineyard."
The little sloop was appropriately named "Liberty," and the men were mostly local sailors with a dozen or so members of the Edgartown militia. Militia colonel Beriah Norton reported the action this way: "They engaged hur and after a smart scurmig [skirmish] the Capt of the ship being shot three [times], they then struck to our Yankee sloop." The British ship was the "Harriot," and her captain, Weymes Orrock, was reported by Colonel Norton to be "in a fare way of recovery." The ship and her cargo (coal, beer, and potatoes) were turned over to the colonial council.
The Vineyard had an active militia during the war, as evidenced by the capture of the "Harriot" and later in the same month the schooner "Bedford." In 1775 three Vineyard Haven girls blew up a "liberty pole" rather than surrender it to a British ship to be used as a spar. However, the mainland leaders of the revolution decided that the Vineyard was strategically too difficult to defend from the British sea forces and more or less abandoned it to a technical neutrality, though there continued to be Vineyarders active in "sea coast defenses."
In 1778, a raid led by Major General Charles Grey stripped the Island of almost all provisions, including 300 oxen and 10,000 sheep. The following winter was the most severe on record, with snow up to the second story windows and ice so thick that not even shellfish could be harvested. The Island suffered terribly. Because the Vineyard was neutral, the British were supposed to pay for what they took, but they left only IOUs, which Beriah Norton struggled in vain to collect.
To his Excellency General George Washington
This is the text of what is believed to be the original letter Captain Orrok wrote
to General Washington describing his capture. It is addressed, "To His Excellency Geo. Washington Esq., Generale of the Continentile Army at Cambridge." Orrok states that Beriah Norton of Edgartown had agreed to deliver the letter to General Washington in Cambridge. Somehow, the letter ended up in the Martha's Vineyard Historical Society's possession. It appeared in a Dukes County Intelligencer story by Arthur Railton in November 2002. Orrok wrote:
May it Please your Excellency,
Having this opperturnity by Colonel Norton; I must beg leave to trouble you with this letter - Tho an intire Stranger, I flatter myself you will take compassion upon me when you hear of my preasent cituation, which I must beg leave to lay before you.
I have been a constant trader from London to Jamaica for this some years back and no freight offering this voyage out, I was prevailed upon to take a Cargoe of Coals, Porter, etc., by Messrs. Morse & Company, the Shippers, for Boston where I was to be immediately Discharged, & from thence to proceed for Jamaica.
But unfortunately for me, was Drove upon Nantuckett Sholes, but Got off with Very little Dammage - soon after, I was attacted by an armed vessel from the Vinyard - and I being Not willing to part with my property without makeing some defence - But being unfortuneately Wounded, was oblidged to submit to superior force.
I am very Weak at preasent but as my wound is not Mortale I hope to have the Honner of waiting on you personally in a few weeks - At preasent I have the greatest reason imaginable to expect (without your Excellency interfiers on my behalf) that my private property which consists of a few - [?] & some other trinkets which was intended for sale in Jamaica and likewise my wearing apparrell which they are fully determined to Plunder from me. At Preasant I have nothing at my Command.
Should your Excellency be so very obliging to permit me to Depart for Jamaica, I should not so much regret they [sic] loss. But if it is my lot to be Detained here I would wish to appear a little Deasent, but that I cannot doe without your Excellency will take compassion upon me & send me orders for them to restore what they so ardently wish to keep.
I beg your pardon for giving you all this trouble but can see no way of my having redress but by this method I shall patiently relly upon your goodness. - I sincerly wish you health & happyness. I remain your Excellencys Most Obediant humble Serv't,