Sunday, February 23, 2020

Episode 137 Lambert Wickes Brings the War to Britain

Last week I talked about Benjamin Franklin coming to Paris and his efforts to bring France into the war with Britain.  Diplomacy and talk were not Franklin’s only tools.  Franklin and his fellow diplomats also attempted to bring the war directly to Britain, or at least just off shore in the waters around Britain.

Lambert Wickes

Franklin has crossed the Atlantic on an American warship, the Reprisal, captained by Lambert Wickes.  Captain Wickes had been a merchant ship captain in Maryland before the war.  His first notoriety came when he refused to deliver tea to Baltimore during the disputes between the colonies and Britain that eventually led to the Boston Tea Party.

Reprisal and Lexington (from FB Naval History & Heritage)
Wickes joined the Continental Navy in the spring of 1776, after Commodore Esek Hopkins had already made his raid on the Bahamas and gotten his fleet trapped in Rhode Island.  Wickes commanded a newly converted ship the Reprisal, which had been one of Robert Morris’ merchant vessels.  The new 18 gun navy ship had a crew of about 130 men.  Like most continental ships, it was large enough and well armed enough to capture any merchant vessel, but no match for a British ship of the line.

After patrolling in and around the Delaware River waters protecting Philadelphia, Wickes and the crew of the Reprisal saw their first action when the ship fought along with Captain John Barry and the Lexington against British warships in the Battle of Turtle Gut Inlet, a fight I discussed back in Episode 94.  Wickes’ brother, Lieutenant Richard Wickes was killed in that battle.

William Bingham

Congress next tasked Wickes to deliver a VIP, William Bingham to Martinique where Bingham was to serve as an American agent for Congress on the French colony.  Bingham is someone else I’ve failed to mention so far.  He came from Philadelphia merchant family. He began school at the College of Philadelphia (today University of Pennsylvania) at age 13 and graduated at 16. His father died the following year and Bingham took over his trading business.  He obviously had good political connections because in 1770, at age 18, the ministry in London appointed Bingham Consul to Martinique, a French colony in the West Indies.

William Bingham (from Wikimedia)
Despite his appointment, Bingham remained in Philadelphia, completing a masters degree.  I’m not sure what his duties were with the consulship, but if he even visited Martinique, he did not stay there very long.  In 1773, he took an extended trip to Europe, then returned to Philadelphia.

At the outbreak of war, Bingham stood with the patriots and resigned his consulship. Congress’ secret committee called on Bingham to go to Martinique and do what he could to help the cause.

Bingham’s status in the French colony of Martinique was essentially the same as Silas Deane’s was in France.  His cover was that he was a private businessman. His secret orders from Congress were to do whatever he could to get French military supplies to America, to collect any useful intelligence, sponsor privateers to attack British shipping, and do whatever else he could to provoke tensions between France and Britain.

Since the colonies were not as closely watched as France itself, Martinique became a key depot for the Americans.  France could ship all sorts of military supplies across the Atlantic to its own colony.  Then, if local officials mistakenly sold some which then got shipped to America, well, that was just some bureaucratic mistake.

I didn’t really mean to get onto a tangent about William Bingham, but he does play a key role in the arms trade between France and America.

Mission to Martinique

So anyway, Lambert Wickes had to get Bingham to Martinique.  On July 3, 1776, the Reprisal left Philadelphia with Bingham aboard.  As the ship traveled to the West Indies, it encountered three different British merchant vessels carrying trade goods.  Each time it captured a ship, Captain Wickes had to dispatch a prize crew to take control of the ship.  The prize crew would sail it back to a friendly port in America so that the ship and its cargo could be sold.  After sending off three prize crews, Wickes' own crew was getting rather short on manpower.  Some of the crew of the captured ships had agreed to join his crew, but he was also not sure how far he could trust those men, especially if they made up the bulk of his crew.

When the Reprisal caught a fourth ship, Captain Wickes was reluctant to give up any more of his crew and could not take the ship with them.  He said that since they were an Irish ship, they were not a legitimate target and he would allow them to go on their way.

Wickes would have no problems capturing Irish ships the following year.  The point of this excuse was to release the ship without revealing the weakness of his own crew.  The captured crew was happy not to ask too many questions and leave.  They were not going to argue that they should be taken prisoner.  They were happy to go on their way.

Port Royal Martinique (from Wikimedia)
On July 27, as the Reprisal entered St. Pierre Harbor in Martinique, it found the British ship HMS Shark already there delivering a protest from British Admiral James Young.  Wickes put Bingham in a rowboat so that he could get safely to shore then engaged the Shark in a short firefight.  The French broke up the fight by firing a few shots from their shore batteries, but not before the Reprisal had damaged the Shark.  The Shark left the harbor, only to return the next day with another complaint from Admiral Young.

After the battle, Wickes received compliments and congratulations from the locals.  The French authorities were equally friendly, allowing Wickes to put his ship in dock for cleaning, and allowing Bingham to take up residence and begin granting letters of marque to any privateers willing to attack British shipping.  Martinique officials had no problems letting privateers attack British shipping and return to French ports for protection and disposal of captured prizes.

Promotion to Captain

Over the next few weeks, the Americans hauled in quite a number of British prizes.  Wickes returned to Philadelphia in September, loaded with gunpowder and other supplies, and received commendations from Congress.

Shortly after his return Congress formalized the seniority list for its navy captains.  Wickes’ recent exploits helped his standing.  On October 10, Congress established the seniority of its twenty four captains.  Wickes ranked number eleven.

Just like seniority among army generals, seniority for navy captains was a contentious and political issue.  These captains had already been serving for many months.  Rearranging seniority upset many.  The most senior captain was James Nicholson.  You all remember the famous Captain Nicholson, right?  Of course not.  He had a very undistinguished career.  Some might even call it embarrassing.  John Barry, who I have mentioned and who had quite a career, was number seven on the list.  John Paul Jones was number eighteen.

Mission to France

Also in October, the secret committee tasked Wickes delivering another VIP.  He would carry Benjamin Franklin to France.  As I discussed last week, Franklin was traveling to take up his role as Commissioner to France.  At this time, Franklin was probably the most well known man in America.  Getting him and his grandsons safely past the British Navy was the top priority.

Congress ordered Wickes not to go looking for prizes and to get Franklin to Nantes as quickly as possible.  If he came across a prize and Franklin approved, he could capture it. Once Franklin was ashore, Wickes would be free to harass shipping in the English Channel and hopefully dispose of his prizes in French ports. All money from such prizes would support the new delegation in Europe.  Congress appointed Thomas Morris, brother of Pennsylvania delegate Robert Morris, to serve as the agent for all prizes.  Thomas Morris was already in Europe.

Franklin attempted to slip out of Philadelphia as quietly as he could, to avoid tipping off the British that he would be at sea.  He and his grandsons boarded the Reprisal at Marcus Hook, many miles downstream from Philadelphia.  The ship managed to sail out to open sea without encountering any of the British warships that regularly sailed around the mouth of the Delaware.

The trip across the ocean was relatively uneventful.  As the ship got closer to France, it encountered a merchant ship.  With Franklin’s permission, Wickes seized the unarmed ship and forced the surprised crew of the George surrender.  He put aboard a prize crew and continued with both ships toward the French coast.  A few hours later, the LaVigne also came within range and was taken without a fight.

Nantes, France (from flickr)
The next day, November 28, they sighted the French coast.  Poor winds prevented them from reaching Nantes.  For the next four days, contrary winds prevented the Reprisal from reaching any destination.  Finally, the frustrated and seasick Franklin got Wickes to pay a fishing vessel to bring Franklin and his two grandsons ashore.  From there, they could make their way overland to Nantes, and then on to Paris.

With Franklin safely ashore, Wickes still had plenty of other worries.  He needed to get the Reprisal and his prize ships safely to port.  He still had most of Franklin's luggage.  He had to sell the prizes and the indigo he brought in his own hold to fund the new American commissioners.  He also still had the crews of the prize ships aboard.  Due to contrary winds, it would take Wickes another few weeks to reach the port of Nantes in late December.

Normally a naval vessel would return to a friendly port where a prize court would value the captured vessels and permit their sale.  A portion of the prize money would be distributed to the crew.  The crews of the captured vessels could be held as prisoners of war.  None of that was possible in France.

The French government was bound by the Treaty of Utrecht.  That 1713 treaty had ended the War of Spanish Succession.  Even though the treaty had been blown up twice by the War of Austrian Succession and the Seven Years War, both France and Britain still declared themselves bound by its trade provisions. Among them was the understanding that neither country would give safe harbor to any enemy warships.

Now I know that you are all thinking, finally we can get into an extended legal analysis of the Treaty of Utrecht and its application to 18th Century maritime law.  Unfortunately, I don’t have time for all that, but I have recommended a few books on my blog if you want to read more.

Suffice it to say that unless France wanted war with Britain, which it did not, it had to arrest Wickes and return the prize ships to their British owners.  Recall that in Martinique, Wickes’ experience with the French governor was that they could do pretty much whatever they wanted, since France was at least tacitly supporting the American cause.  In France, the government could not get away with playing fast and loose with its treaties.

British Ambassador Lord Stormont, whom I discussed last week, would regularly threaten war if the French supported ships in open warfare with British shipping.  French officials would spend the next couple of years playing a fine line of assisting American ships as much as possible, while avoiding a blatant and direct treaty violation that could lead to war with Britain.  That whole dance really got its start when the Reprisal arrived in Nantes.

Wickes delivered Franklin’s luggage and the indigo to a French agent for the American Commissioners.  A short time later, the two prize vessels appeared with different names written on them and new French owners.  Wickes had sold the ships and cargo on the sly to new French owners who bought them at a massive discount.  In doing so, they agreed to assume all risk for possible legal claims.  I could not find the purchase prices for these deals, but later ones were estimated to be sold at only 15% of actual market value.

Lord Stormont
(from Wikimedia)
French merchants who had property aboard the prize ships complained to Lord Stormont. Stormont, of course, immediately went to see Vergennes at Versailles to complain.  Foreign Minister Vergennes said he knew nothing about the matter but would look into it.  There was no real investigation.  Since the ships had different names written on them now and had new forged documentation of ownership, French officials determined that these must be different ships, and that the British must be confused.  Everyone knew this was BS, but neither Britain nor France wanted to press the issue to the point where it led to war.

In the meantime, the Loire River froze, locking in the Reprisal.  Wickes spent a few weeks on land, dealing with other matters, including attempts to buy new warships.  He also inspected one of the merchant ships that had attempted to bring supplies to America a few months earlier.  I mentioned this in Episode 115 and implied that it had returned to port because the French officer Du Coudray was being a bit of a wuss about his food and quarters.  Du Coudray feared just such criticism and asked Captain Wickes to look at the ship.  Beaumarchais had thrown it together in a hurry, knowing that an order to seize the ship was on its way.  Du Coudray showed Wickes that the ship had only about one quarter of the food needed for the voyage, that none of the officers were familiar with American ports, and that the ship itself was not seaworthy due the way the cargo had been loaded in haste.  Wickes concluded that it was appropriate to turn back.  It just goes to show there is always more than one side to every story.

Wickes stay in France could not last long though.  The Treaty of Utrecht barred enemy warships from using ports, except in cases of extreme emergency when they could stay for 24 hours.  Lord Stormont again complained to Vergennes who again was just shocked by this new information and ordered the Reprisal to leave France and not return.  Of course, it took quite a while for those orders to get delivered.  Besides the Reprisal was incapable of leaving until the river thawed.

In late January, the Reprisal sailed to the open sea.  Despite official pronouncements from Versailles, Franklin had written Wickes to assure him that French and Spanish ports would be open to his return,  The French government just wanted it to be kept quiet and have plausible deniability.  The Americans though, did not even want to do that.  In addition to disrupting commercial shipping, a secret goal of the American delegation in France was to provoke a war between Britain and France.  Although Britain and France hoped to avoid war, America definitely wanted to see that war begin.

Over the next few days the Reprisal captured three more merchant ships.  In each case, Wickes brought the officers aboard as prisoners, then sent a prize crew to take the ships back to France for sale.  A short time later, he found his real target, the Lisbon Packet.  This was not a private merchant ship.  This was the King’s ship, manned by the British Navy and armed, albeit rather lightly.  After a 45 minute battle, the crew of the Reprisal stormed the ship, named the Swallow, and took its crew prisoner.  With this prize, Wickes headed back to France.  Along the way, another merchant ship, came too close and fell prey as well.

Wickes took his five prize ships to Port Louis, France.  There he claimed the five ships were his, and that he was just putting into shore for some repairs.  Everyone knew this was a lie, but the French policy of willful ignorance was in play here.  Wickes also still had the five captains of his captured ships aboard as prisoners.  He agreed to release them on parole, on their honor not to escape or reveal to anyone that the Reprisal had captured their ships.  He did give them permission to lodge protests with the port intendant, but only because he knew those protests would be ignored.

Wickes tried to arrange for secret sales of his prizes and to figure out what to do with the captured crews.  Britain was holding a number of American privateers in British prisons. The commissioners hoped to arrange prisoner exchanges.  Franklin sent a letter to Lord Stormont suggesting just such an exchange.  Stormont, however, took a different approach.  He sent back the letter with a note that he would not engage in communications with rebels unless they were ready to beg for the King’s mercy.  He lodged more protests with Versailles about the captured British ships.

Wickes unloaded the ships to American agent Thomas Morris for sale.  The French port intendant, now feeling pressure to act, ordered the Reprisal to leave port within 24 hours.  He said nothing about the private merchant ships. That was just under investigation. Wickes was not ready to leave port. Instead, he pumped water into his hold then brought aboard ship inspectors to certify that the ship was taking on water and needed repairs before it could leave port.  He ended up delaying his departure for weeks.

Meanwhile in Versailles, Lord Stormont was livid, protesting these continued violations.  Vergennes first denied everything.  He said the Reprisal had been ordered to leave port long ago, that there had been no sale of the prize ships and that French officials were still investigating the matter.  Vergennes could not discuss the matter with King Louis until he got all the facts.

Wickes had arrived with his prizes in early February.  In mid-March Stormont was still complaining for action.  On May 22, the French ministry finally released its report.  The Reprisal had stayed in port longer than allowed due to the damage of the ship and the incompetence of local officials to enforce the order to depart.  They could find no records of the prize ships.  Sure, there were records of five other ships sold around that same time that seemed remarkably similar to the prize ships.  But each of those had different names, were painted a different color, and had papers saying they were different ships, so those could not be the prizes everyone was looking for.

Summer Assault

Meanwhile Wickes was not done.  He prepared for another voyage.  This time, he added two more ships to sail along with the Reprisal.  The Lexington had arrived, the same ship commanded by John Barry that Wickes and the Reprisal had fought with at Turtle Gut Inlet.  Barry now had a larger ship.  Captain Henry Johnson now commanded the Lexington.

Rounding out the fleet was the Dolphin under the command of Lieutenant Samuel Nicholson.  Wickes’ half brother Joseph Hynson actually purchased the Dolphin, at that time called the Rochefort, in Liverpool.  Hynson is a fascinating story himself.  He turned out to be a double agent working for the British.  Maybe I can get into his story in another episode.  He got the Dolphin to France where it became the third ship in Wickes’ fleet, which set out from France on May 28, 1777.

Even getting the fleet started was a challenge.  Most of the crew refused to go until they got their prize money from the previous captures, or for that matter the prizes captured on the trip to Martinique a year earlier.  Wickes came up with some money for the crew, but also had to supplement his crews with French sailors.

With the fleet underway, Wickes headed for the Irish Sea.  The fleet sailed up the west coast of Ireland and then into the Irish Sea from the north.  Over the course of this mission the American fleet took eighteen merchant vessels.  They sent most of them back to France.  A few sank.  A couple, which were smugglers, they let go on their way.

Reprisal escaping the Burford (from JAR)
The attacks, over the course of the next month, created panic in Britain.  Insurance rates skyrocketed.  Merchants chose to send their merchandise aboard French or other neutral ships.  British ship owners found themselves scrambling for business.  The navy deployed ships in search of what they called pirates, but could not seem to find them.

As the fleet sailed back toward France in late June, it spotted one more large merchant vessel and gave chase.  Only this time, the ship turned out not to be a merchant vessel but the Burford, a 74 gun British ship of the line.  There was no way the three American ships were even a contest for the Burford.  As they realized their mistake and fled, the British warship turned on them.  The fleet scattered in three different directions, leaving a prize ship for the British to seize and board.  The Captain of the Burford did not take the bait.  He continued after the largest ship, the Reprisal, letting the others go.

Aboard the Reprisal, Wickes made a dash for the French coast.  With the Burford gaining on him, the crew threw over everything they could to lighten the load, including all the cannon.  The Burford got within musket range of the Reprisal, but Wickes kept his ship in front, always avoiding giving the British a chance to fire a broadside.  After a harrowing twelve hour chase, the Reprisal reached the French coast and the Burford gave up the chase.


It took a few weeks for word of the attacks to reach London, and a few more for London to instruct Lord Stormont.  By early July, Stormont was threatening war at Versailles over flagrant treaty violations.  France was serving as a base for enemy ships.  Stormont told Vergennes that if something didn’t change, France and Britain really would soon be at war.

Comte de Vergennes
(from Wikimedia)
Vergennes was trying to avoid such a war, just as the Americans were trying to start one.  Vergennes still wanted to help the Americans but realized the British were near their breaking point.  He told Stormont, truthfully, that France had ordered the American fleet to leave in May and not return.  Of course, no one believed those instructions.  He also said they had only returned because they had been attacked by British warships.  Vergennes now ordered the American ships sequestered, which gave them time to make repairs in French ports.  Vergennes also seemed to have a really hard time figuring out what happened to the eight British prize ships that had entered French ports and then suddenly disappeared.  Again, there was nothing to return to British authorities except the crews.

France had recently arrested another American privateer, Gustavus Conyngham, who the British had termed the Dunkirk Pirate.  Conyingham’s story is another fascinating one I hope to cover in another episode.  The diplomatic arguing dragged on over the rest of the summer.  Meanwhile, Wickes repaired and rearmed his ships.

Finally, in September Wickes received orders from the Commissioners to return to America with supplies and important communications for Congress.  The British had hoped to catch the Reprisal after leaving port, but Wickes gave them the slip.  The Reprisal crossed the Atlantic with Wickes a returning national hero.

Sadly, this is where Wickes’ story ends.  On his return trip, off the coast of Newfoundland, the Reprisal encountered a massive storm at sea.  The ship sank and all hands were lost, except for one identified only as the ship’s cook.  Captain Wickes went down with his ship, cutting short the life of one of America’s bravest and most talented naval officers.

Next week, we head south for the battle of Thomas Creek in Florida.

- - -

Next  Episode 138 The Battle of Thomas Creek

Previous Episode 136 Franklin in Paris

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Further Reading


Seniority list for Continental Navy and Marines:

American Navy Captains 1776:

Foreign Fighters for the American Cause of Independence

Werther, Richard J. "William Bingham: Forgotten Supplier of the American Revolution" Journal of the American Revolution, June 7, 2017:

Norton. Louis Arthur "Captain Gustavus Conynham: America's Successful Naval Captain or Accidental Pirate?" Journal of the American Revolution, April 15, 2015:

Werther, Richard J. “The ‘Hynson Business’ - The Story of a Double Agent” Journal of the American Revolution Feb. 12, 2019:

Werther, Richard J. “Captain Lambert Wickes and ‘Gunboat Diplomacy, American Revolution Style’” Journal of the American Revolution Jan 3, 2019:

Free eBooks
(from unless noted)

Naval documents of the American Revolution, Vol 6, Vol 7, and Vol 8, Department of the Navy, 1964.

Freschot, Casimir The compleat history of the treaty of Utrecht Vol 1 and Vol 2, London: A. Roper, and S. Butler, 1715.

Jones, Charles H. Captain Gustavus Conyngham, Pennsylvania Society of Sons of the Revolution, 1903.

Paullin, Charles Oscar The Navy of the American Revolution: Its Administration, Its Policy and Its Achievements, The Burrows Brothers Co. 1906.

Books Worth Buying
(links to unless otherwise noted)*

Alberts, Robert C. The Golden Voyage: The Life and Times of William Bingham, 1752-1804, Houghton-Mifflin, 1969.

Bowen Hassell, E. Gorden, Dennis Conrad, and Mark Hays Sea Raiders of the American Revolution: The Continental Navy in European Waters, Univ of the Pacific Press, 2004.

Clark, William Bell Lambert Wickes Sea Raider and Diplomat: The Story of a Navel Captain of the Revolution, Yale Univ. Press, 1932

Fowler, William M. Jr. Rebels Under Sail: The American Navy During the Revolution, Charles Scribern’s Sons, 1976

McGrath, Tim Give Me a Fast Ship: The Continental Navy and America's Revolution at Sea, Caliber, 2014

* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.

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