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When The Ships' Cannon Roared Off Old Worcester Coast

 

From: The Maryland Beachcomber, 8/24/79

Found in the vertical file at Worcester County Library; no other info is available.

The following column, copyrighted in 1977 and revised in 1979, was written by Capt. Donald F. Stewart, director of the Five Fathom Lightship Museum in West Ocean City. It is replete with references to Ocean City area topographical features which no longer exist. Assowoman Inlet, for instance, was located in the area from 99th Street north to the Maryland-Delaware line; it has disappeared and reappeared many times in the last 300 years. It was last visible about 1900, after reopening following a storm in the 1880's. The Inlet, the modern spelling of which is Assawoman, has reopened at approximately 100-year intervals since the 1680's. Sinepuxent Inlet stretched for about 2 miles beginning at a point just below North Beach on Assateague Island (in the federal section) less than ten miles south of Ocean City. Sinepuxent Town was a once thriving community on the mainland about a half mile north of the bridge to Assateague Island. It was wiped out in the 1818 hurricane which closed the old Sinepuxent Inlet.

 

By DONALD F. STEWART

 

At the beginning of the Revolutionary War, the residents of the Delmarva Peninsula were equally divided in their loyalties. Those remaining loyal to the British Crown, known as Tories, had communicated with elements of the British fleet that were blockading the coast, while patrolling the Chesapeake from Cape Charles to the head of the Elk River.

The sloop of war "Otter" had rendezvoused with Tory leaders in the Pocomoke River, sending in Brown Bess muskets, power, ball and instructions to all residents loyal to King George III.

One of those instructions was: "loyal subjects of His Majesty shall paint a black line, wide enough to be observed, around their chimneys. British troops will distinguish these from the unpainted chimneys of the rebels and all bearing the mark will be treated to great respect and civility to their household and properties."

 

WITHIN TWO WEEKS after the instructions were received, the rumors spread quickly and by the end of the summer, of 1776, it is said, "every home, shoppe and tavern in old Somersett and Worcester was marked with the band around their chimneys." Because of the closing of Chesapeake ports and the British occupation of Tangier Island, the Maryland Committee of safety selected Chincoteague as the major port of entry along the coast, with the more shallow port at Sinepuxent Towne as the secondary port for the importation of goods and arms; Sinepuxent Towne has long since vanished and was located on the bay behind Assateague Island. In 1776, it had a church, burying ground, a livery, smith, the warehouses and chandler of John Fassett and 27 houses. Of these, only Fassett House, which was on the north end of the town, still stands in 1979 as a residence. The town had two docks capable of berthing ships of nine foot draft; deep draft vessels were anchored off South Point, just north of old Sinepuxent Inlet, which was open to larger sailing ships until 1818, when it was sealed by a hurricane. Both Chincoteague and Sinepuxent were relatively free from surprise attack and both had small batteries of cannon, manned by the local militia, on both the north and south ends of towns. During this period of history, the ships unloading in Chincoteague and Sinepuxent Bays had five escape routes, as inlets existed at Assowoman, Sinepuxent, Spanish Point (now Pope's Island), Middlemoor and Chincoteague.

 

MERCHANT SHIPS AND PRIVATEERS ran into the inlets on a regular basis by midsummer of 1776. The French brig "Le Comtesse Denery" brought in weapons, spirits and powder to Fassett & Co., from Bordeaux. The Perdeaux Brothers of old Worcester were responsible for the ship being issued a Letter of Marque, authorizing her to seize British ships, in 1778. Many British ships were sent into the anchorage off South Point; their cargoes were hauled overland to Philadelphia and or Baltimore. The more wealthy Worcester County farmers and merchants were aware of the rich cargoes brought in by privateers. Eight ships were registered out of Worcester as privateers during the conflict; the first was the 60-foot "Swallow" of four guns, owned by William Hammond. Her license was issued by the Continental Congress, Marine Committee on March 17, 1777; and by June of the same year, she had taken two rich prizes not 40 miles offshore.

In the spring of 1778, the British blockading squadron was very much aware of the activities at both Chincoteague and Sinepuxent. Two ships were selected to "tame the nest of pyrates." Captain Timothy Hall, R.N., of the 28-gun frigate H.M.S. "Mermaid," was instructed to sail in company with a shoal draft sailing galley, named "Firefly," to destroy Sinepuxent, then south to destroy Chincoteague from the north. The captain of "Mermaid" sent the following message before sailing from Hampton Roads: "I will carry out your orders; my ships will move on the pyrate's nests and I will destroy Sinepuxon and Chincoteague, to their foundations."

 

AT FIRST LIGHT on the morning of August 3, 1778, the "Mermaid" waited off shore, while the "Firefly" moved north and entered Assowoman Inlet. The attack was planned simultaneously for noon, with the frigate attacking from the south and the "Firefly" from the north.

At South Point, anchored in 22 feet of water, was the Privateer Schooner "Adventure" of Captain Thomas Robinson; anchored next to her was the ship "Elizabeth" of Plymouth, which had been taken, in the Gulf Stream, and brought in the prior afternoon, as a prize of war. The sloop "Dolphin" was off-loading the large English ship and transporting her cargo to the dock at Sinepuxent Town.

Just before noon, the topmasts of the "Mermaid" were sighted entering the inlet, to the south. Captain Joseph Dashiell and John Cathell were on the deck of the English prize supervising the unloading, when an alarm cannon boomed from the mainland. On orders from the master of the "Adventure," John Cathell ran below to warn the crews of the impending attack.

Before jumping aboard the sloop to escape, Captain Dashiell ordered live coals taken from the galley fireplace on the privateer and dumped down the cargo holds of both ships. As an alarm bell sounded, the men boarded the small sloop, hoisted sail and made for the town. Militiamen and townspeople raced wagons to the small magazine and whipped the horses toward the shore batteries, carrying powder, ball and bar shot. Before the frigate cleared the inlet and entered the bay, the batteries were manned at Fassett and Green Points. The frigate had been slowed by being forced to lower boats to tow the frigate through the inlet, due to a breeze from the northwest.

 

TOWARD THE NORTH the little "Firefly" heard the sound of firing and believing that the "Mermaid" had started the attack, opened fire at the closest target, Fassett House. They soon became the target, as the shore battery of two long 12s opened on them with bar shot, hitting nothing; but landing close enough for the master to order a rapid retreat.

As the "Mermaid" sailed into the bay, smoke was rising from the privateer and the English prize. Whether in anger at losing two prize ships, or in an effort to close the channel to future navigation, the British captain ordered his ship toward the a two burning ships and fired in a broadside at point-blank range. At that same instant the maintop reported to Captain Hall that he had sighted the flash of bayonetts in front of a large estate on the point and he believed that a battery was secluded, near shore.

On hearing this, Capt. Hall turned his ship, deciding against a run on the town, tacked his ship around and delivered a full broadside in the direction of "Genezer," the Purnell home, on South Point. He did not tarry and headed for the inlet, leaving the two ships sunk in the main channel off South Point.

The "Firefly" returned to the squadron in Chesapeake Bay, while the "Mermaid" stayed off Assateague hoping to take a Yankee privateer or two. Several days later, the Mermaid was off Fenwick when the top sighted two large ships. Captain Hall ordered on more sail, hoisted his colors, beat to quarters and cleared for action. The act was brave enough, but rather foolish, for as he came along side the larger ship, she hoisted French colors and poured a 30-gun broadside into his small ship.

 

THE FRENCH ARCHIVES tell the final story of the action: "the English 28-gun ship drew along side "Le Fantastique" - 60 guns under the command of Pierre-Andre de Suffren-St. Tropez, capitaine de vaisseau. The ship called "Mermaid" was delivered a broadside from the large guns and secondary battery. The "Le Sagittaire" of 50 guns, under the command of Count Francois-Hector d'Albert de Rions, captaine de vaisseau, delivered another broadside of 25 guns into the frigate as it attempted to make for the Delaware. He was quickly cut off it by the two larger frigates and possibly to save what was left of his crew, he drove his ship hard upon the beach.

He was observed with his men launching boats to make their escape, leaving his ship shattered upon a shoal with the breakers of surf driving her deeper into the bottom on beams end."

The story does not end there for under tons of sand and gray mud just north of South Point are probably a wealth to Revolutionary War artifacts, possibly well-preserved in a time capsule state. It would be all but impossible to salvage these wreck sites as the bottom has shoaled from 22 feet in 1778 to its present depth of less than six feet.

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