by DOROTHY Daggett JOHNSTON
In 1781, Capt. Nathan Daggett was called from his home in Holmes Hole on "a secret mission of vital importance to the Colonies". He had already served the revolutionary cause well on French and American vessels. This secret mission proved to be his last, for it directly contributed to the defeat of Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, and the end of the Revolutionary War. By a tricky bit of piloting and a naval feint, Capt. Daggett brought the French fleet commanded by the Conte de Grasse to the mouth of Chesapeake Bay in time to disembark 3,200 troops under the command of the Marquis de Saint-Simon to aid Lafayette, and to prevent the British fleet (under Admiral Graves) from aiding Cornwallis. Pressed sorely by the troops ashore, and cut off from relief or retreat by sea, Cornwallis promptly surrendered. The story shall be told from the beginning. Nathan was born in 1750, the fourth son of Seth and Elizabeth (West) Daggett. He lived on the Neck overlooking the harbor. All the members of Nathan's family were connected with the sea. His brothers, Samuel, Silas, Peter and William, were captains of vessels or served in the Seacoast Defense. His grandfather, Capt. Samuel Daggett, hailed from Edgartown, and his great uncle, Thomas Chase, was master of the coasting sloop, the Vineyard. Even his two younger brothers were connected with the sea in a sad sort of way. West died from a fall at sea when 15 years old, and Seth, aged six, died from smallpox caught from a sick sailor. Nathan Daggett's sister was Polly (Mary) Daggett, one of the Liberty Pole girls of 1778. Young Polly, with the help of Maria Allen and Parnell Manter, blew up the Liberty Pole rather than have this symbol of their town's independence cut for a spar for an English ship. Nathan grew up as most boys did on the Neck loving the sea, the strong smell of tarred rope in the chandler's shop, the smell of salt fish and the cry of the gulls. He was always at the wharf watching the loading and unloading of the cargo of schooners, or hearing the laughter and song from the nearby taverns. Sometimes he listened to tales of the sea in the sail loft above his uncle's cooper's shed where the sailmakers sat stitching great piles of white canvas, and sometimes he listened to Strange tales from a young tar with a green parrot on his shoulder. He was off at sea by the time he was nine years old, learning to love the sounds of a schooner straining and groaning as the wind filled her sails and she settled on her course. Nathan's first job was helping his brother sail the ferry sloop between Holmes Hole and Falmouth Town. Then Nathan sailed the sounds on coasting schooners belonging to his brothers. When learning to pilot in the coasting trade he sailed Vineyard Sound to Rhode Island Sound past Block Island down Long Island Sound to South Wharf at New York. Sometimes the coaster carried cargo far down beyond Chesapeake Bay to plantations at Charlestown and Savannah. Sometimes the coasting trade took him east from Holmes Hole to Boston, Salem, or far down East to Machais Port. He was well trained, and when he was 18 years old he was handed a pilot's warrant and became Capt. Daggett. The ports of New Bedford, Bristol, Portsmouth, Newport and New London were hives of activity, but Newport, not too far from Nathan's home, was the greatest port of all and here he spent most of his piloting days. Voyages began and ended in Newport, then (1765) the second largest colonial port. Here merchants grew rich on the triangular trade: Newport was one of its corners. It was during this time that he learned the waters of the West Indies and the southern colonies. Over the years a series of events had taken place that were ever bringing the colonies and the mother country closer to war: the irritation of the Stamp Act which forced a man to buy an English stamp for every legal document; the tea tax on a favorite drink; the Quartering Act of 1774 which forced families to quarter English soldiers in their homes. When the colonists of Boston rebelled and dumped a shipload of tea into Boston harbor an angry King George ordered all colonial ports closed until the tea should be paid for. The 13 colonies were in open rebellion against England. The great ports of Boston and Newport were blockaded, the coasting commerce and all business and traffic by sea came to an end. The commerce at Newport, Edgartown, Holmes Hole, and in all the ports was over. Ships lay idle in the harbors, their seams Opening from disuse. Then a great British Fleet arrived from England under the command of Lord Richard Howe bringing 2000 English soldiers who were quartered in the homes of Boston, in Newport and in Bristol. Men of Holmes Hole had to decide to be a Patriot or to be a Tory. Some people left the Island at this time to go to Newport and Rochester to live. Liberty Poles went up in every village. Some men marched off to enlist and fight in the war on land with General Washington at Cambridge. Some men served in the Seacoast Defense on the Island, but most of the mariners like Nathan, left on any vessel they could find to fight the British on the sea. In April of 1775 word came to the Neck of the Battle at Lexington and the American colonies were at war. The English blockade of the seaports was very effective. Food supplies could not get through and times were hard for the people of Holmes Hole. Shut off from the mainland they had to shift for themselves; nor could Washington use the sea-lanes to move his soldiers or to get his supplies. He pleaded with the Continental Congress for a Continental Navy, and in 1775 eighteen ships were built and commissioned. But, brave as the sailors were, the little navy was no match for the great English fleet, and most of the ships were sunk or burned. Washington appealed to the seamen of Holmes Hole and to all the colonies. He issued Letters of Marque to colonial ship owners and asked them to arm their snows, sloops, schooners and brigs with swivel guns and cannon and to sail out into the sea-lanes to capture British supply vessels coming from England. These armed vessels were called privateers and many mariners from Holmes Hole and seamen all along the coast responded, for they liked the excitement and they needed the prize money of which each man on a privateer had a share. Every privateer carried a prize master and a prize crew who went aboard and sailed the captured vessel into an open port. Here a Magistrate Court determined the disposal of ship and cargo. The life of a privateersman was dangerous, for capture by the British meant imprisonment in the dread Jersey prison ship at New York or Mill Prison in Halifax. By British law colonial seamen on privateers were considered rebels and pirates from a rebellious colony, and deserving of no quarter. Few sailors survived the disease-ridden prison ships. Only when the colonists had won the war and the peace was signed in 1783 did the cruel treatment of colonial sailors by the British Navy cease. But Capt. Daggett and most mariners still chose to serve on the sea. As the clouds of war formed, he joined Capt. Seth Harding as branch pilot of the Connecticut Navy brigantine Defence, of New London. He was to serve with Capt. Harding for five years (1775.1780), although, after the French joined in the struggle, his service was sometimes interrupted by tours of duty aboard French vessels. In his pension log, 1 he writes of an encounter which took place June 7, 1776 off Cape Fear in the Carolinas. The Defence and other (American) vessels fell in with three British troop transports from Scotland. "After a hard fought battle we took 2 ships and a brig with 600 Scottish soldiers of Col. Campbell's 71st Regiment." The log tells of an incident in 1777. "Cruising Long Island
· 1 Long after the war (in 1818), Capt Daggett applied to the federal government for a pension. As part of his application he prepared a "pension log" which included a sworn affidavit of his wartime activities, and was supported by logs and diaries. Much of the material in this article is drawn from it. The original now lies in the National Archives, in Washington, D.C.
Sound, British transports (18) came out of White Stone and crossed to the Connecticut colony of Fairfield where they landed 2,000 troops on the beach. A sharp battle took place, the colonists firing two cannon from the beach. Many patriots went down. Then the English marched on leaving soldiers to fire the town of Fairfield. I went ashore with crew and beat out a fair piece." In 1778 after the French had become the ally of the colonies (and Capt. Daggett was piloting for the French) his log reads. "I piloted the Concord, a frigate of 36 guns, to the north end of St. Georges Banks where we picked up a fleet of French transports, 12 sail, convoyed by the French Surgitare of 50 guns and piloted the fleet into Boston Town." Capt. Nathan's service in the Continental Navy of Connecticut under Capt. Harding covered many missions in the Defence including privateering. The colonial privateers were so successful that they took 299 English supply ships in one year and the much needed provisions now came regularly through the English blockade for General Washington's army, and for the people. The French king noticed the success of the brave American seamen and he saw a way to get back at his old English enemy. With the persuasion of the continental ambassador, Benjamin Franklin, and the urging of Washington's friend, the Marquis de Lafayette, the King of France in 1778 formerly recognized the 13 united colonies as independent from England, and France became an ally. This was the turning point in the war. In May of 1 773 Capt. Nathan Daggett had married Anna Wilkins. She was the daughter of Thomas Wilkins of Nantucket who had just moved his family to West Tisbury. While Nathan was away in the Connecticut Navy he left his young wife living in Holmes Hole near his parents on the Neck. In 1778, a daughter, Catherine, was born and another child, Lydia, in 1 780. Nathan's visits to the Neck were infrequent and were made at night so great was the danger of impressment to pilots of Holmes Hole. English seamen lurked in every port ready to capture pilots. Times were very hard for people on the whole Island, English ships were regularly harassing them, coming ashore to frighten them and take away their livestock. On November 16, 1776, the Massachusetts General Court sent the following order to Major Barachiah Bassett at Martha's Vineyard. "You are hereby ordered forthwith to discharge the officers and men stationed at Martha's Vineyard excepting 25 men, including one lieutenant, one sergeant, and one corporal..." Maj. Bassett complied at once, and the Island was essentially without defense. The committee for the town of Tisbury did not give up easily, and on December 27, 1776, Shubael Cottle, Elisha West, and Nathan Smith wrote the General Court: "We are much alarmed at the Dismission of the soldiers which were allowed as a Defence for our Island...." The plea was ignored, and the Island was left exposed and unguarded. The General Court simply recommended that the people of the Island send to the mainland all livestock and other goods "not absolutely necessary to their present support", and abandoned them. The worst of all came when General Grey raided the Island in 1778. In the summer of that year, when an expected naval battle between the French and English fleets failed to take place because of a great storm which damaged both fleets, and when the expected Battle of Rhode Island on Quaker Hill across Block Island Sound from the Vineyard also failed from lack of expected French reinforcements, the English fort at Newport lay abandoned. On September 3rd Lord Howe sailed his English ships-of-the-line with 4,000 English soldiers into Newport Harbor to reinforce the fort. He found the fort without provisions and ordered out a foraging party of great strength commanded by Grey who had 48 ships anchored at White Stone, Long Island. Grey set sail at once. He entered Mt. Hope Bay and pillaged and fired the settlements of Providence and Bristol. Then he sailed to New Bedford where a Tory informer had reported that large stores from prize ships were hidden. The soldiers foraged and burned to the ground the homes along the harbor. Then Grey set sail for Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard and ordered two frigates to follow in two days to bring back the stock he planned to take. Passing Falmouth his boats cut out two sloops in the harbor, but seeing the great number of militia gathered there (from all of Cape Cod) he continued on. He crossed the Sound and dropped anchor just outside Holmes Hole harbor. Under a flag of truce Col. Beriah Norton and two other committeemen met the British officers aboard the flagship Carysfort; and received orders to deliver immediately 10,000 sheep,300 head of cattle, all the arms and munitions of the militia, and all the collected taxes. Unsatisfied with the efforts being made by the Islanders to comply, Grey set troops ashore who worked havoc. "They wrung the red rooster's neck and even went into the root cellar," wrote Anna Daggett to her husband away at sea on the Defence. "I was greatly hurt in my property," Capt. Daggett wrote of the effects of the raid, later. For all of the year 1779 Col. Norton and the Island selectmen tried to get payment from the English for the losses in stock that the farmers of the Island had suffered in Grey's raid. Norton even went under a white flag to British General Carlton's headquarters in New York. The claim was proved valid, but the British debt was never paid. On July 9th in 1780, a captain just off his fishing vessel came into Capt. Isaac Daggett's tavern near the wharf at Holmes Hole with the good news that a French fleet lay off the Island at No-mans Land, waiting to enter Newport harbor. The good news passed swiftly from vessel to vessel in the harbor, and in the Sounds from port to port. On the next day by fast sloop from Newport word came to Anna Daggett that her husband would soon be home. By the same sloop, word came to Holmes Hole that the great French general Rochambeau would soon arrive in Newport harbor, and take up residence in Newport at Vernon House on Clark Street. There was great rejoicing on the Island that day for the mariners of Holmes Hole knew that the turning point of the war could be near. That same day Capt. Daggett left the service of the Connecticut Continental Navy, where he had served his country for five years under Capt. Harding, and returned to Newport. There he was hired as a pilot by his old friend, Capt. Caleb Gardner, Continental Agent of Rhode Island, who knew Nathan to be a trusted patriot. For the next two critical years (1780-1781), Capt. Daggett was pilot on ships of the French Fleet. He took his orders from Capt. Gardner, but his papers were signed by Rochambeau. Capt. Daggett was now living with his family at Holmes Hole between piloting missions. One wonders if on a stormy evening when the vessels were weather-bound in the harbor, he might have been found at his brother Silas's tavern smoking in the dim candlelight and quietly talking about the war with other mariners. But life was very serious in those war days and we know that Capt. Nathan Daggett kept mostly out of sight while at Holmes Hole, and while at his home he was probably always ready to push open the panel door beside his fireplace to enter and climb the crude stairs that rose around the chimney to the little secret chamber above where his seed corn hung, for pilots were still being hunted. The Island had little means of following the course of the war, but it was heard that the year of 1 780 had gone badly for the cause of liberty. Then, in 1781, came good news that a French fleet under the Comte de Grasse was in the West Indies and was ready to help the colonies. The French had assembled the powerful fleet to wrest control of Jamaica from the British, and had assigned de Grasse as commander. He had also been advised to assist the colonial struggle in any way he could. De Grasse's fleet would utterly upset the balance of naval power, and Washington saw that immediately. He and Rochambeau conceived two schemes. One was a combined attack upon New York which would draw support from Cornwallis. The other - the bolder and more decisive plan -was to sweep down from the north upon Cornwallis, who had retreated into Yorktown. Both plans depends on the support of de Grasse, and it was left to the admiral to decide where he could help. On August 14, 1781, Washington received word from de Grasse that the fleet would proceed to the Chesapeake, and could stay for part of the fall. Other parts of the plan were already underway. One night in July, a messenger rowed quietly away from Gardner's wharf at the foot of Thames Street in Newport. In his breast pocket was a message from Capt. Gardner. Late that night there was a knock on the door at the home of Capt. Daggett in Holmes Hole, and the message was delivered. The bearer disappeared into the darkness to pick up his hidden boat on the shore and get back to Gardner's wharf before dawn.
The elements of the Yorktown siege...
The message, signed by Capt. Gardner, said: "Be ready at six bells to pilot on a secret mission of vital importance to the colonies." The next day, the President; a continental brig loaned to the French, appeared in the outer harbor at the Hole. A tender picked up Capt. Daggett at the staging at the foot of Beach Street, and he was gone. Capt. Daggett was not told of his destination and he was quietly kept in his cabin with a guard, but when the vessel got clear of the Islands and he felt the roll of the Gulf Stream under his feet, he judged the vessel was heading south for the French West Indies. On the way a sharp encounter took place with the British, and Capt. Daggett stuck his head up the companionway to watch the fight. According to tradition, this so alarmed the guard that he was tethered with ball and chain to his bunk for the rest of the voyage; the nervous French officer was so afraid that Capt. Daggett's head would be blown off before he had been able to perform his important mission. On this date in 1781 both England and France had fleets in the islands of the West Indies. At Antigua was a British fleet of 14 ships-of-the-line under the command of Sir Samuel Hood. At Santo Domingo was the French fleet of 28 ships of the line under the command of de Grasse. Each knew of the other's presence. Arriving at Francais Hispaniola (Santo Domingo) in the West Indies, Capt. Daggett saw the French fleet spread out before him in the beautiful tropical harbor. He was hastily tendered across and he climbed the boarding ladder of the de Grasse flagship, the Vi/le de Paris, which waited ready to sail. That evening in the quarters of de Grasse, by the light of gently swaying copper lanterns, the secret mission was revealed in detail to Capt. Daggett for the first time. One prong of this naval campaign would move north from the West Indies, bringing de Grasse's fleet of 28 ships-of-the-line convoying 3,000 French soldiers to Chesapeake Bay. The other prong would move south from Newport, where the Comte de Barras waited with 8ships-of-the-line convoying 18 vessels loaded with arms and supplies. On orders of Rochambeau, Capt. Daggett had been assigned the duty and responsibility of piloting the De Grasse fleet to Chesapeake Bay. The plan was intended to deceive the British navy anchored at Antigua. Capt. Daggett would not sail the usual direct sea route but chart his course westward by less known sea-lanes through the islands and closer to the mainland. By this route the French flotilla would disappear from sight for several days and, it was hoped, confuse Hood. Hood undoubtedly would take the direct sea route planning to out sail the French fleet to be first at Chesapeake Bay, ready in battle line to fight when the French fleet should later arrive. In Santo Domingo harbor on the morning of August 5, 1781, Capt. Nathan Daggett stood at his pilot post on the quarterdeck of the Ville de Paris, his course charted west, and on order of de Grasse, the French fleet sailed. The flotilla left Cap Francais and sailed across the Windward Passage to the northern coast of Cuba. It continued along the Cuban coast
The fleets converge...
to the Straits of Florida, then turned north and followed the Gulf Stream along the eastern coast of Florida, and shortly sailed straight for the Virginia Capes. On August 31, the French fleet arrived at the mouth of the Chesapeake safely and without mishap. The bay was empty of vessels, and there was no sign of the British fleet. De Grasse set ashore the Marquis de Saint-Simon and his 3,200 troops to support Lafayette's army. Expecting the approach of the British fleet, de Grasse promptly put back to sea with 24 of his vessels, leaving the remainder (and a number of seamen) to blockade the York and James Rivers. In the meantime, Hood had left Antigua on August 10, five days after de Grasse sailed from Cap Francais, and had sailed straight to the Chesapeake. He arrived there on August 25, and found no sign of the French. Surprised and baffled, he waited for a day, then sailed north to New York. He brought with him the first word the English had heard about the impending threat from de Grasse. At New York, Admiral Graves took command of Hood's fleet, and added five vessels to it. Now enlarged to 19 ships-of-the-line, the English fleet returned to the Chesapeake. Upon his arrival on September 5, Graves found he had missed intercepting de Barras, and that de Grasse was established at the Chesapeake. After some maneuvering, the vans and parts of the centers of the two fleets engaged on September 7 in what shortly became a sharp battle. Neither commander wished to press the matter. De Grasse drew off as night fell; Graves, his fleet seriously damaged, stood off to sea, and returned to New York in despair a few days later. Just before Hood departed, de Barras arrived from Newport with troops and supplies which safely slipped past the British fleet while its eyes were cast elsewhere. The net was closing around Cornwallis ashore as well. On August 19, five days after he received word of de Grasse's plans, Washington crossed the Hudson and with Rochambeau, headed south with his troops on a 400 mile march which military historians consider the most daring and most brilliant maneuver of the war. On the same day that Graves arrived off the Chesapeake, Washington arrived at the head of the bay and began convoying his troops south. Washington and Rochambeau reached Lafayette in Williamsburg on September 14. Three days later they paid their respects to de Grasse on his flagship, and the strategy of the coming battle was reviewed. Standing by the helmsman on the quarterdeck, Capt. Daggett saw the two generals leave to return to Williamsburg, while the yards of the assembled fleet were manned and a parting salute was fired from the Ville De Paris. At Williamsburg on September 27, the united troops began their march toward Yorktown. Siege lines were laid down, and the siege - and then the battle - began. By this time it was reported that another British fleet (under Admiral Digby) was making plans to come to Cornwallis' aid, and de Grasse was under some pressure to head for the open sea where he would be better able to defend his fleet. However, he ultimately agreed to station~the bulk of his fleet at the mouth of the York River where it could overlook Yorktown, and to put four or five other vessels on patrol in the James River to the south of the peninsula in which Yorktown sits. In Chesapeake Bay, Capt. Daggett, standing with the other mariners on the deck of the Ville de Paris, could hear the faint boom of cannons and see the sharp flashes of fire and the pall of smoke that hung over the battlefield. At night he saw the red sky over the York River where several British vessels had been set afire. On October 17 the bombardment ended, and de Grasse sent a sloop ashore for news. It returned with news that Cornwallis, deprived of his reinforcements and greatly outnumbered, was prepared to surrender. Terms were reached in two days, and the British army marched out of its garrison to lay down its arms. Several days later Capt. Daggett's log reads, "after wooding and watering I piloted the French ships (back) ten leagues without the Bay" where they anchored in the Roads. He then returned to the Yorktown aboard the French frigate Servilante and was taken to de Grasse at Williamsburg where he received a "fair discharge" and "recommendation". Then it is likely he stepped out into the street to watch the festivities. He sailed for Philadelphia 10 days later to deliver his papers to the Second Continental Congress. One wonders how he looked and how he felt as he found himself standing in the large colonial chamber. The November sun was slanting through high-arched small paned windows to the oak floor below where sat assembled the distinguished white-wigged representatives of the 13 colonies; the sunlight touching the green felt-covered desks appointed with quill, inkpot and sander, at which each gentleman sat in his Windsor chair. Before Capt. Daggett, on a slightly raised platform enclosed by a balustered railing, sat President Thomas McKean, who came forward to shake his hand and receive his papers. A feeling of jubilation prevailed in the room and they listened closely as he related the account of his piloting service from Francais Hispaniola to the Chesapeake Bay and to his details of the surrender at Yorktown. After that he received a "general discharge" and was dismissed. Free from the service, a few days later he was on his way home to Holmes Hole. No record has been found to tell us how Capt. Daggett returned but it may be presumed that he booked passage on a vessel heading east for Narragansett Bay. He likely put in at Newport, Rhode Island to make his report to Capt. Gardner. One can imagine a happy reunion at Gardner's Wharf as seamen gathered around him and a glass of port enjoyed at the White Horse Tavern. Later, at Capt. Gardner's home on Thames Street, one can imagine there was an extra guest at Mistress Gardner's dinner table that evening and the two Sound pilots, captains in the war, old friends and patriots, talked together far into the night. Capt. Daggett did not tarry overlong in Newport. Anxious to see his wife and children he was probably away the next day, and with a fair wind and tide soon sailing through Quick's Hole and seeing before him the sparkling waters of beautiful Vineyard Sound. Then, cruising along the Island past Lambert's- Cove, he reached West Chop and was entering Holmes Hole harbor. The topsails quivered, the rattling anchor struck water and the vessel turned gently into the wind.
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The Old Stone Bank of Providence, Rhode Island Vol. III, II
History of the-United States Navy Chapter 1, E. B. Potter, U. S. Naval Acad.
Old Seaport Towns of New England New London, Conn. Hildegard Hawthorn
History of Martha's Vineyard C.L. Banks Vol. I, II, III Wake of the Coasters John Leavitt Mystic Library
Rhode Island Manual Chronology
Daggett-Doggett Genealogy Samuel Bradlee Daggett
Gardner Family Genealogy Newport Historical Society
Butler Diary Duke's County Historical. Soc. Lib. American Navy Fighting Ships Nimitz Library, U.S. Naval Acad.
Bicentennial Commemoration of Battle of Westport) Conn. Library Compo, Connecticut Martha's Vineyard Einstadt and Haught
Marriner The Sea