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History of USS Trumbull

Jonathan Trumbull -- born on 12 October 1710, at Lebanon, Conn.-- graduated from Harvard College in 1727 and returned to Lebanon to prepare for the ministry. After the death of his brother Joseph, who had been their father's business associate, he joined his father in business in 1731. Trumbull soon made a name for himself in commerce, establishing direct trade relationships with Great Britain instead of dealing through intermediaries in Boston or New York, as most Connecticut merchants, had done. His business acumen enabled his enterprises to flourish, until an unexplained reversal in 1766 threw his firm into virtual bankruptcy.

While engaged in commercial ventures, he was active in politics and eventually rose to be speaker of the Connecticut General Assembly. He advanced to the Deputy Governorship in 1766 and served in that capacity for three and one-half years. With the death of Governor William Pitkin in October 1769, Trumbull became the governor of the colony. During the decade between the Stamp Act and the Battle of Lexington, while tensions increased between the 13 colonies and Great Britain and war clouds thickened over English settlements in North America, Trumbull staunchly supported colonial rights.

Trumbull's major contribution to the Continental cause, though, lay in harnessing his business skill to the pressing task of providing war material for the Continental Army. He made Connecticut a primary source for supplies for General Washington's troops, assuring them a somewhat steady -- if sparse -- flow of food, clothing, and munitions.

Late in the war, a whispering campaign, later determined to probably have been started by the British in order to discredit him, weakened his political position in his home state. While completely vindicated by a legislative investigation of his administration in January 1782, Trumbull continued to lose popularity in Connecticut because of his controversial, unpopular plan for half-pay for disbanded officers from the Continental Army.

Wearied by political life Trumbull retired from public like in May 1784 and devoted the remainder of his life to the study of theology. Trumbull died on 17 August 1785. Bolstered by his unshakable faith that "the Lord reigneth" he had substantially aided the Continental cause during the War for Independence.


I

(Galley: tonnage 123; length between perpendiculars 72'4"; beam 19'7"; depth of hold 6'2"; completment 80; armament 1 18-pounder, 1 12-pounder, 2 9-pounders, 6 6-pounders)

The first Trumbull -- a shoal-draft galley built on Lake Champlain at Skenesboro, N.Y., under the direction of Brigadier General Benedict Arnold -- was launched on 10 September 1776 and began active service soon there after, Capt. Seth Warner in command.

Trumbull transported a draft of reinforcements to Crown Point N.Y., as General Arnold's forces sought to hurry to completion a squadron of small vessels -- mostly galleys and cannon-carrying gonodolas, or "gun dalows" -- to oppose the expected British push down the lake toward Fort Ticonderoga, The Americans sought to retain possession of the lake -- which they had controlled since early in the war -- and thus engaged in a shipbuilding race with the British, who were also constructing a fleet of specially designed lake craft. Since there were no roads parallel to the lake, the British were forced to launch their invasion southward by water instead of by land. Control of Lake Champlain was thus vital to the success of British Plans.

Trumbull was among Arnold's vessels that anchored in the lee of Valcour Island, south of Plattsburgh, N.Y., by early October, to await the British onslaught. With 25 ships, the British outnumbered the Americans by 10; and, in view of this numerical inferiority, Arnold's second in command urged a withdrawal. Nevertheless despite his squadron's inferiority, Arnold bravely stood and fought.

Initially, the American's position favored them, as on the morning of 11 October 1776, Capt. Thomas Pringle's 25-vessel "fleet" sailed past Valcour Island and failed to discover Arnold's ships until he was south of them. Then, forced to attack from the leeward, Pringle's ships sailed up to meet Arnold's which were deployed in a crescent-shaped formation, anchored across Valcour Bay. In the resultant action, the Americans suffered heavy damage to Washington, Congress, and New York; and the loss of Royal Savage and Philadelphia. The action ended at nightfall when the British withdrew and anchored, thinking that the Americans could not escape.

Under cover of darkness and fog, the surviving ships in Arnold's squadron muffled their oars to slip past the unsuspecting British. However, before they could reach safety, a contrary wind sprang up and slowed their progress southward. The British weighed anchor, gave chase and soon overhauled the Americans. In the ensuing battle, Arnold lost his own flagship, the galley Congress, and five other ships.

Trumbull escaped the holocaust, only to be captured by the British the following year, 1777, and was eventually destroyed.

Thus, the Battle of Valcour Island ended in a crushing tactical defeat for the Americans since it all but annihilated Arnold's flotilla and left the British in full control of Lake Champlain. However, the dominance of Arnold's little warships on the lake during the first year and one-half of the Revolutionary War had prevented British troops from invading the newly independent colonies from Canada through the Lake Champlain, Lake George, Hudson River corridor. Then, when the Royal Navy finally did manage to best Arnold's flotilla at Valcour Island in the autumn of 1776, winter was too close to permit English land forces to take advantage of British victory by a thrust down the corridor to attack Washington's army from the rear. This gave the colonies additional time to recruit, train, and arm the forces which the following year stopped a British invasion in a decisive victory at Saratoga, N.Y., which has been called the turning point of the American Revolution. Thus, while losing on a tactical level at Valcour, the Americans won a strategic victory which ultimately enabled them to achieve independence.


II

(Frigate: tonnage 700; complement 199; armament 24 12-pounders, 6 6-pounders)

The second Trumbull -- one of the 13 frigates authorized by the Continental Congress on 13 December 1775 -- was probably laid down in March or April 1776 at Chatham, Connecticut, by John Cotton and was launched on 5 September 1776.

However, after the frigate had been launched, her builders discovered that her deep draft would make it extremely difficult to get the ship across the bar at the mouth of the Connecticut River into Long Island Sound. The following Spring, as Trumbull lay in the river at Saybrook awaiting assistance in getting out to deep water, her safety became a matter of great concern to Continental naval authorities. In April General Howe ordered General Tryon -- the Royal Governor of New York -- to lead a raid into neighboring Connecticut. Tryon's forces landed at Fairfield, marched inland, and burned Continental public stores at Danbury. A small force of Americans harassed the British troops as they marched back to their ships. Fortunately, Tryon did not attack the berth on the Connecticut River where Trumbull -- protected by neither gun nor warships -- lay virtually defenseless.

After three years of inactivity, Trumbull was finally freed in 1779. Capt. Elisha Hinman suggested that casks of water be lashed alongside, port and starboard, with stout ropes running beneath the keel. When the casks were pumped out, they rose and lifted the ship just enough in the water so as to permit passage over the bar. Trumbull then was fitted our for sea at New London, Conn., under the direction of Nathaniel Shaw. On 20 September 1779, Capt. James Nicholson received command of the frigate.

Nicholson did not receive his cruising orders, though, until the following spring. Late in May 1789, Trumbull sailed for her first foray into the Atlantic. Action was not long in coming. At 1030 on 1 June 1780, Trumbull's masthead lookout sighted a sail to windward. In order to remain undetected for as long as possible the frigate furled her sails until 1130. Then, upon ascertaining the strange ship's size, Trumbull then made sail and tacked towards, what soon proved to be the British 32-guns letter-of-marque Watt.

Nicholson delivered a short exhortation to his men who "most chearfully [sic] decided to fight." By noon, Nicholson noted that his ship seemed to "greatly outsail" the enemy and determined to utilize this advantage by moving to windward of the enemy.

Watt challenged Trumbull, running up the Cross of St. George and firing a gun. Trumbull, in order to keep her true identity cloaked until the last possible moment, also ran up the British colors. Watt's commanding officer, Capt. Coulthard, initially mistook Trumbull "for one of his Majesty's cruizing [sic] frigates" but soon became suspicious of the frigate's movements and closed to windward. His suspicions were confirmed when Trumbull failed to respond to a "private signal".

Watt gave "three cheers and a broadside" to commence what historian Gardner W. Allen considered "one of the hardest fought naval engagements of the war." Trumbull soon ran up Continental colors and returned the first broadside at a range of 80 yards. For two and one-half hours, the two ships traded shot in a fierce action. The range -- never wider than 80 yards -- most of the time was under 50 yards; and once the ship's yards nearly became locked together. Watt twice set the frigate afire; Trumbull's shot caused fires on board the letter of marque that proved impossible to extinguish until the Briton had cut away much of her rigging. Most of the men in Watt's tops were either killed, or wounded, or driven below.

The British ship's hull, rigging, and sails were shot to pieces. Holed below the waterline, the letter of marque took on water at an alarming rate, and her danger was compounded by the fact that the American guns had left her with only one operable pump. Trumbull fared little better. Captain of Marines Gilbert Saltonstall subsequently noted: "We were literally cut all to pieces; not a shroud, stay, brace, bowling, or other rigging standing. Our main top must mast shot away, our fore, main mizzen, and jigger masts gone by the board..."

Trumbull lost eight killed and 31 wounded; Watt suffered 13 killed and 79 wounded. Both badly battered, the frigate and letter of marque broke off action and retired from the scene of battle. Nicholson eagerly wanted to continue to pursue his adversary until he had been convinced that -- even if he managed to repair his only surviving mast -- the condition of his crew would not permit another engagement.

Trumbull weathered a gale while struggling back to Connecticut and reached Nantasket on 14 June, three days after Watt had limped into New York. Nicholson subsequently reported that "was [sic] I to have my choice...I would sooner fight any two-and-thirty gun frigate...on the coast of America, then to fight that ship over again..."

In the meantime, the Continental Board of Admiralty, after congratulating Nicholson on the "gallantry displayed in the defense" against Watt urged him to speed the outfitting of his ship for further service. Lack of money and scarcity of men combined to keep the frigate inactive at Philadelphia for the first part of the year 1781.

On 8 August 1781Trumbull -- the last remaining frigate of the original 13 authorized by Congress in 1775 -- eventually departed from the Delaware capes in company with a 24-gunned privateer and a 14-gun letter-of-marque. Under their protection was a 28-ship merchant convoy . On 28 August 1781, lookouts on the American ships spotted three sails to the eastward; two tacking to give chase to the convoy.

At nightfall, a rainsquall struck with terrific force and carried away Trumbull's fore-topmast and her main topgallantmast. Forced to run before the wind, the frigate separated from the convoy and their escorts, and soon found herself engaged with the frigate HMS Iris, the former Continental frigate Hancock, and the 18-gun ship General Monk, the former Continental privateer General Washington. Even with the "utmost exertion," the wrecked masts and sails could not be cleared away. Knowing he could not run, Nicholson decided to fight.

Trapped Trumbull "beat to quarters," but three-quarters of the crew failed to respond, and instead fled below. Undaunted Nicholson bravely gathered the remainder. For one hour and 35 minutes, Trumbull and Iris remained engaged; General Monk soon closed and entered the contest as well. "Seeing no prospect of escaping in this unequal contest," Nicholson later wrote " I struck...." Eleven Americans were wounded and five killed during the engagement before Trumbull struck her colors.

Trumbull, by this point almost a wreck, was taken under tow by the victorious Iris to New York. However, because of her severe damage, the British did not take the frigate into the Royal Navy; and detail of her subsequent career are lost in the mists of unrecorded history.


III

(Sloop-of-war: tonnage 400; armament 18 12-pounders; complement 220)

The third Trumbull -- an 18 gun sloop-of-war whose construction was finance by public subscription of the citizens of Norwich, Conn. -- was apparently begun in mid-1799, under the direction of Naval Agent Joseph Holland. Commanded by Master Commandant David Jewett, Trumbull was apparently completed early the following year and, after fitting out, departed New London, Conn., in late March 1800. She joined Charlotte at New York and escorted the heavily-laden provision ship to the West Indies where she replenished the American squadron operating against the French in that vicinity.

Soon after her arrival in April, Trumbull began patrolling on station, ever alert for French merchantmen and warships as she protected American merchantmen in the area. She captured the armed French schooner Peggie in early May. On 3 August, Trumbull took the 10-gun French schooner Vengeance. Among the 130 people on board the prize were women and children and several officers of one of the rival factions in the civil war then raging on the island, Hispanola. The following day, the sloop captured another French vessel; one which is variously recorded as Tulipe, Tullie, or Cullie.

Ordered home with Vengeance as a prize, Trumbull arrived at New London late in the summer. After quick repairs there, Trumbull returned to her patrol station off Santo Domingo in October 1800, transporting Navy Agent Thomas T. Gantt to St. Kitts to relieve Thomas Clarkson.

Trumbull subsequently cruised off Puerto Rico for a time before she returned north in the spring of 1801. Arriving at New York,Trumbull was sold later that year; and her crew was discharged.


8 August 2001