Skip to main content
Related Content
  • Boats-Ships--Frigate
Document Type
  • Ship History
Wars & Conflicts
File Formats
Location of Archival Materials

Trumbull II (Frigate)

(Fr.: t. 700; cpl. 199; a. 24 12-pdrs., 6 6-pdrs.)

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 life 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.


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 guns 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 out 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 1780, 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 ships' 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, 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 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, than 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 1781, Trumbull, 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 the details of her subsequent career are lost in the mists of unrecorded history.

Published: Fri Oct 16 10:55:45 EDT 2015