May 29th and the USS Alliance

The great American historian David McCullough once wrote, "History is a guide to navigation in perilous times. History is who we are and why we are the way we are."

It's probably obvious by now, but if it isn't, let me state that I strongly agree. I believe that "history" is not just a one-time isolated event that happened long ago. I believe that "history" affects us all individually--the decisions made by our ancestors, our leaders, even total strangers, all have an impact on who I am today. So when I read history, I read it with an eye towards making a connection (no matter how slight or minor) to who I am, and what I do, and what I believe. Here's an example.

On this day, May 29 1781, the USS Alliance, captured the British HMS Atalanta & Trepassy off the coast of Nova Scotia. How's that connected to me? I'm glad you asked. . .

The USS Alliance was a 36-gun sailing frigate of the American Revolutionary War, later to be famous for having fired the last shot of the war. Her keel was laid down in 1777 on the Merrimack River at Amesbury, Massachusetts and launched on 28 April 1778. Her first, and perhaps most controversial commanding officer was Capt. Pierre Landais, a former officer of the French Navy who had come to the New World in hopes of aiding the US revolution at the expense of his old enemy, the British. The Continental Congress gave him command of Alliance, the finest warship built to that date on the western side of the Atlantic.

The USS Alliance

Unfortunately, Capt Landais was famous for his temper and stubborn refusal to follow orders, and was relieved of duty by Commodore John Paul Jones in 1779 off the coast of France (he was later court-martialed and expelled from the naval service).

In 1781, the Alliance was under command of her new captain, CAPT John Barry, when she was chosen for a special task: carry the US's "envoy extraordinaire" to France to negotiate for additional funds, arms and supplies. As the Alliance was the speediest and most competent ship in US Navy, it was her task to carry the envoy, Col. John Laurens, to Groix Roads. Laurens would be traveling with three companions: Thomas Paine, Major William Jackson, and Louis-Marie, vicomte de Noailles (a French Officer serving in the US).

The Alliance's important passengers (L to R): Col. Laurens, Maj Jackson and Thomas Paine

After delivering her cargo and spending almost almost three weeks in port, Alliance headed home on the afternoon of 29 March. Almost continuous bad weather slowed the Alliance's progress and lightning shattered the frigate's main topmast and carried away many of her sails while damaging her foremast and injuring almost a score of men.

Jury-rigged repairs had been completed when Barry observed two vessels approaching him from windward 10 days later but his ship was still far from her best fighting trim. The two strangers kept pace with Alliance roughly a league off her starboard beam. At first dawn, they hoisted British colors and prepared for battle. Although all three ships were almost completely becalmed, the American drifted within hailing distance of the larger vessel about an hour before noon; Barry learned that it was the sloop of war HMS Atalanta with the smaller Trepassey, also a sloop of war. The American captain then identified his own vessel and invited Atalanta's commanding officer to surrender. A few moments later, Barry opened the inevitable battle with a broadside. The sloops immediately pulled out of the field of fire and took positions aft (behind, for you landlubbers) of the Alliance where their guns could pound her with near impunity. In the motionless air, Alliance - too large to be propelled by sweeps - was powerless to maneuver.

A cannon shot hit Barry's left shoulder, seriously wounding him, but he continued to direct the fighting until loss of blood almost robbed him of consciousness. Capt. Hoystead Hacker, the frigate's executive officer, took command as Barry was carried to the cockpit for treatment.

Hacker fought the ship with valor and determination until her inability to maneuver out of her relatively defenseless position prompted him to seek Barry's permission to surrender. Indignantly, the wounded captain refused to allow this and asked to be brought back on deck to resume command.

Inspired by Barry's zeal, Hacker returned to the fray. Then a wind sprang up and restored the battered frigate's steerage way, enabling her to bring her battery back into action. Two devastating broadsides knocked Trepassey out of the fight. Another broadside forced Atalanta to strike, ending the bloody affair. The next day, after repairs had been made, Alliance sailed for Boston on 6 June with her two captured British ships in tow.

Captain John Barry; the statue of Barry at Independence Square, Philadelphia; an Irish stamp with Barry's likeness

While the British surrendered at the Battle of Yorktown on 17 Oct 1781 (effectively ending the ground war), the war at sea continued until the Treaty of Paris was signed on 3 February 1783. Four weeks later, not knowing that the War had ended, CAPT Barry and the Alliance defeated the HMS Alarm and HMS Sibyl - in company with sloop-of-war HMS Tobago-off the coast of Cape Canaveral, Florida. The Alliance fired the last shot of the American Revolutionary War.

It's a semi-interesting story (depending upon your interests), but what's the connection?

On her trip to France in 1781, the Alliance was carrying historical figures with a strong connection to South Carolina. Col John Laurens (the "envoy extraordinaire") was born in Charleston, SC and was the the son of Henry Laurens, whom the town and county of Laurens, South Carolin is named after. Many of my in-laws live (or have lived) in Laurens and Laurens County through the years.

Henry Laurens; Laurens County, South Carolina

He was traveling with Maj William Jackson, a British emmigrant who came to Charleston in the 1760s. Jackson served as the secretary to the United States Constitutional Convention and served with distinction in the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War. After the war he served as one of President George Washington's personal secretaries. (Just to clarify, Fort Jackson was not named for him-it named in honor of Andrew Jackson, the seventh President of the United States).

If you dig around enough, there's always a connection to the past.

By the way, on 20 Jun 1783, the Alliance struck a rock in Chesapeake Bay. When it was reported that the necessary repairs would be quite expensive, Congress has no funds and sold the Alliance in 1785. She was converted to a cargo ship and sailed to China by a new route through the Dutch East Indies and the Solomon Islands.

Apparently, no details of Alliance's subsequent career have survived. However, when she was no longer seaworthy, the former frigate was abandoned on the shore of Petty Island across the Delaware from Philadelphia. At low tide, some of her timbers could be seen in the sands until her remaining hulk was destroyed during dredging operations in 1901

"History is the memory of things said and done."
Carl L. Becker

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