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1 July 2014

The Rose, the Pitt, and the start of John Adams’ Career

an article by John Fitzhugh Millar to celebrate 4th July

When a military force is sent to execute a particular job and the facts on the ground change so that the force finds itself executing other jobs, either in addition or instead, that is known as “mission creep.”

At the end of the French and Indians War, British forces were stationed in a few places in America to deter any revenge attacks by the French (in retrospect, such attacks would have been highly unlikely, but officials in 1763 had little prescience), and to protect against any large-scale Indian attacks similar to Pontiac’s Rebellion. A second mission was to diminish the out-of-control level of smuggling prevalent along the New England coast.
Even before the end of the French and Indians War, British officials in Boston took note of the arrogance of local merchants, who felt they were entitled to smuggle all they wanted, and they detected a similar attitude in James Otis and his supporters in his vehement attacks on the British policy of Writs of Assistance in 1762.

Five years after the end of that war, the mission had changed. The situation in Boston had deteriorated to the point where the British felt obliged to send a few thousand troops and a handful of warships to the area, much to the chagrin of many locals. The Boston folk-artist Christian Remick painted a series of paintings showing the newly-arrived ships and the troops from various angles in 1768.

Boston Harbour - Christian Remick
The British warships arrived with their crews somewhat under strength, and continued to lose crewmembers to desertion, illness and death. Therefore, yet another new mission for the warships was to find additional crew. Very few young men could be persuaded to enlist in the Royal Navy on the strength of recruiting posters or inspirational speeches, so the navy knew that the majority of its recruiting would have to be by “impressment” or coercion at the hands of a “press-gang.” A press-gang consisted of several reliable and stalwart enlisted men armed with clubs, led by a junior officer. Press-gangs in England were limited to seaport towns (not inland towns), and they were intended to “impress” only trained seamen, and not landsmen, but such intentions frequently came up short of the recruiting goals, so landsmen were often among those who had been legally kidnapped. Parliament, even in a country that had adopted Charles II’s principle of Habeas Corpus in 1679 and an impressively comprehensive Bill of Rights in 1689, apparently had no problem passing legislation necessary to make impressment into the Royal Navy completely legal.

Therefore, the naval force in Boston, under the leadership of the capable Commodore Samuel Hood, undertook to fill its depleted ranks by impressment, just as if the force were anchored off a British port. Hood gave the impressment as low a profile as he could, by sending warships to intercept homeward-bound merchant ships. In that way, all the activity actually took place out of sight of the Boston waterfront. Hood typically exempted crewmembers who were married or who had some unusual hardship at home. Nevertheless, word quickly spread among the crews of merchant ships that called at Boston, and vulnerable crewmembers often learned to hide among the cargo when a warship was seen on an intercept course in the vicinity of Boston.
Samuel Hood
Whether Hood’s staff knew about it and ignored it, or whether they were blithely uninformed, Parliament had passed a law over 60 years earlier in 1707 (in the reign of Queen Anne) that exempted American seamen from impressment: “No Mariner, or other person who shall serve on board … any … trading ship or vessel, that shall be imployed in any part of America … shall be liable to be impressed or taken away, or shall be impressed or taken away, by any officer or officers, of or belonging to her Majesty’s ships of war.
Captain John Corner of the 50-gun cruiser Romney was likely aware of the old statute, as John Adams had drafted a position paper for the Town of Boston to be sent to its representatives in the legislature the previous year, in reference to impressment activities by seamen from Romney.

Several months after the arrival of Hood’s fleet at Boston, the frigate Rose (sometimes described as of 20 guns, sometimes 24 guns) joined the fleet, after having delivered former Massachusetts Governor William Shirley and his family from England to his new post as governor of the Bahamas.
Rose had previously been selected by James Cook for his first voyage around the world in 1768, but then Cook had found the flat-bottomed Endeavour, which he rightly thought could handle running aground on uncharted reefs better than Rose (as explained to me by the late Captain Alan Villiers; he briefly mentioned the Cook connection in his excellent biography of Cook).
Rose was then released for normal naval service, and Irish-born Benjamin Caldwell was made her captain. Under a different captain, James Wallace, Rose proved to be such a thorn in the side of Rhode Island smugglers in 1774-1775 that they were able to persuade Congress to found the Continental Navy on 13 October 1775.
Rose was supposed to carry a peacetime crew of 120 officers and men, as well as 24 marines, although in wartime the total number could swell to over 200. In Boston, Rose was about 35 men short of her peacetime complement, which could amount to a serious handicap to carrying out her duties.

 On 3 April 1769, Hood drafted orders for Rose to cruise with the schooner Hope in the entrance to Boston Harbor.
   “… from every Ship or Vessel from a foreign Port you will take a good man or two, according to the number on board, sending a man from the Rose in the room of each that you take … and when your Compliment is Compleat, and you have raised Ten in Addition, you will send them to me by the Hope schooner … And I recommend it to you not to distress any Ship or Vessel, & to guard your Officers against being in a passion, or making use of Language any ways unbecoming; who on their visiting a Ship or Vessel, are to ask if any men are inclined to enter for the King’s Service, and if all refuse, I wish the man (or men) to be taken the Master is most willing to part with, rather than a favourite, provided he is not distempered. This the Master of each Ship or Vessel is to be told, and whenever a man is taken without sending another in his room, I would have a note given, that the ship in Nantasket Road may be prevented from taking another from the same vessel … & cautiously avoid taking a man … married in this Province."

Rose was able to get to sea by 13 April, 1769 and during the next week stopped a few vessels and gained some additional seamen. On the 22nd, the lookout spotted a brig at sunrise, about 65 feet long on deck. The brig turned out to be the Pitt or Pitt Packet, commanded by Thomas Power, and owned by Robert “King” Hooper of Marblehead, one of the wealthiest men in Massachusetts. Including Power, the brig had nine men in the crew. She carried a cargo of salt from Cadiz, 600 lemons, three kegs of gin, and a small quantity of bubbly wine and sherry, all legal cargo. Rose had to fire three shots before the brig hove to in order to await a boarding party from the frigate.

The boarding party in the cutter consisted of Rose’s only lieutenant, Henry Gibson Panton, two young midshipmen, and seven seamen. Panton did not even look at the cargo documents that were handed to him to see that they were in order, but he demanded the crew list. He copied down the list of the crew, and assured Captain Power that he would not take any married crewmen. Then he gave an order that all the crew should muster on deck. Four of them failed to appear, so Panton and his men began to search the brig. They eventually found the four men barricaded in the fo’c’sle the other side of a bulkhead. The men loudly swore that they had no intention of coming out, and they announced that they were armed with a loaded musket, a hatchet, a harpoon, and a two-pronged fish-gig. Panton called for reinforcements from the Rose, including Master-at-Arms John Forbes. Forbes managed to rip a substantial hole in the bulkhead. After further argument with the barricaded crew, Marine Private James Silley fired a blank pistol shot through the hole, wounding Michael Corbet in the face with the blast of gunpowder.

Panton sat down to watch the demolition of the bulkhead, close enough that when the harpoon was brandished out through the hole (probably by Corbet) it nicked him in the jugular vein. One of the midshipmen reacted by firing his pistol through the hole, which smashed John Ryan’s arm. Despite the best efforts of the crew and the hurriedly summoned acting-surgeon, Panton was dead within thirty minutes. Ryan, meanwhile, had crawled out in great pain, and was later followed by Pierce Fenning, William Conner, and eventually Corbet. All four were clapped in irons and taken aboard Rose.

The wind was so light and fluky that Rose took several days to reach Boston, a sail that would have taken less than three hours with a favorable wind. Governor Francis Bernard came aboard, along with Commodore Hood, Chief Justice Thomas Hutchinson, Admiralty Judge Robert Auchmuty, and other dignitaries on 29 April. Preliminary testimony was taken from Corbet and his companions, and several members of the crew of Rose. These dignitaries plus seven other officials from Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire would normally form a special admiralty court for hearing cases involving crimes committed at sea, including murder.

However, the court officials remained in a quandary for several weeks. The statute establishing admiralty courts, dating from 1536 in the reign of Henry VIII, clearly provided that such trials should be heard by juries, and it was obvious that a jury of Massachusetts men would not find the four men guilty. On the other hand, since England had no colonies in 1536, the statute called for trials to be held in England, where they could easily be found guilty, but taking the prisoners to England could be expected to cause riots in Boston. Prosecuting attorney Samuel Fitch solved that problem by finding a more recent statute that made a jury optional. There would be no jury in this case.

The next problem was that it was becoming obvious to the court that Rose’s boarding of the Pitt was not intended to search for contraband (which would have put the navy on solid ground), but rather to impress seamen into the navy (much shakier ground). After many postponements, a trial date was set for 14 June at the newly completed courthouse, a handsome structure designed by Peter Harrison with a double-decked Palladian portico on the front.

Peter Harrison - Palladian Style Architecture
The prosecution’s testimony took the bulk of two days, but cross examination established that Panton’s purpose for being aboard Pitt was impressment of members of her crew. The crewmembers had somehow assembled a brilliant defense team, consisting of James Otis and John Adams. Otis had worked on legal minutiae in advance of the proceedings, and Adams handled the actual trial. Adams was then able to call a few witnesses before he began his final summation. Adams had spoken only a few sentences when Hutchinson moved for an adjournment, something that no lawyer would welcome in the middle of his speech.

The following day, the court came back into session at 1pm. Governor Bernard showed such a serious expression on his face that most observers were expecting him to pronounce an immediate guilty verdict without even waiting for Adams’ defense. In stead, Bernard said: “The Court have considered the evidence in support of the libel against you, and are unanimously of the opinion that it amounts only to justifiable homicide; you are accordingly acquitted and discharged from your imprisonment.” Bernard then took his seat, and no one said or wrote anything about the grounds for the acquittal.

Adams, many years later, wrote that he thought that one of the justices had seen one of his law-books open to the statute of 1707 that forbade the impressment of Americans. If Adams had been permitted to read that into the record, all future impressment in America would be banned (unless Parliament were to repeal that statute, which would take many months or even years, if it could be done at all). However, if the case were ended before Adams could enter that into the record, impressment could quietly continue under careful management. It is significant that Commodore Hood, a member of the court, obviously concurred with the decision. Incidentally, when Adams became the first Ambassador of the United States to Great Britain about fifteen years later, Hood (by that time Vice Admiral Lord Hood) made a point of welcoming him warmly to London.

John Adams
Where did Adams learn about the relatively obscure statute of 1707? Five years earlier, in June 1764, the Royal Navy sent the six-gun schooner Saint John to Newport, Rhode Island. She was ordered to arrest any vessels smuggling molasses into Rhode Island, which practically meant that she was obliged to arrest every vessel arriving at Newport from overseas. The vessels in question and their cargoes were confiscated and eventually sold at auction for the benefit of the navy or the customs. Ordinarily, the loss of so much trade would have been a serious problem for Rhode Island, which made nearly all its money by the importation of free Haitian molasses, and by the sale to other colonies of the rum distilled from the molasses – rum that was used chiefly as a food preservative.

However, the commanding officer of the Saint John made the mistake of impressing seamen from the captured shipping and from among young men apprehended in the streets of Newport. Rhode Island’s elected Governor Stephen Hopkins happened to know the statute of 1707 (the year he was born), so he ordered the Saint John to leave Newport immediately and never to return. The schooner of course refused the order, so Hopkins ordered the master-gunner at Fort George on Goat Island at the entrance to the harbor to sink the schooner. He knew he was quite within his rights to do so. The Saint John, damaged by shots from the fort, departed that very day on 9 July 1764, the first shots of resistance fired against British authority in America. Hopkins may have been the only man in America in 1764 to be aware of that statute, but he took the trouble to make sure that Adams and possibly others in the Boston area were aware of it, presumably within weeks of the departure of the Saint John.

Adams was so overjoyed at the positive verdict in the case of the crew of the Pitt that he pushed his luck further. He filed suit against Midshipmen William Peacock, who had so gratuitously fired the shot that crippled Ryan’s arm. Once again, British officials wanted to make certain that no occasion should be offered to present the 1707 statute in court that Peacock, who had no money to speak of, offered to settle the matter for the princely sum of 30 Pounds. It is very likely that Hood paid the money out of his own pocket. When the miserly Massachusetts civil court insisted that the defendant should also pay the court costs, Hood is recorded to have paid the bill out of his own funds.

Many years later, Adams wrote that this case was pivotal to his own career. Up to that point, no other trial “had ever interested the community so much … No trial had drawn together such crowds of auditors from day to day; they were as numerous as those in the next year, at the trials of Preston and the soldiers [after the Boston Massacre].” In the light of that, it is difficult to imagine why David McCullough completely omitted any mention of the event in his biography of Adams.

John Fitzhugh Millar

John and wife Cathy
John says:
"I am greatly indebted to Massachusetts Supreme Court Justice (now retired) Hiller B. Zobel for sharing with me his research into the subject, some of which can be seen in his book, The Boston Massacre, W. W. Norton & Company, 1970.

Overlapping the Pitt story is the saga of the sloop Liberty, which should be briefly mentioned here in order to provide context. In the middle of 1768, British customs officials (led by architect Peter Harrison’s elder brother Joseph, who was the Boston Customs Collector, as well as a prominent amateur scientist) seized John Hancock’s 65-foot sloop Liberty for gross violations of the smuggling laws. The event caused riots, accompanied by considerable personal injury and property damage. The Royal Navy then bought Liberty at public auction and sent her to Newport, Rhode Island to continue the job that Saint John had been forced to abandon. Newport rioters took over the sloop and removed her crew in July 1769, before setting her on fire until she sank. This was only two months after Adams’ courtroom triumph in the Pitt case. For some reason, British authorities did not find this event to be as great a provocation as the nearly identical burning of the similar-sized schooner Gaspee was in Rhode Island three years later in 1772. One of the direct results of the destruction of the Gaspee was that the frigate Rose, the same one that had apprehended the brig Pitt, and a much more powerful vessel than Gaspee, was sent to Rhode Island at the end of 1774, and she succeeded in eliminating the molasses/rum smuggling industry there.

John F. Millar built a full-size, operational copy of Rose in 1970, which is now at the San Diego Maritime Museum, renamed Surprise, as a result of the role she played in the movie Master & Commander.

Further reading
HMS Rose / Surprise - Maritime Museum San Diego
[Helen: Rose/.Surprise is the ship I use as a template for Sea Witch ]

You can meet John and talk more about this subject while enjoying a wonderful vacation in Colonial Wiliamsburg, as John and his wife, Cathy, run a superb B & B there, which I can personally very highly recommend 



  1. Fascinating article. It is indeed interesting as to why David McCullough left the incident out in his superb bio of John Adams.

    Marilyn Smith

    1. We have a very different view of this period in US history here in the UK of course - personally I would have supported the Colonists!


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