Delivered by John Huss to the Essex County Sons of the American Revolution – September 29, 2018
When the Continental Congress declared independence from Great Britain in 1775, the little seaside village of Manchester, only thirty miles north of Boston, was quick to respond! Residents at Town Meeting voted to levy taxes to support the war. A bonus of 14 pounds was provided for each man who enlisted in the Continental Army.
At a meeting of the town’s Committee of Correspondence on September 25th, eight General Orders were given to Captain Joseph Whipple: Here’s a sample:
Firstly, We order you and your enlisted soldiers to meet on the Town Landing, complete in arms, as directed by the Congress, at two o’clock every day except Sunday, and to discipline your soldiers two hours and a half, and them that don’t appear by half after two o’clock shall lay a fine for each default of eight pence to be taken out of their wages.
Secondly: We order you and your soldiers to carry your arms to meeting every meeting day, according to the resolves of Congress.
Thirdly: We order you to keep watches in town, two in each watch by night, one by day.
Fourthly: We order you to go the rounds two nights in each week, to see that there is a good watch kept, and in case any of them should be found deficient that they may be tried by the articles of war, as they are in the Army at Cambridge.
It should be noted that at a Town Meeting several months later, it was voted that “If Mr. Daniel Presson shall refuse to watch or do his turn at Watching that he will greatly incur the displeasure of the Town.”
Perhaps the recalcitrant Mr. Presson was a “closet Tory”! Certainly they existed.
In his 1895 history of the Town, the Reverend D.F. Lamson mentions for example, “the emigration which took place to Nova Scotia and New Brunswick from the eastern towns of Essex County.” He goes on to observe that “There is a tradition that many of these emigrants before leaving painted their chimneys white, with the understanding that they would be respected by the British in case of hostilities.”
It would appear however, that the population of Manchester was wholeheartedly in favor of separation from Great Britain. Patriotism extended even into the local classrooms. Again quoting from Reverend Lamson’s history, one Ezekiel Leach is remembered for having warned his children “that if the local schoolmaster asked them to spell the word “English”, they were not to do so!
Anticipating hostilities with Great Britain, Manchester had formed its own militia in December of 1774. In command was one Samuel Forster, certainly one of the town’s leading citizens. Minutes from the “Annual Meeting of the Town of Manchester” reveal that Forster was “a selectman, town clerk, surveyor of highways, culler of fish, in charge of fences and control of animals grazing on common land and the builder of a smallpox house.”
Samuel Forster was also an ardent patriot and in December of 1774 was elected 1st Lieutenant of the Manchester Company, part of the 6th Regiment of the Essex County Militia.
On April 19th 1775, when word reached Manchester that the British had engaged the Minutemen at Lexington, Forster and his troops immediately marched to join the battle. But, by the the time they reached Medford, 12 miles east of Concord, the Red Coats were in full retreat. Forster and his men remained encamped in Medford for five days before returning to Manchester.
What is significant about this seemingly inconclusive foray is that during the march to and from Medford, the Manchester Company was led by a militiaman bearing a very special flag. Today it is considered one of, if not THE most important flags in American History! More about what is now known as the Forster Flag at the conclusion of my talk.
So for the time being, we will leave Samuel Forster and fast forward to September 1777 as Eleazar Crafts, a Major in Manchester’s Militia receives orders to march his troops north to join American forces in Saratoga, New York. There, they hope to engage a British army of 8,000 troops led by General John Burgoyne whose goal is to recapture Fort Ticonderoga, isolate New England and thus end the rebellion.
Crafts and his militia set out in foot on December 9th and six days later join a force of 2,000 Patriots under the command of General John Stark in Bennington, Vermont. They immediately see action, helping rout 900 British Regulars attempting to seize an arsenal in Bennington. This victory gives American forces in the Hudson River Valley time to organize and reinforce the troops of General Horatio Gates in upstate New York. By the time General Burgoyne reaches Saratoga, the American army has grown to 10,000 men!
In a diary now in the archives of the Peabody-Essex Museum, Eleazar Crafts provides this first-hand account.
“October 7. This day pleasant….the enemy were out on their lines. We were now all well, alert and gay, but….we were soon met by a shower of grape shot and small arm balls. Captain Flint fell close to me the first minute up. The engagement lasted two hours. We, through God’s goodness drove them into their lines and got possession of some of their works.
October 9, Rainy. The enemy fled today. All is quiet until October 14. This day a flag of truce was sent out from Mr. Burgoyne which caused a cessation of arms. I was ordered on picket guard with 160 men and within 40 rods of the enemy’s lines.
October 17, A pleasant day and glorious for Americans. The great General Burgoyne marched out and laid down his arms to whom he often called the rebel army.
November 30. Sabbath Day. This morning the brigade discharged at 9 o’clock. Began our march for home. God grant us a safe journey.”
As you well know, the victory at Saratoga was a turning point in the Revolutionary War. It cast doubt among the British that they might not be able to defeat the Rebels as easily as they thought. And it helped convince France that they should support the American cause.
When the war ended in 1783, Eleazar Crafts converted his family home into a popular local tavern. He died at age 50 of consumption probably contracted while in service.
Mention should be made of his widow, Sally Samples Crafts, proprietor of a small general store. When the British blockaded the port of Boston, she could no longer rely on restocking her shelves with merchandise sailed into Manchester harbor. So Sally would simply walk the aforementioned thirty miles to Boston, fill her wicker baskets with dry goods, and trek back on home to her shop.
Crafts’ brother Benjamin, who served with Manchester Militia on their march to Medford, was discharged in 1776 – with the rank of sergeant, because he was needed at home. There Crafts, a cord winder by trade, personally made hundreds of pairs of shoes for Washington’s ill-equipped Continental Army. He is reputed to have cobbled well over 1,000 pairs of shoes in his lifetime!
Let’s now meet another notable local war hero. – Nathaniel Allen. A member of one of the town’s earliest and most distinguished families, Allen – perhaps wearing a pair of shoes made by friend Benjamin Crafts – crossed the Delaware with Washington’s army en route to the critical victories at Trenton and Princeton in 1776.
Allen was subsequently captured by the British who, again according to historian Reverend Lamson, was then turned over to some Indians who taught him the art of making birch bark baskets and canoes!
You know, little nuggets such as this from Lamson is what makes reading old local histories so fascinating!
In any event, Allen was released, and returned to Manchester where he was discharged from the army. He then decided to pursue a life at sea and in October, 1780, he shipped out of Gloucester aboard the schooner AMERICA as one of five crewmen under the command of Captain Isaac Elwell.
It was an easy passage to Point Pitre, Guadeloupe where they sold their cargo of fish and took aboard sugar, cotton, cocoa, coffee, rum and molasses for the voyage home. All went well until they reached the shallow waters of Georges Bank just southeast of Cape Cod. There on December 31, they encountered a ferocious winter gale, quickly losing the ship’s rudder and her spars. Forced to clear away all the rigging to simply stay afloat, they were left with no steerage and for the next TWO MONTHS were pushed further and further eastward across the Atlantic.
Their one week’s provisions long gone, Allen and his shipmates turned to the cargo of molasses and cocoa, supplemented by whatever fish they were able to catch. They even devoured the remaining rats on board. But their real need was water. Only one barrel remained and for three weeks it failed to rain a drop. The cook died of thirst and the others knew they were facing the same fate.
They continued to drift for an incredible 261 days. Few other vessels were to be seen until September 17, 1781, when off the coast of Cornwall, England, a British brig appeared and the emaciated Americans were finally rescued. It turned out the British captain had seen their disabled vessel several days before but was initially afraid to come to their aid, fearing the Americans would overtake his own crew once on board.
Allen and his shipmates were eventually released by the British off the entrance to New York Harbor. Given the brig’s only small boat with a sail, they spent the next two weeks rowing and sailing back to Cape Ann. They came ashore at Black Beach Cove in West Manchester and from there walked to their respective homes. It was reported that they were “so changed and emaciated that their friends hardly recognized them.”
Whether Nathaniel Allen ever returned to the sea is not known, but his adventure had little lasting effect on his health. He died in Manchester at the age 84.
While Nathaniel Allen was just one of the 137 Manchester men who served in the Continental Army, there were also many others who fought the war aboard privateers – small, fast sailing vessels that attacked slower British merchantmen carrying supplies and munitions.
These acts of apparent piracy were authorized by the Continental Congress which issued what were called Letters of Marque. These gave ship owners, as private citizens, the right to attack and seize English vessels, sharing the proceeds from the eventual sale of the cargo with the government.
More than 600 Letters of Marque were issued to privately-owned Massachusetts vessels by Congress, another 1,000 more by the Commonwealth’s General Court. The impact of the lightly armed but fast sailing privateers was huge. During the Revolution, the value of prizes taken by the U.S. Navy was less than $6 million; that taken by privateers, $18 million!
The contributions of North Shore communities deserve special recognition. Some 154 privateers out of Salem took 445 prizes, more than half of those captured during the entire War of Independence!
Sailing aboard the privateers was not without its hazards. Weather and British warships took their toll. One of the greatest losses suffered to Manchester occurred in July of 1776 when the privateer GLOUCESTER disappeared without a trace.
The entire crew of 130 men was lost, including eighteen men from Manchester. Among them was the ship’s surgeon, the town’s beloved Dr. Joseph Whipple who left a widow and seven children.
In 1778, ten more Manchester seamen were lost aboard the privateer BARRINGTON. Captain Jeremiah Hibbert died when his brig sank in a storm off Portland, and his brother Joseph also a master of a privateer, was killed during the battle of Penobscot Bay in Maine. This was the largest American Naval expedition of the War, involving a task force of 54 ships and a ground force of more than 1,000 Colonial soldiers and militiamen. It resulted in the worst naval defeat in U.S. history until the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor 163 years later!
But it wasn’t all bad news for Manchester’s privateers, daring and resourceful mariners such as Captain John Lee. In early spring of 1776, Lee sailed out of Marblehead as commander of the NANCY, a small vessel carrying only six guns. Late one afternoon just before the sun set, Lee spotted a large, heavily armed British merchant ship which Lee resolved to capture.
Being low in the water the NANCY was not visible to the British ship as the sun went down. Shrouded by darkness, Lee had his crew extend planks to the bow and stern from which he hung a lantern at each end, thereby making the NANCY appear much larger than she actually was. She then closed on her prey.
When the British captain saw what appeared to be a formidable warship approaching, he quickly struck his colors and sent his crew in long boats to the NANCY. Upon boarding the NANCY himself and realizing he had been hoodwinked, the now furious captain pulled a knife and attempted suicide, but to no avail.
Later that same year, Lee, now in command of the schooner HAWK, captured five more British vessels in European waters, all of which he sent back to America with prize crews aboard. To supplement his now depleted crew, Lee forced a number of the captured English seaman to stay aboard the HAWK and help sail her into the neutral Spanish port of Bilboa.
These prisoners immediately entered a protest through the British consul. The local Spanish officials responded by accusing, Captain Lee of piracy and his vessel and crew were detained.
Once Lee presented his Letter of Marque, however, a Spanish Court assured Lee that “his vessel and all those of his countrymen should be protected under their flag in all the ports of Spain” …. an early and important recognition of the new nation by a major European country.
Lee continued to harass the British merchant fleet, capturing thirteen prizes during a cruise in 1777. However his luck ran out when he encountered the flagship of a British Admiral in the English Channel. Unable to out-sail his foe, Lee ran his ship aground, was captured and spent the next three years in the infamous Forton Prison.
He eventually managed to escape, but the details are so bizarre and so stretch the imagination that I hesitate to share them with you. They do however involve the supposed intervention of our old friend General John Burgoyne who met Lee’s brother William while himself a prisoner of war in Boston.
Another Manchester privateer taken prisoner during the war was Captain William Tuck. Overtaken by a British warship off the coast of Nova Scotia, Tuck’s ship was boarded by a prize crew and sailed to Halifax, a British stronghold and haven for displaced Tories.
Legend has it that during the voyage, Captain Tuck, known for his “gift of gab” so ingratiated himself with the British officers that upon reaching Halifax, they invited him to join them ashore for dinner. With no officers on board and the British prize crew in the rigging attending to the sails, Tuck’s resourceful first mate Daniel Leach and his shipmates managed to smash open the arms chest and seize control of the vessel.
When the British officers, accompanied by their American guest, returned from dinner – undoubtedly none the worse for wear – they were greeted on deck by Leach who declared them his prisoners and handed command back to Captain Tuck who happily weighed anchor and sailed back to Boston!
In addition to his gift for gab” William Tuck proved a man of many other talents. Following the War, he served as Customs Collector for the Gloucester District, was a Justice of the Peace, and even practiced medicine. He was quite active in the bedroom as well, having four wives and siring 23 children. When William Tuck died in 1825 at the ripe old age of 86, the town of Manchester named Tuck’s Point in his honor!
One last tale of derring-do on the high seas! Our hero this time is 21-year old David Kitfield. Kitfield and two companions were captured at sea and imprisoned in England. The trio somehow managed to escape and posing as English seamen secured berths aboard a merchant ship bound for Jamaica.
Armed with swords they had purchased prior to sailing, the three –while on the same watch – took control of the deck, locking the British officers below. Then, with a promise of a share in any prize money, they convinced the rest of the crew to join their ranks. The next day, they pulled alongside an American privateer who escorted them proudly back to Salem.
According to an account published in the Salem Register, “The British captain cried bitterly, and said how he would not care so much if it hadn’t been his first time as captain.”
Kind of makes you wonder how Great Britain could boast that they were the Monarchs of the Sea!
It’s now time to return to 1775 and resume the saga of the now famous flag carried by Samuel Forster and his militia in the response to the “Lexington Alarm” in April of 1775.
The flag, which exists to this very day, is made of red silk. In the upper left quarter of the field is a canton, also of red. It supposedly replaced an earlier canton which was emblazoned with the cross of St. George. In other words, it most likely was originally a British flag, the type seen frequently throughout New England prior to the outbreak of the War of Independence.
Someone, we know not who, cut out the original canton with the symbol of Great Britain and replaced it with a fresh piece of matching red silk. Then, and this is the heart of the story, thirteen buff-colored bars representing America’s original colonies were stitched onto the new canton, six in one side, seven on the other.
Thus we have the oldest known American flag intentionally designed to represent the 13 original colonies of the American Revolution, a flag that predates the Declaration of Independence and the national adoption of the Stars and Stripes!
As commander of the militia company that carried this unique flag, Lieutenant Samuel Forster acquired ownership. It then descended to Samuel’s son Israel who in 1804 built a stately Federal home on the corner of Pine and Central Streets in Manchester, without question one of the most historic and architecturally significant buildings in town.
Several years after Israel’s in death in 1812, the flag was loaned to the Massachusetts Statehouse in Boston, where it was displayed draped over a British drum captured at Lexington.
After a number of years and considerable dispute with state officials, the flag was reclaimed by the Forster family who flawlessly preserved it in the Manchester homestead for the next ten decades. Nobody recycled it for the lovely crimson silk, nobody hung it outside or exposed it to color-bleaching rays of the sun, nobody tried to restore it in some ham-handed manner.
In 1975, the last family steward of the flag asked renowned flag expert, Dr. Whitney Smith, to examine the Forster Flag. It was then sold to the Flag Heritage Foundation, the leading research collection of flags in the world! The transfer of ownership of the Forster Flag took place exactly 200 years after it is believed to have been flown during the Lexington Alarm.
In 1999 the Forster Flag was honored as one of the 20 most important American flags and was reproduced as a commemorative postage stamp issued by the US Postal Service.
On April 9, 2014 the Forster Flag was put up for auction at the Doyle Auction House in New York City to benefit the Whitney Smith Flag Research Center Collection at the University of Texas in Austin.
Prior to the auction, representatives from both Doyle and the Whitney Smith Research Center spent considerable time in the archives of the Manchester Historical Museum, and we were delighted to help authenticate the provenance of this historic national treasure.
Expectations for its sale ran high! The flag itself had been on view at prestigious special events in both Boston and New York City.
Doyle estimated it could sell for one to three million dollars!
A few weeks later, to the surprise of most people, the historic flag failed to meet the minimum bid at auction. Sometime later however, a private sale was completed. While the identity of the buyer remains unknown, we have recently learned that the Forster Flag is currently on display at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. Our fondest hope is that at some point in time, the Forster Flag will return home for a guest appearance.
While the Manchester Historical Museum was in no position to bid on the flag itself, we did acquire the replica. Once a year it makes a public appearance during Manchester’s annual 4th of July parade. A color guard in period uniforms from the 10th Massachusetts Regiment stops in front of the historic Forster homestead where the current owner and president of the Manchester Historical Museum, Sue Parker presents them with the flag. The Regiment then marches down Union Street, stops in front of the Historical Museum and returns the flag with all due honor and respect to its permanent residence.
There it greets visitors as they enter our museum, a fitting tribute to the 137 men of Manchester who fought so gallantly in the Continental Army, to their stalwart neighbors who aboard their privateers, out-sailed the mighty British Navy, and to the many widows who lost their loved ones in the war for Independence.