I am now Applying myself with all diligence to the Business of the Navy Board...but I think it peculiarly Unhappy that we Enter on this Business when the Circumstances of the Fleet are far from being such as promises any Hopes that we can gratify the Expecta-tions of the people...
-- JAMES WARREN
WRITING TO JOHN ADAMS
SEPTEMBER 7, 1777
The wind blew cold, steady and strong, striking the New Jersey coast at an oblique angle and sending up a line of breakers miles long. The Continental brig-of-war Charlemagne was half a league off the coast, far enough to be beyond the immediate threat of the breaking surf, but close enough for her people to be wary and concerned.
The sky was ugly, gray, the color of boiled meat. The sea was gray as well, taking its mood from the muffled daylight, and covered over its surface with whitecaps that flashed in long rows extending seaward to the horizon. The hair was white, pure white.
Capt. Isaac Biddlecomb leaned closer to the mirror, one hand on the washbasin to steady himself against the roll of the ship, bits of shaving soap still clinging to his chin.
There it was, nestled among the long, black hairs that swept back along his head and were bound up in a queue. A white hair. A ghostly harbinger of creeping age. He was only thirty-one. It seemed altogether too early for that sort of thing.
"Have you only now noticed that?" Virginia Biddlecomb, his wife of just over a year, sat on the locker aft, her back against the weather side of the great cabin, her feet against the big table, which was in turn lashed to the deck. In that position she held herself motionless against the roll and plunge of the brig, as casual as if she were sitting on her porch. Virginia was entirely at home on shipboard.
Biddlecomb turned and met her eyes. Her look was mischievous, teasing. In her lap, a great bundle of cloth and lace, and in the center of that, two-month-old Jack Biddlecomb. All that Isaac could see of his only child was a tuft of dark hair, a pink cheek, and a tiny ear as the baby took his breakfast at Virginia's breast. The sight no longer made Isaac uncomfortable, and he congratulated himself on that.
"Yes, it is the first I have seen of it," Isaac replied, "though the great wonder is that I am not entirely gray, with all I carry on my shoulders. Ship captain, husband, father..."
Virginia gave him a pouty expression. "Surely your family is not a burden to you? I should think we would be a great comfort to you in your time of trouble."
"You are, my dearest. You are always a comfort to me."
"And you, sir, I pray, are a better sailor than you are a liar, or we shall never see Philadelphia."
Biddlecomb smiled and wiped the remaining soap from his face. He stepped aft and kissed Virginia and kissed his son on the head, though the boy took no notice of the gesture.
"In any event, my love," said Virginia, "did Shakespeare not say that 'infirmity, which decays the wise, doth oft make the better captain'?"
"Something to that effect. But I had thought that misquoting Shakespeare was my province." He leaned low and peered out of the salt-stained windows at the portion of sea that lay astern of them.
Two vessels were in view, one about two cables astern of the Charlemagne, the second two cables astern of the first. They were plunging along in the brig's wake, their sails shortened to avoid overtaking the battered naval vessel.
They were both privateers, newly built and fitted out in Boston. The nearer of the two was a brig, the farther ship-rigged, what they would call a sloop of war in the naval service. They were sailing in company with the Charlemagne in hopes of aiding the American cause and, more importantly, in hopes of sharing in any prize that might come the way of the often fortunate Capt. Isaac Biddlecomb.
"We've a regular little squadron here," Isaac observed, "at least until we fetch Cape Ann. Still, I think we will have no opportunity to make use of them."
But Virginia's mind was no longer focused on the fight for independence, and the passion she had once had for politics had now mostly yielded to motherhood.
"Isaac, do you think the sleeping cabin aboard the Falmouth will have room enough for our bed as well as a hanging cot for Jack? If the fitting out should require some months, then it would be well to have it thus arranged."
"We should be able to figure that easily enough." Isaac crossed the cabin and from a shelf crammed with charts withdrew a roll of paper nearly a yard long, thick and heavy. He unrolled it on the table, carefully setting various objects down to keep it from rolling up again. "Let us just see what the di-mensions are of the sleeping cabin."
"Isaac, do not for one moment pretend that you have got that draft out just to answer me. In truth, you are using my question as an excuse to leer at the thing again. I swear, if you looked at a woman the way you look at that paper, I would have her eyes out. And yours."
Biddlecomb looked up at his wife. He smiled. She was right. As usual. "You know me too well, dear, too well by half. But if it is of any comfort, I confine my longings to you and the frigate."
The frigate, the Falmouth, lay stretched out across the table in two dimensions, a black-and-white rendering of what was to be the next command of Isaac Biddlecomb, Captain, Navy of the United States.
She was not one of the original thirteen frigates, ordered in those heady days of December 1775, when John Adams and Stephen Hopkins were leading the charge in the naval line. Of those thirteen, only four had got to sea. Of those four, the Hancock had already been captured and the Randolph was languishing in Charleston, dismasted and crippled. As for the other nine, the Congress and the Montgomery had been burned to avoid capture on the Hudson, and the balance remained in various states short of completion.
But despite that, and seemingly despite the ugly face of reality, Congress had ordered more ships late in the year '76: a brig of eighteen guns, five frigates of thirty-six guns, and most unbelievable of all, three seventy-four-gun ships of the line.
And along with that, and almost as an afterthought, the Fal-mouth of twenty-eight guns. William Stanton, Biddlecomb's father-in-law, and now chair of the Navy Board of the Eastern Department, told him that the contract was a payoff, a plum thrown out to a political crony of one of the committee members.
That was fine. Biddlecomb did not care about the ship's parentage, did not care about the circumstances that caused her to be raised up on the stocks. He ran his eyes over her lines as they had been drawn, the beautiful, fine entry, the gentle deadrise, the elegant sweep of her stem and cutwater, the suggestion of tumblehome at her gunwales. Stanton had got him the drafts from the designer, Joshua Humphreys, and now Biddlecomb was in love, like falling in love with a woman's portrait. He was seaman enough to know how sweet a vessel
the drafts represented, if properly built.
He had received his orders a month before: proceed to Philadelphia where the ship was building in the yard of Wharton and Humphreys; assume command; see to her rigging, armaments, and final fitting out. Then get her to sea, quickly, before the British were able to seal her up in the confines of the Delaware River.
No sooner had he set his eyes on the drafts then he was anxious to be rid of the cramped and tired brig that he had been commanding for two years. Every time he unrolled the plans, the Charlemagne seemed to grow smaller and more inadequate. Biddlecomb picked up his dividers, adjusted them against the scale of the draft, held the points against the drawing of the sleeping place. "Yes, I think there shall be ample space for all the Biddlecombs to bunk," he said, thinking of the restless nights in his future. Every time little Jack called out, it jerked Isaac out of his sleep; every time he bawled for his mother, which was often, Isaac was up as well.
"I fear we will have to share the cabin with the great guns, though," Isaac continued, caressing various features of the draft with the brass dividers. "Though I will be much surprised if there are guns aboard her now." He stared at the black ink squares that represented the Falmouth's gunports. Twenty-eight twelve-pound guns. Just one of the frigate's broadsides would throw a greater weight of iron than the entire pathetic armament aboard the Charlemagne. What he would do with that.
"I do so hope that the British have not taken Philadelphia," Virginia said. "I long to see that city again, and to show off little Jack to Sophia and Mrs. Clark and the rest." It was as if they were having two different conversations.
"I do not know, my dear," Biddlecomb said. He laid one of the divider's points against the Falmouth's gun deck, measured the distance to the overhead. He would have standing headroom. He would be able to stand upright unimpeded anywhere in the great cabin. Such luxury.
He scowled at the Charlemagne's deckhead, under which he stooped. "Before we sailed I had heard no more than those rumors of a fight along the Brandywine Creek, and the word was that things had not gone well. As they generally do not." Twenty-eight big guns, he thought.
"If the British have taken Philadelphia, then surely they have taken your silly frigate as well," Virginia observed. Isaac looked over at her, guessed that the words had come out more bitter than she had intended.
"I think not." Isaac carefully rolled the drafts up again. He was learning the limits of Virginia's patience. "I have it on good authority that the British fleet is still in the Chesapeake, and if they do not control the Delaware Bay and the river, then it is unlikely they were able to capture the frigate. I have no doubt but she was moved to some place of safety."
"That is if she was launched, which you do not know."
"That is true." Isaac had not thought of that. The last he had heard, she was still on the ways, all but ready for her launch. It was quite possible that the British had taken the city and found the Falmouth high and dry, vulnerable as a beached whale. They might have burned her or taken her for themselves. The thought frightened him, and he was annoyed with Virginia for having brought it up.
"I'm sorry, my beloved," Virginia said sincerely. "I have no doubt that your ship is in a safe place, waiting for you to sail her away." Her contrition was genuine, but the truth of her earlier observation could not be denied, and so Isaac was not much comforted as he crossed the cabin and they kissed in mutual apology.
Jack was at last finished and Virginia handed him to his father, who took him up in his arms, stealing a glance at his wife's lovely breasts as he did. "Good morning, my little man," he said, tickling the baby under the chin, marveling at the tiny features, only now losing their newborn wrinkles.
Jack blinked wide, stared up at his father. He was not yet quite in control of his facial muscles, and his eyes opened and closed, and his mouth twisted in the oddest expressions, which made Isaac laugh, delighted. The baby seemed entirely at ease with his surroundings, though his world swooped and rolled and yawed, creaked and slammed around him.
"I had thought...," Virginia began when she was cut off by a voice, faint through the skylight, singing out from the mainmast head those words that superseded all others on board a man-of-war: "Sail, ho!"
Virginia kept silent, listened as intently as Isaac. "Where away?" came the booming voice of Ezra Rumstick, the Charlemagne's first officer, a great bear of a man, Biddlecomb's oldest friend.
A pause, and then the first note of the lookout's reply, and then Jack let out a yell, tiny in its volume but quite enough to drown out what the man aloft had reported. Isaac sighed in exasperation and handed the baby off to Virginia, who put him over her shoulder and patted his back, coaxing a surprisingly loud belch from his tummy.
Biddlecomb heard footsteps through the gunroom outside his cabin, a knock, and then the door was partially open.
"Midshipman Gerrish," the marine sentry announced, and Biddlecomb said, "Come." The Charlemagne had been a regular naval vessel, complete with a marine contingent, for over a year and a half -- indeed, for as long as there had been a navy of the United States -- and Biddlecomb was at last becoming accustomed to the formalities of the service.
Not quite so was Mr. Midshipman Samuel Gerrish, who, in his midthirties, was on the old side for a midshipman. He stepped into the cabin, looked around, squinting through round spectacles. At last he looked up at Biddlecomb, as if surprised to find him there, and said, "Mr. Rumstick's compliments, sir, but a sail has been sighted, ship-rigged, bearing due south on a starboard tack with single-reefed topsails."
"Indeed." Biddlecomb considered the information. The ship would be sailing roughly parallel with the coast, making toward his little ad hoc squadron, would most likely tack soon and claw off the coast, before his leeway set him down on the beach. Bid-dlecomb had been considering just that thing himself.
"No colors that the man could see?" he asked, and Gerrish said, "No, sir."
"Very well, then. Pray tell Mr. Rumstick that I shall be up directly, and please take a glass aloft and see what you can see."
"Aye, sir," Gerrish said, making a poor job of disguising his feelings about going aloft on that cold, wet morning. He saluted and disappeared and Isaac turned to his wife.
"Duty, and all that," he said as he pulled on his coat and his greatcoat over that. "Of course, my love. Your scarf is on the sideboard. Please put it on before you go on deck."
Isaac smiled, wrapped the scarf around his neck. He had been all of thirteen when his mother had died. He was not ac-customed to such feminine concern, was not sure if he liked it.
The difference between the great cabin and the quarterdeck was startling, a sudden shift from the comforts of domestic life to cold and ugly war, as if the cabin that housed his wife and child and the deck that supported the officers, men, and guns of the brig were two entirely different places, and he had somehow gone instantly from one to the other. It took genuine effort for Biddlecomb to shift his concerns from Jack's need to be burped to his ship's need to be driven into battle.
The Charlemagne's officers -- Rumstick, Second Lieutenant David Weatherspoon, Marine Lieutenant Elisha Faircloth -- gave their "Good morning's" to the captain and retreated to the leeward side, save for Rumstick, who saluted and said, "Strange sail's just visible now, sir, on the rise." He nodded in the direction of the Charlemagne's larboard bow and Isaac followed the gesture.
The gray sea was rising up before them, a moderate swell that came even with the brig's rail as the vessel twisted and sank into the trough. Then she shuddered as her bluff bow hit the bottom and began to rise, coming up and up as the roller passed under them.
And on the crest of the wave Biddlecomb was able to catch a glimpse of the distant vessel; spindly topgallant masts and yards, dark against the gray sky, like bare trees in winter, topsails full and hard, shortened by the length of a single reef, their weather leeches distorted by the pull of bowlines, the better part of a jibboom with fore-topmast staysail set and drawing.
The distant rig dipped, as if nodding a greeting, as the vessel went down in some unseen valley of water. And then the Charlemagne went down herself and the stranger was gone.
"Indeed," Biddlecomb said quite involuntarily. He stared blankly at the horizon, examined the image that was fixed in his mind. Such a brief glimpse did not tell him much, so he had to assume the strange sail was not friendly.
"Ferguson," Biddlecomb called out to the foretopman who, among other things, assisted Gerrish with the signal flags, "signal the privateers 'strange sail in sight,' and once they have acknowledged that, do 'tack in succession' and 'clear for action.'"
"Aye, sir." Ferguson began to bend the bright flags to the halyard.
The Charlemagne began her rise again, the fast swooping motion of a ship coming up on a wave, the motion that causes so much distress to the stomachs of those unaccustomed to it.
And on the top of the rise Biddlecomb could see the sails of the distant vessel begin to flog in disarray, and from aloft Gerrish called out, "On deck! Stranger's coming about!"
"Sir, I beg your pardon." Lieutenant Faircloth, commanding officer of the Second Battalion, Fourth Company, of American Marines, the Charlemagne's marine division, stepped up on the slanting deck and saluted. "I had thought to have my men see to mending their uniforms. Would this not be a good time?"
Biddlecomb turned, considered the marine officer. He was dressed, as was his custom, in his immaculate bottle-green uniform, his small cocked hat pushed down on his head. He was a wealthy man, and he and his men were always tricked
out in high style. Faircloth took seriously the equipment, training, and welfare of the marines under his command. And that, as far as Biddlecomb could tell, was the only thing he took seriously.
"Pray, Lieutenant," Biddlecomb asked, "how long have you been formulating that question?" Faircloth was not concerned with uniforms, he was probing to see if Biddlecomb thought there might be a battle.
"About ten minutes, sir."
"Very subtly done. In reply, let me say that, no, I do not think this is a good time to mend uniforms. This fellow has come about, and if he does not then run off to the south'ard, I think we can presume him to be of the Royal Navy."
"Very good, sir. Or, I should say, 'Aye, aye,' keeping in the nautical vernacular, and such."
"Privateers have acknowledged 'tack in succession,' sir," Ferguson reported.
"Very good. Mr. Rumstick, hands to station for stays."
The order was shouted forward, and Mr. Sprout, the boatswain, made his pipe squeal as he called men to their places for putting the brig about. Biddlecomb pulled his eyes from the horizon. Virginia was making her way aft, her arms uncharacteristically unencumbered.
"Jack is asleep in our cot," she reported, and Isaac felt his one life overlapping the other. "What of this strange sail?"
"We know nothing yet, my dear," Isaac said. The Charlemagne's officers were all making a great pretense of not listening to their captain's conversation. "But to be cautious we are going to come about, gain some more sea room, and then clear for action."
"And then we shall do the one thing that this service has best prepared us to do. We shall wait. And wait and wait and wait."
Copyright © 2001 by Nelson BraveFellows