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HMS Savage: A Swan Class sloop of war gets savaged by a Yankee privateer!

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From Edward Stanton McClay's classic "The History of American Privateers", pp. 211-13:



"One of the most creditable actions of this war in which an American privateer was engaged took place on September 6, 1781. It had been the habit of the smaller British cruisers stationed on the North American coast to send boat expeditions at night for the purpose of plundering estates along the shore. One of the most persistent English commanders in this questionable style of warfare was Captain Sterling, of the 16-gun sloop of war Savage. About the time mentioned Captain Sterling had been exploring Chesapeake Bay, and on one occasion sent a boat expedition to Mount Vernon and plundered Washington's estate. Soon after the Savage had put to sea from the Chesapeake, and was cruising off the coast of Georgia in search of other estates to plunder, she fell in with the American privateer Congress, of twenty-four guns and two hundred men, under the command of Captain George Geddes, of Philadelphia. Mr. Geddes, as we have noticed, had been a highly successful officer in the privateer service, having two years before commanded the 10-gun brig Holker, in which he made a most creditable record. Upon making out the Congress to be an American war craft of superior force, Captain Sterling made all sail to escape, upon which the Congress gave chase. It was early in the morning when the two vessels discovered each other, and by half past ten o'clock the American had gained so much that she was able to open with her bow chasers, and by eleven o'clock Captain Geddes was close on the Englishman's quarter, when he opened a rapid fire of small arms, to which the enemy answered with energy. Observing that he had the swifter ship of the two, Captain Geddes forged ahead until he got fairly abreast of his antagonist, when a fierce broad- side duel took place. Notwithstanding the American superiority in armament, this fire at close range so injured the privateer's rigging that it became unmanageable, and Captain Geddes was compelled to fall back to make repairs. As soon as he had com- pleted this work, the Congress again closed on the Savage and engaged in a heavy cannon fire. In the course of an hour the Englishman was reduced to a wreck, the vessels at times being so near each other that the men frequently were scorched by the flashes of the opposing cannon; and it is even asserted that shot were thrown with effect by hand. Seeing that the Englishman was reduced to a de- plorable condition, that his quarter-deck and fore-castle were swept clear of men, and that his mizzen-mast had gone by the board, while the mainmast threatened to follow it, Captain Geddes prepared to board and settle the sanguinary conflict on the enemy's decks. Just as the Americans were about to carry out this programme the boatswain of the Savage appeared on the forecastle, and waving his cap announced that they had surrendered, upon which Captain Geddes immediately took possession. The Englishmen's losses, according to their own statements, were eight killed and twenty-four wounded, while those of the Americans were thirty killed or wounded. Among the enemy's killed was Captain Sterling himself, who appears to have fought with the most determined bravery. Unfortunately Captain Geddes was not able to secure his prize, as both vessels were captured by a British frigate and carried into Charleston. The Congress was taken into the British service under the name of Duchess of Cumberland, Captain Samuel Marsh, and was wrecked off the coast of Newfoundland soon afterward while on her way to England with American prisoners. "





The same fight - A more modern assessment from Wikipedia:


"By 1781 the smaller British vessels blockading Chesapeake Bay were raiding the American coast by means of boat expeditions. One commander involved in the operations was Captain Charles Stirling of the sloop Savage, armed with sixteen 6-pounders. Stirling was noted for having plundered Mount Vernon, the Virginia estate of General George Washington, who was commander in chief of the Continental Army and later the first American president. Shortly after the raid of Mount Vernon, Captain Stirling sailed his ship south. In the early morning of September 6, Savage was escorting a convoy when she encountered the sloop-of-war Congress ten leagues from Charleston. Stirling placed Savage between the merchant vessels and the stranger.  American privateers during the Revolutionary War Congress was under the command of Captain George Geddes of Philadelphia, armed with twenty 12-pounders and four 6-pounders, with a complement of 215 officers and men.  Its Marines were under the command of Captain Allan McLane of the Continental Army.  Congress was returning from Cap-François, Haiti, where McLane had carried dispatches from George Washington to Comte François Joseph Paul de Grasse, commander of a French fleet, appealing for his aid at Chesapeake Bay. 



When Stirling first saw Congress he sailed towards her, in the hope that she was a privateer of twenty 9-pounder guns that had been raiding in the area. However, when he got closer and saw that she was significantly stronger even than the privateer he thought she might be, Stirling attempted an escape. However, by 10:30 am the Americans came within range and opened fire with their bow chasers. By 11:00 Congress had closed the distance and her crew engaged with muskets and pistols, to which the British replied with "energy". At this point Captain Geddes observed that his ship was faster than that of the enemy so he maneuvered ahead of Savage until almost abreast, in preparation for a broadside.  A duel then commenced at extreme close range, during which both ships were heavily damaged. Sailors on both sides were also burned by the flashes of their enemy's cannon. Congress's rigging was torn to shreds during the exchange, which compelled the Americans to stand off for quick repairs. After doing so, they resumed the chase. Congress was swiftly alongside the Savage again and another duel began. The Americans and British fought for about an hour, the combat ending with Savage in ruins. Her quarterdeck and forecastle had been completely cleared of resistance, her mizzenmast was blown away, and her mainmast was nearly gone as well. Geddes felt that this was an opportune time to board the enemy, but just as he was moving his ship in, a boatswain appeared on Savage's forecastle, waving his hat as a sign of surrender.

British forces lost eight men killed and 34 wounded, including Captain Stirling; the Americans had 11 killed and around 30 wounded. In his letter reporting on the action, Captain Stirling noted that after he and his men became prisoners, the Americans had treated them "with great Humanity." 


In America, the capture was widely cheered as payback for the looting of George Washington's home by Captain Stirling and Savage's crew.

However, the Americans who boarded Savage never made it back to port. The frigate HMS Solebay recaptured Savage on 12 September, with a prize crew of thirty Americans aboard. Maclay states that the same frigate captured Congress and recaptured Savage.  (The London Gazette mentions the recapture of Savage, but not the capture of her captor Congress.)




Savage had a broadside of 48 pounds; Congress had a broadside of 132 pounds. (The privateer Stirling thought Congress was would have had a broadside of 90 pounds, or almost twice that of Savage.) Savage also had 90 fewer men on board than Congress. Maclay further states that Congress became HMS Duchess of Cumberland, and on 19 September wrecked during the passage to Newfoundland where a prison ship was waiting to take on the American prisoners. Twenty men died in the incident, though the survivors eventually made it to Placentia, where the Americans were put aboard the ship sloop HMS Fairy and taken to Old Mill Prison in England. This appears incorrect. The court martial record for her loss reports she sailed on 21 September from Placentia and was wrecked on 22 September.  The nautical distance between Charleston and Halifax, Nova Scotia, is such that a vessel sailing at a steady 10 knots, a fast pace for a sailing vessel, would take four and a half days, and Placentia lies beyond Halifax, making it extremely improbable that a vessel captured on 12 September at Charleston would be sailing again from Placentia on 21 September, let alone 19 September. Furthermore Duchess of Cumberland was a cutter (or sloop; accounts vary) of 125 tons burthen and 16 guns. Lastly, early in his book, Maclay states that Congress/Duchess of Cumberland was built in Beverley, Massachusetts; Geddes's Congress was a Philadelphia privateer. She may have been a Congress, but if so, she may have been Congress, of eighteen 9-pounders guns, and 120 men, that HMS Oiseaux captured sometime between 16 June and 2 July 1781."

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Savage was built by  the well-known Barnard of Ipswich. Launched in 1778, she was eventually hulked in 1803; a surprisingly long life considering the vicissitudes she underwent!

Be sure to sign up for an epic Nelson/Trafalgar project if you would like to see it made into a TV series  http://trafalgar.tv

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Hardly an equal contest - Congress had almost three times the weight of metal and a much larger crew. Savage could have avoided action with a force so superior with no shame.


As she was unable to get away, she gave a superb account of herself, surrendering only after losing her mizzenmast and considerable damage to the mainmast, and suffering 42 casualties including the captain. She inflicted almost exactly the same number of casualties on the Congress, though with a considerably lighter broadside.


A very valiant defence against heavy odds. 

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10 hours ago, druxey said:

Savage was built by  the well-known Barnard of Ipswich. Launched in 1778, she was eventually hulked in 1803; a surprisingly long life considering the vicissitudes she underwent!

Has anyone any idea how the figurehead would/could  have looked like? 

current build- Swan ,scratch

on shelf,Rattlesnake, Alert semi scratch,Le Coureur,, Fubbs scratch

completed: nostrum mare,victory(Corel), san felipe, sovereign of the seas, sicilian  cargo boat ,royal yacht caroline, armed pinnace, charles morgan whaler, galilee boat, wappen von hamburg, la reale (Dusek), amerigo vespucci, oneida (semi scratch) diane, great harry-elizabethan galleon (semi scratch), agammemnon, hanna (scratch).19th cent. shipyard diorama (Constructo), picket boat, victory bow section

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American Captain Geddes: “Huzzah, vicissitude her lads!”


I thought about the figurehead too, since no plan is known to survive. But the term ‘savage’ was frequently used at that time to describe the North American Indians, so maybe her head resembled the Essex’s hatchet wielding warrior or the Rattlesnakes knife bearing brother! How ironic if true!


since she lasted at least until 1803, when she was finally hulked, that would make her older than even the Fly, which sank in a storm off Canada in 1802! I wonder if either Savage or Fly was ever rearmed with carronades ..,



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Preserved Killick: "Which I think it's one of the Doctor's high words, a physician he is, with a fine wig, and a silver cane! He wouldn't look at you on land for under five guinies, I'm told ..."


Barrett Bonden: "The captain urges us to go forth upon the enemy's deck, I do believe, and convince those fat-arsed, dutch-built buggers of the error of their ways."


Killick, "Which then, we shall endeavor to persevere ... Hand me that-there boarding-axe ..."

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Congress was one potent warship!  This account sets our conventional view of American privateers, lightly built, lightly armed, and avoiding battle with regular Royal Navy warships on its ear.  Also interesting that she was entrusted to deliver official Continental Army dispatches to the French.



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Savage wasn't the only Swan Class Sloop to tangle with an American.  In 1781, the Atalanta was taken by the Continental Frigate Alliance, a ship probably similar the later Essex, which had been produced by the same shipbuilder family, but unlike the Essex, the Alliance was armed with 28 long French 18-pounders that had been earmarked for the lower deck of the lost Bon Homme Richard.


HMS Atalanta was sailing in company with another, smaller British sloop of war, HMS  Trepassy, both having batteries of only 6-pounders.


From Wiki:


"During a tempest on the 17th, lightning shattered the frigate's main topmast and carried away her main yard 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, the unknown ships hoisted British colors and prepared for battle. Although all three ships were almost completely becalmed, the American drifted within hailing distance of the largest British vessel about an hour before noon; Barry learned that it was the sloop of war HMS Atalanta. Her smaller consort proved to be 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 field of fire of the frigate's broadsides and took positions aft of their foe 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 grapeshot hit Barry's left shoulder, seriously wounding him, but he continued to direct the fighting until loss of blood almost robbed him of consciousness. Lieutenant 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, Barry 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 Alliance'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, while carpenters labored to repair all three ships, Barry transferred all of his prisoners to Trepassey which – as a cartel ship – would carry them to St. John's, Newfoundland, to be exchanged for American prisoners. HMS Charlestown recaptured Atalanta in June and sent her into Halifax.


Temporary repairs to Atalanta ended on the last day of May, and the prize got underway for Boston. After more patching her battered hull and rigging, Alliance set out the next day and reached Boston on 6 June. "

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Actually, a third Swan-Class sloop fell to the Americans! HMS Thorn was taken by USF Deane (12-pounders) and USF Boston (a mixture of 12-pounders and 9-pounders) . Very few particulars are available about this fight. From the Wiki page on the Frigate Deane:


Under the command of Captain Samuel Nicholson of the Continental Navy, Deane sailed from Boston 14 January 1779 with Alliance for a cruise in the West Indies. She returned to Philadelphia 17 April with one prize, the armed ship Viper. On 29 July she joined with USS Boston and two ships of the Virginia Navy guarding a convoy of merchantmen out to sea and continuing on for a five-week cruise which netted eight prizes, including four privateers, the packet Sandwich, and the sloop-of-war HMS Thorn. The frigates arrived at Boston 6 September with 250 prisoners after one of the most notable cruises of the Continental Navy.

During the winter and early spring of 1781 Deane cruised with Confederacy and Saratoga in the West Indies. In May, Lloyd's List reported that the rebel frigates Dean and Protector had captured John, Ashburner, master, from Lancaster to St. Kitts, and a ship sailing from Glasgow to Jamaica with 90-0 barrels of beef and a quantity of dry goods, and had taken them into Martinique.[1]

Deane again cruised with Confederacy and Saratoga in the West Indies in 1782, capturing four prizes. In April 1782 she captured the cutter HMS Jackal. After two more cruises in the Caribbean, one in September 1782 and the other in 1783, she was renamed Hague in September 1782 (perhaps because of false accusation against Deane that was current at the time).


According to Wiki, HMS Thorn became a yankee privateer, was recaptured, and survived until 1816, making her the longest lasting of the Swans (so far)!


  • HMS Thorn (1779) was a 14-gun sloop launched in 1779 that two American frigates, USS Deane and USS Boston captured on 25 August 1779. She became an American privateer with a number of successful engagements and prizes to her name. Arethusa captured her on 20 August 1782.[3] She then returned to service in the Royal Navy, serving until 1816 when she was sold.
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