Washington’s Cruisers and Their Flag

United States - Scott #1347 (1968) pair
United States – Scott #1347 (1968) pair

June 14 each year is marked in the United States as National Flag Day. Last year, A Stamp A Day covered the history of Flag Day as well as gave the stories behind several of the early “national” flags of the Union. One of my favorite topicals to collect are flags on stamps, particularly the less-commonly seen banners from colonial American history. ASAD previously detailed the Grand Union Flag (using a stamp that didn’t actually portray it) and I’ve long planned to cover some of the others as well. This entry covers one of those flags, best known as the Pine Tree Flag but inscribed on the above stamp at the “Washington’s Cruisers Flag’.

Also known as the “Appeal to Heaven Flag”, this was one of the flags used during the American Revolution. The flag, featuring a pine tree flag with the motto “An Appeal to God,” or, more usually, “An Appeal to Heaven”, was used originally by a squadron of six cruisers commissioned under George Washington’s authority as commander in chief of the Continental Army in October 1775.

In the late spring of 1775. the newly-formed Continental Army surrounded Boston while the British Army was trapped inside the city. George Washington arrived to take command on July 3. He believed he needed to be able to attack the British from the sea as well as on land, so he began to commission some ships and fitted them out of his own pocket. The Congress in Philadelphia was nervous about forming a navy at this point because they did not want to offend the British, but Washington thought it was a necessity so he did it himself. Their mission was to prevent British ships from delivering much needed supplies to the army in Boston.

An 1898 topographic map of Beverly, Massachusetts, a claimant for the title of the Birthplace of the U.S. Navy (along with Marblehead, Massachusetts).
1898 topographic map of Beverly, Massachusetts, a claimant for the title of the Birthplace of the U.S. Navy (along with Marblehead, Massachusetts).

In a letter to his brother on September 10, Washington noted,

Unless the Ministerial Troops in Boston are waiting for reinforcements, I cannot devise what they are staying there after; and why (as they affect to despise the Americans,) they do not come forth, and put an end to the contest at once. They suffer greatly for want of fresh Provisions, notwithstanding they have pillaged several Islands of a good many Sheep and Cattle. They are also scarce of Fuel . . . In short, they are, from all accts. suffering all the Inconveniences of a Siege . . .”

Washington, searching for authority to attack the British at sea, decided his authority lay in the vague authority given him by Congress and in the desperate need of his forces for powder. Anything taken from the British would help the Americans and add woe to the British position. The performance of the Royal Navy under Admiral Samuel Graves was scarcely a deterrent. Manning could be done by combing out sailors from the Army, and officers could be appointed in the Continental Army or detached from the present troops.

Perhaps as early as August 4, 1775, more probably by August 15, a small schooner had been chartered at Beverly for conversion to a cruiser. She was the Hannah, owned by the parents of Colonel John Glover. This was the first vessel of Washington’s fleet — the first armed American naval vessel of the American Revolution and is claimed to be the founding vessel of the United States Navy. She was a 78-ton fishing schooner owned by John Glover of Marblehead, Massachusetts and was named for his daughter, Hannah Glover. The crew was drawn largely from the town of Marblehead, with much of the ships ammunition being stored in Glover’s warehouse now located at Glover’s Square in Marblehead before being relocated to Beverly, Massachusetts. Her charter rate was $1.00 per ton per month, and she was in service for two months and twenty-one days, at a total cost of $208.06 (or £32.8.0).

Continental Army Schooner Hannah sailing on patrol from Marblehead, Massachusetts. A modern painting by Nowland Van Powell. Hannah is a conjectural reconstruction based on typical vessels of the period. From Van Powell, The American Navies of the Revolutionary War
Continental Army Schooner Hannah sailing on patrol from Marblehead, Massachusetts. A modern painting by Nowland Van Powell. Hannah is a conjectural reconstruction based on typical vessels of the period. From Van Powell, The American Navies of the Revolutionary War.

While Hannah was fitting out at Beverly, Washington drew up instructions for his first seagoing crew. The men were combed from Colonel John Glover’s Massachusetts (Marblehead) Regiment to a total of thirty-six. The companies of Captain Nicholson Broughton and Captain Thomas Grant contributed half the total and Broughton was selected to command the vessel. Nicholson Broughton, aged 50, was “a Man of some property and note in the said Town” of Marblehead, and was recommended by Glover to command the Hannah. Glover’s ledger reveals the ship’s portledge bill amounted to £44.5.4.7 while fitting out at Beverly in late August. The crew was to be fifty men. Thirty-six privates were drafted from Glover’s regiment, with twelve from Broughton’s own company. On August 24, this “Company of Volunteers arrived from Cambridge for privateering.”

By late August, Hannah had been armed with four 4-pounders, a few swivels. She was ready for her crew to go aboard. On September 2, Washington issued Broughton his sailing orders, noting that Broughton, being a “Captain in the Army of the United Colonies of North America” was to take command of his detachment and proceed aboard the Hannah, “lately fitted out & equipp’d with Arms, Ammunition and Provisions,” and now at Beverly. Washington ordered the vessel to, “…cruize against such vessels as may be found . . . bound inward and outward to and from Boston, in the service of the [British] army, and to take and seize all such vessels, laden with soldiers, arms, ammunition, or provisions . . . which you shall have good reason to suspect are in such service.”

Hannah set sail from the harbor of Beverly on September 5, 1775, but fled to the protection of the harbor of Gloucester two days later under the pursuit of HM Frigate Lively under Captain Thomas Bishop and HM Sloop Savage (Commander Hugh Bromedge). Leaving Gloucester harbor, Hannah captured HMS Unity. Hannah‘s brief naval career ended on October 10, 1775, when she was run aground under the guns of a small American fort near Beverly by the British sloop Nautilus. After a four-hour engagement between the British ship and Beverly and Salem militias on the shore, Hannah was saved from destruction and capture. Nautilus was badly damaged, but managed to escape with the rising tide around 8 p.m..

Hannah was returned to her owners about November 5. According to legend, soon after Hannah‘s decommissioning, the schooner was towed to Lee’s Wharf in Manchester, where its name was changed to Lynch. There, the vessel was restored to working condition by 7 carpenters over the course of three weeks. In March of 1777, Lynch was sent to France with congressional correspondence for Benjamin Franklin, who was there as U.S. Ambassador. Upon embarking on their journey back to the U.S., Lynch and its crew were captured by British ship HMS Foudroyant. The ship was sold as a prize by the British and documentation indicates that the schooner was used as a merchant vessel thereafter. Most modern scholars however believe the ship was completely destroyed or at least damaged beyond repair, thus rendering the true fate of the ship unknown.

First American floating battery
First American floating battery

In September 1775, the Americans launched two strong floating batteries on the Charles River that could be floated down to attack Boston. The batteries had walls built up with holes in the sides for muskets and holes in the bottom for oars. Large guns were situated on top. The batteries fired on Boston on October 26 causing some damage and consternation. In October, Washington also commissioned two schooners, the Lynch and the Franklin (previously the 60-ton Eliza owned by Archibald Selman of Marblehead and taken up on October 5), to cruise the Bay.

Joseph Reed letter to John Glover, October 20, 1775.
Joseph Reed letter to John Glover, October 20, 1775.

When speaking of these schooners, Colonel Joseph Reed, Washington’s secretary, in a letter from Cambridge, Mass. to Colonels Glover and Moyland, dated October 20, 1775, said,

We have accounts that the small squadron which sailed some time ago is bombarding Fulmouth and Portsmouth. Our vessels must be careful how they fall in with them. Please to fix upon some particular colour for a flag, and a signal by which our vessels may know one another. What do you think of a flag with a white ground, a tree in the middle, the motto “Appeal to Heaven?” This is the flag of our floating batteries.

We are fitting out two vessels at Plymouth, and when I next hear from you on this subject, I will let them know the flag and the signal, that we may distinguish our friends from our foes. You will hasten the equipment of the other two vessels as fast as possible.”

Alongside other Marblehead schooners, the 60-ton ex-fishing vessel Franklin, the Warren (previously the 64-ton Hawk owned by John Twisdon of Marblehead), the Hancock (the 72-ton ex-Speedwell owned by Thomas Grant of Marblehead), and the Lee (formerly the 74-ton schooner Two Brothers), the first Continental navy was assembled on Boston’s north shore. Three of the four captains of the ships were residents of Marblehead; John Selman, John Manley, and James Mugford who respectively commanded Warren, Lee and Franklin during 1775 and into 1776. Along with another Marblehead native and naval Captain Samuel Tucker, General Washington’s Fleet raided enemy British ships up and down the Massachusetts coast. “With crews of experienced Marblehead seamen, these bold and highly skilled mariners captured enemy supply ships filled with ammunition and armaments that were crucial to the American cause of independence.

By February 1, 1776, a total of seven such “armed Vessels” of the “United Colonies of North America” had been commissioned by Washington. These were the Lynch, Franklin, Lee, Warren, Washington, Harrison (a 64-ton schooner formerly named the Triton owned by Daniel Adams). and Hancock.

The ship named after the general had begun life as a 160-ton schooner named Endeavor which was acquired by General George Washington in early October 1775 from George Erving and Captain Benjamin Wormwell of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Renamed Washington, the schooner was fitted out at Plymouth, Massachusetts, and was re-rigged as an armed brigantine at the behest of her prospective commanding officer, a Continental Army officer from Rhode Island, Capt. Sion Martindale.

On November 3, 1775, Washington’s charter was consummated, and the newly-dubbed USS Washington was authorized to operate off the New England coast between Cape Cod and Cape Ann in the hope of disrupting British shipping. She had a complement of 74 and her armament consisted of six 6-pounder guns, four 4-pounder guns, and ten swivel guns. Washington sailed in company with the schooner Harrison on November 23. No more than three leagues from shore, both Continental ships came across the British frigate HMS Tartar and two forage-laden transports. The British ships scared off and separated and Washington and Harrison chased the ship until well after nightfall. Although Washington spent most of November 25 looking for Harrison, she did not find her.

John Glover (November 5, 1732 – January 30, 1797) was an American fisherman, merchant, and military leader from Marblehead, Massachusetts, who served as a brigadier general in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. Glover marched his regiment to join the siege of Boston in June 1775. At Boston, General George Washington chartered Glover's schooner Hannah to raid British supply vessels, the first of many privateers or warship authorized by Washington. After Washington lost the Battle of Long Island (aka Battle of Brooklyn) in August 1776, Glover's Marbleheaders evacuated the army across the East River to Manhattan Island in a surprise nighttime operation, saving them from being entrapped in their fortified trenches on Brooklyn Heights. In subsequent actions of the New York campaign the regiment fought well against the British at Kip's Bay when the Redcoats invaded landing on Manhattan and Pell's Point. The last action of the regiment was its most famous: ferrying Washington's army on confiscated river coal ore boats from upstream across the Delaware River at night for a surprise attack on German Hessian allied mercenaries at Trenton in New Jersey on Christmas night, the morning of December 26, 1776.
John Glover (November 5, 1732 – January 30, 1797) was an American fisherman, merchant, and military leader from Marblehead, Massachusetts, who served as a brigadier general in the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. Glover marched his regiment to join the siege of Boston in June 1775. At Boston, General George Washington chartered Glover’s schooner Hannah to raid British supply vessels, the first of many privateers or warship authorized by Washington. After Washington lost the Battle of Long Island (aka Battle of Brooklyn) in August 1776, Glover’s Marbleheaders evacuated the army across the East River to Manhattan Island in a surprise nighttime operation, saving them from being entrapped in their fortified trenches on Brooklyn Heights. In subsequent actions of the New York campaign the regiment fought well against the British at Kip’s Bay when the Redcoats invaded landing on Manhattan and Pell’s Point. The last action of the regiment was its most famous: ferrying Washington’s army on confiscated river coal ore boats from upstream across the Delaware River at night for a surprise attack on German Hessian allied mercenaries at Trenton in New Jersey on Christmas night, the morning of December 26, 1776.

Soon thereafter, she captured the provision-laden, 80-ton sloop Britannia and turned her over to Continental authorities before returning to sea on the 28th. However, stormy weather and a poorly disciplined crew caused Washington to head back to port the next day. Back at Plymouth, it was ascertained that some of the men’s grumblings had been occasioned by their contention that they had enlisted to serve as soldiers in the army, not as sailors. Moreover, a lack of winter clothing demoralized the crew. They were quickly supplied with suitable winter outfits, and the ship returned to sea on Sunday, December 3, 1775.

Late the next day, the British 6th rate, 20-gun frigate HMS Fowey, cruising Massachusetts Bay on the lookout for “rebel cruisers,” in company with HMS Lively, sighted Washington and gave chase.
Just before nightfall, Fowey reached gun range and fired a warning shot. Seven subsequent rounds brought the brigantine to, and she lowered her colors. Taken to Boston, Massachusetts, Washington, upon inspection by the Royal Navy, was deemed unsuitable for British operations on the high seas.

British Admiral Hugh Palliser wrote of the capture in a letter to the Earl of Sandwich on January 6, 1776. In the letter he made this mention of the flag, “Captain Medows has brought the American vesell’s Colours, it is a white field with a green Pine Tree in the middle, the motto, Appeal to Heaven.” The flag was taken back to Britain and paraded in the streets. Newspapers accounts described the flag similarly.

The brigantine USS Washington eventually rotted away at Boston.

In April 1776, the Massachusetts council passed a series of resolutions for the regulation of the sea service, among which was the following:

Resolved, that the uniform of the officers be green and white, and that the Colours be a white Flag, with a green Pine Tree, and an Inscription, ‘An Appeal to Heaven’.”

Subsequently, the Massachusetts General Court established the flag of the state navy on July 26, 1776, with a similar flag minus the inscription. The Massachusetts Navy sailed 25 ships during the war to defend Massachusetts from the British. The Massachusetts Navy never disbanded, but was eventually absorbed into the United States Navy.

Illustration from an 1885 American high school textbook, titled
Illustration from an 1885 American high school textbook, titled “History of the US”. Shows the “Appeal to Heaven” pine tree flag and Gadsden flag at the top, the “Grand Union” flag and a 45-star version of the United States flag (used 1896-1908) in the center, and two versions of the New England flag (one with an incorrect globe taken from an old erroneous flag chart) at the bottom.

The pine tree was a common symbol used to represent freedom in New England from the 1600s until 1776 when the Americans began to adopt other flags such as the Grand Union Flag and 13 Star Flag as their national flags. It had been depicted on the flag of New England flown by colonial merchant ships dating back to 1686. The citizens of Boston had been gathering around the “Liberty Tree,” which was an old elm tree on the corners of Essex and Orange streets, since the days of the Stamp Act protests in 1765. In mid-1775, Boston loyalists cut the tree down. Flags bearing a Liberty Tree began popping up all over the place after this.

The white pine found in New England, specifically the eastern white pine (Pinus strobus) with heights exceeding 150 feet, was highly desirable for constructing masts in shipbuilding. Twenty years after arrival in the new world, the Pilgrims harvested and exported these pines as far as Madagascar. Due to lack of supply of suitable lumber on the island, England reserved 24-inch (61 cm) diameter trees under the Mast Preservation Clause in the Massachusetts Charter in 1691. The trees were identified by a Surveyor of the King’s Woods (a position of preferment) who would in turn appoint deputies to survey and place the broad arrow symbol on the tree from three hatchet slashings denoting property of the Crown.

The broad arrow statutes were not immediately enforced, due to England having access to other sources of timber in the Baltic. However, when this source diminished, additional broad arrow policies acts were passed and enforcement increased in North America.

The statutes required colonists prior to harvesting trees from their property to have a King’s Surveyor mark the larger diameter trees with the broad arrow and then purchase a royal license to harvest the trees not marked with the broad arrow. The colonists resented the strictures on the timber used for their needs and livelihoods. Prohibitions were disregarded and they practiced “Swamp Law”, where the pines were harvested according to their needs regardless of statutes.

A version of the Pine Tree flag, combining it with the Rattlesnake flag.
A version of the Pine Tree flag, combining it with the Rattlesnake flag.

In New Hampshire enforcement led to the Pine Tree Riot in 1772, where a statute had been in effect since 1722 protecting 12 inch diameter trees. After being fined and refusing to pay for possessing trees marked with the broad arrow, a New Hampshire mill owner leading other mill owners and townsmen assaulted the Sheriff and his Deputy sent to arrest him by giving him one lash with a tree switch for every tree which the mill owners were fined, cutting the ears, manes, and tails off their horses, and forced them out of town through a jeering crowd. This was one of the first acts of forceful protest against British policies. It occurred almost two years prior to the more well-known Boston Tea Party protest and three years before open hostilities began at the Battles of Lexington and Concord.

Months prior to Colonel Reed’s suggestion for using the pine, the pine was used on the flag that the Colonists flew at the Battle of Bunker Hill in June 1775. The historically accepted flag has a red field with the green pine tree in the upper left corner as depicted in John Trumbull’s The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, June 17, 1775 painting. Provided Colonel Reed was aware of the Bunker Hill flag, there was precedent to incorporate the pine in another Colonial martial flag.

Given the pine tree’s significance to the Colonists and since the flag was to fly over Colonial warships, the pine offered an appropriate and ironic symbol due to it flying atop the very structure the British had sought to harvest the white pine for.

The phrase “An Appeal to Heaven” is a particular expression of the right of revolution used by British philosopher John Locke in Second Treatise on Civil Government which was published in 1690 as part of Two Treatises of Government refuting the theory of the divine right of kings.

Locke’s works were well-known and frequently quoted by colonial leaders, being the most quoted authority on government in the 1760-1776 period prior to American independence. Thomas Jefferson was accused of plagiarizing Locke in certain sections of the Declaration of Independence by fellow Virginian delegate Richard Henry Lee.

Prior to Colonel Reed’s suggestion and Massachusetts General Court establishing the Pine Tree flag as the standard of the Massachusetts navy, “an appeal to Heaven” or similar expressions had been invoked by the Massachusetts Provincial Congress in several resolutions, Patrick Henry in his Liberty or Death speech, and the Second Continental Congress in the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms. Subsequently, it was used again by the Second Continental Congress in the Declaration of Independence.

United States - Scott #1354a - strip of 10 (Scott #1345-1354)
United States – Scott #1354a – strip of 10 (Scott #1345-1354)

Ten different flags that Americans carried as colonists and as citizens of a new nation were reproduced on one pane of fifty stamps (Scott #(Scott #1345-1354). They were first placed on sale on July 4, 1968, at Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where the Allegheny Trails Council, Boy Scouts of America, dedicated its Flag Plaza and program and service center. The series consisted of the Ft. Moultrie Flag (1776); the Ft. McHenry Flag (1795-1818); Washington’s Cruisers Flag (1775); Bennington Flag (1777); Rhode Island Flag (1775); First Stars and Stripes (1777); Bunker Hill Flag (1775);Grand Union Flag (1776); Philadelphia Light Horse Flag (1775); First Navy Jack (1775). The ten flags were arranged vertically on the pane in the order listed above.

The stamps had an initial printing of 120 million by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing using the Giori press with a total of 228,040,000 stamps issued, perforated 11. The 6-cent Washington’s Cruisers Flag stamp was printed in dark blue and olive green.

Washington's Cruisers Flag, 1775.
Washington’s Cruisers Flag, 1775
Naval Ensign of Massachusetts
Naval Ensign of Massachusetts
Flag of New England, 1686
Flag of New England, 1686
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