The Gaspee Affair was a seminal event in the American War for Independence that predates the Boston Tea Party. The confrontation also is where the Patriots fired the first shot of the Revolutionary War, three years before the Shot Heard Round The World at Concord. That the shooter fired at sea and not on land gets to the core of the American grievances with the Crown: onerous customs taxes that made legal commerce nearly impossible. However, the Gaspee Affair is as lost in the sea of history as the ship itself as the man who fired that first shot. Allow me to rescue him -- and his commander.
Joseph Bucklin V was born on March 2, 1754, in Providence, Rhode Island. His father was Captain Joseph Bucklin IV, who was born on February 20, 1719, in Bristol, Massachusetts. He retired from the sea and ran a restaurant.
Evading the taxes demanded by the Crown created black market for smugglers. Following Lord North's promotion to the prime ministry in 1770, the Royal Navy cracked down on smuggling.
Lieutenant William Dudingston was a particularly nasty tax collector as commander of H.B.M. Schooner Gaspee, a revenue cutter. He and his crew boarded ships and confiscated cargo without regard to guilt or innocence. His aim was not collecting taxes but to punish merchants who joined the Sons of Liberty, a group of Patriots. At Bucklin IV's restaurant, Patriots plotted to bring Dudingston down. On the night of June 9, 1772, Captain Benjamin Lindsey of the Hannah, deliberately lured the British into the shallow waters of Narragansett Bay, off Rhode Island. Dudingston ran the Gaspee aground off Namquit Point, near present-day Warwick, Rhode Island.
That is when the fun began. Captain Abraham Whipple led a party of 50 men to row to the helpless ship and loot and burn it. Born on September 26, 1733, in Providence, Rhode Island, Whipple was a veteran of the French and Indian War. As a privateer he and his crew aboard the Gamecock captured 23 French ships in a six-month period in 1759 and 1760, which was a nice haul.
The attack on the Gaspee marked the return of Whipple to action. The grounding of the Gaspee was all part of a grand plan. Whipple had collected the eight largest longboats in the harbor and swore his 50 men to secrecy beforehand. They made sure they muffled the oars and the rowlocks, and placed the boats at Fenner’s wharf. Once the signal came that the ship was aground, Whipple and company took action.
One of his men was Joseph Bucklin V, just 18. In the darkness as they boarded the ship, Bucklin identified Dudingston. Bucklin turned to his friend, Ephraim Bowen, and said, “Ephe, reach me your gun, and I can kill that fellow.”
Bucklin fired and the commander fell. Apparently, besides being a bully, Dudingston was a drama queen. His acted as if he was going to die. Americans tended his wounds, then proceeded to rob the ship blind before setting it on fire.
Edward Thurlow, the attorney general of England and Wales in 1772, declared the shooting of Dudingston an act of treason. King George III put a price of £1,000 on Bucklin's head. However, bringing the Americans to justice proved folly. Everyone in town knew who boarded the ship, but no one was foolish enough to attempt prosecution against the popular Patriots. A royal inquiry also resulted in no arrests.
Captain James Wallace of HMS Rose wrote Whipple, "You Abraham Whipple on June 10, 1772, burned his majesty's vessel the Gaspee and I will hang you at the yardarm!"
Whipple wrote back, "Sir, always catch a man before you hang him."
Alas, Joseph Bucklin V would not survive the war. He died in 1781 at sea.
But Whipple lived on. Three years after destroying the Gaspee, and shortly after the Battle of Lexington and Concord, the Rhode Island legislature named him commodore of the colony's navy, which consisted of two ships. His first target was Captain Wallace and the Rose.His mission was to clear the bay of British ships. On June 15, 1775, he fired the first American shot at a British ship, the armed sloop Diana, which soon became his first prize. By the day's end, Americans had recaptured five of the six American merchant ships that Wallace had confiscated. That was the first naval battle of the Revolutionary War. There would be many others. Whipple landed the first captaincy in the Continental Navy on December 22, 1776, when Congress gave him command of 24-gun ship Columbus. A young officer named John Paul Jones eagerly hoisted a flag of the new nation, although it was not the Betsy Ross flag.
Whipple and his sailors would inflict nearly £1 million worth of damage to the British Navy during the course of the war. However, in the Seige of Charleston, South Carolina, the British took Whipple as a prisoner of war on May 12, 1780. They paroled him to Chester, Pennsylvania, and he sat out the rest of the war, after which he took up farming near Cranston, Rhode Island, later moving to Marietta, Ohio, where he died at 86 on May 19, 1819, America's first naval hero.
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