To read Part 1 of this story about the Gaspee Affair, click here.
Early in the morning of June 10, 1772, some of Rhode Island’s most prominent citizens rowed out to the hated revenue schooner HMS Gaspee, which had run aground in Narragansett Bay near Warwick, R.I. The raiders intended to capture her crew.
They hadn’t planned on 18-year-old Joseph Bucklin taking a shot at the Gaspee’s commander, Lt. William Dudingston, as their longboats approached the ship.
Their attack on a British military vessel would be considered treason and an act of war. A Royal Commission of Inquiry would investigate, and the Gaspee raiders would potentially be tried in England. But silence surrounded the capture and burning of the Gaspee, and the raiders went unpunished. The prospect that they could be tried and hanged in England set in motion the events that led to the American Revolution.
Many Rhode Islanders celebrate Joseph Bucklin’s shot as the first shot of the Revolution.
As Dudingston lay bleeding on the deck, more than 100 Sons of Liberty swarmed over the vessel and overtook the crew. Dudingston, thinking himself mortally wounded, surrendered the ship. The Gaspee raiders took the crewmen captive, tying their hands.
Dudingston was taken below deck, and John Brown told John Mawney to attend to him. Mawney, a wealthy young doctor, found Dudingston lying under a white blanket, blood spurting from his femoral artery. Bucklin, who was in the cabin with Dudingston, had shot him in the left arm and the groin, five inches below his naval.
Mawney began to tear his shirt to make bandages, but Dudingston told him not to, there was linen in the trunk. With Bucklin's help, Mawney stanched the bleeding from Dudingston’s femoral artery, saving his life. Dudingston was carried out of the cabin and taken ashore. He survived to continue his naval career and died a rich man in Scotland.
Loaded Into Longboats
One by one, the captured crewmen of the Gaspee were loaded into the longboats with their possessions. It was shortly before dawn, and they had left one boat and the leaders of the raid behind. The Gaspee crew would be taken to the cellar of a house, the wounded Dudingston taken separately to a home where a doctor would take care of him.
Left behind were the leaders of the raid, including prominent Rhode Islanders John Brown and Abraham Whipple. They went through Dudingston’s papers and then, as dawn broke, set fire to the ship and boarded their longboat. First the hull of the schooner burned, then the two masts. On shore, people heard a set of explosions when the fire reached the powder magazine. The Gaspee burned to the waterline.
To protect the raiders, nothing was written about the affair. The British attorney general and solicitor issued opinions that the raid on the vessel was treason and an act of war.
The Gaspee Affair put Rhode Island Gov. Joseph Wanton in a bind. He was a friend of John Brown and his family, and he sympathized with the colony’s merchants who were suddenly pushed around by rude and condescending British customs officials. Wanton himself was a wealthy merchant – but he did not want war with the British.
Wanton was appointed chairman of the Royal Commission of Inquiry. He managed to placate the British authorities in England and to delay the proceedings. Rhode Islanders fiercely protected the identities of the raiders during the months of the inquiry and afterwards. In the end, the commission determined that the Gaspee Affair had been undertaken by persons unknown.
Wanton would serve as governor until the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1775. But since he wanted to avoid war with Britain, he was called a Loyalist. He managed to stay neutral, and the patriots left his property alone – unlike other provincial governors.
But the possibility of the Gaspee raiders would be sent to Britain and tried for treason so alarmed the colonists that they began to form committees of correspondence. Those committees would serve as shadow governments and catalysts for the American Revolution.
The annual Gaspee Days Parade will be held on June 10, 2017. Fireworks and a concert by the Warwick Symphony will be held June 3, and the burning of the Gaspee will take place on Sunday, June 11. For many more details about the Gaspee Affair, go to www.gaspee.info and www.gaspee.org. For information about Gaspee Days, click here. This story was updated in 2017.