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. It 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.
They took Dudingston 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 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. He had linen in the trunk, he said. With Bucklin’s help, Mawney stanched the bleeding from Dudingston’s femoral artery, saving his life. The raiders carried Dudingston out of the cabin and took him ashore. He survived to continue his naval career and died a rich man in Scotland.
Loaded Into Longboats
One by one, the raiders loaded the captured crewmen of the Gaspee into the longboats with their possessions. The sun would soon rise, and they had left one boat and the leaders of the raid behind. They took the Gaspee crew to the cellar of a house, the wounded Dudingston 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, newspapers printed nothing 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. A friend of John Brown and his family, he sympathized with the colony’s merchants suddenly pushed around by rude and condescending British customs officials. Wanton, though a wealthy merchant, did not want war with the British.
Wanton received an appointment as 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 persons unknown had undertaken the Gaspee Affair.
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 festival is usually a big deal, with the Gaspee Days Parade, fireworks, a concert by the Warwick Symphony and the burning of the Gaspee. This year it won’t happen because of the pandemic, save for a virtual road race. Organizers issued a plea for donations (click here). This story was updated in 2020.