Samuel Smedley captured a dozen British vessels during the American Revolution, but the biggest obstacle to greater glory was the stinginess of Gov. Jonathan Trumbull.
Smedley, the baby-faced captain of the Connecticut Navy brig Defence, had a glorious but brief career in the Connecticut State Navy.
Over three years, the Defence captured 12 vessels and brought $500,000 into the treasury of Connecticut. Much of that went to the war effort. But Smedley must have chafed at Trumbull’s refusal to share prize money with the crew the same way it was shared with crews of privateers and the Continental Navy.
And perhaps the Defence wouldn’t have run up on a reef and bilged in Long Island Sound if Trumbull had had a more generous spirit.
He was born March 5, 1753 in Fairfield, Conn., into a prosperous family. Fairfield mariners traded frequently with the West Indies, and Smedley likely grew up on boats.
He married Esther Rowland and had two daughters, Esther and Elizabeth, both of whom died in infancy. The one image of him known to survive shows a baby-faced sailor. When the Defence captured the Admiral Keppel, the captain upon seeing Smedley supposedly uttered an exclamation. ’There is little hope of conquering an enemy whose very schoolboys are capable of valor equaling that of trained veterans of naval warfare.”
When the American Revolution broke out, Connecticut made an easy target for British soldiers and sailors.
The British army encamped directly across the Long Island Sound, and the British fleet tried to control the Sound. So the Connecticut Assembly decided to build a two-ship navy. It bought the Defence and fitted her out for war, and built the warship Oliver Cromwell.
In February 1776, Defence was commissioned in New Haven with Seth Harding as captain, Ebenezer Bartram as first lieutenant and young Samuel Smedley as second lieutenant. Bartram and Smedley had recruited much of the 100-man crew from Fairfield and Stratford.
Four months later, Defence sailed into Boston Harbor with two captured ships and a brig with 330 officers and men from a Highland Regiment. “This event was perhaps about as daring a piece of work that ever happened in the naval history of the Atlantic Seaboard,” wrote Louis F. Middlebrook.
They took the booty to the Admiralty Court, which had to judge whether they’d captured a legitimate prize or committed an act of piracy. The Court ruled the former, and the naval agent sent the supplies for the troops to George Washington’s army, then in New York. The men of the Defence got no reward for their valor, except perhaps bragging rights.
Private vs. Public
Warships had to compete with privateers for crews, which wasn’t easy. Life onboard for the common sailor was disagreeable at best. On top of brutally hard work, danger, foul accommodations and lousy food, he risked violent whippings with the lash. To attract able-bodied mariners, ship captains had to award them with a portion of any prize they captured. Privateers kept nearly all the prize they captured, and typically the crew got half.
But the Continental Congress decided that the crews of the Navy would only get one-third of a prize. They’d get half for warships or English privateers.
That didn’t work—everyone wanted to work on a privateer. So Congress changed the rules. The crews of the Continental Navy would get half of the proceeds from a merchant ship, and 100 percent for a warship.
Connecticut, however, stuck to the original rule – crews only got a third of a prize. And so its Navy – the Defence and the Oliver Cromwell – couldn’t find enough sailors.
By 1777, 23-year-old Samuel Smedley had risen to captain of the Defence after Harding and Bartram took ill. He found a way to recruit enough men: a rather big lie. He promised them half of any prizes they captured.
Blood in his Eye
The Defence cruised down to the Caribbean and captured four merchant ships between March 12 and April 20, a spectacular success. But when the men learned they’d only get a third of the booty, they mobbed the office of the agent responsible for processing the prizes. The agent had to divide 1,200 pounds among the crew to make them go away.
Smedley returned home to find British soldiers had burned his house during William Tryon’s raid on Danbury. No doubt he had blood in his eye as he tried to assemble a crew.
This time he didn’t try to trick the sailors. Instead, he won a concession from Gov. Jonathan Trumbull: He and his crew would get half the proceeds from a captured vessel for just that one cruise. So they sailed to the Caribbean in the spring and summer of 1778 and took three prizes – another wildly successful voyage.
Smedley pleaded with Trumbull to let him offer his mariners half the proceeds if they captured a merchant vessel on the next cruise. Trumbull refused.
The captain of the state navy’s other ship, the Oliver Cromwell, also had problems recruiting sailors. Why would a sailor sign on with the Connecticut Navy, which only offered one-third of a prize, when the Continental Navy and privateers would give them half? Still Trumbull refused to change the rule. Finally, the Connecticut Assembly intervened and voted to give its navy crews half the booty from a prize ship.
But by then it was too late. The Continental Navy and privateers had taken all the sailors. So Smedley sailed the Defence to New London, where Continental Army soldiers manned the ship. The outcome was perhaps predictable. The incompetent pilot wrecked the ship on a reef. Four or five men drowned.
“I never Emplored my pen in writing more Disagreeable News than at this time,” wrote Samuel Smedley, in a letter breaking the bad news to Trumbull in March 1779.
Revenge — Not
Samuel Smedley’s luck had definitely turned. Still vowing revenge for the devastation wrought by Tryon’s troops, he arranged for command and part ownership of a privateer, the Recovery. Ready to weigh anchor in January 1780, the frozen New London harbor delayed his departure. When the Recovery finally sailed in mid-February, she was overtaken by the British warship Galatea after a seven-hour chase. The British took Smedley and all his men prisoner and incarcerated them in a prison ship in New York—probably more dangerous than combat at sea.
The Americans traded him for a British prisoner, and he and his men found another privateer, the Hibernia. Again Smedley had part ownership. It didn’t do him any good, as the British again captured his vessel 14 days after leaving New York Harbor. He ended up in the Old Mill Prison in Portsmouth, England.
Smedley wrote from prison to his wife on May 25, 1781, describing his condition as ‘cruelly treated, half starved and half naked.’
He managed to escape, probably because his friends bribed a guard to look the other way. Then he made his way to France, where he got a loan from Benjamin Franklin. He also had his portrait painted in miniature.
The American legation needed to find a friendly vessel to carry military supplies for the war effort, and found one, the Heer Adams. They engaged Smedley as master of the ship, and he had an uneventful – for once — voyage to Philadelphia.
Smedley in Fairfield
Smedley went back to Fairfield to rebuild his house. In 1789, he wrote a letter to President George Washington, asking him to nominate him as Collector of the Port of Fairfield. He noted that he had ‘sufferd the Loss of the greater part of his Paternal Inheritance by the Ravages of A Cruel Enemy.’
He got the job, which proved more lucrative – and, apparently, more memorable– than his swashbuckling career at sea. His gravestone in the Old Burying Ground reads:
Samuel Smedley Esqr.
late Collector of Customs
for the District of Fairfield
Died June 13, 1812
With thanks to Exploits of the Connecticut ship “Defence,” commanded by Captain Samuel Smedley of Fairfield, Ct. by Louis F. Middlebrook and Samuel Smedley and Prize Division by Jackson Kuhl for the Journal of the American Revolution. This story was updated in 2021.