Abraham Whipple, great great grandson of Captain John Whipple of Providence R. I. and eldest son and fourth child and of Noah Whipple, Jr. and Mary Dexter, was born 26 September 1733 in Providence and died 86 years later. He married a distant cousin Sarah Hopkins at Providence 26 August 1761. His introduction to the sea was probably as a privateer with his cousin Esek Hopkins when he was in his early teens. He rose rapidly, commanding his first ship in his 20s. In 1759-1760 (the French and Indian War period), he commanded the privateer Gamecock and captured 23 French ships in one six-month cruise. He delighted in daring exploits and never withdrew from dangerous circumstances.
The evening of June 9, 1772, Abe led the Providence Sons of Liberty in an act of rebellion against his Majesty’s customs ship Gaspé , commanded by Lieut William Dudingston, which lay aground on a sand spit near Nanquit Point in Narragansett Bay. They set fire to the Gaspé and its gunpowder exploded and it burned to the waterline. The British could not let this successful act of rebellion go unpunished and offered a thousand British pounds reward for information “under pledge of amnesty and secrecy”about the people involved. The people of Providence so strongly supported the actions of Abe and his followers, they did not respond to the reward offer. Instead, a doggerel broadsheet was widely circulated:
King George has offered very stout
One thousand pounds to find out one
that wounded William Dudingston.
One thousand more he says he’ll spare
for those who say they sheriffs were.
Likewise 500 pounds per man
For any one of all the clan.
But let him try his utmost skill
I’m apt to think he never will
Find out any of those hearts of gold
Though he should offer fifty-fold.
This ended his long, loyal and faithful allegiance to the Crown and he became committed to a cause: Revolution and gained a reputation as a patriot. His Hopkins cousins who played an important role in his life were Stephen who served several terms as Rhode Island’s Governor and represented it in the Continental Congress where he signed the Declaration of Independence. Esek was the first Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Navy.
Beginning in 1774 the British sent more ships and soldiers to the Colonies believing they would curtail an ever increasing level of discontent with laws passed by Parliament that put unacceptable restrictions on American commerce. However, by December 16 rebellious activity reached its high point when Boston patriots threw tea into the harbor rather than pay the newly imposed tea tax. Providence held its “tea party” on March 2, 1775. Tea was piled up in market Square, tar poured over it to ensure a good blaze, one of Prime Minister Lord North’s speeches placed on top, and the pile set afire. The word “tea” was eliminated from all the shop signs on Towne street. Britain reacted to the Boston Tea Party by occupying the city and closing its port but ignored the Providence demonstration.
Rhode Island didn’t ignore what it believed to be British repression and on June 15 its Legislature, at the urging of Governor Hopkins, authorized the purchase and arming of two sloops. Abe was named Commodore of the two-vessel fleet: the 12-gun Katy, his ship, and an 8-gunner commanded by Capt. Grimes. Abe’s wages were “up to £9 lawful money.” His commission was signed July 2, two days before the bloody battle of Bunker Hill and two days short of the third anniversary of the Gaspé burning.
Abe immediately sailed the Katy into Narragansett Bay to engage HMS Rose and her fleet of tenders which were blockading the Bay. Sir James Wallace, Commander of the fleet, had threatened to hang anyone taking arms against King George. The threat meant nothing to Abe and he successfully engaged the Rose, captured one of her tenders, disabled two others, and temporarily freed the Bay allowing a large number of homeward-bound vessels to enter the port. Thus Abe was responsible for firing the first gun of the Revolution against the enemy on water. With this act of open rebellion, it was no longer necessary to hide the identity of the Gaspé participants and Abe’s role was made known to Wallace who sent him this message: “You, Abraham Whipple, on the 17th of June 1772, burned his Majesty’s vessel Gaspé and I will hang you at the yardarm. James Wallace.” Abe’s terse reply: “Sir: Always catch a man before you hang him. Abraham Whipple.”
George III’s Proclamation of Rebellion by America August 23, 1775 ended any hope of reconciliation between Britain and her American colonies. George Washington, who had been appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Army June 15, needed gunpowder for his rapidly growing forces and sent Abe orders via Rhode Island’s Gov. Cooke to sail to Bermuda and seize the powder magazine there. He sailed on the Providence (the Katy’s new name) September 12 or 20 and successfully eluded the net of British ships blockading the Bay. He made good time but Britain’s Gen. Gage, anticipating the maneuver, had already moved the powder. Abe was back in Province October 20, narrowly escaping capture by two British men-of-war. Though he returned empty handed, he achieved a public relations success by entertaining five members of the Bermuda Council on board the Providence who assured him their people were “hearty friends to the American cause.” Duty done, he returned to the more pleasing duty of harassing the enemy in the Bay.
Heartened by Abe’s success against the Rose and its tenders, the Rhode Island Assembly instructed its delegates to the Continental Congress in August – Abe’s cousin Stephen Hopkins and Samuel Ward — to work for the establishment of a Continental Navy. Congress acted favorably on October 13 and appointed a Committee of three which on the 30th recommended building a fleet “for the protection and defense of the United Colonies.”
The first American men-of-war were converted merchantmen. Abe was named Captain of the 300-ton Columbus (formerly the Sally) and John Burrows Hopkins, Esek’s son and Abe’s father-in-law, was given command of the Cabot, third largest of the four-ship fleet. The other two were Esek’s flagship Alfred and the Andrew Doria. Stephen Hopkins had made sure his kin were to control the country’s first Navy.
Abe left for Philadelphia November 26 to accept his commission from the Congress. On January 5, 1776, the Marine Committee ordered Hopkins to take his flotilla and clear Chesapeake Bay of enemy ships if possible, then take command of the seas off North and South Carolina, and when that was accomplished to go to Rhode Island and destroy the enemy there. He was given discretion to use his own judgment if weather or other unforseen problems arose. Abe placed himself under Esek’s command January 6 when Esek took command of his little fleet in a formal and colorful ceremony before a crowd at the foot of Walnut street in Philadelphia. John Paul Jones, senior Lieutenant of the Alfred, hoisted the ensign that had been adopted as the official naval flag and the guns were fired in salute. The American Navy was official.
Esek’s fleet fought through the ice in Delaware Bay February 17 and left on their only cruise as a unit. A gale off Cape Hatteras scattered them and when they regrouped Hopkins opted for the discretion clause and sailed to the Bahamas where he hoped to obtain a large supply of badly-needed gunpowder. They captured Fort Nassau on the island of New Providence and seized 450 tons of military stores including 24 large caliber cannon, 50 other large guns, and 24 casks of powder. They also took the Governor and a few other important persons back as prisoners.
They left for home March 17 and enroute Abe captured the six-gun schooner Hawk, a British “bomb” ship. In addition to the military supplies captured, it drew British ships away from blockaded ports allowing American merchant vessels to deliver badly needed supplies to the Colonies.
Abe received orders June 16 to go to sea “as soon as possible” and cruise “until your provisions are out” or until he had taken too many prizes to make it safe to continue. Though undermanned, he sailed from Newport, R. I. June 18 and just off Brenton Reef came upon HMS Cerberus. They exchanged broadsides before the British ship went skimming away to the east. After Hopkins, Biddle, and Whipple were back in Narragansett Bay, Admiral Howe dispatched a squadron to patrol the coast to make sure they stayed there. They had freedom of movement between Newport and Providence but sailing beyond the Bay was risky. They also suffered personnel problems. George Washington took 175 of their marines to help in the battle to save New York and 100 seamen became sick with “malignant fever.” Previously, they had left 202 sick seamen in New London, Connecticut.
On August 6, 1776, Abe and Nicholas Biddle, Captain of the Andrew Doria, were ordered to intercept the homeward-bound Jamaica fleet. Though way undermanned, they left August 10 and successfully ran the British gauntlet. Ten days later they came upon a 64-gun two-decker enemy ship (more than their combined arament) and quickly fled going their separate ways never to rejoin. Abe eventually found the Jamaican fleet off Newfoundland and captured five large sugar-laden merchantmen and reached Portsmouth, N.H. September 29 with his prizes (three were retaken).
The first roll of Captains published in October 1776 listed Abe twelfth which made him first of the Rhode Island Captains. John Paul Jones was listed 18th out of 25. The Marine Committee considered Abe one of the most able Captains to serve in the Navy and it listened to his concerns, which included captured crew members. No provision had been made for their welfare until Abe convinced Esek to present the issue to the Committee which agreed that captured seamen would continue to be paid.
In 1777, Abe was ordered to superintend the final fitting of the Warren and the Providence in Newport and take the Columbus, “which was very foul,” there for cleaning. The ships were ready in early December but the British fleet arrived with 5,000 troops on the 7th and conquered Newport along with most of the other communities on Aquidneck Island. Abe and John Hopkins saved the ships by sailing them to Providence where they were protected by the American forces commanded by Maj. Gen. Joseph Spencer (member of the Continental Congress in 1778 and 1779). The occupation of Newport was a major disaster for the Continental Navy. The British now had a major base in Narragansett Bay giving them an even tighter noose around the American ships.
His orders on March 20, 1778 were to carry dispatches from Congress “to our Ministers in France.” Congress considered the information so important he was to leave despite the odds of breaking the British blockade. And the odds were great. There were many Tory sympathizers and informers in Providence and his orders were soon known by the British Naval Commander in Newport who positioned a 64-gun man of war and a host of frigates in the Bay to prevent his departure. Before leaving, he pledged his oath of allegiance to the Rhode Island Legislature: “I Abe Whipple, do acknowledge the United States of America to be a free, independent, and sovereign state, and duly renounce allegiance to George the Third, King of Great Britain, and I abjure my allegiance and obedience to him, and I do swear to the utmost of my power to support, maintain, and defend the said United States against the said King George III and his successors and his or their abettors . . . with fidelity according to the best of my skill.”
They left the night of April 30 under cover of a violent northeaster and heavy rainstorm. Abe selected the passage between “the island of Conanicut and the Narragansett shore” despite the 40-gun frigate Lark being moored in that channel against the island with its stern upstream and springs on her cables, ready to get underway quickly. The 64-gun Renown was in the channel below in the same state of preparation. A dozen other enemy ships were in the Bay beyond. With sails close-reefed, deck lights out, a silent crew stationed by her 28 guns with matches at the ready, the Providence crept up on the Lark and simultaneously fired a broadside while the marines fired into her quarter and main decks killing and wounding a number of her crew. She was past and lost in the darkness before the Lark could retaliate.
The Renown heard the firing so the element of surprise was lost. But Abe had a different surprise for her. He bellowed through his speaking trumpet to the helmsman to pass on the Narragansett side. The helmsman had previously been directed to luff ship and pass on the Conanicut side. The ruse worked as the crew of the Renown mustered on the starboard ready to attack while Abe, racing past on the other side, fired his starboard guns damaging her rudder. The Providence was out of sight and reach before the enemy crew could bring her larboard guns to bear. Two broadsides had alerted the other enemy ships and Abe came under fire from 11 before he zigzagged to the safety of the open sea. The following day he almost fell to a 74-gun man-of-war that crossed his course by chance. The lighter, swifter Providence was able to outsail her, captured a few prizes en route, docked at Nantes, France May 26, and later Abe was presented to the King of France.
The dispatches announced the American victory at the Battle of Saratoga (N.Y) in October 1777 (see the Blog on Gen. Wm. Whipple for details) and Congress hoped the victory would convince the French government to join in the war against Great Britain. France, Britain’s arch-enemy, received the news with “as much joy as if it had been a victory of their own troops” according to Benjamin Franklin, head of the American Commissioners in France. America needed a second front in Europe to force Britain to use her Navy to guard her home shores, thus making it difficult to reinforce her American Armies. The news was convincing and France and Britain were officially at war on June 17, 1778.
Abe spent a busy three months in France. Franklin wrote him on June 6 congratulating him on their safe arrival in France and “. . . on the honor which you have acquired in your encounter with the enemies’ ships . . .” He was involved with the impending court martial brought by Capt. John Paul Jones against Lieut. Thomas Simpson of the Ranger. Instructions from the Commissioners and requests from private citizens for passage to America took time. Abe had been petitioned by his officers for “dress to maintain the dignity of our station” and needed money to purchase uniforms On the voyage over, one of the ships Abe captured was a brig full of wine and cork which Franklin, reluctantly, instructed the Agent to give him the captor’s share. The money was used to buy the uniforms.
The Commissioners notified Abe by letter July 13 they had ordered Capt. Samuel Tucker, Commander of the frigate Boston, to join him on the return trip. On the 16th, he was notified that John Paul Jones had been reassigned and that Lieut. Simpson was the new Commander of Jones’ old ship, the Ranger, with instructions to join Abe and to obey his orders. Abe’s orders were to “. . . use all possible dispatch in getting to sea with the Providence, Boston and Ranger.” It was August 26 before all details were completed and he set sail from Brest, France with his new title of Commodore as Commander of a three vessel fleet. His final orders from the Commissioners were “to make your best endeavors to take prizes in the course of your passage and in all respects to annoy the enemy as much as you can, and are at liberty to go out of your way for so good a purpose.” His memorable French trip was costly based on the money he had to spend on behalf of the government (money which was not repaid for eight years).
As the fleet sailed home it captured six prizes and Abe celebrated his 46th birthday. Off Newfoundland in a dense fog with the Providence as lead sounding its bell for the benefit of the others, he came upon a 74-gun British man-of-war which, hearing the bell, had come to investigate. A combination of bad visibility, lying low because of her heavy cargo, and having her gun ports closed caused the British Captain to take her for an American merchantman. He ordered Abe to strike his colors, drop under his stern, and prepare for boarding. Abe always seemed to function best when in a tight spot and answered, “Aye, aye Sir“ as if complying, and sent men aloft to busy themselves with the sails and create the appearance they were preparing to strike the colors which had to be run up before they could be struck. He quietly passed word to stand by ready to fire a broadside as he passed under the enemy’s stern. He was moving at a snail’s pace causing the British Captain to lose patience and repeat the order and threaten to fire. Abe responded he couldn’t strike his colors until they were up and began cursing his seamen for bungling the job (having told him once up not to strike under any circumstance).
He was under the enemy’s stern by the time the flag was up and ordered a full broadside which hit the main cabin. The British were so surprised the Providence had disappeared into the fog before they could retaliate. Warned by the broadside that an enemy ship was near, Abe’s fellow Captains veered off and headed south. Simpson took the Ranger and her prizes to Portsmouth, N.H. Abe and Tucker ran the gauntlet of British ships blockading Boston, arriving safely with their cargoes and prizes – arms, ammunition, and clothing – all badly needed on the home front. Abe sent an account of the voyage to George Washington at his Frederickburg headquarters. He spent the winter in Boston refitting the Providence and working on the sale of the prize ships. The news of the French Alliance made him a hero.
On April 4 he was instructed to provision for a long voyage and on June 12 was ordered to sea where he would be joined by the Ranger, commanded by Thomas Simpson, and the Queen of France by John Peck Rathbun, a fellow Rhode Islander. Cruising off the Newfoundland Banks, they were to intercept either the homeward bound Jamaica fleet or the fleet from Hudson Bay. As is often the case in those waters, there was a thick pea-soup fog accompanied by a damp, penetrating chill and calm seas. Blind but not deaf, they picked up the sounds of signal guns and bells in the distance. The sounds came until finally Abe’s squadron was surrounded by unseen ships. It was July 24.
Abe and his squadron had stumbled into the middle of a Jamaica fleet, some 60 sail, all of them lying low in the water, bound for England with rich cargoes of cotton, sugar, wood, and other tropical products. It was escorted by a 74-gun man-of-war and several smaller frigates. Hopelessly outmatched, Abe ordered his three-ship fleet to fly British colors and join the convoy pretending to be ships out of Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Abe quietly picked off the first prize that night and obtained the signals used by the British Commodore. Many of the merchantmen were armed so Abe ordered his fleet to be careful and not draw attention. He and his Captains took turns with various schemes. Two were especially successful. They invited the Captain of a potential prize on board the “Halifax” vessels for a convivial time and then sent his boat back filled with a prize crew who took it over with a minimum of commotion. The convoy sailed on unaware. They would shorten sail at night, alter the course of the captured ships, and were out of sight of the main fleet by morning. Noting the 74-gun man-of-war hoisted a light to her mizzen top to guide the fleet’s course, Abe hoisted a light to his own mizzen and decoyed several merchantmen into following him. By morning they were so far off course he could easily capture them. He took 11 ships before heading for home because of a lack of men to man more prizes. Three were recaptured.
When Abe sailed into Boston Harbor he had the richest capture made by the Navy during the war – 6,000 hogsheads of sugar, ginger, pimento, and cotton and 113 guns valued at over $1,000,000 – accomplished with little expenditure or loss. As Squadron Commander he was entitled to $50,000.00. But because the government was in such a serious financial condition, he only received a tithe of this sum. Inflation had jumped from 13.41 Continental dollars to one silver dollar in June 1779, to 18 by September and to 25.93 by December. His sense of patriotic duty caused him to refuse his share of previous prizes – except on the French trip – but the depreciated currency made it necessary to accept so he could provide for his family. Some of the money was invested in a house and lot on Westminster street in Providence and a farm in Cranston, R.I.
Abe received the accolades of the Navy Board and the Marine Committee and men in Boston and elsewhere began to sing ballads celebrating the frigate Providence and her brave Captain:
Come listen and I’ll tell you how first I went to sea,
To fight against the British and win our liberty.
We shipped with Captain Whipple who never knew a fear,
The Captain of the Providence, the Yankee privateer.
Chorus: We sailed and we sailed and kept good cheer. For
not a British Frigate could o’er come the privateer.
We sailed to the southward and suddenly did meet,
Three British frigates – convoy to a West Indian fleet,
Old Whipple put our lights out and crawled upon their rear
And not a soul suspected the Yankee privateer.
So slowly did we sail along, so silently we ran,
With no alarm we boarded the biggest merchantman,
We knocked the watch down easily, the lubbers shook for fear
We took her prize without a shot for the Yankee privateer.
For ten long nights we followed and ere the moon arose,
Each night a prize we captured beneath the Lion’s nose,
And when the British looked to see why ships should disappear,
They found they had in convoy the Yankee privateer.
The biggest British frigate bore round to give us chase,
But though we were the fleeter, Old Whipple didn’t race,
Until he’d raked her fore and aft, for the lubbers couldn’t steer,
And then he showed the foe the heels of the Yankee privateer.
Then northward sailed our gallant ship to a town that we all know,
And then we lay our prizes all anchored in a row,
And welcome was our victim, to our friends and family dear,
For we shared a million dollars on the Yankee privateer
The men in Philadelphia knew that in Abraham Whipple they had a fighting Captain and they had ample business for such a man. He was ordered by the Marine Committee to get the Providence ready for sea and appointed him Commodore of the ships Providence, Boston, Queen of France, and Ranger with orders to “. . . embrace the first fair wind and without any kind of delay proceed to sea; and when [you are] five leagues to the southward of the lighthouse you are to open the orders enclosed and follow the directions therein given.” Abe sailed from Boston Nov. 23, 1779 and upon opening the orders learned he was to place himself and his fleet under the command of Benjamin Lincoln, General in charge of the defense of Charleston, S. Carolina. The voyage was an unhappy omen of things to come. They were hit by a 30-hour gale of such force it sprang the mizzen masts of the Providence and Ranger and delayed their arrival until December 19. Several other warships were already there and Abe became Commander of the largest American squadron assembled during the Revolutionary War. However, success or failure was not in his hands. His fate depended on an unknown factor – Major General Lincoln.
Lincoln’s orders to hold Charleston at any cost was a departure from American military policy. Heretofore, when the enemy was too strong, the Americans withdrew and waited for another opportunity. Until there was a sign of General Sir Henry Clinton, whose Army was reportedly on the way, Abe believed he could be more help to Lincoln at sea. But preoccupied with preparations for a land war, all Lincoln would agree to was a cruise of observation. As he was cruising along the coast to the north January 23, 1780, he fell in with a fleet sent to re-supply Clinton. Abe captured four troop transports but was chased back to port by four large men-of-war from Admiral Mariot Arbuthnot’s squadron. The British then blockaded the harbor.
Abe’s seamen had been outfitted for warmer weather and the winter was unusually bitter. Lincoln was sympathetic but had neither funds or supplies to help so once again Abe dipped into his own resources to clothe and supply his men. His banker, Joseph West, kept a running account of his withdrawals in early 1780: $1,700.00 January 20, $2,500.00 in March, $4,149.00 to a Captain Anthony in April. By the beginning of May he had disbursed more than $13,000.00.
The British Army of 6,000 landed 30 miles up the coast from Charleston on February 11, 1780. Lincoln was out-numbered two to one. On February 18 Gov. Rutledge of South Carolina through Lincoln instructed Abe to outfit the Carolina sloops Bricolle, Trieste, Notre Dame, and “several gallies” for the defense of the town and harbor. Commissioners of the Navy were to give every assistance. But neither town or Commissioners had the wherewithal to arm the ships. Two days later he learned the zephyr Polacre and the snow Diligence had volunteered to join in the defense of the harbor and were to be under his command.
Captain Simpson wrote him February 23 from his anchorage at Rebellion Road that the Ranger was infected with putrid fever. He said two men had died, five were in the hospital, and 22 were unfit for duty. His crew was down to 112 officers, men, and boys. Since his fleet was already undermanned, this news compounded Abe’s woes. On the 26th, Gen. Lincoln wanted a report on when he could secure the town from attack by sea “and the reasons for such opinions.” On the 27th the Admiralty Office in Philadelphia, totally out-of-touch with circumstances, directed him to send the Queen of France up the coast with a cargo of rice for the Army “provided Gen Lincoln and yourself think that this scheme is practicable.” It was not. In early March Abe was laying a chain defense in the channel to bar Arbuthnot’s larger vessels from entering the harbor.
General Clinton ordered his Army to move on Charleston March 20 causing Lincoln to order Abe to bring the Providence, Boston, and Queen of France to the wharves so their guns and men could join with the forces within the city. Clinton built entrenchments and erected batteries to begin his siege. Many residents, fearing Clinton’s bombardment, begged Lincoln to evacuate but, hopeful of being reinforced by land, thus positioning Clinton between two Armies, he refused. His cannon and mortars had been successful against Clinton’s skirmishers, giving him false confidence.
Clinton demanded immediate surrender on April 5. Lincoln refused and the bombardment of Charleston began April 7. To prevent British ships sailing up the channel and firing on the Americans, Abe had to sink his ships at the mouth of the Cooper river. Hoping for a miracle that would allow him to break out with his crews, he kept the Providence and Ranger afloat. There was no miracle.
British General Earl Cornwallis arrived April 18 with 3,000 reinforcements enabling Clinton to expand his lines and cut off all supplies to the city. Even with Abe’s armaments and crews, Lincoln was greatly overmatched by artillery and outnumbered by more than three to one. Provisions and ammunition were in short supply. By May 6, more than 30 houses had been destroyed and countless others damaged by the British bombardment and Charleston’s leading citizens successfully petitioned Lincoln to accept Clinton’s surrender terms and firing ceased between 11 a.m. and noon May 12.
Abe’s crew became the responsibility of Admiral Arbuthnot and he somehow talked the Admiral into letting his officers go. A document dated June 10, 1780 confirms Abe paid for a vessel to carry them back to Newport. “We the underwritten late commanders of the Continental ships Queen of France, Ranger, and Boston do certify that Abraham Whipple, late of the ship Providence, has drawn an order in favor of Gregory Carsons on Daniel Tillinghast, Continental Agent for the state of Rhode Island, for one-hundred pounds sterling to be paid in gold or silver specie for the passage of the officers and servants captured on those ships.” It was signed by Thomas Simpson, Samuel Tucker, Horsted Hacker, and John Rathbun. Abe was also able to favorably influence the disposition of his crews but the Providence and Ranger became part of the British fleet.
Arbuthnot had great respect for the American Commodore and agreed his seamen and marines should be exchanged as the opportunity arose. However the British Admiralty ruled against parole. Even though a sizeable portion of the American fleet was at the bottom of Charleston Harbor, the Admiralty realized Abe’s seamen would, at the first opportunity, ship out on the ever increasing number of privateers that were doing great damage to British commerce. At the end of June, he and his men were transferred to Chester, Pennsylvania where they remained prisoners for two years and seven months. Abe was able to get a parole for the Providence’s surgeon Dr. Rodloff who was in danger of being hanged if the British learned he was a Hessian who joined the American cause.
Cornwallis provided little to feed or care for the sick at Chester. Smallpox was taking a deadly toll, so once again, Abe at his own expense, provided for them by renting a house and furnishing supplies and medicines to keep them alive. In a letter he wrote, “Many useful lives were thus preserved to their country.” The two years and seven months he was a prisoner were the most dreary months of his life as he had no earnings to support his family. In late 1782, Gen. Nathaniel Green of Rhode Island, marching to liberate Charleston, was able to arrange Abe’s exchange for a British naval Captain of a 44-gun frigate. On April 23, 1782, he received a leave of absence from the Marine Office in Philadelphia to go into private service until recalled.
After the peace of 1784, Providence merchants resumed their foreign trade. Abe’s old friend and employer, John Brown, launched the George Washington with Washington’s figurehead on the bow. He asked Abe to assume command. Anxious to return to sea and make some money, he accepted and became the first American to fly the Stars and Stripes in England. He docked in the Thames river near London and hundreds visited the ship daily, curious about the ship from the new republic with Washington’s figurehead on the bow. It was Abe’s last sea voyage of the eighteenth century. He was 51 with at least 35 years as a sailor. The record doesn’t indicate why but he retired from the sea-faring life and returned to Cranston.
In 1786, he petitioned Congress for repayment of funds he advanced to the U.S. while in France and Charleston and for his Navy salary and subsistence which had never been paid for the period June 15, 1775 through 1782. His petition included details of his service “in the cause of liberty,” that he had to mortgage his farm for money to support his family, subsequently lost the farm when he couldn’t repay the mortgage, and “was at an advanced age, feeble and without a house, or a home that I can call my own.” The sum with interest was approximately 16 thousand dollars.
While waiting for Congress to complete its deliberations, he ran for State Representative from Cranston. His pockets may have been empty but he was famous and respected and was elected. A major issue of the time was the new “paper money” being issued. Abe was against paper money but its advocates were in the majority in the Legislature. Legislative life did not appeal to him and after Congress authorized payment for the money advanced in France, he did not seek reelection.
While authorizing payments for the funds he had advanced in France, Congress ignored its obligation for his expenses in Charleston and to maintain his crew while prisoners and unpaid salary and subsistence and paid him in “United States securities,” not specie, or money equivalent to what he had advanced. When he sold these securities to meet his debt obligations, because of the financial circumstances in the country at the time, he had to discount the securities by more than 80 percent. In essence, he was paid in worthless government paper.
When the Ohio Company, organized primarily by veterans (mostly officers) of the Revolutionary War in 1786 , Abe and his son-in-law, Col. Ebenezer Sproat, husband of their daughter Catherine, became shareholders and moved to Marietta. Members of the original party, known in the annals of Ohio as “the Forty-eight Immortals,” included Sproat. They arrived in April 1788 and began to build a township at the junction of the Ohio and Muskingum rivers. They named it after the French Queen, Marie Antionette. Abe, Sarah, daughter Catherine, and her first child Sarah arrived Nov. 30, 1789 and moved, with Sproat who had been named Commander of the local Militia, into a small log cabin he had built.
When war with the Indians began Jan. 2, 1791, the entire family moved into Blockhouse No. 15 which they shared with 73 others. A peace treaty signed Aug. 10, 1795 ended Indian harassment and made the area around Marietta “safe for white settlement.” Sproat then built a log cabin into which the whole family moved. In 1796 in his 63rd year, Abe and Sarah moved to a 12 acre farm on the bank of the Muskingum river two miles from its mouth. There he farmed for 15 years, living off what the land provided. Sometime during this period, son John (in his early thirties) decided he had had enough of the hard life of the frontier and left to become a seaman. Sproat was then Sheriff and built a fine frame house in Marietta for his family.
The end of the Indian war brought a wave of new settlers who produced crop surpluses. The main market for farm surplus was the river systems leading to the mouth of the Mississippi at New Orleans which was controlled by a slightly hostile Spain. All products ferried on flatboats or small river craft had to be off-loaded there for transshipment elsewhere in deep water vessels. The Spanish charged heavy duties for this privilege so little profit was earned by the farmer.
Marietta’s richest merchants solved this problem in 1800-1801 by building a brig of 104 tons, square-rigged which was suitable for seagoing so it could bypass the New Orleans high duties, sell its cargo in the Caribbean Islands, get another crop there, sail it to the eastern ports, and sell the cargo and the ship. Seventy year old Abe, the only man in the Territory with seagoing experience, took command of the vessel named the St. Clair after Gen. Arthur St. Clair, first governor of the Northwest Territory. He left Marietta the last week of April 1801 with an enthusiastic but totally inexperienced crew and a cargo of flour and salted pork and slowly and cautiously for six weeks sailed south, negotiating perils like the Falls of the Ohio, sandbars, sunken logs and other snags, etc. and arrived in New Orleans in early June. To avoid port charges, he anchored in the river and re-provisioned his ship for the Caribbean. By July he was sailing for Havana, Cuba and was the only one aboard who could navigate on the high seas which meant long watches and constant anxiety. His first and second mates helped with the actual running of the ship but Abe was the only man who could steer it.
When they arrived in Havana, the old Yankee trader found a ready market for his cargo and bought a cargo of sugar to sell back in the States. In late August before leaving Havana for Philadelphia, he hired an unexpected addition to his crew, his son John. It was the only time they sailed the high seas together and may be the last time they met. When they arrived in Philadelphia, the cargo and the brig were sold at a handsome profit. He had proved the undertaking both feasible and profitable and returned to Marietta to a hero’s welcome where the Marietta newspaper published this poem:
The Triton crieth, Who cometh now from the shore?
Neptune replieth, Tis the old Commodore.
Long has it been since I saw him before.
In the year seventy-five from Columbia he came,
the pride of the Briton on ocean to tame.
And often, too, with his gallant crew
hath he crossed the belt of ocean blue.
On the Gallic coast, I have seen him tost
When he fought for freedom with all his braves,
In the War of the Revolution.
But now he comes from the western woods,
Descending slow with gentle floods,
The pioneer of a mighty train
Which commerce brings to my domains.
Up sons of the wave,
Greet the noble and brave!
His gray shows, life nears its close!
In the following seven years, Marietta’s shipyards built at least 20 ships of 150 to 450 tons and several gun-boats for the government. Abe’s voyage was the beginning of a vastly profitable business for the area in which he played no part. At his age, the strain of sea-going was to arduous. The trail-blazer yielded to younger men.
In 1811 at age 78, he applied for a much-deserved Revolutionary War pension. This time a more prosperous government awarded him a half-pay captain’s pension of $30.00 a month. Not a magnificent sum considering the money he had advanced the government and never repaid, it was sufficient to allow him and Sarah to live out their lives in peace without the specter of poverty and hunger lurking in the background.
They gave up the farm in 1813 and moved in with their widowed daughter Catherine Sproat. Sara took sick in October 1818, died shortly thereafter, and was buried in the cemetery around the old Indian Mound (Mound Cemetery). They had been married 57 years. He survived the winter and died May 29, 1819 after a short illness. His will was probated in July. There was no mention of son John or daughter Polly, only Sarah and Catherine. He bequeathed his dress sword and quadrant to great grandsons Ebenezer Sproat Sibley and Henry Hasting Sibley. He was buried in Mound Cemetery beside Sarah. His gravestone inscription reads:
Sacred to the memory of Commodore Abraham Whipple
whose name, skill and courage will remain the pride and
boast of his country. In the late Revolution he was the
first in the seas to hurl defiance at proud Britain;
gallantly leading the way to arrest from the mistress
of the ocean, her scepter, and there to wave the
star-spangled banner. He also conducted to sea the
first square-rigged vessel, ever built on the Ohio,
opening to commerce resources beyond calculation.
Abe’s gallant voyage was over.
Post Script. According to historian Samuel P. Hildreth in an 1852 biographical sketch: “Abe was short, thickset and stout with dark gray eyes and great strength, a naturally strong mind and great resolution of purpose acquired in a seafaring life [where] he learned navigation and keeping accounts which led to command of vessels in the West Indies trade with credit to himself and profit to his employers.
“While imposing stern discipline on subordinates, he was highly respected and in times of danger, he diffused courage into all around him so that no crew could be cowardly. He performed best during times of great danger and no one exceeded his contributions to the Navy. Many of his letters survive and their fluency suggest he was well schooled. He was a stylish dresser and at ease in distinguished company.”
Commodore Abraham Whipple’s lineage:
Captain John Whipple, ca 1617-1685 and Sarah (____), ca 1624-1666, great (2) grandparents. John was born in England, settled in Dorchester, Mass. in 1632 where he was an apprentice carpenter and became a freeman and landowner. He moved to Providence, R.I. in 1659 where he was a Proprietor and acquired extensive property holdings. He worked as a carpenter, Inn Keeper, and served in King Philip’s War earning the rank of Captain. He as Town Treasurer, Town Clerk, on the Town Council, as Town Moderator, and Deputy to the General Assembly.
Samuel Whipple 1644/45-1710/11 and Mary Harris 1639-1722, great grandparents. Samuel was a Freeman, served as Constable, Grand Juryman, Way Warden, Highway Warden, and Deputy to the General Assembly.
Noah Whipple, ca 1667-1703 and Amphillus Smith, grandparents. Noah was a farmer.
Noah Whipple, Jr., 1696-1784 and Mary Dexter, parents. Noah, Jr. was a farmer
A painting of Commodore Whipple hangs at the US Naval Academy at Annapolis, MD.
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