Peter Richards, Lieutenant

Peter Richards. Born on 11 February 1754 to Elizabeth Harris (1727-1793) and New London merchant Guy Richards (1722-1782), Peter Richards was recruited for the Continental Navy there. His father was a member of the Committees of Correspondence and Safety for that port town. Along with friend Charles Bulkeley, Richards entered on board the sloop Lizard under the command of Joshua Hempstead, Jr. on 13 January 1776 to sail six days later for Reedy Island, PA. Although the Lizard’s passage was rough, she successfully landed the naval recruits in New Jersey where they were picked up and delivered to Commodore Esek Hopkin’s Continental Navy fleet about 13 February 1776. Richards was appointed midshipman on board the brig Cabot under the command of Captain John Burroughs Hopkins. Serving as Cabot’s 1st Lieutenant was fellow New Londoner Elisha Hinman. In recognition of his service during the New Providence Expedition and subsequent sea battle off Block Island, Commodore Hopkins recommended in June 1776 that Midshipman Peter Richards be promoted to 2nd Lieutenant or Sailing Master. As 2nd Lieutenant, Richards served on the Cabot under his promoted friend Captain Elisha Hinman for both a summer and fall cruise that year. He apparently served as prize-master for the Clarendon brought into New London at the close of September 1776. In late January 1777, Peter Richards was commissioned 1st Lieutenant of the Continental Navy ship Alfred now under Elisha Hinman who succeeded John Paul Jones in that command. About that same time, Nathaniel Richards was commissioned Second Lieutenant of Marines on the Alfred joining his two year older brother and lifelong friend Charles Bulkeley who was the vessel’s Sailing Master.

A merchantman named Black Prince under the command of John Barry before the war, the 30-gun Alfred was acquired by the Continental Congress in November 1775 and placed in commission a month later on 3 December. The vessel had served as Commodore Esek Hopkin’s flagship during the New Providence Expedition and is documented to have been the first Continental Navy ship to fly the Grand Union flag. After superintending a major refit, Captain Hinman brought the work on Alfred to completion by mid-May. This autograph receipt is dated twelve days before the Continental Navy ship Alfred sailed from Portsmouth bound to France in company with the newly-constructed 32-gun frigate Raleigh on Friday 22 August 1777. Two weeks later on September 4, the two vessels encountered HMS Druid and despite Raleigh’s punishing attack, the severely damaged enemy warship escaped. Resuming their course, Alfred and Raleigh reached France on 6 October 1777. Several months later on December 29, the two again departed port in company homeward bound with military stores. After cruising the coast of Africa, the pair made a trans-Atlantic crossing to the West Indies where the ship Alfred was taken by British frigate Ariadne and sloop Ceres a little windward of Barbados on 9 March 1778, at least partly as a result of Captain Thompson and the Raleigh avoiding engagement.

Alfred’s officers and men were taken to Barbadoes as prisoners. Here Peter Richards and his brother Nathaniel , were recognized by British Captain Nicholas Vincent of the 74-gun Yarmouth, as he knew the Richards’ boys as children through his intimacy with their father’s family. Through the influence of Ariadne’s Captain Pringle and the intercession of Elisha Hinman, Nathaniel Richards was permitted to return home on parole. Captain Vincent of the Yarmouth took Hinman and five other officers including Lieutenant Peter Richards on board his vessel, transporting his captives to England where they were confined at Forton Prison on 18 July 1778. Confined at Forton but a short time, Captain Hinman escaped by digging under the wall of the prison on a dark, rainy night and walking ten wet miles before finding sanctuary with an American sympathizer who arranged for a Londoner to spirit the Continental Navy Captain off to safety in France. Soon afterwards Richards and Alfred’s other officers also escaped by digging under the prison walls, escaping to London and from there to France. The pension testimony of Alfred’s Third Lieutenant Charles Bulkeley reveals that himself and Peter Richards “took passage from Bordeaux to Baltimore and off the Cape of Virginia was again taken. A few days after which he & Lieut. Peter Richards were put on shore, about ten leagues to the southward of Cape Henry & traveled on to Boston, where they arrived in 1779 when they settled with the Navy board.” Within a few days of his return to Now London in the spring of 1779, Lieutenant Peter Richards was married at Groton on 19 April 1779 to twenty-four year old Catharine Mumford (1754-1805), oldest daughter of prosperous New London merchant Thomas Mumford. According to the autobiographical account of friend Christopher Prince published in 2002, Richards and his new bride had become engaged before he went to sea the previous summer.

His Continental Navy service completed, in June 1779 Peter Richards followed his former skipper Elisha Hinman in command of the 10-gun Connecticut privateer sloop Hancock, owned by his father-in-law. That same month Richards and the Hancock in a cruise off Sandy Hook, NJ took five prizes- the British privateer sloop Ariel, British prize sloop Eagle, the armed schooner Hawke and two other unnamed sloops. Richards took a one year hiatus before returning to command the sloop Hancock again between late May and November 1780. It was during this time that Catharine and Peter Richards first child was born in January 1780. During the happy time of Thomas’ infancy, Captain Richards and the sloop Hancock took at least five prizes including the brigs Friendship and Cornelius, schooner Comet and sloops Hibernia and Venus. Fascinating details of two cruises made by Christopher Prince on the Hancock under Richards during the summer and autumn of 1780, along with another cruise on the Marquis de La Fayette in April 1781, are to be found in the “Autobiography of a Yankee Mariner” by Michael J. Crawford (2002). A number of primary sources for Peter Richards time as master of the sloop Hancock can be found in Collection 11 at the G. W. Blunt White Library at Mystic Seaport. The financial success of Richards’ cruises during this time can be inferred by both Prince’s $10,000 settlement with shipowner Thomas Mumford at the completion of his service and the contents of a letter sent from Mumford to George Washington on 8 September 1780. “Sir, Tho’ I have not the Honor of a personal acquaintance with your Exelency, your ardour in Support of the Independance of these United States demand my warmest gratitude…I am happy at this time to have it in my power to Regale you with some five Years old Madiera Wine, intended for our Enemies officers in New York, and beg your acceptance of the best Pipe from a Cargo of Three Hundred Captured by Capt. Peter Richards in my Privateer Sloop Hancock… I wish you may Receive it in the purity it goes from Hartford.”

Sadly for the newly-wed couple, ten month old Thomas Mumford Richards died 25 October 1780, his mother already two months pregnant with their second child.. With the passing of his first-born son and his tenure on the sloop Hancock completed, Peter Richards took command of the 16-gun Connecticut privateer brig Marquis de La Fayette owned by Andrew Perkins & Co. on 7 February, soon afterwards taking two British prizes in the spring of 1781. On 18 July 1781 Richards was commissioned to an 18-gun Connecticut privateer brigantine also named Hancock, owned by his father-in-law Thomas Mumford along with Joseph Packwood and the Norwich firm of Howland & Coit. This vessel was previously known as the British prize brig “The Whim”. Cruising off of Fire Island Inlet in late July in company with Connecticut privateers Deane and Active, Captain Peter Richards and the brig Hancock took an unnamed prize sloop. Three weeks later, now in company with Connecticut privateers Young Cromwell, Randolph and Sampson; Richards captured the British sloop Swallow and brig Venus. No doubt 11 April 1781 brought another happy occasion with the Richards’ household celebrating the birth of Catharine Havens Richards.

It was the brig Hancock on which former Continental Navy Lieutenant Peter Richards arrived at New London on 31 August 1781 and volunteered his services for the defense of Fort Griswold upon encouragement by commanding officer Colonel William Ledyard who had earlier assisted Richards with the manning of his vessel. One week later on September 6, British General Benedict Arnold raided and burned the town, attacking the fort whose layout he was familiar. Earlier that morning, Richards had gone on board the Hancock seeking volunteers to accompany him in aiding the garrison at Fort Griswold. It is said his entire crew followed their captain into battle where Peter Richards was killed in action, one of the 88 of about 165 defenders massacred by British forces. When the enemy finally breached the fort’s defenses and Colonel Ledyard surrendered his sword, he was run through with it and killed. The “Mumford Memoirs” (1900) records Richards’ father-in-law Thomas Mumford’s account of the tragic details, “About 1000 picked British and foreign Troops who attacked that fort Sword in hand & were Repulsed halfe an Hour, during which time the Enemy Suffered About one quarter of their Number in Killed & wounded, but being overpowered in numbers Colo Ledyard finding the Enemy had gained Possession of Some part of the Fort and Entering at the Gate, having three men Killed, tho’t proper to Surrender himself with the Garison prisoners, & presented his Sword to an Officer who Recd the Same & immediately Lunged it thro the Brave Commandant, when the Ruffians (no doubt by order) pierced him in many places with Bayonets. “Lieuts. Chapman & Stanton of the Garison with upwards of 70 others were inhumanly Murdered with the Colonel…My Son, Captain Peter Richards makes one of this number.” It is also reported that as Colonel Ledyard was stricken, “Captain Peter Richards and a few others, standing near, rushed upon the enemy and were killed, fighting to the last.” Richards’ former lieutenant, Christopher Prince writes that his friend suffered “32 bayonet holes in his murdered body”. Killed on his wife’s twenty-seventh birthday, former Continental Navy Lieutenant Peter Richards was buried at Norwich City Cemetery leaving his widow in the care of their five month old infant daughter Catharine.

The following month on 11 October Captain Lodowick Champlin of New London was named to succeed Richards in command of the brig Hancock. Catharine Mumford Richards would survive her husband by twenty-four years and one day, passing at the age of fifty-one on 7 September 1805. The couple’s daughter Catharine had been married just three years earlier on 23 October 1802 to Levi Huntington, Jr. After Catharine Richards Huntington died at the age of thirty-seven on 6 August 1818, she was buried with her parents and only sibling in the family plot at Norwich City Cemetery.

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