Surviving Crew of the explosion of frigate Randolph on 7 March 1778

These four men are noted as “Taken off the Wreck” on the Muster of HMS Yarmouth on 12 March 1778, five days after the destruction of the Continental Navy frigate Randolph on 7 March 1778. (NDAR, Vol 11, pages 853-4)

Hantz Wortman, Ab, 1.1.7*
John Kerry, Ab, 1.0.10*
Alexr Robinson, Ab, 0.13.6*
Barthw Bourdeau

* [issued] Slop Cloths [pounds.shillings.pence]

Undoubtedly the greatest catastrophic loss for the Continental Navy during the War for Independence was the total destruction of the frigate Randolph and the loss of Captain Nicholas Biddle and over three hundred of her officers, “picked seamen” and “gentlemen volunteers” on 7 March 1778. Only four of her reported crew of 315 survived the explosion of her magazine during an engagement with the 64-gun HMS Yarmouth under the command of Captain Nicholas Vincent. The tragic loss of life surpasses even the loss of the 18-gun Continental sloop Saratoga three years later which disappeared from sight in an instant during a particularly severe squall on 18 March 1781 with all hands lost. Only the four Continental Navy seaman recorded on Yarmouth’s muster (ADM 36/8072) on 12 March 1778 as “Taken off the Wreck” lived to tell the story; Hantz Wortman (Hans Workman), John Kerry (John Carew), Alexander Robinson and Bartholomew Bourdeau.

A contemporary broadside found on pages 1175-7 of “Naval Documents of the American Revolution, Volume 11” (2005) records their experience for posterity. “A remarkable instance of the lives of four men being providentially saved. On the 7th of March, 1778, between five and six o’clock in the afternoon, his Majesty’s ship Yarmouth (Captain, now Admiral Vincent) being in the latitude of the island of Barbadoes, and about sixty leagues to the eastward of it, the man at the mast-head called out that he saw several sail to leeward, near each other. Soon after, there were discovered from the quarter-deck six sail- two ships, three brigs and a schooner, on the starboard tack, all sails set, and close to the wind, then about N.E. [The six vessels included the 36-gun Continental Navy frigate Randolph, SC privateer 20-gun General Moultrie (Captain Philip Sullivan), SC Navy 18-gun brig Notre Dame (Captain William Hall), SC privateers 16-gun brig Polly (Captain Hezekiah Anthony), 14-gun brig Fair American (Captain Charles Morgan) and a prize schooner converted to be Randolph’s tender (Prizemaster Simeon Fanning, Midshipman).] The captain and officers of the Yarmouth had not the least doubt of their being American privateers. For even a single merchant-ship, which had not a letter of marque, was, perhaps, never seen upon a wind in the latitude of Barbadoes, and forty or fifty leagues to the eastward of it, and the wind easterly. The Yarmouth accordingly bore down upon them, and about nine o’clock got very near to the largest of the two ships, which begun to fire on the Yarmouth, before the Yarmouth did on her. In about a quarter of an hour she blew up; being then on the Yarmouth’s lee-beam, and not above three or four ship’s length distant. The rest of their squadron immediately dispersed. The damage the Yarmouth received in her masts, sails and rigging was prodigious, and she had five men killed and twelve wounded. A great variety of articles were thrown into her- one, an entire American ensign, which was not even singed or torn. This happened between nine and ten o’clock Saturday night.”

In a letter to his superior Vice Admiral James Young dated 17 March 1778, Yarmouth’s Captain Nicholas Vincent reveals additional details of the engagement, damage and subsequent events, “We immediately bore down upon them, and about 9, got close on the Weather Quarter of the largest and headmost Ship, They had no Colours hoisted and as Ours were then up, I hailed her to hoist hers, or I would fire into her, on which she hoisted American, and immediately gave us her broad Side, which We returned, and in about a quarter of an hour she blew up. It was fortunate for us, that We were to Windward of her-as it was, our Ship was in a manner covered with parts of her, a great piece of a Top Timber Six feet long fell on our poop,-another large piece of Timber Stuck in our foretop gallant Sail (then upon the Cap) An American Ensign rolled up, blown in upon the forecastle, not so much as Singed &c; Immediately on her blowing up, the other four dispersed different ways-We Chaced a little while, two that Stood to the Southward, and afterwards another that bore away right before the Wind, but they were soon out of sight-Our Sails being tore all to pieces in a most surprizing manner”. (NDAR, Vol 11, pages 683-4)

The aforementioned broadside picks up the narrative five days after Randolph’s catastrophic destruction, “On the Thursday following, the Yarmouth being in chace of a ship, steering about West, (the wind in the N.E. quarter), the man at the mast-head called down to the officer on the quarter-deck, that he saw something on the water, abaft the beam (the starboard), but could not tell what to make of it. A question immediately arose, what was to be done? If the Yarmouth hauled up to see what it was, there would be little or no chance of coming up with her before dark. Humanity, however pleaded for it and prevailed. Accordingly she hauled her wind, and by the help of a spy-glass, discovered four men, that seemed to be standing on the water; for what supported them was not at first visible. In two or three hours she got up to the little float on which they stood, and brought them on board. The captain and officers were greatly surprised to find they belonged to the ship that was blown up the preceding Saturday. So that, they had been five whole nights, and nearly as many days, floating on the waves, and buried alive, as it were, under the vault of heaven. Being young and hardy, they did not appear much discomposed when they came upon the quarterdeck. They said they were not hungry, although they had not eaten any thing, but thirsty and very sleepy. A bason of tea, however, and a hammock to each, perfectly restored them in a few hours. When they arose, the only complaint they had, was that of their feet being greatly swoln, by having been so long in the water. The account they gave of themselves was only this- that they were quartered in the captain’s cabin, and thrown into the water without receiving any hurt. But they could give no account by what accident the ship blew up. Being good swimmers, they got hold of some spars and rope, with which they made the raft, on which they were found. And, providentially for them, they picked up a blanket, which served them as a reservoir of water; for during the time they were on the raft, there fell a few showers of rain, which they saved as much as they could in their blanket, sucking it from time to time; which, no doubt preserved all their lives.” (NDAR, Vol 11, pages 1175-7)

The broadside continues, “On the arrival of the Yarmouth two days after, at Barbadoes, proper officers came on board, in order to take the depositions of those four men, respecting the blowing up of the ship, &c. and particularly, as to the number of men on board her when the action began. For without a certificate to this purpose, the Treasurer of the navy has no authority to pay the head-money, allowed by Government, which is five pounds a head; and which, on this occasion, came to five hundred and seventy-five pound. Thus this little act of humanity seems to have been rewarded. They deposed, that the ship which blew up was called the Randolph, of thirty-six guns, twenty-six of which were twelve-pounders, and her complement of men three hundred and fifteen. The other ship was called the General Moutray; but the number of her guns, or her complement of men, or of the force of the three brigs: Admiral Vincent told the writer of this account, he could not precisely ascertain. The schooner was a prize. The captain of the Randolph was the commodore of this little squadron which had sailed just a month from Charles-town, South Carolina, where it was fitted out, with the design of attacking the island of Tobago, for which they were steering when they first saw the Yarmouth. No prize was lost. The ship the Yarmouth hauled off from, was a West-India merchant-man, bound to Barbadoes. The master of her came on board the Yarmouth after her arrival there: she had a letter of marque, and was upon a wind when the Yarmouth first saw her.” (NDAR, Vol 11, pages 1175-7)

Twenty-three years after the conflagration, eyewitness John Davis’ account of the engagement from his perspective on the South Carolina privateer General Moultrie was recorded, “on the 7th of March following, at one P.M., we discovered a sail standing for us, when the Randolph made a signal to heave to. About four P.M., Captain Biddle hove out a signal to make sail. We then spoke him, and Captain Biddle told us that one of his crew had deserted from the British ship Yarmouth of 74 guns, and he knew the ship to windward to be her- and from her appearance he had no doubt it was her; notwithstanding which, Sullivan [Moultrie’s commander Philip Sullivan] did not make sail, and the Randolph was obliged to engage the Yarmouth or sacrifice our ship. The Yarmouth hailed us as he passed. We answered, “the Polly, from Charleston,” and that our convoy was ahead. They then hailed the Randolph; and immediately after engaged. The Randolph appeared to fire four or five broadsides to the Yarmouth’s one, until she blew up, when Sullivan hauled down his colors, and we should have been taken but for Captain Blake, who commanded the marines. He insisted upon our making sail, and such was the confusion on board the Yarmouth, or she was so much injured during the engagement, that they took no note of us” (NDAR, Vol 11, pages 1175-7)

After the tragic loss of the Continental Navy frigate Randolph, her commander and men were mourned with appropriate accolades. In a letter to the President of Congress dated 30 March 1778, Rawlins Lowndes eulogizes Randolph’s marine contingent from South Carolina, “I could not Sir help giving you the particulars of this really distressing and Affecting affair as the Letter lies on my desk before me from whence I have extracted the article- 50 of the best Men in the first Regiment were on board of her and Several very promising Youths of this Country who have thus immaturely fallen in their Countrys Service.” (NDAR, Vol 11, pages 837-8) A purported eyewitness account pertaining to the conduct of Randolph’s commander was given to Charles Biddle, brother of Nicholas Biddle: “He told me he was stationed at one of the quarterdeck guns near Capt. Biddle, who early in the action was wounded in the thigh. He fell, but immediately sitting up again, and encouraging his crew, told them it was only a slight touch he had received. He ordered a chair, and one of the surgeon’s mates was dressing him at the time of the explosion. None of the men saved could tell by what means the accident happened.” A published letter from Charleston to Philadelphia dated 29 March 1778 concludes “Never was a man here more sincerely esteemed or lamented than Captain Biddle. His conduct both as an officer and a gentleman had procured general respect. He died in the midst of glory, fighting for his country against a very superior force, with all the gallantry of the bravest officer, and with every prospect of success.” (NDAR, Vol 11, pages 832-3) This great American tragedy was gloriously captured by “Poet of the Revolution” Philip Freneau (1752-1832).

On the Death of Captain Nicholas Biddle

WHAT distant thunders rend the skies,
What clouds of smoke in volumes rise,
What means this dreadful roar!
Is from his base Vesuvius thrown,
Is sky-topt Atlas tumbled down,
Or Etna’s self no more!

Shock after shock torments my ear;
And lo! two hostile ships appear,
Red lightnings round them glow:
The Yarmouth boasts of sixty-four,
The Randolph thirty-two—no more—
And will she fight this foe!

The Randolph soon on Stygian streams
Shall coast along the land of dreams,
The islands of the dead!
But fate, that parts them on the deep,
Shall save the Briton, still to weep
His ancient honors fled.

Say, who commands that dismal blaze,
Where yonder starry streamer plays;
Does Mars with Jove engage!
’Tis Biddle wings those angry fires,
Biddle, whose bosom Jove inspires
With more than mortal rage.

Tremendous flash! and hark, the ball
Drives through old Yarmouth, flames and all;
Her bravest sons expire;
Did Mars himself approach so nigh,
Even Mars, without disgrace, might fly
The Randolph’s fiercer fire.

The Briton views his mangled crew,
“And shall we strike to thirty-two,”
(Said Hector, stained with gore;)
“Shall Britain’s flag to these descend—
Rise, and the glorious conflict end,
Britons, I ask no more!”

He spoke—they charged their cannon round,
Again the vaulted heavens resound,
The Randolph bore it all,
Then fixed her pointed cannons true—
Away the unwieldly vengeance flew;
Britain, the warriors fall.

The Yarmouth saw, with dire dismay,
Her wounded hull, shrouds shot away,
Her boldest heroes dead—
She saw amidst her floating slain
The conquering Randolph stem the main—
She saw, she turned, and fled!

That hour, blest chief, had she been thine,
Dear Biddle, had the powers divine
Been kind as thou wert brave;
But fate, who doomed thee to expire,
Prepared an arrow tipped with fire,
And marked a watery grave,

And in that hour when conquest came
Winged at his ship a pointed flame
That not even he could shun—
The conquest ceased, the Yarmouth fled,
The bursting Randolph ruin spread,
And lost what honor won.

Four days after their miraculous rescue on 12 March 1778; Hans Workman, John Carew and Alexander Robinson offered their depositions concerning the frigate Randolph and the engagement of 7 March to the Chief Judge of his Majesty’s Court of Common Pleas in Barbados. (NDAR, Vol 11, pages 666-7) After one month on their captors’ Supernumerary List as American prisoners, all three were entered into British service on the HMS Yarmouth as able-bodied seamen on 9 April 1778. Nothing is presently known about why Bartholomew Bourdeau was not deposed or his eventual disposition. It may be that the apparent Frenchman proved to be the only survivor remaining loyal to the American cause.

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