This column was first published in 2003.
For as long as most area residents can remember, Beverly and Marblehead have laid claim to being "The Birthplace of the American Navy."
At the heart of the conflict is the fact that the first commissioned vessel in what is now called "Washington's Fleet" was owned and manned by Marbleheaders, but was outfitted and berthed at John Glover's wharf in Beverly. Glover was also a Marbleheader and was the commander of the town's Twenty-first Regiment.
In July of 1775, George Washington, acting in his role as the new commander-in-chief of the Continental Army, leased the 78-ton schooner Hannah at a rate of a dollar per ton per month. The vessel was most likely owned by John Glover and was outfitted for combat at his wharf. It was subsequently placed under the command of Nicholson Broughton, a trusted member of Glover's regiment.
The Hannah sallied forth from Cambridge on Sept. 5 of that year for the express purpose of capturing British supply ships bound for or exiting Boston. The steady flow of munitions, food, armaments and clothing for British troops stationed there, was a major concern to Washington, and he hoped the Hannah would be able to disrupt that supply chain.
Shortly after it sailed, the crew of the Hannah managed to take its first prize, the Unity. The glow of this success, however, would soon turn to rancor when Washington determined that because the Unity was not an enemy ship, but an American-owned vessel that had been captured by the British warship HMS Lively, the Hannah's crew would not be awarded the agreed-upon percentage of the value of the captured vessel and cargo.
Thirty-six angry crew members promptly mutinied. Official response was swift: The ringleader received a nasty whipping and his army career came to an abrupt end. Much to their relief, the rest of the mutineers were forgiven by Washington himself.
It would be a week before new crew members were rounded up and the Hannah would be back in action. While the specific details of its activities for the next month are not known, the vessel must have created problems for the British because the Admiralty ordered the HMS Nautilis to find the Hannah and put her out of commission.
On the morning of Oct. 10, the Nautilis spotted the Hannah in local waters and chased her back to Beverly. Nicholson Broughton purposely ran his vessel aground on the Beverly coast and his crew, with the help of townspeople who rushed to their aid, quickly transferred some of the cannon to the shore.
Broughton's strategy worked. The Nautilis was treated to a steady barrage of shelling from the Hannah's cannon and gunfire from residents lining the shores of Salem and Beverly. And while the British vessel managed to inflict some damage on a number of buildings in Beverly, it was unable to seriously harm the Hannah during the three-hour conflict.
This event marked the end of the Hannah's days as the flagship of Washington's Fleet. Shortly thereafter she was retired from the service and replaced by two other Marblehead vessels which had been renamed Hancock and Franklin. They, too, were berthed at Glover's Beverly wharf and crewed by local men.
Under the command of Nicholson Broughton and John Selman, another Marbleheader, the two vessels were sent to patrol the area near the mouth of the St. Lawrence River and capture what they could in the way of British ships. While they managed to take seven prizes over the next few months, most of them turned out be American vessels that, like the Unity, had been taken as prizes themselves by the British.
The expedition came to an embarrassing end in early December when Broughton and Selman landed in Salem and proudly displayed two captured officials, one a judge and the other a military man from St. John's, which was a neutral province. Washington was furious with Broughton and Selman for their poor judgment, and with their men for looting personal and public possessions during the capture of the two local officals.
The upshot of the sorry episode is that both the officials and all the captured vessels were sent home, and the careers of the two Marblehead captains began a slow, but steady, descent into retirement from public service.
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Jim McAllister of Salem writes a weekly column on the region's history. Contact him at email@example.com.