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Benjamin Harrison to Virginia Delegates, 23 March 1782

Benjamin Harrison to Virginia Delegates

FC (Virginia State Library). In the hand of Charles Hay.

Virginia March 23d: 1782

Gentlemen

A privateer belonging to this State has seized a flag in one of the Ports of North Carolina, and brought her into this Country, libelled and condemned her in our Court of Admiralty, which has given such offence to Govr Burke that he once intended to send an armed force to carry her back. I hope he has given over this rash design on a promise made him by the Executive to give all the satisfaction in their power to his State which can only be by depriving the Captn. of his Commission and prosecuting him on his Bond; this we have requested Congress to do, as you will see by the enclosed Letter to the President, to which and the proceedings of the Court of Admiralty I refer you for full information of this troublesome affair.1 It appears to us necessary that Congress should amend their marine law, and declare explicitly how far the rights of each State extend, with respect to vessels in Port, if it is not done we shall certainly get to Blows soon, we therefore request you at some proper time to bring the matter on.2

By a vessel just arrived from the West Indies, we are informed that Count de Grasse has totally defeated the British Fleet, and taken or destroyed four sail of the line and a hundred sail of transports with 3,000 Troops on Board. If this should prove true all the English West India Islands must fall into his hands.3 The Enemy are still quiet in the lines of Charlestown, and General Greene and his brave fellows enjoying what they have long wanted, ease and refreshment about thirty miles from them.4 Mr Foster Webb has agreed to transcribe the Letters written by our Governors to Congress, General Washington and the Delegates, and their answers which have been destroyed by the Enemy. We request the favor of you to procure him the means of doing it.5 I am &c

Benj. Harrison

1The British schooner “Three Friends,” sailing under a flag of truce, entered the harbor of Edenton, N.C., late in February 1782 and duly reported to the naval officer of that port. While awaiting his permission to “be admitted as a flag,” the vessel was seized by the Virginia brig “Grand Turk,” commanded by Captain Cornelius Schermerhorn, and the South Carolina brig “Dolphin,” commanded by Captain Madet Engs, and taken to South Quay on Blackwater River, Va. Thereupon, the captors, who were operating under letters of marque and reprisal issued through the governor of Virginia, appeared before the admiralty court of Virginia, in session at Williamsburg, to have the judges condemn the “Three Friends” as a lawful prize on the grounds that the schooner had violated the ordinances of Congress of 23 March 1776 and 27 March 1781 by trading illegally while operating under a flag of truce (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , IV, 229–32; XIX, 314–16; Virginia Gazette, and Weekly Advertiser, 2, 23, and 30 March 1782; George F. Emmons, comp., The Navy of the United States, from the Commencement, 1775 to 1853 … To Which Is Added a List of Private Armed Vessels … [Washington, 1853], pp. 135, 165). After overruling the plea of the captain of the “Three Friends” that the issue could be tried only in North Carolina, the court condemned the ship on 8 March 1782 and ordered that the vessel and her cargo be sold at public auction for cash to the highest bidder and that the owners, captain, and crew of the “Grand Turk” and the “Dolphin” each receive one half of the net proceeds. These amounted to £3,840, but the issue of dividing this sum was being negotiated as late as 30 April 1783 between attorneys representing the two captors (Calendar of Virginia State Papers description begins William P. Palmer et al., eds., Calendar of Virginia State Papers and Other Manuscripts (11 vols.; Richmond, 1875–93). description ends , III, 88; “Agreement of Thomas Walker and Henry Tazewell, 30 Apr. 1783,” MS in Virginia Historical Society).

Governor Harrison knew nothing of the capture until 7 March 1782, when he received an indignant letter from Governor Thomas Burke (ca. 1747–1783) of North Carolina in which the writer charged Captain Schermerhorn with insulting a sovereign state and threatened to repossess “Three Friends” by force if she were not returned at once to Edenton.

Besides dispatching Burke a conciliatory reply, Harrison urged Admiralty Judge Benjamin Waller to stay proceedings against the vessel and forward copies of the depositions made by the parties concerned (Journals of the Council of State description begins H. R. McIlwaine et al., eds., Journals of the Council of the State of Virginia (3 vols. to date; Richmond, 1931——). description ends , III, 56, 60–61; McIlwaine, Official Letters description begins H. R. McIlwaine, ed., Official Letters of the Governors of the State of Virginia (3 vols.; Richmond, 1926–29). description ends , III, 173, 174, 175–76). Waller complied immediately with the latter request but could not halt the trial, since the court had already rendered judgment and adjourned (Calendar of Virginia State Papers description begins William P. Palmer et al., eds., Calendar of Virginia State Papers and Other Manuscripts (11 vols.; Richmond, 1875–93). description ends , III, 90–91).

The depositions permitted no doubt that the “Three Friends” was justly condemned because of her illicit trading. Upon reviewing the evidence to this effect, sent to him by Harrison, Burke admitted that “the principle on which I have interposed in behalf of this State has been mistaken.” On the other hand he insisted that Schermerhorn must be punished for affronting “the dignity” of North Carolina by removing the schooner to Virginia, thereby obliging North Carolina “to rely on the maritime court of a neighboring state for taking care of our most Material Interests, Vizt., those of Sovereignty and Commerce” (Walter Clark, ed., The State Records of North Carolina [26 vols.; Goldsboro, N.C., 1886–1907], XVI, 556–57).

As the present letter shows, Harrison believed that the punishment of Schermerhorn could be imposed only by Congress, since the Articles of Confederation (Articles VI and IX) conferred the exclusive power to regulate privateering upon that body. The instructions to commanders of privateers, adopted by Congress on 7 April 1781, had not pointed out “how far from the Shores of each State it should be lawful for Privateers to take and carry vessels to other States to be tried, without which they will be preying on & oppressing the trade continually” (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XIX, 361–64; XX, 645–47; McIlwaine, Official Letters description begins H. R. McIlwaine, ed., Official Letters of the Governors of the State of Virginia (3 vols.; Richmond, 1926–29). description ends , III, 215). Harrison’s letter to President Thomas McKean, enclosed in the present dispatch, is dated 22 March 1782 (ibid., III, 177; Journals of the Council of State description begins H. R. McIlwaine et al., eds., Journals of the Council of the State of Virginia (3 vols. to date; Richmond, 1931——). description ends , III, 63). For Edmund Randolph’s comments about the Schermerhorn case, see Randolph to JM, 19 April 1782. For JM’s opinion of Governor Burke’s conduct, see JM to Randolph, 1 May 1782.

2Harrison evidently did not know when he wrote the present letter that a committee of Congress, with Randolph as chairman, had reported an ordinance on 1 February 1782 embodying “instructions to the captains of armed vessels.” On 13 February the report was returned to the committee with instructions to confer on the subject with Robert Morris in his capacity as agent of marine (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXII, 65–66, 74). A recommendation on 23 April of a committee appointed nineteen days earlier to consider Harrison’s dispatch to McKean (above, n. 1; also NA: PCC, No. 186, fol. 20; No. 191, fol. 13) has not been found, but Congress, on 21 May, “Resolved, That the executives of the several states be, and they are hereby authorised, on information of illegal intercourse, which hath taken place or shall take place between the captains of any private armed vessels belonging to these states and the enemy, or of any other mal-conduct, to suspend the commission of such captains until the executive shall have examined into the offence; and if upon enquiry it shall appear that the information was well founded, they are requested to report their proceedings to the United States in Congress assembled, and in this case the commission shall stand suspended until Congress shall have taken order thereon” (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXII, 280–81; Calendar of Virginia State Papers description begins William P. Palmer et al., eds., Calendar of Virginia State Papers and Other Manuscripts (11 vols.; Richmond, 1875–93). description ends , III, 175). This penalty could hardly be assessed retroactively; hence Harrison probably did not suspend the commission of Captain Schermerhorn.

Born in New York in 1756, Cornelius Schermerhorn was a member of a family long engaged in business as ship chandlers and merchant shippers, especially to and from New York City, Charleston, and other ports on the southern seaboard. From the close of the Revolution until his death about 1816, Schermerhorn continued in his profession as a captain of merchant vessels (New York Genealogical and Biographical Record, XXXVI [1905], 146–47, 200–205; Alice Barnwell Keith, ed., The John Gray Blount Papers [2 vols. to date; Raleigh, N.C. 1952——], I, 193).

Evidently the missing committee report of 23 April, mentioned above, was referred by Congress to a new committee composed of John Morin Scott, John Lowell (Mass.), and JM. Although its recommendation of 29 May seems also to be lost, it may have urged Congress “to devise and report ways and means to prevent an illicit trade with the enemy”—an increasingly menacing commerce of which the “Three Friends” provided only one of many examples (NA: PCC, No. 186, fols. 31, 36; No. 191, fol. 13). Whether the Scott committee did or did not so recommend, Congress on 14 June appointed a committee of eleven members, including JM, to consider the general problem. Three days later, upon his motion, Congress transferred the matter to a five-man committee, with JM as its chairman (JCC description begins Worthington Chauncey Ford et al., eds., Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774–1789 (34 vols.; Washington, 1904–37). description ends , XXII, 333 n.). See Report on Illicit Trade with the Enemy, 19 June 1782.

3The Virginia Gazette, and Weekly Advertiser of 23 March mentioned letters from Grasse to Rochambeau, carried by a ship that had “arrived in York river,” which told about the French capture of St. Kitts and Nevis, along with three thousand British troops. The same issue of the Gazette reported an overwhelming French naval victory in the Caribbean, marked by the British loss of 4 ships of the line, 2 frigates, 3 sloops, and 115 transports. This may have been an exaggerated account of the capture by a 5-ship French squadron of three ports in British Guiana, together with 5 small warships and 11 “private vessels of different sizes,” between 30 January and 2 February 1782 (Wm. L. Clowes, Royal Navy, IV, 77; Pennsylvania Packet, 9 and 11 April 1782). See also Jameson to JM, 23 March 1782.

4Harrison was relaying information contained in an extract of a letter of 6 February 1782 “from an officer in the Southern army,” printed in the Virginia Gazette, and Weekly Advertiser of 23 March 1782. Although the military outlook in the South was brightening, especially since about one thousand of the British troops pent up in Charleston would soon be transferred to the West Indies, the American forces still suffered from an insufficiency of food, clothing, and arms (Pendleton to JM, 11 February, n. 5, and 11 March 1782, n. 4; George W. Greene, Life of Nathanael Greene, III, 447–49).

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