Thomas Jefferson Papers

Depositions Concerning the Flag Ship Alert, [2 May 1781]

Depositions Concerning the Flag Ship Alert

[2 May 1781]

The Depositions of sundry Gentlemen respecting Edward Woneycott Master of the Flag of Truce Brig, Alert, lying at a Place called Cock and Dales, in what manner he conducted himself during the Time since the Brig was chartered to go to Charles Town as a Flag to carry Tobacco for the Use of the American Officers there.

Capt. John Harris, being first sworn on the holy Evangelists of Almighty God, deposeth and saith, that, in the Engagement on the 27th. Ulto. Capt. Woneycott behaved in every Respect agreeable to the Rules prescribed for Flags and that he did not fire any kind of fire arm from on Board his Vessel, and that there were no Militia Men or any other Soldiers suffered to go aboard, and that upon Application made to him for necessarys during the Engagement, he repeatedly refused, upon the whole he verily believes that he has conducted himself with the Utmost Propriety since the Brig was chartered to go to Charles Town, and further this Deponent saith not &c.

John Harris

Capt. John Thomas, being first sworn on the Evangelists of Almighty God, deposeth and saith, That altho the Flag was lying exposed to the Fire in the Engagement of the 27th. he is sure that there was not a Gun or any other fire arm fired from on Board the Flag, and verily believes that he had no arms on Board. That upon his Applying to Capt. Woneycott for his Spy Glass, he absolutely refused to lend it, alledging that he could not consistently with the Rules of a Flag lend any Assistance, And further this Deponent saith not. &c.

Jno. Thomas

Capt. Thomas Williams, being first sworn on the Holy Evangelists of Almighty God deposeth and saith, that he was on Board the Flag about a fortnight before the Engagement, and then all kind of Arms and Military Stores had been sent on shore, and every necessary Preparation making for her proceeding on her voyage as a Flag to Charles Town, that during the Engagement there was not even a Musket discharged on Board of her. That on Saturday the Day after the Engagement Capt. Eastwood applyed to Capt. Woneycott for his Boat to go Aboard of him. He refused it saying it was more than he dared to do while he continued a Flag. He further declares that Capt. Woneycott and all his Crew have behaved as becomes a Flag ever since the Brig Alert was Chartered and further this Deponent saith not, &c.

Thos. Williams

Capt. George Batie, being first sworn on the Evangelists of Almighty God, deposeth and saith that he had been informed and verily believes that every thing of a warlike Nature was removed from on Board the Flag Brig Alert some Time before the Engagement, that Capt. Woneycott walked the Deck during the Engagement, quite unconcerned at what happened or without taking any part in the Defence of the Vessels that were engaged, and further declares that no Man could behave in similar Circumstances with more propriety and further saith not &c.

Geo. Batty

The above Deponents Capt. Harris, Capt. Thomas, Capt. Williams and Capt. Batie made oath before me, one of the Commonwealth Justices of the Peace, to the Truth of their respective Depositions, at Richmond this 2d. Day of May Ann. Dom: 1781.

W. Foushee

The deposition of Mr. James Maury part owner of the brig Alert being first sworn on the holy Evangelists, deposeth and saith that on the 8th. of April 1781 he chartered the brig Alert to David Ross esq. Commercial agent for the Commonwealth of Virginia for the purpose of proceeding with a flag to Charlestown to carry tobaccoes for the Virginia officers and souldiers in captivity there. That he immediately on the same day went to Fourmile Creek and directed Capt. Woneycott to unship all the arms and military stores and send them to Richmond; that they accordingly arrived at Richmond on the 14th. of April, to wit 8 four pounders with their carriages, two muskets, and powder and ball, one or at most two muskets and some powder having been reserved on board for the purpose of kindling fires. That the said brig had on board one hundred and twenty hogsheads of tobacco and her sea-stores. That he has been informed by several captains of vessels and others lately come from Coxendale or it’s neighborhood where the said vessel laid that notwithstanding her flag she has been taken by the British troops under command of Major Genl. Phillips and is carried away with the other vessels captured by them, and further this deponent saith not.

James Maury

Henrico county to wit

Sworn to before me William Foushee a justice of the peace for the Commonwealth of Virginia this 2d. day of May in the year of our lord 1781 and of the Commonwealth the fifth.

W: Foushee

MS (Vi); the depositions of John Harris, John Thomas, Thomas Williams, and George Batty, together with their authentication, are in an unidentified hand, signed by the deponents and by Foushee; the deposition of James Maury and its authentication are in TJ’s hand, signed by Maury and Foushee.

See David Ross to TJ, 5 May; TJ to the Virginia Delegates 10 May 1781. Cock and Dales: See Maxwell to TJ, 26 Apr. 1781. It is possible that TJ directed the taking of these depositions and that he did so in order to lay foundation for a claim against the enemy for its action in seizing the Alert (see TJ to the Virginia delegates, 10 May 1781). It is more likely, however, that they were taken as a result of Gen. Phillips’ letters of 28 and 29 Apr. to Lafayette. In that letter Phillips wrote: “I have now a charge of the deepest nature to make against the American arms: that of having fired upon the king’s troops by a flag of truce vessel; and, to render the conduct as discordant to the laws of arms, the flag was flying the whole time at the mast head, seeming to sport in the violation of the most sacred laws of war. You are sensible, Sir, that I am authorized to inflict the severest punishment in return for this bad conduct, and that towns and villages lay at the mercy of the king’s troops, and it is to that mercy alone you can justly appeal for their not being reduced to ashes. … I shall willingly remit the infliction of any redress we have a right to claim, provided the persons who fired from the flag of truce vessel are delivered into my possession, and a public disavowal made by you of their conduct. Should you, sir, refuse this, I hereby make you answerable for any desolation which may follow in consequence” (Phillips to Lafayette, “British Camp, at Osborn,” 28 Apr. 1781, printed in Memoirs, Correspondence and Manuscripts of General Lafayette, London, 1837, i, 412). The next day Phillips sent an even more intemperate letter to Lafayette: “When I was at Williamsburg, and at Petersburg, I gave several inhabitants and country people protections for their persons and properties. I did this without asking, or even considering, whether these people were either friends or foes, actuated by no other motive than that of pure humanity. I understand, from almost undoubted authority, that several of these persons have been taken up by their malicious neighbours, and sent to your quarters, where preparations are making for their being ill treated. … I shall insist upon my signs manual being held sacred, and I am obliged to declare to you, sir, that if any persons, under the description I have given, receive ill treatment, I shall be under the necessity of sending to Petersburg, and giving that chastisement to the illiberal persecutors of innocent people, which their conduct shall deserve. And I further declare to you, Sir, should any person be put to death, under the pretence of their being spies of, or friends to, the British government, I will make the shores of James River an example of terror to the rest of Virginia. It is from the violent measures, resolutions of the present house of delegates, council, and governor of Virginia, that I am impelled to use this language, which the common disposition of my temper is hurt at. I shall hope that you, sir, whom I have understood to be a gentleman of liberal principles, will not countenance, still less permit to be carried into execution, the barbarous spirit which seems to prevail in the council of the present civil power of this colony” (Phillips to Lafayette, also dated at Osborne’s, 29 Apr. 1781; same, i, 413–4). In his reply, Lafayette acknowledged three letters from Phillips, dated 26, 28, and 29 Apr. The first of these was to Steuben and concerned the capture of a servant of Phillips’ aide-de-camp; Lafayette sent it on to Steuben, but could not refrain from pointing out to Phillips that the “mode of your request has delayed the civility that had been immediately intended” (see quotation from Phillips’ letter of 26 Apr. to Steuben in note to Weedon to TJ, 25 Apr. 1781). In replying to the letters of 28 and 29 Apr. addressed to himself, Lafayette wrote: “From the beginning of this war, which you observe is an unfortunate one to Great Britain, the proceedings of the British troops have been hitherto so far from evincing benevolence of disposition, that your long absence from the scene of action [Lafayette’s allusion to Phillips’ being captured at Saratoga was probably provoked by that general’s rudeness to Steuben in the letter of 26 Apr.] is the only way I have to account for your panegyrics. I give you my honour, sir, that the charge against a flag vessel shall be strictly inquired into, and in case the report is better grounded than the contrary one I have received, you shall obtain every redress in my power, that you have any right to expect. This complaint I beg leave to consider as the only part of your letter that requires an answer. Such articles as the requiring that the persons of spies be held sacred, cannot certainly be serious. The style of your letters, sir, obliges me to tell you, that should your future favours be wanting in that regard due to the civil and military authority in the United States, which cannot but be construed into a want of respect to the American nation, I shall not think it consistent with the dignity of an American officer to continue the correspondence” (Lafayette to Phillips, 30 Apr. 1781; same, i, 414; Phillips’ impugning the motives of TJ and the civil government of Virginia, as set forth in his to Lafayette of 29 Apr., was far less intemperate than the comparable statement in his letter to Weedon of 6 Apr., but whereas Lafayette instantly rebuked Phillips and threatened to break off the correspondence, Weedon not only continued his own exchanges with Phillips, but made no allusion whatever to Phillips’ improper language). Lafayette must have communicated these letters to TJ (see TJ to the Virginia delegates, 10 May in which TJ points out that Phillips’ letters to Steuben and Lafayette had been in a style “intolerably insolent and haughty”), but no copies or covering letters have been found. Nevertheless the depositions printed above must have been taken as a result of the transmittal of Phillips’ letters and TJ must have sent copies of these depositions to Lafayette, for on 3 May Lafayette wrote Phillips: “Your assertion relating to the flag vessel was so positive, that it becomes necessary for me to set you right in this matter. Inclosed I have the honour to send you some depositions, by which it is clearly proved that there has been on our side no violation of flags” (Lafayette to Phillips, 3 May 1781, same, i, 415); copies of Phillips’ letters and of Lafayettes replies were forwarded by Lafayette to Washington, who was informed that Phillips’ had received the replies “with a degree of politeness that seemed to apologize for his unbecoming style”; Lafayette to Washington, same, i, 410).

Phillips’ surprising threat concerning treatment of spies may possibly have been occasioned by report of a court martial held in April at Chesterfield, presided over by Lt. Col. Thomas Gaskins under orders from Steuben. At that trial William Matthews was “Charged 1st with being a Spy and 2dly attempting to Convey a Letter and Intelligence to the Enemy.” In the testimony which followed it was made clear that Matthews was the one who had been apprehended the preceding autumn in an attempt to convey from Gen. Leslie to Cornwallis the letter “wrote on a small piece of paper remarkably thin and inclosed in a thin Bladder” (see reproduction of this intercepted letter, Vol. 4:91). The court martial found Matthews not guilty of being a spy (the words “being utterly incapable of such an office” were struck from the verdict), but guilty of the second charge of transmitting intelligence to the enemy (MS record of proceedings of the court martial, April 1781, in NHi). It is also possible that Phillips was merely anticipating the actions against disaffected persons such as TJ outlined in his letter to Innes of 2 May 1781.

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