George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Richard Dobbs Spaight, 21 October 1793

From Richard Dobbs Spaight

North Carolina Newbern 21st Octr 1793


In September I received a letter from the Collector of Wilmington informing me that the Captain of the Privateer, Vanqueur de Bastille had carried his prize the British Sloop Providence, down to the bar of Cape Fear river and had there shifted her guns &c. from on board the Vanqueur de Bastille to the prize sloop, proceeded to sea with her and was then cruizing off that Harbour, the Schooner was sent back again to Wilmington.1

I felt myself extremely mortified that a proceeding of that nature should take place in any port within this State after I had taken every step in my power to prevent it.

In pursuance of the instructions received from the Secretary of War of the 16th and 21st of August I immediately dispatched orders to the major of New Hanover Militia, to order the Vanqueur de Bastile to leave the port. and that should the aforesaid Sloop or any other privateer fitted out of the United States send or bring in any prize or prizes into the port of Wilmington, to secure her or them to be delivered to the former Owners, or to the Consul of the Nation to whom they belonged and to order the privateer or privateers to depart the port immediately.2

On the 15th instant I received letters from Col: Benjm. Smith of Brunswick County and Major Wright of New Hanover informing me that the said Sloop had arrived at that port, and brought with her a Spanish brig her prize, that they had agreable to my orders made some dispositions to Secure the prize. but had been prevented by the officious interposition of some evil disposed persons in Wilmington who sent down a boat in the night to give Captain Hervieux information of their intentions, who in consequence of it sent his prize to sea, where she remained about eight miles to the southward of the Bar; that Colonel Smith had given orders to Captain Hervieux to leave the port. who gave in excuse for his not complying with them, that he had put in there in distress and could not go to sea, till his people had recovered, and his Vessel was refitted, together with some other reasons mentioned in his letters to Coln. Smith and Major Wright.3 From the deposition marked No. 2 it appeared to me that the Vessel was really in a distressed Situation⟨.⟩ I therefore wrote to those Gentlemen that as the instructions I had received did not comprehend a case of that nature that they might permit her to remain in port for such time as was absolutely necessary to refit her for sea and then to compell her to depart—as the prize was without the port on the high seas I did not conceive myself at liberty to give orders to send after her. indeed from her force (she carries 8 Guns and from 20 to 30 Men) it could not be easily done as there is no armed vessel in the State, but I instructed them that if she should return into port again to use every means in their power to take and secure her for the Original Owners.4

Captain Hervieux previous to his receiving the information from Wilmington had put on board of the revenue Cutter Captain Cook a chest containing (it is said) betwe⟨en⟩ thirty and forty thousand dollars which he had taken out of the Spanish prize on its arrival at Wilmington it was seized by the revenue Officers and placed in the hands of the Mareshall. I have wrote to Major Wright to give the Mareshal orders to keep the money secure till proper application is made for it by the former Owners or the Consul for Spain and if no such application should be made, untill such time as I should receive further instructions from you respecting what is to be done with it.5

The Schooner Vanqueur de Bastille lies at one of the Wharfs at Wilmington quite dismantled and unrigged and no person on board of her who can be made to comply with that part of your instructions of obliging her to leave the port under these circumstances I should be glad to know what is to be done with her.

As this business is a national one it is expected that the General Government will pay every expence attending it at the same time it may be requisite that this State should advance in the first instance the monies necessary for the Amunition pay and subsistance of such part of the Militia as may be called into service to execute the instructions of the President of the United States. I shall therefore apply to the Council to authorize me to draw on the treasury of this State for such sums as may be wanted. I shall likewise be glad to be informed in what manner the State is to be reimbursed by the United States, the monies which may be occasionally advanced.

I really feel myself ashamed of the Conduct of the New hanover Militia as related by Major Wright. I shall direct him to take such steps as are pointed out by the laws of the State to punish them for their disobedience of his orders.6

That you may be fully acquainted with the real state of the Case I have sent you enclosed copies of Col: Smith and Major Wrights letters and of the other papers which accompanied them. I have the Honor to be with due respect Sir Your Mo. Obt Servant

Richd D. Spaight

LB, Nc-Ar: Governors’ Letterbooks.

1See James Read to Spaight, 6 Sept. (Nc-Ar: Governors’ Letterbooks). The Providence, captured by Vainqueur de la Bastille in June, was fitted out as the French privateer L’Aimée Marguerite.

2Secretary of War Henry Knox’s circular letter to the governors of 16 Aug. directed them to order an immediate departure from their ports of the privateers that had been fitted out in American ports (including the Vainqueur de la Bastille) and to seize any prizes that they brought in. His circular letter of 21 Aug. directed that the prizes be restored to their owners (see Knox to Tobias Lear, 17 Aug., n.1).

Spaight wrote Maj. Thomas Wright, who was also sheriff of New Hanover County, on 16 Sept.: “In June last I wrote a letter to the Colonel of New Hanover County containing sundry instructions respecting the fitting out of armed vessels in the port of Wilmington to act as privateers on behalf of the parties at War; But from a late occurence which has happened at that place and which I have been informed of by the Collector, I am sorry to find that my orders on that head have been quite unattended to. Under these circumstances I feel myself under the necessity of applying to some other Officer of that County (for it would be useless to give further orders to a man who has already disobeyed those which he has received) to prevent if possible any other acts which may tend to a violation of the neutrality which the United States have embraced and to carry into effect as far as in our power the instructions of the Executive of the United States respecting this important object, I have therefore thought proper to address myself to you and to request that you would undertake the business and carry into effect as far as you possibly can the different instructions which shall be communicated to you on this head.

“No Vessel whatever must be allowed to be fitted out for the purpose of acting as a privateer on behalf of any of the parties at War—should any attempt of the kind be made you will with the aid of such part of the militia of the County as you may deem necessary seize upon the Vessel or Vessels and keep them in safety till further orders, giving me at the same time information in writing with a particular statement of the facts.

“No armed vessel which has been or shall be originally fitted out in any port of the Unites States as a cruizer or privateer by either of the parties at War is to have asylum in any ports of the United States—and in case of any vessel within the foregoing description should arrive in the port of Wilmington you will order her to depart immediately, and in case of refusal you will take effectual measures to oblige her to depart. force is not to be resorted to untill every proper effort has been previously made to procure the early departure without it.

“And in case any such Vessel shall have sent or brought subsequent to the 5th of August last or should hereafter bring or send any prize or prizes into the port of Wilmington, you will with the aid of the Militia secure such prize or prizes for the purpose of restoring them to the former Owner.”

Spaight finished by specifically directing Wright’s attention to the case of the Vainqueur de la Bastille and her prize, and by directing him to keep good accounts of the expenses, which would be “born by the General Government” (Nc-Ar: Governors’ Letterbooks).

3In addition to describing his unsuccessful efforts to secure the prize ship, Benjamin Smith’s letter to Spaight of 11 Oct. pointed out that in New Hanover County “the right of their Officer to order them out has been questioned,” and asked what punishment he could apply if “the infection” should spread to his county. He also requested the governor’s “command respecting the Privateer & Prize,” noting that the privateer could easily be taken—the captain having declared “that he cannot go, or oblige his men to go out in a Vessel that he is sure would sink”—while the prize was anchored within sight of land. “The Captain has hopes that under his particular circumstances you will permit him to bring her in—Whether you will think his case not included in the Instruction of the Executive of the United States & that as the Citizen of an allied friendly power he has a right to comfort & Shelter in our Port when in distress must be left to your own wisdom. . . .From the Inhabitants of Wilmington I apprehend no exertion can be expected” (Nc-Ar: Governors’ Correspondence).

Thomas Wright’s letter to Spaight of 12 Oct. explained that after he “Warned the officers of Militia in Town to have in readiness 25 Men to go down the River” as soon as “necessaries” could be provided, “only four persons obeyed the Orders given manay of them declaring they would not render any assistance in Such a case.” Even had he obtained a sufficient crew, however, the prize would have escaped, as the French captain was warned by a Wilmington citizen. “I hope your Excellency will deem it expedient to check by Proclamation such Conduct . . . otherwise it will be useless here to make any efforts to Suppress any Acts whatsoever inconsistent with our duty as a Neutral Port.” Wright went on the describe the seizure from the privateer captain of a chest which the captain’s lawyers were attempting to reclaim. “I have thought it my duty to say agreeable to your Orders that as it is undoubtedly a part of the Prize, and as the former Owners are Confined so that no delivery can be made to them, it must be delivered to the orders of the Consul of Spain” (Nc-Ar: Governors’ Correspondence).

The prize was the Spanish brig San Josef, or San José (see Josef de Jaudenes and Josef Ignacio de Viar to Thomas Jefferson, 26 Dec., Jefferson Papers description begins Julian P. Boyd et al., eds. The Papers of Thomas Jefferson. 41 vols. to date. Princeton, N.J., 1950–. description ends , 27:625–28, and Bee, Reports of Cases description begins Thomas Bee. Reports of Cases Adjudged in the District Court of South Carolina . . .. Philadelphia, 1810. description ends , 29–34).

The French commander, François Henri Hervieux (born c.1767), wrote Smith on 7 Oct. and then sent him a second letter of that date, conveying the same information but adding a stronger protest of the government’s policy, to be substituted for the first. The “other reasons” were the seizure by “the Officers of the Customs or others the Servants of the fœderal Government” of a trunk containing his commission and dispatches as well as some $30,000 to $40,000 belonging to himself and his crew, without the restoration of which he was unwilling to sail (Nc-Ar: Governors’ Correspondence). No letter from Hervieux to Wright has been identified.

4In the deposition, dated 4 Oct., Drs. Nathaniel Hill and James Larogue asserted that “but two able bodied Seaman remained in health” on board L’Aimée Marguerite; ship carpenters John Telfair and William Keddie testified that the ship was in need of structural repair; and mariner Joseph Brown declared “that the Jib is unfit for use, & that in general the Sails and Rigging are in such a Situation that the Vessel is unfit to proceed to Sea without fresh Supplies thereof” (Nc-Ar: Governors’ Correspondence). Spaight’s instructions regarding L’Aimée Marguerite were given in a letter to Wright of 17 Oct., in which he added, “if the prize should attempt to return if possible have her secured” (Nc-Ar: Governors’ Letterbooks).

5Capt. William Cooke commanded the revenue cutter Diligence. The directions about the money were contained in Spaight’s letter to Wright of 17 Oct. (Nc-Ar: Governors’ Letterbooks). The trunk was in the possession of the deputy marshal at Wilmington, John Blakeley (d. 1797). See Spaight to Blakeley, 31 Oct., Nc-Ar: Governors’ Letterbooks; and Blakeley to Spaight, 3 Nov., Nc-Ar: Governors’ Correspondence.

6In Spaight’s letter to Wright of 17 Oct. he had written: “as to the Militia under your command refusing to obey your Orders; I think either the laws of the State or those of the Union sufficient to punish them for their neglect or refusal, see the 11th Sec: of the Militia law of this State and the 28th Chap: of the 1st Session of the 2nd Congress” (Nc-Ar: Governors’ Letterbooks).

The 11th section of the 1786 militia law prescribed a fine of ten pounds for those “who shall neglect or refuse on Call or Alarm given, to appear at such Times and Places as shall be appointed by his Captain or other Officer,” and allowed courts-martial for more serious refusals (James Iredell, Laws of the State of North-Carolina [Edenton, N.C., 1791], 594–95). The 28th chapter, “An Act to provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the laws of the Union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions,” 2 May 1792, provided that militia who failed to obey a call-up by the president were subject to forfeiture of pay and to courts-martial (Stat. description begins Richard Peters, ed. The Public Statutes at Large of the United States of America, from the Organization of the Government in 1789, to March 3, 1845 . . .. 8 vols. Boston, 1845-67. description ends , 1:264–65).

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