Royal Naval Biography/Pring, Daniel

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2284536Royal Naval Biography — Pring, DanielJohn Marshall

[Post-Captain of 1815.]

Was made lieutenant. May 12, 1808, and commander, Nov. 13, 1813; at which latter period he was employed on the lakes of Canada, as will be seen by the following extract of a letter from Sir George Prevost, the Governor-General, to Earl Bathurst, dated at Montreal, December 12:–

“A division of gun-boats, with a detachment of troops, which I had ordered on the 1st of this month to advance into Lake Champlain, for the purpose of molesting General Hampton’s division, succeeded in burning an extensive building lately erected near Plattsburg, as a depôt magazine; some batteaux, together with the ammunition, provisions, and stores found in it, were either brought away or destroyed.

“The severity of the weather obliged Captain Pring, of the royal navy, under whose command I had placed the expedition, to return to Isle-auxNoirs on the 5th; in effecting which, he was obliged to cut a channel for his boats through several miles of ice. The enemy’s troops were in considerable number in the vicinity of Plattshurg, but no attempt was made to annoy our force employed on this occasion.”

In Feb. 1814, the American General Wilkinson concentrated a considerable force at Plattsburg, for the invasion of Lower Canada.

On the 30th March, his light troops entered Odell town, drove in the British piquets on the road leading from thence to Burton Ville, and commenced an attack on the latter position; but were so well received by the king’s troops and Canadian fencibles, that it was not persevered in. Three brigades of American infantry were then directed upon the post at La Cole Mill, which was most gallantly and successfully defended by Major Handcock, of the 13th regiment, who acknowledges himself highly indebted to Captain Pring, “for his ready and prompt assistance,” in moving up the flotilla from Isle-aux-Noirs to the entrance of the La Cole river, where he opened and maintained a very destructive fire. On this occasion, Lieutenants Creswick and Hicks, R.N. were most actively zealous in landing two guns, and forwarding them, with a quantity of stores, to the mill. In this affair, the British sustained a loss of 12 men killed, 48 including 2 officers, wounded, and 4 missing.

The subsequent capture of Oswego has been officially described at p. 215 et seq. of Suppl. Part II. The principal object in attacking that place being to retard the equipment of the enemy’s new ships at Sackett’s harbour (their guns and stores of every description being drawn from Oswego), and thus to delay, if not altogether to prevent, the sailing of their fleet; Sir George Prevost determined to pursue the same policy on Lake Champlain, and therefore directed Captain Pring to proceed with his division of flotilla, towards Vergennes, for the purpose, if practicable, of destroying the vessels lately launched there, and of intercepting the ordnance and supplies for their armament and equipment.

Captain Pring accordingly sailed on the 9th May; but, on arriving off Otter Creek, on the 14th, he found the Americans so fully prepared to receive him, and their vessels so strongly defended by batteries, as well as a considerable body of troops, that after a cannonading with some effect from his gun-boats, he judged it most advisable to abandon his intended plan of attacking them, and to return to Isle-aux-Noirs. The appearance of the flotilla, however, on Lake Champlain, is stated by Sir George Prevost, to have been “productive of great confusion and alarm at Burlington, and other places along its shores; and the whole of the population appeared to be turned out for their defence.”

In the early part of Aug. 1814, the British naval force on Lake Champlain consisted of the Linnet brig. Captain Pring; Chubb cutter, Lieutenant James M‘Ghie; Finch cutter. Lieutenant William Hicks; and ten sail of gun-boats. These vessels mounted between them 2 long 24-pounders, 5 long eighteens, 16 twelves, and 2 sixes; 1 medium 18-pounder; 6 thirty-two and 16 eighteen-pounder carronades: their joint crews amounted to 444 persons, the greater part British soldiers and Canadian militia, with a due proportion of boys. On the 25th of that month, the Confiance, a ship hastily constructed in the vicinity of Isle-aux-Noirs, was launched, and soon afterwards commissioned by Captain George Downie, then just[errata 1] arrived from Lake Ontario. Her armament consisted of 27 long 24-pounders, 4 thirty-two-pounder carronades, and 6 twenty-four-pounder ditto; her complement was 270 officers, men, and boys.

In consequence of the earnest solicitations of Sir George Prevost, for the co-operation of the navy in an intended attack upon the enemy’s works at Plattsburg, every possible exertion was used to accelerate the equipment of the Confiance, that the military movements might not be postponed at such an advanced season of the year, longer than was absolutely necessary. On the 3d Sept. Captain Pring was directed to proceed in command of the gun-boats, to protect the left flank of the army advancing towards that place; and, on the following day, after taking possession of Isle de la Motte, he caused a battery of 3 long 18-pounders to be constructed for the support of a position opposite to Little Chazey, where the supplies for the troops were ordered to be landed.

On the 8th Sept., the Confiance, Linnet, Chubb, and Finch moved from Isle-aux-Noirs, and anchored abreast of the main body of the British army, to wait until the new ship had completed her crew and equipment. Unfortunately, however. Captain Downie was urged, and the Confiance hurried into action, before she was by any means in a fit state to meet the enemy.

“On the 9th, Captain Downie received a draught of marines, numbering, with a few artillery men and soldiers, 86 men; and, in the course of that and the following day, the whole of the petty officers and seamen intended for him came on board; amongst whom were 19 foreigners, 25 men lent from transports at Quebec, and many bad characters from the ships of war, who had escaped condign punishment by volunteering to serve on the lakes.

“On the 10th, while the loud clank of the builder’s hammer was still sounding in all parts of the ship, while the guns were being breeched and pointed through the ports, and while the powder was lying in a boat alongside, the magazine not being ready for its reception, an officer from Sir George Prevost came to solicit the instant co-operation of the squadron. Relying upon the assurance now given by the governor-general, that the army should storm the works of Plattsburg while the navy attacked the American shipping in front of them. Captain Downie, notwithstanding the unprepared state of the Confiance, consented to go into battle on the following morning. It was then agreed, that Captain Downie, when rounding Cumberland head, should scale his guns; and that, at the same instant, the assaulting column should advance to the enemy’s works.

“On the 11th, at 7 a.m. the Confiance, accompanied by the Linnet, Chubb, Finch, and gun-boats, arrived in view of the American squadron, consisting of the Saratoga, bearing the broad pendant of Commodore Thomas M‘Donough; the Eagle brig. Captain Robert Henley; the Ticonderago schooner, Lieutenant Stephen Cassin; the Preble cutter, and ten gun-boats; mounting in the whole 14 long 24-pounders, 12 eighteens, 14 twelves, and 7 nines; 6 medium 18-pounders, and 33 carronades; 6 of which were 42, and all the others 32-pounders. The total number of American officers and men was 981, the whole of the latter, excepting about 83 soldiers, acting as marines, were sailors belonging to the ships of war at New London and other blockaded ports on the Atlantic frontier.

The Saratoga, Eagle, Ticonderago, and Preble, were found moored in line, abreast of the American encampment, with a division of five gun-boats on each flank; and Captain Downie immediately determined on laying the Confiance athwart-hawse of the enemy’s ship; directing Captain Pring to engage the brig. Lieutenant M’Ghie to support the Linnet, and Lieutenant Hicks, assisted by the gun-boats, to attack the schooner and cutter.

“The moment the Confiance arrived abreast of Cumberland Head, she scaled her guns as had been agreed upon; but the signal was not answered from the array. Sir George Prevost did, however, direct a signal to be made: it was for the army ‘to cook,’ instead of to fight; to give the men their breakfasts, instead of to deprive the enemy of the opportunity of taking his. To the honor of the soldiers, and the officers in general, they all panted to rush forward; but, in truth, a third part of the troops would have done all that was required, and, in two hours from the time the Confiance scaled her guns, would have given a victory to both army and navy, instead of a flight to one, and a defeat to the other. Captain Downie now discovered, too late, the mistake into which his confidence had led him. The Confiance was already in the enemy’s bay, and almost within gun-shot of his squadron.

“Within 15 minutes after the commencement of the action,” that gallant officer fell. “The way in which he met his death, is of too extraordinary a nature to be passed over. A shot from the Saratoga struck one of the Confiance’s 24-pounders, and threw it completely off the carriage against him. He received the blow upon his right groin, and, although signs of life remained for a few minutes, never spoke afterwards. No part of his skin was broken: a black mark, about the circumference of a small plate, was the only visible injury. His watch was found flattened, with the hands pointing to the hour, minute, and second, at which the fatal blow had been given[1].” On the subsequent day, Captain Pring performed the painful duty of making Commodore Sir James L. Yeo acquainted with the disastrous result of the combat. The following are extracts of his official letter:

U.S. ship Saratoga, Plattsburg bay, Lake Champlain,
12, 1814.

“At 40 minutes past 7, after the officers commanding vessels and the flotilla had received their final instructions as to the plan of attack, we made sail in order of battle.

“At 8 the enemy’s gun-boats and small vessels commenced a heavy and galling fire on our line; and at 10 minutes after, the Confiance having two anchors shot away from her larboard bow, and the wind baffling, was obliged to anchor (though not in the situation proposed), within two cables length of her adversary; the Linnet and Chubb soon afterwards took their allotted stations, something short of that distance, when the crews on both sides cheered, and commenced a spirited and close action; a short time, however, deprived me of the valuable services of Lieutenant M‘Ghie, who, from having his cables, bowsprit, and mainboom shot away, drifted within the enemy’s line, and was obliged to surrender.

“From the light airs and smoothness of the water, the fire on each side proved very destructive from the commencement of the engagement, and with the exception of the brig, that of the enemy appeared united against the Confiance. After two hours severe conflict with our opponent, she cut her cable, run down, and took shelter between the ship and schooner, which enabled us to direct our fire against the division of the enemy’s gun-boats and ship which had so long annoyed us during our close engagement with the brig, without any return on our part; at this time the fire of the enemy’s ship slackened considerably, having several of her guns dismounted, when she cut her cable, and winded her larboard broadside to bear on the Confiance, who, in vain, endeavoured to effect the same operation; at 33 minutes after 10, I was much distressed to observe the Confiance had struck her colours[2]. The whole attention of the enemy’s force then became directed towards the Linnet; the shattered and disabled state of the masts, sails, rigging, and yards, precluded the most distant hope of being able to effect an escape by cutting the cable; the result of doing so must, in a few minutes, have been her drifting alongside the enemy’s vessels, close under our lee; but in the hope that the flotilla of gun-boats, who had abandoned the object assigned them, would perceive our wants, and come to our assistance, which would afford a reasonable prospect of being towed clear, I determined to resist the then destructive cannonading of the whole of the enemy’s fleet, and at the same time despatched Lieutenant William Drew to ascertain the state of the Confiance. At 45 minutes after 10, I was apprised of the irreparable loss she had sustained by the death of her brave commander (whose merits it would be presumption in me to extol), as well as the great slaughter which had taken place on board, and observing, from the manoeuvres of the flotilla, that I could enjoy no further expectation of relief, the situation of my gallant comrades who had so nobly fought, and even now were fast falling by my side, demanded the surrender of his Majesty’s brig entrusted to my command, to prevent a useless waste of valuable lives; and, at the request of the surviving officers and men, I gave the painful orders for the colours to be struck[3].

“Lieutenant Hicks, of the Finch, had the mortification to strike on a reef of rocks, to the eastward of Crabb Island, about the middle of the engagement, which prevented his rendering that assistance to the squadron, that might, from an officer of such ability, have been expected.

“The misfortune which this day befel us by capture, will. Sir, I trust, apologize for the lengthy detail, which, in justice to the sufferers, I have deemed necessary to give of the particulars which led to it; and when it is taken into consideration that the Confiance was sixteen days before on the stocks, with an unorganized crew, composed of several drafts of men who had recently arrived from different ships at Quebec, many of whom only joined the day before, and were totally unknown either to the officers or to each other, with the want of gun-locks[4], as well as other necessary appointments not to be procured in this country, I trust you will feel satisfied of the decided advantage the enemy possessed, exclusive of their great superiority in point of force. It now becomes the most pleasing part of my present duty to notice to you the determined skill and bravery of the officers and men in this unequal contest: but it grieves me to state, that the loss sustained in maintaining it has been so great[5]; that of the enemy, I understand, amounts to something more than the same number.

“The fine style in which Captain Downie conducted the squadron into action, amidst a tremendous fire, without returning a shot, until secured, reflects the greatest credit on his memory, for his judgment and coolness, as also on Lieutenants M‘Ghie and Hicks, for so strictly attending to his example and instructions; their own accounts of the capture of their respective vessels, as well as that of Lieutenant James[errata 2] Robertson, who succeeded to the command of the Confiance, will, I feel assured, do ample justice to the merits of the officers and men serving under their immediate command; hut I cannot omit noticing the individual conduct of Lieutenants Robertson, Creswick, and Hornby, and Mr. Bryden, master, for their particular exertions in endeavouring to bring the Confiance’s starboard side to bear on the enemy, after most of their guns were dismounted on the other.

“It is impossible for me to express to you my admiration of the officers and crews serving under my personal orders; their coolness and steadiness, the effect of which was proved by their irresistible fire directed towards the brig opposed to us, claims my warmest acknowledgments, but more particularly for preserving the same, so long after the whole strength of the enemy had been directed against the Linnet alone. My first lieutenant, Wm. Drew, whose merits I have before had the honor to report to you, behaved in the most exemplary manner.

“By the death of Mr. Paul, acting second lieutenant, the service has been deprived of a most valuable and brave officer; he fell early in the action; great credit is due to Mr. Giles, purser, for volunteering his services on deck; to Mr. Mitchell, surgeon, for the skill he evinced in performing some amputations required at the moment, us well as his great attention to the wounded daring the action; at the close of which, the water was nearly a foot above the lower deck, from the number of shot which struck her between wind and water. I have to regret the loss of the boatswain, Mr. Jackson, who was killed a few moments before the action terminated. The assistance I received from Mr. Muckle, the gunner, and also from Mr. Clarke, master’s mate, Messrs. Towke and Sinclair, midshipmen, the latter of whom was wounded in the head, and Mr. Guy, my clerk, will, I hope, recommend them, as well as the whole of my gallant little crew, to your notice.

“I have much satisfaction in making you acquainted with the humane treatment the wounded have received from Commodore M‘Donough; they were immediately removed to his own hospital, on Crabb island, and furnished with every requisite. His generous and polite attention, also, to myself, the officers, and men, will ever hereafter be gratefully remembered. I have the honor to be, &c.

(Signed)Dan. Pring.”

Sir James L. Yeo, when transmitting a copy of Captain Pring’s letter to the Admiralty, declared himself “of opinion, that there was not the least necessity for our squadron giving the enemy such decided advantages, by going into their bay to engage them; even had they been successful, it would not in the least have assisted the troops in storming the batteries; whereas, had our army taken the works first, it would have obliged the American squadron to quit the bay, and given the British a fair chance[6].” Sir James subsequently preferred the following charges against Sir George Prevost:–

"For having, on or about the 11th Sept. 1814, by holding out the expectation of a co-operation of the army under his command, induced Captain Downie to attack the American squadron on Lake Champlain, when it was highly imprudent to make such attack without the co-operation of the land forces, and for not having afforded that co-operation.

“For not having stormed the American works on shore at nearly the same time that the said naval action commenced, as he had given Captain Downie reason to expect.

“For having disregarded the signal for co-operation which had been previously agreed upon; and,

“For not having attacked the enemy on shore, either during the said naval action, or after it was ended, whereby his Majesty’s squadron, under the command of Captain Downie, might have been saved.”

Unfortunately, justice was interrupted in its course by the death of Sir George Prevost, before the demanded investigation could take place. On the 28th Aug. 1815, however, Captain Pring, and the majority of the surviving officers and men late belonging to the Lake Champlain squadron, were tried by a court-martial at Portsmouth, and the following was the sentence pronounced:–

“The Court having maturely weighed the evidence, is of opinion, that the capture of H.M.S. Confiance, and the remainder of the squadron, was principally caused by their having been urged into battle previous to her being in a proper state to meet the enemy; by the promised co-operation of the land forces not being carried into effect; and by the pressing letters of their commander-in-chief, whereby it appears that he had, on the 10th Sept. 1814, only waited for the naval attack to storm the enemy’s works. That the signal of approach on the following day was made, by the scaling of the guns, as settled between Captain Downie and Major Coote; and the promised co-operation was communicated to the other officers and crews of the British squadron before the commencement of the action. The Court, however, is of opinion, that the attack would have been attended with more effect, if a part of the gun-boats had not withdrawn themselves from the action, and others of the vessels had not been prevented, by baffling winds, from getting into the stations assigned them. That Captain Pring, of the Linnet, and Lieutenant Robertson, who succeeded to the command of the Confiance, after the lamented fate of Captain Downie (whose conduct was marked by the greatest valour), and Lieutenant Christopher James Bell, commanding the Murray, and Mr. James Robertson, commanding the Beresford, gun-boats, who appeared to take their trial at this court-martial, conducted themselves with great zeal, bravery, and ability, during the action ; that Lieutenant William Hicks, commanding the Finch, also conducted himself with becoming bravery; that the other surviving officers and men, except Lieutenant M‘Ghie, of the Chubb, who has not appeared here to take his trial, also conducted themselves with bravery; and that Captain Pring, Lieutenant Robertson, Lieutenant Hicks, Lieutenant Bell, Mr. James Robertson, and the rest of the surviving officers and ships’ crew, except Lieutenant M‘Ghie, ought to be most honorably acquitted; and they are hereby most honorably acquitted accordingly.”

On the 18th of the ensuing month, Lieutenant M‘Ghie was also tried, and “the Court, having heard the circumstances, determined, that the Chubb was not properly carried into action, nor anchored so us to do the most effectual service; by which neglect, she drifted into the line of the enemy: that it did not appear, however, that there was any want of courage in Lieutenant M‘Ghie; and, therefore, the Court, did only adjudge him to be severely reprimanded.”

Captain Pring was made post, Sept. 19, 1815; and appointed to a command on Lake Erie, June 26, 1816.

Agents.– Messrs. Goode and Clarke.

  1. James, VI, 501 et seq.
  2. Thus affording the extraordinary instance, of a ship being launched, equipped, fought, and captured, within the short space of 17 days.
  3. All the gun-boats, except three, ran away almost as soon as the action commenced. We have not been able to ascertain the names of their commanders, otherwise they should have been inserted.
  4. Without this article, many a successful action has been fought; nor does it appear that the enemy used gun-locks.
  5. 57 killed, and from 70 to 90 wounded.
  6. Official letter to J. W. Croker, Esq., dated at Kingston, 24th Sept. 1814.

  1. Original: first was amended to just
  2. Original: John was amended to James