The Hessians and the other German auxiliaries of Great Britain in the revolutionary war/20 Wiederhold's Voyage—an Episode—September, 1779
WIEDERHOLD'S VOYAGE—AN EPISODE—SEPTEMBER, 1779.
On the 4th of September, 1779, the Regiments von Knyphausen and von Lossberg received orders to make ready to embark with all their baggage, and with such of their sick as could support a journey. Their destination was Quebec, though the men did not know it at the time. The Knyphausen and Lossberg regiments were two of those which had been captured at Trenton. The prisoners taken on that occasion had been exchanged, and the regiments, which had at one time formed part of a combined battalion, were now acting independently again.
Wiederhold had received a commission as captain in the Regiment von Knyphausen. The two regiments were embarked on the 8th of September on six vessels. Wiederhold's quarters were on the Triton, a brig armed with six small cannon and two swivels. The brig was crowded and uncomfortable, and had at first a crew of only seven men, counting the captain, cook, and steward. The Hessians on board were a lieutenant-colonel, who was sick, two captains, a lieutenant, an ensign, and a surgeon, and nearly two companies of infantry.
The brig put to sea on the evening of the 8th of September, but ran immediately into a gale of wind, and was separated from the fleet. The master, having received no orders as to his destination, was obliged to put back towards Sandy Hook on the morning of the 10th. On that day a vessel was made out ahead, and preparations were made to meet her in case she should be an American privateer. The cannons were cleaned and loaded, and a non-commissioned officer and six men ordered to take charge of each of them. The vessel, however, turned out to be a friend, a transport-ship with part of the Forty-fourth English regiment on board. The Triton kept in company with this ship, and on the morning of the 11th fell in with the convoy, consisting of twenty-three transports and trading sloops, protected by two small vessels of twenty and fourteen guns. From one of these vessels the Triton obtained two additional sailors—young, inexperienced fellows.
The fleet sailed immediately on the arrival of the Triton, and during the 11th and 12th all went well. On the 13th, however, the weather began to be stormy, and on the 14th it was the same. On the 15th the wind was rising, and in the evening it blew a hurricane. The fleet was completely scattered, and the night was pitch dark. About nine o'clock in the evening the mainmast broke off below the main yard, and before the wreckage was entirely cleared away the foremast went overboard, breaking just above the deck. The brig was now tossed about at the mercy of the waves, and was sometimes on her beam-ends. While the captain was nailing up a dark-light, and Wiederhold standing by with a candle to help him, the sea burst in and threw them both head over heels in the cabin.
Presently a new peril arose. One after another the cannons on the deck broke away from their fastenings, rolled hither and thither, and burst through the bulwarks into the sea. Four of them in succession were lost in this way, carrying with them the great iron kettle, which was large enough to cook for the whole ship's company and passengers at once. The fifth cannon, in rolling about, loosened the hatch, then broke away from its own carriage, and fell through on to the lower deck, where it alighted on a large chest belonging to Captain Wiederhold, and containing wine, spirits, mustard, vinegar, and the like. The chest and its contents flew into a thousand pieces, but the fall of the gun was broken, and the hull of the brig escaped injury.
The sixth cannon, however, was still running about the after-deck just over the cabin. It had already smashed the wheel and everything else that came in its way. Four of the sailors could or would work no longer, and lay helpless in their bunks. None of the others would go near the cannon, for fear of being crushed. The soldiers were lying about sighing, weeping, or praying. The lieutenant-colonel was too sick to do anything. Wiederhold tried to encourage the men, and told them that God, who had brought them into this great danger, could also bring them out of it, if they would do their part, and try in the first place to get the cannon overboard, and then work at the pumps and keep the ship afloat until morning; when, perhaps, Heaven would lend them aid, and either give them better weather or send a ship to their assistance.
Wiederhold's entreaties were useless at first. Some of the soldiers were stunned or stupid with fright; others said they were sick. Wiederhold reminded them that he had himself been suffering for four weeks from a fever, but as there was no one else to render any help, he had tried to do something for the common safety. He did not doubt, he said, that there were some men there who were stronger than he, and who had enough affection for him to follow him and to do what he should tell them. He promised to stay on deck with them, lend a hand to their work, and share their fate, hoping to save the ship and all on board. No one would come, until at last Wiederhold cried out, “Is there no under-officer who is in health, and has ambition and a Hessian heart, who will follow and help me?” Hereupon a sergeant and two corporals started up, and were followed by fifteen or twenty men. “Well, then,” said Wiederhold, “come along! Let us first try to pitch the cannon into the sea.” After several attempts, during which they were in constant danger of being crushed, or of being carried overboard with the gun, they succeeded in mastering it, and pushed it over the side. In doing this a soldier had his arm broken in two places, and Wiederhold's little finger was crushed.
Now they went to work at the pump, in relays of four men. Each relay could only work for six or eight minutes at a time, and the men had to be tied, or cling to the stump of the mainmast, not to be washed away. About three or four o'clock in the morning the pump broke, and could not be mended in the dark, so they fell to bailing, which they kept up until daylight, when they managed to repair the pump.
While the men were working in the darkness a soldier fell overboard, but succeeded in seizing a rope, and called and shrieked for help. No one could see him, or knew just where he was. “Where are you?” asked Wiederhold. “Hanging on to the ship,” answered the soldier; “I can't hold on much longer. Help me quickly, or I shall fall into the sea and drown.” His comrades tried to get to him, but before they could reach him a wave was quicker than they, and washed him aboard again; and, says Wiederhold, in his narrative, “he's alive and healthy yet.”
While the work was going on, Wiederhold noticed the master and some of the sailors, with a lantern, moving about the boats which were fastened to the ship, and, as he thought, preparing to launch one of them. Wiederhold asked the master what he was doing. “Oh, nothing,” answered the master; “I am only seeing if they are fast enough.” Wiederhold then asked for the lantern, on a pretext, and when he had got it and given it to one of his soldiers, he took the master by the arm, led him down to the cabin, and put him under arrest, in charge of two officers. This was done for fear the master should abandon the brig with his sailors, and leave the soldiers to their fate. When morning broke the boats were found to be past service. They were thrown overboard, and the master was released.
During the 16th of September the storm was abating, and the 17th was a clear day. The observation taken at noon showed 37° 19' north latitude, so that the brig had drifted nearly as far south as the capes of Virginia. Of the longitude they had no idea.
The wreckage of the masts and bulwarks was now cleared away, and the hull of the brig examined, but no leak found. The soldiers came on deck and dried their clothes, for there was not a dry stitch on the brig, even in the knapsacks, but everything had been soaked in salt water and slime. The sailors rigged a jury-mast on the stump of the mainmast, and on the following day another on that of the foremast.
On the 19th prayers were offered by the Hessian soldiers, to thank God for their deliverance in the storm. A hymn was sung and the 107th Psalm was read. Even the sailors, who could not understand a word of what was said by the Germans, showed much reverence and seemed to be praying themselves.
The Triton now slowly made her way to the northward, meeting with tolerable weather. Several vessels were seen, but none came to her assistance. Wiederhold elaborated a plan of action by which, in his hardly manageable hulk, he was to resist any privateer that should attack him. He proposed to hide his men, decoy a boat-load of Americans on board the Triton, and capture them. The privateer would now be unwilling to fire into the brig for fear of hurting her own men, and could not board it, on account of the superior numbers of the Hessians. It was, perhaps, fortunate for Wiederhold and his party that circumstances prevented them from trying to put this ingenious scheme in action.
On the morning of the 25th of September the capes of Delaware were in sight. Knowing now exactly where they were, the crew of the Triton put out to sea again, to keep out of the way of privateers. The wind was fair, and the Hessians hoped to see Sandy Hook in forty-eight hours. The morning of the 26th was fine. At daybreak two sails were seen in the distance. Wiederhold sprang joyfully into the cabin and reported the sight to the lieutenant-colonel and the other officers. All dressed and hurried on deck, hoping that these were ships sent out from New York to cruise before the harbor, or to assist vessels injured in the late storm. The strange sail, which were to windward, bore down on the Triton, and proved to be a schooner and a sloop. “But oh! how were our hopes betrayed!” cries Wiederhold; “for when they came near and hoisted their flags of thirteen stripes, our joy was turned into sorrow.”
The schooner carried fourteen guns and was called the Mars. The sloop, named the Comet, carried ten guns, and was commanded by Captain Decatur. By eight o'clock in the morning they were alongside of the Triton. They ordered the master of the latter to lower one sail and bind the helm to starboard. Then each privateer sent an officer and five men aboard, and the Mars took the Triton in tow, and brought her into Barnegat Inlet, where she was anchored. The Mars, which had taken on board the master and several seamen from the Triton, presently got among the breakers and capsized. Only two of her crew were drowned, but all had to swim for it. This happened within two gun-shots of the place where the Triton lay at anchor. The captain of the Mars had previously ordered the Hessian lieutenant-colonel to come on board of that vessel, but had fortunately excused him from doing so on account of his sickness.
On the 29th of September the Triton was brought into Little Egg Harbor. Here the prisoners were disembarked. They passed through Philadelphia and were at last quartered at Reading. The officers were exchanged and returned to New York in December, 1780.
Of the six vessels in which the Knyphausen and Lossberg regiments we're embarked, one returned safely to New York with her passengers; the fate of one I have not been able to trace with certainty; one was lost at sea with all hands; two were disabled in the storm and afterwards taken by American privateers.
The remaining vessel, the Badger, with part of the Lossberg regiment, lost her fore and main masts in the storm. She was afterwards attacked by two small privateers, which followed her for two days and fired at her, but drew off on account of the determined attitude of the Hessians. On the 9th of October, however, a privateer mounting twelve guns attacked the Badger, and the latter, having no cannon, was obliged to surrender. A lieutenant, three ensigns, and twenty men were taken on board the privateer, together with the equipment of the remaining Hessians. The privateer seems, moreover, to have retained at first some hold on the Badger herself, on which a Hessian captain, who was sick, with a surgeon and most of the privates, still remained; for it is stated in the journals that the frigate Solebay, on the following day, freed the Badger from the privateer, and subsequently brought her safely to New York.
- MSS. Wiederhold's Diary, Journals of the Regiment von Lossberg (Heuser and Piel), of the Jäger Corps, and of the Grenadier Battalion von Platte.