Rock Hall and Chestertown Maryland: Breeding Ground for Sea Captains in the American Revolution
What would be the response be if the normal American were asked today, “Where did most of the sailors come from that fought in the American Revolution?” The biggest response would probably be New England. However, one must give hard consideration to the northern part of the Eastern Shore of Maryland, particularly Rock Hall and Chestertown.
An overlooked group of sailors/captains were even related. Samuel, Lambert and Richard Wickes were all brothers that became ship captains. By the time the American Revolution came, Samuel had already retired. He had worked for a young man who came from Oxford, Maryland and moved on to Philadelphia by the name of Robert Morris. Lambert and Richard followed in Samuel’s steps and became fine captains. James, John and Samuel Nicholson were distant cousins of the Wickes brothers. A direct cousin of the Wickes also went into seafaring- Alexander Murray. John Nicholson even became the leader of the Continental Navy. Most people focus on the land battles and hardships of the American Revolution. If any focus comes on the naval part, John Paul Jones sucks up all the air in the room. Wait until you hear what these Rock Hall and Chestertown fellows did.
Richard Wickes served under the command of his brother on the ship Repraisal which sailed from Philadelphia on May 1, 1776. The ship was kept in the Delaware Bay until Lambert and crew broke through on June 28. A ship named "Nancy" which carried almost 400 barrels of needed gunpowder was being pursued by six British man-of-war vessels when Wickes and crew drew the British attention on to them so that the Nancy's cargo would reach the American troops. The "Repraisal" and "Lexington" kept the British occupied so that the Nancy could run ashore and let coastal forces take her gunpowder before the British could blow it up. The British ships Roebuck and Liverpool were noted by Lambert in a letter to his brother Samuel. The youngest Wickes brother, Richard was put in charge of a captured brig. A British ship named Kingfisher attacked the brig that Richard commanded and destroyed it, killing Richard and the other crew on board. Because of the efforts of these ships, 265 barrels of powder, 50 muskets, 3 three pounders, 3 swivels were saved for the Patriot cause.
In July, Lambert Wickes captured four British vessels off our coast: "Friendship," "Peter," the "Neptune," and the "Duchess of Leinster." When Wickes discovered that the Duchess of Leinster was an Irish ship, it was released. Wickes delivered William Bingham to Martinique to act as a commercial agent for the United States on Martinique. This proved quite helpful in 1779 when John Jay with his wife Sally became diverted to Martinique after a fortnight storm. In late October, Wickes became entrusted with carrying Ben Franklin to France. The surprising thing about this trip is that one would suppose that Wickes would attempt to avoid and elude the British. With Franklin aboard, Wickes and the Reprisal captured two British brigantines which were later sold to the French.
Lambert Wickes took the battle to the British. In 1777, Wickes and his crew together with two other ships in Wickes' squadron captured 18 British vessels around England and Ireland. In today's vernacular, Wickes got "inside their head." The British were concerned about these American ships disrupting British trade. Quite a diplomatic dispute arose when Wickes squadron brought their prizes into French ports.
Franklin and the other commissioners in France ordered the Reprisal and “Dolphin” to return to Portsmouth, New Hampshire and Wickes started that way on September 14th. On October 1st, the Reprisal ran into a storm and sunk near Newfoundland. Only one man escaped.
James Nicholson became the leader of the Continental Navy after Esek Hopkins in 1776. James’ younger brother John served as Captain of the “Hornet.” Faced with large numbers of British ships attacking Philadelphia, John received orders to blow up the Hornet. In doing so, the British captured John and put him in the British Naval Prison in Falmouth, England. John was released in an exchange in 1780 and became Captain of the Continental Frigate “Deane”
Samuel Nicholson started in the Continental Navy as a lieutenant under Captain John Paul Jones on the Bonhomme Richard.
Alexander Murray tried at age 21 in 1776 to become a captain in the Continental Navy. No ships were available so he enlisted in the army. Murray served as a first lieutenant in the First Maryland Regiment and saw action in the Battle of White Plains. In 1777, Murray was allowed to command a privateer vessel (the “Revenge”) which was caught by the British. Murray became a prisoner in New York and was exchanged in 1781. He accepted the command of the Continental Frigate “Trumbull” which lost a fight against the British ships “HMS Isis” and “HMS General Monk.” Once again, Murray became a ‘British prisoner in New York.