By Robt. Fryman
Following the encounter with the Marsaillois, Commodore Hotham directed that we return to New York City to affect much needed repairs to Preston. Our hopes of quickly repairing the ship were dashed when it was made apparent that the shipyard did not possess the neither the spars nor canvas in the quantities which we required. As such, Commodore Hotham determined to affect those repairs which would enable the ship to return to Halifax and the more amply furnished shipyards. During our stay, I was afforded the opportunity on several occasions to go ashore, which enabled me to explore the city and experience Jonathan society. A large section of the city, particularly that facing the North River front had been burned in 1776, which whether accidentally started or intentionally by the rebel army, His Majesty’s army was blamed for the conflagration. The surviving shipyards were situated along the East River front, and though spared destruction, were, as I have said, were not sufficiently suited to meet the nature of our repairs. The losses to Preston involved not only rigging, spars, and timbers, but also a number of her crew, and whilst the carpenter oversaw the physical repairs, Commodore Hotham charged myself and the 4th Lieutenant, Jonathan Eddins, a most amiable individual, with the task of finding individuals ashore to replace those whom we had lost, and duly armed with the appropriate documents authorizing us to requisition individuals from amongst the local population, we embarked for New York. Mind you Doctor, this was my first experience, though not to be my last, with commanding a “press gang”, and proved to be a most interesting adventure! Once ashore, and having presented our orders and papers of authorization to the Port Captain, Eddins and I undertook a brief survey of the waterfront, noting the numbers and types of commercial ships docked or at anchor. As we sauntered along, trying to be as casual as possible so as not arouse undue attention or suspicion, we noted the location of various taverns and other “establishments” lining the street, as well as the manner and orientation of the connecting streets and, more importantly, the alleys which might provide an avenue of escape for those souls not wishing to help His Majesty crush the rebellion and restore order to the colonies! As Eddins and I had each been allowed to select ten men from our respective divisions for the task at hand, we arrived at a plan in which two groups of men would position themselves at the end of the street, while two other parties would be distributed to watch the alleys, with the remainder of the men accompanying the officers as we entered the taverns. Upon entering the tavern, Eddins and I would announce that His Majesty’s Navy was in need of men, both those with previous experience as well as those without, to willing serve King George. Now mind you, New York was home to a sizeable population of those who claimed allegiance to His Majesty and, surprisingly, we did have individuals, both seamen and landsmen alike, willing accept to serve. However, the quantity of those individuals were insufficient to meet our needs, and as such we needed to resort to impressments, though in the first several days we were interested in obtaining the services of those who were either skilled in the handling of a ship or were willing to learn a new profession. However, we soon found, as was expected, the volunteers diminished in number by the third day, thus we turned to our press gangs, distributing them in the manner described above, with a shout of “Cry Havoc, and let slip the dogs of war”, or we should have been more precise and said, “let slip the dogs of MAN of WAR!” Come, come Doctor that was funny! But, I must return to my story. The placement of our shore party enabled us to secure more men, “netting” a larger catch than would have been possible otherwise so to speak.
As word of our press gang had spread throughout the city during the preceding three days, the local population had become quite adept at evading capture and thus a change of venue was called for. One rather sickly and slow individual, in exchange for his leave, told us where a number of individuals loyal to the Crown and possessing nautical skills could be found. The location of this trove of potential seamen was situated north of the city in a cluster of taverns not far from a small hamlet called Harlem. At this point we had but three days before we were to return to the Preston, and it was estimated that it would take a day’s travel to both reach and return from Harlem, leaving but one day for active recruiting. Being senior to Eddins, I led my detachment to Harlem after procuring two wagons for the tars and a horse for myself. As we rode north from the city I was fascinated by the topography of the island on which York City is situated. The land rises to the northeast as you progress from the city with noticeable heights paralleling the North River and with broad expanses of open land which, from observing the nature of the soil visible in the few plowed fields we passed by, would make superb land for agriculture. Towards the end of our journey the terrain became more broken with, a series of heights running perpendicular to the North River, making for excellent defensive positions. I later learned that we had entered upon the field of battle for Harlem Heights, which though was a tactical victory for the rebels in that they held up the advance of His Majesty’s regiments of foot, was now occupied and well fortified by our forces.
Upon approaching McGowan’s Pass, our destination, the Black Horse Tavern, was immediately spied and not a moment too soon Doctor, for the men were anxious to find food and beverage, and I anxious to set foot upon the ground once again. I immediately set half of the men to cover all means of egress from the building and, with the remainder, entered the tavern. The proprietor, one Nathaniel Long, though he claimed to be a loyal subject of the King, was suspected to harbor true allegiance to the rebel cause, which I quickly came to believe was the case. After arranging lodgings in the tavern for my command and myself, I announced our purpose to those individuals assembled for drink and food. The response was immediate with three individuals attempting to flee through various doors and windows, though this was for naught as the men I had positioned about the perimeter of the establishment quickly apprehended the fugitives. Once caught and questioned the three “recruits” did indeed possess nautical skills having been employed, in one instance for the East India Company, and for the remainder, diverse service for colonial merchants. At this juncture one of the individuals, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Hollybrass, questioned my authority to take “loyal” subjects of the King and force them to service, whereupon I produced my letter authorizing and granting me the power, in the name of Commodore Hotham as representive of His Majesty, to impress those individuals I deemed fit for service. Now mind you, that I had stowed my authorization letter in my hat, which I removed and retrieved the paper, and afterwards returned paper to hat and the hat to my head. I had just placed my hat upon my head when the individual shouted “I’ll knock your authority from your shoulders!” and instantly lunged for me. In the ensuing scuffle, my hat was knocked to the floor and picked up by the proprietor who, thinking that he be unobserved, tossed it into the fireplace! Once the pressed men had been subdued, I ordered them to be locked in the cellar, which being brick and without windows, provided the ideal place for their confinement. This having been accomplished, I set about looking for my hat only to find the last remnants of it being consumed by the flames! Being tired and desirous of ending this day, I resolved to take up the issue with Long, the proprietor, upon rising the next day.
The new day brought with it its own share of misadventures and retribution, it was soon discovered that the three pressed men had discovered a supposedly “hidden” cache of rum, though I suspect it was smuggled to them by Long. They made quite a tableau, worthy of a Rowlandson print, as they lay in heap with the bottles about them! At least in this state, they provided no further resistance to being hauled into the wagons for transport. As I settled the accounts for the food and lodging with the proprietor, I requested that he provide restitution for the destruction of my hat at which point Long loudly announced that he would do no such thing as our presence had caused him loss of trade! After several attempts to reason with him, I determined it best to heave anchor and leave. Mr. Long followed me to the door and out into the street firing threats of reporting this incident to the city garrison commander if not General Clinton! As I mounted my horse, he loudly announced to those gathered about him, that he “was glad that the sign of my ‘office and establishment’ was gone forever!” Noticing that his tavern sign, a well executed painted silhouette of a horse’s head, was easily within my reach whereupon I removed the sign saying, “And I am heartily glad that the sign of YOUR ESTABLISHMENT is gone forever!”. As I rode off, hatless but with the sign tucked beneath my arm, I felt a sense of pride akin to successfully cutting out an enemy schooner! This provides the answer to the question, my dear Doctor, which you have posed to me on several occasions as to why I have a tavern sign hanging in a place of “honor” in the Great Cabin.
Please be so kind as to “amputate” another slice of our “patient”, and I shall continue with my personal narrative chronicling my years of darkness and light following the end of the American conflict.