A French Surprise

           In February 1801, off the French coast, His Britannic Majesty’s Frigate Theadora intercepted four French merchantmen attempting to evade the British blockade.  After a short chase, and as she prepared to fire a warning shot, the four came about and hove to.  The frigate lowered boats and sent one to seize each of the enemy vessels.

          The launch, Theadora’s largest boat, crept steadily toward the waiting barkentine.  Edward Pierce, the third lieutenant, nudged the tiller to keep the boat on course, making the slight changes in heading without conscious thought or effort.

          “A routine operation, do you think, sir?” asked Midshipman Thomas Morgan.  His oldest uniform, purchased before a final growth spurt, fit snugly.  The midshipman’s white collar patches were stained and dirty.

          “One would think,” answered Pierce.  “Still, something about it doesn’t set well.”

          The launch topped a crest and the Frenchman appeared to be noticeably closer.  The forty British seamen in the launch would board the apparently surrendered merchantman, place the crew under guard, and search the ship.  Once certain that none of the crew was hiding and that the cargo posed no risk to a prize crew, the majority would return to Theadora.   Morgan and eight hands would remain onboard, with orders to sail to any English port.

          “How is that, sir?” questioned Morgan, continuing the conversation. 

          “Do consider the ease with which we have reached this point,” replied Pierce.

          As they drew nearer, Pierce sensed strongly with each passing moment that something wasn’t as it should be.  He felt uneasy and his suspicions deepened.  It gnawed at him, distinct from the nervousness he had when facing danger.  He had learned to accept that, although he wished he could face deadly peril with the same nonchalance that everybody else seemed to exhibit.  His stomach would knot, he would urgently need to move his bowels, and a seasickness-like wave of nausea would wash over him.  But it was perfectly normal for him, he recalled.  Once action was joined, the symptoms would disappear. 

          “We sight them after dinner, just into the afternoon watch.  Do they panic and flee in separate directions?  Theadora is but one ship.  Surely two or three could escape while we take one or two.  Did you observe, Mr. Morgan, their quickness and precision in coming about?  No disorder and confusion, as expected of undermanned and panicked merchant seamen.”

          “Aye, it did have a smart look to it.  Many an admiral would be proud, did his fleet maneuver that well.”

          “I expected a longer and more intense chase,” said Pierce.  “Surely Theadora is handier and faster in these seas, but it should have lasted further into the night.  Amazingly, we caught them in less than four hours!”

          As they waited for the English boarding parties, the French crews maintained a rigid sense of order.  Sails were constantly trimmed.  No one seemed to spend their last moments of freedom raiding the spirit lockers and getting cannon-kissing drunk.  Not all merchant crews awaiting capture did that, but it was known to happen.  It was strange that they kept their ships in such perfect order, even if they were sober.

          “They did not wait for the warning shot to be fired,” commented the midshipman.

          “And the bow chaser cleared away and ready to fire when they hove to.  The barkentine led, but the others swiftly followed.  Again, that strangely precise seamanship,” added Pierce.

          “Perhaps they want to be taken.”

          “Aye, they might be refugees, émigrés seeking safety from the guillotine.  But why did they run?  And now they don’t signal or send a boat.  They simply wait to be boarded.”

          Pierce looked across the water.  A hundred yards away, Sollars, the second lieutenant, was in the first cutter as it headed toward the second Frenchman.  Beyond him, Mr. Forrest, the first lieutenant, commanded the second cutter, and Mr. Small, the senior midshipman, the gig, as they pulled toward their assigned prizes.

          The seamanship haunted Pierce.  It hadn’t been typical of merchant seamen, French or otherwise.  It had been more disciplined, more precise in its execution, like well-trained and well-led naval crews.  French merchantmen sailed by naval crews who were apparently surrendering.  But why?  Were the French up to something beyond giving themselves up?  Or was his imagination playing havoc with the reality of the situation?  It would be best not to take chances and be prepared for any ruse the French might offer.

          “Mr. Morgan!”  Pierce said.

          “Aye, sir?” replied the sandy-haired midshipman.

          “When we board, your prize crew to cover all access below.  No one on deck without permission!”

          “Aye aye, sir!”


          “Aye, sir?”  The grizzled seaman looked up.  His graying pigtail bobbed with the motion.

          “Ensure the carronade is ready!  Fire at my word, or should the situation demand it!  It will warn the others, if the Frogs are up to something.”

          Normally Pierce would not have explained in such detail, but with Simmons it was best to do so.  The man was a superb seaman and an expert gun captain, but years of hard drinking, fighting, and whoring had deprived him of his common sense. 

          “For all of us,” began Pierce.  “We board as if under fire.  Do not wait for myself or Mr. Morgan to board first.  All hands on deck, rapidly as can be, and ready for a fight!”

          That brought a chorus of cheerful “aye aye, sirs!” several grins, and even some winks as the boarding party reacted excitedly to the prospect of combat.  Voices rose; men jostled and nudged their shipmates.  An oarsman missed his stroke, caught a crab, and threw the starboard side oars out of rhythm.  The launch veered drunkenly.

          “Silence!” roared Pierce.  “Damn your eyes!”  He leaned into the tiller to correct the course.  “You whoresons row like drunken Spaniards!  Together now!”

          Morgan rechecked the priming in his pistols.

          “Don’t let the Frogs know we suspect them.  Act as before!  You’ll lose your spirit ration, all of you, does anyone’s actions warn them!” 

          Promise of the cat would deter most and be brutally painful for the unlucky soul who might disregard the order.  Pierce couldn’t threaten to flog them all, and would struggle to flog even one.  But the prospect of dancing at the gratings was not a guarantee of total obedience.  Some sailors seemed nonchalantly oblivious to the cat.  But if he threatened the sacred right to a daily grog ration, the men would enforce the order themselves.  None would want to lose the time-honored privilege.

          The barkentine was yards away now.  “Pull hard, lads!” he said quietly, and a moment later, he ordered, “In Oars!”

          With steerageway still on the launch, Pierce put the helm hard over and swung neatly alongside the Frenchman.  The barkentine and launch were bow to stern, port side to port side.  The bow hook caught hold of the main chains.

          “Board!” he yelled and scrambled up the barkentine’s side.  He had a cutlass in one hand, but found a hold with the other.  One foot gained purchase on a wale.  He lunged upward, grasping the rail with his cutlass-holding hand.  He found footing on the aft portion of the fore channels.  Pierce tensed, leapt, and landed on deck.

          The prize crew already stood over the hatches leading below, with their cutlasses and pistols at the ready.  A dozen forlorn and bewildered Frenchmen stood near the helm.  One wore an old fashioned tri-cornered hat and what had once been a fashionable coat.  The hat was crushed and battered.  The coat was dirty, threadbare, and patched in many places. 

          Its wearer spotted Pierce.  “M’sieur lieutenant, why you board like this?  We are surrendered!  We are given up!  You board not like gentlemen?  Capture and sail for England?”

          “We have new hands,” Pierce said, as convincingly as possible.  “This gives them practice boarding a hostile and combative enemy vessel.  Even though, Captain … you are the captain, are you not?”

          “Oui, M’sieur.”  He bowed resignedly.

          “While we are aware you have surrendered, it is safer for all that we take every precaution.”  He would not admit he suspected something. 

          He heard a metallic rasping, scraping noise from below deck: a sword or cutlass being drawn from a scabbard.  A “clang” followed.  Somebody had dropped something.

          “Theadorans!  Look alive!” Pierce shouted.

          A seaman guarding the fore hatch crumpled to the deck, his midsection wet and red with blood.  Three Frenchmen pressed up the ladder and hacked at the English with cutlasses and boarding axes.  Two of the enemy went down, but more came behind them.  Another Theadoran went down, and more French crowded out of the hatch.  These weren’t the barkentine’s usual crew, but French Navy seamen, marines, and even infantrymen.

          “Simmons!” roared Pierce. “Fire!” 

          Simmons obeyed instantly.  The small carronade boomed.  Pointed at the Frenchman’s hull, its round shot and load of canister struck devastatingly.  The blast tore through the thin scantlings.  A chorus of screams, moans, groans, and curses followed from below.

          “Lofton!  Keep an eye on these Frogs!” Pierce pointed his cutlass at the small group that had been on deck when they first boarded.  There was no fight in them, but Pierce would not chance them to flee and later cause trouble for Morgan’s prize crew.   

          French seamen, marines, and infantry fought their way through the hatches and spilled on deck in an unending tide.  Nearly dark, the deck was illuminated by lanterns and flashes of musket and pistol fire.   

          Pierce leaned over the rail and shouted at Simmons.  “Keep firing!”  The small boat carronade could not match the guns on the barkentine, had they been in use.  Still, its fire served to distract and disable any enemy remaining below deck.

          The British were hard pressed.  Against two to one odds, they fell back to the after deck.  A French marine lunged at Pierce, bayonet fixed and glinting dangerously.  He deflected the attack, slapping the musket barrel away with his cutlass.  He swept his foot and tripped the unbalanced Frenchman.  As he fell past, Pierce brought the cutlass hilt down on his head.  The enemy marine fell heavily to the deck.

          Another Frenchman came at him.  Pierce swung the cutlass viciously and felt it bite into flesh and bone.

          Theadorans!” he rasped.  “Regroup aft!” 

          The British fell back and formed a small impenetrable knot around the wheel.  The carronade boomed again.  There were more screams from below deck. 

          “Another one, Simmons!” hollered Pierce.

          As Pierce swung his cutlass again, he bumped one of four swivel guns mounted on the barkentine’s after deck.  Pierce pulled a pistol from his waistband.  He opened the pan and let some of the priming fall into the swivel’s touch hole.  He closed the pan and held the pistol parallel to the small cannon.  He aimed into the mass of Frenchmen that pressed aft and pulled the trigger. 

          The pistol discharged and the spark caught in the swivel’s priming.  It went off an instant later.  The blast tore through the enemy. 

          He dodged a bayonet attack by a French infantryman.  A quick push and the soldier went over the rail and into the launch.  Simmons would see the Frenchman properly restrained.  

          Pierce pushed forward to the other swivel.  He used his other pistol to prime and fire the small gun.  The pistol ball struck the swivel’s muzzle and ricocheted into the rigging.  The pistol ball deflected the muzzle downward, and when the swivel went off, it viciously cut the legs out from under several attackers.

          The carronade boomed again.  Simmons and the two hands with him loaded and fired as quickly as they could.  Smoke from the short-barreled gun drifted around them, caught in the wind, and blew aft.

          During a momentary lull, Pierce heard sounds of battle echoing across the water.  Evidently Sollars had run into much the same situation aboard his prize.  Had Forrest and Small also met resistance?

          Another Frenchman loomed menacingly through the evening gloom and powder smoke.  Pierce swung his cutlass, and that assailant fell to the deck.  An instant later he felt a stinging, slicing blow to his upper arm. 

          A young French naval officer readied his sword for another thrust.  A real fencing expert, thought Pierce.  No slash-and-gash lad.  He had studied fencing years earlier but was never proficient at it.  Still, when facing an adversary fighting in a trained and traditional manner, he instinctively tried to match it. 

          The cutlass grew heavier with each parry, thrust, or swing.  His left arm ached, seeping blood. 

          Exhaustion and pain caused him to wonder if he would finish this opponent.  Would he be the one vanquished?  Desperate and in sudden fear of his life, he attacked with renewed vigor, causing the Frenchman to reel back.  Pierce prepared to deliver the final blow, but the Frenchman froze and gazed past him with a look of astonishment.  Deciding quickly, he swung the flat of his blade against the Frenchman’s head, rendering him unconscious.  The sharpened edge would have killed him, but he might be of some value alive.

          Pierce turned to see what had distracted his opponent.  Theadora loomed out of the night.  Jackson had not lain idle after the boat’s carronade had fired.  Theadora passed along the barkentine’s starboard side.  Her fo’c’sle loomed over Pierce, and Jackson shouted, “Any of you below?”

          The evening’s first stars and a rising moon illuminated Jackson perched in the frigate’s starboard fore chains.  Winded and hoarse, Pierce doubted his voice would carry the twenty-five yards to his captain.  He shook his head violently.

          Jackson waved his hat in acknowledgement and turned around.  A short moment later the first four double-shotted guns of Theadora’s starboard battery roared out.  Eight twelve-pound iron cannonballs smashed into the Frenchman’s lower hull.  The barkentine shook and trembled from the impact.  The next four guns thundered, and again the prize quivered violently.  The final four fired, completing the broadside.  When Theadora’s quarterdeck drew abreast the barkentine’s waist, her four starboard eighteen-pounder carronades erupted and belched canister shot through the crowds of Frenchmen. 

          Theadora sailed past to gain room, turned to starboard, and headed into the wind.  The momentum of her turn forced her past the wind and she fell off on a port tack.  She passed across the stern of the Frenchman.  The port battery of twelve-pounders crashed and roared, shattering the stern.  Then Theadora moved on to deal with the other hostile prizes.

          The surprise and the devastation caused by the frigate’s broadsides quickly turned the tide in favor of Lieutenant Pierce’s boarding party.  With many of their comrades wounded or killed, the remaining Frenchmen fought half-heartedly.  Cheering, the British seamen pressed the attack.  More Frenchmen threw down their weapons and dejectedly held their hands up.  With long-practiced drill, the British placed them under guard, forward of the mainmast.

          “Men!” Pierce’s voice sounded harsh and distant in his ears.  “Starboard watch stand down, but stay alert.  Port watch, a dozen to watch the prisoners.  Another five put this vessel to rights.  The rest, with me!  Mr. Morgan, you as well!”

          Pierce stopped momentarily.  He sighed and took a couple of deep breaths, glad the fight was over.  There was no feeling of glorious triumph at having taken the barkentine.  He felt merely relief.  He was also very tired and had a very sore arm. No longer did the anxiety of coming battle tie his stomach into knots.

          For the first time, British sailors went below deck.  Pierce went aft to the cabin.  If the enemy had failed to destroy sensitive documents, their recovery could prove invaluable to England.

          Theadora’s second broadside had totally devastated the barkentine’s cabin.  Pierce sifted through the wreckage.  In a small and miraculously undamaged wooden chest, he found unsealed and opened orders.  He also discovered a coded signal book.  What a tremendous find!  Perhaps these documents would give Great Britain the edge to end the long-lasting savage war!  They lay amongst other correspondence, perhaps the personal letters of the chest’s owner?  Pierce replaced everything in the chest, closed it, and tested it for weight.  It was not heavy, and for the time it would be safe in the cabin.  He left it and went along with Morgan.

          Pierce, Morgan, and five seamen worked their way forward.  They peered suspiciously into every place where a desperate enemy might hide, kicking open the doors to the small cabins along the companionway and lighting the interiors with Morgan’s lantern.  No one was alive, even though many hapless individuals had been below when Theadora’s broadsides smashed through the hull.  Their unseeing eyes and silenced voices could not, did not protest British intrusion into their final rest.          In places, the seamen looked through jagged shot holes and saw the stars’ gleam reflected on the water. 

          Aft of the mainmast, a solid bulkhead divided the lower deck.  Both doors that led forward were shut.  Suspicious and wary, an able seaman kicked the port door open.  The other hands stepped through, ready for any surprise assault.  Morgan followed with the lantern, and Pierce entered the forward compartment, expecting to find chests, crates, kegs, bales, and barrels of cargo and provisions.  Certainly, there would be more in the hold.  As the lantern’s light slowly filtered into the recesses, an amazing sight appeared to their eyes.

          “Oh my Lord!” exclaimed Morgan.

          “What the devil?” said one of the seamen.  Another loosed a string of obscenities that Pierce wished had come from his own lips instead.

          “Damn my eyes!” he exclaimed.  “I’ve never seen the likes of these before!” 

          None of them had ever seen such heavy armament on a merchantman!  Commercial vessels were commonly armed for protection against pirates and privateers.  A typical merchantman would carry a few small cannon -- four-pounders perhaps -- on the open main deck.  There would also be a few swivel guns to help repel boarders.  But here sat huge hulking twenty-four-pounder long guns, four to a side.  They were not cargo, secured for transport somewhere, but mounted in carriages and ready along each side. 

          “They’d have to blast through their own hull to use them,” Pierce said.  “But a dammed nasty surprise for anyone alongside.”

          Morgan was there with the lantern.  “Look, sir!”  He pointed and moved the light for better effect.  “They’ve cut ports for ’em inboard.  Not sure about outboard.  See, they’ve strengthened the frames to take the strain, sir.  Wager there’re extra timbers in the hold as well.”

          “I fancy as much, Mr. Morgan.  Someone open a port!”

          A brawny young seaman tugged strongly at the nearest port lid tackle.  Pierce stood at the muzzle of the huge gun and looked out at the lid.   Across the outside portion of the small door, thin pieces of sheathing ran in random lengths, giving the appearance of an entire section of hull planking.  The entire outer hull was covered with a thin layer of extra wood.  When the ports were shut, the bulwarks appeared smooth and unpierced by any openings.  No one alongside would suspect the presence of the huge guns behind the seemingly solid hull.

          Why did a typical French merchantman have such an armament?  Why was it carrying such a large crew of naval personnel?  Was his earlier imagining just the beginning of what the French had planned?  The papers in the chest might hold the answer.  Since he did not understand French, he would return it to Theadora so that Jackson might read its contents.  

          “Mr. Morgan, continue your search!  If we are taking on water, put the prisoners at the pumps!”

          “Aye aye, sir,” replied Morgan.

          Pierce went aft and retrieved the chest.  He hefted it to his shoulder, wincing because of his wounded upper arm.  Topside, he set the chest down and winced again.

          On deck, a sense of order had been established.  The French merchant crew was on the fo’c’sle, guarded by pistol- and cutlass-armed seamen.  The prisoners were despondent, but accepting of their fate.  Meek as lambs, thought Pierce.  They’ll not be any bother. 

          The French seamen, marines, and infantry were gathered aft, guarded by eight British seamen.  The swivels had been reloaded and trained on the defeated French.  The small cannon reinforced the seamen’s personal weapons.

          Other Englishmen knotted and spliced as they repaired damage done by Theadora’s murderous broadsides.  Captain Jackson had aimed to hull the merchantman, but a few shots had missed and had torn through the top hamper.  Pierce wanted to take no chances, either with the material condition of the vessel, or the slight chance that one or more Frenchmen had so far evaded capture.  With the full boarding party available, it was best to effect repairs now.  Later, with only a few hands, Morgan would not have a chance at it.

          “Starboards, on your feet!” he hollered.  “Go Below!  Stuff what you can into any shot holes!  Be alert for any Frog a-hiding!”

          Those who had been granted a few minutes’ rest groaned, but set about their assigned duties.

          Midshipman Morgan returned to the upper deck.  “We’ve been all through her, sir, stem to stern, keel to weather deck.  No Frogs!  Not holed below the waterline!  No specific cargo, aside from those damned twenty-four-pounders!”

          “No other cargo, Mr. Morgan?  Very strange!”

          “Aye, sir.” 

          “I have the starboards at shot holes and a final search for hidden Frenchmen.  When they’re done, we’ll stand down to a degree.  Give the hands a bit of rest, other than watching the prisoners.  When Theadora finishes with the other prizes, I’ll return and you can have charge here.”

          “Aye aye, sir,” Morgan replied as he set about implementing Pierce’s latest instructions.

          “Prudent of the captain to have prizes remain in sight for the night.  You will keep young Mr. Hadley and that little brig under your lee?” suggested Pierce.

          “Aye, sir!  This evening vindicates your insistence on larger boarding parties, does it not?”

          “It does, Mr. Morgan, although I never thought to see it be proven in such dramatic fashion.  I sought to prevent incidents as befell Mr. Hadley this past November.  A thorough search of that Frenchman would have prevented them retaking his prize.”

          “Nor could he be expected to retake her again, along with another Frog as well.”

          “If that scuttlebutt is even true.  Never mind that Mr. Forrest asserts that it is.”

          “Hadley would be in a French prison had Minerva not recaptured the Frenchman,” said Morgan.  “With the crap he takes about the lost prize money, perhaps he wishes he was.”

          “Most of it is good-natured and quite sympathetic.”

          “It’s only Mr. Sollars that says anything harsh against Hadley, sir.  Damn upset about the prize money, he was.  Still is, it seems.”

          “I do agree, but ask that you watch your words about a senior officer.  We have our opinions of him, but best they remain unsaid,” cautioned Pierce.  “Now, kindly send up a blue light, that Theadora knows this prize is secure.”

          Moments later a rocket hissed into the night sky.  At the peak of its trajectory it burst and bathed the dark sea in a harsh blue light that diminished quickly as it fell back to the surface.  Within the next half hour, three other colored lights soared into the heavens, each one indicating that a prize had been taken.  After a short pause, a gun boomed aboard Theadora, acknowledging the captures and signaling boarding parties and boats to return.

          “I shall return to Theadora then, Mr. Morgan.  The French Navy officers will accompany me, as Captain Jackson would entertain them, I’ll wager.  They would welcome a bite to eat, some drink, and an evening’s conversation, although the captain may send them back for transport to England.  Of the others, lock both groups below.  Separate them and maintain a steady watch!  Don’t give them the chance to plot and retake the damn thing.”

          “Aye aye, sir.  No need to end up like young Hadley,” remarked Morgan.

          “Indeed not, Mr. Morgan!”  Pierce said.

          With full darkness now descended upon the sea, the French Navy officers were herded into the launch.  The Englishmen not a part of the prize crew joined them, their menacing looks and threatening gestures keeping the prisoners controlled and docile. Pierce climbed down with the chest and grunted an order.  They shoved off and headed back to Theadora.



©2008 by D. Andrew McChesney