In 1777, in the midst of the darkest period of the Revolutionary War, Captain Isaac Biddlecomb, accompanied by the remnants of his crew, his wife, and his newborn son, battles his way up river from Philadelphia to find his ship, the Falmouth, which has fallen into the hands of deserters from Washington's army. By the author of Lords of the Ocean.
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James L. Nelson is a native of Maine and a former professional square-rig sailor. He now lives Down East with his wife and children, where he continues to write and maintain his involvement with traditional sail. He is the author of By Force of Arms, The Maddest Idea, The Continental Risque, and Lords of the Ocean, all published by Pocket Books. His Web site can be found at www.jameslnelson.com.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
I am now Applying myself with all diligence to the Business of the Navy Board...but I think it peculiarly Unhappy that we Enter on this Business when the Circumstances of the Fleet are far from being such as promises any Hopes that we can gratify the Expectations of the people...
-- James Warren
writing to John Adams
September 7, 1777
The wind blew cold, steady and strong, striking the New Jersey coast at an oblique angle and sending up a line of breakers miles long. The Continental brig-of-war Charlemagne was half a league off the coast, far enough to be beyond the immediate threat of the breaking surf, but close enough for her people to be wary and concerned.
The sky was ugly, gray, the color of boiled meat. The sea was gray as well, taking its mood from the muffled daylight, and covered over its surface with whitecaps that flashed in long rows extending seaward to the horizon.
The hair was white, pure white.
Capt. Isaac Biddlecomb leaned closer to the mirror, one hand on the washbasin to steady himself against the roll of the ship, bits of shaving soap still clinging to his chin.
There it was, nestled among the long, black hairs that swept back along his head and were bound up in a queue. A white hair. A ghostly harbinger of creeping age. He was only thirty-one. It seemed altogether too early for that sort of thing.
"Have you only now noticed that?" Virginia Biddlecomb, his wife of just over a year, sat on the locker aft, her back against the weather side of the great cabin, her feet against the big table, which was in turn lashed to the deck. In that position she held herself motionless against the roll and plunge of the brig, as casual as if she were sitting on her porch. Virginia was entirely at home on shipboard.
Biddlecomb turned and met her eyes. Her look was mischievous, teasing. In her lap, a great bundle of cloth and lace, and in the center of that, two-month-old Jack Biddlecomb. All that Isaac could see of his only child was a tuft of dark hair, a pink cheek, and a tiny ear as the baby took his breakfast at Virginia's breast. The sight no longer made Isaac uncomfortable, and he congratulated himself on that.
"Yes, it is the first I have seen of it," Isaac replied, "though the great wonder is that I am not entirely gray, with all I carry on my shoulders. Ship captain, husband, father..."
Virginia gave him a pouty expression. "Surely your family is not a burden to you? I should think we would be a great comfort to you in your time of trouble."
"You are, my dearest. You are always a comfort to me."
"And you, sir, I pray, are a better sailor than you are a liar, or we shall never see Philadelphia."
Biddlecomb smiled and wiped the remaining soap from his face. He stepped aft and kissed Virginia and kissed his son on the head, though the boy took no notice of the gesture.
"In any event, my love," said Virginia, "did Shakespeare not say that 'infirmity, which decays the wise, doth oft make the better captain'?"
"Something to that effect. But I had thought that misquoting Shakespeare was my province." He leaned low and peered out of the salt-stained windows at the portion of sea that lay astern of them.
Two vessels were in view, one about two cables astern of the Charlemagne, the second two cables astern of the first. They were plunging along in the brig's wake, their sails shortened to avoid overtaking the battered naval vessel.
They were both privateers, newly built and fitted out in Boston. The nearer of the two was a brig, the farther ship-rigged, what they would call a sloop of war in the naval service. They were sailing in company with the Charlemagne in hopes of aiding the American cause and, more importantly, in hopes of sharing in any prize that might come the way of the often fortunate Capt. Isaac Biddlecomb.
"We've a regular little squadron here," Isaac observed, "at least until we fetch Cape Ann. Still, I think we will have no opportunity to make use of them."
But Virginia's mind was no longer focused on the fight for independence, and the passion she had once had for politics had now mostly yielded to motherhood. "Isaac, do you think the sleeping cabin aboard the Falmouth will have room enough for our bed as well as a hanging cot for Jack? If the fitting out should require some months, then it would be well to have it thus arranged."
"We should be able to figure that easily enough." Isaac crossed the cabin and from a shelf crammed with charts withdrew a roll of paper nearly a yard long, thick and heavy. He unrolled it on the table, carefully setting various objects down to keep it from rolling up again. "Let us just see what the dimensions are of the sleeping cabin."
"Isaac, do not for one moment pretend that you have got that draft out just to answer me. In truth, you are using my question as an excuse to leer at the thing again. I swear, if you looked at a woman the way you look at that paper, I would have her eyes out. And yours."
Biddlecomb looked up at his wife. He smiled. She was right. As usual. "You know me too well, dear, too well by half. But if it is of any comfort, I confine my longings to you and the frigate."
The frigate, the Falmouth, lay stretched out across the table in two dimensions, a black-and-white rendering of what was to be the next command of Isaac Biddlecomb, Captain, Navy of the United States.
She was not one of the original thirteen frigates, ordered in those heady days of December 1775, when John Adams and Stephen Hopkins were leading the charge in the naval line. Of those thirteen, only four had got to sea. Of those four, the Hancock had already been captured and the Randolph was languishing in Charleston, dismasted and crippled. As for the other nine, the Congress and the Montgomery had been burned to avoid capture on the Hudson, and the balance remained in various states short of completion.
But despite that, and seemingly despite the ugly face of reality, Congress had ordered more ships late in the year '76: a brig of eighteen guns, five frigates of thirty-six guns, and most unbelievable of all, three seventy-four-gun ships of the line.
And along with that, and almost as an afterthought, the Falmouth of twenty-eight guns. William Stanton, Biddlecomb's father-in-law, and now chair of the Navy Board of the Eastern Department, told him that the contract was a payoff, a plum thrown out to a political crony of one of the committee members.
That was fine. Biddlecomb did not care about the ship's parentage, did not care about the circumstances that caused her to be raised up on the stocks. He ran his eyes over her lines as they had been drawn, the beautiful, fine entry, the gentle deadrise, the elegant sweep of her stem and cutwater, the suggestion of tumblehome at her gunwales. Stanton had got him the drafts from the designer, Joshua Humphreys, and now Biddlecomb was in love, like falling in love with a woman's portrait. He was seaman enough to know how sweet a vessel the drafts represented, if properly built.
He had received his orders a month before: proceed to Philadelphia where the ship was building in the yard of Wharton and Humphreys; assume command; see to her rigging, armaments, and final fitting out. Then get her to sea, quickly, before the British were able to seal her up in the confines of the Delaware River.
No sooner had he set his eyes on the drafts then he was anxious to be rid of the cramped and tired brig that he had been commanding for two years. Every time he unrolled the plans, the Charlemagne seemed to grow smaller and more inadequate.
Biddlecomb picked up his dividers, adjusted them against the scale of the draft, held the points against the drawing of the sleeping place. "Yes, I think there shall be ample space for all t
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