Pulled From the Stacks: The Revolutionary Origin of the U.S. Merchant Marine

Written by: Kiera E. Nolan, DAR Library Reference Librarian
January 29, 2016

While walking past a shelf in the DAR Library I spotted the spine of a book that looked interesting. It was vibrant and had not only fascinating font, but a fascinating title, Patriot Pirates. I pulled the book for further inspection. Patriot Pirates, by Robert H. Patton, grandson of WWII General George Patton, covers the role of privateers in the Revolutionary War. Privateers were merchant mariners who privately armed and outfitted their boats to take on the Royal British Navy by fighting on the open sea. This effectively disrupted the British supply line, helping win the war, and these brave men captured more British prisoners throughout the war than the American Military did. These privateers were also the beginning of the U.S. Merchant Marine, the civilian mariners who man ships, privately and federally owned, in order to transport cargo and passengers in times of peace, and military supplies and personnel in times of war.

The first use of a merchant vessel during a time of war happened in 1775 about two months after the Battles of Lexington and Concord. It was in Machias, Maine, then a district of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. (The Hannah Weston DAR Chapter in Maine owns and operates the Burnham Tavern Museum in Machias.) Captain Ichabod Jones was returning from Boston with two cargo ships, the Unity and Polly, full of supplies for the villagers of Machias. Along with the two ships was a Royal Navy schooner the HMS Margaretta commanded by Midshipman James Moore. The British schooner was outfitted with four cannons and numerous smaller guns. Its mission was to deliver Captain Jones’ cargo, and make sure that he returned with lumber from the town to help build fortifications in Boston. The mission rested on the hope that the townspeople had not heard of the Battle of Lexington and Concord. Unfortunately for the British, they had.

The town had already erected a liberty pole, an early symbol of patriotic unity, in the town square. When Midshipman Moore commanded the liberty pole be torn down the town refused. When he commanded they supplied lumber or be fired upon, the town revolted. After a failed attempt to capture the British officers as they left church, the British fled down the river and into the bay. The men of the town, led by Jeremiah O’Brien, hopped aboard small boats to chase them down. They overtook the Unity and quickly caught up with the British.

Midshipman Moore wasn’t going to just let these early patriots take his vessel. When the Unity was close enough for men to board the HMS Margaretta Midshipman Moore and his crew fired upon them. Midshipman Moore also threw Revolutionary Era hand grenades at the Unity.  After an hour of fighting, and men from the Unity boarding the British ship, engaging in hand to hand combat, Midshipman Moore was mortally wounded. Upon losing their commander the crew of the HMS Margaretta lost their resolve to fight and surrendered.

Jeremiah O’Brien was given the Unity as a personal gift from the Massachusetts Provincial Congress. He was also one of the first commissioned Captains in the new Continental Navy.  Unknowingly, Jeremiah O’Brien and the men who fought so bravely that day were also the fathers of the United States Merchant Marine, as the Unity, so aptly named, was the first unarmed merchant vessel to engage an enemy during a time of war in American history, making the U.S. Merchant Marine older than both the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Coast Guard. 

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