This Day in History: Captain Silas Talbot
On this day in 1813, a former captain of the Continental Navy passes away. Silas Talbot also served in the United States Navy as the captain of Old Ironsides.
Talbot worked his way up from poor beginnings in Massachusetts and was living in Providence when the Revolution began. After the battles of Lexington and Concord, he joined the Continental Army and served at the siege of Boston.
When soldiers were later loaned out to the new Continental Navy, Talbot was ready to go. He might have been an army soldier, but his heart was with the navy. ;)
One of his first exploits concerned the use of “fireships.” Old or inexpensive ships could be pre-rigged with flammable materials and used against the enemy. A fireship was moved as close as possible to a target ship; it could even be attached with grappling hooks. The crew started a fire in one part of the boat, but they would then quickly flee the ship before an explosion hit.
In 1776, Talbot volunteered for one of these missions, which was intended to destroy the 64-gun British ship-of-the-line Asia, then moving up the Hudson River toward George Washington’s army. Talbot held off on setting the fire for as long as possible, even as British cannonballs slammed into his fireship. Finally, the fire was set. Talbot sent his men overboard first and was the last to leave. Unfortunately, he waited too long, and he did not escape unscathed. Talbot was badly burned and temporarily blinded, barely escaping with his life.
The episode earned Talbot the admiration of Congress—and a promotion. Interestingly, Talbot received a promotion in the ARMY at this juncture. Can you believe that he still was not a commissioned officer in the Navy?
After his promotion, Talbot was wounded at Fort Mifflin, and he returned to Rhode Island. Once there, he obtained permission to outfit and man a little sloop, the Hawk. In this capacity, he captured the British schooner, Pigot, which was harassing the Rhode Island coast.
He earned another Army promotion—but he still was not a Navy officer!
Nevertheless, Talbot was given command of a private sloop, Argo, which was manned by about 60 volunteers from the army. As an “army privateer,” Talbot was effective. He captured multiple Tory ships, including the formidable brig King George, captained by the much-despised Loyalist Captain Stanton Hazard.
“Your Exploits,” one congressional member wrote in August 1779, “keep Congress constantly in remembrance of you.” Talbot finally received his commission as a captain in the Navy on September 17, 1779. The following summer, he was given a privateer, George Washington, to captain.
Unfortunately, his luck finally ran out. Later that year, he was finally captured by a 74-gun man-of-war, HMS Culloden. Talbot was sent first to a British prison ship, then to England. He endured harsh prison conditions for more than a year before he was finally released. He began his journey home in 1782.
After the Revolution, Talbot was elected to the U.S. Congress, but maritime service still called to him. When the United States Navy was formed in 1794, he was named one of America’s first naval captains. However, he did not get his own vessel until 1799 when he was given command of USS Constitution—Old Ironsides!
Talbot commanded that vessel during the Quasi-war with France —because his service during the Revolution hadn’t been enough?! Talbot finally resigned in 1801 and lived out the remainder of his days in New York.
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Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships (Naval History and Heritage Command)
Edgar Stanton Maclay, A History of American Privateers (1899)
John C. Fredriksen, Revolutionary War Almanac (2006)
Journals of the Continental Congress (Oct. 10, 1777)
Journals of the Continental Congress (Nov. 14, 1778)
Journals of the Continental Congress (Sept. 17, 1779)
Letter to John Adams from Silas Talbot (June 5, 1781)
Louis A. Norton, Captains Contentious: The Dysfunctional Sons of the Brine (2009)
Tim McGrath, Give Me a Fast Ship: The Continental Navy and America’s Revolution at Sea (2014)