A Strategy of Sorts
The American Revolution was an extreme complex affair. It began as a political movement and morphed into an armed insurrection that became a war for independence overplayed with a civil war, a covert war, and finally, a global war. But it was an economic war as well. The British sought to control and shut down American commerce, the life blood of the colonies. In some respects, British actions taken in the decade long run up to Lexington and Concord involved extracting the greatest benefit from the colonies, without allowing them to become too prosperous, large or powerful. There were those in Parliament and British ruling circles who feared that the American colonies would some day overshadow Britain in population, power and prestige. How prescient they were! But of course, instead of preparing to take advantage of this, they sought to prevent it.
Down to the Sea in Ships
When war broke out, the British strategy involved hemming in the Americans with Indian and Canadian allies to the west and north. The east and south would be taken care of by the Royal Navy. So a naval war became the less discussed but was as important, perhaps more important, than the land war. Great Britain had the largest and most powerful navy in the world and the American colonies had none. America did have a growing and efficient merchant marine, as well as the raw materials to build ships. So it set about creating its own small navy, and refitting its merchant craft as privateers and naval vessels. This approach was only successful because of the brave and determined men who sailed the ships and the resourceful and uncompromising men who captained them. This is one such captain's story.
Seth Harding was born at Eastham, Massachusetts although he moved to Norwich, Connecticut when he was a young man. Harding went to sea early in his life and commanded several merchant ships during the French and Indian War. By 1771 he had moved to Liverpool, Nova Scotia.At the beginning of the American Revolution in 1775, he returned to Connecticut and offered his services to its nascent navy. Harding was commissioned commander of the state brig, Defence. Harding captured many British ships while in command of this and two other vessels. He was first sent in patrol near Boston Harbor where on 12 June 1775 he captured the British armed transport ship, George. Along with the ship he took several hundred Scottish soldiers of the 71st Highland Regiment and their commander, Lieutenant Colonel Archibald Campbell.
Most American actions (including Harding's) were small scale but still played a critical role in the war. Here is a contemporary letter that mentions one of Harding's exploits:
FAIRFIELD, MAY 13, 1776.
More Tory business. Last Sunday Captain Harding, in the brig Defence, had the happiness of taking a number of Tories who were crossing over to Long-Island, on some of their pious errands, I suppose; among whom was one McNeal, a wretch you have often seen up town. He generally wore a white hat and blue silk jacket; in exchange for which, I hope, they will give him a coat-of-mail, that is, one of lime and stone.
It is said there were a number of letters found on them, giving an account of their diabolical schemes, together with the names of several of their associates. In consequence of which, a number of gentlemen resolved to break up the den, and set off to Ridgefield; among whom was the bold asserter of his country' s cause, Major Dimon, who, I have this moment heard, had like to have lost his life, in reposing too much confidence in one of the villains. It seems he was very active in taking one Lyons, who, after he had surrendered, invited him in, where he had a number of the brother murderers concealed, that fell on him and would have put an end to his life, had not some of his friends very providentially come to his assistance. The Major, I am told, is much wounded in the head, but still had resolution to go in quest of the others.
You shall hear further in my next.
During his service with Connecticut's navy, Harding actually commanded two brig's named Defence and the one called Oliver Cromwell. His success led to bigger and better things.
In September 1778, Harding accepted a Continental Navy commission and took command of a new 32 gun frigate, Confederacy. In 1779, he sailed along the east coast with two other ships, Boston and Deane , taking three prizes and performing convoy duties. His ship was undermanned so he had to impress several French prisoners being exchanged by the British. During this cruise the American flotilla captured a British privateer, Pole and a schooner, Patsey, in addition to several merchant vessels. Withal, nice work. In September of that year, Harding was directed to take John Jay, the newly appointed American Minister to Spain, to Europe, but a tremendous Atlantic storm struck them and the ship was dis-masted 10 days out. Harding, through skillful seamanship, sailed his ship to Martinique for repairs, his passengers continuing on another ship.
"The Harding" goes to Work
Once repaired, Harding set to work. Confederacy raided British merchantmen and guarded convoys until 18 April 1781, when, at the Delaware Capes, she was forced to surrender to two British ships, the 44 gun Roebuck and 32 gun Orpheus. In early 1782 Harding was exchanged. He went on to command the letter of marque (privateer) Diana, but was captured again near Jamaica. And again he was released. This was not uncommon. Craving more action, Harding volunteered to serve as First Lieutenant to famed American naval Captain John Barry on the Alliance. In October of 1783, Harding was wounded during the last engagement of the war, fighting off the coast of France against HMS Sybill. By then, Harding had somewhat of a reputation, especially in France, where he was regarded warmly. The King of France, Louis XVI, referred to him as "the Harding."
Back to the Merchant Navy
After the war, Harding went back into the merchant marine and sailed and traded in the Virgin Islands. He even became a Danish citizen to facilitate his business prospects there. By 1786 Harding's war wounds had weakened him to the point where he retired, settling first in New York City. New York evidently sapped his resources and over the years he sank into poverty. In 1807 Congress awarded him a pension. The fighting merchantman died in Schoharie, New York in November 1814. Harding's talents and exploits are indicative of the young American navy and merchant marine, which played such critical roles in securing independence, peace and prosperity for the fledgling nation.
The World War I vintage USS Harding, DD-91, is named after this fighting first patriot...