The Cap-François Squadron

The prize was in the harbor, waiting to be taken. Silas Talbot just had to figure out how to get to it.

The captain of USS Constitution was at Cap-François on the north shore of Hispaniola when he heard that a French privateer, Sandwich, was sitting in the harbor at Puerto Plata, about 100 miles to the east. Originally an English packet ship, Sandwich had been captured by the French, equipped with guns and had been seizing American shipping in the northern Caribbean.

Successfully capturing Sandwich and removing it from Puerto Plata in May 1800 ended up requiring a daring mission of deception whose plan was hatched from several smaller victories in numerous chases that arose in pursuit of the prize over a 10-day period. By the time Sandwich was eventually removed from the harbor, three other ships had been captured in the process, and dozens of French privateering sailors were in American custody.

But the complex legal circumstances that hung over the Quasi-War with France left the fate of the prize unclear for the duration of the conflict and led to a diplomatic fight with Spain.

The cutting out of Sandwich, or the Battle of Puerto Plata as it is sometimes known, highlights the operational, legal, and diplomatic challenges the new U.S. Navy faced in the Quasi-War with France. As a limited war focused on stopping privateers, there were few heavy gun battles between French and American navy ships offshore. But dramatic raids on ships at anchor, landings on remote island beaches, and chases through treacherous reefs and shoals all became part of the duty for American sailors assigned to the Caribbean conflict.

Silas Talbot became captain of USS Constitution and commodore of the Cap-François squadron in the spring of 1799. Cap-François, known today as Cap-Haïtien, was located on the northwest coast of the island of Hispaniola, in the French colony of Saint-Domingue. From there, the United States’ new navy ships were patrolling the northern Caribbean, seeking to protect American merchant ships that were being seized by French privateers for trading with France’s enemy, Great Britain.

 

Timeline of Events

USS Constitution chased after several French privateers in a cat-and-mouse pursuit along the coast of the Caribbean island of Hispaniola that eventually led to the capture of four ships, including the French privateer Sandwich.

[Detail of Jefferys, Thomas, -1771. The island of Hispaniola called by the French St. Domingo. Subject to France & Spain. [London, 1762] Map. Courtesy Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.]
1. USS Constitution and L’Amphitheatre depart the squadron base in Cap-François.
2. L’Amphitheatre remains on station at Monte Cristi.
3. Constitution spots three ships in Puerto Plata.
4. After escaping Puerto Plata at night, the privateer Ester sails east, capturing the American merchant ship Nymph.
5. Sailing west from Puerto Plata in search of Ester, Constitution rejoins L’Amphitheatre and the two ships head east.
6. Constitution finds Ester and Nymph unloading cargo in a bay with a local barge. After a short battle, Constitution takes Ester and Nymph, and sends off two small boats to chase down the barge, which had fled.
7. Two days later, the small boats return without the cargo barge, but with Sally, an American sloop they seized and accused of smuggling.
8. Filled with Constitution sailors and Marines hiding in the hold, Sally enters Puerto Plata and takes Sandwich.

 

Scouting Puerto Plata

Under Talbot, Constitution was cruising offshore north of the island. While well-suited to open-ocean ship battles, USS Constitution’s large size and deep draft made it difficult or impossible for the ship to safely pursue nimble privateers into many of the shallow bays and harbors of the Caribbean. To do that, Talbot relied on the variety of smaller ships in his squadron, including the captured French schooner L’Amphitheatre. Under the command of Lieutenant David Porter, L’Amphitheatre cruised closer to shore, chasing ships that tried to escape Constitution by fleeing into the shallower water.

Leaving L’Amphitheatre to continue patrolling near the busy harbor of Monte Cristi, Talbot sailed Constitution to Puerto Plata to investigate the news of the privateer there. Constitution arrived off the harbor approach in the early evening of April 30, 1800. Anchoring as close as he could, Talbot was able to see the masts of three ships in the harbor. And from the harbor, the tall masts of Constitution were clearly visible to the three ships. Any element of surprise was already lost.

Early the next morning, Talbot sent a contingent of crew, led by First Lieutenant Isaac Hull, into the harbor approach in a small boat to learn more. Hull returned to Constitution that afternoon with dismal news. The harbor entrance was marked by a narrow cut through the reef that would be hazardous to navigate. In addition, there was a small fort on the hill overlooking the harbor, manned with several heavy guns that would likely fire on Constitution or L’Amphitheatre if either of them entered the harbor.

Talbot’s background was as an army officer, but in that role he had led several successful attacks of British ships in harbors and bays during the American Revolution. While he understood the tactics of raiding, he was not considered a highly skilled shiphandler. Attempting to maneuver into the harbor while avoiding fire from Sandwich and the fort was deemed too dangerous. Another way would have to be found.

Capturing Nymph and Sally

That night, while Constitution was pursuing another sail offshore, a ship slipped out of Puerto Plata. The privateer Ester rowed out of the harbor and along the shallow shoreline, not even setting any sails for fear of being seen. The next day, Ester managed to seize the American merchant ship Nymph as a prize. Seeking to unload the prize cargo, Ester sailed with Nymph into a small unnamed bay, likely at what is today’s town of Rio San Juan. There, they began unloading with the help of a local sailing barge.

On the morning of May 8, Constitution and L’Amphitheatre, who had been searching the coastline for Ester, sighted the privateers. That afternoon, L’Amphitheatre sailed into the shallow bay along with a detachment of Constitution Marines in four of Constitution’s small boats.

When L’Amphitheatre began firing on Ester, the privateers initially returned fire and attempted to get underway, but ran aground on the shallow beach. Unable to get away under sail, some of Ester’s crew began jumping in the shallow water and swimming toward the beach as Constitution’s Marines boarded Ester. Three of the privateers were killed and 16 taken prisoner, while another 24 managed to make it to the beach and flee into the jungle. The Americans recaptured Nymph and, with the help of Constitution’s small boats, were able to pull Ester back out to deep water. L’Amphitheatre reported a damaged rudder and several injured crew, but no fatalities. There is no record of injuries or fatalities among Constitution’s Marines or Nymph’s American merchant crew.

While L’Amphitheatre and Constitution’s Marines were busy retaking the two ships, however, the local barge that had been assisting the plunder escaped under sail to the west along the coast. The sun was setting by the time the Americans and their two prizes joined back up with Constitution offshore. Despite the growing darkness, Talbot decided to immediately pursue the privateers’ barge. He deployed another group of crew and Marines to Constitution’s own barge, under the command of Lieutenant Isaac Collins, and its large cutter, led by a midshipman. They pursued the privateers along the coastline while Constitution and the other three ships followed along offshore.

The photograph of the painting CONSTITUTION v. SANDWICH depicts USS Constitution‘s capture of the French privateer Sandwich in the harbor of Puerto Plata. [Courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command (NH 1272).]

The Cutting Out of Sandwich

The cutter reappeared the next afternoon, but the midshipman in charge reported that he had lost track of Collins’ barge overnight. It was not until 9 a.m. the following day that Collins reappeared. He had not found the privateers’ barge, but overnight he had boarded and taken control of an American merchant sloop, Sally, that had been at anchor in another bay. Collins believed the merchant sloop was trading illegally with the French and therefore subject to seizure.

Sally‘s captain, Thomas Sandford, declared his innocence and described to Talbot the Spanish ports that Sally had visited, including Puerto Plata, where the merchant captain said he was expected to return in a few days. Sandford’s itinerary sparked Talbot’s imagination. An expected sight in Puerto Plata, Sally was the Trojan horse that could secretly carry an American raiding party into the harbor to capture Sandwich in a surprise attack. In addition to the deception Sally provided, Sandford’s detailed knowledge of the harbor entrance made it feasible to both safely enter the harbor and escape with the prize.

On Sunday, May 11, 1800, Sally sailed back into Puerto Plata harbor. Sandford was at the helm, but the attack was led by Isaac Hull, with about 80 sailors and Marines hiding in the ship’s hold. The deception worked. No alarm was raised on board Sandwich, and no guns were fired from the fort overlooking the harbor. When Sally anchored alongside Sandwich, Hull gave the order for the men to spring into action. Sandwich‘s crew was so surprised, they immediately surrendered.

The Marines then launched a small boat and rowed for shore to disable the fort’s guns. In the first amphibious assault of the new Marine Corps, Captain Daniel Carmick and Second Lieutenant William Amory led the 25-man detachment into the water and up the steep hill to the fort. With no time to react, the few Spaniards in the fort fled. The Marines made their way into the fort with no resistance. They quickly disabled the fort’s guns by pounding metal spikes into the touch holes used to light the powder fuses. With the fort unable to fire upon the ships, the Marines returned.

The entire attack on Sandwich and the fort had taken less than half an hour. On board Sandwich, Constitution’s crew discovered that Sandwich’s rigging was largely dismantled for its extended anchorage period, though all the parts were stored on the ship. While the Marines fended off sporadic approaches by small Spanish boats, Constitution’s crew reassembled the rig. By late afternoon they were ready to sail, but by then the wind had died. It was after midnight before they were able to get underway and extract both Sally and Sandwich from the harbor.

Fate of the Seized Ships

In less than two weeks, Talbot had accumulated a flotilla of four captured ships, all of which were eventually dispatched to New York, where the captures would be reviewed by a prize court. The Spanish government, however, filed a protest with the U.S. government, arguing that Talbot had no legal right to seize a French privateer from the neutral Spanish port. On paper, Spain had ceded the eastern half of Hispaniola to France as part of a treaty in 1795, technically making Puerto Plata a French possession. But the island was still occupied and ruled by the Spanish when Sandwich was removed. In fact, it had been Spanish guns and soldiers in the fort that the U.S. Marines had raided, arguably invading a Spanish colony. Rather than wait for the court to rule, the U.S. government decided in September to return Sandwich to Spain’s Minister to the United States as part of a larger effort to resolve diplomatic disputes with Spain. The U.S. government argued that French privateers were allowed to carry American prizes, like Nymph, into Spanish ports, and some of the privateers themselves were Spanish.

Sandwich was eventually returned to its owners, though the Quasi-War had largely ended at that point.

The U.S. government’s decision not to defend the capture of Sandwich in effect prevented the court from ruling on the legality of Talbot’s harbor raid. Even if ownership of Puerto Plata was debatable, the orders allowing the U.S. Navy to seize French privateers specified “on the high seas.” Talbot had clearly exceeded his orders by conducting the raid to cut out Sandwich in Puerto Plata harbor. Emboldened by the immediate tactical success of the Puerto Plata expedition, however, Talbot had made more raids on privateers using Constitution’s small boats and Marines in the summer of 1800 – all of which were potentially outside his legal authority. The court did certify Ester and Nymph as legal prizes, even though they were also taken from anchorage.

Constitution’s pursuit of Sandwich and the other privateers along the northern coast of Hispaniola highlights the messy nature of the Quasi-War with France. This limited, undeclared conflict created a web of legal constraints on Constitution and other U.S. Navy ships. Many of thee constraints were not always clear to Talbot and the captains in his squadron. At the same time, the reefs and shoals of the Caribbean created equally challenging operational constraints that pushed Talbot and others to come up with creative uses of smaller ships and boats. The raids and pursuits in tight coastal waters proved good training for the U.S. Navy and its young officers, and that training came in handy when they were deployed against the Barbary States in the Mediterranean Sea three years later.

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Sources
Office of Naval Records and Library, Navy Department. Naval Documents Related to the Quasi-War Between the United States and France, February 1797-December 1801. 7 v. Washington: U.S. Govt. Printing Office, 1935.
Armstrong, Benjamin. Small Boats and Daring Men: Maritime Raiding, Irregular Warfare, and the Early American Navy. Illustrated edition. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019.
DeConde, Alexander. The Quasi-War: The Politics and Diplomacy of the Undeclared War with France, 1797-1801. 1st edition. Scribner, 1966.
Palmer, Michael A. Stoddert’s War: Naval Operations During the Quasi-War with France, 1798-1801. Columbia, S.C: University of South Carolina Press, 1987.

The Author(s)

Carl Herzog
Public Historian, USS Constitution Museum

Carl Herzog is the Public Historian at the USS Constitution Museum.