Today, the Star Spangled Banner Commemorative Silver Dollar Coin remembers the first gun salute by another government to a ship flying the colors of the Continental U.S. 241 years ago.
Of course, history differs on the absolute first and on the first under the stars and stripes.
The salute on November 16, 1776 did result in much British concern.
From the July 1903 American Historical Review, an excerpt from the article by J. Franklin Jameson, St. Eustatius in the American Revolution:
Between the dates of these two letters an event occurred which raised British exasperation to the highest point.
On the sixteenth of November, 1776, a vessel of the infant Continental navy, the Andrew Doria, Captain Isaiah Robinson, flying the flag of thirteen stripes, dropped anchor in the road of St. Eustatius and saluted Fort Orange with eleven guns; and the salute was returned.
This has been claimed as the first occasion on which the American flag was saluted in a foreign port.
But a letter written from the Danish island of St. Croix to Vice-Admiral Young, on October 27 preceding, after mentioning the departure of an unnamed American schooner with a small cargo of powder two days before, adds:
“But my astonishment was great to find such a Commerce countenanced by Government here. The Vessel went out under Amer Colours, saluted the Fort and had the compliment returned the same as if she had been an English or Danish ship.”
But the incident at St. Eustatius was more conspicuous. The Andrew Doria was a Continental vessel.
Van Bibber reported that her commander was “most graciously received by his Honour and all Ranks of People. It’s esteemed here by the first Gentlemen a favour and Honour to be Introduced to Capt. Robertson. All American Vessels here now wear the Congress Coulours. Tories sneak and shrink before the Honest and Brave Americans here.”
Whatever effect may have been produced on Dutchmen or on Tories by the arrival and the reception of the Andrew Doria, it roused the president of St. Christopher to vivid indignation.
Summing up in one angry remonstrance the various violations of neutrality which he had observed from his neighboring island, and commenting with especial severity upon the salute, he sent the document solemnly to De Graaff by the hand of a member of his council.
At the same time he sent indignant representations to the secretary of state in London, fortified by affidavits, some of which are curious.
One of them is from a Barbadian student at Princeton, John Trottman, who during a vacation at Philadelphia, while walking late one evening with a fellow-student, was seized by a press-gang, hurried on board the Andrew Doria, and carried away to St. Eustatius.
Another was from one James Fraser, gentleman, who testified with great clearness as to the lowering of the Dutch flag on the fort, the salute with nine guns in response to the eleven fired by the American brigantine, and the common talk that this had been done by the governor’s order.
President Greathead also commented severely on the open encouragement and protection which the rebels received at the Dutch island, the constant equipping and fitting-out of privateers to prey on British commerce, and especially on the incident of the sloop Baltimore Hero, said to be half-owned by Abraham van Bibber, and flying the flag of the Continental Congress, which on November 21, almost within range of the guns of Fort Orange, had taken a British brigantine and then returned to the road of St. Eustatius, with flag flying, and there received every sign of aid and protection.
But, after all, the greatest offense was the salute, or, as Lord Suffolk put it, the honor paid to a rebel brigantine carrying the flag of the rebel Congress, and the governor’s insolence and folly in replying to the remonstrance of the president of St. Christopher that he is “far from betraying any partiality between Great Britain and her North American colonies.”
Such conduct from the representative of a state allied to Great Britain by several treaties was not to be overlooked.
The secretary of state sent over to Sir Joseph Yorke a memorial which was forthwith presented to the States General, but which was conceived in a peremptory style not usual in the mutual communications of friendly states.
After recounting in warm terms Governor de Graaff’s connivance at the illicit trade and at the fitting-out of privateers, and the final outrage of returning an American salute, the minister declares that he is ordered “to expressly demand of your High Mightinesses a formal disavowal of the salute by Fort Orange, at St. Eustatia, to the rebel ship, the dismission and immediate recall of Governor Van Graaf, and to declare further, on the part of His Majesty, that until that satisfaction is given they are not to expect that His Majesty will suffer himself to be amused by mere assurances, or that he will delay one instant to take such measures as he shall think due to the interests and dignity of his crown.”
In fact, the measures deemed appropriate had already been taken.
Six days before the memorial had been presented at The Hague the lords of the admiralty had been instructed to order the commander-in-chief on the Leeward Islands station to post cruisers off the road of St. Eustatius, search all Dutch ships for arms, ammunition, clothing, or materials for clothing, and send those ships which were found to contain such things into some port of the Leeward Islands, there to be detained till further orders; and these injunctions were maintained for six weeks.
But the Dutch Republic, with the party of Amsterdam and the party of Orange, the French party and that of England, straining its unwieldy governmental machinery in opposite directions, was in no condition to resent effectively the tone of English memorials.
Their reply disavows their governor’s actions in so far as they might seem to imply a recognition of American independence, and they required him to come home and explain his conduct.
He was more than a year in coming, pleading age, the fear of seasickness, the recent illness of his family and himself; and meanwhile the salutes went on.
The other provinces were persuaded to put pressure upon Holland.
Rear-Admiral Count Bylandt, sent out as commander-in-chief of a convoying squadron, and temporarily superseding De Graaff in matters of marine, watched more closely over the execution of the neutrality laws — though Lord Macartney, governor of Grenada, thought that “To see a man of Count Byland’s Birth and Quality receive a board his Flag Ship the Masters of Rebel Privateers with all the attention and civility due to their equals in regular service excites one’s pity and contempt.”
St. Eustatius proved very useful to the Windward Islands in a time of scarcity ; and the secretary of state notified the ambassador that the British would not take any more Dutch ships unless they had naval or warlike stores on board.
In July, 1778, De Graaff at last reached home.
Called upon to defend his whole course as governor, so far as it related to the North American colonies, he presented in February a verbose apologia pro vita sua, in which he endeavored to clear himself of all the accusations raised by Greathead and Yorke.
He declared that he had never connived at trade in munitions of war ; that the Baltimore Hero had not been fitted out at the island, but by the council in Maryland; that her prize was not made within the range of his guns, but much nearer to St. Christopher; that the salute of the Andrew Doria had, by his orders, been returned with two less guns than she fired, that this was the usual return salute to merchant vessels, and implied no recognition of American independence; that on accusation by Vice-Admiral Young against Van Bibber, as concerned in fitting out privateers, he had placed the latter under civil arrest, but that he had escaped before the arrival of a demand backed by proper affidavits; that it had been his custom to require incoming American vessels to give bonds for due observance of neutrality while in the port; that he had compelled all persons on the island possessing gunpowder to take oath that they would not export it to North America; and that he had appointed a customs clerk visitor of ships in order to find arms if any were illegally carried.
A committee of the directors of the West India Company, appointed to hear his defense, reported to the States General that it was perfectly satisfactory, and that the facts which he had adduced showed that there was ground of complaint rather against the British commanders for their conduct toward the Dutch settlements and subjects in the West Indies than against the latter.
De Graaff went out again as governor, and conducted himself so acceptably to the Americans that two of their privateers were named after him and his lady; and his portrait, presented sixty years afterward by an American citizen grateful for the “first salute,” hangs in the New Hampshire statehouse.
Of his defense no more need now be said than that an observance of neutrality which gave to the one belligerent such absolute contentment and to the other such unqualified dissatisfaction can hardly have been perfect.
The Star Spangled Banner Commemorative Silver Dollar Coin shows with an image of a reproduction Grand Union flag as would have been on the Continental ship receiving the salute on November 16, 1776.