Today, the Massachusetts State Quarter Coin tells the story of a skirmish with injuries in the Provincetown harbor in January 1813 between the brig Anaconda and the schooner Commodore Hull.
First, the Charleston SC Times printed a short explanation in their early February 1813 newspaper:
NEW YORK JAN 23.
Extract from a Protest signed by all the officers of the privateer brig Anaconda.
“That on Saturday the 16th of the present month, said brig Anaconda was lying in the harbor of Provincetown, at anchor, and the commander, Captain Nathaniel Shaler, being at Town on business relating to the vessel. At 3 p.m. an armed schooner entered said harbor; called all hands to quarters, and prepared for action. At 4 p.m. she passing close under our stern without colors, and enquired what brig we were which was told him. He then came to anchor, and sent an officer on board us, who refusing to give any information, was detained, and an officer sent to ascertain the name and character of the schooner; but the commander refusing giving any information whatever on the subject. In consequence of which conduct was supposed her to be an enemy, and she being in the act of getting under way, a gun was ordered to be fired ahead of her; but from misconception of order, or the impetuosity of the crew, two other guns were fired before the officers could restrain them. We afterwards ascertained her to be the Commodore Hull of Boston, ant that the commander and two of her men were wounded.”
More information can be found in the multi-volumed The Naval War of 1812: A Documentary History.
The document provided a brief overview of the background, the skirmish and the outcome for the Anaconda’s commanding officer during the misunderstanding.
Commodore Hull-Anaconda Affair
By early 1813, Liverpool Packet, a very successful British privateer operating off New England, had menaced the American coastal trade for months. Boston merchants enlisted the navy’s support to end this scourge by privately purchasing a schooner and lending it to Commodore John Rodgers to man and use as a coastal convoy. While entering Provincetown harbor on 16 January 1813, this schooner, Commodore Hull, Acting Lieutenant Henry S. Newcomb, commanding, encountered the American privateer brig Anaconda. Some fishing vessels informed Newcomb that she was a New York privateer. The lack of a viable signaling system between public and private warships, however; resulted in the privateer ship’s firing on Commodore Hull, she being mistaken for the greatly feared Liverpool Packet. A court-martial acquitted Anaconda’s Lieutenant George W Burbank of the charges of insulting the flag and of deliberately wounding Newcomb and two crewmen from Commodore Hull. The court concluded that there was reasonable doubt about the schooner’s nationality.
The 18-gun brig Anaconda, owned by New Yorkers Peter H. Schenck and Francis H. Nicoll was commanded by Captain Nathaniel Shaler. On the day of the incident with Commodore Hull, Shaler was conducting business on shore and had left the vessel in the charge of his first lieutenant, George W. Burbank.
During his court martial, Burbank provided a detailed explanation of his and the crew’s actions. Prior to his testimony, others explained that the fur caps worn by the crew of the Commodore Hull were popular among the people of Halifax, a British colony. This supported their concern that the ship was the British Liverpool Packet.
TESTIMONY OF GEORGE W. BURBANK AT HIS COURT-MARTIAL
6 March 1813 10 A.M. Marine Barracks Charlestown Navy Yard
I sent Lt. Miller on board the Schooner to ascertain what she was, our people in the mean time was conversing on the subject, and from the appearance of her sails, which appeared to made of English Duck, the fur caps of the men and the refusal of the officer to tell us what she was, it was generally believed it was the Liverpool Packet and a determination was impressed amongst us to ascertain beyond doubt, what she was, on Lt. Miller’s return he informed me he could get no satisfaction that the commanding officer refused to tell the name of the schooner or anything about her except that her colours and his uniform ought to satisfy him that she was a United States vessel and he a United States officer. The schooner then began to get underway …. Believing it to be my duty to prevent the escape of the Schooner till I knew what she was, I ordered the shot to be drawn from the Bow Gun, the Cannister was drawn but they were not able to get out the round shot, and I then ordered the gun to be so elevated that the shot would not strike the Town and I gave orders to fire the Bow Gun a head of the Schooner with the intention of preventing her from getting underway—. the three guns were then fired which occasioned the accident. That I did not direct cause or permit a gun to be fired into the Schooner I believe is fully proved from the evidence and that I did not insult the flag of the United States is also true, because at the time I ordered the gun to fired ahead of the schooner I thought her an enemy and at no time had I supposed her to be a vessel of the United States.
That Lt. Newcomb meant to conceal the name & character of the schooner from me while I had given him Satisfaction respecting the Brig is evident ….
Signed G. W. Burbank
After the lengthy court-martial that lasted from February 27 to March 11, Commodore Rodgers of the United States Navy agreed with the court’s acquittal of Burbank and ordered his release.
The Massachusetts State Quarter Coin shows with a schooner, circa 1910, in the background.