Several months ago we discussed the defeat of the Newburyport Privateer Yankee Hero following a running battle with the HMS Milford. The engagement took place off the Massachusetts coast on June 6, 1776.
Since our posting, a common question we have received is “what happened to the crew of the Yankee Hero?”
According to official records from the Milford, four Americans were killed and twelve wounded during the battle. However the American newspaper Continental Journal reported that five privateers were killed and an additional seventeen were wounded during the engagement.
Regardless, all surviving officers and men of the Yankee Hero were taken prisoner and transferred to the brig of the Milford.
The Milford sailed south towards Nantasket Roads with its prize. On June 8, 1776 she rendezvoused with the HMS Renown in Boston Harbor. Thirty five American prisoners were immediately transferred over to the Renown, while an additional twelve were pressed into service aboard the Milford.
As the two British warships sat off the Massachusetts coast, the Yankee Hero’s owner Nathaniel Tracy filed an emergency petition with the Massachusetts government seeking the release of the American prisoners. “To the hon'ble Council of the Colony of Massachusetts Bay . . . Nathaniel Tracy of Newburyport in the County of Essex, merchant, lately one of the owners of the Yankee Hero Privateer [humbly shews] that on the seventh day of May instant the said Privateer was unfortunately engaged with a ship of Force belonging to the enemy & after an engagement of more than two Hours Length she was taken & carried into Boston Harbour. Your Petitioner has Reason to believe that the Hon'ble Major General Ward, if your Honours shall see tit to recommend the measure to him, would send a Flag to the Commander of the Enemy's Fleet & propose an Exchange of Prisoners taken by some of the Vessells of this Colony for the brave men who were taken in said Privateer. An Interposition of this kind your Petitioner humbly conceives would not only relieve a number of our Friends who deserve well of the Community & have repeatedly exerted themselves in its Defence, but be an encouragement to others more freely to engage in the same service when they may be assured that in Case of their misfortunes they will not be neglected,and as in Duty bound will ever pray.”
That same day, the Massachusetts government agreed to intervene on behalf of the prisoners. “In Council, June 10, 1776 . . .It having been represented to this Board that the Brig called the Yankee Hero lately belonging to Nath' Tracy Esq. & others has been taken by the enemy & carried into Boston Harbor by which a number of our friends who deserve well of the Community & have repeatedly exerted themselves in its defence, are made prisoners. It is therefore recommended to his Honor Gen' Ward to propose to the Commander of the enemy's fleet in said Harbour an exchange of the same number of prisoners now in our hands for ye men taken in said Yankee Hero. In the name & by order of the Council . . . Caleb. CusHiNG, Presd.”
The next day an American party under a flag of truce sailed to the Renown to negotiate an exchange of prisoners. Royal Naval Captain Francis Banks met with the negotiators but informed them he lacked the authority to exchange prisoners or dictate terms of release. Although he assured the Americans he would contact his superiors to secure an exchange, Banks also cautioned against any attempt to retake the prize ship as “no men could fight better than ours on board the Yankey Hero.”
Unfortunately, no further negotiations occurred as both the Milford and Renown departed from Boston Harbor and sailed for Halifax, Nova Scotia on June 14, 1776. Both vessels arrived in Halifax on June 23rd. Although the wounded and most of the remaining prisoners were brought ashore, three additional privateers were pressed into service and an American lieutenant was held prisoner onboard the Renown.
Almost a month later, on July 18, 1776, the Massachusetts government made a second attempt to secure the release of the Yankee Hero’s crew and petitioned General George Washington for assistance.
“Sir: Messrs Jackson, Tracy & Tracy, Merchants of Newburport, are very solicitous to procure the Release of the officers & men of their late Privateer (Yankee Hero) which was taken after a brave & manlv Resistance by the Milford Frigate; they are now in the hands of our Enemies. We take leave to recommend their case to yr Excellnys Consideration not doubting but you will attend to every application made to you on their behalf by the Gentlemen above named and afford every reasonable assistance to accomplish their benevolent puipose: and if they shod be happy enough to affect it, it will give us a particular pleasure, as those men by their past Conduct merit our regard & sho'd they be obtained may be greatly serviceable in the American Navy.”
In communications with British authorities, Washington was able to arrange a meeting between General Howe and Nathaniel Tracy. “I have the pleasure to inform you there is a prospect of an early exchange of the prisoners taken in the Yankee Hero privateer. As Mr. Tracy negotiated this matter and had an interview with Lord Howe on board the Eagle, man of war, I must refer you to him for particulars.”
The officers and men of the Yankee Hero were eventually transferred from Halifax to Staten Island, New York in preparation for an exchange. Unfortunately, due to administrative entanglements, most of the American prisoners were not released from captivity until November 4, 1776.
A lone American lieutenant remained in captivity until he was paroled on January 16, 1777.