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Local History: The story of the ship General Putnam

On Aug. 13, 1779, Captain Daniel Waters and his crew abandoned the ship General Putnam along the Penobscot River and then set her ablaze. Once ashore, they began the long journey over land back to Boston.

Putnam was part of a 44-ship flotilla tasked with driving the British from the Penobscot Peninsula in what is present-day Maine. In a disastrous defeat, the American fleet was forced to flee four British frigates. One by one the American ships were either captured, destroyed, or abandoned and burned.

Waters, a native of Charlestown, Mass., was a seasoned military officer. He began service for his country as a minuteman, one of the many who was roused by Paul Revere in Lexington and Concord. During the siege of Boston he commanded a small gunboat, and then was appointed the captain of the schooner Lee by George Washington in 1776. The general assisted Waters again a year later when he appointed the Charlestown man a captain of the Continental Navy. In the following years Waters captained the frigate Fox and the sloop General Gates.

In 1779, Waters was given the Putnam after the ship had been pressed into service by the sheriff of Suffolk County, Mass.

Dudley Saltonstall was the commodore of the fleet for the Penobscot expedition. In addition to the flotilla was a force of 1,200 men, both marines and militia, and 100 artillerymen under the command of Lt. Col. Paul Revere. Such was the failure of the expedition that Saltonstall and Revere were sat before a court marital. Saltonstall was tried for ineptitude and declared incompetent. Revere faced a number of charges, but was only asked to resign his command.

His reputation smeared, Revere continued to ask for a full court martial to clear his name. That finally occurred in September 1783. The court finally convened and cleared the patriot’s name.

The lack of action was felt keenly by the all the forces during the expedition. Many of the officers complained to Saltonstall for his caution in moving the fleet. Even men aboard the ships chafed at the caution.

A letter from the Putnam, in polite and flowery terms, was sent to Saltonstall asking him to engage the enemy. However, of the 150-member crew, the letter was only signed by the First Lieutenant and 30 others. Nor did Waters’ signature appear.

The offensive dragged on until the reinforcements the British were waiting for arrived. On Aug. 12, 1779, Waters was found fleeing from the British. Unable to escape after a day of sailing, the captain chose to abandon his ship and burn the General Putnam to keep her from the enemy.

Two years prior to the disaster at Penobscot, Nathaniel Shaw Jr. began construction of a new ship at Winthrop’s Neck in New London. She was a good-sized vessel meant to carry a crew of 150.

Shaw outfitted his newest privateer with 20 cannon, 9 pounders purchased in Norwich. When she finally rolled down her stays, the General Putnam cost 50,000 pounds to build. In 2020 that is approximately $8.25 million.

She was commissioned on April 23, 1778, and got underway for her first voyage in May of the same year.

Thomas Allon of New London, a partner in the $10,000 bond for Putnam, was made captain for her maiden voyage. Shaw provided Allon with orders ”for a Cruize of Six Months against the Enimies of the United States.”

Allon was to “Cruize where you think it will best Answere the desirable purpose viz. to take as many British Merchantmen Ships as you can Man....”

It made sense that Shaw sent Allon to Boston, because the captain had lived in the city prior to marrying a woman from New London. Allon cruised for five months and captured a total of six English brigs before returning to New London. Allon did not return to sea, but went back to managing his public house in the city.

Putnam sailed out of New London Harbor again in May 1779 under the command of Nathaniel Saltonstall, brother of Dudley Saltonstall. Once again the privateer sailed the waters off the coast of Massachusetts. This time, however, Shaw gave orders that all captures were to be sent to New London and not to the port of Boston. Putnam captured three ships before encountering foul weather on the 26th of June, forcing her to anchor in Boston Harbor.

Unfortunately on the 16th of June the British had landed a force to settle an area in Massachusetts on the Penobscot River. In addition to being a new settlement, New Ireland was to be haven for loyalists fleeing the colonies. In response to this incursion, the Massachusetts

General Assembly appointed a Council of War to mount an expedition to drive the British from the Penobscot Peninsula. On July 2, 1779 the Council ordered the Sheriff of Suffolk County to press the ship Putnam into service.

Nathiel Shaw Jr. did not see any compensation for the seizure and destruction of the ship he had built. After arriving in Boston, Nathaniel Saltonstall was asked to give the ship over to the expedition. He declined, feeling he did not have the right without the consent of the owners. The matter was decided by the Massachusetts Assembly. After the legislature authorized the pressing of the ship, Saltonstall was asked to assess her value. Again he declined. The Assembly appointed three captains to assess the ship. They determined her value value to be £10,000 sterling, with an estimate of future value at £100,000 paper money. It took until 1783 for the General Court to settle the matter.

A year after Nathaniel Shaw Jr. died, the state of Massachusetts paid the Shaw company the sum of £10,133. 6s. 8d. in compensation for the loss of the privateer ship General Putnam.

Steven Manuel is the Executive Director of the New London County Historical Society.

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