Lambert Wickes - The Continental Navy's Most Successful Captain
Lambert Wickes was an inaugural member of the Continental Navy.
During his short run as Captain of a Continental Ship, he established the most impressive battle record while harassing ships off the coast of Ireland.
When the American Revolution broke out, the Continental Congress created a makeshift navy by purchasing several affordable ships and outfitting them to act as ships of war.
Little did they know which one of these ships who be the most successful.
They may well have been shocked to know it was the Reprisal which was Captained by the eleventh man in order of seniority: Lambert Wickes.
Lambert Wickes had made a career of captaining merchant vessels before the American Revolution began.
Wickes’ experience on the high seas made him an obvious choice to captain a ship in the fledgling Continental Navy. His first mission was to escort William Bingham to Martinique to act as a diplomat there.
On the way, they were trapped in the Delaware River by the British. After joining several other American ships, the Reprisal assisted in successfully wining the Battle of Turtle Gut Inlet and broke out to sea.
When Wickes returned from his mission to the West Indies with a boatload of gunpowder, he was given even more precious cargo to carry: Benjamin Franklin.
Franklin’s famous exploits in France were begun when Lambert brought him and his grandsons across the Atlantic Ocean, an extremely dangerous voyage considering the British Navy would happily have sunk them.
Instead of returning to North America, Wickes was instructed by the American Commissioners to harass British ships…in the vicinity of Great Britain herself!
Off the Coast of the British Isles
John Paul Jones is generally regarded as the most famous Revolutionary Navy Captain due to his time attacking ships off the coast of the British Isles.
Most people are surprised to learn that Lambert Wickes (a year earlier and before an alliance with France was declared) captured or sunk more ships than Jones. Keeping in mind that Jones’ accomplishments were great and should not be minimized by a comparison, Wickes’ captured prisoners were set free when brought to France because they had not yet gone to war with England.
For his part, when ordered to leave French ports, Lambert was able to stall and find excuses to stay. This bought him time to receive instructions from the Commissioners.
Lambert Wickes’ efforts awoke much of Great Britain’s citizens to the seriousness of the ‘Colonial Rebellion.’ He had such success that insurance prices on merchant vessels skyrocketed.
Lost at Sea
Unfortunately, Lambert would not see the blessings of Liberty established in the United States. He was ordered to return to North America but ran into a hurricane off the coast of Newfoundland and the Reprisal sank. Of the approximately one hundred and twenty men aboard the ship, all but one perished, including Wickes. (Somehow, the only person to survive was the cook which I found strange and have no explanation for.)
It is curious that despite his being the most successful Captain in the Continental Navy, Lambert Wickes name is all but forgotten today. It seems to be that, while others were good at self-promotion, Wickes’ modesty was so great that he’d prefer to divert credit to others.
Sorry Lambert, today the spotlight was on you.
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Want to read more about Lambert Wickes?
He has one biography, but it’s very rare (and not old enough to be public domain).
It’s pretty expensive, but if you’re really interested you can pick up ‘Lambert Wickes: Pirate or Patriot.’ If you’re feeling generous you can send it to me (smiley face, wink wink).
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