“James Reeves, who died May 19, 1838, aged seventy-seven years, had served in the Revolutionary war on board vessel bearing letters of Marque. He was born in October 13, 1762 Southampton, Long Island. His father was Dr. Stephen Reeves. The maiden name of his mother was Mary Howell. Long Island, or a large part of it, was under the control of the British during several years of the Revolutionary War. A letter written about that time says: “The people are as a torch of fire at both ends. The Connecticut Whigs carry off their stock and produce and the British punish them for letting them go.”
He served on the ocean against the enemy, as shown in the following extracts from a diary kept by him: “I felt myself a man and a good navigator, with my father’s consent, I left home. My elder brother, Stephen, was in the battle of Long Island, and at that time a soldier. I left Long Island in a small open boat in the fall of 1782, in the evening, in company with James Sawyer, two years my senior, for New London, Conn., thirty miles across the Sound, taking the North Star for a guide.”
He gave the British fleet at the north of Fisher’s Island, the slip, though they fired a few distant shots at the little boat. “We arrived the day after Arnold left with his fleet. The ruins of the city of New London were still smoking.”
He shortly reached Nantucket and shipped on a privateer, the brig Digby, at seven dollars a month, and a small share of the prize money. The vessel carried six guns, nine pound caliber, a good supply of small arms, a crew of forty-six men, and a cargo of salt beef, corn, beans, etc. Their destination was the port of Havana, Cuba.
“Eight days out, we discovered a vessel on our larboard side bearing down upon us under British colors; from Bermuda, carrying nine guns, and having the wind in her favor. She gained rapidly upon us and fired a shot across our bow. We hove to, got in readiness, and answered her with a broadside. The battle continued over an hour, when they hoisted sail and drew off. We did the same; our loss four men killed and nine wounded.”
Soon after they were in friendly port of Havana, unloading the vessel, making repairs and getting ready for sea, protected by the Moro Castle. England being then at war with Spain, Havana was blockaded by a fleet consisting of one fifty gun ship, one frigate, twenty guns, and two sloops of war. The fleet lay on and off, convoying merchant vessels from the Bermuda Islands, and sending their prizes which they captured.
“In July our repairs were completed. On the 18th, we sailed in a north-east direction, to get into the track of the Bermuda fleet, which convoyed heavy loaded merchant vessels that often fell behind and might thus be captured by a privateer. We followed in the wake of the fleet four days, when one of the frigates dropped astern and we did the same. We considered our situation critical and hazardous. Night coming on, we changed our course more to the south in hopes of making a prize of an East India ship, but found none. We then took a westerly course toward the continent. When about twenty miles from shore, we were hotly chased by a British armed vessel. Our Captain said; ‘Boys she carries too heavy metal for us, head for the shore; she will require more depth of water than we.’”
Our vessel grounded, (the order being given to put the helm hard a starboard); we secured a level position. The British vessel also grounded and careened over. The action lasted twenty minutes, we firing at the side of their vessel, they firing over our head and into our sails. When the British colors came down, their Captain hailed us, asking for our boat. The reply was ‘use your own boat.’ They answered that their boar was shot away, and they were in a sinking condition. We manned a boat and sent it to them. Our shot had riddled the side of their vessel.
“Her crew consisted of ninety men and fifty-two American prisoners. Our men took command. In the middle of the night, I was landed on the beach in charge of the money, twenty small leather bags, containing 8,900 Spanish milled dollars; one man was with me. In the morning a company of militia came, led by the noise of the action. We were at Cape Hatteras. The British prisoners were taken to Northampton Jail, the Americans were released.
“In a day or two a severe storm broke both vessels to pieces. This was in November, 1783. Here ended a cruise of thirteen months. If not so brilliant as some, it was attended with constant danger. At twenty-one years of age, I possessed a roving spirit of adventure, a love for the sea and an eagerness to redress the wrongs of my country. From the time I left Long Island until I was wrecked on the coast of Virginia, there was continual danger of losing my life or of being captured.”
James Reeves died in East Palmyra and was buried on the old Reeves homestead.
References and Notes
Text from “Military History of Wayne County, NY”, published 1883, p.102-104.