Original 1813 Ship’s Wheel from the US Sloop Betsey

Item Description

Original item: Well, this wheel has come a long way by a circuitous path. The U.S. Sloop Betsey had an assignment that would have given palpitations to most captains: it was ordered to be a lookout boat, the function of which was to keep an eye on British men-of-war on the Baltimore blockade and warn returning United States vessels to keep away. To perform this task, she had to keep track of the location of British warships, pass through them without being seen, sunk, or captured, and find incoming United States’ ships that might be heading for the protection of Baltimore to warn them of the blockade.

On the night of 24 May, 1813, the American privateer Roger, captain R Quarles, of fourteen guns and one and twenty men, slipped past the blockading squadron at Hampton Roads. Several days before this the Highflyer, under her new [Union Jack] flag, had captured the lookout boat Betsey under Captain Smith. This boat had been very useful to the Americans in eluding the British blockading ships and getting to sea, in order to give warning and information to our returning privateers. The Highflyer’s people promptly burned the Betsey, and took her men aboard their schooner.

It seems that the crew of HMS Highflyer were not above saving trophies, because the wheel of the Betsey has survived. It not only survived, but the victors commemorated the battle by engraving the captured wheel with a Trophy Message, Taken from the American Sloop BETSEY when captured by HMS HIGHFLYER May 1813.

BUT, who or what was the Highflyer? It was, in fact, a very successful AMERICAN, yes, AMERICAN, privateer. It was one of the first privateers to get out of Baltimore Harbor with the goal of preying on British commercial shipping after the declaration of war between the U.S. and Great Britain in 1812.

Another British packet ship taken by Americans in the autumn of 1812 was the brig Burchall, having on board an English commissary and his wife. This vessel was taken by the 5-gun schooner Highflyer, Captain J. Grant, of Baltimore. The Highflyer was one of the first private armed craft to get to sea from Baltimore in this war.

Highflyer had been a big thorn in the side of British commercial shipping for the better part of a year, having captured a total of eight British ships, some of which carried high-ranking British officials. But at last it was outgunned in February 1813, by the 74-gun ship of the line HMS Poictiers. Seventy-four BIG guns to five small guns means the Highflyer had little chance, and it was captured and turned into a tender with a lieutenant and a crew of 72 men.

But the story of the night of 24 May continues with a rousing sea chase and battle: At nine o’clock in the evening the Roger got to sea, and soon fell in with the Highflyer. The British hailed the privateer, and on receiving no answer hailed again and threatened to fire. To this the Americans responded with a broadside, and immediately the two vessels became engaged in a close and heavy cannonade, which lasted until 11.30 P.M., when the Highflyer sheered off. The action had been at such close quarters that words of command in each ship could be distinctly heard by the opponents. In the heat of the battle two of the men taken from the Betsey managed to get into a boat and made their escape to land. On the following day the British gave Captain Smith and the remaining crew of the Betsey a boat, in which they reached Norfolk. Afterward it was learned that the enemy had suffered severely in this fight, and had the Roger been able to keep alongside the Highflyer the latter undoubtedly would soon have been compelled to surrender. As it was, the British lieutenant, the cook, and four men were killed while a midshipman and nine seamen were wounded.

The Highflyer was repaired and returned to duty with the British squadron, but on 23 September, 1813, was recaptured by the 44-gun United States frigate President. In all, Highflyer had served a bit over seven months as one of His Majesty’s Ships.

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