Monday, December 2, 2013

The Unknown Patriot Prevails

What amazes me almost as much as the incredible events of Eliphalet Downer’s life after the Battles of Lexington and Concord is that few Americans know anything about him. How much more could a man give of himself to the cause of freedom and independence during the American Revolution than this surgeon and sailor?

At the end of my last blog, Downer, surgeon on the privateer “Alliance,” operating one of the ship’s cannons during a fierce engagement, is wounded by grape shot. The battle between the “Alliance” and the 28-gun British frigate lasts seven and a half hours. The “Alliance” loses both of its masts. The ship surrenders after it has fired its last round.

We can imagine Downer’s agony while being transported to Portsea Prison, adjacent to Portsmouth, not far from Forten Prison, where he had been previously incarcerated. Kept in “the black hole,” Downer recuperates enough to help dig with a jack knife a forty foot tunnel under one of the prison walls. During the prisoners’ subsequent escape attempt, Downer, rather stout, becomes wedged in a section of the tunnel. More dirt is removed, he is freed, and the men flee across the outer grounds. Some of the fugitives are discovered and returned to “the black hole.” But not Downer. Helped by Reverend Thomas Wren and a Mr. William Downer (I have found no information that indicates that he and Eliphalet were related), our hero is transported again to France.

A respected Hollywood actor needs to play Reverend Wren in my imagery film. Wren deserves much face-time and praise.

Fifty-four years old, Reverend Wren had been the Presbyterian minister in Portsmouth for twenty-two years. He was an uninspiring preacher but was esteemed by the community for living “an exemplary life of charming simplicity and piety.” The personal responsibility he took for distributing charitable money and encouraging the poor mattered greatly.

Through press reports, the business of the Portsmouth dockyard, and his personal contacts Wren was cognizant of pro-American sentiment both locally and in Parliament. News of the destruction of East India tea in Boston Harbor in 1773, the clash of arms at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts, in 1775, and America’s Declaration of Independence in 1776 reached Portsmouth citizens almost as quickly as it did the citizens of London.

American prisoners usually passed through Portsmouth on their way to Forten and Portsea Prisons. The residents of Portsmouth knew quite a lot about the prisons. In his sermons Reverend Wren spoke frequently about the prisoners’ plight. He attended their confinement hearings. He solicited contributions from local friends and organizations. He received donations from pro-American sympathizers throughout the country. He made frequent visits across the harbor to Forten where he visited the sailors, providing them support and assistance: money, even provisions delivered to inmates confined in the special punishment compound.

By 1777, Americans working from France were providing assistance. In October 1777, Benjamin Franklin wrote to a friend and member of Parliament to ask that he distribute money to needy American captives. Franklin was told of the work of “a very worthy man,” the Reverend Thomas Wren.

Information of Reverend Wren’s charitable work reached the citizens of Boston with this notice printed October 5, 1778, in the Boston newspaper, The Independent Ledger and the American Advertizer.

“America ought to know the kindness that has been shown to her Sons in captivity in England, by the Rev'd Mr. Thomas Wren, a dissenting minister at Portsmouth. He had no small influence in procuring a subscription for their relief
at a time when they were treated with great severity. This subscription amounted to upwards of 4000 £ Sterling; and he was appointed one of the distributors of this bounty, in cloaths and other necessaries to the sufferers. Such humanity and generosity as they have experienced from this good man, and others of the same spirit, cannot be mentioned here with indifferance. They deserve particular honor and applause.

He has sent over a List of the New-England prisoners at Forton, near Portsmouth; your publishing it in your paper may further his humans views by giving relief to the minds of some of their anxious friends. Since the alliance with France, and the prospect of establishing our Independence, all our prisoners in England have been treated with lenity.”

Attempted escapes from Forten became common. Records show that 536 attempts were made during the course of the war. Prison fugitives were hampered by lack of local knowledge of safe routes, suitable clothing, food, and money. Other hazards included hostile residents eager to receive the £5 bounty paid for each prisoner returned. Notwithstanding, pro-American citizens helped. This became obvious to the authorities, who ordered investigations, which failed to identify specific culprits. It appears that the investigations were not diligent. Otherwise, the assistance rendered by Reverend Wren and his associates should have been uncovered. Wren’s High Street Chapel appears to have been one of the sanctuaries for fugitives who had made it across Portsmouth Harbor prior to their being transported to London and then to the continent.

Eliphalet Downer’s sole letter to his wife Mary was probably written in France after his second escape. He complains of the cruel and inhuman treatment of the American prisoners confined in the Forten Prison, and adds: "It is a little better since they have heard of the surrender of Burgoyne." He informs her that he had received a severe wound while directing the operations of a gun pointed out of a cabin window. "A grape-shot broke my arm so badly that the bone projected beyond the flesh but it is better now," he writes.

Downer’s 1777 deposition and others were the cause of correspondence between Benjamin Franklin and Silas Dean and Lord Viscount Stormont in Paris. In a message dated April 3, 1778, the American representatives warned the King’s court that America was aware of the barbarous treatment of her captured sailors and that if corrective actions were not taken, the Court should expect severe reprisals. “For the sake of humanity it is to be wished that men would endeavor to alleviate as much as possible the unavoidable miseries attending a state of war. … Compelling men by chains, stripes and famine to fight against their friends and relations is a new mode of barbarity, which your nation alone has the honor of inventing; and the sending American prisoners of war to Africa and Asia, remote from all probability of exchange, and where they can scarce hope to hear from their families, even if the unwholesomeness of the climate does not put a speedy end to their lives, is a manner of treating captives that you can justify by no other precedent or custom except that of the black savages of Guinea."

This message elicited the following response: “The King's ambassador receives no letters from rebels, except when they come to ask for mercy."

Every movie must end. Eliphalet Downer joins John Paul Jones on the "Bon Homme Richard." After experiencing several adventures he returns to Massachusetts. He applies for a pension, which is denied on the grounds "that as a surgeon he had no right to be in command of a gun. His services were welcome, but only within the limits of prescribed regulations. Outside of them all, militant risks were exclusively his own."

On July 9, 1779, Dr. Downer is commissioned Surgeon-General of the "Penobscot expedition," which ascends the Kennebec River but is overcome by superior British and Indian forces. His service lasts three months. He loses his surgical instruments, which the Massachusetts Legislature pays for -- fifteen dollars.

Afterward, he retires to private life, with a soldier's portion of the Marietta Reserve in Ohio and a peck-basket full of Continental money.

Fade out.