Caleb Cushing, mariner, captured by French privateer

French privateer schooner
Caleb Cushing and his crew and passengers were captured by a French privateer, perhaps similar to this one. 


Caleb Cushing, a sea captain, was born in Salisbury, Essex, Massachusetts, on May 21, 1770, the son of Benjamin and Hannah Cushing. The Cushing family included men with distinguished careers throughout New England, including several sea captains and the famous author, orator, and U.S. Senator Caleb Cushing (1800-1879), a younger cousin of his Philadelphia namesake. The family traced its lineage in America back to Matthew Cushing, who had emigrated from England to Massachusetts in 1638.

Caleb Cushing married Margaret Hoover at Gloria Dei on Jan. 14, 1793. Her father, John Hoover, did various jobs as a laborer and a “shallopman” (a boatman in the Delaware River); later he became an officer at the Philadelphia Custom House. Hoover and his wife, Latitia, lived on Swanson Street, near Gloria Dei. They were parishioners at Gloria Dei (Latitia was descended from the Morton family, early Swedish settlers), and several family members are buried in the churchyard.

The Cushing family probably lived in the Philadelphia area in the 1790s, but it is not certain. Although Caleb Cushing is listed in newspaper ads during the decade as the young master of several vessels that shipped out of Philadelphia, his name does not appear in city directories until 1801, when he was 30 years old. In that year, they resided at 17 Beck’s Alley, between Still House Wharf and Swanson Street. In 1811, they moved to 421 S. Front Street, below Catherine.

Caleb Cushing’s sea passages took him across the Atlantic as well as to the West Indies. In 1794, he commanded the brig Industry on a voyage to Madeira. Soon after his return to Philadelphia (after a stop in Baltimore), he was off once again—when he sailed to Haiti as master of the schooner Betsy.

At the time, Haiti was in revolution; the Black population had gained mastery over most of the country, but both France and Britain held small enclaves along the seacoast. When Cushing left Philadelphia on the Betsy in the last days of 1794, France and England had been at war for two years. The dangers to American shipping had vastly increased due to harassment by French and British warships and privateers.

Scene from the Haitian Revolution, 1791-1804.

A letter printed in the Philadelphia Gazette (Feb. 20, 1795) reported that Cushing and the Betsy had been docked in Jeremie, on the south coast of Haiti, on Jan. 15, and were about to sail to Philadelphia in about four days. The report might have raised some alarm in Philadelphia—especially in the offices of Daniel and Vincent Thuun, the Water Street merchants who had commissioned the Betsy—that the schooner had encountered a mishap on its return home. The sea journey from Jeremie to Philadelphia generally took only about 12 days, and now over five weeks had elapsed since the Betsy had the Haitian port.

Finally, the schooner arrived on the Delaware on March 7, 1795, laden with 64 bags of coffee and a smaller amount of cotton. The return voyage had taken 42 days! Clearly, the Betsy had encountered trouble—but it is not clear whether it was a storm, privateers, yellow fever, or some other occurrence that caused the delay.

At home in Philadelphia, it appears that Captain Cushing was able to spend a couple of months with his young wife and their newborn daughter Eliza, born on Feb. 22, 1795. Then in May, the Betsy set out on her next voyage to Haiti. Another vessel later reported that by early June she had arrived safely at Mole St. Nicolas, in the northwest section of the country. But again, the Betsy failed to return to Philadelphia when she was expected.

A month later, the story of what happened to the Betsy came out in the Philadelphia Gazette (Aug. 12, 1795): On July 12, the schooner had been captured by the Nukewater, a French privateer from the Haitian port of Gonaives. The commander, a Captain Manuel, “together with some of his men, came on board, robbed, and plundered every article they could lay their hands on, took all the passengers’ money out of their trunks, also the supercargo’s trunk, clothes, papers, and the best part of the Captain’s wearing apparel, carried the mate on board the privateer, where they detained him for four days.”

The privateer sent the Betsy to Gonaives, where, according to the Philadelphia Aurora (Aug. 11, 1795), she was under adjudication, along with several other captured American vessels. But that was an outdated report. The Aug. 10 Philadelphia Gazette had already reported that Capt. Cushing and the Betsy had safely arrived in Philadelphia with a load of Muscavado sugar, having left Haiti 12 days earlier.

This time, Caleb Cushing encountered great sadness when he returned home. On July 31, just as the Betsy was making sail for Philadelphia, his six-month-old daughter Eliza had died and was buried in the Gloria Dei churchyard. The rector at Gloria Dei, the Rev. Collin, wrote in his log that the toddler had died of “hives.” Tragically, because of the attack by Capt. Manuel and his brigands off the coast of Haiti, Caleb Cushing was unable to be present for the funeral of his first child. No doubt heartbroken, Capt. Cushing set off again for Haiti a month later as master of the brig Charlotte.

Although Cushing would have had a grudge against the French privateers, he himself served as a privateer against British shipping in the West Indies during the War of 1812. In 1813, he commanded the schooner Emily, with five guns and a crew of 13, though he had no captures listed to his credit.

In April 1815, working for the merchant John K. Helmuth, Cushing left Philadelphia as master of the ship Susquehanna, bound for Bordeaux. The ship arrived in France shortly after Napoleon’s June 18 defeat at Waterloo. The British General Sir Frederick Lewis Maitland later revealed that on June 28 he received a secret

Frederick_Lewis_Maitland 1815
Sir Frederick Lewis Maitland in 1815. He kept a sharp eye on Caleb Cushing to avoid an escape by Napoleon.

communiqué, written on a slip of paper that was rolled up inside the stem of a quill pin. The message expressed the fear that Napoleon would try to escape to America through the port of Bordeaux. It read: “A sharp eye must be kept on all American vessels, and particularly on the Susquehanna, of Philadelphia, captain Caleb Cushing.”

Maitland responded by taking every precaution against Napoleon’s escape by sea. As it turned out, Napoleon did not choose to sail with Captain Cushing out of Bordeaux; instead he boarded a French vessel at the Ile de Aix, where he was soon captured.

Through the years, Caleb and Margaret Cushing experienced the joys of a growing family. Unfortunately, some of the children died very young. John, who later followed his father to sea, was born in October 1796. Anne was born in August 1799. Mary was born in November 1801 but died four months later. Caleb was born in July 1803 and died on Oct. 8 of the following year. Once again, Caleb Cushing was at sea at the time of his child’s death and funeral, as master of the “fast sailing copper-bottomed ship Philadelphia” en route to Antwerp.

Earlier in 1804, in late February, Margaret’s father, John Hoover, died at age 60 after catching a chill. The Rev. Collin wrote that the old man had been sick for several weeks before his death: “He had some days previous to his malady been somewhat drowzy. The immediate occasion of it was a sudden cooling after heat; he having in his official duty as a custom house officer, walked far and fast in order to visit a vessel, and then cooled himself in the breeze on the shore with his hat off.”

Beginning in around 1816, Caleb Cushing became ill with consumption (tuberculosis), though he continued to ship out to almost the end of his life. His last voyage was on the ship Tennessee. He got as far as New Orleans, but it seems that the voyage was interrupted in February 1820, perhaps because of Cushing’s ill health. He died on Dec. 4 of that year.

Caleb Cushing's grave
The grave of Caleb Cushing and family members in Gloria Dei churchyard. (Photo: Courtesy of Historic Gloria Dei Preservation Corporation.)

In his will, dated Nov. 27, 1820, Caleb Cushing left his estate to be divided between his wife Margaret and his son and daughter, John and Anne. The three family members were also to receive his shares in the ship Tennessee.

Anne Cushing married George L. Eyre and died Aug. 3, 1829. Their son, Caleb Cushing Eyre, served as a captain in the New York Artillery during the Civil War. John Cushing, who became a sea captain, contracted tuberculosis like his father. He died three days after arriving in Philadelphia from a voyage to the West Indies—on May 19, 1833. Margaret Cushing survived all her children and died July 18, 1847, age 69.

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