Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Of Such Stuff, Facts are Made: The Case of the "Dolphin"

Editor's note: The nation recently observed Independence Day. It is a time when, aside from cookouts, parades, and fireworks displays, we remember those whose sacrifices during the American Revolution bought the freedoms that the United States Navy defends today.  It is with this in mind that the author addresses what has been called "the worst loss in the short history of the Virginia navy...." during that war. 

By J. Huntington Lewis
HRNM Docent & Contributing Writer

Photographic Illustration by J. Huntington Lewis

... John Cowper commanded a vessel of War, and that during the War of the Revolution whilst at Sea the said vessel was sunk by the British and all hands perished. That this deponent understood he went to sea with his colours nailed to the mast head, with a determination not to strike the same to the enemy and all that was heard of him afterward was that a vessel answering to the description of one under his command attacked a vessel of the enemy of Superior force, and was sunk with the coulours flying at the mast and all hands perished.
- Sworn statement of John C. Cohoon to John B. Benton, Nansemond County, June 12, 1839, in "Claim for Service of Simon Harris," VAS12, Southern Campaign American Revolution Pension Statements and Rosters  

In December 1839, the heirs of Dr. Simon Harris submitted a petition to the State of Virginia, claiming that Dr. Harris never received the land bounty promised to him by for his service on the Dolphin, a vessel of the Virginia State Navy during the Revolutionary War, and that they were entitled to that land bounty.  John C. Cahoon of Suffolk, the grand nephew of John Cowper related this story (above) in a letter supporting the petition saying that “He had no knowledge of the service of his grand-uncle, further than what has been handed down as a matter of family tradition, and from this source he has always heard from his earliest infancy.”

James Murdaugh, a prominent Portsmouth lawyer, submitted a related petition in March 1840 for an heir of John Cowper. Attached to that petition was a letter from Commodore James Barron who wrote that “I hereby certify that I was well and personally acquainted with Capt John Cowper of Nansemond County, Virginia. He perished at sea sometime during the Revolutionary War as well as I can recollect in the year 1779...the entire crew of his vessel perished with him.”


The story of Captain John Cowper and the Dolphin resurfaced in the January 1857 issue of the Southern Literary Messenger, within an article by Dr. W. P. Palmer entitled, “The Virginia Navy of the Revolution.” Palmer described in florid prose an engagement between Dolphin and two enemy vessels, adding that those who witnessed it from a great distance said “that the fight was long and doubtful, so far as they could judge; that at length two of the vessels were seen suddenly to sheer off to the eastward, leaving no vestige of the third, and they most naturally concluded that she was sunk in the action.” He estimated that the occurrence took place in late 1779 or early 1780. The article was not footnoted.*

In 1934, Robert Armistead Stewart's The History of Virginia's Navy of the Revolution retold the story with brevity. The book was not footnoted; yet in his preface, Armistead stated that his sources were various archives and Palmer's article in the Southern Literary Messenger. When the story of the loss of the Dolphin is related by later authors, it is Stewart's book that is most often given as a factual source.

But is the story true?

Did it really happen?

In all probability, no.


Here is why:

1.      The incident was supposed to occur within distant sight of Fort Monroe (Old Point Comfort at that time.) Yet there are no contemporary accounts.  The Virginia Gazette makes no mention of the battle, yet a battle of such nature would have surely been reported.
 
2.      British sources make no mention of the capture or sinking of the Dolphin.

3.      There were no survivors.  Even in the bloodiest of wooden ship battles of that time period, there were almost always some survivors.

4.      Commodore Barron was at the ripe old age of 10 years when he knew John Cowper.

5.      Except for the petitions from the heirs of Doctor Harris and John Cowper, there were no other petitions from the heirs of the Dolphin's 70-man crew.
 
6.      The Dolphin was probably not a ship of the Virginia Navy.  It was in all likelihood a privateer.  A privateer cruises to capture enemy commerce with a profit motive.  It runs from superior firepower.

There is a contradictory account of the Dolphin's loss in “A Family Portrait of Patrick Henry” by William Hamilton Henry in Eclectic Magazine, Foreign Literature, Science, and Art, Volume 146, January 1906. Mr. Henry stated that the Dolphin was destroyed by Brigadier General Benedict Arnold in 1781 in the James River. No supporting evidence was given, and no corroboration can be found among American and British sources.

Concerning Captain Cowper’s nailing his flag to the mast: This was a common expression for valor and determination at the time of the petition. While its use in the petition does nothing to prove or disprove the story, it is not surprising that it would be used to enhance the story.

In an 1833 issue of The Military and Naval Magazine, the nephew of John Cowper, who also was named John, told of his experiences aboard the privateer Marquis Lafayette, which was built at a shipyard run by the Cowper family. He praised the ship and the abilities of her captain Joseph Meridith.**

What really happened to the Dolphin is unknown. Most likely it was lost at sea with no survivors due to a storm, fire, or other maritime disaster with no survivors (not uncommon) like so many other ships. The family story probably developed to give their children heroes instead of a vacancy in their heritage and may have contained a bit of family rivalry.


One hates to dismantle a story about heroic Virginia seamen that has been considered factual for 160 years, but the story itself is not supported by verifiable facts. If anyone has evidence that appeared before 1839 that confirms the family story, the legend may finally become fact.


* In 1872, Dr. Palmer was appointed “to secure the preservation of historical papers in the [Virginia] capitol building” Between 1875 and 1885, he compiled and edited the multi-volume set of the Calendar of State Papers. In 1896, he was elected Vice-President of the Virginia Historical Society.

 ** This John Cowper served a one-year term as mayor of Norfolk, Virginia, in 1801 and lived in what is now known as the Taylor-Whittle House.


About the author: Hunt Lewis, a former communications officer in the Navy and the museum's longest-serving docent, is editor of the long-running "Moments in Naval History" feature in the The Flagship newspaper.

Editor's note: This and every HRNM blog post by a contributing writer reflects the opinions and core beliefs of the writer and should not be construed as representing the official policies or opinions of the museum, the Department of the Navy, or the United States Government.

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