During the American Revolution, Rhode Island contributed many great heroes such as Nathanael Greene, Abraham Whipple, James Varnum, Stephen Olney and Silas Talbot. Talbot was among the most extraordinary.
Time and time again, Talbot managed to accomplish the most outstanding feats against great odds and often at great personal sacrifice. Major Talbot's exploits cover land expeditions, the Battle of Rhode Island, navy exploits and privateering. He was burned, shot and captured by the British and more than once given up for dead. He received praise and honors from his country and state and was so feared by his enemies that they especially outfitted and commissioned a large warship, or brigantine, to stop him.
Silas Talbot, like so many others of the Colonial Period in Bristol, was as much at home on the sea as on land. As a boy he felt the lure of the sea and signed on as a cabin boy. While still very young, he advanced to the position of captain and brought ships in and out of the bay with goods smuggled in defiance of the British trade laws. When the revolution broke out there was no doubt as to which side Talbot would be on.
He joined the Continental Army, was made a captain and was assigned to duty on the Hudson River. In August l776 the British had a number of vessels on the Hudson that George Washington wanted removed. The Continental Army had taken some old sloops and made them into "fire-boats." These boats were loaded with combustible material, soaked in turpentine and had gunpowder spread on the deck to set fire to the ship. Captain Talbot was in charge of one of these fire-boats and selected a 64-gun warship, the Asia, as his target.
Talbot brought his fire-boat into the area at about two o'clock in the morning. Under cover of darkness, he managed to get alongside the large British warship and attached his sloop to her with grappling hooks. Standard procedure was to ignite the fuse and get off the "bomb" as quickly as possible. Talbot, however, not wishing to chance a misfire, remained on the burning craft to fight off the Asia crew's attempt to free the fireboat. Only when he was sure that the British ship was afire did he leave.
This guaranteed American success, but Talbot paid a heavy price for it as his clothing caught on fire and he was badly burned. He managed to jump to the small boat with his men and, in spite of the pain, he lay quietly in the boat as it rowed to shore under heavy fire from the now fully awakened British navy. The bold action of Talbot and others like him convinced the British that they were exposed to danger. They abandoned the Hudson River to take positions below New York, which was what Washington had hoped for.
Once on shore, Talbot's small crew was convinced that they had lost their gallant captain. He was so badly burned that they were ready to give him up for dead. The daring exploit, however, attracted the attention of Americans in the area, and luckily a young army doctor came to his assistance. Talbot, barely alive, was taken to a hospital and given the best medical treatment available at the time. Even the most optimistic of doctors thought he would at least be blind, but after many months of suffering the ordeal of multiple burns, he recovered. A grateful Congress, after giving him their thanks, promoted him to major and gave him a joint command of a small fort on the Delaware River.
The fort was put under siege by a large British expedition and was caught in a deadly crossfire. Talbot rallied his men again and again, and in spite of a shattered wrist fought on for hours. Finally, when another shot struck him in the hip, he was put out of action. With their leader unconscious, the American forces evacuated their position. Washington was so impressed with this defense that he personally visited Talbot in the hospital to congratulate him on his gallantry and insisted that he return home to Rhode Island to recuperate.
This proved to be to the American advantage, for it was Talbot, now badly scarred and limping, who directed the operation of building 86 flatboats to carry the American army across the Seaconnet in the Battle of Rhode Island. Talbot not only made sure that the men crossed safely, but he joined General Sullivan and took part in the battle. As the troops withdrew on August 29, 1778, Talbot got permission to set up an ambush to gain time. He had his men hide behind a stone wall, and when the British 22nd Regiment arrived, Talbot’s men waited until they were within a few yards and then rose as one and poured a deadly volley into the enemy, killing off one-fourth of them and driving them back.
When Sullivan and the Continental Army retreated the next night, it was Talbot and his men who ferried them safely across to Tiverton. Sullivan was loud in his praise of the major, and a little later agreed with his bold plan to attempt to rid Rhode Island of the British brigantine, the Pigot. Sullivan found that he was cut off from communications by the British ship in the Seaconnet River and had no vessels capable of doing battle with the Pigot, which boasted 12 cannon and 10 swivel guns. Talbot got permission to outfit a small sloop, the Hawke, with two three-pound cannon. Because of his reputation, he was able to get 60 men to join him on what looked like a suicide mission, as they would be facing a vessel with 25 times as much firing power.
Talbot managed to get by the British batteries in Portsmouth, and when he landed at Little Compton he found 15 men under Lieutenant William Helme eager to help him. Talbot selected the night of October 28, 1778 for his attack. The fog was so heavy that he had to send out a rowboat to locate the Pigot’s exact position. His men informed him that the task was going to be even more difficult as the Pigot had, boarding nets, to thwart a surprise attack. Talbot, however, was not to be stopped. He placed a "kedge" anchor on the end of his jib-boom to tear the nets. Once ready, he drifted toward the enemy without sail. When he got close, he ordered full sail and then headed directly at the Pigot. He was upon her so quickly that the larger vessel got off but one shot before the anchor tore the boarding nets and the Americans, led by Helme, were on board. The attack was so swift and well executed that the British had no chance to fight and the Pigot was captured with no loss of lives. When the British captain Lieutenant Dunlop saw how small the Hawke was he cried in disgrace.
Once again, Silas Talbot of Rhode Island was a national hero. Congress promoted him to lieutenant colonel and made him a captain in the Continental Navy. He was ordered to patrol from Long Island to Nantucket, but Congress had no ships to place under his command. He took his captured Pigot to New London and had her refitted. He then outfitted a small sloop, the Argo, and began to terrorize the British all along the coast. In a relatively short time, Talbot, with but 60 men and a few guns, captured five enemy ships and took 300 prisoners. The British outfitted a Tory privateer under Stanton Hazard, the King George, to put an end to the Argo's raids. The larger British vessel met its match when Talbot brought his Argo in close, fired a broadside, boarded the King George and captured her without losing a man.
Later in that same year, the Argo took part in a four-hour battle with a large English warship. Talbot expertly brought his ship in close to neutralize the larger vessel's cannon. The Argo put out grappling hooks and both crews were close enough to fire pistols at each other. Talbot stayed on deck, shouting orders through his speaking trumpet, which soon had two shots through it. The Argo began to sink but her crew plugged the Argo's hull, kept it afloat, and shot down the warship's mainmast, forcing the British to surrender. The badly damaged Argo took the larger ship to port, and again Talbot was applauded by Congress. While he received glowing tributes, he found himself without a ship to command as the Argo's owners demanded she be returned to them.
John Brown of Providence offered Talbot his recently built privateer, George Washington, and for the first time Talbot had a beautiful and powerful ship at his command, but after a few successful ventures his luck finally ran out. In September of 1780 he was chased by a 74-gun man-of-war, the Culloden, off Newport. He might have escaped but ran into a fierce storm, which slowed him down and destroyed some of his sail. Once taken prisoner, the valiant captain suffered a long-term imprisonment on a New Jersey prison ship called the "hell-ship." His fortunes worsened when he was taken to England. The voyage to England in the prison ship Yarmouth was so terrible that many fellow Americans died en route. At Dartmoor, Talbot gained the reputation as a troublesome prisoner by trying to escape three times. He was caught and severely punished each time.
Finally, he was exchanged for a British prisoner and went to France, where Benjamin Franklin helped him to get passage to America. Luck was again against him as this ship was captured. Fortunately for Talbot, the British captain knew of his exploits and admired him. He was granted the courtesy of boarding another ship bound for New York in 1782.
Talbot had served his country well on both land and sea. Even when the Revolution ended, he was prevailed upon to come out of retirement to help supervise the building of the Constitution and to command that vessel once it was completed.