Sarah Bradford and the Dismasting of the Ship Hercules

Ship “Hercules,” September 26, 1809

In 1962, Gershom Bradford, a retired U.S. naval officer, navigation instructor and author, wrote, “An old oil painting of the dismasted ship Hercules, Captain Daniel Bradford, hangs before me as these lines are typed. She is lying-to under a jury mizzen-staysail in a heavy sea under a dark stormy sky. The story of this disaster has been found in two letters written by the captain’s wife, Sarah Drew Bradford…”

Presently, 50 years after Gershom Bradford wrote those lines, the very same painting of the wrecked Hercules hangs a room away from me. And a digital image of the painting, something Capt. Bradford never could have imagined, hangs before me on my screen as these lines are typed.

Living in a coastal town, I tend to ponder such scenes with the approach of a big storm. As Hurricane Sandy bears down, I shudder a bit to think of mariners, past and present, caught up in such danger. I really don’t much enjoy being on the water even in fine weather. I have no particular fear of the ocean. I just wonder why people would choose to be on it when one could have feet on safe, dry land. I know, there are reasons on a bright, sunny day with a fair wind. I just don’t quite get them.

Of course, no one chooses to be caught up in a storm such as the one that nearly sank the Ship Hercules on September 26, 1809. Least of all Sarah Drew Bradford, 38 year-old wife of Captain Daniel Bradford. Both of them were from Duxbury, Massachusetts. Her husband was an experienced and well-known master mariner having met dangers beyond storms…such as the British Navy and French privateers.

Sarah’s letters describing the dismasting, written to her sister back in Duxbury just days after the dangers were passed, paint a heroic picture of her husband, the captain. I have little doubt that Capt. Daniel Bradford was every bit as intrepid, cool and skilled as the letters represent. Still, I can only imagine the experience of trying to keep one of these big sailing vessels afloat amid gales and massive sea swells…no matter how experienced the master, it must have been terrifying. Nor can I quite grasp the level of Sarah’s fear as she huddled below deck, listening to the sounds of the ship falling apart and catching what shreds of information she could from mariners scurrying here and there.

I’ll let Sarah speak for herself, combining excerpts from two letters:

Dear Zilpah,

Last Tuesday it was a shocking storm and our ship was dismasted…Mr. B [her husband] says it was the heaviest he ever experienced…The gale had abated for a few minutes and I had begun to hope the worst was over, when a sea struck her in the bowsprit and we broke that close to the bow and with that went the foremast and in a few minutes the mainmast. There was a man in the foretop but he was saved providentially as well as the rest of us, and one in the shrouds, he jumped on deck and lamed himself…The horror of the scene was more than I can express or you imagine unless you was to experience it and God grant you never may.

…The sea broke over her all night and the noise of that and the loose things at her sides was shocking. It seemed to me that she rested almost bottom up. Tell father Mr. B. did not neglect the ship to take care of me, for he never came below but once…

…No words can express what I have undergone with fear. That troublesome companion has stuck close to me ever since we were dismasted. O Zilpah, it was a solemn time with me. Bill was my intelligencer. He would go to the head of the stairs and bring me word from on deck whether they were all washed overboard. He would say, “Why are you frightened? Mr. Bradford is not frightened. Mr. Bradford is not frightened a bit.” I knew that he would not be frightened…How happy for him and the others that he does not lose his composure in the midst of danger…

…When I heard the masts go I had not the least idea of living but a few minutes. My strongest sensations were that my sweet Emily and you…would never see us…It was out of my power to compose myself. Mr. Bradford came to the door and told me we should do well, to take care of myself…I wonder Mr. Bradford is alive…

The crew managed to secure the vessel, the storm abated, and they limped along under jury-rigged masts for several days. At that point, insult was added to injury.

The HMS Ramillies, a 74 gun, third rate ship of the line, took the damaged Hercules as a prize. Given the condition of the vessel, the Americans were helpless to do anything about it. Captain Bradford was taken on board the warship with all his papers. A prize master and several “ill looking fellows” of the British Navy were put on board the Hercules and the ship taken into tow.

“At first I was pleased,” Sarah Bradford wrote, thinking they would soon be in London and safe. But the Ramillies proceeded to pursue other prizes, running one vessel aground. And the British master, Sarah wrote, was “full of rum the whole time” (although we might take that with a grain of salt) and apparently, through his recklessness, caused at least one collision of the two vessels while the Hercules was in tow.

To see such confusion and management as there has been on board since those haughty Englishmen have commanded us would try the patience of a Job, to see them strut on board the Hercules…In the night, the Ramillies, took the wind aback and came down upon us. You have no idea how dreadful it sounded. I expected she would stave us all to pieces…such a huge thing you never saw. We are no more than a long boat to her…It was all owing to carelessness. Unfeeling monsters, if they had sent us to the bottom I presume they would have tho’t no more of it than I should to kill a spider…

Sarah mentions they were quarantined in London, but whether the vessel was returned to the Americans, or how they eventually came back to Massachusetts in unclear.

Now, in 2012, it is the calm before the storm here. I hope things do not grow too severe. Tonight, I’m sure, as I listen to the wind, I’ll be thinking about Captain Bradford, Sarah, and the many who once faced, and still face, such peril on the sea.

[Source: Gershom Bradford, In With the Sea Wind, (1962), p. 49-54.]

About Patrick Browne

I am a PhD candidate in History, former historical society and museum director of roughly 20 years, an author, and quondam Civil War reenactor. I specialize in early American History, particularly the Civil War era. View all posts by Patrick Browne

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