CRISFIELD — The Capt. John Smoot Chapter of the Maryland Society, Sons of the American Revolution will host a cruise Thursday, Oct. 6 from Crisfield to the site of the Battle of Kedges Straits to hold a short memorial service to reflect on the historic events that occurred there 340 years ago.
The boat leaves Somers Cove Marina at 9 a.m. and will return around 2 p.m. The cost is $60 for the trip and lunch at Bayside Restaurant in Ewell (excluding tip), and admission to the Smith Island Cultural Center. Seating is limited and by advance reservation only, contact Mark A. Tyler at 443-858-3805 or firstname.lastname@example.org by Sept. 26.
What is also known as the Battle of the Barges took place Nov. 30, 1782 and the cruise will be narrated and there will also be a presentation about underwater archeological research at the Cultural Center after lunch.
In 1782 residents along the Chesapeake Bay were subjected to ongoing raids and attacks by the British. Among them were six barges commanded by Commodore John Kidd. His crew of regular sailors, local loyalists and runaway or captured former slaves manned these armed vessels approximately 65 feet in length and were propelled by sail and/or rowing oars.
To respond to these raids, the governments of Maryland and Virginia commissioned vessels to protect the coastal towns. Somerset County native Zedekiah Whaley led an American flotilla on board the Protector.
Near the end of November, Whaley monitored the location and activity of the British flotilla. Upon realizing the size and possible location of the enemy, he went to Onancock Creek in Accomack County and sent a request ashore in Onancock for volunteers to man an expanded American flotilla.
The day he went ashore was reportedly a county court day resulting in an abundance of potential volunteers being readily present to answer the call to arms. The Virginia volunteers, organized with the assistance of Colonel John Cropper, joined the existing Maryland flotilla to augment its forces in the hopes of restoring peace to the lower Chesapeake Bay.
Later that day it was reported that Whaley sent a scout ship to acquire intelligence on the location of the British. The American scout ship, pretending to be a British vessel under British colors, journeyed out from Onancock Creek to Tangier Island, where the scout ship’s captain met with a man with the last name of Crockett.
Mistakenly thinking he was talking to fellow Tory, Mr. Crockett let the Americans know that the British had been at his house earlier that day with intentions of spending the night at Kedges Straits north of Smith Island.
Early on the morning of Nov. 30, 1782, after receiving intelligence from the American scout ship, Commodore Whaley met with his flotilla captains and they all agreed to advance on the British and, if necessary, sink together. The Americans sailed west from the area of Crisfield and arrived in the area of Kedges Straits around 9:30 that morning.
According to a report from Col. Cropper of Virginia, as the Americans rounded the southeastern corner of the Straits, the British were, “endeavoring to make their escape, however they soon” turned around and rowed towards their American pursuers. The first reported firing allegedly came from the British at 500 yards distance from the Americans.
Whaley, on the lead American ship Protector, began firing on the British flotilla. He was joined in the attack on both of his sides by two other American barges named Fearnaught and Defence. Not long into the battle, a fourth American barge, Terrible, commanded by Robert Dashiell, turned away from the engagement, never to re-engage with the enemy.
For this behavior, Dashiell would later be brought before the Maryland government on charges of behavior unbecoming of an officer and was officially cashiered by the government. As Col. Cropper of Virginia noted, “this dastardly conduct of our comrades brought on [us] the whole fire of the enemy which was very severe, and it was as severely answered by the Protector until the enemy’s barges were within fifty yards.”
It was around this time that the Protector became disabled by an onboard explosion. Apparently, the alleged cause of the explosion was “the carelessness of one of [Protector’s] men who carried a cartridge and uncovered powder bag across the deck to a gun.” Before the spilled gunpowder on the deck could be sufficiently dampened, the fire from a gun ignited the powder, resulting in one of the ammunition chests exploding.
This accident completely disabled Protector, and shifted the balance of the battle. As Col. Cropper noted, after the explosions, the enemy, “almost determined to retreat from the American’s firing guns, took new spirit at this disaster and pushed up with redoubled fury.”
The British soon boarded the Protector, resulting in fierce hand-to-hand combat involving pikes, bayonets and cutlasses. By the time the British boarded, Commodore Whaley was either dead or mortally wounded. Accounts from survivors indicate that after most of the American crew was driven from their positions along the rail, a general cry on board was for quarters which the British positively refused. One report noted that “little mercy was shown to any of us.”
The chaos of the scene was soon brought to an end. Most of the American’s on board Protector were killed, wounded or taken prisoner by the British. One of the survivors, Col. Cropper, was wounded by a blow to the head from a cutlass. He was able to negotiate the release and return of those few taken alive. The remaining American barges withdrew, resulting in a British victory. British raids along the Chesapeake would continue into the following year.
Today, the general vicinity of the battle site is marked by the Solomon’s Lump lighthouse in Kedges Straits, which sits atop a caisson in the middle of the straits. Local Smith Islander’s still tell the folktale that Solomon (“Uncle Sol”) Evans (1760-1852), for whom Solomon’s Lump is named, always claimed that he watched the Battle of the Barges from atop a tree in his yard located near the northern tip of Smith Island.
The Revolutionary War would last nearly another year with the Treaty of Paris not signed until Sept. 3, 1783 and ratified in Annapolis on Jan. 14, 1784.
— Portions of this are from an article written by Mark Tyler for the County Times in 2016.