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Burnetts in the War for American Independence: Part II


Terry Burnett



This is the second in a series of sketches on the military careers of the more than thirty Burnetts who served in the Continental Armies during the War for American Independence. Information for these sketches is taken from veterans’ and survivors’ Pension Applications and related documents, from unit muster rolls, from Continental Army unit histories, and from other sources as they are available.  By way of disclaimer, I am neither a professional (or even amateur) genealogist or historian but am simply one who loves history and my family – the House of Burnett.  And while I hope these sketches provide some new information to members of the House, I also heartily solicit corrections and additional information that will shed even more light on the careers of these brave Burnetts who risked their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” for the glorious cause of American Independence.  My hope is that those who read these sketches will be motivated to dig deeper into their own Burnett genealogy and to share it so that we may all learn and grow toward a better understanding of our proud and common heritage.

Seaman Andrew Burnett

As difficult as life was for a foot soldier in the Continental Army, life aboard a Continental ship of war could be exponentially worse. Samuel Johnson, writing to James Boswell in 1773 said, “No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself to jail; for being in a ship is being in jail, with the chance of being drowned.”

Food was rarely fresh and mostly indifferent (a typical daily diet consisted of hard sea biscuits, salt pork or beef, and 12 oz of cheese), living quarters were extremely cramped, mostly filthy and vermin infested, discipline was brutal, and the danger of drowning, shipwreck, or death in combat was very real. About the only advantage sailors had was their daily (and fairly liberal) ration of rum or beer.[1]  Such hardship was likely life for Seaman Andrew Burnett during his six- month tour aboard the USS Providence. Providence, originally chartered by the Rhode Island General Assembly as Katy, was built in 1775 at a cost of $1,250.  The ship was constructed to protect Rhode Island shipping from British interference.  In December 1775 she was commissioned into the Continental Navy and began a distinguished career that saw her engaged in a number of battles and raids until destroyed by her own crew on 14 August 1779 after the failed Penobscot Expedition.

Providence was a 65 by 20 foot sloop of war with a complement of 6 officers, 22 seamen, and 26 marines. She was armed with 12 four-pounder guns and 14 railside swivel guns.  During her career, she was commanded by such luminaries as Abraham Whipple, John Hazard, John Paul Jones, and during Andrew Burnett’s tour, John Peck Rathbun.

Providence and several other ships spent the winter and early spring of 1776 on a raid to the Abaco Islands in the Bahamas where, in one of the US Marines’ first amphibious assaults, they captured Nassau in March. The raid resulted in the acquisition of a large store of munitions, which the small fleet returned to the Continental Army.  In April, Providence was involved in the capture of the British schooner Hawk and brig Bolton off Newport, RI.  John Paul Jones took command of Providence in May and in August and September the sloop took the brigantine Britannia and Sea Nymph and sent them as prizes to Philadelphia.  In December the British took Narragansett Bay and Providence retired up the Providence River with several other US ships. In February 1777, she ran the British blockade and put into New Bedford, RI.   By summer of 1777, she was under the command of John Peck Rathbun and this is where we meet Seaman Andrew Burnett, a mere lad of 15 when he shipped on board Providence in July.  His father, also named Andrew, was the ship’s cook.

Andrew, in the words of his own Pension Application (with limited edits on my part), takes up the tale of his wartime adventures:

“A few weeks after this applicant had shipped on aforesaid the sloop sailed on a cruise to the southward and off Sandy Hook discovered several [ships] at anchor, which proved to be the ship

[1] The practice of providing a daily “tot” of rum may have originated with Vice-Admiral William Penn (his son founded Pennsylvania). When he captured Jamaica in 1655 from the Spanish, the most valuable commodity he found to plunder was a quantity of rum, so he rationed it to his crew.  As that practice aboard British naval vessels continued, some sailors began to suspect that the rum – or grog – was being watered down so they began pouring a small quantity over a pile of gunpowder. If a flame resulted it was proof that the rum was pure.  This may be the origin of the term “proof” when evaluating the purity of alcohol.; Rupert Taylor; 1/1/2019

Mary of London of sixteen guns, a brig of six guns, two schooners, one of which was armed, and a British government sloop of ten guns.  They got underway and stood out to sea.  The Providence came up with the ship [Mary] and attempted to board her but was obliged to shear off, having suffered considerable injury in her sails and rigging [apparently from cannon fire].  Having repaired same … re-engaged with the ship and shot away her colours. Three cheers were given on board of the Providence under the belief that the ship had surrendered, but her colours were soon hoisted again. After a contest of about four hours of the commencement of the fight in which ____ Simkins the Sailing Master was killed, they left other ship and stood for the other vessels, which had been firing on the Providence during the action with the ship [Mary] but at too great a distance to do her any injury. They came up with the unarmed schooner which they captured and sent into New Bedford.  About eight or ten days after this engagement, they fell in with the wreck of a French ship, took the goods out of her and burnt her.

“The Providence afterwards cruised off the banks of New Foundland where the only prize taken was a ________ boat loaded with sea(?) coal and manned by two Irishmen. They returned to New Bedford where after serving for six months on board of said sloop this applicant was discharged.

Andrew’s application goes on to state that he could “remember only the names of the commander John P. Rathbone (sic), of John Trevet, the commander of Marines, of ______ Beas(?) One of the Lieutenants and of Webster, the Boatswain. The cook on board during the cruise … was Andrew Burnett the father of the applicant. He further declares that he was born in Newport on the thirteenth day of February AD 1762 but has no record of his life there until the British took possession of Rhode Island, then removed to New Bedford after the British abandoned Rhode Island, removed again to Newport and has resided there ever since except for six years when he sailed out of New York in the merchant service.”

On March 4, 1834, Seaman Andrew Burnett was awarded a pension by the State of Rhode Island of two semi-annual payments of $12 in recognition of his service to his State and Nation during the War for American Independence.

I welcome corrections, additions, or comments to