The Capture, Imprisonment and Escape of Josias Rogers – March 1776-May 1777
In the bitterly frozen early weeks of March 1776 the two-decked Roebuck 44, Captain Andrew Snape Hamond, detached her small tender Lord Howe to cruise off Lewes at the mouth of Delaware Bay adjacent to Cape Henlopen, and within a matter of days this vessel discovered an American sloop to which she gave chase and overhauled.
At the time a biting north-westerly wind was raging, and it was only with great difficulty that five men led by a twenty year-old masters’ mate, Josias Rogers, were able to board the vessel and take possession. The British party then faced the gruelling task of keeping their prize afloat, for she had suffered damaged aloft in the chase, her sails were in tatters, her boom broken, and the weather was so raw that the waves breaking over the vessel were turning to ice and weighing her down in the tossing seas. Her frost-bitten crew were also in a distressed condition, their exposed faces sprouting icicles, and their jackets freezing to their backs.
Yet dreadful though his initial impression might have been, Mr Rogers’ problems were only just beginning to reveal themselves, for a closer inspection revealed that the sloop had sprung a leak. By now the Lord Howe had been carried away by the storm and the sloop was alone on the heaving ocean, so both the prize crew and the original crew would need to work together to save themselves. This they contrived to do over the next eleven days, with the men constantly pumping the icy waters out of the sloop, until the morning of 12 March broke to far calmer conditions and an innocent breeze wafting up from the south. Rigging was spliced, sails repaired, and with the confidence that he was steering well clear of the distant Cape Charles Rogers slumped down in a hammock to take some well overdue sleep.
Some hours later a sudden outcry awoke him and he jumped out of his hammock to find the sloop entering a wild surf with the land just beyond. Sinister discussions had taken place as he had slept, and it would later transpire that his own men had collaborated with the Americans to run the leaky vessel ashore, but had misidentified the coastline and put the vessel at risk again. Only by good fortune was the sloop thrust broadside on to the shore, thereby creating a calm pool of water which allowed the boats to be lowered and the men to be disembarked. Even then, Rogers was no sooner in the boat than he heard the desperate cries of a poor fellow who had earlier lost both his feet to frostbite and could not make his own escape. Clambering back aboard again, he gathered the man up, lowered him into the boat and ordered the men to pull for a nearby beach.
Once ashore, and discovering that they were marooned on a wooded island, Rogers berated the Roebuck’s prize crew, for by now their conspiracy with the Americans was clear. Wisely deciding that a belligerent approach might put his life at risk, he did not qualm when they refused to undertake an attack on a schooner that had been spotted in a nearby creek, yet by still apparently holding their respect he managed to persuade them to go back on board the wrecked prize to salvage what provisions they could, and to throw her six swivel guns into the sea. An experienced officer might have known better than to trust the word of men who had already deceived him once before, for whilst Rogers was searching below deck for some material with which to set the vessel alight his men fled in the boat, leaving him stranded.
Enraged but determined to do what damage he could to the prize, Rogers ran amok with an axe, slashing the sails and rigging to shreds before running along the bowsprit, throwing himself into the sea, and swimming for the beach. Frozen and soaked, he had barely sat down to recover his breath before he saw a party of men landing a mile away with the intention, he assumed, of taking him into their custody. Deciding to flee into the woods, he had the good fortune to run into a couple of men who took pity on his appalling condition and rushed him by land and boat to their dwelling some five miles away. Here two Negroes carried him to bed, and such was the concern for his low body temperature that he was placed between two men in the hope that their body heat would thaw him out.
Any hopes Rogers might have held that a good night’s sleep would enable him to steal away in the morning were dashed just a half hour later when the party of men stormed into the room and ordered him up at bayonet point. Despite his entreaties they refused to show any compassion for his frozen and exhausted condition, and he was marched off through three miles of muddied roads until he could walk no further and was deposited in a public house. Here at least he was able to recover his strength over the next two weeks, whereupon he was marched further into the interior and thrown into a severe prison to be left without food for two days and deprived of a bed to sleep on. Indeed, it was only after some time in incarceration that he was able to procure more provisions and a rudimentary mattress through the good offices of a friendly old Quaker.
After five weeks of this disagreeable imprisonment instructions came for Rogers to be moved some fifty miles further on to Northampton, a march that took a couple of days, during which time he was treated indifferently by his captors. Upon arrival at his new confinement he was given liberty by a humane officer to walk in the town, but this treatment was too good to last, and on 9 May he was ordered to Williamsburg, to which town he made the crossing of Chesapeake Bay in a whale boat. Here he was thrown into a jail with the common criminals and suffered greater privations than any he had endured to date, particularly as he was at risk of a jail-fever that had began to pick off the other inmates. His worst moment came when a boy from his hometown, Lymington in Hampshire, who had come out to North America aboard the Otter 14, Commander Matthew Squire, was brought in to the prison after a hundred mile forced march. Despite Rogers’ attentions the boy died three days later.
On 14 July Rogers and eight other prisoners were told that they were to be moved again, and after several days stumbling under guard through the pitiless hot summer sun they were at least able to procure a wagon with their meagre reserves. Passing through Richmond near the James River Falls, their journey proceeded through swamplands and forests until ten days after setting off they reached the tiny hamlet of Charlottesville in the lee of the Blue Ridge Mountains, some one hundred and twenty miles beyond Williamsburg. Here the colonials clearly considered that any threat of them absconding was remote, for they were allowed parole and given an allowance that enabled them to take lodgings over the next eight months in a public house. Theirs soon now became a pleasant if futile existence, and to pass the time they strolled through the forests and mountains and picnicked by streams. But above all else Rogers yearned to get back to the Roebuck.
At last on 15 April 1777 came the welcome news that the nine men who had been removed from Williamsburg, together with a company of the 71st Highlanders, were to be taken the three hundred miles to Philadelphia to be exchanged for colonial prisoners. Setting off under the guard of a local militia whose womenfolk reacted with despair and anger at their departure, the prisoners and escort reached Fredericksburg near the Rappahannock Falls after five days and over a hundred miles, and following a four day rest they proceeded some twenty-odd miles to Dumfries where they were confined in a corn-granary for three days. Another two day march north of almost thirty miles to Alexandria on the west bank of the Potomac River followed, but then came the terrible advice that the exchange was still awaiting final agreement and that the men were to be imprisoned again.
Resolving now to take matters into their own hands, the nine me began to formulate plans for their escape, and these were enhanced when Rogers was noticed at Alexandria by a brute of a man called Davis, who had been a particularly harsh jailer of the young naval officer some months earlier, but had since been dismissed from the American army because of his ill-discipline. Davis had previously been a British Army sergeant but had been transported to the Americans as a criminal following a charge of theft. Claiming that he now wished to make amends for his past misdemeanours, he managed to speak with Rogers and convince him that he would assist in any escape plan.
Rogers spent the next few days observing the schedule of the prison guards. Noting that they were regularly absent from their posts during the midnight hour, he managed to procure a rope which he affixed to a spike-nail and the nine men slid down the twenty-feet from their upstairs window to the ground. With great scepticism they then ran for the rendezvous that had been agreed with Davis, and somewhat to their surprise, and most definitely to their relief, they found him waiting for them. True to his word, Davis then provided each man with a musket and a hunter’s frock, and most importantly of all he led them to a boat in which they set off across the Potomac with hopes of making it down to Chesapeake Bay, where a British man-of-war might be found.
Unsurprisingly this somewhat vague plan of action soon unravelled, and so throwing their fortunes to the wind the men instead decided that they would attempt to cross overland, and over the Patuxent River, to the Delaware, where it was more likely that a British vessel would be found. Yet disaster struck within the first few days when a loyalist from New York called Goodrich, with whom Rogers had formed a close bond, became detached from the party in the woods and was never seen again. Pushing on, the men were then almost discovered by a party of horsemen who heard their rustling in the undergrowth. With muskets primed and loaded they hid in the darkness until at last they heard one of the horsemen opine that the noise must have been caused by a wandering deer, whereupon they galloped off.
Realising by now that it was imperative they discover their whereabouts in order to reappraise their route, Rogers volunteered to visit a public house to see what information could be obtained, but he had barely called for ale before the landlady was advising him that there had been a breakout of prisoners from Alexandria. She then passed over a hand-bill which described Rogers and his fellow-escapees in some detail, and which offered the astonishing bounty of a hundred guineas for each prisoner that could be apprehended. As soon as Rogers returned to the party and advised them of this sum Davis took to his heels, and fearing that he would run straight to the colonial authorities and reveal their whereabouts Rogers and the rest of the men fled into a nearby swamp where they were fortunately able to find shelter on raised ground and bed down for the night.
When morning came the men beheld not only a creek and a river beyond it which they assumed to be the Potomac, but more alarmingly numerous troops of soldiers who were being ferried hither and thither. Resolving to hunker down whist this activity carried on, and suffering desperately for want of provisions, the men were then appalled after a sleepless night to find the same activity going on when the sun rose on the next morning, and so it was the day after too.
Deciding that they could not possibly suffer another night without food, Rogers decided to venture forth and seek what subsistence he could find in the hope of satisfying his ailing companions. Making his way to the shoreline, he fortuitously discovered a Negro who was bringing his boat in alone. Somehow the young naval officer managed to persuade the fellow to lend his help to the loyalist party, and giving him money to obtain some food he was rewarded when the Negro returned with three large loaves and bacon. Rogers hurriedly spirited this offering to the hideout and then brought the men back to the Negro at his boat. Taking to the river about an hour before midnight, the advantage of a fair wind spirited them down the Potomac to anchor late the next morning off Point Lookout at the confluence of the river with Chesapeake Bay.
On the following night they managed to steal aboard a couple of American vessels that were lying nearby and obtain some provisions, but a difference of opinion now arose over their next step with the consequence that Rogers and two other men were left to pursue their original intention of crossing the bay to Maryland, and then seeking an overland trail to the Delaware. A passage was found on a fishing boat, and hardly believing their luck the men soon discovered that it was owned by a loyalist who could not hide his delight in providing them with a detailed route across Maryland, complete with notes on which houses they would find loyalist sympathisers to assist them. Even so, the danger of discovery was so real that Rogers and his two friends were constrained to travel by night, despite the unseasonably damp weather, until they reached one of the last dwellings on their route. Here they took to a bed for the first time in eons whilst their eager host rode off to discover if any British men of war were in the Delaware.
Just days later, and after a final stay in a residence near the river where they were forced to wait for a change in the weather, the three men took to a boat and set off in the night for the nearest man-of-war . Upon their approach a voice from the ship hailed them, and astonishingly it was one that Rogers instantly recognised, for it belonged to no one less than the sailing master of the Roebuck.
After fourteen months absence he was back home.
The local knowledge that Rogers had obtained though his travails would immediately be put to use by Captain Hamond who gave him the command of another of the Roebuck’s tenders to undertake inshore operations, and although he would fall into American hands in July 1779 as a lieutenant, and again in April 1782 as a master and commander, he would be quickly exchanged on both occasions. Posted captain in 1787, Rogers went on to play an active role campaigning in the Leeward Islands during the early years of the French Revolutionary War, but he sadly died of yellow fever at Grenada in 1795 at the age of forty.