Two hundred and forty-five years ago, precursors to America’s nascent special operations forces got off to a rough start.
In August 1776, in the warm air of a summer night, two American ships glided silently toward their prey: the British twenty-gun HMS Rose and the forty-four-gun HMS Phoenix, the battleship of its time. Under the cloak of darkness, the unsuspecting British warships lay anchored in the Hudson River north of New York City. “The night was dark and favorable to our design, and the enemy did not perceive our vessels until they were near aboard them,” recalled one Patriot.
The American crews specifically assembled from volunteers for this special mission, led by Marblehead captain Thomas Fosdick, knew that this could be their last. Fosdick had experienced a meteoric rise from the rank of fifer to ensign to captain. With trepidation and anticipation warring within them, the men, daredevils all, tensed themselves for the order they knew was coming. At the last possible second, the signal came.
As the designated crew members lit their own ships on fire, the floating forests of kindling suddenly erupted into a mass of heat and light. The British sailors aboard the Rose and Phoenix, roused from their sleepy stupor, immediately grasped the danger in front of them. The Marbleheaders were attempting a daring special operations mission: ramming their fireships into the British vessels with the hopes of setting them ablaze.
Fosdick and his men tossed grappling hooks onto the British vessels and then quickly abandoned ship. While the British sailors panicked, the British captains were not so easily fazed. Both remained cool enough in the face of the approaching fire to cut the ropes drawing them closer to the fireships. However, the captain of the Phoenix was not fast enough to avoid his vessel being boarded by the Americans. And the Rose, despite the captain’s desperate maneuverings, could not escape from the conflagration. The captain of the Rose recorded in his journal that the Americans “set the Tender Instantly in a Blaze,…we veer’d away but finding we could not get clear of her cut the Cable.”
This extraordinary story and others is told in the new bestselling book, The Indispensables: Marblehead’s Diverse Soldier-Mariners Who Shaped the Country, Formed the Navy, and Rowed Washington Across the Delaware. The book is a Band of Brothers-style treatment of a regiment of citizen soldier-mariners who were not only diverse but were also bound together by ties of family and friendship who changed the course of history.
The Americans who had not managed to scramble away from the enemy vessels now faced the very real danger of being burned to death. They bolted for the holes they had previously cut in the sterns of the fireships and clambered aboard small whaleboats fastened to the rear of the fireships.
Not all of them made it out alive. Perhaps the last man to leave was Captain Thomas, who was at the helm of one of the other fire vessels. Washington himself commended the valiant officer: “One of the Captains—Thomas—it is to be feared perished in the attempt, or in making his escape by swimming, as he has not been heard of—His bravery entitled him to a better fate.”
Fosdick survived, but the operation was not quite as successful as the Americans would have wished. They did not destroy the warships entirely, but they did inflict damage—to the vessels and to the enemy’s morale. Washington wrote, “Though this enterprise did not succeed to our wishes, I incline to think it alarmed the Enemy greatly—For this morning, the Phoenix and Rose with their two remaining Tenders taking the advantage of a brisk and prosperous gale with a favorable tide, quitted their stations and have returned and joined the rest of the Fleet.”
Fosdick and other Marbleheaders survived and would, along with their indispensable Marblehead Regiment, play a crucial role in changing the course of history when, weeks later, they would use their maritime skills again to save Washington’s army from certain annihilation in the American Dunkirk at the Battle of Brooklyn.
Patrick K. O’Donnell is a bestselling, critically acclaimed military historian and an expert on elite units. He is the author of twelve books, including The Indispensables, which is featured nationally at Barnes & Noble, Washington’s Immortals, and The Unknowns. O’Donnell served as a combat historian in a Marine rifle platoon during the Battle of Fallujah and often speaks on espionage, special operations, and counterinsurgency. He has provided historical consulting for DreamWorks’ award-winning miniseries Band of Brothers and documentaries produced by the BBC, the History Channel, and Discovery. PatrickODonnell.com @combathistorian