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The H.M.S. Sylph was one of the many British vessels that attacked, captured, and burned American ships on Long Island Sound during the war of 1812. She was a "ship sloop-of-war." In the 18th and 19th centuries, a sloop-of-war was a small sailing warship with a single gun deck which carried between ten and eighteen cannons. A "brig-sloop" had two masts and a "ship-sloop" had three. This was because a brig in the early 19th century was a one or two-masted vessel – to be a ship it had to have three or more masts. The "sloop-of-war" was commonly manned by 90-125 men and displaced roughly 380 tons. A sloop-of-war was quite different from a civilian sloop, which was a general term for a small, single masted vessel.

 

The H.M.S. Sylph was constructed in Bermuda in 1812, but was not the first ship to have the name Sylph. Although rated an '18' (based on the number of cannons aboard a traditional sloop-of-war) she was actually armed with sixteen 24-pounder carronades, two long 12-pounders and two 12-pound carronades.

 

During the months of June and July 1814 the Sylph was extensively active in the interruption of commerce and the capture or destruction of merchant vessels on Long Island Sound. On May 11th the Sylph captured the merchant sloop Grace and took her cargo of iron and dismantled her for fuel. On the 18th the Sylph along with the Frigate H.M.S. Maidstone fired upon a Swedish vessel prior to joining the remainder of the British squadron in blockading the Sound. The blockade, in addition to the Sylph and Maidstone, included the H.M.S. Bulwark and Nimrod. On May 25th the Sylph and Maidstone were engaged in a battle with about a dozen small gunboats under the command of Commodore Lewis. After a three hour battle the American gunboats succeeded in their task of allowing a large contingent of small merchant packets and coasters to pass unmolested past the British warships. At the conclusion of the battle two 74 gun British ships arrived on site and the American forces retreated towards Guilford. The Sylph continued throughout June to make trouble on the Sound. She joined the Maidstone and Belvidera, another frigate, along with the La Hogue, one of the 74 gun ships that had arrived in the Sound in attacking more and more vessels.

In early June the Sloop Nancy was located along near Northville, Long Island when the British arrived, attempting to land marines to destroy the vessel. They were beaten off by the local militia under Capt. John Terry who shot at the marines from the bluffs. Soon after the Sylph arrived and bombarded the cliffs with cannon fire. She was joined by another ship, likely the Maidstone, and together they attempted to drive off the American militia and take the ship, but in the end were unable to capture the Nancy.

 

The HMS Sylph from a Model—Courtesy of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, England

On June 23, 1814 an early submarine, called the "torpedoe boat" was forced ashore near Horton Point, Southold after her line was cut in an effort to save a man who went overboard. The boat arrived on shore and over the course of the next few days her crew tried to get her off the beach. In the meantime, word was received by the Sylph and Maidstone of the boats arrival and they set course for her. On Sunday, June 26th, 1814 the Sylph and Maidstone arrived off of Horton Point and launched several small barges (or skiffs) with armed men intent on destroying the "torpedoe boat." Several members of the Sag Harbor militia who were present fired upon the British, who took at least four men either killed or wounded. The militia was forced to retreat and the British succeeded in landing on the Beach and burning the "torpedoe boat." The boat was one of the earliest forms of submarine to be engaged in naval battles.
 

On June 23, 1814 an early submarine, called the "torpedoe boat" was forced ashore near Horton Point, Southold after her line was cut in an effort to save a man who went overboard. The boat arrived on shore and over the course of the next few days her crew tried to get her off the beach. In the meantime, word was received by the Sylph and Maidstone of the boats arrival and they set course for her. On Sunday, June 26th, 1814 the Sylph and Maidstone arrived off of Horton Point and launched several small barges (or skiffs) with armed men intent on destroying the "torpedoe boat." Several members of the Sag Harbor militia who were present fired upon the British, who took at least four men either killed or wounded. The militia was forced to retreat and the British succeeded in landing on the Beach and burning the "torpedoe boat." The boat was one of the earliest forms of submarine to be engaged in naval battles.

 

Following her work in the Sound the Sylph apparently returned to England where she came under the command of Capt. George Dickins. She left for Halifax, Nova Scotia on August 26, 1814 and met up with the H.M.S. Dragon, Endymion, and Bacchante and 10 transports and headed for the Metinicus Islands off of Maine. They were soon joined there by the ships H.M.S.  Bulwark, Tenedos, Rifleman, Peruvian and Pictou. Their ultimate goal was the capture or destruction of the U.S.F. Adams which was known to be lying up the Penebscot River at Hamden, Maine. The Adams had landed nearby and fortified her position on the bank with fifteen 18-pounders commanding the river.

 

The American forces present in the area were estimated at about 1,400 units. A thick fog covered the river and it took the British forces 2 days to wind to follow the winding river towards Hamden. Once close, the British landed a force of 150 men 3 miles south of Hamden to drive back the American picquets (A detachment of one or more troops held in readiness or advanced to warn of an enemy's approach) so they could advance on the Adams. The Americans, somewhat stunned and confused by a rocket attack, burned the ADAMS before retreating up the road to Bangor where they later surrendered. During this engagement eleven ships were captured and six were destroyed, with few casualties taking place on either side.

 

Following the attack at Hamden the Sylph headed for Southern waters and was returning in January 1815 to New London, Connecticut to join with the H.M.S. Superb with dispatches for Admiral Hotham when she struck the Southampton Bar at Shinnecock Bay (aka Canoe Place) at the east end of Long Island.  She was badly beaten over and driven close to the shore but, because of the height of the surf it was impossible to get to the vessel. Her people were safe in the tops and on the rigging until the sea suddenly capsized the ship and broke her in two drowning the majority of them in the strong undertow.

 

The purser, William B. Parsons, and two seamen were saved clinging to pieces of wreckage and three more were saved from the wreck by a boat. They were all later taken to New York as prisoners of war. Admiral Hotham thanked the local inhabitants for their humane treatment of the survivors. The remaining members of the crew, more than 100, were drowned and were later buried at Patchogue, Fife Island, Southampton, and Islip.

 

The Society is extremely privileged to not only have a small piece of the H.M.S. Sylph but also to have one of the very few surviving handwritten accounts of her loss a transcription of which is displayed here. It was written by Henry Thomas Dering (1796-1854) to his sister:

 

Southampton January 18th 1815

Dear Sister

I received your letter of the 26th and excuse it[s] shortness as it was Christmas. You mention a number of things that I shall not be particular in noticing. I have also seen your letter to Papa dated Middletown Jan 8th. I think you had a very disagreeable time gowing to M but I hope you did not receive any material injury. Now you have got to Aunt's - the agreeable visit you will make will compensate you for the trouble you have been at.

 

But now let me begin to relate a scene that I witnessed yesterday but I am not able. It wants a person more adequate to the task than I am. Yesterday after I had eat my breakfast the report was there was a vessel on shore and the people were going down to the beach. I thought I would not go as it was 5 miles west of this place but Mr. P. offered me his horse and I then started for the wreck, but when I arrived at the place what a scene there was 5 poor seamen holding on the keel of a Ship which was bottom upwards and the sea breaking over them and they crying for help, but no one able to assist them. The Ship was H.R.M. [H.M.S.] Sloop of War Sylph commanded by Capt Dickens a young man who has lately been married to [a] Lady in England. The crew of the ship consisted of 100 and 17 men and but 6 saved. The others are in the deep and some on the shore. There was five that was on the keel from 8 o'clock in the morning until 3 in the afternoon. In vain did active young men try to get them a rope one of the sailors throwing off his coat leaped in to the sea endeavoring to catch the rope but did not. He held his hand above water and cryed for help bit no one could help him and another out of the five sliped down and expired on the spars that surrounded the wreck The people at last succeded in saving the other three. They were hardly able to help themselves being badly bruised. The other three got in shore early in the morning and was brought up to town. One of the three was the purser of the ship and only officer saved. Those that came up last how rejoiced they were [to] see their companions. I was present when they met. They shook hands and said oh Jack are you here fore they did not know who was alive and who was not.

 

When the ship came on shore all sail was standing and the deck covered with sailors. In an instant all the masts went by the boards, at that time, yes in an instant more than one Hundred men went from this world to eternity. They appeared indifferent about their own safety they would assist one another though in equal danger, but soon they were all drownded or dashed to pieces. The wind blew all the time a gail and it snowed very hard and the men on the beach suffered much, many was not able to reach home and gave up and were obliged to be brought in by others, many came very near perishing one man I hear had laid out all night within a few rods of his house but was not able to reach it. The Doct told me it was doubtful whether he recovered. One of the sailors that is alive held his little son in his arms until he perished when he threw him into the deep, he was 9 years old. There was a number of little boys on board.

 

It was very strange that this ship came on shore as the wind was off shore. It was a very careless thing. The Purser (WB Parsons) the only officer saved does not appear to think much of the danger he had escaped nor much about many of his shipmates that are lost. He says he does not think much about it. I think the poor sailors regret the loss of their companions more than he does. I believe but 4 of the men has been found, one the second Lieut He will be brought up to town and burried.

 

I hope you will find out this letter, but it is wrote in a hurry and very incorrect. What do you think sister. If we should not have peace by next and I should live I think it will be best for me to gow to West Point if I can get there. Write me what you think of it. If I do not gow there how shall I get my living in this world. I begin to grow tired of South[ampton] and wish to be doing something but when I consider my inability to do any kind of business I redouble my diligence at my studies. This letter is long enough for me. I hope you will answer it now you have settled at Middletown by respects to Aunt Corwithe and S.

 

Believe me your affect[ionate] Brother

H. T. Dering

 

 

The HMS Sylph with the HMS Maidstone close behind by B. J. Phillips