WATERCRAFT. Revolutionary North America was a region of crude road networks and rigorous terrain intersected by hundreds of waterways. While watercraft played a secondary role on the military supply lines and during many campaigns, it was a crucial one.
British and American forces used numerous vessel types. Sloops, schooners, shallops, and pettiaugers (not to be confused with the similarly named log canoes, called periaugers, pettiaguas, or pettiaugers) were sailing vessels used to transport troops and supplies. Gunboats, galleys, and xebecs were oar-driven craft for river and lake defense. Ferryboats, Durham boats, scows, barges, bateaux, and other flat-bottomed craft carried troops and supplies up and down rivers and lakes or ferried them across bodies of water. Other small vessels, particularly whaleboats, filled important roles as attack craft, guard boats, and logistical support.
By the time of the Revolution the British navy was adept at amphibious operations, and the Royal Navy King's Boat was much used on the lower Hudson, in the Chesapeake, and along the Atlantic coastline. They were propelled with twenty oars, crewed by twenty-five men, and carried as many as fifty troops, though for various reasons the craft were often loaded to only 50 or 70 percent of passenger capacity. These craft were effective troop carriers, though barely seaworthy, difficult to row and maneuver, and detested by Royal Navy personnel. Major General William Phillips suggested building a modified design for use on the northern inland campaign:
June 3rd 1776. Lieutenant Twiss is to proceed to Three Rivers and give his directions for constructing of Boats the description … is, a Common flat Bottom called a Kings Boat or Royal Boat calculated to Carry from 30 to 40 men with Stores and Provisions, with this only difference, that the Bow of each Boat is to be made square resembling an English punt for the conveniency of disembarking the Troops by the means of a kind of Broad Gang board with Loop-holes made in it for musquetry, and which may serve as a mantlet when advancing towards an Enemy, and must be made strong accordingly. (Hagist, "Extracts," p. 23)
It is not known if Phillips's vessels were ever built and used.
Of all the watercraft that served the armies, none were more important or ubiquitous than flat-bottomed boats. Among those craft, bateaux were foremost. Inexpensive to build, crude but effective, bateaux were also clumsy and leaky. Quartermaster General Timothy Pickering described them in 1782, "The common batteaux being built with pine boards, are of course very tender, and altogether unsuitable for the rough services to which those in common use are applied: they require, besides, at least five hands to work them to advantage" (George Washington Papers, series 4, reel 83). Bateaux were particularly useful in northern New York and Canada, where waterways provided the only reliable transportation network. Used in large numbers during the French and Indian War, they conspicuously served on General Benedict Arnold's march to Quebec in 1775, again in the Saratoga campaign of 1777, and as wagon boats (large bateaux mounted on carriages) in the Carolina and Yorktown campaigns.
Quartermaster General Thomas Mifflin noted several Continental flatboat types at Coryell's Ferry, Pennsylvania, in June 1777:
We have here 3 large Artillery Flats, [and] four Scows, each of which will carry a loaded Wagon with Horses, 4 flat boats, each to carry 80 Men, 13 Boats on Wagons at this place and 5 others on the Way 6 Miles from this Ferry each of which Wagon Boats will carry 40 Men[,] All which will transport 3 p[ieces]. Artillery with Matrosses & Horses, 4 Wagons & Horses, and 1000 Men at a Try. (George Washington Papers series 4, reel 42)
Transporting large quantities of men and materiel across waterways, while a common event, was a complicated affair. The difficulties of a Hudson River crossing in December 1780 were described by Richard Platt: "By 12 [noon] our van was at Kings ferry—[but] found only one sloop, a scow & five flat boats" (War Department Collection, reel 82, no. 23737). A large portion of the baggage for two Massachusetts brigades
was embarked by 4 P.M. & [the] vessel saild—the same Night the Baggage Waggons & Horses of the Conn[ecticu]t Line crossd—yesterday (tho not till late) a reinforcement of sloops & 3 or 4 small Batteaux arrived—the Conn[ecticu]t Division, Artillery, Ammunition Waggons & Horses belonging were put over & a sloop loaded with M[assachusetts]. Baggage—last Night Col Baldwin's Corps [of Artificers] & apparatus helped themselves across—and [the] light waggons of ye. 4th. M[ass].B[rigade]. & many of the 3rd. by the Assistance of Col Sprout's men were transported. (ibid.)
After all this labor there was still more to do: "This morning remains to be unloaded two sloops containing Jersey Baggage & the same Vessels to take in the remainder of the Massachusett's Baggage & whatever Hutting tools &c Major Kiers has to send (ibid.)."
Hagist, Don N. "Extracts from the Brigade Orders of Major General Phillips in Canada." Brigade Dispatch 29, no. 2 (Summer 1999): 23.
Miffllin, Thomas to George Washington, 8 June 1777, George Washington Papers, Presidential Papers Microfilm. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1961.
Pickering, Timothy to George Washington, 3 March 1782, George Washington Papers, Presidential Papers Microfilm. Library of Congress: Washington, D.C., 1961, series 4, reel 83.
Rees, John U. "'Employed in Carrying Clothing & Provisions': Wagons and Watercraft during the War for Independence." Part 2: "Sloops, 'Scows,' "Batteaux,' and 'Pettyaugers': Continental Army Rivercraft, 1775–1782." Continental Soldier 13, no. 1 (Winter/Spring 2000): 34-46.
――――――. "'The Enemy Was in Hackansack Last Night Burning & Destroing …': British Incursions into Bergen County, Spring 1780." Part 1: "'So Much for a Scotch Prize': Paramus, New Jersey, 23 March 1780." Available online at http://www.continentalline.org/articles/article.php?date=0502&article=050201.
War Department Collection of Revolutionary War Records 1775–1790's. Washington, D.C.: National Archives, 1971.