Lambert Wickes

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Lambert Wickes
Kent County, Province of Maryland
DiedOctober 1, 1777 (aged 41–42)
Allegiance United States
Service/branch Continental Navy
Years of service1776–1777
RankCaptain (U.S.)
Commands heldReprisal
Battles/warsAmerican Revolutionary War

Lambert Wickes (1735 – October 1, 1777) was a captain in the Continental Navy during the American Revolutionary War.

Revolutionary activities[edit]

Wickes was born sometime in 1735 in Kent County, Province of Maryland. His home was on Eastern Neck Island, in the family home, Wickliffe.[1] Prior to the American Revolution, Wickes was captain of the merchant ships the Neptune and the Ceres. On March 28, 1776 the Continental Congress allowed the purchase of the 18-gun brig which would be renamed the Reprisal. In May of the same year, Wickes was the Reprisal's captain and he was ordered to sail into battle against the British frigate Roebuck which was opening the Delaware River to British ships. Wickes would later be designated as number 11 on the Continental Navy's seniority list.

The Committee of Secret Correspondence of Congress, by arrangement with the Marine Committee, issued orders for Capt. Wickes to proceed to the West Indies in Reprisal and bring out munitions for use by General Washington's army. In addition, Wickes was to transport William Bingham to his post, the French possession of Martinique, as agent for the American colonies.

Reprisal passed down the Delaware River from Philadelphia during the latter part of June 1776. While en route, Reprisal went to the aid of the harried Continental 6-gun brig Nancy — bound from St. Croix and St. Thomas with 386 barrels of gunpowder — which was being chased by six British men-of-war. In order to save Nancy, her captain, Hugh Montgomery, ran her aground. Reprisal and Lexington – the latter under the command of Capt. John Barry – kept boats from HMS Kingfisher at bay and succeeded in landing some 200 barrels of the precious powder. In this engagement, Wickes' brother, Richard Wickes, was killed while serving as third lieutenant in Reprisal. This engagement became known as the Battle of Turtle Gut Inlet.[2]

Clearing the Delaware capes on July 3, Reprisal, under Wickes' sterling seamanship, captured a number of prizes in the West Indies and had a sharp engagement with HMS Shark, beating her off and escaping into port.

On October 24, 1776, Wickes was ordered to France with Benjamin Franklin and his two grandsons as passengers. On November 27, while approaching the coast of France, Captain Wickes received Ambassador Franklin's permission to engage two brigs, and captured them both: the brigantines George and La Vigne. On November 29, still some distance from Nantes, Wickes had to drop anchor because of unfavorable winds. Four days later Wickes hailed a fishing boat, which took Franklin and his grandsons ashore at the village of Auray.[3] Setting sail in January 1777, Wickes took Reprisal to sea on a cruise which took her to the Bay of Biscay and the mouth of the English Channel. On February 5, his ship captured the armed packet-boat Swallow, carrying mail between Britain and its ally Portugal,[4] after a hard action of 40 minutes duration. During the battle, Reprisal suffered two officers seriously wounded and one man killed.

During the remainder of this foray against British shipping, Wickes took five additional prizes and left them at Port Louis. Wickes moved Reprisal to Lorient, but was ordered to leave the port in 24 hours by the French government—the port authorities apparently stirred to action by bitter remonstrances from the British government. Wickes, however, claimed that Reprisal had sprung a leak and needed to be careened for hull repairs. Wickes proved to be skillful at gaining time; as, on several occasions, he thwarted the intentions of the French government to have him sail.

In April 1777, the Continental vessels Lexington and Dolphin joined Reprisal and constituted a squadron under Wickes' command. Setting sail from St. Auzeau on May 28, the ships cruised around Ireland in June, July, and August; during one phase of the voyage, the three ships captured 15 ships in five days. On September 14, Wickes left France in Reprisal, in company with Dolphin, bound for home. Around October 1, Reprisal foundered off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, with the loss of all hands except the cook.


Louis H. Bolander, the assistant librarian at the Naval Academy, wrote an article on Wickes in 1928, entitled "A Forgotten Hero of the American Revolution." Appearing in Americana, in April 1928, the article closed with a fitting epitaph for Capt. Lambert Wickes: "Thus closed a career distinguished for patriotism, gallantry and humanity, for not a single charge of cruelty or harshness was ever breathed against him by any one of his many prisoners. Franklin, who knew him well, said of him, 'He was a gallant officer, and a very worthy man.' "

Two ships in the United States Navy have been named in his honor.

The two iron balls on each side of a magnetic compass, used to balance out and counteract magnetic variations based on a ship's location, are traditionally called "Lamberts", in his honor.

Preface from "Lambert Wickes Sea Raider and Diplomat"

The dominant figure in an audacious but neglected phase of American Revolutionary history was Lambert Wickes, Esquire, of Kent County, Maryland, commander of the Continental ship Reprisal, eleventh in rank on Congress' seniority list, and the most unassuming naval captain of his time. You will discover no evidences of pettiness and mark the absence of either jealousy or faultfinding in his character. You will appreciate his fortitude and forbearance under great trials. You will admire his tenacity of purpose and his courage. But you will deplore his outstanding characteristic, his modesty, as having been responsible for posterity's failure to award his rightful position in American history to an officer whose achievements should be traditions in the navy, whose name should stand with John Paul Jones. It was Wickes who dared the English seas long months before Jones sailed the Ranger in European waters. It was Wickes who led the van, the first regularly commissioned naval officer to beard the British Lion in his den. A whole year before Jones received an official salute from a French squadron in Quiberon Bay, Wickes had raided shipping in the English Channel and taken a King's packet off Falmouth. Twelve months before Jones whipped the Drake off Carrickfergus Road, Wickes had sailed around Ireland, destroyed or captured eighteen vessels, struck terror in English mercantile circles, sent marine insurance rates soaring in the United Kingdom, and won his way back to a French port after a desperate flight from a powerful British ship-of-the-line. In this one startling achievement, Wickes came so near his objective, a definite break between England and France, that the French foreign minister believed war was inevitable. The deed of Lambert Wickes guided the hand of the Comte de Vergennes in writing to the French Ambassador at London, "The flame of war is to all appearance ready to burst forth, and will probably have broken out before my letter reaches you." That was six months before the famous treaty of Versailles between France and America. What Burgoyne's surrender at Saratoga made possible, in February 1778, Wickes's daring cruise around Ireland came within a hair's breadth of effecting in August 1777. John Paul Jones based his operations upon friendly French ports with the arsenals and drydocks of the King at his command. Lambert Wickes, too, operated out of these ports, but harassed by admiralty officers zealous in enforcing orders from a neutral ministry whose drastic mandates were accompanied by clumsy efforts to give clandestine aid. A company of French marines was loaned to Jones. The Frenchmen who shipped with Wickes were thrown into prison when detected. Jones brought in his prizes for public condemnation and French jails yawned for the prisoners he had taken. Wickes's prizes were entered by subterfuge and sold in secret at a loss and his prisoners were removed from his hands and liberated. Jones hove down in the royal dockyards with the King's workmen to clean his ship. Wickes hove down along the shore and duped admiralty officers into permission to make repairs. Not a word of this is in disparagement of the achievements of John Paul Jones. His record is imperishable. The contrast is solely to give the proper perspective to what Wickes did. Jones had the support of a nation at war. Wickes had the tacit consent of a neutral country whose right hand oppressed and whose left hand succored. But the right hand was stronger than the left. Judged by the seemingly insurmountable obstructions placed in his path at every turn, Wickes's success was phenomenal. Only his resourcefulness, pertinacity, and indomitable will made it possible.

Further reading[edit]

  • Lambert Wickes: Patriot or Pirate? , Norman H. Plummer, Cornell Maritime Press, 1991, 64 pages. ISBN 0-922249-03-2
  • Lambert Wickes, sea raider and diplomat; the story of a naval captain of the Revolution, William Bell Clark, Yale University Press, 1932.


  1. ^ "Wickliffe". Historical Marker Database.
  2. ^ "The Battle of Turtle Gut Inlet". Wildwood Crest Historical Society.
  3. ^ Schoenbrun, David (1976). Triumph in Paris: The Exploits of Benjamin Franklin. New York: Harper & Row. pp. 50–54. ISBN 0-06-013854-8.
  4. ^ Letter, Thomas Morris to American Commissioners, 18 Feb 1777- accessed 2007-12-06