When I was 11 my family moved from New York to New London, Conn. What really impressed me about my new home were all the fascinating pieces of history I saw. Like what? Like a little red schoolhouse I passed every day on my way to school — the one where Nathan Hale had taught until he joined the Revolutionary Army.
It wasn’t long after I arrived that I took over a newspaper route from a newly made friend. It was a very handy route because it ran from the New London Day office to our two-story 19th century house standing at 220 Huntington St.
As I delivered papers six days a week I passed another piece of living history, a Revolutionary War era house on the corner of Main and Hill streets where a man named Moses Rogers was born in 1779. I’m willing to bet that very few people reading this know who Moses Rogers is, or why each year on May 22 many Americans celebrate National Maritime Day in celebration of the date in 1819 when Rogers began a sea voyage with a ship named Savannah.
It all began in 1807 when Rogers, the captain of a cargo ship, watched in wonder as he viewed the very first run of Robert Fulton’s steamboat, the Clermont, on a trip from New York to Albany. Just two years later in 1809, Rogers commanded the newly constructed steam-powered ship Phoenix as it made the first ever steam voyage through ocean waters on a run from New York to Philadelphia.
By 1817 Rogers was captain of the steamship Charleston which made a regular 100-mile run between Charleston, S.C. and Savannah, Ga., traversing both fresh and sea water. A year later the Savannah Steamship Company, in which Rogers was an investor, received the newly built Savannah, a 98-foot-long vessel designed to operate under sail or with steam-driven side paddle wheels. Under Rogers’ command on May 22, 1819, it sallied forth from Savannah, Ga., headed for England with 75 tons of coal and 25 cords of wood to fuel its engine.
Eleven days later, steaming along in mid-ocean, the Savannah passed the sailing ship Pluto, and the Pluto’s crew gave three cheers, saying that the Savannah was “the happiest effort of mechanical genius that ever sailed the western sea.”
But when the Savannah docked in Liverpool after 29 days at sea, an officer off a British sloop-of-war hailed Stevens Rogers, the sailing master, and they had one of the most hilarious dialogs I’ve ever read. Keep in mind as you read it that this conversation took place just four years after the end of the War of 1812.
From the 1819 New London Gazette:
British officer: “Where is your master?”
Rogers: “I have no master, sir.”
“Where’s your captain then?”
“He’s below; do you wish to see him?”
“I do, sir.”
Capt. Rogers, minutes later, “What is it you want, sir?”
“Why do you wear that pennant, sir?”
“Because my country allows me to, sir.”
“My commander thinks it was done to insult him, and if you don’t take it down he will send a force to do it.”
Capt. Rogers (speaking to the engineer), “Get the hot-water engine ready.”
Although there was no such machine on board the vessel, it had the desired effect. The British sloop left the scene as fast as possible.
More next week ...