Historic Pelham

Presenting the rich history of Pelham, NY in Westchester County: current historical research, descriptions of how to research Pelham history online and genealogy discussions of Pelham families.

Friday, August 18, 2006

The Ghost Gunship of Pelham: A Revolutionary War Ghost Story

In 1897, G. P. Putnam's Sons The Knickerbocker Press published a book by Charles Pryer entitled Reminiscences of an Old Westchester Homestead. The book contains a number of supposed "ghost stories" based upon alleged reminiscences of old timers about the early days of Pelham in the late 18th century and early 19th century. One chapter, entitled "The Wood Famine", recounts an old-timer's recollections of the appearance of the British in and around Pelham during the Revolutionary War and the capture of a British sloop later, supposedly, lost at sea. According to the story, the ship reappears occasionally, yet seems to vanish from sight before the eyes of disbelieving witnesses.

Today's Historic Pelham Blog transcribes the text of that chapter. The text appears immediately below.


IT was March -- cold, cheerless, windy March. The roads were in that terrible condition between mud and frost that makes driving at this time of the year in the fair county of Westchester unpleasant, not to say almost impracticable. The sun of spring had scarcely yet caressed the southern slopes into a shade of green, while many a snowdrift still bade defiance to its power on the northern side of fences and hills.

The day itself was no exception to the characteristic weather of the month; the thermometer was just above the freezing-point and the sun was obscured by heavy, dark masses of cloud, while gusts of wind sighed [p. 65 / p. 66] in the trees and around the chimneys, making it anything but tempting to leave the cosy fireside and face the raw atmosphere outside. Still, I had been in the house so long, that I began to suffer from ennui, and resolved to take a ride, bad as the roads were, as far as Pelham, to visit an old gentleman, long a friend of the family, and hear him talk of his boyhood's days.

After a long, slow jouncing, mud-splashing ride, I arrived at the house of my old friend, and while I am sitting with my feet upon the andirons before the crackling hickory fire of the library in his comfortable old-fashioned mansion, sipping a glass or two of his choice wine, allow me to describe my host.

He is a grand-looking man of fully eighty-seven years, with fine features, and though he has now lost the straightness and suppleness of early manhood, and his eyesight is rapidly failing, in other respects his age sits [p. 66 / p. 67] lightly upon him.* [Footnote Transcribed Below at End of This Page.] But what is more remarkable is that his intellect is as clear and keen as though he were still in the prime of life, and he retains a quickness of perception that many a young man might envy.

As the cheery fire begins to have a soothing effect upon us and the discomforts of my boisterous ride commence to wear away, our conversation turns from the events of the day, back to that land of mist and fable called the past. There is nothing around us to jar upon our dream-land; the glowing hickory logs, the bright-polished fire-dogs, the low ceilings of the old homestead, and the old gentleman himself, as he sat there in his great easy chair, all seemed to belong to the epoch of which we were talking.

I remember admiring some fine trees that I could see through a window, upon an island in the bay, a short distance off.

'Yes,' said the old gentleman,

* Died about 1890. [This is the Footnote.] [p. 67 / p. 68]

'those trees have not been disturbed since the wood-famine of 1777.'

Upon my asking the particulars of that event, he continued: 'I well remember hearing my father speak about it some eighty years ago. The winter of 1777 was an intensely cold one, and the British troops posted in the city, as well as the town-people, suffered much for want of fuel, as the country was in such a disordered state that the farmers of the surrounding districts did not bring in the usual supply. Towards the close of the season the fuel became so scarce that something had to be done, as the entire population were brought to such a strait that much suffering and inconvenience was occasioned, and the price of even the poorest wood was something appalling.

'Under these circumstances, the commander of the post thought it advisable, as soon as the Sound opened, to send a small war-vessel a short way to the eastward to procure a load of [p. 68 / p. 69] cordwood for the use of the garrison. The point selected for cutting the wood was this same island at which we are now looking. Accordingly, the little sloop-of-war left port upon her not very nautical or romantic mission; and, doubtless, much to the disgust of her officers and crew, took a couple of large scows in tow, and proceeded slowly up the Sound. On through Hell Gate and past many a quiet farmhouse she sped, now sending her men aloft to set her royals, and now training her guns upon some imaginary enemy on shore. The sun set, and the stars twinkled in the frosty sky, but the wind was light and the progress slow. Several watches were set and relieved ere she rounded Throggs Neck, and the sun of a chill March morning was just rising when she anchored as near the island as her draught of water would allow.

'The expedition of the wood foragers had, however, not been kept as quiet as prudence and military caution [p. 69 / p. 70] ought to have suggested, for, in some unknown manner, the news had been spread abroad throughout the county of Westchester that a British man-of-war with a crew of wood-choppers was about to ascend the Sound, to give the city a supply of fuel. The movements of the ship had been eagerly watched from the shores as she passed along, and word carried to several irregular bodies of colonial troops and other persons favorable to the cause of the revolted provinces. So that a large body of armed men were secreted in the bushes of the main-land near the island when the English sloop-of-war anchored and prepared to land her party.

'Very foolishly, the captain sent nearly all his men ashore to chop and carry the wood, reserving only barely enough to attend to mooring the vessel, little thinking an enemy was in the vicinity. The colonists watched all these proceedings carefully, and saw that their chance had come. [p. 70 / p. 71]

Rusing to their boats they crossed the narrow channel, and boarded the ship before the wood party had time to observer their movements, or to give the slightest aid to their few companions left in charge. The resistance was necessarily feeble, and the ship's company was soon overpowered and compelled to yield the vessel to their captors, who no sooner got possession than they began to train their guns upon the wood-choppers, now deeply interested but helpless spectators of their proceedings.

'Although for the present masters of the situation, it was far too dangerous for the visitors to let the ship remain where she was. It was determined that the best plan would be to run her into some eastern port, and there fit her out as a colonial cruiser: so a sufficient crew was selected from among the most daring and best sailors in the neighborhood, and, under the command of a ci-devant master of a coasting-vessels, the man-of-war again [p. 71 / p. 72] crossed her yards, shook out her canvas, and pointed her prow seaward. Out into the gray mists of the Sound she sped, every stitch of canvas drawing. Slowly, slowly she sank from the view of the watchers on shore behind the eastern horizon, and never by mortal eye was ship or crew seen again.

'Day after day, day after day, and still no tidings of the captured ship, until the heart was weary, and the eye was dim with watching. At last the skipper of a coaster gave the somewhat startling report: 'While lying-to off New London, in a fearful gale, he saw a small war-ship approach, apparently of English build, with every stitch of canvas set, even to her royal studding-sails. She heeded neither bar, shoal, nor rock, but kept steadily on her course, until nearly abreast of him, when sail after sail and mast after mast began to vanish, until nothing but the hull of the vessel with her open ports, through which the guns were projecting, was visible. Slowly and silently [p. 72 / p. 73] the outlines of the ship became less and less clearly defined, until nothing of the majestic vessel was left.'

'What this vision of another world portended nobody ever knew, but even to our own time many old salts are willing to swear that often, before the most terrific storms, when their vessels were compelled to lay-to under reefed topsails, they have distinctly seen an old-fashioned war-ship, under a cloud of canvas, approach near to them, and then gradually vanish into air. Some go so far as to say they could see the crew on her deck, and plainly recognized the knee-breeches and cocked hats of the last century. But, be this as it may, the vessel or crew, so far as I am able to learn, never reached port in this world, and was probably lost in one of the severe spring gales, so prevalent in this latitude at that season.'

And now the old gentleman ceased speaking, took a sip of wine, and indicated that his story had concluded, [p. 73 / p. 74] though he soon informed me that this was far from being the only tale he could relate of the olden time, and the exciting doings of the people now silent, and, except by him and a few tradition-hunters, forgotten."

Source: Pryer, Charles, Reminiscences of an Old Westchester Homestead, pp. 67-74 (New York and London: G. P. Putnam's Sons The Knickerbocker Press 1897).

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