- John A. Tilley
Manley, John ( August 1732?–12 February 1793), naval officer and privateer, was born apparently near Torquay, England, the son of Robert Manley. His mother’s name is unknown. By 1757 he was living in Boston and was a captain in the merchant marine. In 1763 he married Hannah Cheevers. As of 1768 Manley was master of a vessel called the Little Fortescue. He also seems to have served some time in the British navy.
In August 1775 George Washington, commanding the Continental forces besieging British-occupied Boston, began purchasing merchant schooners, mounting guns on them, and setting them loose in Massachusetts Bay with orders to capture any merchant ship that was headed for Boston. The command of the Lee, one of the first vessels in “George Washington’s Navy,” went to Manley.
The Lee sailed on its first cruise on 28 October 1775. The complex legal environment made it almost impossible to define what constituted an “enemy” ship. Manley quickly seized three merchantmen, but their owners convinced the local authorities that the vessels were “not proper prizes.”
On 29 November the Lee captured the brig Nancy, the first legitimate prize taken by a Continental warship. The Nancy’s cargo included two thousand muskets, thirty-one tons of musket balls, and a brass mortar. Over the next few weeks Manley took five more ships and became the first American naval hero of the Revolution. On 1 January 1776 Washington put him in command of a slightly larger schooner, the Hancock, and appointed him commodore of the fleet.
Later that month Manley captured two merchantmen, fended off an attempt by a British tender to rescue them, and escorted them to Plymouth. Early in February the British naval brig Hope chased the Hancock for four hours, after which Manley deliberately beached his ship near Scituate. A British prize crew boarded the Hancock and tried to destroy it but was driven off by Manley, his crew, and a local militia unit.
At the end of February, Manley put together a squadron of four schooners, the Hancock, Franklin, Lee, and Lynch. On 10 March they captured a merchantman called the Stakesby, but that night both the Stakesby and the Hancock ran aground. The Hancock survived the episode but the prize was wrecked.
By the time Manley’s ship had been repaired the British had begun to evacuate Boston. On 2 April the Hancock, Lee, and Lynch took the brig Elizabeth, which was headed for Canada laden with Loyalists and British soldiers, as well as merchandise they had looted from the Boston warehouses.
For some time Manley had been complaining that he and his men had been denied their fair share of the prizes they had taken. He also wanted a larger command, and in mid-April he announced that, unless he obtained one, he would not make another cruise. Manley undoubtedly knew that a more prestigious position was waiting for him. In April 1776 the Continental Congress announced the appointment of twenty-four captains in the new Continental navy. Manley’s name was second on the list, and he was given command of a 32-gun frigate under construction at Newburyport, Massachusetts.
The new ship, like Manley’s previous command, was to be named the Hancock. The task of equipping it for sea was complicated by the presence of another frigate, the Boston, which was fitting out at Newburyport at the same time. For almost a year Manley and the Boston’s captain, Hector McNeill, competed for the few seamen, guns, and other supplies available.
The Hancock and the Boston sailed from Boston on 21 May 1777, with orders to destroy British warships off New England and Canada. On 8 June the Americans captured HM frigate Fox and added it to their fleet. During the next month, as the enlarged squadron cruised around the Grand Banks, the relationship between McNeill and Manley, already strained, deteriorated further.
On 7 July the Hancock, Boston, and Fox encountered two British warships, the 44-gun Rainbow and the frigate Flora. The Americans held the advantage in both numbers and firepower, but by this time neither Continental captain was willing to support the other. The Flora recaptured the Fox; the Rainbow, after a running fight of thirty-nine hours, caught up with the Hancock on the morning of 9 July and forced Manley to surrender. The Boston escaped.
Manley remained a prisoner in British-occupied New York until he was exchanged in March 1778. That summer he was court-martialed for the loss of the Hancock; though he was acquitted, Congress had no command for him. He thereupon embarked on a career as a privateer, making a successful cruise in a vessel called the Marlborough. In January 1779 Manley sailed for the West Indies in the privateer Cumberland but encountered a British frigate and had to surrender. Four months later he escaped from a Barbados prison and made his way to Boston, where he took command of the privateer Jason. On his second cruise he was captured for a third time and sent to Mill Prison in England, where he spent two years before he was exchanged again. Congress then appointed him to the frigate Hague, which he commanded until the end of the war.
After the Revolution Manley apparently lived a peaceful life in Boston. His first wife died in 1786; five years later he married Friswith Arnold. Since Manley’s death, which occurred in Boston, three ships of the U.S. Navy have been named after him.
James Warren, then a member of the Marine Committee of the Continental Congress, described Manley as “a Blunt, Honest, and I believe Brave Officer… . He is extreemly popular with Officers, and Seamen, and can Man a Ship with dispatch.” His rivals, including McNeill and John Paul Jones, claimed he owed his rise in the navy to politics; Jones asserted that “he is Altogether Unfit to Command a Frigate of thirty two Guns.” Manley’s record is one of extraordinary energy and an audacity bordering on recklessness. The American Continental navy equated those qualities with heroism, but in that service Manley was unable to demonstrate his potential as a naval officer.
Most of the extant papers relevant to Manley’s career appear in William Bell Clark and William James Morgan, eds., Naval Documents of the American Revolution (9 vols., 1964–). Isaac Greenwood’s full-length biography, Captain John Manley (1915), is dated. The best modern account of Manley’s career in the Continental navy is contained in Philip Chadwick Foster Smith’s narrative of the battle in which the frigate Hancock was lost, Fired by Manley Zeal: A Naval Fiasco of the American Revolution (1977). William Bell Clark, George Washington’s Navy: Being an Account of His Excellency’s Fleet in New England Waters (1960), details Manley’s activities under Washington’s command. See also William M. Fowler, Jr., Rebels under Sail: The American Navy during the Revolution (1976), William James Morgan, Captains to the Northward: The New England Captains in the Continental Navy (1959), and Gardner W. Allen, A Naval History of the American Revolution (2 vols., 1913).