Silas Talbot (1751-1813) was born in Dighton, Massachusetts, into a poor farm family, the son of Benjamin Talbot and Rebecca Allen. His mother died when he was four. In his early teens, Silas worked on a coasting vessel and then learned the stonemason’s craft. In 1769 or 1770, he moved to Providence to ply his trade. Talbot prospered in his new home, and in 1772, he married Anna Richmond, who bore him five children before her death in 1781. Two of his children died in infancy.
Talbot became an officer in the Rhode Island militia at the beginning of the Revolution. He was present at the siege of Boston in 1775-76, and he participated in the military campaigns around New York and Philadelphia, in both of which he was wounded. In New York, his injuries stemmed from his attempt to aid Washington’s retreat from Long Island. Talbot commanded a fire ship that recklessly rammed the H.M.S. Asia in the Hudson River, a daring feat that left him severely burned. He recovered in time to participate in the defenses of Fort Mifflin near Philadelphia, only to be wounded again. After fighting in the Battle of Rhode Island, guarding the American’s right (west) flank, Talbot embarked upon a series of spectacular military and naval exploits.
Ironically, Talbot, an army man, was the only Rhode Island captain of a U.S. naval vessel who maintained an unsullied reputation during the Revolution (Esek Hopkins and Abraham Whipple, for example, drew strong congressional criticism). From 1778 onward, Talbot occasionally got command of a ship, and when he did, sparks flew. In October 1778, in attacking the British schooner Pigot, which was blocking the mouth of the Sakonnet River, Talbot plunged the jib boom of his sloop Hawk into the Pigot’s rigging, holding the British vessel tight while his men overran her.
In July 1779, while in command of the Argo in defense of the southern New England coast, Talbot captured a ten-gun British privateer and two other vessels of twelve and fourteen guns, recapturing the three American ships as well that the British vessels had in tow. This feat by an army lieutenant colonel prompted Congress in September 1779 to grant him the rank of captain in the Continental Navy. Still, he became a privateer when Congress could give him no ship to command.
In 1780, while commanding John Brown’s privateer George Washington, Talbot was captured by the Culloden, a much larger seventy-four-gun British ship of the line. Confined first aboard the notorious prison ship Jersey, Talbot was eventually sent to Mill Prison in England, from which he was released in 1781 through the efforts of Benjamin Franklin and John Jay after several futile attempts to escape.
In 1786, Talbot left Providence and moved to New York’s Mohawk Valley, where he bought the home and part of the lands that had been confiscated from the family of Sir William Johnson, the noted Indian agent. The widower Talbot then married Rebecca Morris, a member of a prominent Philadelphia family, with whom he had two more children before her death in 1803.
In 1792, Talbot was elected to the New York legislature, and in the following year, he was chosen as a U.S. congressman with Federalist backing. He resigned that office in 1794 in anticipation of his appointment as captain of a proposed U.S. naval frigate and supervised the construction of the U.S.S. President. In 1798, during the Quasi-War with France, Talbot finally got his naval command–the frigate Constitution (“Old Ironsides”), which he took on two cruises in the West Indies. There, he captured several French privateers while convoying American merchant ships.
Following this limited naval war, Captain Talbot resigned his commission, left the navy, and moved to New York City. In 1808, he entered into a stormy third marriage with Elizabeth Pintard, from whom he separated in the following year. Talbot died in New York City on June 30, 1813, and is buried in Trinity Churchyard. It is said that during his perilous career, Talbot was wounded or injured thirteen times and carried five bullets in his body.
Silas Talbot was inducted into The Rhode Island Heritage Hall of Fame in 1999.
For additional reading:
Rhode Island’s Founders: From Settlement to Statehood, by Dr. Patrick T. Conley.