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  home > articles > a real mix-up: who tried to blow up hms plantagenet?
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A Real Mix-up: Who Tried to Blow up HMS Plantagenet?
Christopher T. George

In Spring 1813, the US Congress passed the Torpedo Act, offering rewards to any private citizen who succeeded in blowing up a British vessel. During the British blockade of New London, Connecticut, on June 25, 1813, a schooner loaded with explosives blew up next to the 74-gun ship of the line HMS Ramillies killing one British naval officer and ten Royal Navy seamen. While not exactly a torpedo attack, the incident sent a clear message that open warfare was declared on enemy war vessels while in United States waters. Adm. Sir John Borlase Warren, chief of the North American naval station. blustered, “the Enemy are disposed to make use of every unfair and Cowardly mode of warfare.” Another British naval officer labeled the use of torpedoes a “most dastardly method of carrying on the war.”

"The Yankey Torpedo": contemporary cartoon lampooning British fears of American torpedoes
Use of Fulton’s torpedo in the Chesapeake Bay was sanctioned by Secretary of the Navy William Jones who told Capt. Charles Gordon of the Baltimore U.S. Navy station to give every aid to a Mr. Elijah Mix. In a secret memo of May 7, Jones instructed Gordon to “furnish [Mix] with 500 lbs of powder, a Boat, or Boats, and Six men.” Mix made several attempts to blow up the ship of the line HMS Plantagenet on blockade duty off the Virginia capes. On July 24, Mix almost succeeded in his plans but the torpedo exploded prematurely, deluging the decks of the British vessel with seawater.

After the war, the British alleged, in William James’s Naval History, that the mariner so sanctioned to use torpedoes was “Mervine P. Mix, one of the Constellation’s midshipmen.” Although Constellation at this date was blockaded in the Elizabeth River, and there is some evidence that Capt. Charles Stewart, commander of the U.S. frigate, provided support for Mr. Mix, the “torpedoist” was definitely not Mervine P. Mix. The U.S. Navy’s General Register shows that Mervine P. Mix was appointed a sailing master on September 22, 1812, a lieutenant on December 9, 1814, and a commander on March 3, 1831. He died on February 8, 1839. The list also shows that Elijah Mix was named sailing master on June 12, 1813. This is the first and only time that he appears on the list, and he was furloughed at his own request of April 27, 1815 after the end of the war. It seems possible that Elijah Mix was appointed a sailing master in the U.S. Navy to protect him in case he was captured by the British. Fulton’s biographer Hutcheon describes Elijah Mix as a “Chesapeake mariner.” Fulton did not supply the torpedoes to Mix. Instead, they were supplied by Benjamin Henry Latrobe, friend of Fulton and architect of the U.S. Capitol, who found the torpedoes in Washington, D.C.. They had been sent there from France years before along with the submarine Nautilus by Fulton’s friend and patron, Joel Barlow. A further “Mix-up” is evident where Latrobe’s biographer, Talbot Hamlin, states that “Elijah Mix. . . in the Spring and Winter of 1812-13 served on Lake Ontario as commander of the Growler.” In fact, Navy records show clearly that it was Mervine P. Mix who commanded the Growler!

It appears from Elijah Mix’s April 27, 1815 letter to Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Crowninshield requesting his furlough from the Navy that Mix had been kicking his heels waiting for new employment after his efforts to sink Plantagenet, because Crowninshield’s predecessor, Secretary William Jones, suspended the torpedo program:
Permit me. . . to remark that I have [a]waited orders at this port [New York City] since October 1814 when I was released from the torpedo service—from the compliment that I had the Honor to receive from the President, after my expedition against the Plantagenet, I had no doubt but I should resume my Command again, in the Chesapeake; but unfortunate for me and my country Mr. Jones was Opposed to torpedoes. I have spent independent of my pay upwards of two thousand Dollars and one year’s hard service to acquire a perfect knowledge of the use and surtainty [?] using those formidable Engines with Effect, but to my mortification all aid has been withdrawn. . . .

While it possible that Secretary of the Navy Jones caved into British pressure against the use of such a “dastardly” method of warfare, Hamlin mentions a letter from Jones in which the Secretary gave Elijah Mix a sharp reprimand for not continuing with his efforts to sink the Plantagenet. Thus, the suspension of the program may have had more to do with Jones’s distrust of Elijah Mix’s diligence than any submission to British pressure. Incidentally, a June 15, 1816 letter from Latrobe to Jacob Mark in New York shows that after the war, Elijah Mix apparently kept an auction store in New York City. It seems that neither the Navy nor the torpedoist had paid the architect for expenses he had put out for the torpedo program, and Latrobe was trying to collect “some hundred dollars” from the former mariner.

I thank Christine Hughes of the Naval Historical Center for her help with this research.


Bibliography

Christopher T. George, Terror on the Chesapeake: The War of 1812 on the Bay. Shippensburg, Pa.: White Mane Publishing Co., 2000, p. 39.

Talbot Hamlin, Benjamin Henry Latrobe. New York: Oxford University Press, 1955, pp. 389-93.

Wallace Hutcheon, Robert Fulton: Pioneer of Undersea Warfare. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1981, pp. 120-22.

John C. Van Horne, ed., The Correspondence and Miscellaneous Papers of Benjamin Henry Latrobe. New Haven, Ct.: Yale University Press, 1955.

William James, The Naval History of Great Britain. London: Macmillan, 1902, Vol. 6, p. 193.

Elijah Mix to Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Crowninshield, April 27, 1815, National Archives DNA, RG45. Letters from Officers below the Rank of Commander (BC), 1815, Vol. 1, No. 228, Roll 14.

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Related pages:
  Fulton, Robert
       Dissertations: Robert Fulton and the Secret War of 1812 
  George, Christopher T.
       Dissertations: 'Chastising Jonathan': British Views of the War of 1812 in the Chesapeake 
  Royal Navy
       Dissertations: 'The Hour of Peril ... is not yet past': Fall 1814 Baltimore Defense Plans 
       Documents: Jefferson's Message to Congress on Suspension of the Trade Embargo, Western Indians, et 
       Press: The Morning Post - May 15, 1815 

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Copyright © Christopher T. George, 2012