Review: How a mini-navy was pivotal to Revolutionary success

·2 min read

“The Indispensables: The Diverse Soldier-Mariners who Shaped the County, Formed the Navy, and Rowed Washington Across the Delaware,” by Patrick K. O’Donnell (Atlantic Monthly Press)

Little has been written about the Marblehead mariners and their pivotal role in the American revolution – until now.

Author Patrick K. O’Donnell has turned five years of research into an engrossing tale of the Marbleheaders — a group of soldier-sailors from the port of Marblehead, Massachusetts who were forged by a tough life fishing from boats sometimes no match for the unruly north Atlantic ocean.

In his book — “The Indispensables: The Diverse Soldier-Mariners who Shaped the County, Formed the Navy, and Rowed Washington Across the Delaware” — America’s pre-navy emerges as a diverse force. They were men of many ethnicities drawn together by the lure of the sea, tested by extreme adversity and dependent on each other’s skills, stamina and heart. “Marblehead was progressive for the time, with a mix of people from different races and socioeconomic backgrounds,” writes O’Donnell.

Most Americans can perhaps claim a nodding familiarity with the story of Gen. George Washington crossing the Delaware River and surprising the British – and himself. As the author notes, Washington recently had written to his brother saying “I think the game is pretty near up.” Many of the troops were barefoot and starving.

On the night of Aug. 29, 1776, Washington’s army was trapped against the East River after losing the Battle of Brooklyn. But the Marbleheaders’ “motley collection of sailed and rowed vessels” ferried Washington’s army to safety. Among the Marbleheaders’ skills: They knew to put cloth over their oars so the British could not hear their paddles.

Then on Christmas night, 1776, the Marbleheaders tamed the swirling currents and ice in the Delaware River to carry 2,400 of Washington’s troops to the other side without the British knowing.

O’Donnell concludes that were it not for the Marbleheaders’ skill and daring, the American revolution might well have ended on the cold, snowy banks of the Delaware river. And he notes that would have been alright with the Loyalists in the American colonies, because we were “a divided country.”

So here we are in America’s third century, divided still and often having great difficulty working through racial differences.

What would the Marbleheaders say to us?

Jeff Rowe, The Associated Press

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