Archive for March, 2022

The Jamestown departs Boston for Ireland

March 28, 1847 – The Jamestown departs Boston for Ireland

(modified excerpt from Voyage of Mercy)

On March 28, a Sunday, from the top floor of his house in Boston’s Pemberton Square, Robert Bennet Forbes gazed upon a morning that had broken bright and clear. A cold steady wind from the northwest had blown a stubborn three-day storm out to sea; the late March day was ideal for the Jamestown to embark.

Since St. Patrick’s Day, when workers began loading provisions onto the ship, Forbes had engaged in a flurry of last-minute preparations – penning letters to England, assembling a crew, seeking assistance from groups to help assist and provision his men.

And of course, he marveled at the food!  Contributions had arrived from all over New England, most of them from within Boston city limits, but many from elsewhere—towns, societies, individuals—transported free of charge on several railroads that also joined the wave of generosity that the mission engendered. Local Irish immigrants even hand-carried sacks of potatoes and flour to the dock for workers to load.

From gardens and farms in and around Boston, from the hills and hollows of northern Vermont, from the Rhode Island coast and the wheat fields of Connecticut, from the mountains of New Hampshire and Western Massachusetts, generous deliveries arrived in Charlestown with remarkable speed for loading aboard the Jamestown: meal, corn, bread, beans, beef, pork, peas, hams, oatmeal, dried apples, flour, potatoes, rice, rye, wheat, fish, clothing, and other supplies. Committees around New England wrote letters of support to Forbes even as they announced their contributions. “Our committee is free to forward about twenty-five hundred bushels of corn and other grain,” reported the Portland, Maine, relief committee, and was pleased to do so “with sentiments of high respect for the truly philanthropic and generous course taken by yourself on this mission.”

Forbes was astounded at the level of generosity. “Every sort of facility, wharfage, dockage, labor, pilotage, storage, chronometers, stores, and last, not least, sympathy and approbation have been offered most abundantly,” he wrote. Further, any expenses incurred “will be of no consequence compared to the good feeling which will fill the hearts of our brothers in other lands.”

He had no doubt that in years to come, he would look back on the mission as “the most prominent event of my life.”

At 7:30 a.m., Forbes hugged his wife, Rose, and said good-bye to their three “chicks”—ten-year-old Bob, four-year-old Edith, and two-year-old James Murray.

An hour later, standing at the helm of the Jamestown, cap pulled low, his face already reddened by the bright morning sun and raw northwest wind, Robert Bennet Forbes surveyed the vessel that would transport him, his crew, and 8,000 barrels of food to Ireland.

At exactly 8:30 a.m., the ship pulled away from the pier. Forbes dutifully recorded her dramatic departure: “All things being ready, sails set, the fasts single, the breeze fresh, the ship struggling to be free . . . I cried ‘let go!’ and off she went.”

Amid the hearty cheers of hundreds of people lining the wharves, Forbes guided the Jamestown out of Navy Yard waters, her stores laden with cargo and her three topsails unfurled. From her mizzen peak flew the Stars and Stripes, and from her magnificent royal mast snapped a white flag emblazoned with a wreath of shamrocks encircling a thistle. The revenue cutter Hamilton lowered its flag in salute as the Jamestown passed, and as the ship cleared Long Wharf, the towboat R. B. Forbes joined the ship, carrying cheering members of the New England relief committee.

Now the Jamestown sped down the harbor “like a racehorse,” clearing wharves and moored ships and small boats at nine knots, the tug hugging her starboard side astern. About an hour later, the R. B. Forbes fell away from the Jamestown amid roars of approval from committee members on board. After measuring wind and swells, and conducting one final inspection of the ship, Forbes finally signaled to his crew that the Jamestown would take its leave from Highland Lighthouse on Cape Cod.

Without escort and under way, Forbes “launched our gallant bark on the broad Atlantic” toward Cork, Ireland, a “voyage full of hope and pleasure, and blessed with the appropriation of many kind hearts at home.”

Loading the USS Jamestown with food for Ireland

March 17, 1847 – Loading the USS Jamestown with food for Ireland

(modified excerpt from Voyage of Mercy)

As dusk crept across the piers and a chill wind blew from the harbor, Robert Bennet Forbes marveled at the first-day progress of the longshoremen who had spent hours bowing their backs and loading food and provisions aboard the Jamestown.

It was a “happy coincidence,” Forbes noted, that the men—members of the Boston Laborers’ Aid Society—were almost entirely of Irish descent and that their work commenced on St. Patrick’s Day. In a letter of thanks to the society for offering its workers’ services free of charge, Forbes had wished “that all good saints may bless the enterprise and quicken your exertions,” and on this day the saints had obliged.

The crews had stowed more than 1,000 barrels of food, one-eighth of Jamestown’s full load, as well as more than twenty barrels of clothing. Working for no wages, the men nonetheless were toiling without delay, knowing full well that speed and efficiency in Charlestown could save lives in their beloved Ireland.

 While Forbes admired the first-day progress, he was not surprised by it. This whole endeavor had occurred with whirlwind speed: securing congressional and White House approval for an unprecedented mission; his agreeing to lead it; notifying Irish and British government officials and receiving their endorsement; finding and retrofitting a ship and enlisting a crew; obtaining contributions and now loading cargo aboard a warship about to embark on a mission of peace.

For the past eight weeks, since the first ships of 1847 had arrived in the United States from Great Britain and passengers and crews revealed the full horror of the hunger besetting Ireland, Boston and America could not have moved with greater swiftness and urgency if their own country had been imperiled.

Forbes, whose life credo was defined by doing his duty, often in the toughest of circumstances, summed up the gravity of the emergency that had prompted such a rapid response: “It is not an everyday matter,” he wrote, “to see a nation starving.”


Surveying activity around the Navy Yard, Forbes again was reminded of the improbability of assuming command of an American warship for humanitarian purposes while his country was at war. Every place he looked reminded him that the navy was on a war footing; sailors, stevedores, dockworkers, and tradesmen were busy improving and enlarging the Navy Yard or ensuring the seaworthiness of the warships moored there. Workers had completed a new wharf and pier on the west side of the yard, and crews were readying the grounds for construction of another wharf, a brick barn, a plumbers’ shop, and a carpentry shop, and were planning to reconstruct a third wharf in need of repairs—all authorized by a recent Naval Appropriations Act and overseen by Commodore Foxhall A. Parker, who had become the Navy Yard’s commandant just two years earlier.

The warship USS Vermont, still in dry dock, finally was nearing completion thirty years after it had been laid down, and the USS Constitution—“Old Ironsides”—was undergoing minor repairs after a long stint at sea; Forbes had actually inspected the Constitution for the mission to Ireland but found she could not be “made ready to sail” within the quick time frame he envisioned.

The Charlestown yard, more than forty years old, was now a jewel in the navy’s crown—President James K. Polk was scheduled to visit in June to inspect the progress and improvements—and its strategic importance as a wartime base had grown after Congress declared war on Mexico on April 23, 1846.

And yet it was the Jamestown—carrying “corn not cannon,” in the words of one Irish newspaper after twenty of her twenty-two deck guns were removed to make room for food—that was the talk of the Navy Yard, New England, and much of the United States. The enthusiasm among Americans for her peaceful mission was the capstone of nearly two months of national support for Ireland that was nothing short of extraordinary; it seemed people were anxious to rally around a cause that transcended both politics and U.S. borders. Many Americans were frustrated by the polarizing Mexican War and the ongoing acerbic North-South debates about slavery, and perhaps found in Ireland’s woes both a cause for unity and a release of tensions. Some said assistance to Ireland would improve long-strained Anglo-American relations, easing acrimony left over from both the American Revolution and the War of 1812.

Others—and Forbes was among these—expressed the belief that God had bestowed great abundance and blessings upon the United States that should be shared with the less fortunate.