All posts in Voyage of Mercy

America’s Remarkable First Humanitarian Mission: Widespread Aid to Ireland During the Great Famine

I originally wrote this summary of Voyage of Mercy for “The History Reader,” the history website hosted by St. Martin’s Press, publisher of Voyage. Enjoy!

By Stephen Puleo

I describe my book, Voyage of Mercy: The USS Jamestown, the Irish Famine, and the Remarkable Story of America’s First Humanitarian Mission as a story about hope, generosity, and soaring goodwill against a backdrop of nearly unfathomable despair. And like any story with such powerful themes, its lessons run deep and its ramifications are measured in decades rather than days.

Voyage of Mercy recounts for the first time the remarkable and unprecedented relief effort by the government and citizens of the United States to assist Ireland during the terrible famine year of 1847; remarkable because the mission undertaken by Captain Robert Bennet Forbes and the crew of the USS Jamestown to deliver tons of donated food to Ireland was the first step in a monumental effort that involved contributions from citizens of virtually every community in the United States, and the official imprimatur of the U.S. government; unprecedented not only for the size and scope of American participation, but [create a callout of this phrase: because it was the first time the United States—or any nation, for that matter—extended its hand to a foreign neighbor] in such a broad and all-encompassing way for purely humanitarian reasons.

Prior to 1847, the bulk of interaction between nation-states consisted mainly of warfare and other hostilities, mixed with occasional trade; the entire concept of international charity existed neither in the moral consciousness nor as part of the political strategy of monarchs or elected leaders. If anything, such a gesture toward a foreign nation would likely have been viewed as a sign of weakness.

The Jamestown mission was, in modern parlance, the “tip of the spear,” the most visible and most celebrated component of America’s first full-blown charitable mission. The U.S. relief effort encompassed far more than Jamestown, but it was the historic voyage of a retrofitted warship embarking on a mission of peace that most visibly symbolized the widespread willingness of the American people to offer up enormous stores of food and provisions to assist victims of the Irish famine. More than 5,000 ships left Ireland during the great potato famine in the late 1840s, transporting the starving and the destitute away from their stricken homeland. The first vessel to sail in the other direction, to help the millions unable to escape, was the USS Jamestown, a converted warship, which left Boston in March 1847 loaded with precious food for Ireland.

In an unprecedented move by Congress, the warship had been placed in civilian hands, stripped of its guns, and committed to the peaceful delivery of food, clothing, and supplies in a mission that would launch America’s first full-blown humanitarian relief effort.

The voyage itself and the subsequent outpouring of charitable relief captured hearts and minds on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition, the events of 1847 have served as the blueprint and inspiration for hundreds of American charitable relief efforts since, philanthropic endeavors that have established the United States as the leader in international aid in total dollars and enabled it to assist millions of people around the world victimized by famine, war, and catastrophic natural disasters.


Two compelling individuals occupy the center of this story.
Sea captain Robert Bennet Forbes of Boston was one of the most dynamic, determined, resilient, adventurous, well-traveled, generous, and interesting men of his age—or any age, for that matter—and until now, his story has never been fully told. I am grateful that he was also an excellent, frequent, and descriptive writer, able to relate both meaningful context and colorful details, understand the nuances of human nature as well as his own virtues and shortcomings, and express himself with passion, pathos, drama, and humor. In addition, he was the consummate collector and keeper of documents—a bit of a hoarder, actually—which has provided us with a rich trove of what others thought about him, his mission, and his world.

The Reverend Theobald Mathew, known best as Ireland’s “Temperance Priest,” was the heroic and indomitable figure on the Irish side of the Atlantic, fighting—though mostly in vain—to save the lives of his starving countrymen and convince British authorities of the speed of the famine’s onslaught, the extent of its horrors, and the desperate need for additional relief. In the decade before the famine, Father Mathew had achieved fame on both sides of the Atlantic for his efforts to convince hundreds of thousands of Irish to sign his temperance pledge; in fact, history records his crusade against drinking and alcoholism as his signature achievement. But his work in the trenches during the worst of the famine—offering food, shelter, medical care, and comfort to those suffering from near-starvation and debilitating disease—would forever endear him to the Irish people, especially those from his home parish in Cork city. Still revered in his native country today, Father Mathew, like Forbes, is little known in the United States, despite a lengthy and controversial visit to America shortly after the famine.

What truly inspired me about this story were the actions of what I’ll call thousands of other real-life characters, who together make up a single collective character of sorts: the American people. I had known something about the Jamestown voyage before researching this book, but I was completely unaware of the enormous scope of U.S. relief effort to Ireland in 1847–48, the widespread generosity of Americans from all walks of life during a time when the very act of survival and supporting one’s own family presented a grueling daily challenge and was far from guaranteed.

That Americans from across the United States contributed to Irish relief was extraordinary enough, but it was the nature of most of their donations that was most impressive. This was not a matter of entering credit card information or dropping off a bag of canned goods, though these are certainly generous acts in their own right. While many people sent small amounts of money, most donated food that otherwise would have been used to sustain their loved ones. Farmers furrowed the ground, laid the seed, nurtured the plants, and harvested the crops—beans, corn, barley, wheat and much more. Then they took a portion of those goods, packaged them in burlap sacks or wooden kegs, and delivered them by horse-drawn wagon to river ports, where rafts and small boats carried them to larger ships that navigated broader rivers and the Erie Canal. From there, the food made its way to major Atlantic ports like New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and Baltimore, where dockworkers loaded it upon ocean-sailing vessels bound for England and Ireland.

Farmers and planters in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Tennessee, Maryland, Virginia, western New York, and western Massachusetts, in the mid-Atlantic states, across the South and along the Mississippi—all of them literally took food out of the mouths of their own family members, or food they would normally sell at market to buy goods for their cabins and farms, and shipped it to strangers thousands of miles away.

It was as though Americans looked at their own children and felt the pain of Irish parents who were watching their own youngsters starve. Or perhaps Americans appreciated the poetic, if mournful, symmetry of sharing the abundant bounty produced by their fertile fields with people whose land was blackened by blight and whose major crop rotted with disease. Whatever the exact reason, such sacrifice and generosity were breathtaking to me, and I’ve thought about this often, especially when I walk into a supermarket and, almost without giving it a second thought, reach for virtually any food item I choose to buy. How much food would we give to strangers today if our survival, our families’ survival, depended on planting, growing, cultivating, and harvesting everything we needed?

And maybe because Americans knew they were part of something much larger than themselves in 1847, the widespread desire to provide relief to Ireland also unified the United States—for a short time at least—in a way it hadn’t been since the adoption of the Constitution sixty years earlier, and probably not again until the attack on Pearl Harbor nearly a century later drew the United States into World War II.

Charitable contributions of any kind at any time are worthy and noble; the American humanitarian mission to Ireland during the 1847 potato famine was something special altogether. The Jamestown voyage not only represented a spark of color across the bleak grayness of Ireland’s landscape, but was part of a larger national charitable tapestry that would signal a seismic shift in international relations. Beyond Ireland and outside of the United States, the American “warship of peace” had delivered—along with precious food and supplies—a message of fellowship to the rest of the world. Wars and hostilities continued between countries, and will continue always, but the Jamestown and the United States’ response demonstrated that it was acceptable, appropriate, and—as unlikely as it seemed before the voyage—perhaps even obligatory for countries to assist each other for purely humanitarian reasons.

Not only did the Jamestown mission and the widespread U.S. relief effort define the country’s generosity and establish its emergence on the world stage, not only did it cement bonds between Ireland and the United States that remain strong to this day, it also signaled a sea change in the affairs of nations, advancing the notion that gestures of philanthropy and brotherhood, rather than signs of a nation’s weakness, were displays of quiet strength and moral certitude.

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.



The Irish-American Story: From immigration to discrimination to assimilation to celebration

The first day of Irish Heritage Month seems like a good time to recognize the remarkable story of Irish-Americans – from the humblest of beginnings upon their arrival on America’s shores, to the vitriolic discrimination they faced and overcame, to their rapid assimilation in a new country, to a celebration of their lofty and innumerable contributions even as they maintain a deep pride in their heritage and ethnicity.

What an incredible story it is!

I’ve had the opportunity to research and write about the Irish experience in two of my books, A City So Grand (2010), which details their arrival in Boston in great numbers between 1847-1860; and in my most recent book, Voyage of Mercy (2020), which chronicles the brutality of the Irish famine of 1846-47 and the unprecedented and beneficent humanitarian response from American citizens to the suffering of the Irish people.

I’ve also been blessed to have married into a large Irish family, of which I’ve been a part for more than forty years. My wife, Kate, her twelve siblings, her legion of cousins, her dear late parents and their siblings, all trace their ancestry with pride back to the Old Sod. 

So I feel like I know as much about the Irish-American experience as any Italian-American guy can — their story is not so different from the saga of my own people.

To use Boston as an example, thousands of Irish, who had witnessed such devastation in their own country – who saw it transformed from a nation of bucolic splendor to a blight-infested isle of death – arrived in their adopted city to find not succor but prejudice, not welcome but suspicion and contempt. Boston’s close Yankee society, its deep anti-Catholicism, its often condescending intellectualism, its insistence that “Irish need not apply” – all of these were completely foreign to, and conspired against, the bedraggled Irish who stepped weakly off the coffin ships and sought refuge among her narrow streets. It rocked the Irish and left them disillusioned and dispirited.

But not broken – far from it.

Boston’s Irish had survived the destruction wrought by the famine, survived the deadly Atlantic passage, and they would survive – and soon thrive! – in Boston by virtue of their resilience, faith, family bonds, hard work, and perseverance that kept them going through the darkest of times. They overcame poverty and discrimination, took any work they could find – cleaning stables, unloading ships, digging trenches, laying foundations, working as domestic help – to earn money, save money, buy homes, and become citizens. They fought bravely for the Union in the Civil War, returned, built communities, voted, and ran for office.

By 1880, more than 70,000 Irish lived in the city. By 1882, Boston elected its first Irish-born representative to Congress; and the first Irish born mayor took office in 1885. By this time, Boston had undergone a stunning conversion in an amazingly short time – about 30 years; it was clearly becoming an Irish and a Catholic city. The Irish domination of the city – in politics, in public service, in the cultural influence of music, pubs, and literature – continued for well over a century. President John F. Kennedy, a descendant of post-famine immigrants, was only exaggerating a little when he made his highly celebrated 1961 visit to Ireland, the first ever by a sitting president. He said: “Nearly everyone in Boston is from Galway.”

It’s easy today to think the success of the Irish, or any group that begins its journey in abject poverty, was somehow preordained. But of course, nothing could be further from the truth. The Irish were among the first European immigrants to arrive in the United States on such a broad scale – and the odds were stacked against them in almost too many ways to count. Their rapid assimilation and their meteoric upward mobility, were far from foregone conclusions.

So this month, whether you’re Irish or not, celebrate the spirit of the Irish and the Irish-American story. Both were forged amid terrible hardship, strengthened by an irrepressible character to overcome them, and burnished by loyalty, resilience, perseverance, and love of family and friends.

Characteristics we should all tip our hat to – and all emulate.