Few privateersmen of the Revolution had a more distinguished career than Silas Talbot. Born of poor parents in Dighton, Massachusetts, young Talbot, at the age of twelve, engaged in a small coasting vessel as a cabin boy, and rapidly rose in his profession, until, in 1772, when twenty- one years old, he had accumulated enough money to build for himself a house in Providence, Rhode Island.
On June 28, 1775, he was commissioned a captain in a Rhode Island regiment commanded by Colonel Hitchcock, and took part in the operations before Boston which led to the evacuation of that place by the British, March 17, 1776. While on his way to New York with the American army, Talbot stopped at New London, at which port Captain Esek Hopkins had just arrived after his successful expedition to the Bahamas. Hopkins applied to Washington for two hundred volunteers to assist his squadron in reaching Providence, and Talbot was one of the first to offer himself. He proceeded in the squadron to the desired haven, and then, with his men, rejoined the army before New York.
At that time several fire ships were in course of construction, which it was hoped would destroy some of the vessels of the British fleet then at anchor near New York. When these vessels were nearly ready, Captain Talbot and Ensign Thomas, of the same regiment – the latter also having been a seaman applied for and were placed in command of two of these fire craft. When Washington retreated to Harlem Heights, the British fleet moved up Hudson River, the American fire ships keeping just ahead of them and anchoring above Fort Washington. Here they remained three days, when Talbot received a letter from Major Anderson directing him to take the first opportunity to destroy the British vessels with his fire ships. About this time three of the enemy’s vessels anchored seven miles above the city, with the view of turning the right wing of the American army.
The following night proving fair, Captain Talbot, about two o’clock in the morning, weighed anchor, and, standing toward one of the ships, spread fresh priming on all the trains leading to the fire barrels and sprinkled quantities of turpentine over the combustible material that had been placed aboard. It was intended to set fire to the mass from the cabin, but in order that the flames might spread more readily Talbot prevailed upon one of his men, named Priestly – an expert swimmer – to lie down on the forecastle with a lighted match so as to fire the trains the instant they fouled the enemy’s ship. Selecting the largest of the three ships, the 64 gunship of the line Asia, Talbot availed himself of the darkest hour, just before daylight, and moved on directly upon her. The British were found to be the alert, and when the approaching fire ship was still some distance off a boy a board the Asia discovered her and gave the alarm. The enemy promptly opened a rapid fire, and, although several shots passed through the fire ship, no serious damage was done. In a few minutes the vessels fouled, matches were applied to the fore and aft trains at the same instant, and so rapid was the progress of the flames that they burst forth from all sides, while Talbot himself was compelled to grope around in the fire and received severe burns before he found the sally port through which he and his men were to escape.
The brave Priestly, who had undertaken the perilous task of giving direct fire to the trains, was compelled to jump overboard, but was rescued by the boat.
The greatest confusion prevailed aboard the Asia. Guns were fired while boats from the other British war craft put off to her assistance and to intercept the the daring adventurers. The brilliant flames from the fire ship soon illuminated the river for miles, rendering the little boat containing the Americans. a fair target. All the English ships opened on her with round and grape shot, but owing to the excitement of the moment only two small shot passed through the frail craft. After great efforts the British succeeded in extinguishing the flames, but the enterprise had made such an impression. upon their commanders that they immediately slipped their cables, and, falling down the river, anchored below New York. Captain Talbot and his men reached the Jersey shore in safety, but he was so burned and blistered by the fire as to be blinded, and his men led him through the woods to English Neighborhood.
“Accommodations were solicited for him there at several houses, but to no purpose, the people alleging generally that his appearance was so horrible he would frighten their children., At last a poor widow who lived in a small log hut that had but one room in it took him in, where he was laid on the floor and covered with a blanket, and his poor hostess procured for him every consolation in her power. But in the course of the day General Knox and Dr. Eustis, passing that way and hearing of his distressing situation – for he was at that time deprived of his sight – they called in to see him, and the doctor gave directions for his more proper treatment. When the captain was a little recovered he left this poor but hospitable abode and went to Hackensack, where he remained till he was able to join his regiment”.
For this gallant affair Congress promoted Talbot to the rank of major.