Andrew Sherburne

By Eli Cronin

These excerpts are from the memoirs of Andrew Sherburne, a Patriot privateer and sailor who fought in the American Revolution. Born in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 1765, Sherburne entered the naval service when he was only thirteen years old. Over the course of his service, British forces captured him three times, and he endured shipwrecks, sieges, and brutally harsh prisons, all while still a boy. After the war, he took a variety of jobs, working as a surveyor, a teacher, and a Baptist preacher at various points in his life. Sherburne wrote his memoirs in 1828 at the age of sixty-three: friends of his helped to sponsor the printing process, and Sherburne then travelled around the country selling his books in order to make money to provide for his family.

There is very little information to be found on Sherburne’s life outside of his memoirs. He is not a prominent historical figure and seems to have made little impact in the overall outcome of the American Revolution. However, Sherburne’s memoirs have become a significant scholarly source in discussing the lives of sailors who fought in the American Revolution, particularly in regard to conditions on prison ships. Many historians have used his memoirs to examine the inhumane conditions of the ships prisoners were placed in. The first excerpt displayed here illustrates Sherburne’s participation in the defence of Charleston, and the second describes his life upon the British prison ship, the Jersey. Both illustrate the brutal conditions that young men fought in during the American Revolution, and the disregard that both sides had for each other’s lives and well-being.

Excerpt 1:

Charleston was not so fortified as to stand a regular siege, and yet we were enabled to make a vigorous defence[1]. A chain of redoubts, lines, and batteries, extended from Ashley to Cooper’s river; on those rivers was an almost continued line of batteries. The British having crossed Ashley river, broke ground on the night of the first of April, within eight hundred yards of our lines. About the 9th, the British fleet lying within the bar, having a fresh wind in their favour, ventured to turn by Sullivan’s Island, under a heavy fire from fort Moultrie. They lost twenty seven seamen killed and wounded, and one of their transports. They anchored between the fort and city, secure from the cannon of both. Our ships could now no longer be employed to advantage; their crews and some of their guns were removed into batteries. Capt. Simpson and the Ranger’s crew were stationed in a small fort called fort Gadsden; this being the uppermost one on the river, was much exposed to the fire of the British. A bomb at one time fell within a few feet of me: though much alarmed, I threw myself behind the carriage of a large gun, and escaped unhurt. Part of our officers with five or six waiters, of whom I was one, occupied an elegant house owned by a Col. Gadsden; while here, a bomb fell through the roof and exploded in the cellar, without injury to any one. While walking alone on the green, one day, a bomb burst over my head, and a large piece buried itself in the turf within three feet of me. At another time, while sitting in the room of a sick shipmate, a ball struck the house and passed between me and another person who was within two yards of me; the bricks and plaster flew on every side, yet we escaped uninjured. The siege being closely pressed, balls and shells were continually falling within the city. I have during the night counted ten bombs of different sizes, flying in the air at one time. No spot could now be considered as a place of safety. We were in continual apprehension of an attempt to carry our works by storm, the force of the enemy being far superior to ours.

Excerpt 2:

I entered the Jersey towards the last of November. I had just entered the eighteenth year of my age, and had now to commence a scene of suffering, almost without a parallel. The ship was extremely filthy, and abounded with vermin. A large proportion of the prisoners had been robbed of their clothing. The ship was considerably crowded; many of the men were very low spirited; our provisions ordinary, and very scanty. They consisted of worm eaten ship bread, and salt beef. It was supposed that this bread and beef had been condemned in the British navy. The bread had been so eaten by weevils, that one might easily crush it in the hand and blow it away. The beef was exceedingly salt, and scarcely a particle of fat could be seen upon it. The prisoners were divided into messes, and each mess made a division among themselves of the provisions which fell to them. The beef was all put into a large copper, perhaps five feet square and four feet deep. The beef would fill the copper within a few inches of the top; the copper was then filled up with water, and the cover put on. Our fuel was green chestnut. The cook would commence his fire by seven or eight in the morning, and frequently he would not get his copper to boil until 12 o’clock, and sometimes when it was stormy weather, it would be two or three o’clock. I have known it to be the case that he could not get it to boil in the course of the day. Those circumstances might sometimes be owing to a want of judgement in the cooks, who were frequently exchanged. Those misfortunes in the cooks would occasion many bitter complains and heavy curses from the half-starved, emaciated, and imperious prisoners.

Discussion Questions

    1. What does this narrative illustrate about the strategic difficulties of both conducting a siege and defending against one?
    2. Based on Sherburne’s narrative, what psychological effect do you think the siege had on those defending the city?
    3. What do you think caused the conditions on the prison ships? What evidence in the source supports your conclusion?


Borick, Carl P. “Charleston Siege of 1780.” Encyclopedia of the American Revolution: Library of Military History, edited by Harold E. Selesky, vol. 1, Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2006, pp. 192-196. Gale In Context: U.S. History.

Cogliano, Francis. “‘We All Hoisted the American Flag:’ National Identity among American Prisoners in Britain during the American Revolution.” Journal of American Studies, vol. 32, no. 1, Apr. 1998, pp. 19–37., doi:10.1017/s0021875898005787.

Cray, Robert E. “Commemorating the Prison Ship Dead: Revolutionary Memory and the Politics of Sepulture in the Early Republic, 1776-1808.” The William and Mary Quarterly, vol. 56, no. 3, 1999, p. 565., doi:10.2307/2674561.

Gilje, Paul. “Loyalty and Liberty: The Ambiguous Patriotism of Jack Tar in the American Revolution.” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, vol. 67, 2000, pp. 165–193.

[1] The British siege of the city of Charleston lasted six weeks, from March to May 1780, and was the longest official siege of the Revolutionary War. The British troops were lead by General Henry Clinton, and vastly outnumbered the American troops. Ultimately, the British were victorious