When that estimable private gentleman, Mr. William Rhett, of Charles Town, had received a commission from the Governor to go forth on his own responsibility and meet the dreaded pirate, the news of whose depredations had thrown the good citizens into such a fever of apprehension, he took possession, in the name of the law, of two large sloops, the Henry and the Sea-Nymph, which were in the harbor, and at his own expense he manned them with well-armed crews, and put on board of each of them eight small cannon. When everything was ready, Mr. Rhett was in command of a very formidable force for those waters,. and if he had been ready to sail a few days sooner, he would have had an opportunity of giving his men some practice in fighting pirates before they met the particular and more important sea-robber whom they had set out to encounter. Just as his vessel was ready to sail, Mr. Rhett received news that a pirate ship had captured two or three mer- chantmen just outside the harbor, and he put out to sea with all possible haste and cruised up and down the coast for some time, but he did not find this most recent depredator, who had departed very promptly when he heard that armed ships were coming out of the harbor.
Now Mr. Rhett, who was no more of a sailor than Stede Bonnet had been when he first began his seafaring life, boldly made his way up the coast to the mouth of Cape Fear River, where he had been told the pirate vessel was lying. When he reached his destination, Mr. Rhett found that it would not be an easy thing to ascend the river, for the reason that the pilots he had brought with him knew nothing about the waters of that part of the coast, and although the two ships made their way very cautiously, it was not long after they had entered the river before they got out of the channel, and it being low tide, both of them ran aground upon sand bars.
This was a very annoying accident, but it was not disastrous, for the sailing masters who commanded the sloops knew very well that when the tide rose, their vessels would float again. But it prevented Mr. Rhett from going on and making an immediate attack upon the pirate vessel, the top-masts of which could be plainly seen behind a high headland some distance up the river.
Of course Bonnet, or Captain Thomas, as he now chose to be called, soon became aware of the fact that two good-sized vessels were lying aground near the mouth of the river, and having a very natural curiosity to see what sort of craft they were, he waited until nightfall and then sent three armed boats to make observations. When these boats returned to the Royal James and reported that the grounded vessels were not well-loaded trading craft, but large sloops full of men and armed with cannon, Bonnet (for we prefer to call him by his old name) had good reason to fold his arms, knit his brows, and strut up and down the deck. He was sure that the armed vessels came from Charles Town, and there was no reason to doubt that if the Governor of South Carolina had sent two ships against him the matter was a very, serious one. He was penned up in the river, he had only one fighting vessel to contend against two, and if he could not succeed in getting out to sea before he should be attacked by the Charles Town ships, there would be but little chance of his continuing in his present line of business. If the Royal James had been ready to sail, there is no doubt that Bonnet would have taken his chance of finding the channel in the dark, and would have sailed away that night without regard to the cannonading which might have been directed against him from the two stranded vessels.
But as it was impossible to get ready to sail, Bonnet went to work with the greatest energy to get ready to fight. He knew that when the tide rose there would be two armed sloops afloat, and that there would be a regular naval battle on the quiet waters of Cape Fear River. All night his men worked to clear the decks and get everything in order for the coming combat, and all night Mr. Rhett and his crews kept a sharp watch for any unexpected move of the enemy, while they loaded their guns, their pistols, and their cannon, and put everything in order for action.
Very early in the morning the wide-awake crews of the South Carolina vessels, which were now afloat and at anchor, saw that the topmasts of the pirate craft were beginning to move above the distant headland, and very soon Bonnet's ship came out into view, under full sail, and as she veered around they saw that she was coming toward them. Up went the anchors and up went the sails of the Henry and the Sea-Nymph, and the naval battle between the retired army officer who had almost learned to be a sailor, and the private gentleman from South Carolina, who knew nothing whatever about managing ships, was about to begin.
It was plain to the South Carolinians that the great object of the pirate captain was to get out to sea just as soon as he could, and that he was coming down the river, not because he wished to make an immediate attack upon them, but because he hoped to slip by them and get away. Of course they could follow him upon the ocean and fight him if their vessels were fast enough, but once out of the river with plenty of sea-room, he would have twenty chances of escape where now he had one.
But Mr. Rhett did not intend that the pirates should play him this little trick; he wanted to fight the dastardly wretches in the river, where they could not get away, and he had no idea of letting them sneak out to sea. Consequently as the Royal James, under full sail, was making her way down the river, keeping as far as possible from her two enemies, Mr. Rhett ordered his ships to bear down upon her so as to cut off her retreat and force her toward the opposite shore of the river. This manúuvre was performed with great success. The two Charles Town sloops sailed so boldly and swiftly toward the Royal James that the latter was obliged to hug the shore, and the first thing the pirates knew they were stuck fast and tight upon a sand bar. Three minutes afterward the Henry ran upon a sand bar, and there being enough of these obstructions in that river to satisfy any ordinary demand, the Sea-Nymph very soon grounded herself upon another of them. But unfortunately she took up her permanent position at a considerable distance from her consort.
Here now were the vessels which were to conduct this memorable sea-fight, all three fast in the sand and unable to move, and their predicament was made the worse by the fact that it would be five hours before the tide would rise high enough for any one of them to float. The positions of the three vessels were very peculiar and awkward; the Henry and the Royal James were lying so near to each other that Mr. Rhett could have shot Major Bonnet with a pistol if the latter gentleman had given him the chance, and the Sea-Nymph was so far away that she was entirely out of the fight, and her crew could do nothing but stand and watch what was going on between the other two vessels.
But although they could not get any nearer each other, nor get away from each other, the pirates and Mr. Rhea's crew had no idea of postponing the battle until they should be afloat and able to fight in the ordinary fashion of ships; they immediately began to fire at each other with pistols, muskets, and cannon, and the din and roar was something that must have astonished the birds and beasts and fishes of that quiet region.
As the tide continued to run out of the river, and its waters became more and more shallow, the two contending vessels began to careen over to one side, and, unfortunately for the Henry, they both careened in the same direction, and in such a manner that the deck of the Royal James was inclined away from the Henry, while the deck of the latter leaned toward her pirate foe. This gave a great advantage to Bonnet and his crew, for they were in a great measure protected by the hull of their vessel, whereas the whole deck of the Henry was exposed to the fire of the pirates. But Mr. Rhett and his South Carolinians were all brave men, and they blazed away with their muskets and pistols at the pirates whenever they could see a head above the rail of the Royal James, while with their cannon they kept firing at the pirate's hull.
For five long hours the fight continued, but the cannon carried by the two vessels must have been of very small caliber, for if they had been firing at such short range and for such a length of time with modern guns, they must have shattered each other into kindling wood. But neither vessel seems to have been seriously injured, and although there were a good many men killed on both sides, the combat was kept up with great determination and fury. At one time it seemed almost certain that Bonnet would get the better of Mr. Rhett, and he ordered his black flag waved contemptuously in the air while his men shouted to the South Carolinians to come over and call upon them, but the South Carolina boys answered these taunts with cheers and fired away more furiously than ever.
The tide was now coming in, and everybody on board the two fighting vessels knew very well that the first one of them which should float would have a great advantage over the other, and would probably be the conqueror. In came the tide, and still the cannons roared and the muskets cracked, while the hearts of the pirates and the South Carolinians almost stood still as they each watched the other vessel to see if she showed any signs of floating.
At last such signs were seen; the Henry was further from the shore than the Royal James, and she first felt the influence of the rising waters. Her masts began to straighten, and at last her deck was level, and she floated clear of the bottom while her antagonist still lay careened over on her side. Now the pirates saw there was no chance for them; in a very short time the other Carolina sloop would be afloat, and then the two vessels would bear down upon them and utterly destroy both them and their vessel. Consequently upon the Royal James there was a general disposition to surrender and to make the best terms they could, for it would be a great deal better to submit and run the chance of a trial than to keep up the fight against enemies so much superior both in numbers and ships, who would soon be upon them.
But Bonnet would not listen to one word of surrender. Rather than give up the fight he declared he would set fire to the powder magazine of the Royal James and blow himself, his ship, and his men high up into the air. Although he had not a sailor's skill, he possessed a soldier's soul, and in spite of his being a dastardly and cruel pirate he was a brave man. But Bonnet was only one, and his crew numbered dozens, and notwithstanding his furiously dissenting voice it was determined to surrender, and when Mr. Rhett sailed up to the Royal James, intending to board her if the pirates still showed resistance, he found them ready to submit to terms and to yield themselves his prisoners.
Thus ended the great sea-fight between the private gentlemen, and thus ended Stede Bonnet's career. He and his men were taken to Charles Town, where most of the pirate crew were tried and executed. The green-hand pirate, who had wrought more devastation along the American coast than many a skilled sea-robber, was held in custody to await his trial, and it seems very strange that there should have been a public sentiment in Charles Town which induced the officials to treat this pirate with a certain degree of respect simply from the fact that his station in life had been that of a gentleman. He was a much more black-hearted scoundrel than any of his men, but they were executed as soon as possible while his trial was postponed and he was allowed privileges which would never have been accorded a common pirate. In consequence of this leniency he escaped and had to be retaken by Mr. Rhett. It was so long before he was tried that sympathy for his misfortunes arose among some of the tender-hearted citizens of Charles Town whose houses he would have pillaged and whose families he would have murdered if the exigencies of piracy had rendered such action desirable.
Finding that other people were trying to save his life, Bonnet came down from his high horse and tried to save it himself by writing piteous letters to the Governor, begging for mercy. But the Governor of South Carolina had no notion of sparing a pirate who had deliberately put himself under the protection of the law in order that he might better pursue his lawless and wicked career, and the green hand, with the black heart, was finally hung on the same spot where his companions had been executed.