Hector McNeill



Occupation 1

privateer in the Revolution

Occupation 2

naval officer




NA/New England region


Maritime Republic (1751-1815)






McNeill first went to sea in a Boston merchant vessel at the age of sixteen and became captain of his own ship only five years later...
In 1755 the vessel under McNeill's command, the schooner Lawrence, was taken into British government service to transport a detachment of New England militia in a campaign against the French. Later that year the Lawrence was captured by Indians (probably Iroquois), and McNeill was taken prisoner and marched to Quebec... He apparently escaped or bargained for his release and, according to his own account, he then commanded several other ships in British service. At the end of the French and Indian War he was enjoying a profitable career as a shipowner and master in the New England coastal trade...
When the American troops retreated from Quebec, McNeill set out for Philadelphia, arriving there in early June 1776. It seems that McNeill either made a dramatic impression on the Continental Congress or already had some influential connections within it. The Massachusetts delegates may well have been aware of his talents. Barely a week after his arrival the marine committee of the Congress appointed him to the command of the Continental frigate Boston, then fitting out at Newburyport, Massachusetts.
The command of a new warship in a new navy taxed McNeill's professional capacity and overtaxed his patience. It took him almost a year to find the guns, supplies, and men the Boston needed, as sailors and shipbuilders gave preference to privateers and merchantmen. He complained to the marine committee that "I have Suffer'd so much in fitting out the Ship I now have the Honour to Command, that I do not think I would undertake such a Task again for any Sum whatever unless I was better Supported" (Clark and Morgan, eds., vol. 8, p. 1008). Another frigate, the Hancock, was fitting out at the same time under the command of John Manley. When the Congress published a list establishing the relative seniority of captains in the Continental navy, Manley's name appeared second and McNeill's third. The two officers came to detest each other.
The Hancock and the Boston finally got to sea on 21 May 1777, with orders to seek out and destroy British warships off the coasts of New England and Canada. Captains Manley and McNeill spent most of the cruise verbally sniping at each other, McNeill claiming that Manley had no idea of how to command a naval squadron. On 8 June they encountered a British frigate, the Fox, which they captured after a gun duel that lasted an hour and a half. The Hancock seems to have born the brunt of the fighting, but McNeill claimed that a crucially timed broadside from the Boston had made the British captain strike his colors.
For the next month the Hancock, Boston, and Fox, the latter now commanded by one of Manley's lieutenants, prowled around the Grand Banks. McNeill complained that the area was too dangerous now that the enemy knew the American squadron was at sea; he was proven right. On 7 July the British frigate Flora and the 44-gun ship Rainbow came into sight. The ensuing action turned into a rout, with neither American captain showing any enthusiasm for supporting the other. The Flora retook the Fox and the Rainbow sailed over the horizon in pursuit of the Hancock, which was captured after a chase of thirty-nine hours. The Boston escaped.
McNeill, convinced that the entire British fleet would be looking for him, took his ship into the Sheepscot River on the coast of Maine to hide for more than a month. By the time he took her back to Boston in late August, complaints about his conduct were circulating not only among his officers but in the Continental Congress. James Warren wrote to John Adams of McNeill's "overbearing haughtiness and unlimited conceit" (Smith, p. 9); McNeill grumbled that he had only been doing his duty in saving his ship from capture by a superior enemy, and that the loss of the Hancock and Fox had been the result of Manley's "blunders and misconduct" (Clark and Morgan, eds., vol. 9, p. 804). When Manley was released in a prisoner exchange in the summer of 1778, the Congress ordered a court-martial of both captains. Manley was acquitted but McNeill was dismissed from the navy.
... Later in the war he apparently commanded at least two privateers, the brigantine Pallas and the ship Adventure. With the coming of peace he returned to the merchant service. He was lost at sea on Christmas night 1785.