Robert Traill Spence was born at Portsmouth, New Hampshire about 1785 to Keith Spence of Kirkwall, Orkney Islands, who had settled in Portsmouth as a merchant and afterward became purser of the frigate Philadelphia, and Mary Traill.

The next Action, the Boat I was in, Commanded by Lieut Caldwell, was Blown up. The Lieut, with a midshipman and 14 men, out 24, were kill’d. I, astonishing to relate, & 6 men escaped. 4 of the men in so wounded a condition that their lives, at first, were despair’d of.

It was my Conduct on this occasion that got me my Promotion. I, at the time the shot struck, was forward, taking sight at the Gun; though not a minute before I had been aft, assisting in binding up the woonded. It being a red hot shot, she instantly exploded; I went up some distance in the air, & lighted by the Gun again; the only part remaining was that on which the Gun stood.

I found by my side, one man only. Around me lay arms, legs, & trunks of Bodies, in the most mutilated state; though a little confused & bewilder’d by things tumbling on my head, & by the prospect of death before me; for I cannot swim, I had presence of mind sufficient to know my duty, & not to quitt while there was a part remaining.

I fired the Gun, & loaded her again. When she went down from under me I gave a cheer and went down — came up again; when I was taken up by one of the other Gun Boats.

Letter from Midshipman Robert T. Spence at Gibraltar, November 12, 1804, to his mother, Mrs. Keith Spence, Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

In 1800, Spence was warranted a midshipman and ordered to duty in the brig Siren, which sailed for the Mediterranean in 1803 in Commodore Edward Preble’s squadron. The following year, Midshipman Spence participated in attacks on Tripoli and, on 7 August 1804, was serving in prize gunboat No. 9 under Lt. James R. Caldwell when hot shot from an enemy battery penetrated its magazine and blew it up (see box).

Commissioned lieutenant in 1807, Spence served under Commodore John Rodgers during the War of 1812 and was promoted master-commandant in 1813. He superintended the building and equipping of the sloop-of-war Ontario at Baltimore and commanded the naval station there. In September 1814, Commodore Rodgers commendeded him for his promptness and ingenuity in laying obstructions to impede the British fleet as it approached Baltimore.

After promotion to post-captain the following year, he continued in command of US Naval forces at Baltimore until 1 July 1819, and commanded them again from May 1820 to May 1822. Later in 1822, Captain Spence took command of Cyane and was ordered to the West Indies on a mission to suppress piracy and defend American rights. He also patrolled off Africa against freebooters and slavers.

In 1826, Captain Spence was appointed to command the West India Fleet, but died near Baltimore on 2 September 1827. He was approximately 42.

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Capt. Spence was married to Mary Clare, daughter of Nicholas MacCubben and Anne (Jennings) Carroll, of Annapolis, Maryland. They had several children including Carroll Spence, Charles Lowell Stuart Spence, Robert Traill Spence, M.D., and Stephen Decatur Spence. Capt. Spence’s sister, Harriet Brackett Spence, married the Rev. Charles Lowell, D.D. Their son was the poet and diplomat James Russell Lowell.

Source: Lamb’s Biographical Dictionary of the United States, Volume 7, Naval Documents related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers, Volume 4, pp 351–353, and Naval History & Heritage Command, Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships.