The Continental Congress had authorized a Continental Navy back in October of 1775, as I discussed back in Episode 75. A real navy, though was more of a dream than a reality. Aside from the ships that Arnold had captured on Lake Champlain, and a handful of ships George Washington had purchased or rented, which remained under army control, the Continental Congress had no ships. Several colonies had launched their own ships, mostly to attack and capture merchant ships supplying the regulars. Many privateers were raiding British ships as well. This was actually quite helpful in capturing supplies and denying them to the British Army. But none of this was under the command of Congress, and no colony nor privateer had anything that could go up against a British naval fleet or even one of its larger ships of the line.
That did not seem to discourage anyone. Congress decided to start building a navy and wanted to put it to use as soon as possible. Congressional delegate Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island sat on the Naval Committee. When it came time to select a fleet commander, Stephen thought is brother Esek Hopkins would be the best man for the job.
On December 22, 1775, Congress appointed Esek Hopkins Commander in Chief of the Continental Navy. Now I don’t know about you, but when I think Revolutionary war navy, I think John Paul Jones or John Barry. Esek Hopkins is almost a non-entity in any book about the Revolution. But he commanded the navy for over two years, and was the only man ever named Commander in Chief of the navy during the war.
Hopkins was born and raised in Rhode Island. His great grandfather, Thomas Hopkins, had been one of the founding members of the Rhode Island colony. Like many Rhode Islanders at the time, Esek lived most of his life at sea. He captained a fleet of merchant ships and lived a pretty comfortable life as a merchant trader. His life got even more comfortable when he married the daughter of another wealthy Rhode Island merchant.
|Esek Hopkins (from Wikimedia)|
During the 1760’s Hopkins was elected to several minor posts in Rhode Island, though he seemed to resign them all after short periods, presumably because he returned to sea. His involvement in government probably came about more by the fact that his brother, Stephen Hopkins, was Governor of Rhode Island for much of the 1750’s and 60’s.
By the early 1770’s Esek was in his 50’s and ready to spend more time at home. He served in he colonial assembly and clearly sided with the patriots as the split with Britain grew. In 1772, his son was a leader in the force that sank the British ship Gaspee that I discussed way back in Episode 36.
Following the battle of Lexington, Rhode Island put itself on a war footing. Hopkins serving in the colonial legislature at the time, helped with the development of colonial defenses and in October 1775, took a position as General in the Rhode Island Army.
During this time, he arranged a settlement with the captain of the British Navy ship Rose to provide the British ships with food in exchange for them not destroying the town of Newport. He also began seizing the property and estates of several prominent Tories in the colony, turning over the confiscated property to the colonial government to help pay for the war effort.
Two months after becoming a general, Hopkins received Congress’ request in December 1775 that he become Commander and Chief of the new Continental Navy. Some people refer to him as Commodore, others as Admiral, but whatever title you use, he was the head guy in charge of the navy, just as Washington was in charge of the army. Despite the fact that he had only two months experience as an army officer, and zero experience in any navy, Hopkins accepted and prepared to travel to Philadelphia to assume his new command.
Launching a Navy
Now the term “navy” might be a bit much for what Commodore Hopkins commanded. Individual colonies did not want to give up the ships they had outfitted to defend their own coastlines and harass British shipping. Privateers were in no hurry to join a navy where they would have to take orders from someone else, and not be allowed to keep as much prize money as they currently enjoyed.
|The Columbus (from Wikimedia)|
The fleet left Philadelphia in February 1776. If you have been paying attention, you may recall that British General Clinton was headed south at the same time. Clinton had a contingent of British ships to meet up with General Cornwallis and another fleet. The combined fleet planned to capture the Carolinas and restore Tory control of those colonies. You may also recall that Lord Dunmore in Virginia had burned Norfolk in January and remained with another British fleet controlling the Chesapeake bay and operating out of Portsmouth, Virginia.
|The Mosquito and Fly (from Navy History & Heritage)|
Despite the odds, Congress instructed Hopkins to go forth and take out the British navy. His first mission was to take his fleet to the Chesapeake Bay and take out the naval fleet there. After winning that fight, he should proceed immediately to the Carolinas to take out the huge fleet of the coast, which was probably 20 times the size of his fleet. After defeating them, Hopkins was to proceed north and take out the fleet in Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island. They even authorized him to break up his fleet of eight ships and send them to different locations in order to cover more territory. While they were at it, I’m not sure why they didn’t just order him to sail over to London and capture the King. The orders were so out of touch with reality, that Hopkins must have shaken his head in disbelief.
The instructions included a statement:
“Notwithstanding these particular orders, which it is hoped you will be able to execute, if bad wind or stormy weather, or any other unforeseen accident or disaster disable you to do so, you are then to follow such courses as your best judgment shall suggest to you as most useful to the American cause and to distress the enemy by all means in your power.”
|Gadsden Flag (from Wikimedia)|
On February 17, Hopkins took his fleet out of Philadelphia and out toward the open seas. Departure had been delayed a few weeks because the Delaware river was still frozen and the fleet could not get out. As the ships set sail Hopkins instructed Lt. John Paul Jones to hoist the new flag, a yellow flag with a rattlesnake on it, and the phrase, “Don’t Tread on Me.”
South Carolina Delegate Christopher Gadsden had taken a copy of the flag home to South Carolina. That was how the fleet and the defenders of Charleston Harbor would recognize each other as friends if the fleet made it there. The flag is often known as the Gadsden Flag.
To the Bahamas
Apparently Hopkins had no intention of obeying his orders. Some historians have indicated that perhaps he had secret orders, or made the decision once at sea given weather conditions and the position of the enemy. But the facts don’t seem to bear out these theories. Before leaving port, Hopkins issued orders to each captain that if they became separated from the fleet, that they should rendezvous at a small island called Abacco in the Bahamas, which seems really out of the way, like over 700 miles, for raids on the Chesapeake or the Carolinas.
|Battle of Nassau (from Wikimedia)|
At the site of 200 Continental Marines invading the city on March 2, the Bahama militia fired off a few shots and then almost immediately fled the smaller Fort Montague and took up defenses in the larger Fort Nassau. That evening, Hopkins issued a public letter to the people of Nassau saying they were only there to collect stores from the forts belonging to the British government. If the people put up no resistance, he would not burn the town nor loot any private property. The locals apparently took up the deal. The next morning, when the marines marched to the fort, the militia left, and the Governor turned over the keys to the fort.
The navy collected a large cache of military supplies, including 88 cannon, nearly 10,000 cannonballs, and 23 barrels of gunpowder. It was so much stuff, that it took nearly two weeks to load it onto ships. Part of the delay was the fact the the sailors and marines had also captured a large cache of rum and proceeded to get drunk for several days. Even with that delay, they loaded everything onto their ships.
|Map of New Providence (from Naval History & Heritage)|
The Continental Navy also took the governor and a few other top leaders as prisoners of war and brought them back to North America. While they were loading supplies, the Fly, one of the two ships that had gotten lost as they left Philadelphia, finally arrived. The Captain reported that it had been able to catch up after making minor repairs. The other ship the Hornet, had suffered greater damage and remained in port in South Carolina.
On March 18, the seven ships of the fleet, along with the borrowed merchant vessel set sail for Providence, Rhode Island. There, they could offload the military supplies so that they could travel by wagon to General Washington in Cambridge. They did not know it, but by the time they left the Bahamas, Washington had already broken the siege and the British had evacuated the city.
Battle At Sea (Block Island)
On the way back, on April 4, as the fleet passed the coast of Long Island New York, they encountered a British Navy ship, the Hawk, a small six gun tender ship which surrendered easily. The next day, they encountered another ship, the Bolton with eight guns, and captured it as well. The day after that, they sighted a larger ship the 20 gun Glasgow, along with a smaller tender ship. The ships opened fire on each other, leading to a battle that lasted several hours. The captain of the Glasgow, realizing he was outnumbered and outgunned, eventually made a run for it and escaped capture, leaving only the smaller tender ship as a prize.
The patriots took several casualties. Captain Hopkins of the Cabot, Commodore Hopkins’ son, was seriously wounded, along with seven others on his ship. Four men on the Cabot died in battle. The Cabot, which had been the first ship in the assault, took the brunt of the casualties. Overall the fleet suffered 10 killed and 14 wounded, with only one killed and three wounded on the Glasgow.
After this, the fleet continued on to Rhode Island where they offloaded their captured goods and Commodore Hopkins had the chance to send a report to Congress.
Investigations and Courts Martial
Initially, Hopkins received congratulations for his successful mission and enjoyed celebrations for the raid on the Bahamas. But within days, the praise began to turn to criticism. Why hadn’t the fleet been able to capture the Glasgow? It was a single 20 gun ship going up against seven vessels.
Now in all fairness, the Glasgow was a fast new well designed ship of war. It was not a converted merchant vessel. It also had a highly experienced crew going up against a patriot fleet that had never fought a sea battle before. Just based on lack of experience, I have to give the patriots a break on letting this one escape.
|The Alfred (from Museum of US Navy)|
Next, Hopkins had to deal with his sailors. Typically upon returning from a mission a crew would be paid. But as usual, Congress was short on cash and making excuses. Over 200 crewmen had to leave for medical care, smallpox among other things, ravaging the crew. Hopkins could not recruit a new crew as any able sailor was making far more money aboard a privateer, plus he had a better chance of actually getting paid what he was promised. So Hopkins could not set sail again as he could not recruit sailors for his fleet.
By May, Hopkins learned that many in Congress were upset by the fact that he had refused to follow orders and had not bothered to do anything about the British fleets in the Chesapeake and off the Carolina coast. Southern delegates were already predisposed not to like a New England commander. Ignoring the military needs of the southern States to bring back a bunch of arms to New England, and disregarding orders in the process, did not endear him to the southerners.
Congress wanted Hopkins to set sail again, to attack the British in the Chesapeake and also to raid Halifax. But with Hopkins unable to raise a crew for his fleet, he could not comply with the orders. The Continental Congress did not want excuses, it wanted results. They soon called him back to Philadelphia for hearings related to Hopkins’ refusal to follow orders when he raided the Bahamas, and his failure to capture the Glasgow despite having a much larger fleet.
Many hoped the hearings would end in Hopkins being dismissed. However, his supporters among New England delegations helped prevent dismissal. Congress did censure him though, before returning him to command of the fleet, now based in Rhode Island. I can’t image the censure did much for his morale, and it certainly left a mark on his reputation that weakened his command authority.
Hopkins would remain in command of the Navy until 1778. I’ll discuss the reasons he left in a later episode. But following his initial raid on the Bahamas, Hopkins accomplished very little. He could never recruit enough sailors to man all of his ships. He could not get the undivided support of Congress. The British Navy now focused on keeping his ships locked up in Narragansett Bay. There would not be any more major naval actions over the next few years. Individual vessels would still harass the British, but they were really doing nothing more than what the privateers were already doing.
For those of you hoping for lots more stories of naval exploits, sorry, you’ll have to wait for the next war.
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Next Episode 85: Dorchester Heights
Previous Episode 83: Continental Congress Winter 1776
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Rhode Island’s Esek Hopkins – Rodney Dangerfield of the American Revolution: http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/rhode-islands-esek-hopkins-rodney-dangerfield-of-the-american-revolution
Letter from Committee of Congress to Commodore Hopkins, Jan. 18, 1776:
New Providence Expedition: http://www.awiatsea.com/Narrative/New%20Providence%20Expedition.html
Revolutionary War, Battle of Nassau: http://www.defensemedianetwork.com/stories/the-nassau-raid-americas-first-jointspecial-operation
Battle off Block Island http://www.awiatsea.com/Narrative/Battle%20of%20Block%20Island.html
Proceedings of a Court-Martial on John Hazard, Commander of the sloop Providence, May 8, 1776: http://amarch.lib.niu.edu/islandora/object/niu-amarch%3A99526
Proceedings of Court-Martial on Abraham Whipple, Commander of the Columbus, May 6, 1776: http://amarch.lib.niu.edu/islandora/object/niu-amarch%3A90046
(from archive.org unless noted)
Journals of Congress, Vol 1, (contains minutes of First Continental Congress and first year of the Second Continental Congress.
Beck, Alverda (ed) The Letter Book of Esek Hopkins, Commander-in-Chief of the United States Navy, 1775-1777, Providence: Rhode Island Historical Society, 1932.
Field, Edward Esek Hopkins, Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Navy During the American Revolution, 1775 to 1778, Providence: Preston and Rounds Co., 1898.
Force, Peter American Archives, Series 4, Vol 4, Washington, 1837.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)
Beeman, Richard R. Our Lives, Our Fortunes and Our Sacred Honor: The Forging of American Independence, 1774-1776, New York: Basic Books, 2013.
McGrath, Tim Give Me a Fast Ship: The Continental Navy and America's Revolution at Sea, Caliber, 2014.
Nelson, James George Washington’s Secret Navy, McGraw-Hill, 2008.
Willis, Sam The Struggle for Sea Power: A Naval History of the American Revolution, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2016.
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