When we last left the Continental Navy in Episode 84, Commander Esek Hopkins had completed the fleet’s raid on the Bahamas. After returning, it found itself bottled up in Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island. The British Navy kept the fleet from leaving.
Meanwhile, Hopkins had to deal with a host of criticism. He could not afford to pay his crew. Congress was upset because he ignored orders, going to the Bahamas instead of destroying the British Fleet off the Virginia and Carolina coasts. He also ignored instructions to go destroy the British fleet in Nova Scotia. That fact that those orders were insanely unrealistic even with a navy twice its size did not seem to enter into the debate.
Most of Hopkins’ crew abandoned him to go work on privateers. That was where the action was, and where a sailor could make far higher pay and get a larger percentage of any prizes. By the summer of 1776, Hopkins had ships he could not man, and criticisms he could not answer to anyone’s satisfaction. As a result, he did almost nothing.
In truth, privateers were the real naval force for the Continentals for the duration of the war. On a privateer, a crew divided up the full value of any captured ship and cargo. Navy crews only received one-third of the value of merchant ships, and one-half the value of warships. Further the Navy often did not have the money to pay even that reduced value. Some privateers earned more than $1000 on a single voyage, at a time when a private in the Continental Army earned $6/month.
The British also did not treat privateers differently than navy sailors. Under the law, privateers could be hanged as pirates, but I guess sailors could have been hanged as traitors. In practice, when the British captured sailors or privateers, they generally treated them as prisoners of war.
On April 3 1776, the Continental Congress formally approved privateering and granting letters of marque to privateer ships. Essentially this granted ship owners and crew free passage to a friendly port where a prize court in cities like New Providence, Philadelphia, or Baltimore could award the capture and allow them to sell their prize, usually at auction. Of course, large numbers of privateers had been operating for over a year, either with the authorization of a particular colony, or just acting on their own authority.
|American Privateer Jack Attacking a British Navy Brig|
(From American War for Independence at Sea)
But compared to a navy, privateering just worked better. New England especially was full of trained ship’s crews and merchant vessels. Most of these vessels regularly travelled in dangerous waters before the war, and had carried some weaponry to fend off pirates. It often only took adding a few extra guns to make the ship into a formidable attack vehicle. Congress did not have to put out any money for ships or crew, the ships and crew aboard privateers got paid better and more regularly, and they performed the necessary function of capturing British ships and supplies, making life more difficult for the British and providing much needed supplies for the patriot cause.
In an earlier episode, I mentioned the capture of the Nancy in 1775, which provided the Continental Army with much needed munitions for the Siege of Boston.
By one count, over the course of the entire war, the Continental Navy had a total of 64 ships in operation, which captured 196 enemy vessels. Privateers deployed 1697 ships, capturing 2283 enemy vessels. Privateers captured the bulk of the 16,000 British who were taken prisoner at sea, compared to about 15,000 prisoners captured by the Continental Army over the course of the war.
Privateers did not limit themselves to the North American coast. They operated throughout the West Indies, capturing British merchant ships trading with their own island colonies. Privateers even patrolled the coast of Europe and England itself, occasionally picking off isolated ships that they could rush back to America.
Privateers often acted alone or in small groups. There were no large squadrons of them and they could not attack the largest warships or fleets. But privateers were so numerous that they continually harassed supply ships and smaller navy patrol ships. This also made it difficult for the British to use their smaller ships to patrol the coast and stop smugglers. It allowed private shipping to import roughly 2 million pounds of gunpowder or saltpeter (an essential component of gunpowder) into North America. Absent this effort, Washington would have been reduced to the use of spears or bows and arrows.
Shipping brought in all sorts of other military supplies and necessities critical to the prosecution of the war. European powers, notably the French, Dutch, and Spanish, were willing to sell supplies to the Americans on the sly, but they were not willing to ship it to America. Doing so would be an act of war against Britain. But they would ship to their colonies in the West Indies and allow private American vessels carry the much-needed supplies to America. The work of privateers in this effort was absolutely essential to the final American victory.
Washington had also authorized the use of private ships to attack the enemy during late 1775 and 1776. These were not authorized by Congress nor any other legitimate authority. It was also before Congress had authorized any navy. Since many of the ships were manned by Continental soldiers, it may not be fair to characterize them as privateers, but they largely acted independently and worked to harass British shipping in New England.
When he first took control of the army, he rejected any proposals to mount any challenge to the British Navy. Washington bought into the reputation that the British Navy held undisputed dominance of the high seas. If large countries like France could not even challenge the British Navy, what hope did a few colonial merchant ships converted for war have?
Some of his officers though, had captained ships. They knew that although they could not dominate the seas, they could easily pick off isolated transport ships, and even challenge some of smaller patrol ships. Even if they could not control the Atlantic, they could make Britain’s control much more difficult.
|John Glover (from Wikimedia)|
One of the biggest army advocates for a navy was Colonel John Glover, commander of the 14th Regiment from Marblehead, Massachusetts. Glover’s Regiment would play a key role in helping Washington to cross key waterways during critical battles of the war. But in 1775, they were just another regiment surrounding Boston. Washington, however, noted that Glover kept his regiment in exceptional order and discipline.
Before the war, Glover had owned and captained ships that traded with Europe and the West Indies. Many of his soldiers had been sailors who followed their captain to war shortly after Lexington. By fall 1775, Glover had convinced Washington to give it a try, and even leased the army one of his own ships, the Hannah, with his son Lt. John Glover, Jr. serving as first officer Washington eventually approved the leasing and use of eight converted schooners to harass the navy around Boston and attack any isolated ships they could find.
In the six months before the Siege of Boston ended, Washington’s Navy had captured a total of 55 ships, the Nancy captured by the Lee, being the most valuable. Despite successes, Washington’s ships sometimes captured ships belonging to patriots. Some the ships captured mistakenly. Others they recaptured, meaning they were American ships that the British had captured, then recaptured by the Americans. In both cases, the crew received no prize money. In one case of recapture, the disappointed crew of the Hannah mutinied. Washington had to put down the mutiny and punishing most of the crew with lashes.
This was still months before Congress even knew about Washington’s Navy, and before it had authorized any Navy of its own. When a Congressional delegation visited that fall, Washington discussed the problems of running both and army and navy. The delegation agreed that Massachusetts should handle the court hearings for awarding prizes. It also motivated the Continental Congress to create its own Navy. That eventually led to the formal navy led by Esek Hopkins.
Washington’s navy never joined Hopkins’ navy. Washington’s ships continued to operate under Washington’s command.
After Washington moved his army to New York, part of his informal Navy a continued to patrol around Boston. Although the British had abandoned Boston in March, the Navy left a few ships around Massachusetts Bay, mostly to make sure British transports did not try to land there by mistake and get captured.
On May 17, the HMS Hope, a British supply ship filled with gunpowder and entrenching tools, attempted to sail into Boston Harbor, apparently still unaware of the evacuation. The Franklin, a small six gun vessel from Washington’s Navy, discovered the ship before the British Navy did. The Franklin’s captain, James Mugford sailed up and captured the Hope before they knew what was happening. Captain Mugford then sailed his prize, five times the size of his own ship, into Boston. This was the biggest prize for the patriots except for the Nancy a year earlier.
The British were pretty upset that this little privateer had captured a ship right under their nose. When the Franklin and an even smaller ship, the Lady Washington sailed out of Boston two days later, the British sent 12 or 13 small ships containing a total of around 200 sailors and marines. They hoped to board both ships and capture the crews.
|The Lexington (from Wikimedia)|
Privateers were a major problem for the British, but privateers also often lost battles with British ships. For example, a privateer named the Yankee Hero tangled with the HMS Melford (sometimes spelled Millford). The Yankee Hero had been headed down the New England coast with only a partial crew, hoping to hire more sailors in Boston. On June 7, 1776, the Melford spotted her and sailed to intercept. The two ships engaged in a two hour gun battle before the Yankee Hero finally surrendered. That meant the British took the ship as a prize and made prisoners of the crew. Imprisonment often meant months or even years on a prison ship, usually ending in a slow death from starvation or disease. Alternatively, crew members sometimes agreed to serve the British Navy to avoid that terrible fate.
Privateers and Washington’s informal navy were not the only patriot resources at sea. Although Hopkins and most of the Continental Navy were stuck in Rhode Island, several of Hopkins’ officers still actively engaged the enemy. One of his captains, John Barry, commanded the Lexington. Around this same time John Paul Jones received a commission as Captain of the Providence. But the Providence was stuck in Rhode Island, so Jones’ story does not get interesting until much later. For now, I want to take a look at Barry.
|John Barry (from Wikimedia)|
Barry probably adopted Philadelphia as his home, because it was one of the few places in the British Empire where he could practice his Catholic faith openly. At the outbreak of war, Barry was captaining the largest merchant vessels for prominent Philadelphia merchant Robert Morris. In late 1775, when the Continental Congress created the new Continental Navy, Morris, then a delegate from Pennsylvania, helped Barry get a commission. Barry accompanied Hopkins on his mission to the Bahamas, and acquitted himself well.
While Hopkins was stuck in Narragansett Bay, Barry kept the Lexington out at sea. On April 7, 1776, the Lexington encountered the British sloop Edward. After a lengthy sea battle, the Edward struck her colors and surrendered. His capture of this war ship helped establish Barry as one of the early naval war heroes. Barry sent the Edward and several other captured supply ships to Philadelphia during the spring and summer.
His success also drew the attention of British Navy. In May two British ships, the HMS Roebuck and Liverpool, chased the Lexington. The ships engaged in a running duel lasting all day. In the end, Barry gave them the slip and returned to Philadelphia.
Philadelphia Naval Defenses
Philadelphia, the largest city in the colonies, remained relatively impervious to attack by the British Navy. Unlike the other major colonial seaports, Philadelphia was not on the coast. A ship had to access it by sailing miles up the Delaware River.
The patriots had set up a series of alarm posts along the river, most of which had row galleys armed with cannon. These proved surprisingly effective. On a river, sailing maneuverability is limited. These large rowboats could move in any direction to attack a ship. Although they usually had only one cannon and could not easily sink a larger sloop, many of them used together could harass and attack any ship that tried to get up the river.
That is exactly what happened when Captain Barry escaped up river to avoid the Roebuck and Liverpool. The two ships attempted to follow the Lexington up the Delaware River. A smaller patriot ship, the Wasp, and 13 row galleys attacked the two British warships several miles down river from Philadelphia. The two sides engaged in a four hour firefight, during which time the Roebuck ran aground. The patriots did not have enough men or guns to take the ship. The two British vessels remained overnight until the tide lifted the Roebuck off the sand bar. They retreated back down to a point where the river widened greatly, giving them much better maneuverability.
After that encounter, the British did not attempt to move up the river again. Instead, they remained down near the bay where they could intercept any traffic trying to enter or leave the river.
Battle of Turtle Gut Inlet
In June, just such a merchant vessel attempted to get past the British blockade. The Nancy had made a run down to St. Croix and St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. She was loaded with gunpowder, and weaponry purchased in the French colonies, as well as rum and sugar. By way of explanation, this Nancy was a completely different ship from the Nancy captured in New England several months earlier. This ship was built in Wilmington Delaware in 1775.
|Turtle Gut Inlet on NJ Coast (from Wikimedia)|
Eager to protect his cargo, the captain of the Nancy, Hugh Montgomery, began unloading the ship, carrying the cargo to shore in small rowboats. The crew made little progress getting the cargo off the ship overnight. In the morning, the British ships spotted the Nancy again and moved in for another attack.
Also that morning, Captain Barry, aboard the Lexington, along with the Wasp and the Reprisal arrived on the scene to assist the Nancy. Even so, the two British ships were much larger and had more guns than the three Continental ships. They would not be chased off. The British Navy could probably win a protracted battle.
Instead, the Continental ships harassed and distracted the British, while sending several of their longboats to help the Nancy’s crew unload the ship. The Americans could not keep up the fight for very long. The firefight resulted in one American sailor killed and another wounded before the Nancy decided to abandon its efforts to save the cargo. It had removed about two-thirds of the cargo before abandoning the ship.
Rather than let it fall into the hands of the enemy though, Captain Montgomery laid a long fuse down to the ship’s hold, still carrying a great deal of gunpowder. They could not keep it, but they also would not let it fall into enemy hands.
Seeing the Americans abandon ship, the Kingfisher sent a prize crew aboard the Nancy. The British were aboard when the fuse finally hit the powder magazine causing a huge explosion. A count of body parts after the fact, led to an estimate of 30 or 40 British officers and crew killed by the explosion.
Although the Americans lost their ship, the battle was widely considered an American victory. The Continental Navy fought a successful holding action against larger British warships and saved much of the cargo. It enhanced Barry’s reputation and that of the new Navy generally.
Next Week: the Continentals surrender Canada following the Battle of Three Rivers.
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Next Episode 95: The Battle of Trois-Rivières (Three Rivers)
Previous Episode 93: The Dave Mathews Band Breaks Up
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Resources to learn more about today’s topic.
American War of Independence at Sea: http://www.awiatsea.com/Index.html
Privateers and Mariners in the American Revolution: http://www.usmm.org/revolution.html
Privateers of the Revolution: http://www.massar.org/privateers-of-the-revolution
The Whale-Boat Men of Long Island Sound, by Jackson Kuhl, Journal of the American Revolution (2013) https://allthingsliberty.com/2013/11/whale-boat-men-long-island-sound
Overlooked Hero: General John Glover, by Michael Schellhammer, Journal of the American Revolution (2013): https://allthingsliberty.com/2013/07/overlooked-hero-general-john-glover
The Yankee Hero: http://www.awiatsea.com/Privateers/Y/Yankee%20Hero%20Massachusetts%20Brig%20%5BThomas%20Tracy%5D.html
Origins of Washington’s Fleet: http://www.awiatsea.com/Narrative/Origins%20of%20Washington's%20Fleet.html
Commodore Barry: http://www.ushistory.org/people/commodorebarry.htm
John Barry: True Father of the American Navy, by Jodie Gilmore (2010):
Naval Engagements 1775-1783 https://www.myrevolutionarywar.com/battles/1775-1783-naval
Rolling on the River: Delaware in the American Revolution, by Kim Burdick (2017):
The Battle of Turtle Gut Inlet https://cresthistory.org/turtlegut.php
Turtle Gut Inlet: http://www.revolutionarywarnewjersey.com/new_jersey_revolutionary_war_sites/towns/wildwood_crest_nj_revolutionary_war_sites.htm
Turtle Gut Park,NJ: http://www.revolutionarywarnewjersey.com/new_jersey_revolutionary_war_sites /towns/wildwood_crest_nj_revolutionary_war_sites.htm
(from archive.org unless noted)
Journal of the Continental Congress, Vol. 4, Jan-June, 1776 Govt. Printing Office, 1904.
Naval Documents of the American Revolution (Vols. 1-9) (from ANRS at ibiblio.org).
Griffin, Martin The Story of Commodore John Barry, Philadelphia, 1908.
Howe, Octavius T. Beverly Privateers in the American Revolution, The Univ. Press, 1922.
Maclay, Edgar Stanton A History of American Privateers, D. Appleton & Co. 1899.
Meany, William Commodore John Barry, the Father of the American Navy, Harper and Brothers, 1911.
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.
Patton, Robert H. Patriot Pirates: The Privateer War for Freedom and Fortune in the American Revolution, Pantheon, 2008 (book recommendation of the week).
Shomette, Donald G. Privateers of the Revolution: War on the New Jersey Coast, 1775-1783, Schiffer Publishing, 2016.
Willis, Sam The Struggle for Sea Power: A Naval History of the American Revolution, New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2016.
* This site is a registered Amazon Associate. Please help support this site by purchasing any of these books, or any other Amazon product, via the links on this site. If you start by clicking on a book link above and then browse to buy something completely different on Amazon, American Revolution Podcast will get credit for your purchase.