I’ve been neglecting the navy for some time now. My last episode on the topic was Episode 137, when Lambert Wickes raided ships around the British isles.
Off the North American coast, the British Navy continued to dominate the seas without serious challenge until the French Navy arrived. After its first raid on the Bahamas in early 1776, the Continental Navy accomplished little more than raiding unprotected merchant vessels carrying goods to the British Army, or going after the occasional smaller navy ship when an opportunity presented itself. Much of the fleet was bottled up in Rhode Island, trapped there by the British fleet.
Esek Hopkins Goes HomeYou may recall from back in Episode 84, that Commodore Esek Hopkins headed the Continental Navy. His fleet was trapped in Narragansett Bay for many months by the British fleet. Hopkins had come under heavy criticism for his failure to leave the bay before the British arrived and for his refusal to attempt an engagement with the British.
Congress had never really liked Hopkins. They had censored him in 1776 for his failure to obey the instructions they had given him to attack the British Navy. Instead, he had sailed off to the Bahamas. Never mind that their orders would have been suicide. Congress censored the Commodore, but then allowed him to continue his command.
By early 1777, many were calling for Hopkins removal. In February, several of his officers referred charges against Hopkins to the Continental Congress. Some of the charges seem rather silly. They included swearing and speaking ill of Congress’ Maritime Committee. I know it’s hard to imagine a sailor who swears. Even during the Revolutionary War era, it was quite common and did not ordinarily result in formal charges against a top ranking officer. Similarly, many other officers made derogatory remarks about Congress and the Marine Committee, so that did not seem outlandish either. But Congress did take them seriously and pursued them.
Other charges were more serious, such as the abuse of prisoners of war. Although under scrutiny, the complaints did not note a departure from the way other ship commanders treated prisoners who were unwilling to serve aboard ship. The other major complaint was his failure to recruit enough sailors for the fleet.
It was a fact that the navy did not have enough recruits. The biggest problem was that the states had granted letters of marque to thousands of privateer ships. Any competent sailor would earn far more on a privateer vessel and would not be subject to as severe discipline. So the navy was simply unable to compete for recruits. In short, Congress wanted a miracle worker, and Hopkins wasn’t performing any miracles.
In response to the charges against him, Hopkins arrested one of the officers who had brought charges to Congress’ attention. Lieutenant Richard Marvin faced a court martial as a result of the charges he sent to Congress. In April, the Court found Marvin guilty and dishonorably discharged him from service.
Esek Hopkins had received his command largely due to the support of his brother Stephen Hopkins, who was a delegate to the Continental Congress. Stephen left Congress in September 1776, shortly after Congress had censured Esek for his failure to follow Congress’ instructions on his first mission. Stephen’s resignation was purportedly for health reasons. He was suffering from trembling hands, what was, at the time, called a palsy. It’s not clear if the actions against his brother had anything to do with his resignation.
His departure left Esek without a friend in Congress. After Congress suspended him in March 1777, one would expect that he would have traveled to Philadelphia to confront these charges personally. We don’t know exactly why, but Esek opted not to do so. Very likely the reason was that he did not think he would get a fair hearing before Congress. On January 2, 1778 Congress formally dismissed Hopkins from service, without ever granting him a hearing in person or even requesting his presence to discuss the charges.
Hopkins responded by bringing a libel suit against his accusers for defamation. The defamation trial took place later in 1778 with a jury verdict for the defendants. Hopkins was ordered to pay costs. Even so, Hopkins still retained a local popularity. He was elected to the Rhode Island legislature, where he served on the State’s War Committee.
Congress did not bother to name a new Commander of the Continental Navy. Instead, it issued orders directly to ship captains, or gave them a fair amount of discretion to go do whatever they could.
John Adams Goes to France
By the time of Hopkins’ removal from office in January 1778, John Adams was long gone from Congress. He had taken his leave in early November 1777 to return home to Massachusetts. Congressional service was grueling and did not even pay enough to cover his personal expenses while serving. After two and a half years of service, Adams had had enough. He returned home and resumed the private practice of law.
Before he left, his colleagues suggested that they might need him to serve in France. Silas Deane was being recalled. Benjamin Franklin was old and could possibly fall ill. Nobody really trusted Arthur Lee. Adams’ fellow delegates believed they needed him in Paris. Adams though demurred. He did not speak French and was one of the least diplomatic delegates already. Serving as an ambassador to France would not play to his strengths.
After returning home though, Adams received notice that Congress had appointed him anyway. He could have refused. Thomas Jefferson had refused the same appointment a year earlier. But Adams believed his services were important to the cause. Besides, his return home was hurting his public reputation. Rumors began to spread that he had been forced to leave Congress. Failure to accept this position might hurt his public reputation further.
|John Quincy Adams
Also aboard the ship were two other young men. William Vernon, Jr. a recent college graduate and the son of a member of the Maritime Committee. Vernon was headed to France to start a career in international trade. Joining them aboard ship was Jesse Deane, the eleven year old son of Silas Deane, the man that Adams was to replace. Adams was responsible for the three of them during the voyage.
The Boston was a substantial ship for the Continental Navy. It had thirty guns, although Adams thought it had too many guns for the size of the ship. Adams was never shy about expressing his opinions to anyone. He peppered Captain Tucker with suggestions about ship discipline, cleanliness, organization, and host of other things. Since Adams was a VIP, Tucker had to do his best to accommodate and comply with Adams’ many suggestions.
Adams, who had never been at sea before, also got rather seasick for much of the journey. The ship did have to outrun a few British warships during the crossing. Tucker debated fighting them. However, his priority was to get Adams safely to France. Therefore he avoided any combat.
Following this trip, Captain Tucker would command the Boston for several more years, capturing numerous prizes and doing battle with the British Navy. His avoidance of a fight on this trip was due to his duty, not any desire to avoid combat. When the Boston got closer to the French coast, it came across a British privateer, the Martha, with fourteen guns. With Adams’ permission the Boston captured the ship and took it as a prize.
A few hours later, the Boston chased down another merchant ship, although it turned out to French. Before they realized that, the Boston fired a warning shot which resulted in the cannon exploding. Adams had to help carry an injured lieutenant below deck for surgery, and held him down while the surgeon amputated the young officer’s leg. Despite their efforts, the man died a week later.
As they approached the French coast, the Boston came within range of two large British men of war. Everyone feared capture, but the ships did not attack. Instead, they simply sailed on past them in the other direction. A few days later, a local French pilot informed the men that France and Britain had gone to war only four days earlier. By the last week of March, Adams was safely ashore in France.
The French public welcomed Adams and his party enthusiastically. War had just begun and everyone was still caught up in the thrill of fighting for American liberty. Adams and his party were toasted and feted wherever they went. The thing that irked him most was that everyone kept confusing him with his cousin Samuel Adams.
Adams made his way by coach to Paris in a mere four days. There, he met up with the rest of the American Commissioners and immediately got caught up in all the internal dissension between Lee, Franklin, Deane, and Izard. That will be the topic of a future episode. For now, it was enough that John Adams arrived in France, made his introductions to the Compte de Vergennes at Versailles, and embarked on his new career as a diplomat.
Aside from the navy ships trapped in New England, and those shuttling VIPs like Adams, a few ships were actually trying to engage the British. One such ship was the Randolph, captained by Nicholas Biddle. He was the son of a wealthy and prominent merchant family in Philadelphia. At age thirteen, Biddle took a position aboard a merchant vessel headed for the West Indies. Seven years later, in 1770, he took a commission in the Royal Navy as a midshipman. After three years, he resigned his commission to participate in the Arctic expedition to the North Pole, along with Skeffington Lutwidge, a British Navy officer I mentioned back in Episode 145, and another junior officer by the name of Horatio Nelson.
|Capt. Nicholas Biddle
When the war began in 1775, Biddle offered his services to Pennsylvania, and took command of a small row galley on the Delaware River named the Franklin. In December, he received one of the first commissions as captain in the new Continental Navy. He commanded the fourteen gun Andrew Doria, which was part of the fleet that Commodore Hopkins took to the Bahamas.
Biddle was one of the captains who criticized Hopkins’ command on that mission. His criticism of the Commodore’s competence led, in part, to Congress’ censure of Hopkins later that year. While Hopkins then got trapped in Narragansett Bay, Biddle remained at sea. He sailed as far north as Newfoundland in search of British shipping. His mission was so successful, that he returned with a skeleton crew of only five sailors. The rest had been deployed as prize crews on all the ships he had captured.
Upon his successful return to Philadelphia, Congress rewarded the young captain with the command of the newly-completed Randolph. The ship was named after Peyton Randolph, who served as President of the First Continental Congress, and for a few months on the Second Continental Congress. Although he had taken some sick leave, he had returned and then dropped dead while still serving in Congress in Philadelphia in October 1775.
The Randolph was a 32 gun frigate with a crew of over 300. It was one of America’s larger ships, but still nothing that could compete with British ships of the line. In October 1776 Captain Nicolas Biddle took command of the Randolph. By that time, the twenty-six year old Biddle had already spent half of his life at sea.
Biddle received his appointment in July 1776, a week after Congress declared independence. However, he did not take command until mid-October. His first obstacle was assembling the crew for such a large warship. As I said, most sailors were serving aboard privateers and had no interest in joining the navy. In order to fill the ship’s crew, Biddle had to take British sailors being held as prisoners in Philadelphia. These were not volunteers. The soldiers assigned to escort the new sailors to their ship had to fire their guns into the prison windows in order to force the reluctant recruits out of the prison and aboard ship.
On its maiden voyage the Randolph escorted a merchant fleet out of Delaware Bay, with ships headed for France and the West Indies. Having gotten the ships to sea, the Randolph sailed north in search of a British frigate that had been capturing New England merchant ships.
While at sea, the new ship faced a number of construction problems. During a storm at sea, the ship’s foremast broke off. As the crew attempted a repair, lightning struck the mainmast, causing it to splinter and fall into the ocean.
On top of everything else, a fever broke out among the crew, killing some and leaving many more unfit for duty. Around this time, the British sailors who had become part of the crew, attempted to mutiny and take control of the ship. Biddle and his officers were able to restore control and arrest the ringleaders.
The Randolph made it to Charleston, South Carolina on March 11, 1777 where she put in for repairs. It took two months to complete the repairs, during which time the ship lost a large portion of its crew to desertion and disease. Biddle had to offer bounties to attract more crew members before they could finally leave port on August 16. As they left the harbor, the Randolph boarded the Fair American and took off two crewmembers who had previously deserted the Randolph for work aboard the merchant ship.
In early September, the Randolph spotted a twenty gun loyalist privateer called the True Briton. That ship was traveling with four other ships that it had already captured. The group was on its way to New York with rum, sugar, salt and other supplies for the British army. Instead, Biddle delivered the ships to Charleston.
After that successful mission, the Randolph remained in Charleston for most of the winter, putting itself in dry dock to have its hull scraped for barnacles.
In February, 1778, the Randolph formed a convoy with four smaller South Carolina navy ships, the General Moultrie, Notre Dame, Fair American, and Polly. This fleet would attempt to confront British warships that were preventing merchants from leaving harbor. The group escorted a fleet of ships leaving Charleston Harbor, but failed to find the British. After the merchant ships went on their way, the fleet continued its search for the British Navy.
They did come across a damaged New England ship that a British privateer was bringing to the British port at St. Augustine. Biddle burned the ship since they could not bring it to port and did not want to let it fall into enemy hands. For two more weeks, the fleet sailed around finding nothing. On March 4, they captured a small schooner from New York that was headed to Granada. Biddle turned it into a tender ship for the fleet.
Battle with the Yarmouth
A few days later on March 7, spotted another ship on the horizon. By the time the ship caught up to them that evening, they discovered it was a British ship of the line. The Yarmouth with sixty-four guns, twice as many as the Randolph. Its guns were also much larger, meaning they had greater range and could do more damage. The experienced captain, Nicholas Vincent, would go on to become an admiral.
|The Yarmouth and Randolph
Despite this setback, the smaller Randolph seemed to be getting the better of the fight, knocking out one of the Yarmouth’s masts and damaging her sails. Then, about fifteen minutes into the fight, the Randolph suddenly exploded, presumably her munitions magazine was either hit or someone set it off.
The deafening explosion completely destroyed the ship and its crew. The Yarmouth was close enough that it suffered some damage from the explosion, and reported chunks of the Randolph as large as six feet long crashing onto the deck. A British officer also reported that the Randolph’s ensign was flung onto their ship from the explosion.
The Yarmouth set out after the smaller ships, but was too badly damaged to give chase. The British had suffered five killed and twelve wounded. Five days after the battle, the Yarmouth came across some wreckage, and took aboard four survivors. As it turned, out these men were survivors of the Randolph explosion. The men had survived on rainwater only for several days until rescued. Out of a crew of over three hundred, those four would be the only survivors.
Next week, we return to America to cover the Republic of Vermont.
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Action off Barbados: http://www.justinmuseum.com/tjoschultz/randolph.html
Clark, William Bell, and Nicholas Biddle. “The Letters of Captain Nicholas Biddle.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, vol. 74, no. 3, 1950, pp. 348–405. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20088148
(from archive.org unless noted)
Adams, Charles Francis Adams and John Quincy Adams The Life of John Adams, Vol. 1, J.B. Lippincott and Co. 1871.
Allen, Gardner Weld A Naval History of the American Revolution, Vol.I, Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. 1913.
Clark, William Bell; Morgan, William James; Crawford, Michael J. (eds) Naval documents of the American Revolution, Vol. 8, Washington: Dept. of the Navy, 1964.
Field, Edward Esek Hopkins, commander-in-chief of the continental navy during the American Revolution, 1775 to 1778, Providence : Preston & Rounds Co. 1898
James, William A full and correct account of the chief naval occurrences of the late war between Great Britain and the United States of America, London: T. Egerton, 1817
Maclay, Edgar S. A History of the United States Navy, from 1775 to 1898, New York: D. Appleton and Co. 1898.
Books Worth Buying
(links to Amazon.com unless otherwise noted)*
Clark, William Bell Captain Dauntless: The Story of Nicholas Biddle of the Continental Navy, Louisiana State Univ. Press, 1949 (book recommendation of the week).
McGrath, Tim Give Me a Fast Ship: The Continental Navy and America's Revolution at Sea, NAL Caliber, 2014.
Smith, Paige John Adams, Vol. 1, Doubleday & Co. 1966.
* As an Amazon Associate I earn from qualifying purchases.