11 September 2013

The Founding of the U.S. Continental Navy: Tuesday Talk Part Two

(click for Part One here)
The Founding of the U.S. Continental Navy, 1775 by John Fitzhugh Millar

The Frigate Rose has arrived at Rhode Island....

.... and in a few weeks the rum industry died. Thousands of people who had become unemployed had to pack up and move to Connecticut to look for a new job. Rose ventured as far from Newport as Long Island Sound, but generally she remained close to Newport, which meant that the smuggling industry could not be revived.

Rose (the present day replica)
While she was there, she was assigned additional duties by the admiral. British troops in Boston were mostly under embargo by the Rebels against buying food in Massachusetts, so ships like Rose in the rest of the northeast were expected to purchase food in their area and send it by sea to Boston. Captain James Wallace on Rose was given large amounts of gold coins with which to buy the necessary cattle, sheep, hogs, poultry and grain, but frequently he found that Rebels had visited the farms shortly before his arrival and removed the stock – after he had paid for it in full. Soon, other ships arrived to assist Wallace in his duties, the 24-gun frigates Glasgow and Scarborough, and the 16-gun corvettes Swan, Nautilus and Kingsfisher, as well as the bomb-brig Bolton and several small smuggling vessels Wallace had confiscated. In order to meet his quota of food for Boston, the now Commodore Wallace was obliged to apply more pressure.

The Rhode Island General Assembly reacted to Wallace’s pressure by re-establishing the long-dormant Rhode Island Colonial Navy on 12 June 1775, the first navy of any colony in the Revolution. Three days later, that navy’s two sloops, the 10-gun Katy commanded by Abraham Whipple under charter from Providence merchant John Brown and the smaller vessel called Washington, engaged and captured the armed sloop Diana, which was being used by Wallace to assist him in patrolling Narragansett Bay. This was the first capture by any official American navy in the Revolution, but it was by no stretch a continental navy. Eventually, other Colonies established their own navies, except for New Jersey; in the case of Delaware, Sussex County briefly established its own navy. The various state navies achieved little, except the Pennsylvania Navy under Commodore John Hazelwood, and the Massachusetts Navy. The South Carolina Navy had the largest ships, the most impressive being the 44-gun frigate South Carolina, a forerunner of the 1797 Constitution.

In the mean ime, young men led by Jeremiah O’Brien at Machias in northeastern Maine (then a colony of Massachusetts) were so incensed by the news of the recent battles of Concord and Lexington and the seizure that same week of Virginia gunpowder at Williamsburg by sailors from the small British schooner Magdalen that they decided to take action. Magdalen’s sister ship Margaretta happened to be in the Machias area making measurements for coastal charts, collecting timber, and generally keeping the peace in the region, so these brave men, armed with little more than pitchforks, took two local sloops, Polly and Unity, on 12 June and captured the schooner. A few days later, they captured two other small survey vessels. That was of course not a continental navy.

A month earlier than the Maine incident, Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold and their men captured Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain, New York. The cannons taken from the fort were laboriously hauled under the leadership of Henry Knox to Boston, where they were able to convert the embargo of the British into an actual siege. Benedict Arnold rightly suspected that the British would want to cut New England off from the rest of the Colonies by bringing an army down Lake Champlain, so he formed a plan to acquire a fleet of armed ships on the lake to resist and delay the British move. A few days before the fort was taken, Benedict Arnold and a few followers captured the ketch-rigged yacht Katharine from its Loyalist owner, Philip Skene, outfitted her with eight cannons, renamed her Liberty, and sailed her to the northern part of the lake. There they captured two small British warships without a shot being fired, the 10-gun sloop George (renamed Enterprise) and the still unlaunched 12-gun schooner Royal Savage, as well as a partly-constructed 8-gun cutter (later named Lee). Arnold also destroyed other vessels that could have been useful to the British. He was working with men from Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New York, and New Hampshire, but this significant achievement, which took place on 18 May 1775, was not an official continental navy.

Benedict Arnold

George Washington was commander-in-chief of the Continental Army encamped near Boston. His biggest obstacle was that British troops occupying Boston were receiving all the food and other supplies they needed by sea – such as those sent by Wallace from Rhode Island – so Washington’s siege of the city was very porous. Congress had given Washington no authority to take any action except on land. He knew that if he asked for permission to arm some ships he would either be turned down or Congress would take months to deliberate about it. Therefore, on 2 September 1775, the Continental Army chartered the first of seven Marblehead fishing schooners, Hannah, and outfitted her with four cannons under the command of Nicholas Broughton. Hannah and her armed fishing-boat consorts Lynch, Franklin, Lee, Warren, Washington, and Harrison captured many British supply ships in the following year until Congress ordered the fleet disbanded, but that was still not a continental navy.

George Washington
On 26 August 1775, the Rhode Island General Assembly, realizing that it would take more naval power than one colony could muster to dislodge Wallace and his fleet from Rhode Island, passed a resolution urging Congress to establish a national navy. Congress was not in session until the fall, but as soon as sessions resumed Stephen Hopkins introduced a bill to create a Continental Navy of two ships. Hopkins in the mean time had talked to many members of the Congress, and they had told him that if he expected to obtain passage of his bill he had better make the navy as small as possible. With strong support from Silas Deane of Connecticut and John Adams and John Hancock (himself a notorious smuggler) of Massachusetts, but opposed by the powerful Samuel Chase of Maryland, the bill passed on 13 October 1775, and the Continental Navy was at last born.
John Adams
 According to Deane, the two vessels mentioned in the bill were the Rhode Island sloop Katy and the 14-gun Connecticut brig Minerva. However, both vessels had problems. The officers and crew of Minerva unanimously refused to enter Continental service, so she had to be dropped, and it turned out that Katy was not immediately available because she was off on a long voyage on Washington’s behalf. Washington had asked Rhode Island authorities if they would send her to Bermuda to take the island’s gunpowder before the British could remove it, so she had departed on 12 September, encountered a serious hurricane, found that the British had already removed the Bermuda powder, and returned home by 20 October. At that point, she was fitted with two additional cannons, for a total of 12, and at some other date she was fitted for a time with 14 (Hopkins and his business associates had developed a cannon foundry just outside Providence), and she was renamed Providence before being turned over to Continental service.

Hopkins was very clever. He knew that Congress was terrified of taking on a naval commitment beyond their ability to finance it, so he started small, and every few days he was able to persuade them to vote for a few more ships. On 30 October, four additional vessels were added, the 24-gun ship Alfred (formerly the Philadelphia merchant ship Black Prince), the 20-gun ship Columbus (formerly the Philadelphia merchant ship Sally, unusual for her size in that she had no head), and the 14-gun brigs Cabot (formerly a Baltimore merchant vessel also named Sally) and Andrew Doria (ex-Defiance), all renamed in honor of famous maritime heroes of the past. Shortly afterward, the 8-gun schooner Wasp (previously named Scorpion) was added, along with the 10-gun sloops Hornet (ex-Falcon), and Fly. The ship Reprisal (formerly Molly) – first American ship to take the war to British home waters late in 1776 -- and two other brigs, Lexington (formerly Wild Duck) and Hampden, and the sloop Mosquito were also added, but were not made part of the first squadron planned for a big joint operation. 

 On 25 November, Congress established the Marine Committee (one member from each state) to direct naval policy and operations. On 13 December, Congress was persuaded to start construction on 13 new frigates, a massive undertaking. The Marine Committee decided that naval officers should wear blue breeches, blue coats with red facings, and red waistcoats (later in the war, some officers unilaterally replaced the red with white and added white breeches, so as to appear more like their British counterparts), and that marines should wear green coats with white facings and white small-clothes (this was changed to red facings later in the war).

By Christmas, Stephen Hopkins had about thirty ships authorized through using his incremental method; if he had introduced a bill in the beginning for thirty ships it would have gone down in flames. The first vessels were obviously existing merchant ships that merely had to be modified, but almost twenty would be genuine warships that had to be built from scratch, and they would take a long time to build. On 10 November, thanks again to Hopkins’ initiative, Congress also authorized two battalions of a Marine Corps to serve on the ships, commanded by Samuel Nicholas.

Congress moved surprisingly fast to get the first fleet ready for sea. In many cases, they had to have gunports cut and reinforced in the sides of the ships, and they had to find the necessary cannons (usually all the same size on any given ship, so that they could use interchangeable cannonballs); many of those cannons came from the foundry established by Stephen Hopkins and the Brown brothers at Scituate, Rhode Island. But, what about sailors? In peacetime, Providence had a crew of five men, one boy, and a Newfoundland dog (the dog was to rescue anyone who fell overboard, a plan that normally worked quite well), but in wartime the sloop had a crew of 80 men, including marines (but no dog). She was so small that not all 80 had room to sleep at the same time. Luckily, Rhode Island had huge numbers of unemployed sailors, with the result that tiny Rhode Island supplied roughly half of the seamen, officers and captains for the Continental Navy. By 10 January 1776, less than three months after the first bill passed, the first small fleet of eight ships was ready for sea in the Delaware. But then it appeared that Congress had made a big mistake.

Providence (present day replica)

Congress considered that when it had established the Continental Army a few months earlier on 14 June 1775, it had appointed George Washington to command it and had given him almost the powers of a dictator (he did not see it that way, of course). He had not yet abused those powers, but that could be only a matter of time, they thought. Therefore, since they had a small amount of time before the ships were ready for sea, they wrote a different job description for the head of the navy with the rank of commodore. This man would have almost no power at all. All he could do was convene meetings of the captains, and the captains would vote what their strategy and tactics would be! Fortunately, that policy was soon scrapped, but not before it had ruined the career of the first man in charge of the navy.

Congress reinforced their lack of confidence in their head of the navy by giving him the rank of Commodore, which is normally a temporary and honorary rank, meaning no more than “first among the captains.” That meant that he was equivalent to no higher in the army than a colonel, even though he could theoretically have had up to 4000 men under his command. Similarly, the commandant of the Marine Corps had no higher a rank than Major, even though he could have had up to 1000 men under his command.

Hopkins was given the task of finding the right man to head the navy. According to the [British] Dictionary of National Biography, Hopkins selected Jahleel Brenton (1729-1802) of Newport, the highest-ranking American lieutenant in the Royal Navy, who later went on to become an admiral. Not surprisingly, Brenton politely declined. Then Hopkins turned to his own brother Esek, an experienced merchant ship captain with some military experience on land and command of privateer ships in the French & Indians War.

The first captains and commanders of Commodore Esek Hopkins’ fleet were Dudley Saltonstall of Connecticut (Alfred), Abraham Whipple of Rhode Island (Columbus), John Burroughs Hopkins of Rhode Island (Cabot), Nicholas Biddle of Philadelphia (Andrew Doria), John Hazard of Rhode Island (Providence), William Stone of Maryland (Hornet), Hoysted Hacker of Rhode Island (Fly), and Charles Alexander of Philadelphia (Wasp). Other captains outside the fleet were John Barry of Philadelphia (Lexington) and Lambert Wickes of Maryland (Reprisal). Scotsman John Paul Jones, incidentally, then a resident of Fredericksburg, Virginia, started out as a lieutenant aboard the flagship Alfred; his first naval command would be the “lucky” sloop Providence in May 1776.
Commodore Esek Hopkins called a meeting aboard his flagship Alfred on 10 January in the frigid Delaware, and told the captains that Congress would like them to go to the Chesapeake Bay to dislodge former Governor Lord Dunmore and his flotilla of dormitory ships containing thousands of slaves that Dunmore had freed from outraged planters, led by the 24-gun frigate Fowey, or go to South Carolina to see that the waters around Charleston were safe from British warships, or go to Rhode Island to attack Rose and whichever consorts remained there (usually Glasgow and Scarborough, 20-24; Swan and Kingsfisher, each 14). Rumor held that the British had sent powerful reinforcements to the Chesapeake, exceeding the strength of the American fleet, and the fleet had no charts or pilots for Charleston; in fact, General Clinton and his troops spent a week in February in the Chesapeake aboard the frigate Mercury (another sister of Rose) and several transports, but he was on his way to an unsuccessful invasion of Charleston in June. Virginia had founded its own navy in December 1775, authorizing five ships, of which the most prominent was the 14-gun brig Liberty (almost identical to Cabot), commanded by James Barron I. South Carolina had founded its own navy in the summer of 1775 with at least four vessels, Commerce, Defence, Comet, and the bigger ship Prosper

Commodore Hopkins looked around the table. Between them, Rhode Island and Connecticut captains held a majority, so surely they would vote to make the attack on the British ships in Rhode Island? But they replied that Rhode Island was too cold in the middle of the winter, and they would rather sail somewhere warm, like the Bahamas! As an excuse, it was known that the substantial supply of gunpowder at Fort Nassau on New Providence was only lightly guarded, and Congress was always short of gunpowder, so they sailed to Nassau, a destination not even contemplated by Congress. 

The ensign that they flew on all Continental Navy vessels from late 1775 onwards was that known as the Grand Union. It consisted of the British Union in the canton (not of course the modern British Union, which has an additional red diagonal cross representing Ireland; until 1801, Ireland was considered a Colony and was therefore not part of the United Kingdom), and thirteen stripes in the fly, sometimes red and white stripes, and sometimes red, white, and blue stripes. This flag was the official flag of the United States until Congress passed a flag resolution in the middle of June 1777, whereby the British Union was replaced by a field strewn with thirteen stars. Those stars, usually white on a blue field, but occasionally blue stars on a white field, were arranged in various ways, with perhaps the majority in rows of 3-2-3-2-3. The “jack” (flag flown in the bow of warships) was simply thirteen stripes (whether red & white, red & blue, or red, white & blue) containing a lengthwise rattlesnake and the legend “Don’t tread on me.”

After the middle of 1777, the jack often became a simple blue flag with thirteen stars, although the rattlesnake version is also known to have continued. Other flags sometimes associated with Continental Navy ships (but probably never authorized) included a yellow flag with a coiled rattlesnake and the legend “Don’t tread on me,” and white flags with a green and black tree and the legend “An appeal to God,” or “An appeal to Heaven.”

First official salute to the American flag on board
an American warship
in a foreign port, at St. Eustatius
in the West Indies,
on November 16, 1776
Fifty seamen and 270 marines under the command of Captain Samuel Nicholas were landed just over two miles north of the fort. Fort Nassau was guarded by four mere militiamen, who had one telescope between them, and when they saw the force of over 300 armed men about to attack they knew they would have no chance of holding the fort. Therefore, they asked townsfolk to help them roll the fort’s barrels of powder down to the pier and put them aboard the same schooner Saint John (commanded this time by Lieutenant William Grant) that had plagued Newport some twelve years earlier. Saint John and a chartered sloop Mississippi Packet were ordered by Governor Montfort Browne to take the 162 barrels of powder to the fort at Saint Augustine, Florida, where it was quite safe. When the American troops reached Fort Nassau, they found the door wide open, no guards inside – and no powder. Next, they scrounged around the island in search of anything that could justify the expedition. They found a small amount of powder, 68 large, ancient, rusty cannons, and a substantial supply of balls, which they loaded aboard the ships, along with an important prisoner, British Governor Montfort Browne.

 It was now springtime, and presumably warmer in Rhode Island, so the captains voted to set sail for Newport and bring Rose to battle. They reached the Newport area on 8 April 1776, unaware of other developments in New England. Heavy cannons dragged from Lake Champlain by General Knox’s troops had begun to bombard British troops in Boston. The British had therefore evacuated Boston on Saint Patrick’s Day (17 March) 1776, so they no longer needed the small fleet in Rhode Island to purchase supplies for them. The Rhode Island smuggling industry was completely dead, so there was no further reason for the fleet to remain. Therefore, Rose had just departed for Halifax on 7 April and missed the Americans by only a few hours. Glasgow took a few additional hours getting under way, so the fleet fought a poorly coordinated battle with her in the dead of night, with no significant damage. However, the American fleet, which was severely weakened by disease, managed to capture the  British schooner Hawke commanded by Wallace’s nephew, the first capture by the Continental Navy fleet. The very same day, John Barry and the Lexington captured a similar British vessel, Edward, off the Delaware, and she was taken into the Continental Navy as the sloop Sachem.

The Rhode Island General Assembly then made a courageous decision. No British ships remained in the Colony, and an American fleet (really rather a paper tiger) was anchored nearby in case help was needed. In order to give the British warships no legal reason to return, tiny Rhode Island, which had been mostly independent from the beginning, officially declared its independence from Great Britain on 4 May 1776, two months ahead of the rest of the country, and hurriedly sent a message to Congress urging them to do the same, which Stephen Hopkins also urged them to do. Hopkins, who was stricken by Parkinson’s disease, eagerly signed the national Declaration of Independence in his unsteady handwriting before retiring from Congress. Rhode Island Independence Day is still a state holiday with speeches, flags, and parades.

When the Revolution was over, the other States had the same freedom to elect their own public officials, so they no longer needed Rhode Island to provide leadership. Rhode Island merchants hoped that they could return to their old smuggling industry, but it soon became obvious that Congress was no friendlier to smugglers than the British had been. Newport, which had once been almost on a level economic footing with Boston and New York, never recovered. It is today a small city with the largest collection of Colonial buildings still standing. Rhode Island took time to adjust to its changed circumstances, and so the State that was first to declare independence was also the last to ratify the constitution on 29 May 1790.

By the end of the war, a total of about 83 vessels had been in continental service, if you include Washington’s fishing-schooners in Massachusetts and Arnold’s fleet on Lake Champlain. They ranged from 3-gun gondolas to a 74-gun battleship. As the war ended, the Continental Navy was in desperate straits; it possessed only three warships (Alliance, 36 guns; General Washington, 20 guns; and Le Duc de Lauzun, 18 guns) and not enough sailors to man even one of them. Le Duc de Lauzun was sold in France later in 1783, leaving only two ships at Philadelphia. Consequently, when George III (at the urging of Benedict Arnold) generously offered US Ambassador John Adams that the Royal Navy could guard American merchant ships in the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean from the depredations of the plentiful North African Arab pirates at no charge, Congress gratefully put the navy out of business, dismissed its few sailors, and sold its last ships. The United States was thus without a navy from 1785 until 1797, a welcome respite from having to pay for protection at a time when saving that money was critical to the successful launch of the new nation.

My thanks to John for this extremely interesting article - I, along with many others here in the UK, always assumed that the American War of Independence started with the famous Boston Tea Party.... just shows that assumed history is not always accurate!

John & wife Cathy
About John

John and his wife Cathy run a superb B & B establishment Newport House in Colonial Williamsburg - highly recommended! He built the 24-gun Revolutionary War frigate Rose in 1969-70, which had a 15-year career of successful adventure/sail-training on the East Coast into the Great Lakes, and the Caribbean, as well as one glorious Summer in Europe, educating up to 31 subscribed trainees per week ranging in  ages from 8 to 80..until she sailed to the West Coast to co-star with Russell Crowe in Master & Commander: to the Far Side of the World. She is now permanently on display as Surprise at the Maritime Museum of San Diego.
In addition he built the 12-gun sloop Providence (first vessel of the Continental Navy in October 1775) in 1974-76, which had a successful sail-training career, starred in Pirates of the Caribbean II and III, until she was bought by the City of Providence to remain on their waterfront and is currently in service in Providence, RI working with day sails for school children.

He also designed the brig Lady Washington (copy of the first American vessel to reach the West Coast in 1787) in the 1980s for the non-profit organization in Aberdeen, Washington that uses her for port visits and adventure/sail training cruises. She has starred in Star Trek Generations and the original Pirates of the Caribbean. Now named "The Official Ship of the State of Washington," She was recognized for 16 years of service as a goodwill ambassador to the nation and the world and as a floating classroom for young people from across the country. The State of Washington was named after the ship, not after George.

Lady Washington

the Colonial Navy web-site: www.colonialnavy.org

If you found this article engrossing do call back next week to my article in the Weigh Anchor for a Nautical Blog Hop - which will be more about Rose aka HMS Surprise - aka my own Sea Witch


  1. Wonderful post. Taught me more about my own state than I ever learned or knew, though I have been on the new 'Rose' on multiple occasion. Thanks so much from a proud Rhode Islander!

  2. Message from John F Millar: One up-date about the sloop Providence: the city of Providence sold her a couple of years ago to Capt. Thorpe Leeson, and he takes her on day-sails with passengers out of Newport, but now he wants to sell her. If and when my Colonial Navy project gets funded, we will try to buy her and make some serious changes to her; for example, it is really stupid for a vessel like that to have a single [ancient] diesel engine: she should have twin smaller diesels with twin screws, and they should be mounted on deck, so as to open more space for accommodations below (each diesel weighs only about 130 kg, so their weight on deck will be negligible). I’m sure you saw the videos last summer of that poor Dutch sail-training brig that went on the rocks on the coast of Ireland because her single [ancient] diesel quit at a crucial moment, but if she had had two diesels that could never have happened.


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