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America's First Naval Operations, 1776

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By Douglas V. Gibbs
Author, Speaker, Instructor, Radio Host

The formation of the Continental Navy on October 13, 1775 led to the creation of a small fleet of five ships by December, 1775.  Those five ships, Alfred, Columbus, Cabot, Providence, and Andrea Doria were under the command of Commodore Esek Hopkins.

On November 10, Congress authorized the formation of two Marine battalions for the purpose of defending the ships, and creating both offensive and defensive infantry capability for the new navy.  The battalions were stationed on board the Alfred with Captain Samuel Nicholas in command, and the Andrea Doria with Lieutenant Isaac Craig in command.  The young navy was tasked with defending American commerce on the open seas.  But, due to the fact that the Delaware River was frozen solid, the fleet remained inactive more a number of months.  During that time three more ships were added to the fleet, Fly, Hornet, and Wasp, with five companies of Marines assembled to sail with them.

February 18, 1776 the ships were able to move into the Atlantic Ocean for the first time.  While most ships of that era were equipped with 74 guns, the armament of the American vessels was quite small.

·       Alfred: 30 guns

·       Columbus: 28 guns

·       Cabot: 14 guns

·       Andrea Doria: 14 guns

·       Providence: 12 guns

·       Hornet: 10 guns

·       Wasp: 8 guns

·       Fly: 6 guns

Early on, well-knowing the ships were under-gunned, Commodore Hopkins decided it was not wise to confront British warships and instead his fleet set sail for the West Indies.  His target was Nassau, on New Providence Island, in the Bahamas.

March 1 at Great Abaco Island, north of New Providence Island, the American ships seized two small loyalist ships, and then the captured sailors were persuaded to assist the Americans in navigating the local waters.  The next day the Americans arrived at Nassau Harbor.

The arrival of American vessels in the Bahamas was a shock to British Governor Montfort Browne.  While the harbor entrance was heavily fortified with artillery at two forts the British did not have the manpower to provide a heavy enough barrage to thwart the approaching vessels.  The light barrage did accomplish the feat of keeping the incoming squadron of ships out of range, but the British leadership knew that if the Americans decided to press forward the Loyalists manning the island would not last for long.  During the night, to keep the gunpowder out of rebel hands, a sloop was loaded with a bulk of the precious cargo and sent to St. Augustine, Florida.  By morning the British saw that the American fleet remained anchored offshore beyond the range of British artillery, but an amphibious assault by American Marines was underway.  The staging point for the Marines had been Hanover Sound, nine miles east of Nassau.  284 Marines and Sailors participated in the amphibious assault.  The forty loyalist militiamen were outnumbered, and many of them abandoned the fight.  Governor Browne surrendered without a shot being fired, giving both forts and the small garrison to the Americans.  While most of the gunpowder was gone, the Patriots seized 88 cannons, 15 mortars, and valuable supplies that were badly needed for the war effort.

During the return trip to the mainland the American vessels encountered and engaged two small British warships on April 4.  Both the Hawk and the Bolton capitulated, since the lightly armed American Fleet was more massive and could fire from all directions.  From the mouths of the captured sailors Hopkins learned that British vessels were amassing near Newport, Rhode Island, so Hopkins pointed his fleet towards nearby New London, Connecticut.

April 6 the fleet encountered the British warship Glasgow, a 20-gun vessel commanded by Captain Tyringham Howe, along with a crew of 150 sailors.  The British vessel was sailing to Charleston with dispatches.  A battle ensued, and the American ships ultimately suffered more damage than they inflicted.  Ten sailors were killed, including Commodore Hopkins’ son, Captain John B. Hopkins, who was aboard the Cabot.  Unable to restrain the Glasgow the British ship escaped, and the American fleet arrived at its destination on April 8.  The first American naval campaign, with its small victories, boosted morale, and encouraged young naval officers like Lieutenant John Paul Jones aboard the Alfred to be better prepared for future maritime combat. 

In the grand scheme of things the launch of the American naval force and its initial victories forced the British Crown to reevaluate how and where it would distribute resources.  Later, after France allied itself with the Americans, naval warfare between the British and the French in the West Indies became common.

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