Broadsides: The Age of Fighting Sail, 1775-1815by Nathan Miller
Praise for BROADSIDES
"Pace the pitching black deck with a sleepless Admiral Nelson the night before battle bestows eternal rest and peerless immortality upon him; envision with Mahan the storm-tossed and ever-watchful ships-of-the-line that kept England secure from invasion; wonder in awe at Collingwood's dedication in working himself to death after Trafalgar
Praise for BROADSIDES
"Pace the pitching black deck with a sleepless Admiral Nelson the night before battle bestows eternal rest and peerless immortality upon him; envision with Mahan the storm-tossed and ever-watchful ships-of-the-line that kept England secure from invasion; wonder in awe at Collingwood's dedication in working himself to death after Trafalgar elevated him to primary responsibility for England's imperial safety in the Mediterranean. All of this and more awaits the reader who will sail through these pages, every one of which is etched with the indelible expertise and boundless enthusiasm of Nathan Miller, master of naval history."Kenneth J. Hagan, Professor of History and Museum Director Emeritus, U.S. Naval Academy, Professor of Strategy, U.S. Naval War College
"This is not just inspired naval historythe personal lives of the seafarers themselves, from cabin boy to admiral, are given generous treatment."The Times (London)
"A wealth of detail...Descriptions of dreadful living conditions aboard cramped wooden vessels give way to bloody decks after close combat....A solid introduction to a turbulent era at sea."Publishers Weekly
"[As] a companion to the popular nautical novels of C. S. Forester and Patrick O'Brianit succeeds brilliantly."Daily Telegraph (London)
"The descriptions of the great sea commanders and their battles display all the craft of the gifted writer....Read Broadsides for enjoyment as a well-informed, action-packed naval narrative."The Christ Church Press
- Turner Publishing Company
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- 6.14(w) x 9.21(h) x 0.82(d)
Read an Excerpt
"Attack, Take, or Destroy"
BLASTED DOWN BY the hammer of the sea, the handful of ships buried themselves to their hawseholes in the long Atlantic swells, only to rise again, white foam exploding over their bows. Under the stress of wind and waves, they creaked, groaned, and heaved like living things. The day before, February 18, 1776, the Continental Navy's first fleet had slipped past the loose British blockade of the Delaware capes to the open sea. Heavy weather had struck the ships almost immediately, and black squalls swept across their decks. With the coming of daylight, the swaths of rain parted long enough for Commodore Esek Hopkins to discover that two of his ships, the sloop Hornet and the schooner Fly, had drifted off during the night. He ordered lookouts to the mastheads of his six remaining vessels with the hope of sighting the stragglers.
Now, even though the sea had moderated, the pitching horizon was empty except for a ragged edge of steely gray clouds. Hopkins studied the logboard of his flagship, a bluff-bowed ex-merchantmen named Alfred, now rated as a frigate and armed with thirty guns. He made a rough calculation, and once it was completed, signaled his remaining ships to proceed to a previously arranged rendezvous off Grand Abaco Island in the Bahamas to await the missing craft.
Ten months had passed since the news of the fighting at Lexington and Concord raced through the American colonies like fire in a ship's rigging. The rebellious colonists had immediately organized an army to besiege the British army in Boston, with George Washington named asits chief. But more time was needed to get a makeshift navy to sea because the insurgents were reluctant to challenge the might of the Royal Navy. Hopkins, a fifty-seven-year-old Rhode Island merchant skipper and onetime privateersman, was chosen by the Continental Congress to command its first fleet more as a tribute to the political influence of his elder brother, Stephen Hopkins, a member of the body, than to his fighting skills. Events were to prove that he lacked the strategic sense and qualities of leadership for a naval commander.
In addition to Alfred, Hopkins' ships consisted of Columbus, also rated as a frigate and armed with twenty-eight guns; the brigantines Andrew Doria, sixteen, and Cabot, fourteen; the sloop Providence, twelve; and the schooner Wasp, eight. A new flag that combined the British Union Jack with alternating red and white stripes flew over them the emblem of the United Colonies but the ships looked like the stolid merchantmen they had been until transformed into a semblance of men-of-war.
Hopkins had been instructed to take his ships to Chesapeake Bay, where he was to "attack, take, or destroy" a small armada amassed by Lord Dunmore, the deposed royal governor of Virginia, that was harassing the area. If adverse weather conditions prevented this mission from being carried out, the commodore was to use his own discretion. Having received word that the British had stockpiled a large amount of gunpowder and arms at New Providence (now Nassau) in the Bahamas, Hopkins targeted that island rather than the Chesapeake, without informing Congress of his decision.
While lying in the lee of Grand Abaco, vainly awaiting the missing Fly, of eight guns, and Hornet, ten, Hopkins learned that New Providence was heavily fortified, so he decided to capture it by surprise. Two Bahama sloops were seized, crammed with marines and sailors and sent into the harbor while the remainder of the ships were to keep below the horizon until the initial advantage had been gained. But the plan miscarried because the Americans showed their hand too soon. Instead of keeping out of sight, the fleet went bowling along in the wake of the sloops. Suddenly a puff of smoke blossomed from a fort. This was followed by the thud of a heavy gun and the nearby splash of a round shot.
Surprise lost, Hopkins diverted his ships to the opposite side of the island. Under cover of the guns of Wasp and Providence about two hundred marines and fifty sailors landed on an empty beach on March 3, 1776, for the first amphibious landing ever made by American forces. Marching overland, they took the defenders from the rear and compelled their surrender after a parley. Eighty-eight cannons, fifteen mortars, and other military equipment sorely needed by Washington's army were captured, but there was little gunpowder. The island's governor, forewarned by Hopkins' blundering approach and failure to blockade Nassau, had managed to spirit most of it away. Nevertheless, the booty was so great that it took two weeks to load it on the American ships, and the raid was the Continental Navy's most successful operation.
As the heavily laden vessels wallowed homeward, smallpox and fever raced from ship to ship, devastating their crews. With the epidemic unchecked, the daily routine of seakeeping was broken by the grim business of burials at sea. Two small British ships were taken, however. Wasp, whose crew was badly ravaged by sickness, disappeared during a three-day blow and made her way back to Philadelphia only with difficulty.
Early on the morning of April 6, 1776, the remaining ships encountered the twenty-gun British frigate Glasgow off Block Island. The Yankee vessels cleared for action as they gave chase. Guns were cast loose, loaded, and run out. Additional powder and shot were brought up from below. Matches were lit. Sand was spread on the decks to keep them from becoming slippery with blood, and galley fires were doused. The courses were brailed up to keep them from catching fire from a chance spark. The men cast off all their clothing except their trousers to keep any wounds clean. They worked with zeal, and Hopkins undoubtedly hoped that the few weeks of training they had undergone would have some effect.
Glasgow should have been easy prey, but she escaped after badly cutting up her opponents in a four-hour melee and chase. Hopkins did not issue a single order except to recall his ships at the end of the affair. "Away we went Helter, Skelter, one flying here, another there," observed Nicholas Biddle, the disgusted captain of the Andrew Doria and a onetime midshipman in the Royal Navy. Although the depletion of the American crews by sickness and their inexperience in battle were extenuating factors, this inept action made all too clear that patriotism was not enough to create a navy. Experience, training, and a tradition of victory were all required.
GEORGE WASHINGTON put it best: "Whatever efforts are made by the land armies, the navy must have the casting vote in the present contest," he declared. These remarks were made following the timely arrival of a French fleet off the Chesapeake Capes that sealed the fate of the British army at Yorktown in 1781, a combined operation long sought by Washington. But he understood from the very beginning that the American War of Independence would be a maritime war. Both the Americans and the British relied on supplies shipped from across the oceans to support their armies in the field, and command of the sea was a determining factor in the outcome of the struggle.
The failure of the Royal Navy to stem the flow of arms from France, Spain, and Holland and their Caribbean colonies to the Americans was fatal to Britain's efforts to suppress the rebellion. Without these weapons, the American cause would have foundered early on. Ninety percent of the gunpowder available to the colonists before the end of 1777 about 1.5 million pounds was brought in by sea. On the other side, the British army was dependent on supplies of food, fuel, and forage from Canada and the West Indies or from Britain. Enjoying undisputed control of American waters and their approaches, the Royal Navy should have had no difficulty in snuffing out the rebellion by choking off the flow of munitions to the rebels from abroad and supporting the army's efforts to pacify the country.
But the navy failed to halt the arms trade because of political partisanship, muddled planning, a shortage of ships and crews, indecision at times of crisis, and the courage and skill of Yankee seamen. Britain never used her naval superiority intelligently. The mobility provided by sea power was often dissipated in raids and diversonary attacks. The army was committed in "penny packets," and little use was made of the fleet to effect surprise. These lapses provided Britain's old enemies France and Spain with the opportunity to humble her. "The opening conflict between Great Britain and the North American Colonies teaches clearly the necessity, too little recognized in practice, that when a State has decided to use force, the force provided should be adequate from the first," wrote Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, the philosopher of sea power.
Obtaining adequate men was a problem throughout the Age of Fighting Sail because warships needed large crews to man their guns and to serve as prize crews in captured vessels. Although dashing frigate captains who had won vast amounts of prize money could always attract crews by sending a recruiting party drumming through the port towns, most captains found it difficult to obtain men. Life in the Royal Navy was harsh and dangerous, and the pay was inadequate and sometimes years in arrears. "No man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into jail . . ." observed Dr. Samuel Johnson. "A man in jail has more room, better food, and commonly better company."
To make up for the shortage of recruits, the Impress Service and individual ships sent out armed men to sweep the streets and back alleys and to board fishing and merchant vessels as they entered harbor. Legally, only seamen could be pressed, but any likely looking fellow might to be kidnapped and deposited on a man-of-war's deck, especially during a "hot press" or emergency. The pressed men deserted in droves, despite severe penalties if caught, leading to even greater brutality to stem the hemorrhage of manpower. Ship's logs of the day repeat a refrain of "swam away 4 men" or "5 sailers ran off with the whaleboat."
But as N. A. M. Rodger points out in The Wooden World life at sea, while no bed of roses, was no more harsh than on land. And the lot of the merchant seaman, who worked for shipowners trying to trim costs, was sometimes worse than that of his counterpart in the navy. The conventional view presented in films and novels is that the wooden fighting ship was a living hell in which crews were the refuse of society and terrorized by cruel officers, cowed by the lash, and solaced only by rum. If so, how did the Royal Navy and the U. S. Navy achieve brilliant fighting records and reputations for efficiency? In truth, brutal captains were the exception, and the cadres of the lower deck of both services were professional seamen whose job required fitness and sobriety.
BRITISH NAVAL OPERATIONS were controlled from the Admiralty in Whitehall, a building whose main distinction was a screen wall designed by Robert Adam to protect it from rioters. The nerve center was the gracefully proportioned Board Room on the second floor where John Montagu, fourth earl of Sandwich, presided for most of the Revolution as first lord of the Admiralty, the navy's civilian head. The lords commissioners of the Admiralty, or the Admiralty Board, was composed of civilians and naval officers, and met each weekday at noon. With a secretary, a deputy, and a handful of clerks, their lordships conducted the bulk of the navy's administrative business. They ordered fleets to assemble or to sail, assigned officers to their duties, and told the dockyards which ships to repair. Independent agencies the Navy Board, the Victualing Board, and the Sick and Hurt Board, among others handled specific parts of the navy's administration and sometimes were at odds with the Admiralty Board and with each other.
Few historical figures have had a worse press than Sandwich. Along with Lord George Germain, the secretary of state for the American Department who conducted the land war, he stands accused of sloth and corruption that eventually caused the loss of the colonies. In reality, judged by the standards of his own day, Sandwich was an efficient administrator. Recent research has disposed of the legend that his regime at the Admiralty was a carnival of corruption and incompetence. He had been first lord twice before being appointed to the post in 1771, and few men knew more about the navy's administrative side. Sandwich could take credit for dispatching James Cook on his second and third voyages of discovery Cook named what are now the Hawaiian Islands the Sandwich Islands in his honor and Sandwich promised immediate answer to communications limited to a single sheet of paper.
Sandwich was very much an eighteenth-century man. An inveterate gambler, he is credited with inventing the sandwich so he could spend more time at the gaming table. He also kept his mistress, by whom he had several illegitimate children, at the Admiralty, and was a member of the Hellfire Club, whose members were said to dress as monks and take part in bizarre religious and sexual rites with prostitutes. Yet Sandwich was not without humor. Answering a letter from a critic, he replied: "Sir, your letter is now before me, and will presently be behind." Much of the blame for the shortcomings of the Royal Navy attached to his name really belongs to the prime minister, Lord North. Even as France was rebuilding its armed forces, North believed a strong navy was an unnecessary luxury, and low taxes ensured his hold on power.
BRITISH POLICY IN North America in the dozen years between Britain's victory over France in 1763 and the outbreak of the Revolution in 1775 led the colonists to wage war against Britain at sea as well as on land. Financially exhausted by the conflict, successive ministries hoped to ease monetary burden by collecting taxes and duties long ignored in the American colonies. The Royal Navy was ordered to collect these levies, and the aggressive measures adopted by the navy to put an end to smuggling, combined with the widespread use of impressment to man its always shorthanded vessels, turned the service from a welcome symbol of imperial defense into a hated symbol of oppression.
New England was at the storm center of the colonists' struggle because Britain's restrictive policies threatened the region's substantial commercial and maritime interests. Yankees became sailors, fishermen, whalers, and slavers because the thin, boulder-strewn soil of the northern colonies was inhospitable to farming. Soon their vessels dominated the coastal trade that, in the absence of good roads, was the natural link among the colonies. Enjoying the protection of the British flag, they also had a brisk commerce with the sugar islands of the Caribbean, the African slave coast, and the Mediterranean. "No sea is but vexed with their fisheries," observed the English statesman Edmund Burke. "No climate but what is witness to their toils."
This maritime tradition was not limited to peaceful pursuits. During the century of wars between the British and the Dutch, Spaniards, and French, hundreds of American privateers small, swift, privately owned commerce raiders licensed by the Crown had slipped out to sea in search of prizes. Colonial-manned ships had taken part in the British campaigns against Québec, Louisburg, and Havana, and thousands of American sailors had experience in the man-of-war's trade. Lamenting the conflict brewing with the Yankees, a member of the House of Lords described America as "a great nursery where seamen are raised, trained, and maintained in time of peace to serve their country in time of war." American shipyards had also shown considerable skill and craftsmanship in building armed vessels and had been turning out ships of up to forty-four guns since 1690.
The outbreak of war with the American colonists occurred at a difficult time for the Royal Navy. On paper, Britain had 131 ships of the line and 139 smaller vessels in 1775, but these figures were deceiving. Large sums voted for repair and refitting of ships had disappeared into the pockets of corrupt politicians and contractors, and the Admiralty's official lists bore little relation to the actual strength of the navy. Wooden ships usually had an average life span of about a dozen years unless they were well maintained, and many of the vessels laid up in "Rotten Row" were mere stacks of decayed timber in the shape of men-of-war. No fewer than 66 British warships were to founder at sea during the American War because they were in poor condition.
Moreover, the massive building programs of the Seven Years' War had sharply reduced the supply of seasoned English oak. Some twenty-five hundred trees, as many as could be grown on sixty acres over a century, were felled to provide the frame timbers and stout sides of a three-decker such as Victory. An assured supply of seasoned timber was as vital to the defense of Britain's island realm during this period as was oil in World War II. The break with the colonies had also deprived Britain of one of its primary sources of masts, the forests of New Hampshire. In fact, the last shipment of masts from America reached British ports not long after the news of the Battle of Bunker Hill. As a result of the shortage of "great sticks," which now had to come from the Baltic, many of the king's ships were unable to get to sea at critical junctures during the war.
Some officials believed it would be futile to try to subjugate the colonies with troops because of the vast area involved. America was not Ireland or Scotland, which were terrorized into submission by relatively small forces. Lord Barrington, the secretary at war, proposed instead that the Royal Navy impose a blockade that would cost little in blood or treasure and would cut the rebellious colonies off from the outside world. Just such an operation was feared by the wisest of American leaders, but the navy was too weak to impose it. One official estimated that at least fifty ships would be required to support the royal governors in America, blockade the American coast to prevent supplies from reaching the rebels, and assist the British army in suppressing the rebellion.
Vice Admiral Samuel Graves, the commander of the North American Squadron, had only twenty-nine ships mostly small vessels short of men and/ or in disrepair to patrol the eighteen hundred miles of coast from Nova Scotia to Florida. Moreover, Boston, where the British army was besieged by the Americans, was a strategic liability. It was dominated by heights held by the Yankees and the British position would be untenable if the Americans managed to emplace heavy artillery on the high ground. Thus, even though Graves is usually assailed for failing to stamp out the rebellion, he was merely a scapegoat for the failure of the Admiralty to provide him with proper direction and enough ships to carry out a hard-hitting policy.
Even so, Graves failed to make the best use of the force he had. With his bluff manner and rough exterior, he seemed just the type of old sea dog to teach the Americans a lesson. But at sixty-two he was in poor health, had never achieved a record as a fighter or administrator, had strained relations with the army, and seemed more interested in advancing the careers of several young relations serving under him than in stamping out the rebellion. And it did it not take the Yankees long to discover that Graves was not even supreme in the waters surrounding Boston.
All through the summer of 1775, fast-darting whaleboats manned by willing oarsmen swarmed out of hidden creeks and coves to harass British ships riding at anchor in Boston Harbor, sweep forage and cattle from the inshore islands, burn lighthouses, and remove navigational aids from the channels. Soon Graves feared for the safety of even his larger ships. The rebels also interfered with British efforts to secure provisions and fuel for the besieged army from the surrounding area, and the first seaborne clashes of the war grew out of these efforts.
On June 12, 1775, a group of Maine woodsmen captured the Royal Navy schooner Margaretta in a brisk, bloody battle off Machias while she was trying to obtain a cargo of timber for fortifications and firewood. Three days later, two small vessels commissioned by Rhode Island and placed under the command of Abraham Whipple, a former privateersman, captured a tender, or auxiliary vessel, serving the twenty-gun frigate Rose, which was marauding Yankee trade in Narragansett Bay. It was the first authorized capture by an American vessel of a British ship at sea. Captain James Wallace, Rose's kipper, thundered he would hang Whipple from a yardarm; Whipple blandly replied, "Sir, Always catch a man before you hang him."
Having authorized the first armed vessels operated by any colony, the Rhode Island Assembly followed up by passing, on August 26, 1775, a resolution that led to the organization of the Continental Navy. It instructed its delegates to the Continental Congress to introduce legislation calling "for building at the Continental expense a fleet of sufficient force, for the protection of these colonies, and for employing them in such a manner and places as will effectively annoy our enemies. . . ."
This resolution was introduced into Congress on October 3, 1775, but was brushed aside. Sectional jealousies made it difficult for the northern and southern colonies to cooperate with each other. Southerners were convinced that a navy was a venture that would profit only New England. Moderates also regarded the creation of such a force as a radical step. Many of the delegates still regarded themselves as loyal British subjects fighting the tyranny of a corrupt ministry and did not view the break with Britain as final. Sending a navy to sea would denote sovereignty and independence. Widespread fears were also expressed that should any Yankee sailor be so bold as to fire a pop gun from his deck, the Royal Navy would visit a terrible vengeance on defenseless ports from Maine to Georgia.
UNKNOWN TO CONGRESS, George Washington had already taken steps to begin the war at sea to obtain powder and arms for his army. The troops besieging the British at Boston were so short of weapons and powder that he had issued orders that guns were not to be fired at sunset out of fear of provoking a British bombardment that could not be answered. Benjamin Franklin suggested that the shortage of muskets be remedied by arming sentries guarding the roads around Boston with bows and arrows. Besides, he said, a man could fire four arrows in the time it took to load and fire a musket just once.
With mounting desperation, Washington watched the unchallenged passage of British transports and supply ships into Boston Harbor and decided to do something about it. Noting that British storeships were all but unarmed and rarely traveled in convoy, he observed that "A fortunate Capture of an Ordnance Ship would give new life to our camp." Acting upon his authority as commander in chief, he launched a fleet of his own with the hope of making such "a fortunate Capture."
The first vessel commissioned by Washington, the stubby seventy-eight-ton schooner Hannah, put to sea on September 5, 1775. She was under the command of Captain Nicholson Broughton and manned by a crew recruited from a regiment of Marblehead sailors and fishermen who had joined the army. Although the first ship of what became known as "George Washington's Navy" failed to capture any significant prizes, the general pressed ahead with the project. Over the next twenty-six months he commissioned seven more lightly armed vessels, which took fifty-five enemy craft, including four troop transports carrying a total of 320 soldiers.
John Manley, a rough-and-ready Boston shipmaster, was the most successful of Washington's captains. On November 27, 1775, sailing in the six-gun schooner Lee, he seized the British ordnance brig Nancy, inbound to Boston. She proved to be a floating arsenal. Manley's eyes probably bulged when he read her manifest: two thousand muskets with bayonets, thirty-one tons of musket balls, thirty thousand round shot of various weights, a hundred thousand musket flints, andmost imposing of alla huge thirteen-inch mortar that would be invaluable to the Continental Army's siege of Boston. A delighted Washington observed that the loot from the Nancy gave "new Life to our camp." In the meantime, the Continental Congress was making the first effort to launch a navy.
THE FOUNDING OF an American navy is difficult to follow because the process proceeded on a number of tracks. On October 5, 1775, Congress, still unaware of General Washington's naval efforts, was informed that two unarmed and unescorted transports carrying equipment and supplies for the British army in Québec had sailed from Britain. If they could be captured, their cargoes would be priceless to Washington's army. A motion was introduced calling for a special committee to prepare a plan for intercepting these storeships, but the proposal met with robust objections.
"The opposition . . . was very loud and Vehement," reported John Adams, a pronavy delegate from Massachusetts. "It was represented as the most wild, visionary, mad project that has ever been imagined. It was an Infant, taking mad Bull by the horns." Nevertheless, by a narrow margin, Congress appointed a committee to draft a plan to intercept the transports. It quickly recommended the purchase and fitting out of two armed vessels to deal with the transports. In the meantime, heated debate took place on the Rhode Island proposal for the establishment of a Continental Navy. The walls of the Pennsylvania State House resounded to attacks on the proposal. But George Wythe of Virginia asked, "Why should not America have a navy? . . . We abound with firs, iron ore, tar, pitch, turpentine; we have all the materials for the construction of a navy."
Realizing that the time was not yet ripe for a full-scale fleet, the pro-navy forces shifted position. The Rhode Island plan was temporarily shelved, and the special committee's more limited proposal for two armed vessels was brought forward. On October 13, 1775, the Continental Congress took the step that the U. S. Navy regards as marking its official birth. It adopted a recommendation that two armed vessels be purchased and sent out to capture the Canadian-bound transports. The larger of the two vessels became Andrew Doria; the smaller, Cabot. Having cleared this first obstacle, the navy's supporters moved ahead with greater assurance. Two larger ships, which became Alfred and Cabot, were authorized on October 30. Significantly, the mission of these last two vessels was not limited to intercepting the transports. They were "to be employed . . . for the protection and defense of the united Colonies."
A seven-member Navy Committee forerunner of the Navy Department laid the administrative foundation for the service. Each evening after the regular session was over, its members met at a waterfront tavern, where they accomplished a considerable amount of business in a remarkably short time. Merchant vessels were purchased and refitted; their sides were strengthened, gunports were cut, and cannon put in place. Officers were chosen, sailors and marines were recruited. Rules and regulations governing the new navy were drafted, primarily by John Adams. Although based on existing British naval regulations, they provided for more humane treatment of enlisted men.
Congress, in selecting the ranking officers of the Continental Navy, followed the same principles of patronage and nepotism that were the bane of politics. The Hopkins clan dominated the Navy List. Besides Esek Hopkins, it included Abraham Whipple, who had married into the Hopkins clan, and John Burroughs Hopkins, the commodore's son. The senior captain, Dudley Saltonstall of Connecticut, was the brother-in-law of Silas Deane, a member of Congress. Nicholas Biddle's brother, Edward, represented Pennsylvania in Congress. John Paul Jones, a somewhat mysterious Scots sea captain, was named senior lieutenant through the influence of Joseph Hewes of North Carolina.
Next, Congress turned its attention to the long-delayed Rhode Island resolution. Southern reluctance to approve a Continental navy had been overcome by Lord Dunmore's raids along the shores of the Chesapeake. On December 13, 1775, Congress authorized the building of thirteen frigates at a cost of $66,666.66 each, or a total of $866,666.58 a considerable sum for the period. Five ships of thirty-two guns, five of twenty-eight, and three of twenty-four were authorized. Showing more regard for political influence than the shipbuilding capacities of the individual colonies, Congress ordered two of these ships to be built in Rhode Island, two in Massachusetts, two in New York, four in Pennsylvania, and one each in New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Maryland. No one expected these ships to oppose Royal Navy warships, but they could interdict supplies for the British army in North America, disrupt trade, and provide coastal defense.
FOLLOWING THE New Providence raid, the Continental Navy's first fleet swung uselessly to anchor in Narragansett Bay, unable to get to sea because of sickness and a shortage of experienced seamen. Sailors found it more profitable to ship out in privateers than to accept the rigors of the Continental Navy. The outcry in Congress over Esek Hopkins' inept performance against Glasgow despite the overwhelming strength of his fleet, plus southern unhappiness with his failure to rid the Chesapeake of Lord Dunmore's raiders, added to the navy's problems. Following considerable political maneuvering, he was suspended from command in 1777 and formally dismissed the following year.
From time to time, however, some of the vessels Andrew Doria, under Nicholas Biddle; Columbus, under Abraham Whipple; and Providence and Alfred, successively commanded by John Paul Jones, who had been promoted to captain made successful cruises on their own. Among other captures, Jones took the armed transport Mellish off Cape Breton with a cargo that included ten thousand winter uniforms, which were dyed and issued to Washington's ragged men. The success of the American war effort depended on such lucky captures and the ability of fast-sailing Yankee ships to elude the still-porous British blockade and return from Europe and the Caribbean with vital cargoes. Yankee privateersmen who captured British supply ships sometimes complained about the poor quality of the provisions they found on enemy ships.
Powder and artillery captured at sea and at Fort Ticonderoga, on Lake George, made the worst nightmare of the British come true. Under the cover of a heavy rainstorm on the night of March 4-5, 1776, the Americans fortified Dorchester Heights, which dominated Boston and its harbor. Unwilling to repeat the bloody fiasco of Bunker Hill the year before, in which they took heavy casualties in capturing a Yankee position, the British evacuated Boston. Some nine thousand troops and about a thousand dejected Loyalists sailed away to Halifax in Nova Scotia on March 17, 1776. Washington wasted little time celebrating this victory, however. He quickly moved his army to New York City, where he expected the British to strike next. The successful British withdrawal provided Washington with another lesson in the importance of command of the sea. As long as what he called the Royal Navy's "canvas wings" gave the British control of the sea, he was helpless to prevent them from evacuating beaten armies or making new seaborne attacks on the American coast.
Meet the Author
NATHAN MILLER is the author of thirteen books, including the critically acclaimed Theodore Roosevelt: A Life and War at Sea: A Naval History of World War II. He has been nominated five times for the Pulitzer Prize in history and biography, and his books have been assigned reading at the U.S. Naval Academy, the U.S. Naval War College, and the Naval Postgraduate School. He lives in Washington, D.C.
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