The United States of America has always been a maritime nation, inheriting from its British forefathers a tradition of seaborne commerce and influence. It is therefore fitting that the young nation’s first attempts at both joint and special operations would be of a maritime nature. Limited on land by the size and training of the early Continental Army, Revolutionary America’s first significant counter-thrusts against British attempts to suppress the growing colonial insurrection in 1776 came from the sea. From these fledgling efforts came today’s modern Navy and Marine Corps special operations communities, along with their traditions of excellence and ethos of professionalism.
Awakening and Beginnings
For all of the present-day celebration of Independence Day, it needs to be remembered that the United States was far from an established fact in early 1776. The founding fathers understood that sovereignty was a responsibility among nations, not a right. From this understanding came the Continental Navy and Marine Corps to enforce the notion of eventual American sovereignty. However, neither at birth was anything like today’s sea services.
The Continental Navy of 1776 was a collection of converted merchantmen and auxiliaries, none of which would be reasonably called a warship. Procured via purchase, lease, or outright seizure, these were hardly the ships of a building navy. Similarly, the Continental Marines, while patterned after the Royal Marines and their tradition of security and raiding operations, had little of the esprit and professionalism for which they are known today.
Nevertheless, the Continental sea services in early 1776 were in many ways the most professional and capable of the Continental military forces, based upon their greater technical skills and discipline, and blessed with a number of experienced former Royal Navy and Marine personnel in their ranks. Thus, even before the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the Continental sea services were going into action, making strong first impressions on a curious world and an angry British empire. Key to this were three men who were, in fact, the creators of America’s sea services.
Robert Morris, a wealthy financier and businessman and Continental Congress delegate of Pennsylvania, was the key leader of Marine and Maritime committees, even selling the new Navy its first ship, the Alfred. It was Morris who took the wishes of the Continental Congress in 1775 to begin building a navy and transformed those wishes into actual ships, along with the men to sail and command them, in less than a year. Two of those men, who became cornerstones in the new sea services, were Esek Hopkins and Samuel Nicholas.
Hopkins, a native of what is now Rhode Island, was the younger brother of founding father Stephen Hopkins, and a state politician and militia officer. Hopkins was named commander in chief of the Continental Navy on Dec. 22, 1775. Named as a “fleet captain” or “commodore,” his orders from the Marine Committee were to proceed “directly to Chesapeak [sic] Bay in Virginia there to scout the enemy and if the enemy forces were not greatly superior to search and attack, take and destroy all the Naval force of our Enemies that you find there.” When that task was completed, he was to then move to Charleston to disperse another British naval force. However, the clause that read he was to conduct operations “most beneficial to the American Cause” and to “distress the Enemy by all means in your power” would prove more compelling than Hopkins’ more formal instructions.
Sailing with Hopkins’ fleet would be Nicholas, a Philadelphia native who today is recognized as the first commandant of the Marine Corps. Nicholas was commissioned a “captain of Marines” by the Continental Congress only 18 days after it had resolved:
“That two battalions of Marines be raised consisting of one Colonel, two Lieutenant-Colonels, two Majors, and other officers, as usual in other regiments; that they consist of an equal number of Privates with other battalions; that particular care be taken that no persons be appointed to offices, or enlisted into said battalions, but such as are good seamen, or so acquainted with maritime affairs as to be able to serve by sea when required. …”
Just two months after his own commission was issued on Nov. 5, 1775, Nicholas had recruited enough Marines at Philadelphia’s Tun Tavern to man the ships Morris and Hopkins had procured and assembled into a fleet. Joining Commodore Hopkins aboard his flagship Alfred, Nicholas set about training his new Marines to ready them for the combat ahead. Setting out slowly through heavy ice on the Delaware River on Jan. 4, 1776, Hopkins’ force was hardly an armada by contemporary standards, as shown in the accompanying table.
Heavy ice kept the force near Reedy Island for almost six weeks before they were able to reach the mouth of the Delaware Bay, where the entire force rendezvoused on Valentine’s Day inside Cape Henlopen, with Hornet and Wasp joining from Baltimore. By the time the force sortied, Hopkins had apparently decided to act on those parts of the orders provided by the Continental Congress that, under his interpretation, would allow for significant independence of action.
The growing strength of the British naval forces in the Chesapeake Bay following the evacuation of Norfolk gave Hopkins pause about entering the area with his green force. Knowing that there was a large stock of arms, munitions, and other provisions at Nassau on the island of New Providence (in the Bahamas), Hopkins decided on his own discretion to raid and capture the stores. The fleet sailed south on Feb. 17.