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.
Plan and Target
The voyage south from the Delaware Inlet went quickly, though not without incident. Off the Virginia Capes on Feb. 19, the Hornet collided with the Fly. While the Hornet managed to survive the encounter, it was unable to continue and had to return to port. The Fly also returned home for repairs and managed to join the rest of Hopkins’ force on March 11. Despite this, Hopkins was hardly slowed in his intentions to “distress the enemy.”
The primary object of interest by the Continental naval forces was Fort Montague, which guarded the harbor entrance at the eastern end of New Providence Island. Begun in 1728, it was completed of limestone in 1741 by Peter Henry Bruce along with Bladen’s Battery just northeast of the fortress. Armed with 17 cannon, the two positions made the southeastern end of the harbor quite secure. In addition, Bruce had also renovated the existing Fort Nassau, originally built in 1697, which had an armament of 56 cannon and 23 brass mortars.
By the time the Continental force arrived at the rendezvous point at Hole-In-The-Wall on the south end of Great Abaco Island on March 1, 1776, the ships of Hopkins’ force had captured two loyalist Continental sloops. The crews were pressed into service with the Continental force, and the ship’s masters forced to act as pilots in the local shoal waters of the Bahamas.
The Battle of Nassau
Arriving off New Providence Island on March 2, Hopkins had the distinction of giving, for the first time by an American commander, the order, “Land the landing force.” Moving his 200-plus Marines (accounts on the number of Marines vary) and 50 picked sailors from the six Philadelphia-based ships over to the two captured loyalist sloops, Nicholas took his force to the eastern end of New Providence Island. Then using the ships’ boats, and under the cover of the guns of Providence and Wasp, Nicholas led the force to an amphibious landing near Fort Montague and Bladen’s Battery, which they promptly captured.
However, despite the small size of the island’s civilian garrison, Nicholas’ landing force was unable to take Fort Nassau on March 2, and had to try again the next day. Meanwhile, the garrison under Gov. Montford Browne was able to load 150 of the 174 casks of powder on hand aboard a small merchant ship, which managed to escape to St. Augustine in Florida.
That evening, Hopkins issued a proclamation to the citizens of Nassau in which he announced: “To the Gentlemen, Freemen, & Inhabitants of the Island of New Providence:
The reasons of my landing an armed force on the island is in order to take possession of the powder and warlike stores belonging to the Crown, and if I am not opposed in putting my design in execution the persons and property of the inhabitants shall be safe, neither shall they be suffered to be hurt in case they make no resistance.”
The message apparently had the desired effect, as the next day Nicholas again led his mixed landing force against Fort Nassau, this time taking the fortification and its small civilian garrison (which was surrendered by Browne) without a fight. While only 24 casks of powder remained, Nicholas’ force had captured 103 invaluable guns (88 cannon and 15 mortars), along with a sizable stock of provisions and other stores. In addition, Browne, his personal secretary, and a loyalist Tory from South Carolina were taken prisoner for return to the colonies. And while Nicholas’ Marines and Hopkins’ sailors were little more than raw recruits, the operation had gone surprisingly well, providing the new sea service with the first chapter of what is today a 232-year legacy.
It took fully two weeks for the sailors and Marines of Hopkins’ force to load all the cannon, mortars, and stores onto the ships before heading home on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17. When they did depart the West Indies, Hopkins’ force sailed north with a planned destination of Newport, R.I. However, the voyage home to New England would prove both eventful and damaging to Hopkins and the other captains of the force.
The Action Off Block Island
The transit to New London began well, when, on April 4, Hopkins’ ships sighted and captured the British schooner Hawk off Block Island. The next morning, they added the bomb brig Bolton to their catch, and that evening captured a sloop and brigantine from New York. Their total of captured vessels now stood at eight enemy/loyalist ships in just over six weeks. More importantly, prisoners from the captured ships informed Hopkins of a British fleet near his planned port of call, Newport. With this news, Hopkins decided to make port at New London, Conn., where he would land his captured weapons, provisions, and prisoners. However, April 6 would prove a black day for Hopkins and his senior captains.
Forming his ships into two columns (separated by 500 yards at 100-yard intervals), of Cabot and Alfred to port and Andrew Doria and Columbus to starboard, Hopkins moved his forces generally west along the New England coast toward central Connecticut.
To the rear of the two columns were Providence, Wasp, and Fly, escorting the prize vessels captured during the voyage. The wind was light and from the north, the seas calm, and visibility good. In the early hours of April 6 (about 0100 hours by various accounts), the Andrew Doria sighted the British sloop Glasgow (Capt. Tryingham Howe, 20 guns) carrying dispatches between Newport and Charleston, S.C. What followed was a night gun battle that might best be characterized as a brawl.
While the fight may in retrospect look uneven in the extreme, it needs to be remembered that Hopkins’ force was made up of converted merchant ships, manned by inexperienced officers and seamen, most of whom had never seen a naval battle before, and armed with a hodgepodge of second-hand guns. Furthermore, Hopkins needed to protect his growing fleet of prizes, along with the weapons, stores, and prisoners that he had brought home from the West Indies.
By comparison, Glasgow was captained by one of the Royal Navy’s fine young captains, Howe, commanding a ship that was better in crew, weapons, and materiels than anything in Hopkins’s thrown-together fleet. Built from scratch as a naval vessel with stouter timbers and structures than a merchantman, Glasgow was armed with a first-rate battery of 20 guns (with perhaps 20 additional carronades), and manned by a crack crew. Faster, better rigged, and much more maneuverable, the Glasgow would fight the battle of its life against a fleet of auxiliary warships handled like ox carts.
It appears that Glasgow sighted the Continental fleet first that morning, and engaged believing that their merchant rigging meant they could be snatched up as easy prizes. However, when the British sloop closely approached Cabot, the Continental brig responded with a six-gun broadside and the battle was on. For the next few hours (accounts vary between 90 minutes and 3 hours), the Continental ships tried to gain position on the Glasgow, though the British sloop proved maneuverable and wily. Glasgow managed to disable Cabot (killing its sailing master and three Marines) and Alfred (Glasgow shot away its tiller ropes and wheel block), engaged Columbus and Andrew Doria, and then headed north to retire toward Newport.
Glasgow managed to make port despite its own critical damage, which was described by a rebel prisoner aboard as, “10 shots through her mainmast, 110 holes in her mainsail, 88 in her foresail, 52 in her mizzen staysail, some spars carried away, and her rigging cut to pieces.” The British casualties were just one killed and three wounded, against six Marines and four sailors killed along with 13 wounded on the Continental ships. Hopkins managed to pull his force together, patch up the damage, and make port at New London on April 8, 1776. The first voyage of the Continental sea services was over, and quite successful, though the negative repercussions would echo for a long time to come.
Assessment and Legacy
Initially upon their return, Hopkins and his force were hailed as heroes for their cruise south, drawing from John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, the compliment, “I beg leave to congratulate you on the success of your Expedition. Your account of the spirit and bravery shown by the men affords them [Congress] the greatest satisfaction …”
The accolades would, however, be short-lived.
Almost as soon as their booty was unloaded and cataloged, members of the Continental Congress began to attack Hopkins and some of his captains for their conduct during the voyage and the fight with Glasgow. Despite the best efforts of Morris and other congressional supporters, Hopkins was eventually dismissed from the service in early 1778, his force having spent much of 1776 and 1777 blockaded in Narragansett Bay by the Royal Navy. Several captains of the Continental ships were also court martialed for their conduct during the Glasgow action, with Cap. John Hazard of the Providence being relieved. However, his replacement was the Providence’s young first officer, whose name would become a touchstone to the very soul of the U.S. Navy: John Paul Jones.
There would be many other positive outcomes for the men and ships of Hopkins’ force that voyaged to the West Indies and back in early 1776. Unlike Hopkins, Nicholas was quickly rewarded with a promotion to major, and orders from the Marine Committee of the Continental Congress “to discipline four companies of Marines and prepare them for service as Marine guards for the frigates on the stocks.” He would serve as the senior Marine for the rest of the war, until the service was disbanded in 1783.
More visible to the world, however, were the effects of the raid on Nassau itself. The 103 pieces of artillery taken from the forts on New Providence Island were the largest such capture to date of the Revolutionary War; bigger even than Benedict Arnold’s seizure at Fort Ticonderoga the previous year. The Nassau guns would be a critical factor in operations of the Continental Army for some time, and also helped fortify American positions in New England. The raid had another important effect, in that the British became preoccupied with further Continental raids on the West Indies, which were important both economically and strategically. After the raid, ships and resources that might have been used in America were frequently sent there. But perhaps the most vital short-term gain created by the Nassau expedition came later in 1776, thanks to another voyage south by one of the ships from the original fleet that raided New Providence Island.
On Nov. 16, 1776, following the American Declaration of Independence on July 4, the USS Andrew Doria entered the harbor at St. Eustatius in the Netherlands Antilles. As the American brig fired an 11-gun salute, Cmdr. Johannes de Graaff ordered the salute returned, the first such honor ever accorded by a foreign country to the new United States. The salute led directly to the British going to war with Holland in 1780, and France becoming an ally and patron for the new American nation against Britain. All of this was a direct result of the often tentative and sometimes amateurish raid on the forts of Nassau.
Today, the Nassau expedition is remembered and commemorated in the amphibious assault ship USS Nassau (LHA 4), and with the frigate Nicholas (FF 47). Even more vital to American interests today are the Navy/Marine Corps Expeditionary Strike Groups, which are composed of Amphibious Ready Groups carrying Marine Expeditionary Units (Special Operations Capable), able to carry out assaults, landings, raids, and special operations on just six hours’ notice. Much like Hopkins in 1776, these forces today stand ready to “Land the Landing Force” when America calls “911.”
This article first appeared online on July 3, 2012. It was originally published in The Year in Special Operations: 2008 Edition.