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.