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Revolutionary War: Battle of Nassau

America's First Joint Special Operation

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.

Continental Fleet At Sea

The Continental Fleet at sea. Left to right are the brig Cabot, brig Andrew Doria, ship Alfred, sloop Hornet, sloop Fly, ship Columbus, sloop Providence, and schooner Wasp. Modern painting by Nowland Van Powe

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 was first published in The Year in Special Operations: 2008 Edition.

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John D. Gresham lives in Fairfax, Va. He is an author, researcher, game designer, photographer,...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-38789">

    I think there are many examples ahead of this time frame. For example back to Maj/Col Churches raids against the Indians in Maine, where naval ships took them up the coast and they rangers departed, moved up stream and conducted raids as well I recall some of the other raids conducted in pre-revolutionary operations as well as early revolutionary war where rangers, often combined american and Indian forces were delivered near raiding landings and went ashore an where totally supported by naval forces, thus i think qualify for joint “specops” title. I would have to find and dust of my thesis paper of eary ops 1620 “first document US ranger” thru to 1873.