The honor of initiative in the origin of the American navy belongs to Rhode Island, a doughty little State which, for its area, possesses more miles of seaboard than any other. On Tuesday, October 3, 1775, the delegates from Rhode Island introduced in the Continental Congress a resolution which had been passed by the General Assembly of the province on August 26th of the same year, in which, among other things, the said delegates were instructed to "use their whole influence, at the ensuing Congress, for building, at the Continental expense, a fleet of sufficient force for the protection of these colonies, and for employing them in such manner and places as will most effectually annoy our enemies, and contribute to the common defense of these colonies."
Consideration of the resolution was twice postponed, but it was finally discussed on the 7th of October and referred to a committee. On the 13th of October the committee reported, and Congress so far accepted the Rhode Island suggestion that the following resolution was passed:
"Resolved, That a swift sailing vessel, to carry ten carriage guns and a proportionate number of swivels with eighty men, be fitted with all possible dispatch for a cruise of three months, and that the commander be instructed to cruise eastward for intercepting such transports as may be laden with warlike stores and other supplies for our enemies, and for such other purposes as the Congress shall direct." Another vessel was also ordered fitted out for the same purpose.
Messrs. Deane, Langden, and Gadsden were appointed a committee to carry out the instructions embodied in the resolution. When the committee submitted a report, on the 30th of October, it was further resolved "that the second vessel ordered to be fitted out on the 13th inst. be of such size as to carry fourteen guns and a proportionate number of swivels and men." Two other vessels were also ordered to be put into service, one to carry not more than twenty and the other not more than thirty-six guns, "for the protection and defense of the United Colonies, as the Congress shall direct."
This may be considered as the real and actual beginning of the American navy. There had been numerous naval encounters between vessels of war of the enemy and private armed vessels acting under the authority of the various colonies; and Washington himself, with the approval of the Congress, which passed some explicit resolutions on the subject on October 5th, had made use of the individual colonial naval forces, and had issued commissions to competent men empowering them to cruise and intercept the transports and other vessels laden with powder and supplies for the enemy, but no formal action looking to the creation of a regular naval force had been taken heretofore.
Congress had long clung to the hope of reconciliation with the mother country, and had been exceedingly loath to take the radical step involved in the establishment of a navy, for in the mind of the Anglo-Saxon, who always claimed supremacy on the sea, a navy is primarily for offense. To constitute a navy for defense alone is to invite defeat. Aggression and initiative are of the essence of success in war on the sea. Now, in the peculiar condition in which the United Colonies found themselves, a naval force could be used for no other purpose than offense. The capacity of any navy which the colonies could hope to create, for defensive warfare, would be so slender as to be not worth the outlay, and the creation of a navy to prey upon the enemy's commerce and to take such of his armed vessels as could be overcome would controvert the fiction that we were simply resisting oppression. It would be making war in the most unmistakable way.
It is a singular thing that men have been willing to do, or condone the doing of, things on land which they have hesitated to do or condone on the sea. The universal diffusion of such sentiments is seen in the absurdly illogical contention on the part of the British Government subsequently, that, although a soldier on land was a rebel, he could be treated as a belligerent; while a man who stood in exactly the same relation to the King of England whose field of action happened to be the sea was of necessity a pirate.
At any rate, by the acts of Congress enumerated, a navy was assembled, and the plan of Rhode Island was adopted. It was Rhode Island, by the way, which, by preamble and resolution, sundered its allegiance to Great Britain just two months to a day before the Declaration of Independence. To the naval committee already constituted, Stephen Hopkins, Richard Henry Lee, John Adams, and Joseph Hewes were soon added. The committee at once undertook the work of carrying out the instructions they had received. On the 5th of November they selected for the command of the proposed navy Esek Hopkins, of Rhode Island, a brother of the famous Stephen Hopkins who was a member of the committee and one of the most influential members of the Congress. Other officers were commissioned from time to time as selections were made, and commissions and orders were issued to them by the committee, subject, of course, to the ratification or other action by the Congress. Paul Jones' commission as a lieutenant, as has been stated, was dated the 7th of December, 1775.
Esek Hopkins, who was born in 1718, was therefore fifty-seven years of age. He had been a master mariner for thirty years. He was a man of condition and substance who had traded in his own ships in all the then visited parts of the globe. As a commander of privateers and letters of marque he was not without experience in arms. He had been created a brigadier general of the Rhode Island militia on the threatened outbreak of hostilities, a position he resigned to take command of the navy. On the 22d of December Congress confirmed the nomination of Hopkins as commander-in-chief, and regularly appointed the following officers:
These were, therefore, the forerunners of that long line of distinguished naval officers who have borne the honorable commission of the United States.
In addition to the regular course pursued, other action bearing upon the subject of naval affairs was had. On Saturday, November, 25th, Congress, enraged by the burning of Falmouth, adopted radical resolutions, looking toward the capture and confiscation of armed British vessels and transports, directing the issuance of commissions to the captains of cruisers and privateers, and creating admiralty courts and prescribing a scheme for distributing prize money. On November 28th resolutions prescribing "Regulations for the Government of the Navy of the United Colonies" were adopted, the first appearance of that significant phrase in the records, by the way.
On December 5th the seizure of merchant vessels engaging in trade between the Tories of Virginia and the West Indies under the inspiration of Lord Dunmore, was ordered. On December 11th a special committee to devise ways and means for "furnishing these colonies with a naval armament" was appointed. Two days later the report of the committee was adopted, and thirteen ships were ordered built, five of thirty-two, five of twenty-eight, and three of twenty-four guns. They were to be constructed one in New Hampshire, two in Massachusetts, one in Connecticut, two in Rhode Island, two in New York, four in Pennsylvania, and one in Maryland; the maximum cost of each of them was sixty-six thousand six hundred and sixty-six dollars and sixty-six and two thirds cents. They had a fine idea of accuracy in the construction corps of that day.
But, while Congress had been therefore preparing to build the navy, the regular marine committee had not been idle. By strenuous effort the committee assembled a squadron. A merchant vessel called the Black Prince, which had lately arrived from London under the command of John Barry (afterward a famous American commodore), was purchased and renamed the Alfred, after King Alfred the Great, who is commonly believed to be the founder of the British navy. She was a small, stanch trading vessel, very heavily timbered, and with unusually stout scantlings for a ship of her class, although of course not equal to a properly constructed ship of war. The committee armed her with twenty 9-pounders on the main deck, and four smaller guns, possibly 6- or 4-pounders, on the forecastle and poop, and she was placed under the command of Captain Dudley Saltonstall. Jones, whose name stood first on the list of first lieutenants, was appointed her executive officer. Hopkins selected her for his flagship. Jones had been offered the command of one of the smaller vessels of the squadron, but elected to fill his present station, as presenting more opportunities for acquiring information and seeing service. His experience in armed vessels had been limited; he knew but little of the requirements of a man-of-war, and deemed he could best fit himself for that higher command to which he aspired and determined to deserve by beginning his service under older and more experienced officers-a wise decision.
The next important vessel was another converted merchantman, originally called the Sally, now named the Columbus, after the great discoverer. She was a full-rigged ship of slightly less force and armament than the Alfred, commanded by Captain Abraham Whipple, already distinguished in a privateering way. In addition to these there were two brigs called the Andrea Doria and the Cabot, commanded by Captains Nicholas Biddle and John Burroughs Hopkins, a son of the commander-in-chief. The Andrea Doria and Cabot carried fourteen 4-pounders each.
Hopkins arrived at Philadelphia in December, 1775, in the brig Katy, of the Rhode Island navy, which was at once taken into the Continental service and renamed the Providence, after the commander's native town. She carried twelve light guns, 4-pounders. There were also secured a ten-gun schooner called the Hornet, and the Wasp and Fly, two eight-gun schooners or tenders, one of which Jones had refused. The work of outfitting these ships as generously as the meager resources of the colonies permitted had been carried on assiduously before the arrival of the commander-in-chief, whose first duty, when he reached Philadelphia, was formally to assume the command.
This assumption of command entailed the putting of the ships in commission by publicly reading the orders appointing the commodore, and assigning him to command, and hoisting and saluting the flags. The officers previously appointed had been proceeding somewhat irregularly, doubtless, by going on with their preparations prior to this important ceremony. At any rate, in the latter part of December, 1775, or the early part of January, 1776-the date not being clear, the authorities not only differing, but in no single case venturing upon a definite statement-all things having been made ready, Commodore Hopkins with his staff officers entered the commodore's barge, lying at the foot of Walnut Street, and was rowed to the flagship. The wharves and houses facing the river were crowded with spectators to witness so momentous a ceremony as the commissioning of the first American fleet.
It has been recorded that it was a bright, cold, clear winter morning. The barge picked its way among the floating ice cakes of the Delaware, and finally reached the Alfred. The commodore mounted the side, followed by his staff, and was received with due honors in the gangway by the captain and his officers in such full dress as they could muster. The crew and the marines were drawn up in orderly ranks in the waist and on the quarter deck. After the reading of the commodore's commission and the orders assigning him to the command of the fleet, Captain Dudley Saltonstall nodded his head to John Paul Jones, his executive officer. The young Scotsman, with, I imagine, a heart beating rarely, stepped forward and received from the veteran quartermaster the end of the halliards, to which, in the shape of a neatly rolled-up ball, was bent a handsome yellow silk flag, bearing the representation of a rattlesnake about to strike (and perhaps a pine tree also), with the significant legend "Don't tread on me." With his own hands the young lieutenant hauled the rolled-up ensign to the masthead, and then, with a slight twitch, he broke the stops and there blew out in the morning breeze, before the eyes of the commodore, his officers, the men of the ships, and the delighted spectators on shore, the first flag that ever flew from a regularly commissioned war ship of the United Colonies. The grand union flag, a red and white striped ensign with the English cross in the canton, was also hoisted. The flags were saluted by the booming of cannon from the batteries of the ships, and with cheers from the officers and men of the squadron and the people on the shore, and thus the transaction was completed, and the navy of the United States began to be.
The ships were slight in force, their equipments meager and deficient, and of inferior quality at best. The men had but little experience in naval warfare, and their officers scarcely much more. There were men of undoubted courage and capacity among them, however, and several to whom the profession of arms was not entirely new. At least two of them, Jones and Biddle, were to become forever famous for their fighting. Compared with the huge and splendid navy of England, the whole force was an unconsidered trifle, but it was a beginning, and not a bad one at that, as the mother country was to find out. The outfitting of the squadron was by no means complete, and, though the commodore with the others labored hard, the work proceeded slowly and with many hindrances and delays; it was never properly done. Then the ships were ice-bound in Delaware Bay, and it was not until nearly two months had elapsed that they were able to get to sea.
The principal difficulty in the rebellious colonies, from the standpoint of military affairs, was the scarcity of powder. There were guns in respectable numbers, but without powder they were necessarily useless. The powder mills of the colonies were few and far between, and their output was inadequate to meet the demand. It is now well known that although Washington maintained a bold front when he invested the British army in Boston, at times his magazines did not contain more than a round or two of powder for each of his guns. His position was a magnificent specimen of what in modern colloquialism would have been called a "bluff." There was, of course, but little powder to spare for the improvised men-of-war, and most of what they had was borrowed from the colony of Pennsylvania. To get powder was the chief end of military men then.
On February 17, 1776, the little squadron cleared the capes of the Delaware, and before nightfall had disappeared from view beneath the southeast horizon. It appears that the orders were for Hopkins to sail along the coast toward the south, disperse Dunmore's squadron, which was marauding in Virginia, pick up English coasting vessels, and capture scattered English ships cruising between Pennsylvania and Georgia to break up the colonial coasting trade and capture colonial merchantmen. But it also appears from letters of the Marine Committee that another object of the expedition was the seizure of large stores of powder and munitions of warfare which had been allowed to accumulate at New Providence, in the Bahama group, and that Hopkins sailed with much discretion as to his undertaking and the means of carrying it out. The Bahama project was maintained as a profound secret between the naval committee and its commodore, the matter not being discussed in Congress even.
With that end in view the commander-in-chief, by orders published to the fleet before its departure, appointed the island of Abaco, one of the most northerly of the Bahama group, as a rendezvous for his vessels in case they became separated by the usual vicissitudes of the sea. The scattered ships were directed to make an anchorage off the southern part of the island, and wait at least fourteen days for the other vessels to join them before cruising on their own account in such directions as in the judgment of their respective commanders would most annoy, harass, and damage the enemy.
Shortly after leaving the capes the squadron ran into a severe easterly gale off Hatteras, then, as now, one of the most dangerous points on the whole Atlantic seaboard. The ships beat up against it, and all succeeded in weathering the cape and escaping the dreaded perils of the lee shore. If lack of training prevented the officers from claiming to be naval experts, there were prime seamen among them at any rate. When the gale abated Hopkins cruised along the coast for a short time, meeting nothing of importance in the way of a ship. Rightly concluding that the fierce winter weather would have induced the enemy's vessels to seek shelter in the nearest harbors, and his cruise in that direction, if further continued, would be profitless, he squared away for the Bahamas, to carry out the second and secret part of his instructions.
It was for a long time alleged that he took this action on his own account, and one of the charges against him in the popular mind was disobedience of orders in so doing; but he was undoubtedly within his orders in the course which he took, and it is equally certain that the enterprise upon which he was about to engage was one in which more immediate profit would accrue to the colonies than in any other. He should be held not only guiltless in the matter, but awarded praise for his decision. On the 1st of March the squadron, with the exception of the Hornet and the Fly, which had parted company in the gale, reached the island of Abaco, about forty miles to the northward of New Providence.
No part of the western hemisphere had been longer known than the Bahamas. Upon one of them Columbus landed. The principal island among them, not on account of its size, which was insignificant, but because it possessed a commodious and land-locked harbor, is the island of New Providence. No island in the great archipelago which forms the northeastern border of the Caribbean had enjoyed a more eventful history. From time immemorial it had been the haunt of the buccaneer and the pirate. From it had sailed many expeditions to ravage the Spanish Main. It had been captured and recaptured by the successive nationalities which had striven for domination in the Caribbean, and in their brutal rapacity had made a hell of every verdant tropic island which lifted itself in the gorgeous beauty peculiar to those latitudes, above the deep blue of that lambent sea. It had come finally and definitely under the English crown, and a civilized government had been established by the notorious Woodes Rogers, who was himself a sort of Jonathan Wild of the sea, but one remove-and that not a great one-from the gentry whose nests he broke up and whose ravages he had put down. It had been taken since then by the Spaniards, but had been restored to the British.
The town of Nassau, which lies upon the northern face of the island, is situated upon the side of a hill which slopes gently down toward the water. The harbor, which is sufficiently deep to accommodate vessels drawing not more than twelve feet, is formed by a long island which lies opposite the town. There are two entrances to the harbor, only one of which was practicable for large ships, though both were open for small vessels. At the ends of the harbor, commanding each entrance, two forts had been erected: Fort Montague on the east and Fort Nassau on the west. Through culpable negligence, in spite of the quantity of military stores it contained, there was not a single regular soldier on the island at that time, and no preparations for defense had been made.
It was proposed to make the descent upon the western end of the island and then march up and take the town in the rear. Paul Jones, however, in the council which was held on the Alfred before the debarkation, pointed out the greater distance which the men would have to march in that case, the alarm which would be given by the passage of the ships, and advised that a landing be effected upon the eastern end of the island, whence the attack could be more speedily delivered, and, as the ships would not be compelled to advance, no previous alarm would be given. Hopkins demurred to this plan on the ground that no safe anchorage for the ships was afforded off the eastern end. The Alfred had taken two pilots from some coasting vessels which had been captured, and from them it was learned that about ten miles away was a small key which would afford the larger vessels safe anchorage. As Hopkins hesitated to trust the pilots, Jones, at the peril of his commission, offered in conjunction with them to bring the ships up himself. His suggestions were agreed to, his offer accepted, and when the vicinity of the key was reached he took his station on the fore-topmast crosstrees of the Alfred. He had sailed in the West Indian waters many times, and was familiar with the look of the sea and the indications near the shore. With the assistance of the pilots, after a somewhat exciting passage, he succeeded in bringing all the ships to a safe anchorage. That he was willing to take the risk, and, having done so, successfully carry out the difficult undertaking, gives a foretaste of his bold and decisive character, and of his technical skill as well.
Preparations for attack were quickly made. Commodore Hopkins, having impressed some local schooners, loaded them with two hundred and fifty marines from the squadron, under the command of Captain Samuel Nichols, the ranking officer of the corps, and fifty seamen under the command of Lieutenant Thomas Weaver of the Cabot, and on March 2d the transports with this attacking force were dispatched to New Providence.3 They were convoyed by the Providence and the Wasp, and a landing was effected under the cover of these two ships of war. Unfortunately, however, some of the other larger vessels got under way at the same time, and their appearance alarmed the town.
It never seems to have occurred to any one but Jones that the west exit from the harbor should be guarded by stationing two of the smaller vessels off the channel to close it while the rest of the squadron took care of the eastern end. It seems probable from his correspondence that he ventured upon the suggestion, for he specifically referred in condemnatory terms to the failure to do so. At any rate, if he did suggest it, and from his known capacity it is extremely likely that the obvious precaution would have occurred to him, his suggestion was disregarded, and the western pass from the harbor was left open-a fatal mistake.
The point where the expedition landed without opposition was some four and a half miles from Fort Montague. It was a bright Sunday morning when the first American naval brigade took up its march under Captain Nichols' orders. The men advanced steadily, and, though they were met by a discharge of cannon from Fort Montague, they captured the works by assault without loss, the militia garrison flying precipitately before the American advance. The marines behaved with great spirit on this occasion, as they have ever done. Instead of promptly moving down upon the other fort, however, they contented themselves during that day with their bloodless achievement, and not until the next morning did they advance to complete the capture of the place.
The inhabitants of the island were in a state of panic, and when the marines and sailors marched up to attack Fort Nassau they found it empty of any garrison except Governor Brown, who opened the gates and formally surrendered it to the Americans. During the confusion of the night Brown seems to have preserved his presence of mind, and rightly divining that the powder would be the most precious of all the munitions of warfare in his charge, he had caused a schooner which lay in the harbor to be loaded with one hundred and fifty barrels, the limit of its capacity, and before daybreak she set sail and made good her escape through the unguarded western passage. A dreadful misfortune that, which would not have occurred had Jones been in command.
However, a large quantity of munitions of war of great value to the struggling colonies fell into the hands of Hopkins' men, including eighty-eight cannon, ranging in size from 9- to 36-pounders, fifteen large mortars, over eleven thousand round shot, and twenty precious casks of powder. The Americans behaved with great credit in this conquest. None of the inhabitants of the island were harmed, nor was their property touched. It was a noble commentary on some of the British forays along our own coast. Hopkins impressed a sloop, promising to pay for its use and return it when he was through with it, which promise was faithfully kept, and the sloop was loaded with the stores, etc., which had been captured.
His own ships were also heavily laden with these military stores, the Alfred in particular being so overweighted that it was almost impossible to fight her main-deck guns, so near were they to the waterline, except in the most favorable circumstances of wind and weather.
Taking Governor Brown, who was afterward exchanged for General Lord Stirling, and one or two other officials of importance as hostages on board his fleet, Hopkins set sail for home on the 17th of March. He had done his work expeditiously and well, but through want of precaution which had been suggested by Jones, he had failed in part when his success might have been complete. Still, he was bringing supplies of great value, and his handsome achievement was an auspicious beginning of naval operations. The squadron pursued its way toward the United Colonies without any adventures or happenings worthy of chronicle until the 4th of April, when off the east end of Long Island they captured the schooner Hawk, carrying six small guns. On the 5th of April the bomb vessel Bolton, eight guns, forty-eight men, filled with stores of arms and powder, was captured without loss.
On the 6th, shortly after midnight, the night being dark, the wind gentle, the sea smooth, and the ships very much scattered, swashing along close-hauled on the starboard tack between Block Island and the Rhode Island coast, they made out a large ship, under easy sail, coming down the wind toward the squadron. It was the British sloop of war Glasgow, twenty guns and one hundred and fifty men, commanded by Captain Tyringham Howe. She was accompanied by a small tender, subsequently captured. The nearest ships of the American squadron luffed up to have a closer look at the stranger, the men being sent to quarters in preparation for any emergency. By half after two in the morning the brig Cabot had come within a short distance of her. The stranger now hauled her wind, and Captain John Burroughs Hopkins, the son of the commodore, immediately hailed her. Upon ascertaining who and what she was he promptly poured in a broadside from his small guns, which was at once returned by the formidable battery of the Glasgow. The unequal conflict was kept up with great spirit for a few moments, but the Cabot alone was no match for the heavy English corvette, and after a loss of four killed and several wounded, including the captain severely, the Cabot, greatly damaged in hull and rigging, fell away, and her place was taken by the Alfred, still an unequal match for the English vessel, but more nearly approaching her size and capacity.
The Andrea Doria now got within range and joined in the battle. For some three hours in the night the ships sailed side by side, hotly engaged. After a time the Columbus, Captain Whipple, which had been farthest to leeward, succeeded in crossing the stern of the Glasgow, and raked her as she was passing. The aim of the Americans was poor, and instead of smashing her stern in and doing the damage which might have been anticipated, the shot flew high and, beyond cutting the Englishman up aloft, did no appreciable damage. The Providence, which was very badly handled, managed to get in long range on the lee quarter of the Glasgow and opened an occasional and ineffective fire upon her. But the bulk of the fighting on the part of the Americans was done by the Alfred.
Captain Howe maneuvered and fought his vessel with the greatest skill. During the course of the action a lucky shot from the Glasgow carried away the wheel ropes of the Alfred, and before the relieving tackles could be manned and the damage repaired the American frigate broached to and was severely raked several times before she could be got under command. At daybreak Captain Howe, who had fought a most gallant fight against overwhelming odds, perceived the hopelessness of continuing the combat, and, having easily obtained a commanding lead on the pursuing Americans, put his helm up and ran away before the wind for Newport.
Hopkins followed him for a short distance, keeping up a fire from his bow-chasers, but his deep-laden merchant vessels were no match in speed for the swift-sailing English sloop of war, and, as with every moment his little squadron with its precious cargo was drawing nearer the English ships stationed at Newport, some of which had already heard the firing and were preparing to get under way, Hopkins hauled his wind, tacked and beat up for New London, where he arrived on the 8th of April with his entire squadron and the prizes they had taken, with the exception of the Hawk, recaptured.
The loss on the Glasgow was one man killed and three wounded; on the American squadron, ten killed and fourteen wounded, the loss being confined mainly to the Alfred and the Cabot, the Columbus having but one man wounded. During this action Paul Jones was stationed in command of the main battery of the Alfred. He had nothing whatever to do with the maneuvers of the ships, and was in no way responsible for the escape of the Glasgow and the failure of the American force to capture her.