Action off Block Island

April 6, 1776

Conflict: American Revolution

Type of Action: Small Ship Naval Action

Location: 20 Miles Southeast of Block Island, Rhode Island

Forces: American: armed ship Alfred, 30 guns, Capt. Dudley Saltonsall, armed ship Columbus, Capt. Whipple, 28 guns, brig Andrea Doria, Capt. Nicholas Biddle , 14 guns, brig Cabot, Capt. John B. Hopkins, 14 guns, sloop Providence, Capt. John Hazard, 12 guns, sloop Hornet, Capt. Stone, 10 guns, Schooner Wasp, Capt. Alexander, 8 guns, Schooner Fly, Captain Hoystead Hacker, 6 guns

British: Sloop H.M.S. Glasgow, Capt. Tryingham Howe, 20 guns

     The action off Block Island developed as part of the first cruise of the Continental Navy when the fleet of Commodore Ezek Hopkins, returning from its raid on Nassau, cruised off the Rhode Island coast while slowly heading harbor to off load captured stores. The fleet had, on April 4, taken two small British ships as prizes, those being the armed schooner Hawk, and bomb brig Bolton. Hopkins was careful to avoid the main British force in Narragansett Bay of which the Hawk and Bolton were part. However he also sought to take more prizes if possible. As such he arrayed his fleet in two columns and cruised South of Block Island on April 5, standing off shore in a light northwesterly wind at day's end.

     The port column was on the east of the American formation and consisted of the Cabot followed a hundred yards back by the Alfred, which was Hopkins flagship. To the West, a quarter mile away, stood the starboard column led by the Andrea Doria followed by the Columbus. To the rear was the Providence and still further back were the Fly and Wasp escorting the prizes of the fourth and other lesser prizes taken in the raid on Nassau.

     The night of the fifth had passed into the early hours of the sixth before the fleet sighted the enemy again. At one o'clock the fleet was sailing with a northerly wind on a course to the southeast. At that hour the light of the nearly full moon revealed to a lookout on the Andrea Doria a sail to leeward, to the South, crossing the bows of the fleet. The sighting was signaled to the Fleet and each ship beat to general quarters in anticipation of battle.

     The ship before the fleet was the H.M.S. Glasgow; a small vessel but one that was built for war, unlike the converted merchantmen now making towards her. Her timbers were stouter, her guns larger as a result and her crew better trained for battle. Yet she was, however, only one ship. One can only wonder what course of action Captain Howe might have taken had he known what forces he faced. His orders were merely to convey dispatches from Newport to Charleston, not to engage the entirety of the Continental Navy. If he felt he faced enemy warships he could easily have stayed his course and fled with the wind under his coattails. However his spyglass could not tell him if these "seven or eight" sail off his weather beam were rebel or loyal, warships or merchantmen. Rebel smugglers or weak privateers would make fine prizes. The Glasgow turned to starboard and put about onto a Port tack to take a closer look.

     As he closed upon the mysterious group, Howe must have been re-assured by the inactivity among them. They were not maneuvering or changing formation, but still sailing on their original course. Certainly they took no action to form line of battle. Indeed, while Howe may have been lured too close by this inactivity, it is unclear why Hopkins took no action to prepare his fleet for action, giving no commands at all since the sighting. Whether he desired to lure the Glasgow closer or thought his disposition adequate is unknown. As a result the rebel fleet sailed straight ahead, towards the enemy.

     After half an hour, Glasgow finally closed the lead ship in the group of apparent merchantmen, coming up on the port, or east, side of the Cabot at a pistol shot's distance. Howe hailed across the dark waters, asking what ship he spoke with and what were those in her company. The reply given by Captain John Hopkins was "the Columbus and the Alfred, a 22 gun frigate", overstating the class of the Alfred either in misconception or as misinformation to frighten the Englishmen. Howe, however, had precious little time to ponder these words, for that moment a grenade was flung onto his deck by a rebel Marine in Cabot's maintop. As it exploded, no doubt was left that action was at hand.

     The Cabot at once fired off her broadside of 7 six pounders, but did no damage. Glasgow's battery answered once and then again, wounding Captain Hopkins and killing Cabot's Master, three Marines and wounding seven more men. Disabled, the Cabot sheered off to the west and out of the action.

     The Glasgow could not finish the rebel brig, as making for her now was the Alfred. Though not built for war, the Alfred's main battery matched that of the Glasgow's nine pounders and was supported by a top deck of six pounders as well. Also trying to come about and beat up wind from the southwest were the Andrea Doria and Columbus. The Providence was also coming up.  Looking to survive rather than sink ships, Howe focused his attention on the oncoming rebel flagship as the Cabot drifted off.

     Commodore Hopkin's flagship, under Captain Saltonstall and with Lieutenant John Paul Jones commanding the main gun deck, soon was alongside the Glasgow on an opposite tack. With the Glasgow's bow to the Northeast and the Alfred heading Southwest, broadsides were exchanged, with the English guncrews winning the contest. Alfred's tiller lines and wheel block were shot away, leaving the rebel ship out of control. She drifted, her stern drifting out leaving her facing east with her broadside to the wind. Howe, quick to take advantage, maneuvered to rake her fore and aft. Safe from return fire, the Glasgow soon began to hole the Alfred and cut away her rigging with telling cannonades.

     At this time, about two fifteen, the Andrea Doria, after having maneuvered to avoid collision with the drifting Cabot and then Alfred, came up on the Glasgow's port quarter, left rear. There she began to fire her broadside of eight six pounders into the Englishman.

     The Glasgow exchanged fire with the Andrea Doria. When the Alfred regained steering soon thereafter, she came about to a Northeast heading and added her guns back into the fray. This went on for sometime until the Columbus, who had been slowed by the blocking of her sails by the rest of the fleet, finally crossed the Glasgow's stern, raking her though to no effect, and came up on her starboard quarter.  The Providence too had closed and was close behind the Andrea Doria though she seemed to hesitate and tacked back and forth, her reluctance either due to inability on the part of her Captain or due to the crowded conditions about the English Sloop.

    When the Columbus added her weight of guns to the action at about ten to three in the morning, Howe decided that the better part of valor was in flight. He had a small warship on each of his quarters, or rear sides. On his port side he was engaged by the Alfred. To the rear behind the Andrea Doria he no doubt could see the sails of the Sloop Providence also threatening to join the fray.  The Wasp, Fly and prizes may also have been visible in the distance.  Heavily out numbered and his ship damaged, Howe ordered his ship to make off.

     The wind shifting from the Northwest, Glasgow turned due north. With the "whole fleet within Musket shot on our Quarters and Stern" Howe fled for harbor and support in Newport. The Alfred had fallen back to the Port Quarter, the Columbus was on the Starboard Quarter and the Andrea Doria was now due aft. All were on a Northern heading trying to overtake the Glasgow.

     Howe rigged guns as stern chasers to fire upon his pursuers, though they did no damage. In return, from time to time the rebel ships would turn to one side to bring a broadside to bear for a shot, slowing them while not making any substantial hits. The chase went on for several hours without serious damage being done or advantage gained.

     The rebel ships were slowed by their yaws to fire. Also due to the raid on Nassau the rebel ships were heavily laden with stolen stores and fouled with bottom hamper from the southern waters. Or perhaps the Glasgow was just better rigged to sail close to the wind as they were doing. Whatever the reason, the Glasgow made good her escape when, well after daybreak, Hopkins gave the order to put about and rejoin the fleet. Soon thereafter Glasgow rendezvoused with other English ships from Newport and put in for repairs.

     Soon thereafter Hopkins Fleet put into harbor in New London. Though hailed as a hero at first, Hopkins would eventually be cashiered, in part due to the poor showing of the fleet in not taking the smaller and out numbered Glasgow. Captain Whipple of the Columbus was exonerated at a Court Martial (which he requested to clear his name) the Court finding the blocking of wind caused him to linger before engaging.  However, Captain Hazard of the Providence was also cashiered, in part for his failure to bring his ship into the fight against the Glasgow.

     Tactically the battle was clearly a victory for the English. The Glasgow, according to a rebel prisoner on board, suffered serious damage, with her hull damaged, "ten 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" John Paul Jones,  A Sailor's Biography, supra.. Yet she suffered only one man killed and three wounded and all of those by marine musketry. In return the Glasgow disabled the Cabot, temporarily disabled the Alfred, and damaged the Columbus and Andrea Doria. American casualties were also light, with a lieutenant of marines and five men being killed and six wounded on the Alfred, and one man wounded on the Columbus plus the four killed and seven wounded on the Cabot.

     Strategically the battle seems to have been a draw. The Continental Navy suffered a great blow to its confidence in failing to take the Glasgow. Similarly Congress and others met her officer's with some disdain. It seems likely that this might have effected the amount of effort and resources placed in the Naval theater by the rebels thereafter - why fund ships if even in great numbers tthey cannot gain victory over the smallest English Warship? Though this is speculation, it seems likely that a more concerted naval effort by the rebels could have won huge psychological victories in the years to come. On the negative side for the English, however, the Glasgow herself was so badly damaged as to require her return to England for repairs. The loss of a small vessel like this no doubt aided the cause of many a rebel privateer whom had the most to fear from small swift vessels like the Glasgow. Furthermore, and most importantly, the action off Block Island set the stage for the emergence of one of the most successful rebel naval officer's of the war, John Paul Jones. Upon the removal of Captain Hazard for his failings at Block Island, command of his ship, the Providence, fell to Jones. At her helm and the helm of other ships, Jones would become a legendary raider of English shipping and even towns. These raids would in time do much to erode public support for the War amongst the English public.

Result: English Victory

Losses: American: U.S.S. Alfred, U.S.S. Cabot badly damaged, U.S.S. Andrea Doria and Columbus damaged; 2 Officers, 3 Marines, 5 Sailors Killed, 14 Wounded

            English: H.M.S. Glasgow badly damaged

LINKS

Captain John Biddle Biography in the Regimental with links

BACK TO BATTLES OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION

Sources: The Military History of Revolutionary War Naval Battles, Col. Trevor Nevitt, Dupuy and Grace P. Hayes, Franklin Watts, Inc., 1970 NY, NY; John Paul Jones, A Sailor's Biography, Samual Elliot Morison, Boston Little Brown & Company, Toronto, 1959

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