Cruise of Commodore Esek Hopkins

January 4, 1776 - April 8, 1776

Conflict: American Revolution

Type of Action: Naval Cruise

Location: American Atlantic Seaboard and Bahamas Islands

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

     The first vessels converted for the use of the new American Navy authorized by Congress in October of 1775, were formed into a fleet commanded by Fleet Captain, or Commodore, Esek Hopkins, of Rhode Island. Hopkins Orders were to sail "directly to Chesapeak 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". Similar instructions ordered him to proceed thereafter to South Carolina to disperse a second Tory fleet recently raised there. His orders also seemingly allowed room for independent action if weather or accident prohibited the above courses of action in which case Hopkins was directed to act as he thought most beneficial to the "American Cause" and to "distress the Enemy by all means in your power".

     On or about January 4, 1776 the armed ships and brigs left Philadelphia and proceeded through the ice heavy Delaware towards the sea some ninety miles away. The ice was such a hazard, however, that the fleet had only reached Reedy Island on the 17th, being joined there by the Providence and Fly. They reached Whorekill Roadstead inside Cape Henlopen at the mouth of the Delaware Bay on February 14th where they were shortly joined by the Hornet and Wasp which had been converted in Baltimore rather than Philadelphia.

     The lengthy delays caused by the ice bound river would seem to have convinced Hopkins that he could now act independently of his orders, pursuant to the last clause of his orders as set forth above. Whatever his logic, on the 14th he directed his Captain's to rendezvous off Great Abaco in the Bahamas should the fleet become separated, a destination not consistent with an attack upon the Chesapeake. On February 17, 1776, free of the ice at last, the fleet sailed forth from the Delaware Bay into the Atlantic Ocean.

     Hopkins had learned that a store of munitions and arms existed in the English town of Nassau, on New Providence Island in the Bahamas and considered the stores worth taking. Congress had resolved to take powder stores in the Bahamas but they had not ordered Hopkins to the task. Hopkins sailed his fleet to a rendezvous off Great Abaco Island, North of New Providence, where they arrived on March 1st at Hole-In-The-Wall. There they fell upon two sloops owned by locals, loyal to the king, said ships being seized. Their masters were taken and forced to serve as pilots to guide the fleet through the local waters. With this beginning, Hopkins set forth plotting the raid of Nassau.

     Nassau was a tiny town on the shore of New Providence in the Bahamas Islands. Hopkin's approached the Island on March 2, and after being repulsed sent a raiding party ashore again on March 3rd. This party took the town without a fight, there being only civilian defenders, and seized a sizable store of cannon, mortars and munitions, though less powder than had been hoped as a great deal was spirited away after the failed raid on the 2nd. On March 17th the loading of these stores complete, the fleet sailed for Block Island Channel off Newport, Rhode Island. With the fleet sailed as prisoners the Lieutenant Governor and his secretary and a South Carolina Tory who had been in Nassau.

     Two English merchantmen were encountered enroute and made prizes. By April 3, the fleet was off Montauk Point, Long Island. On April 4, 1776, off Block Island Channel the fleet also encountered the British warships Hawk, an armed schooner, and Bolton, a bomb brig. These small vessels were taken as prizes as well. In questioning his prisoners Hopkins learned of a large British Fleet off Newport and therefore he turned his course towards New London. However, in the small hours of April 6, the fleet engaged in a brief and inconclusive encounter off Block Island with the British sloop Glasgow in which several American vessels were damaged but no vessels were lost on either side.

     Upon making port in New London on April 8th. and unloading his booty, Hopkins no doubt had reason to be quite pleased with the success of his voyage. Indeed he and his men were initially hailed as heroes. However, he was thereafter summoned before Congress to answer for his failure to follow his orders to attack the Virginia and South Carolina squadrons as well as to answer for the failure to take the Glasgow. Although supported by John Adams, Hopkins was censured and eventually put out of the Navy in January 1777. The Captain of the Providence was broken as well for his failure to engage during the Glasgow affair and other offenses such as embezzlement of stores. His command was given to Lieutenant John Paul Jones.

     The first cruise of the Continental Navy had several tactical and strategic ramifications. Initially it placed in the hands of the Rebels a substantial store of artillery and munitions, stores that would prove useful to the poorly supplied American cause. In doing so, the action also provided training and experience for many naval officers such as John Paul Jones and Nicholas Biddle. To the British side lays the retention of the bulk of the powder stores and the eventual breakup of the American fleet. This was due not only to the cashiering of some officer's in the wake of the cruise but also the loss of some two hundred sailors to tropical ailment, no doubt aided by the spirits imbibed in Nassau. The American fleet would not sail as such again. Still tactically the engagement was a clear benefit to the Rebel cause.

     Furthermore, and perhaps most importantly, the Raid on Nassau brought the war to the English in an area where they felt more strategically threatened than the American Colonies. The West Indies was a location of importance to the British both due to trade concerns and due to its pivotal role in naval conflicts with the English nemesis France. Paranoia over losing the West Indies would frequently deflect English interests and military assets away from the war in America. English preoccupation with this area would nearly cause her to abandon the war in 1778 and may well have cost her the war in the long run. If true, it might well be said that this raid was the first tweaking of this English concern and a tweaking which may have set the tone for those later English decisions. As such, the Raid of Nassau was not just a minor tactical victory but a great strategic victory as well.

Sources: The Military History of Revolutionary War Naval Battles, Col. Trevor Nevitt, Dupuy and Grace P. Hayes, Franklin Watts, Inc., 1970 NY, NY; The Glorious Cause, The American Revolution, 1763-1789, Robert Middlekauf, Oxford University Press, 1982 NY, NY; John Paul Jones, A Sailor's Biography, Samual Elliot Morison, Boston Little Brown & Company, Toronto, 1959