Action off Barbados
March 7, 1778
Conflict: American Revolution
Type of Action: Small Ship Naval Action
Location: Off East Coast of Barbados
Forces: American: Frigate Randolph, Captain Nicholas Biddle, 32 guns
British: Ship of the Line Yarmouth, 64 guns
The American frigate Randolph, the first frigate launched for the American Navy, commanded by Captain Nicholas Biddle, of a wealthy Philadelphia banking family and formerly a midshipman in the Royal Navy was in the midst of a cruise from Charleston, South Carolina, departing February 12th, to the West Indies. She left in the company of three lesser vessels of the North Carolina Navy. On March 7, 1781, the Randolph sighted an enemy vessel. This shortly proved to be the Yarmouth, a ship of the line of 64 guns.
Having served in the Royal Navy, Biddle could not but know that the Yarmouth was a vastly superior foe. The lightly hulled Randolph was a frigate - a ship with one main deck of guns and those no more than 18 pounders at best. These compare very poorly in both terms of striking power and range against the probable 24 and 32 pound cannon carried on the two gun decks of the much more stoutly built English vessel. The Randolph's crew, too, would be less than half that of her opponent. These facts must have been acutely clear to Biddle and to his officers and men. Perhaps having served with Nelson's class of midshipmen he had embraced Nelson's sense of aggressive audacity. Whatever Biddle's thoughts, he gave the order to clear for battle and close, rather than fleeing. To his credit and theirs, his men did not shirk from the order.
One can only imagine the impression this action had upon the English Captain and his crew, for the enemy ship was clearly no match for the Yarmouth. Indeed the standard rules of battle were that in a line engagement ships of the line were to ignore frigates, they being no threat. Yet the Randolph closed and the Yarmouth eagerly prepared to meet her though perhaps with an eye to some trick or reinforcement.
The Randolph's sole advantage lay in her superior speed and maneuverability. This advantage was greater than usual between two such ships as the Randolph had just had the seaweed and other bottom hamper which normally slowed ships of the era scraped from her hull in Charleston. She was as nimble as she had ever been. Biddle, fresh from a successful prize taking cruise must have been confident that he could maneuver to avoid taking full broadsides from the English guns while firing crippling barrages of his own into the enemy rigging. Once dismasted, no matter how much bigger she was, the Englishman would have no choice but to strike her colors.
Biddle's plan must initially have succeeded because soon enough he had knocked two of the Englishman's topmasts away, impairing her sailing ability. The English Captain reported that the Randolph fired three broadsides for his one. If luck had smiled upon the Randolph, Biddle may have succeeded. However that was not to be. Biddle was unsuccessful in maneuvering to avoid heavy fire from the Englishman and his ship soon began to take heavy damage, and he himself was wounded. Undaunted, Biddle continued to direct the guns while trying to out sail his opponent . He tried to get round her to rake her unprotected stern. In the midst of this maneuver either an English ball smashed through the light hull of the Randolph and pierced her powder magazine, or a fire started by an earlier hit, or by accident by the crew, lit the powder. Whatever the cause, the Randolph exploded, killing all but four of her 315 man crew. Captain Biddle, his gallant men and his brave ship were lost. Among the casualties was sixteen year old Mordecai Matlack, son of Timothy Matlack, who transcribed the Declaration of Independence from Thomas Jefferson's draft.
The tactical effect of this conflict was the loss of a Rebel cruiser, which could have been used to further weaken British morale and supplies while gaining provisions and prize money for Congress. More importantly a valiant and skilled leader and an equally able crew had been lost, men who could have contributed greatly to the Rebel cause. No tactical gain was made in favor of the Americans other than the temporary removal of the Yarmouth from effective patrol duty while she made repairs.
Strategically the loss of the Randolph provided no great boon to the English who, after all, were expected to win such conflicts. There was, undoubtedly, some boost in morale from the clear cut victory. More important was that the Yarmouth did not lose. Had she done so the loss of a ship of the line in such circumstances would have had serious impact upon military and civil morale, possibly eroding already weak support for the war in England. Furthermore, at the time the English were shifting defenses to the West Indies in reaction to French entry into the conflict, so much so that the abandonment of the colonies was considered. It is not too far fetched to consider that the loss of a ship of the line, and its capture by the rebels for use in the Indies may well have had serious effect upon such a consideration.
However, the Randolph did in fact lost the battle. The effect upon American morale is uncertain. The loss of such a cruiser was not unprecedented nor unexpected against the Royal Navy. Furthermore American morale was at a high, given the victory at Saratoga and the English evacuation of Philadelphia. In all likelihood the battle actually had some positive effect upon morale given the heroic nature of Captain Nicholas Biddle's undertaking. Certainly history has only praise for this brave officer and crew.
Result: English Victory
Losses: American: U.S.S. Randolph, sunk; Captain Nicholas Biddle and 310 crew Killed
English: H.M.S. Yarmouth, damaged
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; The Glorious Cause, The American Revolution, 1763-1789, Robert Middlekauf, Oxford University Press, 1982