Esek Hopkins and the Formation of the Continental Navy

Tue, 12/20/2016 - 11:07am -- lwhite

Newport has a rollercoaster of a history involving the United States Navy. During the American Civil War, the headquarters of the U.S. Navy was located here, and up into the early 1970’s was the home port of the Cruiser Destroyer Force Atlantic. Today it is home the Naval Officer Candidate School and as of 2011 it is home to Navy Supply Corps School. But Newport’s history with the Navy truly begins in 1775 when a merchant from Newport named Esek Hopkins, Esq. was named Commander and Chief of the newly created Continental Navy. He would serve as the only Commander and Chief of the Navy during the Revolution.

Hopkins was born in Scituate, Rhode Island in 1718. Before the Revolution he purchased a ship with money from a well to do marriage. This proved beneficial as during the French and Indian War Hopkins acted as a privateer, adding a considerable amount to his wealth. After that he sailed a disastrous trip onboard the Sally, a slave ship owned by the Brown brothers, which may have contributed to the latter’s participation in the active slave trade in Rhode Island.

In October of 1775, Hopkins was appointed Brigadier General in command of all military forces in Rhode Island and immediately began to strengthen the colony’s defenses. A few months later, in order to protect American commerce, Hopkins received his appointment to the Continental Navy as commander and chief.

"You are instructed with the utmost diligence to proceed with the said fleet to sea and if the winds and weather will possibly admit of it to proceed directly for Chesapeake Bay in Virginia and when nearly arrived there you will send forward a small swift sailing vessel to gain intelligence....If...you find that they are not greatly superior to your own you are immediately to enter the said bay, search out and attack, take or destroy all the naval force of our enemies that you may find there. If you should be so fortunate as to execute this business successfully in Virginia you are then to proceed immediately to the southward and make yourself master of such forces as the enemy may have both in North and South Carolina...Notwithstanding these particular orders, which it is hoped you will be able to execute, if bad winds, or stormy weather, or any other unforeseen accident or disaster disenable you so to do, you are then to follow such courses as your best Judgment shall suggest to you as most useful to the American cause and to distress the Enemy by all means in your power."

These were the orders given to Hopkins by the Congress. With eight altered small merchant ships and after much deliberation, Hopkins decided to forgo the assault on the superior British fleet in the Chesapeake and instead sailed to Nassau, Bahamas. There, he surmised, he would easily capture an under guarded port, take prizes needed for the war effort, and could safeguard the infant navy from sure destruction by the British forces.  His fleet left Delaware in February 1777.

In March, 1777 the fleet approached Nassau. They decided to land at daybreak which was a mistake. The British manning Fort Nassau and Fort Montague had seen the ships and sounded the alarm to alert Montefirt Browne, the Bahamian governor. Browne was slow to act even after several dispatched from the British controlled colonies. The colony was undermanned and the forts had seen better days. Fort Montague was newer but had little armaments while fort Nassau has little arms but ample gunpowder and was unable to defend against a proper amphibious attack.

Battle of Nassau

The chosen landing point was made south east of fort Montague and made an unopposed landing between 1 and 2pm on March 3, 1777. This landing would be the first amphibious assault of what would become the United States Marine Corp. With a force of 210 Marines, the British militia fell back to the town as the colonial forces took fort Montague.  That night Governor Browne had as much munitions as possible were loaded on ships, including 162 of 200 barrels of gunpowder, and sent to St. Augustine Florida. The next day Hopkins and his force took control of the underdefended town, captured Governor Browne, and loaded the remaining munitions onto their boats. Hopkins headed back to the port of New London, Connecticut two weeks later.

Though the assault on the Bahamas was a resounding success the return trip did have its bumps. Seeing no action until they reach Long Island, Hopkins and his fleet with prize ships in tow came upon, attacked and capture the HMS Hawk. They then came upon the HMS Glasgow which proved a tougher fight. Though outnumbered, the Glasgow was able to escape after damaging one of Hopkins ships, the Cabot, wounding Hopkins’ son and killing or wounding eleven others.

The Glasgow battle would prove beneficial to one man named John Paul Jones who fought well. He would receive a captain’s promotion to the ship Providence. Though initially a success, much criticism came after the fact, especially from the southern colonies who felt that patrolling their shores should have been the top priority. This would lead to a variety of investigations and court martial that resulted in Hopkins being forced out of the Navy in 1778. After the war, Hopkins retired to his farm where he would pass away in 1802. He is buried in the North Burial Grounds in Providence,