From Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
In 1775, Americans were no strangers to the ways of the sea, either in peace or in war. In the years immediately before the outbreak of the rebellion, Americans demonstrated their growing disenchantment with British rule by taking action against ships collecting revenue or delivering tea in Boston Harbor. Once the revolution began, Americans recognized that events in the Atlantic Ocean theater would have a major, and potentially decisive, impact on the course of the war in North America.
In the fall of 1775, Americans initiated a privateering campaign against British commerce, and on Oct. 13, the Continental Congress, after some difficult political debate, also established a small naval force, hoping that even a diminutive navy would be able to offset to some extent what would otherwise be an uncontested exercise of British sea power. The seven ships included 24-gun frigates Alfred and Columbus, 14-gun brigs Andrew Doria (Andrea Doria) and Cabot, and three schooners, Hornet, Wasp and Fly.
The Continental Congress had a very limited role in mind for the navy. It was not expected to contest British control of the seas, but rather to wage a traditional guerre de course against British trade, in conjunction with the scores of privateers outfitting in American ports.
The Continental Navy’s ships were to raid commerce and attack the transports that supplied British forces in North America. To carry out this mission, the Continental Congress began to build up, through purchase, conversion, and new construction, a cruiser navy of small ships–frigates, brigs, sloops, and schooners.
On Dec. 16, 1775, Congress approved the purchase of 13 frigates: Five with 32-guns: Raleigh, Hancock, Warren, Washington and Randolph; five with 28-guns: Providence, Trumbull, Congress, Virginia and Effingham, and three with 24-guns: Boston, Montgomery and Delaware.
Things did not go smoothly. Congress wanted construction complete by March 1776, but builders struggled to find the armament to outfit them and even more so to get the Sailors to man them. The pay was greater for privateers who could also raid British merchant ships and split the spoils among themselves.
Several of the ships never made it to sea: Washington, Congress, Effingham and Montgomery were either scuttled or burned between October and November 1777 to keep them from the British.
Delaware, while attempting to slow down British forces coming after American troops was caught by an ebb tide and stranded on Sept. 27, 1777. She was captured and destroyed shortly afterward.
Virginia ran aground March 31, 1778 near Hampton Roads while attempting to outrun the British blockade of the Chesapeake Bay.
The remaining frigates had mixed success. Raleigh captured three prizes while under the command of Capt. John Barry, but was run aground Sept. 27, 1778, and scuttled.
Hancock, too, captured three ships, but July 8, 1777, while being pursued by a British squadron, the American frigate was captured by HMS Rainbow and turned into the man-of-war Iris.
The 32-gun Randolph had captured five prizes under the command of Capt. Nicholas Biddle. While escorting a convoy of merchantmen on March 7, 1778, Randolph attempted to fend off the British 64-gun HMS Yarmouth. As the smaller American frigate fought the British ship, a magazine on Randolph exploded, destroying the ship and killing all but four of her crew. But the aftermath of the explosion also damaged Yarmouth and the convoy got away.
The frigates named for their New England heritage, Providence and Boston, had the most success in their service of the Continental Navy. Boston had 17 prizes, plus a special mission carrying John Adams to France in early 1778. Providence, under the command of Capt. Abraham Whipple, tallied 14 prizes. But both frigates were captured May 12, 1780, following the American surrender to the British after the Siege of Charleston, S.C.
The 28-gun Trumbull launched in 1776, only to find her deep draft would keep her from getting over a sandbar in the mouth of the Connecticut River as it flowed into Long Island Sound. After three years, Trumbull was finally freed in 1779 after casks of water were lashed alongside port and starboard. When the casks were pumped out they rose and lifted the ship enough to get over the sandbar. Although Capt. James Nicholson received command of the frigate on Sept. 20, he didn’t get cruising orders until the spring.
It was a short cruise.
On June 1, 1780, Trumbull spotted a ship that would prove to be the British 32-gun letter-of-marque Watt. After being challenged by Watt, Trumbull ran up British colors, but the captain grew suspicious of Trumbull’s movements and soon after gave “three cheers and a broadside” to begin what historian Gardner W. Allen considered “one of the hardest fought naval engagements of the war.”
For 2 ½ hours, the two ships traded shots in a range that was never wider than 80 yards, and at times, while locked together. Both ships caught fire, and with the British ship’s hull, rigging and sails shot to pieces, she was taking on water.
Trumbull hardly fared better. Captain of Marines Gilbert Saltonstall noted: “We were literally cut all to pieces; not a shroud, stay, brace, bowling or other rigging standing. Our main top mast shot away, our fore, main mizzen, and jigger masts gone by the board…”
Both ships broke off action to assess their damage. Trumbull suffered eight killed and 31 wounded, while Watt had 13 killed and 79 wounded. Nicholson was eager to pursue his foe, in better condition with one remaining mast. Already battered beyond belief, the frigate had to weather a gale on its return to Connecticut. Nicholson was congratulated on the “gallantry displayed in the defense” against Watt. But lack of money and men kept the ship inactive until the first part of 1781.
It was Aug. 8, 1781, when Trumbull sailed again with a 24-gun privateer and a 14-gun letter-of-marque to protect a 28-ship merchant convoy. Twenty days later, three British ships spied the convoy and two broke off to give chase. The shapes of the ship might have seemed familiar to Trumbull’s little squadron: They were former Continental ships, the frigate Hancock and privateer General Washington, now known as HMS Iris and General Monk.
Trumbull’s luck continued to worsen after an evening rains quall carried away the frigate’s fore-topmast and her main topgallantmast. Soon the frigate was trapped by Iris and General Monk. While Nicholson was ready to fight, his crew was not – only a quarter responded to the call to quarters. After battling Iris for 95 minutes, General Monk moved into finish the battle, and Nicholson, after “seeing no prospect of escaping in this unequal contest,” struck his colors. Five of his crew were killed and 11 wounded.
Although HMS Iris towed Trumbull to New York, the battered frigate, the last of the original 13 frigates approved on Dec. 13, 1775, was not placed into the Royal Navy and her final fate remains unknown.
Many of the failures of the early Continental navy were directly attributable to the uneven and uncertain quality of the highly politicized officer corps. Mediocre officers vied for rank and privilege. Many commanders lacked drive, and others, while perhaps excellent seamen, were simply incompetent warriors. Nevertheless, whatever the shortcomings of the Continental Navy, the course of the war demonstrated to Americans the importance of sea power.
The control of the Atlantic by the Royal Navy allowed Great Britain to transport a large army to North America and to sustain it there, which is what contributed to Washington’s crushing defeat during the Siege of Charleston.
But just two months after Trumbull was towed into oblivion, French sea power, allied with the American cause after 1778, enabled Gen. George Washington to isolate and destroy the British army of Lord Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown Oct. 19, 1781.