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Sink or Sail: The Options for a Continental Navy Hurting for Professional Military Sailors

Nov. 5, 2014 | By Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
Commodore Esek Hopkins (1718-1802), Commander in Chief of the Continental Navy, 1775-1777. Painting by Orlando S. Lagman, after a 19th Century engraving by J.C. Buttre. Naval History and Heritage Command Photo

As the American colonies came closer to waging outright war against Great Britain, the Continental Congress was faced with determining how best to protect against invading forces. George Washington had already been tapped as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army. Many in Congress argued there was a need for a Continental Navy to protect against the British threat of stopping the colonies' trade and to wreak destruction among shore settlements. And so it was on Nov. 5, 1775, when it was suggested the new Commander in Chief of the Continental Navy - all seven ships - would be esteemed privateer captain Esek Hopkins from Rhode Island.

Rhode Island had already taken the lead for a nationalized navy Oct. 3, 1775, when its delegates presented to Congress a resolution to build and equip an American fleet. It was a bold move, but lacked specifics. For days, that resolution to equip two national ships lay on a table. Then on Oct. 13, 1775, Congress learned that Army Commander-in-Chief Gen. George Washington had commandeered three schooners, including one he paid for himself, to intercept enemy supply ships.

Pre-empted by Washington, the naysayers gave way and a resolution was passed that day to outfit two more warships to increase the Continental Navy to five ships. By Oct. 30, the Marine Committee got Congress to authorize two additional armed vessels and increase the size of the committee to 11 to handle all naval regulations, guidelines and shipbuilding. With the decision to form a Continental Navy behind them, Congress was then faced with finding the right commander in chief to lead their ships into battle against the formidable Royal Navy. At the time, the American colonies had plenty of captains with experience either as merchantmen or privateers guarding specific towns and harbors.

Again, Rhode Island took the lead. Gov. Stephen Hopkins served on the Marine Committee because his family owned a shipbuilding company. He suggested his older brother, Esek Hopkins, a privateer captain in his 60s who had just been named commander in chief of Rhode Island's armed vessels and a brigadier general. Not that the elder Hopkins didn't have experience. As a privateer, he had sailed for England against the Spanish merchant fleets during King George's War of 1743-48 and the French merchant ships during the French and Indian War of 1754-63. As he gained experience as a captain, his reputation and wealth grew from his captures. He had a strong, magnetic and charismatic personality that helped him recruit and lead his crew.

On Nov. 5, 1775, Hopkins was appointed as the man to lead the Continental Navy. It was not an easy transition for either Hopkins or Congress. The British, with their long tradition of naval superiority, had trained their top commanders from the bottom up, as had the French navy. As professional naval officers, they had rules and regulations in place that offered guidance to the lowliest seaman to the most senior of admirals. Throughout their careers they had been taught and groomed to plan for and execute employment of naval forces in support of national objectives.

With no national navy, the Americans didn't have at their disposal a cadre of well-trained career naval officers versed in leading strategic fleet battles. Hopkins, as a privateer, also had no real guidance on how to act as the top national naval officer. According to Dennis Conrad, Ph.D., historian at the Naval History and Heritage Command, this was a huge challenge for many entering service in the fledgling Navy but especially from those expected to lead it. "They went from being free agents to managing a fleet, and they didn't have that type of experience," said Conrad. "Instead of attacking strategically as a fleet, they tended to attack individually."

Further complicating Hopkins' job was that on Nov. 25, 1775, Congress began issuing commissions for captains of cruisers and privateers authorizing them to begin engaging British maritime traffic. However, those crews were allowed to keep everything they captured, while Continental Navy crews were allowed to keep only half (the other half went to the treasury). In effect, Hopkins was competing for talent that we being recruited by privateers at twice the money he could offer. "It was hard to get a full complement of crew on his ships," Conrad said. "It was difficult to compete against the more lucrative privateer trade. And he was under a lot of pressure to capture ships."

In mid-February 1776, Commodore Hopkins, in his flagship man-of-war Alfred, sailed from Philadelphia under orders to attack British maritime forces in the Chesapeake Bay, along the southern coast and off Rhode Island.
Oil painting on canvas by V. Zveg, 1973, depicting Continental Sailors and Marines landing on New Providence Island, Bahamas, on March 3, 1776. Their initial objective, Fort Montagu, is in the left distance. Close off shore are the small vessels used to transport the landing force to the vicinity of the beach. They are (from left to right): two captured sloops, schooner Wasp and sloop Providence. The other ships of the American squadron are visible in the distance. The operation was commanded by Commodore Esek Hopkins. Courtesy of the U.S. Navy Art Collection, Washington, D.C. Naval History and Heritage Command Photo

Hopkins decided his orders were too ambitious for his cobbled-together 7-ship fleet. So instead his ships undertook the Navy's first amphibious offense when on March 3, 1776, a landing party put Marines ashore on New Providence Island in the Bahamas. The Marines seized local defense works and captured equipment and supplies crucial for the rebellious American colonies. After capturing two British warships early in April, Hopkins faced the 30-gun frigate HMS Glasgow. Although seriously damaged, Glasgow managed to get away. When he returned to New London, Conn., on April 8 with much-needed munitions, John Hancock, president of Congress, initially praised Hopkins' actions. But for the southern delegates, Hopkins' disobedience of orders to cruise in the Chesapeake Bay created dissent against the Rhode Island native.

Another strike against Hopkins, ever loyal to his birthplace, was when he delivered 26 cannons captured from those warships to Newport rather than turning them over at Philadelphia. Congress demanded 20 of the heaviest cannons be returned. Hopkins asked the Rhode Island council to comply, but they refused to give up the armament providing defense and protection of the colony's harbors. He was censured for breach of orders on Aug. 12, although he remained in charge of the national fleet. For the next several months, at a variety of locations, Hopkins continued to run into the problem of manning his ships, hampered by illness, desertion and seamen joining the more lucrative legalized piracy of the privateer ships.

By December 1776, back in Providence Harbor and bottled in by the British fleet, Hopkins was a commodore without a fleet to sail. He wrote to a Rhode Island delegate in Congress expressing his wishes that while "I shall not desert the cause," but he wished "with all my heart" the Marine Committee would replace him with someone who could achieve more. Congress gave him his wish on March 26, 1777, when they suspended him from his command, but not because Hopkins was unable to man his ships: Two of his former officers had accused him of ordering the torture of British prisoners of war. The suspension became permanent on Jan. 2, 1778.

Hopkins filed a criminal libel lawsuit against the two officers, both of whom were from Rhode Island. The whistleblowers reported back to Congress on July 23, 1778 they had been jailed and were being persecuted for doing what they felt was right. Congress threw their support to the younger officers, terminating Hopkins from the Navy on July 30, 1778 and enacting what is now known as the "whistleblowers protection act." On May 22, 1779, Congress authorized the payment of $1,418 to cover the defendants' attorney fees after winning their case in the Rhode Island court.

USS Hopkins, at anchor circa 1904, a 408-ton destroyers built at Wilmington, Del., was commissioned in September 1903. Hopkins accompanied the "Great White Fleet" on its long voyage around South America to California. In May 1917 Hopkins began World War I escort and patrol work off Central America, the Atlantic Coast and Bermuda. No longer needed after the fighting ended, USS Hopkins was decommissioned at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, Pennsylvania, in June 1919. She was stricken from the Navy List in October 1919 and sold for scrapping in September 1920.

It was a slow and rocky start, perhaps, for the Continental Navy, but by the end of the American Revolution, the Continental Navy sent to sea more than 50 armed vessels of various types. They took nearly 200 British vessels as prizes, contributing to the demoralization of the enemy and forcing the British to divert warships to protect convoys and trade routes. In addition, the navy provided diplomatic crises that helped bring France into the war against Great Britain. But perhaps most important, the Marine Committee created the rules, regulations, training and education that would build and train generations of professional Sailors, equipping them for decision making positions and command in today's Navy.


NOTE TO MEDIA: For additional information about naval history, please contact the Naval History and Heritage Command's Communication and Outreach division at 202-433-7880 or via email at