Thursday, April 6, 2017

The Continental Navy vs. HMS Glascow

A quick note: my name is Mike Romero, and I'm a Historic Interpreter at Colonial Williamsburg.  The postings I make on this site are my own personal opinions and research, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Colonial Williamsburg.  With that said, enjoy the read!

"Commodore Hopkins, Commander-in-Chief
of the American Fleet,"
mezzotint engraved by C. Corbutt
In the early hours of April 6, 1776, in waters off New England, five ships of the Continental Navy:the 30-gun ship Alfred, the brigs Cabot, Columbus, and Andrew Doria, along with the sloop Providence came across the 20-gun HMS Glascow and her tender Nautilus.  Under the command of Commodore Esek Hopkins, the Continental squadron anticipated an easy victory.  The morning would not go as planned.

The British vessel had been sighted by a lookout aboard Andrew Doria  just after midnight.  Captain Nicholas Biddle, a veteran of the Royal Navy, promptly ordered light hung from the ensign staff and two false fires lit in the prearranged signal for having sighted a strange sail.  Less than an hour later, the brig Cabot was alongside Andrew Doria with the Continental flagship Alfred right behind.  As the Continentals closed on the enemy, Biddle regularly expected signals from Commodore Hopkins dictating tactics to the squadron...forming a line of battle to smash Glascow with successive broadsides, for example...but he was disappointed.  No signals came from the flagship, and Biddle watched with disgust as each ship went off on it's own initiative, "all went Helter Skelter, one flying here and another there to cut off the retreat of a fellow who did not fear us,"

HMS Glascow was a relatively small vessel; at 20-guns she was the minimum strength to qualify as a sixth rate, just large enough to have a full post-captain in command rather than a commander or even a lieutenant.  Glascow had originally been part of a larger British squadron known to be operating nearby, but she and her tender had been recently detached to Virginia, bearing dispatches for Lord Dunmore.  Under the command of Captain Tyringham Howe, Glascow made straight for the Continental squadron, despite being outnumbered five-to-one.  Coming up on the port bow of Cabot, Howe asked the ships to identify themselves.  Cabot's Captain John Hopkins (son of the Commodore) named his own ship and Alfred just astern.  The exchange was cut short when a Marine on one of Cabot's fighting tops threw a grenade that exploded on Glascow's deck.  The British promptly responded with a full broadside, and the engagement began.

Cabot was outmatched, attempting to put her sixteen 6-pound guns against Glascow's twenty 9-pounders.  To make matters worse, Cabot was crewed with Americans almost entirely unused to battle at sea, with nervous gun crews unable to match the British vessel's far superior rate of fire.  Multiple broadsides smashed the Continental brig, ruining her rigging, killing four and wounding seven to include the young Captain Hopkins.  After several minutes of intense punishment, Cabot sheered off to allow Alfred to attack.  In the process, she very nearly rammed Andrew Doria as the other brig moved in to attack.  Captain Biddle's quick reflexes prevented a collision, but in doing so was forced to temporarily turn away from the engagement.

With twenty 9-pounders and ten 6-pounders, Alfred should have been more than a match for Glascow.  Once again, however, the relative inexperience of the Continental crew came back to bite them.  The British ship fired far more often than Alfred, despite the heroic efforts of Lieutenant John Paul Jones on her gun deck, his relentless drilling of the gun crews paying off as Glascow began to take damage.  Marines on both ships poured musket fire and grenades at the opposing crews.  The two ships blazed away for nearly a half hour before a fortuitous shot destroyed Alfred's wheel block and ropes...the Continental flagship could no longer steer.  Drifting out of control, Alfred was helpless as Glascow crossed her bow and raked her, firing a broadside down the entire length of the ship.  This proved to be devastating to Alfred: rigging was shredded, masts damaged, the hull pierced below the waterline, and killing four aboard ship.

A short time later, Alfred had regained control of her steering and Glascow was sailing past her to the northeast with Andrew Doria in hot pursuit.  After working furiously to get his ship into action, Captain Abraham Whipple in the brig Columbus was able to approach Glascow's stern on the starboard side.  It had taken nearly two hours, but three of the Continental ships were  finally able to coordinate their attack: Alfred to port, Andrew Doria at the center, and Columbus to starboard.  The Cabot remained out of action, almost completely disabled.  Captain John Hazard of the sloop Providence expended all his efforts in keeping his speedy vessel safely clear of the action.  The three active Continental ships traded chaser fire with Glascow and were slowly closing.  It began to look increasingly likely that the British frigate would be taken, and Captain Howe ordered his signal books and dispatches cast overboard to prevent their capture.

The chase continued until dawn, when the wind unexpectedly changed, allowing the harried Glascow to bear away.  As the light increased, Commodore Hopkins realized that Captain Howe was not fleeing...he was attempting to lure the Continental ships towards Newport, Rhode Island where a squadron of British reinforcements under Captain James Wallace lay in wait.  Hopkins ordered his ships to break off, and the action ended.  Three hours later, HMS Glascow arrived in Newport, with severe damage to her rigging and masts, with one man dead and three wounded (all from Continental Marine musket fire).  Hopkins collected his battered squadron and the five ships reached New London, Connecticut the next day.  The crews of the Continental ships were welcomed as conquering heroes...the five of them had come together to make a single small ship of the world's most powerful navy running, after all.

In truth, Hopkins' decision not to pursue Glascow into Newport was likely the wisest of his naval career.  The Continental Navy had a long way to go if they truly intended to prove an effective force against the Royal Navy.  Political infighting and quiet criticism from Captain Biddle and Lieutenant Jones would steadily weaken Hopkins' credibility, leading to his eventual relief as Commander in Chief.  The Continental Navy was off to a decidedly mediocre start, but there would be better days in the future.

McGrath, Tim. Give Me a Fast Ship: The Continental Navy and America's Revolution at Sea.  (The Penguin Group, 2014.)

No comments:

Post a Comment