Monday, December 3, 2018

Hoisting the Flag of Freedom

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!

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John Paul Jones circa 1780
as engraved by Moreau le Jeune.
John Paul Jones is often called a father of the United States Navy, along with John Barry and John Adams.  In late 1775, he is a little known merchant captain who had traveled to Virginia several years earlier to escape murder charges after killing a would-be mutineer.  With the outbreak of the American Revolution, he is quick to journey to Philadelphia and volunteer his services to the newly formed Continental Navy.  Jones is initially offered command of  the 12-gun sloop Providence, but he declines given his inexperience sailing fore-and-aft rigged vessels.  Instead, he accepts a billet as first lieutenant of the new Continental flagship Alfred (earlier that year, as the merchantman Black Prince under John Barry's command, she had logged the fastest day of sailing in the 18th century) slated to be commanded by Captain Dudley Saltonstall.

As a loyalist informant reports to Lord Dartmouth, the "Continental Flag" was raised aboard the Alfred moored at Philadelphia on 3 December 1775.  Nearly four years later, John Paul Jones recounts his role in the event in a letter to a Dutch admiral: "I had the honour to hoist with my own hands the Flag of Freedom, the first time it was displayed, on the Delaware; and I have attended it with veneration ever since on the ocean."

Continental Ship Alfred (1775-1778), by W. Nowland Van Powell
(U.S. Navy Art Collection)

The flag being raised aboard Alfred was likely the Grand Union Flag, also occasionally called the Continental Flag or the Cambridge Flag.  This was being flown over General George Washington's encampments at Cambridge, Massachusetts, and was also raised at prominent locations in Williamsburg, Virginia celebrating the signing of the Declaration of Independence in July 1776.  (Even now, guests to Colonial Williamsburg see this flag flying at the entrances to open sites.)  The Grand Union Flag features thirteen red and white stripes representing the United Colonies with the King's Colours of Great Britain in the canton.

Alfred was part of a squadron consisting also of the Continental vessels Colombus, Cabot, Andrew Doria, Providence, Fly, Hornet, and Wasp under the overall command of Esek Hopkins.  The squadron attempts to set sail in January 1776, but their departure is delayed for some time by the icy conditions in the Delaware River.  Initially, Commodore Hopkins is given orders to take his squadron into Chesapeake Bay to attack the forces of Virginia's erstwhile Royal Governor, Lord Dunmore, and then range along the Carolina coastline to do what damage to the British he can.  Rather than engage the British directly, Hopkins takes advantage of a discretionary clause in his orders to proceed to the West Indies in search of gunpowder and other military supplies.  After capturing several small sloops in the region, the squadron stages an attack on New Providence in Nassau to seize the gunpowder being stored there under supposedly light defenses.  While the Continental squadron was discovered early enough that the British were able to move a significant amount of supplies, a large amount of gunpowder and numerous cannon were successfully captured to serve the patriot cause.

Captain Nicholas Biddle of the
Continental Navy
Not long after, Hopkins' squadron would suffer a particularly ignominious episode when it engages HMS Glasgow on 6 April 1776.  The battle served to illustrate rather starkly the inexperience of the Continental crews when five ships of the squadron could not capture or destroy a single 20-gun warship.  Nicholas Biddle, in command of the brig Andrew Doria at the time, writes to a sister rather glibly on 26 April, "In the beginning of April one very fine morning we exercised Great Guns and small Arms and had two men hurt by it."  On 2 May, he is a little more adamant to his brother Charles, "A More imprudent ill conducted Affair never happend."  While patriot newspapers initially hyped the action up as a resounding victory for the Continental Navy, Commodore Hopkins' lack of organization and fire in command during the battle led to his eventual relief from command.  Captain Biddle, however, would command Andrew Doria until the autumn of 1776, when he would be selected to command the Continental frigate Randolph.

By October of 1776, Andrew Doria had been placed under the command of Captain Isaiah Robinson, under whom another important first for the Grand Union Flag would take place.  Robinson was under orders to sail to the Dutch island of St. Eustatius to purchase and bring home a cargo of gunpowder and other military stores, and also has a copy of the new Declaration of Independence on board.  On 16 November 1776, Andrew Doria fires a 13-gun salute while approaching Fort Oranje, which the Dutch return.  This is the first time a flag representing the United States of America was saluted by a foreign power while being flown aboard a ship of war.

On 14 June 1777, the Continental Congress would resolve "That the flag of the thirteen United States be thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new constellation."  This basis for the American Flag that we recognize today would receive its own first salute from a foreign power on 14 February 1778, when the sloop-of-war Ranger under the command of John Paul Jones entered the French port of Brest.  On occasion, an early 13 star flag (based on the design of Francis Hopkinson) has been seen flying from the Capitol at Colonial Williamsburg as well.

Just like our current American Flag, the Grand Union and Hopkinson Flags alike have flown over pivotal moments in our nation's history.  We would do well to study and remember these events as we write the next chapter of our history in the days to come.

1.  McGrath, Tim.  Give Me a Fast Ship: The Continental Navy and America's Revolution at Sea.  (The Penguin Group, 2014.)
2.  Thomas, Evan.  John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy.  (Simon and Schuster, 2004.)
3.  Van Powell, W. Nowland.  The American Navies of the Revolutionary War.  (Putnam, 1974.)
4.  "Original Correspondence of Paul Jones," The Edinburgh Magazine and Literary Miscellany (August 1817), 14-20.
5.  Clark, William Bell and Biddle, Nicholas.  "The Letters of Captain Nicholas Biddle," The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Volume 74 Number 3 (July 1950),  348-405.