September 18, 2014
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Then and Now
U.S. Navy owes origins to Rhode Island
Terry D'Amato Spencer

The United States Navy owes its origin to Rhode Island and to such men as John Brown, Abraham Whipple and Stephen Hopkins.

When war broke out between the colonies and England, it was no surprise that Rhode Island assumed a leading role. In spite of her small area, she provided the American side with far more than her share of outstanding and talented leaders. Typically, Rhode Island turned to the sea to make her impact felt. She displayed her boldness and courage with the sinking of the Gaspee on June 9, 1772, long before her sister colony of Massachusetts made her stand at Lexington and Concord.

Earlier than any other colony she challenged England, where that country had its greatest strength, on the sea. The British Navy had moved into Narragansett Bay with great force in an attempt to stop smuggling and to keep Rhode Island from aiding the rebels in Boston. In the early summer of 1775, Captain Wallace stopped two ships owned by John Brown, a leading Providence merchant. These ships were carrying flour that Wallace believed was destined for the rebels in Massachusetts. He seized the ships and forced them and their owner to go to Boston. The British authorities there, General Gage and Admiral Grave, were still hoping to keep the hostilities localized and, knowing of Brown's popularity and influence, treated the Rhode Islander with great respect, paid for the flour, and allowed him to return to Providence.

John Brown, however, was far from satisfied, and he used all his influence in the Rhode Island General Assembly to get them to pass an act creating a Rhode Island Navy to "protect our trade." On June 12, 1775, the Assembly created the first navy in the colonies by commissioning two sloops, the Washington and the Katy. The Katy was owned by Brown and was made the command ship. Brown's influence was also felt in the selection of Abraham Whipple as commander of the fleet. Whipple was one of the outstanding captains of Rhode Island. He was a senior captain of Brown's merchant fleet, had earned a great reputation as a privateer in the French and Indian War by capturing 23 French vessels, and was the bold leader in the Gaspee incident.

The little Rhode Island Navy was outclassed in everything except courage and seamanship. Two small sloops were no match for what the British had in the area. The larger of the two colonial ships, the Katy, had but 10 nine-pounders, 14 swivel guns and 80 men. In comparison, the British fleet was led by the frigate Rose with 24 guns and nearly 200 men, making it the largest ship in New England waters. The Rose was backed up by the Swan with 16 guns, the Kingfisher with 16 and later the Glasgow with 24. In addition, she could also count on a bomb brig, Bolton, and several sloops and schooners that the British had confiscated. A lesser man might have hidden and waited for more help, but not Captain Whipple. Within three days of his commission he attacked the Diana. Wallace was using the Diana as an additional guard ship or "tender" for the Rose. Whipple chased the Diana off the shores of Jamestown and after a one-and-a-half hour battle forced the British to abandon the craft. This was the first naval action of the Revolution.

Captain Wallace left Newport in a vain attempt to catch Whipple. While he was away, Rhode Islanders captured five of the six merchant ships the British had confiscated earlier. Later, while the Rose was on a foraging expedition, Whipple boldly sailed into Newport Harbor and loaded the remaining cannon from Ft. George on board the Katy and took them to Providence.

Realizing that even with Whipple on our side, we needed more help to rid the Bay of Wallace and the Rose, the General Assembly ordered Stephen Hopkins to press the Continental Congress to create an American Navy. By October 1775, Hopkins' eloquence and political experience were enough to not only persuade Congress to create a navy of four vessels with 13 frigates to be added later, but to get a Rhode Islander appointed as a commander-in-chief and to get a contract to Providence to build two of the frigates. The first choice of the Congress was Lieutenant Jahleel Brenton of Newport, the highest-ranking American officer in the British Navy. Brenton declined, and Stephen Hopkins then managed to get his brother Esek named as commander-in-chief. In this fashion, the American Navy was born.

The sloop Katy was renamed the Providence and was one of the first two vessels purchased for the Continental Navy. Other vessels in the fleet were the flagship Alfred commanded by Esek Hopkins with John Paul Jones 2nd in command, the Cabot under John B. Hopkins, son of Esek, and the Columbus, commanded by Abraham Whipple. Esek Hopkins took the small navy on a raid in the Bahamas, where they met with success in March 1776. Here they captured a number of heavy cannons, some gunpowder, and took the governor of Nassau as a prisoner. The Katy was small enough to get close to shore and for the first time American Marines were landed.

On the way home the fleet captured a sloop, Hawke, and a bomb brig, Bolton. When they got off the coast of Rhode Island, the navy ran into trouble. The American ships were so heavily loaded that they had difficulty in maneuvering as quickly as they should have and suffered from an engagement with the British frigate, Glasgow. The British vessel was able to out-maneuver Hopkins in the dark and damaged both the Cabot and the Alfred. Congress charged that Hopkins was afraid to lose his prizes and that he backed off from the flight allowing the Glasgow to escape unharmed. The Columbus, under Whipple, arrived as the Glasgow was pulling away and wanted to give chase but Hopkins ordered him to return to the fleet. All the American captains were accused of cowardice because of the action and Whipple, incensed by this slur on his name, demanded a court martial trial to clear him of the charge. Whipple was exonerated as were the other captains, but Esek Hopkins was censured for not capturing the Glasgow.

Esek Hopkins found himself with even more difficulties before the year was over. His main problem was in getting crews for his ships. In order to get more ships in action, privateering was authorized. The high pay, the chance for booty, and the freedom from military discipline lured many prospective sailors from the Continental Navy. Hopkins, angered by this, began to blame Providence shipbuilders for being more interested in privateering and profits than in patriotism. In December 1776 he found himself bottled up in Providence harbor and the American navy was never again to sail as a fleet in the Revolutionary War. The cautious Esek Hopkins was ordered to capture the British frigate, Diamond, that had been stranded off Patience Island, but he moved so slowly that the wind shifted and the tide came in enough to enable the Diamond to escape.

In January 1778, Esek Hopkins was tried before Congress and dismissed. The navy went on, however, with daring exploits by many Rhode Islanders. In February l778 the frigate Warren, built in Providence and under Captain John B. Hopkins sailed through the British blockade in a snowstorm, firing broadside as she went and damaging several ships. A month later the bold Whipple, now in command of a 2-gun frigate, the newly created Providence, sailed past the British fleet on a dark and stormy night carrying important secret documents to France. On the way out of the bay the flamboyant Whipple even managed to sink a British ship. Once on the high seas and with a powerful ship under him, Whipple terrorized the British. (His new ship, the Providence, was a frigate, much larger than the sloop Katy/Providence that he had commanded earlier. That sloop had been given to John Paul Jones and his first command in l776). Whipple managed to capture thousands of tons of British shipping. At one point in 1779 he and two other American captains attacked a large British fleet and managed to separate eight merchant ships from the convoy, capture them and take them to Boston. The value of these ships was over $l million.

The exploits of Abraham Whipple, John B. Hopkins, Silas Talbot and many other Rhode Islanders including privateers, kept the British Navy off balance and started the great naval traditions that this country looks back to with pride.


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