In the early fall of 1777, the two American frigates Effingham and Washington found themselves trapped by the British, who had blockaded the Delaware River above Philadelphia. To prevent the British from capturing these vessels, the Navy Board ordered them scuttled —accomplished in November. Subsequently, several attempts to refloat the ships failed.
By the beginning of 1778, a number of Marines began to chafe at their inactivity, but it seems as though there were two camps: those without the experience of combat wanted to get into battle as soon as possible; those who had already had their fight were happy for the inactivity. Nevertheless, plans were afoot to avenge the defeat of the frigates. On January 29th, Captain John Berry received orders to organize a boat expedition down the river for the purpose of annoying the enemy, capturing or destroying their transports, and cutting off their supplies and/or diverting them for the use of the Continental army, which was suffering at a place called Valley Forge.
The Marines procured two flat-bottomed vessels and armed them with four-pounders; manning these two barges was a bit more difficult. After numerous attempts, 40 men signed on. In the first week of February, Marines Captain Berry and Lieutenant James Coakley took command of one barge, and Navy Lieutenant Luke Matthewman commanded the second.
Remaining close in to the Jersey shore, with oars muffled, the two boats slipped silently past Philadelphia. Below, five additional boats joined them —most of these half manned with Pennsylvania seamen and privateers. Meanwhile, General Anthony Wayne’s tattered brigade pushed in toward Wilmington in search of cattle and hay for Washington’s army. Barry’s small flotilla ferried Wayne’s force across the Delaware to Salem. Within a few days, Wayne had secured about 100 head of cattle —but now the question was how to transport these animals and the soldiers to Pennsylvania?
The plan was to drive the cattle through central New Jersey and across the Delaware north of Philadelphia, and while this was going on, Captain Barry’s men would set the hay afire, creating a diversion for the British forces. Following the successful hay burning expedition, Barry and his men successfully captured two ships and a schooner off Port Penn. Captured were crewmen numbering close to 70, their holds containing supplies intended for the British forces at Philadelphia.
Unfortunately, when the British heard about the capture of these vessels, they sent two ships of war upriver to interdict the Americans, forcing Barry to burn the transports and run the schooner aground near New Castle. With renewed interest in activity on the Delaware, Captain Barry maintained a low profile but the danger to him and his small crews had not yet passed. A British punitive expedition of some 700 men landed at Whitehall and began setting afire to moored and half-sunk ships; all in all, the British destroyed more than 40 vessels and, if that weren’t enough, seized control of Bordertown. It was a staggering loss for the Continentals but the misfortunes of our infant Navy and Marine Corps were not over just yet. The British remained aggressive through the early summer of 1778, which demoralized members of the Navy and Marine Corps committees. From their official report:
“The Enemies ships do indeed swarm in the Seas of America and Europe; but hitherto, only one of our Frigates hath been captured on the Ocean. Two have been burned in North River, two sunk in Delaware, one captured there, and one in Chesapeake. The Alfred we are just informed was taken on her passage home by two frigates in sight of the Rawleigh. The particulars of this capture and why she was not supported by the Raleigh we are ignorant of. I hope Capt. Thompson is not culpable. I entertain a high opinion of him. The Columbus is a trifling Loss, and I should not much lament the loss of the Alfred if her brave Captain, Officers and men were not in the hands of a cruel enemy. Our little fleet is very much thinned. We must contrive some plan for catching some of the enemy’s Frigates to supply our losses; but we must take care not to catch tartars. It is reported that Capt. Biddle of the Randolph, in an engagement with a sixty-gun ship, was blown up. We have been so unfortunate that I am apt to believe almost any bad news; but this report I cannot believe.”
A massive explosion sunk the Randolph on 7 March 1778; only four of the 315 crew survived. The question of whether ships captains were culpable for these losses resulted in several “courts of inquiry.”