The Marines’ First Amphibious Raid

Gunpowder 001At the outset of the American Revolution, Great Britain’s governor in Virginia recognized that stores of arms and gunpowder within his control were now threatened by colonial rebels.  Accordingly, he directed that these stores be removed from Virginia and transported to New Providence Island in the Bahamas.  In August 1775, General Gage [1] alerted Governor Montfort Browne, the governor of the Bahamas, that rebels might undertake operations to seize these supplies.

Gunpowder was in short supply in the Continental Army. It was this critical shortage that led the Second Continental Congress to direct planning for a naval expedition to seize military supplies in Nassau.  Congressional instructions issued to Captain Esek Hopkins, who had been selected to lead the expedition, simply instructed him to patrol and raid British naval targets along the Virginia/North Carolina coastline. Hopkins may have been issued additional instructions in secret, but we know that before sailing from Delaware on 17 February 1776, Hopkins instructed his fleet [2] to rendezvous at Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas.

Continental Fleet At Sea
Continental Fleet

Upon sailing, the fleet encountered gale-force winds but in spite of this, the fleet managed to say together for two days.  Then, Fly and Hornet became separated.  Hornet was forced to return to port for repairs, while Fly did eventually rejoin the fleet.  Undeterred by the loss of two ships, Hopkins continued his mission believing that the gale had forced the British fleet in to port.

In late February, Governor Browne became aware that a rebel fleet was in the process of assembling off the coast of Delaware.  In spite of this, he took no action to prepare an adequate defense.  There were two primary defense works at New Providence: Fort Nassau and Fort Montagu. Fort Nassau was poorly equipped to defend the port against amphibious raids; its walls were not strong enough to support its 46-cannon.  Fort Nassau’s poor state prompted the British to construct Fort Montagu on the eastern end of the harbor in 1742, a position that commanded the entrance to the harbor. At this time, Fort Montagu was fortified with 17-cannon but most of the gunpowder stores and ordnance was held at Fort Nassau.

Hopkins’ fleet arrived at Abaco Island on 1 March 1776. It soon captured two sloops owned and operated by British loyalists, one of whom was Gideon Lowe of Green Turtle Cay. Hopkins pressured the owners to serve as pilots.  George Dorsett, a local ship’s captain, escaped capture and alerted Browne of Hopkins’ arrival.

On the next day, Hopkins directed the transfer of Marines to Providence and the two captured sloops; plans were formulated for an amphibious assault.  The main fleet would hold back as three ships carrying the landing force entered the harbor at daybreak on 3 March.  The intention was to gain control of the town before an alarm could be raised.

As it turned out, a daybreak assault was a huge mistake because the alarm was sounded when the three ships were observed entering the harbor in the morning light.  Roused from his bed, Governor Browne ordered four guns fired from Fort Nassau to alert the militia.  Unhappily, two of these guns came off their mounts at the moment they were fired.  At 0700, Browne held a council of war with Samuel Gambier.  Browne wondered whether he should remove the gunpowder to the Mississippi Packet, a fast ship then docked in the harbor. It was a good idea, but Browne failed to act on it.  Ultimately, Browne ordered thirty unarmed militia to occupy Fort Montagu before retiring to his home for his morning ablutions.

Fort Montagu
Fort Montagu, Nassau

The landing force realized that they had been discovered the moment they heard the guns fired at Fort Nassau; the element of surprise was lost, and the assault was aborted.  Hopkins signaled his fleet to rejoin at Hanover Sound, some six nautical miles east of Nassau.  When the ships were assembled, Hopkins consulted with his captains to rethink the plan of attack [3].  The landing force was increased by fifty sailors.  Along with the Wasp, the three ships of the landing force would proceed to a point south and east of Fort Montagu (pictured right).  The Marines made an unopposed landing between noon and 1400 … it was the first amphibious landing of what became the United States Marine Corps.

Hearing commotion, a British lieutenant by the name of Burke led a detachment of troops out from Fort Montagu to investigate.  Suddenly finding himself significantly outnumbered, he sent a flag of truce to determine the intentions of these men.  He was quickly informed, and perhaps even forthrightly so, that it was their purpose to seize military stores.

Meanwhile, Governor Browne (now freshly coiffed) arrived at Fort Montagu with another eighty militiamen (some of whom were actually armed).  Upon being informed of the size of the landing force, Browne ordered three of Fort Montagu’s guns fired and then withdrew all but a few men back to Nassau. In Nassau, he ordered the militia back to their homes; he retired to the governor’s house to await his fate.

Sometime later, Governor Browne sent Lieutenant Burke to parley with the rebel force.  Burke was instructed to “wait on command of the enemy and know his errand, and on what account he has landed troops here.”

Samuel_Nicholas
Capt Samuel Nicholas

The firing of Montagu’s guns had given Captain Nicholas [4] some pause for concern even though his Marines had already occupied the fort.  He was consulting with his officers when Lieutenant Burke arrived and stated Governor Browne’s message.  Nicholas restated that their mission was to seize the military stores, adding that they intended to do this even if they had to assault the town. Burke carried this message back to Browne; Nicholas and his Marines remained in control of the fort throughout that night —which was another mistake.

That night, Governor Browne held a council of war. The decision was taken to attempt the removal of the gunpowder.  At midnight, 162 of 200 barrels of gunpowder were successfully loaded aboard the Mississippi Packet and HMS St. John.  The ships sailed at 0200 bound for St. Augustine.  This feat was made possible because Commodore Hopkins had anchored his fleet in Hanover Sound, neglecting to post a single ship at the entrance of the harbor.

On the next morning, Captain Nicholas and his Marines occupied Nassau without encountering any resistance.  In fact, the Marines were met by a committee of city officials who offered up the keys to the city.  Commodore Hopkins and his fleet remained in Nassau for two weeks, loading as much weaponry as he could fit into his ships—including the remaining casks of gunpowder.  Hopkins also pressed into service the Endeavor to transport some of the materials.

Governor Browne complained that the rebel officers had consumed most of his liquor stores during their occupation (which is probably true), and that he was placed in chains like a felon when he was arrested and taken aboard Alfred —which is also likely true.

Hopkins’ fleet sailed for Block Island off Newport, Rhode Island on 17 March 1776; he took with him Governor Browne and other British officials as prisoners.  On 4 April, the fleet returned to Long Island where they encountered and captured HMS Hawk.  The next day, the captured HMS Bolton, which was laden with stores including armaments and gunpowder. Hopkins met stiff resistance on 6 April when he encountered HMS Glasgow, a sixth-rate ship [5], but the outnumbered Glasgow managed to escape capture and severely damaged Cabot, wounding her captain, who was Hopkins’ son, John Burroughs Hopkins, and killing eleven crew.  Hopkins’ fleet returned to New London, Connecticut on 8 April.

Governor Browne was eventually exchanged for the American general William Alexander [6] (Lord Stirling).  Browne came under severe criticism for his handling of the defense of Nassau, even though Nassau remained poorly maintained and was subjected to American threats again in early 1778.

Commodore Hopkins, while initially lauded for the success of the assault upon Nassau, his failure to capture HMS Glasgow and complaints from fleet crewman resulted in several investigations and courts-martial.  In spite of the fact that his crew suffered from disease, the captain of Providence was relieved of his command, which was turned over to John Paul Jones —who received a commissioned as captain in the Continental Navy.  Eventually, Commodore Hopkins was forced out of the Navy due to further missteps and accusations relating to his integrity.

The Second Continental Congress promoted Captain Samuel Nicholas to the rank of major and placed him “at the head of the Marines.”

Notes:

[1] Thomas Gage (1718-1787) was a British general officer and colonial official who had many years of service in North America. He served as the British Commander-in-Chief in the early days of the American Revolution.

[2] Hopkins’ fleet consisted of the following ships: Alfred, Hornet, Wasp, Fly, Andrew Doria, Cabot, Providence, and Columbus.  The fleet consisted of 200 Continental Marines under the command of Captain Samuel Nicholas.

[3] Hopkins’ executive officer was John Paul Jones. Initially, it was believed that Jones urged Hopkins toward a new point of attack and then led the assault.  This notion has been discredited because unlike most other of Hopkins’ subordinates, Jones was unfamiliar with the local area. It was more likely that the assault was led by one of Cabot’s lieutenants, Thomas Weaver.

[4] Samuel Nicholas (1744-1790) was the first commissioned officer of the Continental Marines; by tradition, he is considered the first Commandant of the United States Marine Corps.

[5] A sixth-rate ship of the British navy typically measured between 450-550 tons, contained 28-guns, and had a crew of about 19 officers, including the captain, two lieutenants, chaplain, and Royal Marine lieutenant.  Quarterdeck warrant officers included the ship’s master, surgeon, assistant surgeon, purser, gunner, bosun, carpenter, two master’s mates, four midshipmen, and a captain’s clerk.  The rest of the crew were lower deck ratings.

[6] At the beginning of the American Revolution, Alexander was commissioned a colonel in the New Jersey colonial militia.  His personal wealth permitted him to outfit the militia at his own expense and he was willing to spend his own money in support of patriot causes.  During an early engagement, Alexander distinguished himself leading volunteers in the capture of a British naval transport.  By an act of the Second Continental Congress, Alexander was commissioned Brigadier General in the Continental Army.

During the Battle of Long Island, Alexander led an audacious attack against a superior British army under General William Howe.  Taking heavy casualties, Alexander was forced to withdraw, which he did in an orderly and distinguished manner.  During this withdraw, he inflicted heavy casualties upon the British, who were in pursuit.  Alexander’s brigade, overwhelmed by a ratio of 25-to-one, Alexander was taken prisoner. Because of his actions, American newspapers hailed him as “the bravest man in America.”

Alexander was exchanged as a prisoner for British Governor Montfort Browne and promoted to major general. He subsequently became one of George Washington’s most trusted generals.

6 thoughts on “The Marines’ First Amphibious Raid”

    1. I tend to look at the beginning of the American Revolution as a powerful notion (rather than as one or more acts of hostility) adopted by some (about one-third) of British colonists that all men are, by divine right, free to pursue their own quest for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and that no government is empowered to restrict such God-given rights. In this context, I believe that the American Revolution began when colonists refused to adhere to acts of Parliament that were designed to impose upon them the will of the British crown. Subsequent acts of armed conflict were a manifestation of these notions.

      Yet, as today, there was not a single point of view among the thirteen colonies, nor among the colonial delegates that formed the First and Second Continental Congress. There were heated debates about what ought to be done about the British tyranny. Some of these delegates wanted to reconcile colonial differences with the Crown; others were chomping at their bits to have a war. Note: The Battle of Bunker Hill occurred on 19 April 1775, and the Second Continental Congress wasn’t seated until 10 May 1775. I should also note that it wasn’t entirely unreasonable for the British to tax the colonies; after all, the colonies did benefit from the protections offered by the Royal Navy and British Army dating back to 1763.

      Bunker Hill notwithstanding, the Second Continental Congress adopted the Olive Branch Petition on 5 July 1775, an effort (although somewhat weak) to affirm loyalty to Great Britain and to petition King George III for his willingness to negotiate colonial grievances —as a means of avoiding further conflict. On the very next day, another committee of the Second Continental Congress passed the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Taking Up Arms. King George, reacting to the incident at Bunker Hill, declared the colonies in open rebellion to lawful authority. It was several weeks later that King George refused to receive the Olive Branch Petition. From this point on, the dye was cast. I should also note that while the colonists demonized King George III, at this time, the man was mentally impaired and may not have been capable of making reasonable judgments.

      There was no basis in law for the Second Continental Congress to assume the mantle of national governance, but they did so in order to have the ability to make treaties with foreign governments —notably, the French. Following King George’s rebuff of the Olive Branch Petition, at least in the minds of many congressional delegates, war with Great Britain was now inevitable —and efforts were taken to secure the arms and munitions needed to conduct that war. Hence, formation of the Naval Committee that planned the raid in Nassau.

      So, to answer your question, I think that by this time, colonial delegates realized that their only course of action was to formally declare their independence from Great Britain. The “ease” of the operation was, in my view, more a matter of poor communication and coordination within the British infrastructure, along with, perhaps, aristocratic arrogance.

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    2. Thank You ! I learn more here than I did in 12 years of school combined.

      Do you agree that 50% of those in America were British sympathizers at the time? Same as it ever was then eh?

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    3. I think the political spread in colonial America was about the same as it is today. One-third were revolutionists, one-third were British loyalists, and one-third could have cared less. Today, we have one-third on the right, about one-third on the left, and one-third who could care less. A slight swing in either direction within the “could care less” category is what elects our president.

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    4. Agree. I’d say democrats and repubs comprise more than 66% but of the decided but within those there are certainly those who drift into “could care less” land for whatever reason. 3rd-3rd-3rd sounds about right .

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