America’s naval war with Great Britain lasted eight years, and while the Continental Congress did establish and direct this war, most of the fighting involved fleets that originated with the colonies/states. All the American colonies owned and operated fleets of ships and deployed them independent from those of the Continental Navy. On 9 September 1776, the Continental Congress formally declared the name of the new nation the United States of America. This replaced the term “United Colonies,” which had until then been in general use. After 9 September, the colonies were referred to as States.
The largest state fleets belonged to Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina. Only two states had no armed ships: New Jersey and Delaware. New Hampshire had one armed ship, and Georgia operated four galleys. In total, the number of armed state vessels exceeds those of the Continental Navy by a large number. They weren’t huge ships, of course —only a few were suitable for deep-water engagements —because the purpose of the state navies was to defend coasts, ports, and harbors— the main source of state economies. Offensive warfare was a secondary concern that focused, again, defending states from British commerce-destroying operations.
Perhaps typical of these state navies was the Maryland Navy and Corps of Marines. Throughout the Revolutionary War, British barges plundered and harassed farmers living on the Maryland and Virginia Eastern Shore creeks. By 1782, Maryland had had enough and in the interest of defending local interests, commissioned Zedekiah Whaley to serve as Maryland’s Commodore. His mission was to clear the Chesapeake Bay of the British threat.
On 14 January 1776, the Maryland legislature authorized a company of Marines, whose pay was less than that paid to Continental Marines —roughly $5.50/month. Maryland paid for their initial uniform, but replacement items (shirts, shoes, stockings) were deducted from their pay. Maryland lawmakers further determined that the uniform of land forces and Marines should differ from those of their sailors. Marines wore blue uniforms.
Maryland Navy Captain George Smith assumed command of Defence in late 1776. Her first voyage to the West Indies resulted in the capture of five small prizes laden with logwood, mahogany, indigo, rum, and sugar. The Royal Navy would no doubt consider such activities as piracy, but ships at sea were fair targets for colonial navies; economically, they were struggling to survive. Onboard Defence were 4 Marine officers, 3 sergeants, 3 corporals, 1 drummer, and 34 privates.
Maryland’s vessels were mostly galleys or barges armed with one or two medium-sized guns, crews of from 65-80 men. Defence was Maryland’s largest ship (constructed in Baltimore). Maryland’s emphasis on galleys led to the need for men to crew them and for the organization of small detachments of Marines for galley service. The duties of Marines serving aboard galleys differed from those assigned to sloops or frigates.
The galley Baltimore had three appointed Marine officers before there were any privates because Maryland men would sooner serve in the land army than aboard ship. Beyond the paucity of available men to serve in Maryland’s navy, the cost of building and maintaining ships was prohibitive. In 1777, the Maryland legislature authorized the sale of Defence —it’s discharged Marines encouraged to join Maryland’s field artillery units. By 1779, Maryland retained only three ships: the galleys Conqueror, and Chester, and the schooner Dolphin. But because the British Royal Navy forced Maryland to defend communities along the Chesapeake Bay shore, in 1780, the Maryland legislature authorized the construction of four large barges, a galley, and either a sloop or a schooner. The act included …
“That a company of one-hundred men be immediately raised to serve as Marines on board said galley and sloop or schooner, and occasionally on board the said barges or rowboats; and that the governor and council be authorized and requested to appoint and commission one captain, and two lieutenants to command the said company of Marines, and to direct such officers to procure by enlistment as soon as possible the said number of healthy, able-bodied men, including two sergeants and two corporals, to serve in such company for the term of three years, unless sooner discharged.”
Maryland offered its Marines, as payment, £2.05 monthly, and a bounty of $40.00. It should come as no surprise that the company was not raised until 1782. Maryland did not fare much better with its recruitment of healthy seamen; they were unable to raise 250 sailors until 1783. None of this, however, diminishes the fighting spirit of Maryland patriots.
The Marine captain’s commission went to a gentleman named Levin Handy. Handy previously served as a lieutenant in the 4th Maryland Battalion in 1776 and then as a captain of the 5th Maryland Battalion. Handy was appointed to serve on the barge Protector on 3 August 1782.
Commodore Whaley, in command of a flotilla of four sail and oar-driven barges, spotted the enemy in Tangier Sound. Determining that the British forces were too strong for his lightly manned barges, he sailed into Onancock Creek on 28 November and asked Lieutenant Colonel John Cropper to assist him with volunteers to man his barges. Cropper gathered up three officers and 25 local men and boarded Whaley’s flagship (Protector). Setting out to confront the British, Whaley ordered an attack in the area between Smith and South Marsh islands. Closing to within 300 yards, Whaley’s force encountered heavy cannon and musket fire. Three barges turned away, leaving Protector alone to fight the British.
Protector pressed on. Gunpowder aboard the barge exploded, killing four men, others abandoned ship to avoid the flames. A musket ball killed Commodore Whaley. In hand to hand combat, Colonel Cropper was badly wounded. Overwhelmed by British Marines, Protector struck her colors and surrendered. Survivors were taken prisoner but released to return to their homes on 3 December. According to an account of the Battle of the Barges, Colonel Cropper wrote …
“Commodore Whaley was shot down a little before the enemy boarded [Protector], acting the part of a cool, intrepid, gallant officer. Captain Joseph Handy fell nigh the same time, nobly fighting with one arm after the loss of the other. Captain Levin Handy was badly wounded. There went into action in the Protector sixty-five men; twenty-five of them were killed and drowned, twenty-nine were wounded, some of which are since dead, and eleven only escaped being wounded, most of whom leaped into the water to save themselves from the explosion.”
State Marines generally were stationed aboard vessels operating in coastal waterways, but one company of Marines raised in 1782 was an exception. Major General George Rogers Clark was tasked with maintaining control over the Ohio Valley. With few men at his disposal, Clark devised several clever schemes which gave him the best possible control over a large area with limited human resources. One scheme was establishing strong posts at key locations; the other was using armed galleys or gondolas to control the waterways.
Clark had the full support of Virginia governor Benjamin Harrison; what he did not have was the support of Virginia’s treasury. The governor wanted several river vessels but only offered up £50 to pay for them; General Clarke would have to pay the rest of it out of pocket. In early 1782, Clark reported two vessels ready for service and a third on the blocks. Of the two gondolas, they were unsuccessful because they were vulnerable to ambush along the shoreline. The third vessel was unusual in several ways: she would have a 73-foot keel designed for navigation on the Ohio River. Her gunwales were four feet high and thick enough to stop arrow or bullet, and she had 46 oars and large enough to accommodate 110 men. She carried a 6-pounder, six 4-pounders, and one 2-pounder. This boat’s construction costs were £2 per day paid in Spanish currency.
It was no easy task to raise a company of Marines in 1782, so General Clarke authorized the recruitment of a company of Virginia State Marines. Clark selected Jacob Pyeatt as captain, whose experience was that of a commissary officer with the Illinois regiment since 1778. Pyeatt’s Marines would serve for six months. When mustered, the company numbered twenty enlisted men and Lieutenant William Biggs. Most of these men were discharged veterans who re-entered military service on the promise of £10 per month and suitable clothing. In total, the company consisted of one captain, one lieutenant, two carpenters, three sergeants, and fifteen privates.
Rogalia (a shortened form of “row galley”). The galley’s summer patrol of the Ohio River caused a stir among the Shawnee Indians, who assumed that Clark was preparing for an attack. Two British officers from Fort Detroit gathered an Indian army of nearly 1,000 braves intending to raid Wheeling (present-day West Virginia) and were en route there when they received word of Clark’s Marines. It was enough to cause the Indians to break off their march to defend their homeland. Rogalia helped defend the frontier even though she had a short life. Rogalia sank near Bear Grass on 1 September 1782 and Clark’s Marines were transferred to the Illinois regiment. The state Marines never made a major contribution to the Revolutionary War, they did make a small contribution in their unique way.
But there were still other Marines …
In the 19th Century, a privateer was a private person or ship that engaged in maritime warfare under a commission of war. Since robbery under arms was a common aspect of seaborne trade, all merchant ships were armed. A sovereign or delegated authority issued commissions (also, letters of marque) during wartime. These letters of marque empowered the holder to carry on all forms of hostility permissible at sea by the usages of war. This included attacking foreign vessels and taking them captive (prizes), seizing the crews as prisoners for exchange. Captive skips were subject to sale at auction with the proceeds divided by percentage between the privateer’s sponsors, shipowners, captains, and crews. The crews included private Marines.
During the Revolutionary War, there were thousands of privateers —some of these commissioned by the Continental Congress, which added to the total of ships opposing the Royal Navy. The fact that there were so many privateers in the service of the Continental Navy so early in the war suggests a level of preparedness for war seldom discussed by historians. At times, these privateers were the sole source of disrupting British lines of communication and supply lines. Their work brought millions of pounds of essential stores and war materials to the Americans while capturing or destroying British ships of war. On 23 March 1776, the Continental Congress authorized privateering. In less than a fortnight, Congress had approved the form of commissions for privateers and dispatched copies to the colonies, there to be issued to bonded privateer officers.
We do not know how many “privateer” Marines served in such a capacity, but it is likely in the thousands. Over the years, historians have referred to these men as “gentlemen sailors” and “soldiers,” but their correct title, based on their duties aboard ship, was Marine. We do know that recruiting for privateers was easy because the inducements were superior to those of the Continental or State navies. Since their mission was to destroy commerce, there were few restrictions on behavior, larger profits, and much higher pay. Privateers did help the Continental Congress achieve its mission, but they also hindered the regular naval service. First, men preferred privateer service to that of the Continental or State navy, which meant fewer able seamen available to serve on US vessels. By 1779, it was bad enough to require a Congressional embargo on privateer recruitments.
Who were these “privateer” Marines? They came from all walks of life. They were lawyers, physicians, army officers, politicians, merchants, and ministers of the gospel. All these kinds of men served as Marines on privateers. When Revenge was captured by the privateer Belle Poole, one of the Revenge’s Marines was discovered to be a woman. What drew men away from their professions (and traditional roles) was good pay and the bounty they received from their seafaring activities, and perhaps their sense of adventure. What we know is that the life of a privateer was fraught with battles, daring raids, and stormy seas. The historic record is slim, as most ship’s logs have long ago disappeared and journals and diaries from the period are few and far between, but we know enough to conclude that their exciting life did have a bearing on the outcome of the Revolutionary War.
Let us not assume that privateers prioritized any service beyond their own; British loyalists were privateers, as well. In 1782, Delaware Bay was infested with privateer barges and galleys, manned by loyalists, which preyed upon Philadelphia’s commerce. When Congress refused to act, John Willcocks, a Philadelphia merchant, took it upon himself to defend his commercial interests by fitting out a ship named Hyder Ally and operate her under a letter of marque. Selected to captain the ship was an obscure Continental Navy lieutenant, recently released from British captivity, by the name of Joshua Barney.
The 23-year-old Barney, operating with two other privateers, provided escort to a fleet of merchantmen. Near Cape May, the privateers encountered the 32-gun HMS Quebec (a frigate) under Captain Christopher Mason, the 24-gun HMS General Monk, (a sloop of war) under Captain Josias Rogers, and a loyalist privateer named Fair American (a brig) captained by Silas Talbot. Hyder Ally was armed with sixteen 6-pound guns; her escorts Charming Sally and General Greene were armed with ten and twelve guns, respectively.
On the evening of 7 April 1782, Barney’s convoy went to anchor due to a failing wind. Espied by Mason, the British squadron prepared to attack the merchantmen on the next morning, focusing on Hyder Ally because she was the largest ship and therefore the most formidable. The Americans were unaware of a British presence until the next morning. Barney ordered the merchantmen to escape further into the bay under the protection of General Green and Charming Sally, while he engaged the British. General Green ignored Barney and prepared for battle; Charming Sally went aground and was abandoned by her crew, and the merchantmen sallied along the shoreline for protection.
While HMS Quebec stood off in the bay, ostensibly to keep the Americans from escaping, HMS General Monk and Fair American advanced. Barney turned about as if to flee, a tactic he used to draw Captain Rogers closer. Talbot opened the battle at noon with two broadsides into Barney, which while accurate, had little effect. Barney kept his gun ports closed, faking a withdrawal, Talbot broke off to engage General Greene which then turned about to fake his withdrawal, but went aground. In his zeal for action, Captain Talbot began to pursue Greene, but he too went aground, sustaining significant damage to his hull.
Captain Rogers slowed his pursuit of Barney long enough to lower a boat to seize Sally. When within range of Barney, Rogers called out for Barney to heave-to. Barney answered with a broadside of grape canister, which had a terrible effect on the deck crew and British Marines. The only guns available to Rogers were his bow swivel guns, which had little effect on Hyder Ally. Barney unleashed a second broadside. Rogers maintained his pursuit and when in position, he answered Barney with a broadside of his own, but when he fired, General Monk’s guns ripped away from the deck and flipped over. The two ships were side by side and Barney ordered his gunners to reload but to hold fire until his command. Barney turned “hard a-port” to deceive Rogers further, who followed suit. Then Barney turned to starboard, colliding with Monk and becoming entangled with her rigging. Barney’s crew quickly lashed the ships together, and when fast, Barney ordered his broadside. It was a devastating assault. Barney’s Marines then began delivering withering fire onto Monk’s deck. Within thirty minutes, Rogers was wounded, all his officers were killed, and a midshipman struck Monk’s colors.
HMS Quebec withdrew without engagement.
Much of Barney’s success against General Monk was the result of his privateer Marines, most of whom signed on from Buck County rifleman under Captain Skull, but there is no doubt that Joshua Barney was a skilled seaman and a tenacious fighter. Within a few years, privateer and state navies and Marines passed from the scene, but we should remember them today as “those other Marines.”
- Brewington, M. V. The Battle of Delaware Bay, 1782. Annapolis: U. S. Naval Institute Press, 1939.
- Burgess, D. R. Jr., The Politics of Piracy: Crime and Civil Disobedience in Colonial America. New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 2014.
- Coggeshall, G. History of the American Privateers and Letters of Marque. New York: Evans Publishers, 1856.
- Thomson, J. E. Mercenaries, pirates, and sovereigns. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1994.
 By every account, John Cropper (1755-1821) was a courageous, battle tested warrior. He accepted his first commission in 1776 as a captain in command of a shore company of the 9th Virginia Regiment and served under General Washington at Morriston that year. In 1777, he was promoted to major and appointed to command the 7th Virginia at Brandywine where he received a bayonet wound to the thigh. In 1778, he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and placed in command of the 11th Virginia, participating in the Battle of Monmouth. He was quartered with troops at Valley Forge where he established a close friendship with General Washington. He returned to his home in 1779 to protect his family against British shore raiders. Having moved his wife and children to a safer location, Cropper raised and commanded a shore battery of several 4-pound guns on Parramore and Cedar islands; his battery was instrumental in the sinking HMS Thistle Tender and a companion ship responsible for raiding his community.
 The older brother of William Rogers Clark of the Lewis & Clark Expedition fame.
 George Rogers Clark died destitute, in large measure because the government of Virginia and Continental Congress refused to pay him what they owed him.