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Naval Battles during the Revolutionary War

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    Naval Battles during the Revolutionary War

         The naval battles played a very important role in American War of Independence. The naval battle of American War of Independence is divided in two periods. During the first period Royal Navy was mainly supporting troops hired to fight against the American revolutionaries, on the coasts, rivers and lakes of North America, or in acting as a guard to protect British commerce against the enterprise of Americans. This first period lasted from 1775 to 1778. The second period lasted from 1778 to1783. During which, the France, Spain, and the Netherlands intervened and this extended the naval war until it spread from the West Indies to the Bay of Bengal, it involves operations like protecting commerce and naval wars carried out by naval powers of that time.

         The Americans, who were fighting for independence, had only 31 ships comprising the Continental Navy. In order to fight, they issued Letters of Marque to private owners of armed merchant ships and Commissions for privateers, which were used as warships to fight against the enemies.

         Esek Hopkins was appointed the naval Commander-in-Chief. With his small fleet, Hopkins led the first major naval action of the Continental Navy, in early March 1776, against Nassau, Bahamas, where stores of much-needed gunpowder were seized for the use of the Continental Army. Esek Hopkins led a squadron of 7 ships to capture the island which was under the British control to gain access to much needed supplies and gunpowder. On 3rd March 1776, Hopkins with nearly 250 marines and sailors launched first amphibious assault. USS Providence and USS Hornet played a very decisive role in that war. The Americans were not able to get much needed gunpowder although they managed to get mortars and cannons.

         Another important aspect of this war was inland and amphibious operation. The first significant example of inland warfare in the American Revolution was war on Lake Champlain in 1775-76. This was important waterway which used to connect Canada with the colonies in the New York City. When the revolutionary war started, American leaders understood that the British would try to disconnect New England from the other colonies by taking control of the Lake Champlain way. Colonels Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold attacked Ticonderoga on 19 May 1775 and Crown Point after few days. These successful operations also helped Americans to get much needed munitions and cannons.

         One of the important naval battles in the revolutionary war was Battle of Randolph-Yarmouth. There were five captains of the Continental Navy, Nicholas Biddle (1750-1778) was one of them .Captain Nicholas Biddle, was from a wealthy banking family in Philadelphia and was a midshipman in the Royal Navy. In June, 1776 he was given command of frigate Randolph having 32-guns. Randolph sighted a warship on 7th March 1781; it was identified as Yarmouth having 64-guns.

          Captain Nicholas Biddle was aware of the fact that Yarmouth was far more superior to there warship, since he served in Royal Navy. He was also aware that the number of peoples on his deck was only half of the strength of the Yarmouth. He was having aggressive audacity which he learned from Nelson with whom he worked. Biddle instead of moving back from that situation, he decided to stay and fight with that entire he had and gave orders to close in and attack. His crew also supported him. This action of Biddle had a very strong impression on the mind of the English captain. The advantage that Randolph was having is that it was fast, having great speed and its maneuverability. The Randolph gave its best and fought very bravely but in the end the Randolph lost the battle.

         The result of this incident was the loss of a cruiser, which could have been used by the Americans to lower the morale of British and hindering the supplies .The biggest loss was the loss of a great leader and the crew. They could have made great contributions to the war of independence. Only thing that went in flavor of Americans was the temporary removal of Yarmouth. Although the British were expecting to win such wars, but the loss of Yarmouth was setback to them, but there was something good for them as their morale was boosted by the win and good thing was they did not lose the Yarmouth because the loss of Yarmouth would have been a great loss to the British, mainly at a time when British were thinking to move to West Indies following the entry of the French in the war.

    However the Americans lost this battle but the effect on their morale was uncertain. Such a loss was not unexpected also there were other factors acting at that time like the English evacuation from the Philadelphia and the victory at Saratoga. It is likelihood that the battle had a very positive effect on the morale of the Americans after the heroic effort of Captain Nicholas Biddle.

         In August of 1779 Captain John Paul Jones took command of the Bonhomme Richard. Captain Jones was the first well known naval hero of the revolutionary war. He along with four other small ships sailed around the British Isles. In September of 1779 this squadron attacked the Baltic merchant fleet under convoy of the British ships Serapis and Countess of Scarborough. After this one of the most famous battle of the American revolutionary war was fought On September 23, 1779, Jones engaged in one of the bloodiest engagements in naval history. Jones fought with the 44-gun Royal Navy frigate Serapis. Although his own vessel was under attack and struggling, Jones was not ready to accept the defeat and replied to British bravely, “I have not yet begun to fight.” After the fight of more than three hours Serapis surrendered and Jones took command. He won a memorable war, but he has to pay a price for it, he suffered a heavy loss of life. Jones and his crew boarded on the Serapis as soon as possible because The Bonhomme Richard was not in good condition after the treatment it received during the struggle from the British, lot of effort was put in repairing The Bonhomme Richard but all the efforts went fruitless and the ship was allowed to sink. Jones sailed both the Serapis and the captured Countess of Scarborough to the Holland.

         One of the most important tools for the American navy in the war was Commerce raiding. Overseas trade was a backbone of the economies for America for more than a century before the War of Independence. The Continental Navy attacked the routes used by the British and transports loaded with munitions and supplies. Conyngham mainly focused on attacking the commerce lines of British. He did this to distract the Royal navy by assigning them additional tasks, so that they cannot impose blockade on the Northern coast of America. The loss of ships in the Commerce raids raised the desire for peace among the British merchant community.

         Jones view it mainly a source of obtaining the funds required to carry out his operations, and also using British prisoners caught by them to exchange them for American soldiers caught by their enemies. However, it was concluded out of all the commerce raiding attacks that this was not the solution, although it might be useful in certain situations. It might be effective in tiring and harassing the enemies but it cannot be a decisive factor in a war

         There were number of small naval war engagements during the revolutionary war some of them are discussed in the following section:

         On August 7 1775, Capt. Clement Lempriere, went to St. Augustine to seize the gunpowder and military supplies. He came to know that the HMS Betsy, commanded by Capt. Alvara Lofthouse, was moving to St. Augustine and it had a huge amount of gunpowder. Capt. Clement Lempriere located the Betsy. The armed crew attacked the Betsy and captured the sleeping crew.

         The fleet of Captain Esek Hopkins engaged in a final fight with HMS Glasgow on 6th April 1776 at Rhode Island. The battle continued for three hours against the British Captain Tryingham Howe. He fought with bravery and displayed his skills on water. Although Glasgow was small in number but it caused nearly twenty four casualties while conceding only four. In order to save the ship Howe threw the dispatches on the deck that he was carrying Gen. William Howe in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Gen. Henry Clinton. The HMS Glasgow suffered heavy damage, but it was able to escape.

         On 17th April 1776 Captain John Barry led the USS Lexington, and engaged in a battle with the British sloop HMS Edward. Even though USS Lexington’s ship was having more guns than the HMS Edward, the British were experienced one. The Lexington fought a very fierce battle and caused severe damage to HMS Edward. Finally HMS Edward surrendered, and thus Barry was the first American naval captain to seize a British ship in actual combat. He was a wealthy ship-owner from Philadelphia; Barry had been master of the USS Alfred before the Revolutionary War, but he was now under Capt. Esek Hopkins’s command.

         On May 19 1776, the USS Franklin and the USS Lady Washington were moving toward the bay. The British located them and sent ships to attack the American ships. During the night, the British decided to attack them. But the Franklin moved to ground and formed a battle line to fight against British, nearly 12 British ships with 200 men landed and attacked them, the British were surprised to see the Americans ready to fight against them. Americans attacked them and won the battle.

         Capt. Lambert Wickes after having a successful time in the Irish channel against the British was sailing with the two raiders; he discovered the British warship HMS Burford when they were returning back to home from France on June 1777 of the coast of France. Wickes made the USS Reprisal’s escape while he made other warships to spread, and tried to remain out of range of the British, but the Burford’s was caught  . Wickes tried to protect his side, he cut some beams from the damaged Reprisal to raise its ability to stay on water and making it safe to use. Americans won this struggle.

         On 2nd April 1777, early morning, Captain Charles Phipps les two ships HMS Roebuck and HMS Perseus. He discovered USS Defense a South Carolina Navy schooner commanded by Capt. Thomas Pickering. Captain Charles Phipps started to chase the Defense as soon as he discovered it. The Roebuck was the first to catch it. Roebuck went close to the Defense and asked them to tell about what it was. Defense replied them that it was a cruiser to deceive them. But Roebuck was not convinced with this so he ordered them to sail down, but the Defense refused to do so. Two British ships quickly started fire on Defense and Defense surrendered easily.

         The South Carolina Navy frigate, USS Comet, commanded by Capt. Edward Allen on 25th May 1777 at St. Augustine West Florida was moving on the Georgia coast when it discovered two ships near the coast. One of them was anchored and the other one was led by Captain John Mowbray the privateer sloop Rebecca. Mowbray was unaware of the fact Comet was capable of attacking them followed it. The Comet was ready for fight. When Mowbray came to know that the Comet was armed, both British ships began to flee the area towards the St. Augustine Bar. The Comet followed them. The Comet followed the British for nearly three hours and in the end caught by the Rebecca. Comet attacked the Rebecca and then sailed towards the coast after damaging it. The Comet retaliated and the battle continued for nearly half an hour. Some heavy damage was caused to Rebecca, but it returned back to the fight after repairing the damages. The Comet left the war with British behind them and finally battle was stopped.

         On April 28 1778, Number of cruisers was looking for Ranger. Captain Jones sailed across the North Channel to Carrickfergus, Ireland, to fight against the Drake a 20 gun ship. Drake moved slowly against the wind and tide. The battered Drake lost the battle after nearly one and half hour engagement. The Ranger emerged as the winner; from the Drake’s crew five were killed including their Captain, George Burdon, Drake surrendered to the Americans. Jones was able to attack and capture Drake. This was the first, and most significant, American victory over any Royal Navy vessel in British waters.

         On April 27-28 1778 in England Whitehaven, John Paul Jones commanded U.S.S. Ranger to attack the port of Whitehaven, burning three ships and also spiking the guns of two forts guarding the port. Later in the day, they went to St. Mary’s Isle, Scotland, the American captain had a plan to capture the Earl of Selkirk and hold him to get better treatment for  American prisoners of war in exchange. However, this plan was not successful as the Earl was not present.

         Ushant Island, England on July 27, 1778 witnessed a naval battle. This battle was fought between the British and France on a French island. Honorable Augustus Keppel in HMS Victory led the British with a fleet 30 ships. The French had 29 ships commanded by Admiral Louis Guillouet, comte d’Orvilliers. The two fleets engaged in a fearsome battle. The battle took place in the heavy rainfall strong winds making it difficult for both of them. However, the French with the help of their advanced ships were able face the winds clement weather.

         The British suffered little damage but Sir Hugh Palliser’s rear division suffered the maximum damage. Keppel gave the signal to follow the French, but Palliser did not agree to it and because of which no action took place. An aggressive fight broke out between the British commands worsened by the political differences, as a result of which two court marshals took place and Keppel resigned, all the incidents which took place cause a great damage to discipline of the navy.

         On March 8 1781, French naval squadron moved from Newport, Rhode Island and sailed to the Chesapeake Bay under the leadership of Admiral Charles-Rene-Dominique Gochet Destouches. He was given the responsibility of bringing help for Gen. Marquis Lafayette’s expedition against Gen. Benedict Arnold. The action of the French squadron was noticed by the Admiral Marriot Arbuthnot when he was at Gardiner’s Bay. The location of the Bay was towards the east of the Long Island. Arbuthnot moved from Gardiner’s Bay and began to look for Destouches’ fleet on 10th of March. The British fleet took the advantage of their fast ships. The British were behind the French by nearly thirty six hours, but they utilized the efficiency of their ships and reached the Chesapeake Bay on time. The battle began on March 16 with both sides having 8 ships. The advantage was on the British side because of the better weapon .The battle between British and French took place for more than an hour, causing great damage to both the sides. Destouches withdrew from the fight and decided to go back to Newport. Arbuthnot met with Gen. Benedict Arnold by sailing his fleet into Chesapeake Bay. When Destouches was defeated in the battle and he moved away from the area, he made a huge strategic failure. The big mistake that he made was that, he deserted Lafayette and left him helpless in a situation where there was nobody to protect him in his fight against Arnold. Another mistake that he made was that, when he left the sea, sea was open for Gen. Schuyler Phillips of the British navy to come with sufficient reinforcements to attack Virginia. This French involvement in the struggle for success proved to be a milestone, because this French victory in Chesapeake led to the surrender of British army at Yorktown in 1781.

          The Alliance was a vessel with bigger guns led by new Captain John Barry .The Alliance when went to war on 29th May 1781 off the Cape Sable, things were not good for it, Alliance was damaged by the English attack, which caused casualties and left her Captain wounded in the shoulder. When nothing was looking good for Alliance, Providence came for its rescue. Alliance retaliated and attacked the enemies and they succeeded. British lost two ships which could have continued to be used to fight against the Americans and Americans got two vessels to be used by them or to be sold Also, John Barry gained the glory as an American naval hero. Finally, this battle set another example for Americans to follow and win the war, by winning the war against superior Royal navy. This win was helpful in boosting the confidence of the Americans.

         The naval battles during the Revolutionary War took place in the West Indies also; a number of wars were fought in that region because of the following reason. The hurricanes are frequent in the month of June to October in the West Indies whereas north coast has to face stormy winter. This was a major controlling factor in deciding movements of naval forces during the revolutionary war.

         St. Lucia an island in West Indies witnessed a battle fought on 28th of December 1778 during Revolutionary War between the British and the French fleet. The British fleet consists of seven ships whereas French fleet consists of twelve ships.  Commodore William Hotham was sent from New York to strengthen the British fleet in West Indies on 4th November, D’Estaing sailed to West Indies on the same day. The British admiral “Admiral Samuel Barrington”, in the Leeward Islands, had replied back to enemies by capturing St. Lucia on the 13th and 14th of December when Hotham arrived from North America. D’Estaing, who was chasing Hotham closely, was defeated easily on 15th December.

         Admiral Byron went to the West Indies on 6th of January 1779. Initially the naval forces in the West Indies used to watch each other. Admiral Byron went to Antigua to protect a trade convoy in the month of June on its way home. During this, d’Estaing first attacked St Vincent, and then Grenada. Admiral Byron, with a view of rescuing his island who had returned, came back to the island but he was too late in coming.

         The Battle of Saintes called so after the name of Saints, group of islands in the West Indies was fought between the British and the French fleet between 9th April and 12th April 1782. The British fleet was led by Admiral Sir George Rodney and the French fleet was led by Comte de Grasse.

         On 12 April, De Grasse sails with his fleet to guard the ship that was under threat from four British ships. Rodney called his ships and ordered them to be ready for the battle.  While the French line was passing down the British line a sudden change in wind caused the confusion in the French fleet bring British line up in a strong position. The misunderstanding caused in French fleet and the damage caused to the ships of the French including De Grasse’s Ville de Paris, was responsible for De Grasse’s surrender and comeback of many ships in an uneven way. This act divided the French battle line into two. The battle ruined the French and Spanish intentions of capturing Jamaica, which was under the control of British.

         The battle has caused controversy ever since, because of reasons such as. Firstly, Rodney’s actions were criticized because of his failure to capture the French ships which he could have captured after he won the war. Secondly the battle is remembered for its strategy of breaking the opponent’s line, such as the movement of British through a gap in the French line and causing confusion in opponent’s camp. But the controversy is over the issue that these actions were intentional or it was just an accident, and if this was intentional then whose idea was it? Was it Rodney, his Captain-of-the-Fleet Sir Charles Douglas, or John Clerk of Eldin.

         Concluding the whole action of the revolutionary war which was carried out by the navy is not a small thing to do, since it consists of lot of things and number of minor engagements which are not even mentioned here. Starting with actions carried out in 1775, followed by amphibious assault in 1776 by Commodore Esek Hopkins’  to seize military stores at New Providence, Bahamas, and reaching point of culmination  in 1781 when French fleet action off the Virginia Capes led to victory at Yorktown, the war at sea played a very important role nation’s fight for independence. Divided and small in size American navy was not capable of engaging in major fights but their contributions were very important. General Washington’s fleet schooners, the Continental Navy, states navies, and privateers seized a number of merchant ships to provide much needed supplies and munitions. The naval forces also joined in to save the important port cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Charleston and to transport the American troops. Naval officers like John Barry, Nicholas Biddle, Abraham Whipple, and Joshua Barney took the cause of American independence to the waters and fought bravely against the strong British navy. John Paul Jones’ carried out the cause of American independence to the European waters. But all these things lead to the conclusion that the role played by the navy in the war was significant one.

    Works Cited

    “Action off Barbados.” 31 Aug. 2008. <>

    “Battle off Cape Sable.” 31 Aug. 2008.


    “Commerce Raiding.” 03 Jan. 2006. 31 Aug. 2008. <>

    “Naval operations in the American Revolutionary War.” 19 June 2008. 31 Aug. 2008. <>

    “Privateers and Mariners in the Revolutionary War”.15 March 2001. 31 Aug. 2008. <>

     “Revolutionary War Naval Minor Engagements 1775-1783.” 01 Sep. 2008. 01 Sep. 2008.  <>

     “The Revolutionary War 1775-1783.” 03 Aug. 1996. 31 Aug. 2008. <>

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