Episode 017

The Battle of Nassau

A Revolutionary War battle in the Bahamas? Yes, it happened during the Battle of Nassau. But was it actually an order to be followed? Or an "interpretation" of the orders given? We'll discuss in this week's episode.

Our last episode, the Battle at Moore’s Creek Bridge, took place on Feb. 27, just a few days later on March 3, we see a Continental Fleet and Continental Marines engaging in the Battle of Nassau…in the Bahamas. They Bahamas are a long way from Lexington and Concord…maybe it really was the shot heard round the world? Let’s see how this developed…

When the American Revolutionary War broke out in 1775, Lord Dunmore, the British provincial governor of the Colony of Virginia, with the British forces under his command, had removed Virginia’s store of provincial arms and gunpowder to the island of New Providence in the Crown Colony of the Bahamas, in order to keep it from falling into the hands of the rebel militia. Montfort Browne, the Bahamian governor, was alerted by General Thomas Gage in August 1775 (about 6 months prior to Continentals actually attacking) that the rebel colonists might make attempts to seize these supplies.

Let’s talk for a moment about the strength of the Continental Navy. The Continental Navy of 1776 was a collection of converted ships (mostly merchantmen and auxiliaries), none of which would be reasonably called a warship. Procured via purchase, lease, or outright seizure.. Similarly, the Continental Marines, while patterned after the Royal Marines and their tradition of security and raiding operations, were NOT the Marines as we know them today (How did they get to be the way they are today? Don’t worry dear listeners…that will come in another episode). Two high ranking men, became extremely influential in the creation and leading of the Continental Navy: Samuel Nicholas and Esek Hopkins.

Hopkins, a native of what is now Rhode Island, was the younger brother of founding father Stephen Hopkins, and a state politician and militia officer. Hopkins was named commander in chief of the Continental Navy on Dec. 22, 1775 and he was typically referred to as a “fleet captain” or “commodore”.

In early February his orders from the Naval Committee were to proceed “directly to Chesapeake Bay in Virginia there to scout the enemy and if the enemy forces were not greatly superior to search and attack, take and destroy all the Naval force of our Enemies that you find there.” When that task was completed, he was to then move to Charleston to disperse another British naval force. This was the “official order” given to him

However, there was a small clause that read he was to conduct operations “most beneficial to the American Cause” and to “distress the Enemy by all means in your power”. It was under this order that he was either told, or took upon himself to sail to the Bahamas. So which one was it? Let’s talk about what we know

When Hopkins led his fleet consisting of eight ships: the Alfred, Hornet, Wasp, Fly, Andrew Doria, Cabot, Providence, and Columbus out to sea in the afternoon of 17 February 1776 from Delware he knew where he was going and why he was going there, but, except for the captains of the fleet, who were told to rendezvous at Great Abaco in the Bahama Islands in case of separation, no one else knew where or why. The Naval Committee thought he was going to Virginia, which is where he had been ordered to go. If he did not go there the Committee expected him to sail to the Carolinas or to Georgia, just as long as it was somewhere in the southern colonies. Action in the south was being demanded by all the southern delegates to Congress.

Hopkins had no intention of going to Virginia. The British had been collecting ships, including two frigates and two sloops-of-war there in additional to Dunmore’s vessels. Part of the reason that ships were massing were due to the fact that British intelligence had learned that the Continentals had been assembling and retrofitting ships for a small fleet (Hopkin’s fleet).

Why not attack the British in Virginia? In a letter written on Christmas Eve, Dec 24 of 1775. Colonel Alexander McDougall of New York wrote a letter to the New York delegates in Congress and said it best, McDougall pointed out: that the Americans, when fighting on land, and protected by fortifications against British discipline, had fared rather well. McDougall attributed this to their familiarity with musketry. However, it was different at sea: “. . .the Saylors we have picked up for our Vessels, do not understand the use of Cannon, equal to those who are continually exercised with them on board the King’s Ships, nor are they so attached to the Country, from connextions as our Soldiers are, besides many of the Saylors have been taught, the Superiority of the British Navy officers, to all others in the world. Sir, There is no entrenching or covering behind Trees at Sea. Superior force or address only must determine the victory. . .You are not to measure your expectations of the Success of this Fleet, against the men of war, by the Success of our Troops against the King’s, or the Success of our Cruizers against Transports. . .are we then never to send our armed Vessels against the men of war. . .Yes, But the first experiment, should not be made, where there is danger of the force being equal, before your officers and men are practised in Sea engagements. . .so much depends on address & preparation founded on experience, that I tremble for the consequences.”

It’s possible that Hopkin’s shared some of McDougall’s sentiments. If he did, he never said, at least in any record we have from the time. There was no military cost in avoiding the British force at Virginia, but there certainly was a political one. Officers who attain the rank of Admiral or Commodore, in any Navy, including a brand new one, are expected to be aware of larger political factors and interests. Part of the price for southern support in creating a Continental Navy was that it would be a national force; that it would be used against the British naval forces in the south first, specifically Virginia. Hopkins knew this and understood it. He steered straight for the Bahama Islands.

In his later report to John Hancock, Hopkins listed his reasons for going to the Bahamas: he had many sailors sick with smallpox, the storms at sea and their winds blew hard from the northeast, and “I did not think we were in a Condition to keep on a Cold Coast.” Hopkins made it seem he put to sea to avoid the lee shore (wind from the northeast). He stated he assigned the Great Abaco rendezvous after the fleet sailed (it was before), and ran down to the rendezvous after Hornet and Fly parted company. He said he went there to wait for the appointed fourteen days for the missing vessels to join him (he waited two), and decided to attack New Providence after he arrived.

It has been suggested that Hopkins may have had verbal orders to proceed to New Providence. That is unlikely: 3 of his captains had departed Philadelphia before he sailed, but 2 were still in town. One of the 2 remaining was from Virginia himself, R.H. Lee, and that he would have endorsed a change in orders for a fleet destined to punish Lord Dunmore seems very, very unlikely indeed. Moreover, in all the political fallout following the New Providence raid, Hopkins never once mentions a change in orders. However, there was knowledge available to Hopkins that made New Providence an attractive target: (1) there was much discussion in Philadelphia about the need for gunpowder which was in critically short supply, and (2), there was known to be a large supply at New Providence. In fact, a Congressional committee was studying methods of obtaining this powder. Hopkins then, in a wise military move, and exploiting the clause in his orders, avoided the British squadron in Virginia to attack the relatively unprotected town of New Providence in the Bahamas.

Even if we’ll never know the true history as to why, Hopkins was now sailing towards Grand Abaco, his rendezvous point, with his 8 ships and their crews as well as just over 200 marines under the command of Samuel Nicholas.

Eight days after the fleet set sail from Delaware, a Captain Andrew Law of the British Army arrived at the island of New Providence. He brought information for the Governor Montfort Browne, that a “considerable squadron” was assembling in Delaware Bay and was destined for New Providence. How did Law know this? Good question. Perhaps he knew of the plans in Congress concerning New Providence and connected them with the fitting out of the fleet or Perhaps he heard sailor’s talk in the lower Delaware while he was waiting to sail, we’ll never know. Browne ordered Law to keep silent with the news until he called together his governing Council to discuss. He never called them together.

The American fleet was then sighted on the afternoon of 28 February as it stood in to the land from the northeast. Captain George Dorsett had been bound on a whaling cruise, passing near Great Abaco, when he sighted the fleet of eight sail. Dorsett thought they were bound to New Providence and immediately put about to warn the town. He arrived in the morning of 1 March and informed Browne. Once again the bearer of the news was asked to keep silent until the Council was called. Once again the Council was never summoned.

The British schooner St. John was anchored in the harbor off Fort Nassau when another warning arrived. A vessel came in from Great Abaco on the morning of 2 March with news that the fleet was under sail and standing for New Providence. Grant recorded that the fleet consisted of two ships, two brigs, three sloops and a schooner, and that they were supposed to be en route to New Providence to obtain the munitions there. This was a very precise report. Again…nothing was done.

While the British were content to not make plans, the Americans were not. Their plan consisted of the following: the Marines would be transferred to the sloops, and be kept below decks. The total landing force would be about 230 Marines. The sloops would enter the harbor at New Providence, anchor near the forts, and, when opportunity presented itself, “land Instantly & take possession before the Island could be Alarmed, for the forts were ungarrisoned. The fleet would provide distant cover, so as not to alarm the town. The transfers began on the evening of 2 March. Why the sloops? They were faster and smaller, the thought was that the could slip in and deposit troops quicker than the other ships in the fleet.

It is interesting to note here, that with his order to “land Instantly & take possession…” Hopkins is now the first American military commander to order amphibious troops to assualt a position.

From a defensive perspective, New Providence contained only two forts: Fort Nassau and Fort Montagu. Fort Nassau was located in Nassau, but was poorly sited to defend the port against amphibious attacks, and had walls that were not strong enough to support the action of its 46 cannon. Essentially the walls were so weak, that as a defender firing the cannon, you could knock your own wall down. As a result, Fort Montagu had been constructed in 1742 on the eastern end of the harbor, commanding its entrance. At the time of the raid, it was fortified with 17 cannons, although most of the gunpowder and ordnance was at Fort Nassau.

Nicholas took his Marines to the eastern end of New Providence Island. Then using the ships’ boats, and under the cover of the guns of Providence and Wasp, Nicholas led the force to an amphibious landing near Fort Montague.

When the American landing force was sighted in the whaleboats, making for the beach, Lieutenants Burke and Judkin were ordered to take their party of men (about 60-75 men) down to the beach, reconnoiter the situation, and prevent the landing, if possible. When the British militia arrived at the beachhead the Americans were ashore in strength, so Burke sent a flag of truce to them to find out what they wanted. The reply was that the Americans had come by order of “the Congress of the United Colonies, in order to possess themselves of the Powder and Stores belonging to His Majesty.” Thus informed, Burke retreated back toward Fort Montagu.

As the Americans marched down the beach and approached the fort, Fort Montagu opened fire. About fifteen or twenty cannon, 18-pounders, were fired at the Americans, perhaps at extreme range, producing no casualties of any sort. Nicholas says the fort fired three 12-pounders as the Americans approached within a mile. The march at that point was hazardous: there was a very dense thicket above the beach and a detour around a deep cove exposed the Marines in full view of the fort. Nicholas called a halt to send in a flag of truce to again state the object of the expedition. About this same time Lieutenant Trevett saw an officer coming down the beach: “I went up to him to know what he wanted. He informed me that Gov. Brown would wish to know who we were what our business was. we soon gave him his answer, and the first fort stopped firing. . .”

Critics of Montfort Browne’s actions claim that the Americans could have been stopped here. An ambush along the road down which the Americans were marching, and defensive earthworks blocking the road would have stopped the column.s. Several Americans stated later that they would have surrendered if fired on from the woods. Another observer noted they were ill prepared for attack: no field-pieces, battering cannon, or scaling ladders, “nor so much as an Ax to have made a gap in our Pallisades. . .nor one armed vessel had they steering along shore to cover them.”

After he withdrew from Fort Montagu, Browne returned to Government House on the only available saddled horse, where he remained for several hours. The militia moved out and then scattered to their homes. Only about half collected later at Fort Nassau. It was now 3:00 in the afternoon, only an hour after the Americans first landed.

Hopkins issued a proclamation to the citizens of Nassau in which he announced: “To the Gentlemen, Freemen, & Inhabitants of the Island of New Providence:
The reasons of my landing an armed force on the island is in order to take possession of the powder and warlike stores belonging to the Crown, and if I am not opposed in putting my design in execution the persons and property of the inhabitants shall be safe, neither shall they be suffered to be hurt in case they make no resistance.”

Governor Browne recovered his courage and returned to Fort Nassau. Here he apparently set about trying to secure a feasible military position. It was remembered that Government House was fortified with two 4-pounders, which commanded Fort Nassau and the town. From a position there musketry could sweep the fort’s guns and prevent men from operating them. A detachment of forty men under Captain Thomas Hodgson and Ensign Barrett was sent off to occupy Government House. A proclamation was also issued offering a free pistol to every free black and any others who would rally to Fort Nassau.

Hopkins’ manifesto, however, was having the desired effect: “a Spirit of Disaffection shewed itself amongst the Inhabitants many of them declaring they wo’d not fight against the Americans.” By 8:00PM there were no more than a hundred men in the fort, including Governor, Council, officers and slaves.

A Council session was now called to decide the fate of the resistance. The first question was put: whether the fort was defensible in the face of American strength, and the lack of provisions and munitions. Browne put it another way: “And that upon proposing to them whether they would assist me to defend His Majesty’s Fortresses & Stores,” the Council voted 14-10 against fighting, citing the defective gun carriages, the lack of various kinds of shot and the shortage of other stores.

The next question was what to do with the gunpowder. Browne decided to charter a merchant ship, the Mississippi Packet, load most of the gunpowder on her, and ship it to St. Augustine in East Florida, a decision the Council concurred in. Some powder was to be retained for it “was the visible opinion of the whole Community, that sending away the whole of it might enrage a disappointed enemy.”

Lieutenant Grant, commander of the St. John, who had been playing cat and mouse with the American ships around New Providence was sent for about 11:00PM, to wait upon the Governor and Council. He was ordered to escort the Mississippi Packet, both to protect her and to “prevent his Vessel falling into the Hands of the Enemy.,” as she was not “in any Condition fit for Service. When informed of the Council’s decision regarding the powder, Grant declined to remove it, pointing out that it was “impracticable but that I would defend it to the utmost of my power. . . Browne told Grant the purpose of the rebel attack, adding that the destruction of the St. John was one objective. Grant said that he was prepared to fight. Browne told Grant that Fort Montagu was in utter confusion and would fall without powder, which finally convinced Grant.

Chambers, commander of the Mississippi Packet, his shop loaded with timber for Jamaica, was busily throwing overboard the lumber to make room for the powder, which was hustled aboard with help from St. John’s boats and crew. The gunpowder was stowed anyplace room could be found for it. The loading began about midnight, and Grant and Chambers sailed about 2:00AM on 4 March. Course was set for the northwest, the two vessels passing not too far away from where the Continental fleet was anchored. By 4:00AM St. John was six miles northwest of the bar at New Providence and at 6:00 AM she was thirty-three miles southeast of the Berry Islands. The Mississippi Packet was “to deep and in distress,” so Grant hove to and waited for her. At 10:30 AM he transferred forty-three barrels of powder to the St. John, anchoring near Sherrop’s Key. At 4:00 PM the flight to St. Augustine resumed.

Critics of Hopkins question his decision to not station one or two of his vessels off the harbor exits to intercept the fleeing shipping. According to Grant there was much shipping going out of the harbor. Lieutenant Jones later said that “sending the two brigantines to lie off the bar” would have prevented the escape. Lieutenant Grant, of the St. John, had expected to find such guard vessels when he sailed.

As soon as the Council had resolved to send off the powder, the Speaker of the Assembly, James Gould, “mutiny’d” and took off with eighty of the militia, returning to their homes. This was about three fourths of the available men. The Council was now asked to determine if the detachment at Government House should be recalled, and agreed to do so.

Browne went over to Government House to secure the detachment. When he returned he found most of the remaining men gone. The forty men under Hodgson and Barrett now asked permission to leave, as they were insufficient in number to fight the fort and preferred not to be taken as prisoners. This permission was granted, but Browne begged some to stay with him, as he preferred to fight. The men, not being swayed by this lunacy, left. Only the Governor and the Council were left. They gave up and returned to Government House just as the sun was rising.

Sunrise over New Providence roused the Marines in Fort Montagu. It was now 4 March. The Marines assembled, no doubt many anticipating a fight. Nicholas led them out on a march to the town, about four miles from Fort Montagu. As they approached within a mile of the town they were met by a messenger from the Governor. Nicholas called a halt to conduct the negotiation. The messenger repeated the question concerning the purpose of the raid and Nicholas made the, by now, standard reply. The messenger then told Nicholas that Fort Nassau was “ready for his reception and that he might march his Force in as Soon as he Pleased. Nicholas marched into the town, “drafted a guard, and went up to the Governour’s, and demanded the keys of the fort, which were given to me immediately. The Marines went up to Fort Nassau, “the British colour hauled down, and we took possession.

Governor Montfort Browne was captured as a prisoner and would later be exchanged for American general William Alexander. And despite Browne’s best efforts to remove powder and munitions from the island the Americans were still able to capture: eighty-eight cannon (9-pounders to 36-pounders), fifteen mortars , 5458 shells, 11071 round shot, and assorted other stores, but only twenty-four casks of gunpowder (a little over a ton). So much stores and ammunition was captured that Hopkins was forced to charter a 150-ton Bermuda built sloop, called the Endeavour, from a local citizen, to take on a cargo of cannon. Hopkins also promised to send her back to her owner, Charles Walker. Lieutenant Elisha Hinman was assigned to command the transport.

All told, both sides suffered 0 casualties. One last historical fact before we end today’s episode, as I know it was a long one… The USS Nassau (LHA-4) is an amphibious assualt ship that was in service from 1979 to 2011. This ship is named for the Battle of Nassau.

Also published on Medium.

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