The Battle of Nassau was a naval operation and amphibious assault by the newly formed Continental Navy and Marines. It was the Marines’ first amphibious landing and allowed the rebels to stock up on much-needed weapons and munitions.
Creation of the Continental Navy and Marines
In October 1775, the Second Continental Congress created the Continental Navy. To build its fleet, it procured merchant and auxiliary vessels, which they converted into warships. On November 5, Captain Samuel Nicholas was appointed to lead a new section of the naval forces, the Continental Marines, whom he filled with men he met at Philadelphia’s Turn Tavern.
Around this time, the Continental Army was experiencing a shortage of gunpowder and munitions. This was due to actions taken by Lord Dunmore, the British provincial governor of Virginia. At the outbreak of war, he’d sent the colony’s stores to the island of New Providence in the Bahamas.
The shortage resulted in Congress organizing a naval expedition with Commodore Esek Hopkins at the helm. He was given instructions to patrol the Chesapeake Bay and North Carolina coast and raid British ships.
However, it’s believed he was secretly given additional orders to pursue operations that would be “most beneficial to the American cause” and best “distress the enemy.” To Hopkins, this meant staging an invasion in the Bahamas to steal the hidden munitions.
Sailing to the Bahamas
On January 4, 1776, Hopkins’ squadron, made up of the Alfred, Fly, Andrew Doria, Providence, Columbia, and Cabot, began its journey down the Delaware River. After a six-week delay near Reedy Island due to icy conditions, the expedition hit the open ocean in the company of two additional ships, the Wasp and Hornet.
The fleet departed from Cape Henlopen, Delaware, on February 17. They experienced gale-force winds off the Virginia Capes, leading to a collision between the Fly and Hornet. As a result, they were separated from the squadron, with the Hornet returning to port for repairs. The Fly would eventually return to the expedition, catching up with the fleet in Nassau.
Meanwhile, in the Bahamas, Governor Montfort Browne received word of the expedition, his second warning of such an attempt. In August 1775, he’d been warned by Loyalist General Thomas Gage that rebel soldiers may try to seize the supplies. Despite this, no attempt was made to prepare an adequate defense.
His inaction was questionable, given the lack of defenses on Nassau. It had two forts along its coast, Nassau and Montagu, but both were ill-equipped to defend the island. Fort Nassau’s walls were not strong enough to support its cannons during an amphibious attack, while Fort Montagu had little gunpowder on site.
“Land the landing force”
The fleet arrived at Hole-In-The-Wall at the south end of Abaco Island on March 1, 1776. Along the way, they’d captured two Loyalist-owned sloops and forced their owners and crew into service. However, they hadn’t made it unnoticed, with George Dorsett, a local ship captain, alerting Browne of their arrival.
The plan was to sail to Nassau during the early hours of March 3. The landing force was transferred to the two sloops and Providence, but they were spotted. Browne was alerted to their impending arrival and ordered four guns fired from Fort Montagu. As a result, the mission was aborted.
After rejoining the other ships at Hanover Sound, a new plan was developed for the fleet to land southeast of Fort Montagu. Between 12:00 p.m. and 2:00 p.m., they arrived to a truce flag, as the lieutenant stationed on Nassau realized he was sorely outnumbered against the invading force.
In the meantime, Browne arrived and ordered the fort’s guns fired before retreating the majority of his troops. This gave Nicholas cause for concern, but didn’t stop his men from occupying the fort. He informed the lieutenant that the squadron was there to seize the gunpowder and weapons, and the news was brought to Browne’s attention.
Occupation of Nassau
Instead of further invading Nassau, Nicholas and his force of 50 sailors and over 200 Marines remained at the fort. This would prove a mistake, as in the middle of the night Browne had over three-quarters of the island’s gunpowder loaded onto two ships, the Mississippi Packet and HMS St John, and sent to St. Augustine, Florida.
The next morning, March 4, Nicholas’s team entered Nassau without resistance. This was due to a leaflet that had been circulated. Written by Hopkins, it outlined the reason behind the fleet’s landing and promised the safety of persons and their property if there was no resistance.
Over the next two weeks, members of the fleet loaded as much weaponry as could fit onto their ships, including the remaining stock of gunpowder. They also obtained a third sloop to help carry the load.
Battle of Block Island
On March 17, 1776, the fleet left Nassau and began making its way for the Block Island Channel, off Newport, Rhode Island. The majority of the trip proved uneventful until the beginning of April, when on the 4th and 6th, Hopkins’ squadron captured the HMS Hawk and Bolton, the latter of which was filled with additional armaments and gunpowder.
Prisoners from the captured ships informed Hopkins that the British had established a large naval blockade off the coast of Newport. Upon hearing this, he decided to change course and sail west to New London, Connecticut. However, it would appear his efforts were too late.
During the early hours of April 6, Captain Tyringham Howe of the HMS Glasgow spotted Hopkins’ fleet, mistaking it for merchantmen. Action between the ship and the squadron began, and despite being sorely outnumbered, the Glasgow was able to retreat while also causing significant damage to the Cabot and Alfred.
Return to America
Hopkins and his men arrived in the harbor at New London on April 8, 1776. While they were initially celebrated for their efforts, the praise would be short-lived after complaints surfaced regarding their inability to capture the HMS Glasgow. There were also issues with the behavior of some of the fleet’s captains.
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Hopkins was reprimanded for his failure to follow the orders set out to him regarding the patrol of the Virginia coast, and was criticized for the way in which he distributed the spoils from the trip. In 1778, after several more missteps, he was forced out of the Continental Navy.