In the summer of 1775, George Washington assumed command of the Continental Army outside Boston and immediately began the process of organizing his forces. He demanded strength returns of all the regiments and an accounting of supplies available. In August, Washington learned that instead of 308 barrels of gun powder he had been led to believe were on hand, the total available was only ninety! They had enough powder to give each man in the army nine cartridges. Washington immediately began a campaign to get more powder from the colonies. Congress recognized the need for powder and noted a place where the powder could be found: “Information being given to Congress that there is a large quantity of powder in the Island of Providence, Ordered, that the foregoing Committee take measures for security and bring [ing] away said powder and that it [be] an instruction to said Committee in case they can secure said powder to have it brought to the port of Philadelphia or to some other port as near Philadelphia as can with safety.”
While Washington worried where he would find powder for the fledgling army, Congress organized a fleet of ships to carry out a naval campaign against the British. The little fleet was to be commanded by Commodore Esek Hopkins, a gruff, blunt New Englander born on a farm who had spent his adult life at sea, including a brief stint as a slaver. The ships were given a twofold mission; first, “to seek out and attack all the Naval forces of our Enemies” in the Southern colonies and secondly, “to proceed Northward directly to Rhode Island, and attack, take and destroy all the Enemies Naval force.” As the ships were fitted out and crews were recruited, Washington in Boston lamented: “Our want of Powder is inconceivable—a daily waste, & no Supply, administers a gloomy prospect.”
In the last weeks of 1775 the fleet assembled in Philadelphia, consisting of eight ships: Alfred (30 guns), Columbus (28), brigs Cabot (14) and Andrew Doria (16), sloops Providence (12), and Hornet (10), and schooners Wasp (8) and Fly (6). Unfortunately the ships were unable to immediately move to the Atlantic Ocean due to ice on the Delaware River and they remained moored, waiting for six weeks. During that time many of the crewmen aboard the ships deserted, the inactivity being too much to bear.
On January 17, 1776, the eight ships of the little fleet left Chesapeake Bay and headed south into the Atlantic Ocean. On February 14, Hopkins issued orders to operate off the coast of the southern colonies and if any ships became separated, they were to rendezvous off the coast of Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas fourteen days hence. Hopkins had decided, whether under advice of his fellow officers or not, to attack the town of New Providence in the Bahamas in order to secure gunpowder and shot for the Continental Army.
On March 1, the small force reached Great Albaco Island. Along the way, during a severe storm, the Hornet and Fly ran into each other; the Hornet suffered damage to her masts and yards, and returned to Philadelphia.
Two forts protected New Providence, Fort Nassau to the west and Fort Montagu to the east. Both forts were old and in disrepair. The town could call on a large group of militia, poorly trained and equipped, for its defense but their will to fight was negligible. A small vessel, the St. John mounting four guns, was the only naval defender.
Two sloops owned by a local merchant were captured by the Continental ships and it was decided to use these, with their captains as pilots, to carry the landing force into Nassau Harbor. The Providence would accompany the attackers into position at daybreak on March 3, catching the defenders at first light. One officer on the Alfred, John Paul Jones, reported: “We then ran in and anchored at a small key three leagues to windward of the town, and from thence the Commodore dispatched the marines with the sloop Providence and schooner Wasp to cover their landing, They landed without opposition.” The landing force was composed of about 230 Marines and 50 sailors under Capt. Samuel Nicholas, a handsome young man who owned a tavern where the Continental Marines had recruited their volunteers.
Unfortunately for the Marines and sailors, one of the captains of the captured sloops escaped and warned Montefort Browne, governor of the Bahamas. When the Continental sailors and Marines landed and approached Fort Montagu, the governor ordered a few cannon fired and then fled with the militia. Thinking they were opposed, the invaders deployed to attack the fort.
As the Continentals advanced, a local officer met with Captain Nicholas under a flag of truce and inquired about the mission of the Americans. He was told that they wished only the military stores. Informed that the fort was unoccupied, Nicholas sent his men in to gather any guns or ammunition. As it was late afternoon, Nicholas decided to bivouac in the fort overnight.
Hopkins, anchoring the fleet about six miles from Nassau, placed the four ships of the landing force opposite Fort Montagu at the eastern harbor entrance. Unfortunately, he did not place any ships at the western harbor entrance, thereby failing to blockade the harbor. He sent a message to the residents of the town:
To the Gentlemen Freeman and 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.
The ultimatum had its desired effect. When the governor called a council of war among the leading citizens and militia officers, it was determined that they would not oppose the Americans. But the governor also decided to send the gunpowder in Fort Nassau to East Florida. Under the cover of darkness, the citizens of the town removed the gunpowder from the fort and loaded it on two ships. They managed to save 162 barrels of gunpowder, 119 on the small ship Mississippi Packet and another 43 on board the guard ship St. John. The two vessels escaped through the unguarded western entrance before their absence was noticed.
The next morning, Nicholas and his Marines entered Fort Nassau and the town without opposition. The local population and invading Americans tolerated each other as both forts were stripped of all guns and other equipment that could be taken aboard the ships. Food was also confiscated, as supplies in the fleet were getting low. In the days following the capture of the town and the loading of the cannon and other military supplies, disease swept through the fleet. At one time over 140 men were on the sick list. Hopkins was forced to rush his departure.
Despite the governor’s successful removal of 162 barrels of powder, the expedition hauled away 24 casks of powder, 46 cannon from Fort Nassau, and 15 mortars and cannon from Fort Montagu. They also freed three former American vessels that were in the harbor. Gov. Montfort Browne was hauled away with twelve other local officials.
On Sunday, March 17, Hopkins ordered the fleet home with its booty. Along the way, they captured two British ships, the Bolton and the Hawk, carrying military stores that included a few casks of gunpowder. Unfortunately, the fleet was not as successful when it encountered the warship HMS Glasgow off Block Island, Rhode Island, on April 6. Despite being armed with only twenty small guns, the spunky little British ship disabled two of the seven American ships and escaped with severe damage but few casualties. Eleven Americans were killed, including Lt. John Fitzpatrick, the commander of Cabot’s Marine detachment, who was the first Marine killed in the Corps’ long history.
The Bahamas Expedition was a naval success, projecting Continental power overseas, capturing enemy ships and guns, and providing a small but real threat to British possessions from the Caribbean to Canada. Lt. John Trevett, who commanded a company of the Marines, fondly recalled, “A grand cruise and I am glad it ended so well.”
Although the acquisition of gunpowder was not the stated objective of the expedition, Hopkins missed an opportunity to provide important gunpowder needed by Washington’s army. While the little fleet was en route home, the commander in chief apologized to Congress, “recollecting that all my late Letters have been as expressive of my want of Powder and Arms as I could paint them.” For the time being, the army eked by with small caches secured from various sources. Eventually it would be assistance from France, Spain, and Holland that would provide a steady supply of needed gunpowder.
Esek Hopkins was lauded for a successful expedition in capturing Nassau but he also was criticized for failing to act against the British along the southern coast as instructed by Congress. Additionally, his fleet’s poor showing against the Glasgow resulted in condemnation. Reports that he was torturing prisoners resulted in censure by Congress on August 12, 1776. His career never recovered and he was dismissed from the service on July 30, 1778.
Journal of the Continental Congress, Wednesday, November 29, 1775. Worthington Chauncey Ford, ed. Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789, Volume III, 1775, September 21-December 30 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1905), 390.
Charles R. Smith, Marines in the Revolution, A History of the Continental Marines in the American Revolution, 1775-1783 (Washington, DC: History and Museums Division, Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, 1975), 42-42.
George Washington to Joseph Reed, December 25, 1775, in Philander D. Chase, ed.The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, volume 2, September-December 1775 (Charlottesville, University of Virginia Press, 1987), 607.
Browne remained a prisoner until exchanged for American general William Alexander, Lord Stirling, and returned to Nassau in July 1776. After his exchange, Brown commanded the Prince of Wales American Regiment composed of Loyalists and served in Rhode Island before again returning to his duty as governor in the Bahamas
George Washington to John Hancock, February 18-21, 1776, in Philander D. Chase, ed The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 3, 1 January 1776 – 31 March 1776 (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1988), 336.