Engaging the Glasgow

War at Sea and Waterways (1775–1783)

May 9, 2023
by Eric Sterner Also by this Author


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On April 18, 1776 Captain Tyringham Howe of His Majesty’s Ship Glasgow arrived in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Two weeks prior, the twenty-gun sloop had engaged a task force from the Continental Navy and given better than she received. Vice Admiral Molyneux Shuldham, who briefly commanded Royal Navy in American waters, expected Glasgow to be carrying dispatches from himself and Gen. William Howe to New York and then southward.[1] Thus, her appearance came as a surprise.

On March 17, Glasgow cruised off Newport, Rhode Island, where Captain Howe observed the American rebels breaking ground on new fortifications.[2] He passed up Narragansett bay and anchored off the eastern side of Prudence Island, where Glasgow joined with Rose, Swan, Bolton, three armed tenders, and a large transport to constitute a small squadron.[3] The Royal Navy ship Nautilus arrived on March 30 with orders for Glasgow to carry dispatches south.[4]

Esek Hopkins. (New York Public Library)

Far to the south, the Continental Navy’s first fleet plodded northward from the Bahamas after a successful raid on Nassau. Created in part do clear the coasts of British ships like the Glasgow, the American commander, Commodore Esek Hopkins, had instead raided New Providence. After successfully seizing the port and its two defending forts, Hopkins and his fleet spent two weeks removing guns, firearms, gunpowder, shot and other supplies from public buildings and vessels captured in port.[5] On March 17, while Captain Howe was observing the immature American earthworks outside Newport, Commodore Hopkins and his squadron left Nassau bound for Block Island Channel.[6]

By April 4, Hopkins reached the waters around Block Island and began capturing ships belonging to the Royal Navy operating out of Narragansett Bay. These included the schooner Hawke, the first warship of the Royal Navy captured by the Continental Navy, and the twelve-gun brig Bolton.[7] On April 5, Capt. James Wallace, aboard Rose, attempted to lead the “Newport Squadron,” including  Glasgow, out of Narragansett Bay. Wind and weather, however, foiled some of the smaller vessels and Wallace returned to port. Aboard Glasgow, Howe pressed on, which brought him southeast of Block Island on the night of April 5-6.[8]

The night was calm, with a light breeze and smooth water. Sometime between 1 and 2 am, Capt. Nicholas Biddle of the Continental brig Andrew Doria reported seeing two sail to the east-southeast while Howe detected the American squadron to his northwest, about eight leagues (twenty-four nautical miles) distant. Howe tacked to the northwest to investigate, while Biddle signaled to Commodore Hopkins and the rest of the American squadron to bear down on the unknown ship.[9] By any measure, it would be an unfair fight when the two sides met.

Five ships comprised the American squadron. Alfred carried twenty 9-pounders and ten 6-pounders. Columbus sported eighteen 9-pounders and ten 6-pounders. Andrew Doria boasted fourteen 4-pounders.[10] Cabot carried fourteen 6-pounders and twelve swivels while Providence, the fastest American ship, held another twelve 4-pounders and ten swivels.[11] For her part, Glasgow boasted twenty 9-pounders.[12] She had some advantages, however. Royal Navy sailors and officers were better trained to their tasks. Moreover, the American vessels were arriving from the Caribbean, which had a tendency to foul hulls and slow sailing speeds.

Both sides beat to quarters as they closed, preparing for a potential battle, although neither knew the identity of the approaching ship or ships. About 2:30 am, Cabotcame within hailing distance of Glasgow, but refused to identify herself initially, preferring to close the distance, a necessity if her captain, John Hopkins, the commodore’s son, hoped to do any damage with Cabot’s tiny 6-pounders. Receiving no replies to his requests for identification, Captain Howe changed tactics and asked what ships were accompanying the vessel. The cry “the Columbus and Alfred, a two and twenty Gun frigate” rang across the gap between the two vessels, which by then were sailing quite close together.[13]

Alfred, at that point, was just 100 yards behind Cabot.[14] Whether due to nervousness, eagerness, or command, someone in Cabot’s tops dropped a grenade onto Glasgow’s deck, immediately after which Cabot fired a full broadside. Howe, no stranger to meeting unidentified ships in hostile waters, promptly replied with two broadsides before the Cabot’s crew could reload, reflecting the superior training and practice of Royal Navy crew.[15] Vastly outgunned and now damaged, Cabot sheered away, opening up a spot for Alfred, but in the process fouling the Andrew Doria’s wind and causing her to tack away as well.[16]

On paper, Alfred under Capt. Dudley Saltonstall and Captain Howe’s Glasgow were relatively well matched. Alfred threw a greater weight of metal and Glasgow had already received one broadside, but the British ship was a functional warship and the American was a converted merchantman. Moreover, as John Paul Jones, then an officer in charge of Alfred’s first battery noted, piercings for Alfred’s larger guns were too close to the waterline, limiting their field of fire. He called them “fit for nothing except in a harbour or a very smooth sea.”[17]

Howe reported smaller ships moving into position fore and aft to rake Glasgow, that is, fire stem to stern and vice versa, while she exchanged broadsides with Alfred for roughly thirty minutes. These were probably Andrew Doria and Columbus trying to get into the battle, albeit with little success. Chance, however, plays a role in many fights and after thirty minutes of fire, a lucky shot carried away Alfred’s wheel ropes and blocks, severely impacting her maneuverability.[18] Howe was quick to seize the opportunity and move ahead of Alfred, from where he turned to rake her stem to stern. Captain Biddle, aboard Andrew Doria, used the opportunity to move behind Glasgow and fire into her stern. It was an opportunity for Howe to attempt an escape and he turned his vessel to the northeast, in the general direction of the British squadron at Narragansett Bay. Meanwhile, Alfred’s crew had repaired their steering well enough to return to the fight and Captain Saltonstall moved up on Glasgow’s port while Andrew Doria sailed to her starboard and Captain Whipple’s Columbus finally got into the fight behind Glasgow.[19] Fearing things were not going well, the Glasgow’s clerk loaded Admiral Shuldham’s and General Howe’s dispatches into a canvas bag, weighted it with a shot, and dumped it overboard to prevent their capture.[20]

Lady luck intervened again as the wind shifted and gave Howe an opportunity to pour on speed for the northeast. Alfred, leaking, with her sails and rigging shot full of holes, could not keep up. She and Andrew Doria fell away. Captain Whipple pursued with Columbus, but did little more than exchange chaser fire until Hopkins signaled to break off. At 6:30, roughly five hours after the two sides sighted one another, Hopkins turned his little squadron to the south-southwest, bringing a final close to the engagement.

Firing signal guns to alert the British squadron left behind at Newport, Howe’s Glasgow finally returned to the bay about 9:30. Captain Wallace, commanding Rose, took his little squadron back to sea as quickly as possible, perhaps to renew the fight or recover the prizes, but found the waters around Block Island empty. Glasgow, meanwhile, was so shot up that he later ordered her to sail north for repairs at Halifax, where she arrived on April 18.

Commodore Hopkins’ fleet sailed for New London, Connecticut, arriving at the anchorage on April 7. Hopkins’ decision to raid Nassau rather than clearing the American coast of British blockaders proved controversial. The dissatisfying engagement with Glasgow only worsened his reputation. Both the commodore and Captain Saltonsall were hauled before the Congressional Maritime Committee to answer for Alfred’s performance. While the committee accepted the “lucky shot” that disabled Alfred’s steering, Hopkins’ reputation never fully recovered. Captain Whipple of Columbus was court-martialed for cowardice, but acquitted on the grounds of poor judgment rather than cowardice. Capt. John Hazard of Providence—which never truly engaged in the fight—was court-martialed on several grounds and convicted, losing his command.[21] Only Captain Biddle of Andrew Doria, who was saddled with many of the squadron’s sick, escaped major censure.


[1]“Vice Admiral Molyneux Shuldham to Philip Stephens, 8th March 1776,” William Bell Clark, ed., Naval Documents of the American Revolution, American Theatre (Washington: U.S. Naval History Division, 1962 – ), 4:230 (NDAR).

[2]“Journal of H.M.S. Glasgow, Captain Tyringham Howe, March 17, 1776,” NDAR, 4:384.

[3]“Disposition of His Majesty’s Ships and Vessels in North America under the Command of Rear [Vice] Admiral Shuldham,” NDAR, 4:448; “Newport Mercury, March 25, 1776,” NDAR, 4:504.

[4]“Journal of H.M. Sloop Nautilus, Captain John Collins, March 28, 29, 30, 31, 1776,” NDAR, 4:594; “Journal of H.M.S Glasgow, Captain Tyringham Howe, March 29, 30, 31, 1776,” NDAR, 4:595.

[5]Jeff Dacus, “Gunpowder, the Bahamas, and the First Marine Killed in Action,” Journal of the American Revolution, May 2, 2019, allthingsliberty.com/2019/05/gunpowder-the-bahamas-and-the-first-marine-killed-in-action/.

[6]Gardner W. Allen, A Naval History of the American Revolution, Vol. I (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1913), 100.

[7]Nathan Miller, Sea of Glory: A Naval History of the American Revolution (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1992), 112-113; Joseph Allen, Battles of the British Navy, New Edition, Revised and Enlarged, Vol. I (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1852), 229.

[8]“Captain Wallace to Vice Admiral Shuldham, 10th April 1776,” Robert Wilden Neeser, ed., The Despatches of Molyneux Shuldham, Vice-Admiral of the Blue and Commander-on-Chief of His Britannic Majesty’s Ships on North America, January-July, 1776 (New York: The DeVinne Press for The Naval History Society, 1913), 178-179.

[9]“Journal of Continental Brig Andrew Doria, Captain Nicholas Biddle, 6thApril 1776,” NDAR, 4:679; “Remarks on board his Majesty’s Ship Glasgow, 6th April 1776,” Neeser, ed., The Despatches of Molyneux Shuldham, 180. The “Remarks” were recorded by Captain Howe and reported to Admiral Shuldham.

[10]“Andrew Doria I (Brigantine),” Naval History and Heritage Command Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, www.history.navy.mil/research/histories/ship-histories/danfs/a/andrew-doria-i.html.

[11]“Enclosure C” Neeser, ed., The Despatches of Molyneux Shuldham, 182-183. The British estimate was remarkably accurate, only crediting Andrew Doriaand Providencewith a greater weight of broadside. “Providence I (slp),” Naval History and Heritage Command Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, www.history.navy.mil/research/histories/ship-histories/danfs/p/providence-i.html.

[12]Tim McGrath, Give Me a Fast Ship: The Continental Navy and America’s Revolution at Sea, Kindle ed. (New York: NAL Caliber, 2014), 60 of 544.

[13]“Remarks on board His Majesty’s Ship Glasgow, 6thApril 1776,” Neeser, ed., The Despatches of Molyneux Shuldham, 180.

[14]Gardner W. Allen, A Naval History of the American Revolution, 102. Allen relies on the first hand report of Captain Samuel Nicholas of the Continental Marines, commanding the marine detachment aboard Alfred.

[15]“Journal of Continental Brig Andrew Doria, Captain Nicholas Biddle, 6thApril 1776,” NDAR, 4:679.


[17]“Journal of John Paul Jones,” NDAR, 4:679-680.

[18]Allen, A Naval History of the American Revolution, 102; McGrath, Give Me a Fast Ship, 62.

[19]McGrath, Give Me a Fast Ship, 63.

[20]“Remarks on board His Majesty’s Ship Glasgow, 6thApril 1776,” Neeser, ed., The Despatches of Molyneux Shuldham, 180.

[21]Louis Arthur Norton, Captains Contentious: The Dysfunctional Sons of the Brine (Columbia, SC: The University of South Carolina Press, 2009), 68-69; William M. Fowler, Jr., “Esek Hopkins: Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Navy,” James C. Bradford, ed., Command Under Sail: Makers of the American Naval Tradition (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1988), 12-13.


  • Esek Hopkins was criticized for making the raid on Nassau. Actually, that was one of four destinations that Congress had offered him. Going to Rhode Island was another, but intelligence showed that the British fleet there had been reinforced beyond the American strength. Similarly, the British in the Chesapeake Bay had been reinforced, so that was not an option. The third choice was defend Charleston against a British invasion, but no charts of the tricky approach to Charleston could be found in Philadelphia, so that was ruled out. The British presence in Newport, starting in late 1774, was intended to wipe out the rum trade, but later it was reinforced in order to provide meat and crops to feed the garrison in Boston under siege. After the British had abandoned Boston in March 1776 (thanks to Arnold’s having provided the heavy cannons from Ticonderoga), the naval presence at Newport was no longer needed, so ROSE and the other ships were all ordered away. In the end, purchasing, begging, borrowing, or stealing gunpowder became the chief reason for the Continental Navy, and they did such a good job that the land forces never ran short of powder. Thank you, Navy!

  • Great job, Eric! Your article, which places the reader in the heat of the action, reinforces the importance of the “fog of war.” But, perhaps, the most important outcome of the naval encounter was the loss of Admiral Shuldham’s and General Howe’s dispatches, impairing British military decision-making.

    1. Thanks! The raid has become something of a hobby horse that I want to examine in greater detail, particularly Hopkins’ decision to raid Nassau in the first place and the fallout when he returned to shore and had to face politicians in the Congress and the states. Because a lot of state committees of safety farther south issued corresponding orders nearly at the same time as the Naval Committee issued Hopkins’ orders, I suspect his orders were the result of a precarious political negotiation among multiple colonies. But, I still have a lot of work to do in that department.

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