On this day in 1776, the Continental Navy captures the HMS Bolton. The Bolton was the second British ship to be captured in only two days.
The episode marked the first time that an American ship had been able to take an armed British ship. What a moment that must have been! If only the Americans could have maintained their momentum.
Commodore Esek Hopkins’s newly created fleet of Continental Navy ships was then returning from its maiden voyage to the Bahamas. The voyage had been a smashing success! The Americans had completed a daring raid on Nassau, and they’d taken a huge stash of ammunition for American forces.
At first, it seemed that the trip home might produce even more naval successes for the Americans. On April 4, Hopkins’s fleet spotted and captured a British ship near Long Island: the 6-gun Hawke. The next day, Americans captured the 12-gun Bolton.
Unfortunately, those victories would come at a cost.
Hopkins could not keep the British ships as prizes without also moving some of his sailors to the two captured ships. Of course, he didn’t really have enough men to begin with. So while the British captures increased the size of his fleet, now his ships were badly undermanned, too.
It wouldn’t be long before the American fleet would feel the effects of the move.
Just after midnight on April 6, a portion of Hopkins’s fleet crossed paths with the HMS Glasgow. Could Glasgow be a third prize ship? A signal was given and five of Hopkins’s ships were soon gathered, ready to attack.
The battle that followed lasted for more than two hours. The Glasgow was smaller than the American flagship, but her men were well-trained and efficient. By contrast, the Americans were not used to working together, and their ships were undermanned to begin with. “Two hours had passed,” historian Tim McGrath notes, “before three American ships were in a position to fight in unison.”
Only then did the Americans begin to get the better of Glasgow, prompting the British ship to withdraw. The Americans took off in pursuit, until Hopkins came to a startling realization: Glasgow was leading him straight toward a squadron of British vessels. There was no way that the battered American ships could withstand a second, larger battle. Hopkins turned his ships around.
All in all, the episode was a bit of an embarrassment for the new Continental Navy. How could Americans lose to a British ship when they’d outnumbered it so badly?!
Fortunately, the Navy’s story does not end there. Perhaps the sailors would have been encouraged if they could have seen what would eventually happen to their fledgling Continental Navy.
After all, that little navy was a predecessor for a far more powerful fighting force: the United States Navy!
P.S. The painting is of Hopkins’s ship, the Alfred, being commissioned in 1775.
- John C. Fredriksen, Revolutionary War Almanac (2006)
- Spencer Tucker, Almanac of American Military History (2012) (volume 1)
- Theodore P. Savas & J. David Dameron, A Guide to the Battles of the American Revolution (2006)
- Tim McGrath, Give Me a Fast Ship: The Continental Navy and America’s Revolution at Sea (2014)