This Day in History: The British Navy learns a lesson in humility
During this week in 1776, Patriot galleys battle two British warships on the Delaware River, near Philadelphia. Until this time, much of the Revolution had been focused on the areas in and around Boston. Now, the war was moving to the middle colonies.
Do you think Philadelphians were a bit shocked to find actual fighting suddenly on their doorstep?
British Captain Andrew Hamond had been patrolling the waters at the mouth of the Delaware for weeks. He was supposed to be blockading Philadelphia, but he hadn’t been completely successful. His warship was too big, and it couldn’t chase little American vessels into shallow waters. By early May, he had a new problem: He was running low on drinking water.
He decided to take his ship, HMS Roebuck, further up the river to obtain provisions. He was accompanied by another warship, Liverpool, as well as two other small vessels.
Philadelphians soon received word of British movements, but they did not have their own man-of-wars with which to counter the powerful British vessels. They had only thirteen galleys and a few ships of the Continental Navy.
Americans might have been short-staffed, but they were not short on bravery. Soon some vessels took off downriver, headed toward the British fleet. The two sides met during the afternoon of May 8.
Hamond later described “the Arm’d craft of the River coming down, before the wind, with an appearance of attacking us.” He was soon having quite a bit of trouble. Americans were sticking to shallow water. He couldn’t get within a good firing range, and he was having trouble targeting the low-lying craft anyway. Perhaps worst of all, Roebuck ran aground late in the day. Fortunately for him, Americans couldn’t take full advantage of the situation. Roebuck might be stuck, but its cannon still worked! The Americans were running low on ammunition anyway. The two sides retired for the evening.
Hamond worked all night to free Roebuck, but he was ready to go when the battle resumed the next day.
The Americans were putting up quite a fight. By the end of the battle, the British warships were injured and retreating downstream. One Philadelphia newspaper later reported that “our cannon did great execution to their hulls” and “they were obliged to keep their carpenters patching and mending for two days after. . . . The greatest praises were given to the courage and spirit of our officers and men by the many thousand spectators who lined the shore on both sides of the river.”
Spectators lining the shores? What a scene that must have been!
The newspaper report concluded: “We are told that the ‘Roebuck’ is one of the handsomest ships of war belonging to the King of Britain [and a particular favorite of Lord Sandwich’s]. . . . [W]hat must his Lordship say of his ship when he hears that she was beat by the ‘cowardly Americans,’ who have nothing but rusty guns, broomsticks, &c?”
Americans had been a bit afraid of the powerful British Navy, so this result was nothing short of inspiring. John Adams wrote to Abigail:
“There has been a gallant Battle, in Delaware River between the Gallies and two Men of War, the Roebuck and Liverpool, in which the Men of War came off second best—which has diminished, in the Minds of the People, on both sides the River, the Terror of a Man of War.”
American Naval Records Society, Naval Documents of the American Revolution (Volume 4; 2012)
Bud Hannings, Chronology of the American Revolution: Military and Political Actions Day by Day (2008)
Charles Oscar Paullin, The Navy of the American Revolution: Its Administration, Its Policy, and Its Achievements (1906)
John Thomas Scharf, History of Delaware: 1609-1888 (1888) (Vol. 1)
Letter from John Adams to Abigail Adams (May 12, 1776)
Terry M. Mays, Historical Dictionary of the American Revolution (2d ed. 2009)
Tim McGrath, Give Me a Fast Ship: The Continental Navy and America’s Revolution at Sea (2014)