Date of Battle: March 3, 1776
Opposing Forces: British – 42, Americans – 284
British Perspective: For Governor Montfort Browne andhis small Loyalist militia, the arrival of American ships in the Bahamas was something of a shock. The British had constructed two forts on New Providence Island in the 1740s to guard the harbor entrance. When the enemy vessels arrived on March 2, 1776, the forts engaged them with solid shot. Governor Browne’s problem, however, was how to properly man the 104 guns at his disposal, for he only had one British officer, 40 militiamen, and a few British sloops offshore to defend New Providence. The light artillery barrage convinced the enemy squadron to move out of range, leaving the governor with his dilemma. If the Americans pressed for a decisive battle, the Loyalists could not hope to hold out for long. To keep valuable gunpowder out of enemy hands, Browne sent the bulk of his supply to St. Augustine, Florida, aboard one of his sloops.
When the sun rose the next morning, the small American fleet was spotted anchored well offshore beyond the range of Browne’s guns. To the horror of the island defenders, an amphibious assault by American marines was underway.
American Perspective: The Continental Navy was officially formed on October 13, 1775. By December its small fleet was comprised of five ships: Alfred, Columbus, Cabot, Providence, and Andrea Doria, all under the command of Commodore Esek Hopkins. The tars spent November and December rigging the small ships with cannon while recruiting seamen to man the vessels. On November 10, Congress authorized the formation of two battalions of marines (which inaugurated the US Marine Corps) to defend the ships and provide the navy with both offensive and defensive infantry capability. The first marine commanders were Capt. Samuel Nicholas, (aboard Alfred) and Lt. Isaac Craig (aboard Andrea Doria).
On December 22, Commander Hopkins and his neophyte navy were officially tasked to defend American commerce on the open seas. However, the Delaware River was frozen solid and the fleet remained inactive for the next few months. Three other ships, Fly, Hornet, and Wasp joined the fleet and Captain Nicholas recruited and organized five companies of marines to sail with them.
On February 18, 1776, Hopkins maneuvered his ships into the Atlantic Ocean for the navy’s first open water cruise. The American fleet was comprised of the following eight vessels: Alfred with 30 guns; Columbus with 28 guns; Andrea Doria with 14 guns, Cabot with 14 guns, Providence with 12 guns, Hornet with 10 guns, Wasp with eight guns, and the Fly with six guns. Considering that most ships of the line in that era were armed with at least 74 guns, the American fleet was sallying forth with little more than raw courage. With orders that provided him with freedom to maneuver as he saw fit, the commodore wisely decided against seeking out British warships and instead sailed for the West Indies. His specific target was the British port at Nassau, on New Providence Island in the Bahamas. His objective was to obtain badly needed gunpowder being stored there.
After conducting a rendezvous on March 1 at Great Abaco Island, north of New Providence Island, the American ships sailed to an area known as “Hole-In-The-Wall,” where they seized two small Loyalist ships. The captured sailors were forced to guide the Americans through the local waters. The next day the fleet sailed into Nassau Harbor.
Battle of Nassau Facts: The Fighting
As the Americans sailed within view of Nassau, British artillery from the two forts opened fire, but the shots fell short. Maintaining his fleet beyond the range of the British guns, Commodore Hopkins surveyed the situation and decided to attack the forts by land instead of engaging in a risky naval bombardment. The next morning, March 3, with the American ships anchored in Hanover Sound about nine miles east of Nassau, 284 marines and sailors led by Captain Samuel Nicholas disembarked for an amphibious assault of the island. Governor Browne, a British lieutenant, and 40 Loyalist militiamen went out to oppose the landing but upon reconsideration returned to the fort. Browne decided instead to concentrate his limited resources and defend the opposite end of the harbor at Fort Nassau. He ordered his men to spike the artillery at Fort Montagu. When the Americans drew near the fort, however, several Loyalists deserted—a rather inauspicious sign for the already outnumbered defenders. After a quick debate with his remaining men, Governor Browne decided to surrender his command. Without firing a single shot the Americans captured both forts and their small garrison.
Unknown to the Americans, 160 barrels of gunpowder had been hauled aboard a sloop the night before and sailed off to Florida. Still, the Americans managed to seize two forts, 88 cannon, 15 mortars, and valuable supplies that were badly needed for the war effort.
Governor Browne, the British lieutenant, and a Loyalist official from South Carolina were taken prisoner and the fleet sailed for America on March 17. During the return journey two British merchant vessels were captured and incorporated into the fleet as prizes.
On April 4, the Americans met and engaged the small British warships Hawk and Bolton; both capitulated to Commodore Hopkins’s larger and stronger fleet. From their new prisoners Hopkins learned a strong British fleet was nearby at Newport, Rhode Island. The commodore turned his own ships toward New London, Connecticut.
In the pre-dawn darkness of April 6, the American fleet came across the British warship Glasgow. The 20-gun vessel was commanded by Capt. Tyringham Howe and had a crew of 150 men. She was sailing to Charleston with dispatches. Howe carefully approached the American vessels to confirm their nationality. When the mystery ships answered his curiosity with gunfire, Howe replied in kind. Unlike the captains of Hawk or Bolton, he was not about to raise the white flag just because he was outgunned. For the next three hours a running fitful combat ensued. Although raked with iron that damaged her rigging and weakened her masts, Glasgow was well handled and outmaneuvered her slower American opponents. Howe returned fire as well as he could and did not break off contact until he had inflicted more damage than he had received.
Unable to prevent Glasgow’s escape, Commodore Hopkins continued his homeward journey. On April 8 the American fleet arrived safely in port, ending the first American naval campaign.
For more in-depth research about the Battle of Nassau read the book Guide to the Battles of the American Revolution written by Theodore Savas and J. David Dameron.
Battle of Nassau Facts: Online Resources
- Wikipedia – Raid of Nassau
- Library of Congress Collection of Revolutionary War Maps
- West Point Battle Maps of the American Revolution
- Journal of the American Revolution
- DIY Genealogy – Finding your Revolutionary War Ancestor
- The History Junkie’s Guide to the American Revolutionary War
- The History Junkie’s Guide to American Revolutionary War Battles
- The History Junkie’s Guide to the American Revolutionary War Timeline
- The History Junkie’s Guide to the 13 Original Colonies