American Revolution: Battle of Nassau

Battle of Nassau
American forces land on Nassau, 1775. Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval History & Heritage Command

Battle of Nassau - Conflict & Dates:

The Battle of Nassau was fought March 3-4, 1776, during the American Revolution (1775-1783).

Forces & Commanders

Americans

British

  • Governor Montfort Browne
  • 110 men

Battle of Nassau - Background:

With the beginning of the American Revolution in April 1775, the Governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, directed that the colony's supply of arms and gunpowder be removed to Nassau, Bahamas lest it be captured by colonial forces. Received by Governor Montfort Browne, these munitions were stored in Nassau under the protection of the harbor's defenses, Forts Montagu and Nassau. Despite these fortifications, General Thomas Gage, commanding British forces in Boston, warned Browne that an American attack would be possible. In October 1775, the Second Continental Congress formed the Continental Navy and began purchasing merchant vessels and converting them for use as warships. The following month saw the creation of the Continental Marines under the guidance of Captain Samuel Nicholas. As Nicholas recruited men ashore, Commodore Esek Hopkins began assembling a squadron at Philadelphia. This consisted of Alfred (30 guns), Columbus (28), Andrew Doria (14), Cabot (14), Providence (12), and Fly (6).

Battle of Nassau - Hopkins Sails:

After taking command in December, Hopkins received orders from Congress' Marine Committee which directed him to clear British naval forces from the Chesapeake Bay and North Carolina coast. In addition, they gave him some latitude to pursue operations that could be “most beneficial to the American Cause” and “distress the Enemy by all means in your power.” Joining Hopkins aboard his flagship, Alfred, Nicholas and the rest of the squadron began moving down the Delaware River on January 4, 1776. Battling heavy ice, the American ships remained near Reedy Island for six weeks before finally reaching Cape Henlopen on February 14. There, Hopkins was joined by Hornet (10) and Wasp (14) which arrived from Baltimore. Before sailing, Hopkins elected to take advantage of the discretionary aspects of his orders and began planning a strike against Nassau. He was aware that a large amount of munitions were on the island and that these supplies were badly needed by General George Washington's army which was besieging Boston.

Departing Cape Henlopen on February 17, Hopkins told his captains to rendezvous at Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas should the squadron become separated. Two days later, the squadron encountered rough seas off the Virginia Capes leading to a collision between Hornet and Fly. Though both returned to port for repairs, the latter succeeded in rejoining Hopkins on March 11. In late February, Browne received intelligence that an American force was forming off the Delaware coast. Though aware of a possible attack, he elected not to take any action as he believed the harbor forts sufficient to defend Nassau. This proved unwise as Fort Nassau's walls were too weak to support the firing of its guns. While Fort Nassau was located near the town proper, the newer Fort Montagu covered the harbor's eastern approaches and mounted seventeen guns. Both forts were poorly sited in regard to defending against an amphibious attack.

Battle of Nassau - The Americans Land:

Reaching Hole-In-The-Wall at the south end of Great Abaco Island on March 1, 1776, Hopkins quickly captured two small British sloops. Pressing these into service, the squadron moved against Nassau the following day. For the attack, Nicholas' 200 Marines along with 50 sailors were transferred to Providence and the two captured sloops. Hopkins intended for the three vessels to enter the port at dawn on March 3. The troops would then quickly land and secure the town. Approaching the harbor in the morning light, Providence and its consorts were spotted by the defenders who opened fire. With the element of surprise lost, the three vessels aborted the attack and rejoined Hopkins' squadron at nearby Hanover Sound. Ashore, Browne began making plans to remove much of the island's gunpowder using vessels in the harbor as well as dispatched thirty men to reinforce Fort Montagu.

Meeting, Hopkins and Nicholas quickly developed a new plan which called for landings on the eastern side of the island. Covered by Wasp, the landings commenced around noon as Nicholas' men came ashore near Fort Montagu. As Nicholas consolidated his men, a British lieutenant from Fort Montagu approached under a flag of truce. When asked of his intentions, the American commander replied that they sought to capture the island's munitions. This information was conveyed to Browne who had arrived at the fort with reinforcements. Badly outnumbered, the governor decided to withdraw the bulk of the fort's garrison back to Nassau. Pressing forward, Nicholas captured the fort later in the day, but elected not to drive on the town.

Battle of Nassau - Capture of Nassau:

As Nicholas held his position at Fort Montagu, Hopkins issued a proclamation to the island's residents stating, "To the Gentlemen, Freemen, & 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.” While this had the desired effect of preventing civilian interference with his operations, the failure to carry the town on March 3 allowed Browne to embark most of the island's gunpowder on two vessels. These sailed for St. Augustine around 2:00 AM on March 4 and cleared the harbor with no issues as Hopkins had failed to post any of his ships at its mouth.

The next morning, Nicholas advanced on Nassau and was met by the town's leaders who offered up its keys. Approaching Fort Nassau, the Americans occupied it and seized Browne without a fight. In securing the town, Hopkins captured eighty-eight cannon and fifteen mortars as well as variety of other much-needed supplies. Remaining on the island for two weeks, the Americans embarked the spoils before departing on March 17. Sailing north, Hopkins intended to make port at Newport, RI. Nearing Block Island, the squadron captured the schooner Hawk on April 4 and the brig Bolton the next day. From the prisoners, Hopkins learned that a large British force was operating off Newport. With this news, he elected to sail west with the goal of reaching New London, CT.

Battle of Nassau - Action of April 6:

During the early hours of April, Captain Tyringham Howe of HMS Glasgow (20) spotted the American squadron. Determining from their rigging that the ships were merchantmen, he closed with the goal of taking several prizes. Approaching Cabot, Glasgow quickly came under fire. The next several hours saw Hopkins' inexperienced captains and crews fail to defeat the outnumbered and out-gunned British ship. Before Glasgow escaped, Howe succeeded in disabling both Alfred and Cabot. Making the necessary repairs, Hopkins and his ships limped into New London two days later.

Battle of Nassau - Aftermath:

The fighting on April 6 saw the Americans suffer 10 killed and 13 wounded against 1 dead and three wounded aboard Glasgow. As news of the expedition spread, Hopkins and his men were initially celebrated and lauded for their efforts. This proved short-lived as complaints about the failure to capture Glasgow and the behavior of some of the squadron's captains grew. Hopkins also came under fire for failing to execute his orders to sweep the Virginia and North Carolina coasts as well as his division of the raid's spoils. After a series of political machinations, Hopkins was relieved of his command in early 1778. Despite the fallout, the raid provided much-needed supplies for the Continental Army as well as gave young officers, such as John Paul Jones, experience. Held prisoner, Browne was later exchanged for Brigadier General William Alexander, Lord Stirling who had been captured by the British at the Battle of Long Island. Though criticized for his handling of attack on Nassau, Browne later formed the Loyalist Prince of Wales' American Regiment and saw service at the Battle of Rhode Island.

Selected Sources