Sunday, April 19, 2015

Things: Sloop o' War

Hoist up the Sloop...

Apologies to the Beach Boys, but unfortunately too many folk know the term "Sloop" from that great song, Sloop John B, which was actually recorded  first by the Kingston Trio. But "Sloop B." was originally a West Indies folk song, The John B. Sails. Since the last Yankee Doodle Spies post had a naval theme, I thought I'd continue as April is the month that the great American naval legend John Paul Jones set off on his renowned raids against Great Britain. And he set off in a sloop. I will save comprehensive analysis of naval vessels for another time and will focus on the sloop. During the time of the Yankee Doodle Spies, sloop was more of a generic term  for a sailing ship of a certain size, rather than a specific type of vessel.

All kinds of Ships

The battle ships of the age of sail were "rated ships" with square masts carrying more than 20 guns and the most heavily armed carrying upwards of 100. There were six rates of these ships. The first and second rates were the largest battle ships of the period with ninety or more guns.  But most rated ships, most men o war, of the period of the American Revolution were the third rates with 64 to 84 guns.  All of these ships were meant to fight in a  line of battle exchanging broadsides with the enemy line until one side cried uncle. Their were lower rates of ships. The best known of these are frigates, the battle cruisers of their day, with around 28-40 guns. But in the kind of war fought by the upstart Americans, many non rated ships were the most expedient to employ, especially at the beginning of the American War for Independence. I will not delve into all the types of cannon used but suffice to say the weapons were generally rated based on the weight of the iron ball shot fired. The larger weights were in the 48 pound size; the middle 32, 24 and 18 pound. Smaller guns were in the 12 and 6 pound weight. There are yet smaller weights (around a pound) as well but these were primarily the swivel guns carried by most ships and not included in the ship's armament ranking. And yes, the larger rated ships generally carried more of the larger caliber (sic) guns.

British 90 Gun Ship

Sloop O' War

The definition of a sloop today is a one-masted sailboat with a fore-and-aft mainsail and a jib. But in the time of the Yankee Doodle Spies a sloop of war was defined a small square-rigged sailing warship with two or three masts.Sloops were the next class below the rated ships.This is a loosely defined class of ship carrying between 8 and 20 guns. These could be ship rigged or brig rigged, meaning they could have anywhere from one to three masts. There was no standardization for sloops so exact categorization of them is difficult. A nautical dictionary of the time, Blanckey's Naval Expositor shows how whimsical the definition of a sloop of the period could be: "Sloops are sailed and masted as men's fancies freed them, sometimes with one mast, with two and three, with Bermudoes, Shoulder of Mutton, Lugg and Smack sails; they are in figure either square or round and stern'd."

Sloop generally carried smaller guns of 12 pounds or less, mounted on one deck. So until standardization, the term sloop-of-war actually encompassed all the unrated combat vessels including the very small gun-brigs and cutters. In technical terms, even the more specialized bomb vessels and fire ships were classed as sloops-of-war, and in practice these were actually employed in the sloop role when not carrying out their specialized functions.

British Sloop O' War 1776

How they Fought

The war for American Independence at sea had few large scale engagements between Continental and British ships. Although the large scale engagements towards the later phase of the eight year war between the French and British proved decisive to our victory, America's navy was small and limited. When Congress authorized a navy, the largest class built were frigates, at the lower end of the rated ships. So the majority of engagements were by sloops of the fledgling fleet, and American privateers. Most of the battles took place as raids, one on one engagements and of course, seizure of merchant vessels.  Sloops were uniquely suited for all of these as they were fast, maneuverable and carried just enough armament to get the job done. And the small engagements had symbolic value in terms of propaganda often making an impact on sentiment in America, Britain and France. let's now take a look at the life of a sloop of war through the eyes of  two of the war's most famous.

Naval warfare was multifaceted and complex during the American Revolution

USS Enterprise

Neither from the Star Fleet nor the Pacific fleet, the first Enterprise originally belonged to the British and cruised on Lake Champlain to supply their posts in Canada. After the capture of Fort Ticonderoga by the Americans on 10 May 1775, it became the object of desire in the mind of Benedict Arnold who realized he would not have control of Lake Champlain until its capture. He learned it was stationed at a small British garrison at St. John’s on the Richelieu in Canada, and set out from Skenesborough (Whitehall, New York) in the commandeered sloop Liberty for that place on 14 May 1775. He surprised and captured the British garrison on 18 May, took possession of the 70-ton sloop, and sailed it south to Crown Point. It was named Enterprise by Arnold and fitted out with twelve long 4-pound carriage guns and ten swivels. About 1 August 1775, Captain James Smith was sent by the New York Provincial Congress to General Philip Schuyler and ordered to take command of “the sloop Enterprise."

USS Enterprise

USS Ranger 

Ranger (initially called Hampshire) was launched 10 May 1777 by James Hackett, master shipbuilder, at the shipyard of John Langdon on what is now called Badger's Island in Kittery, Maine. Captain John Paul Jones was in command. Readers might recall Kittery was mentioned in my last post. she sailed for France on 1 November 1777, carrying dispatches telling of General Burgoyne's surrender to the commissioners in Paris. On the voyage over, the Ranger captured two British prizes . Ranger arrived at Nantes, France, 2 December. On 14 February 1778, Ranger received an official salute to the new American flag, the "Stars and Stripes," given by the French fleet at Quiberon Bay. On April 10th 1778  Ranger sailed from Brest , for the Irish Sea and four days later captured a prize between the Scilly Isles and Cape Clear. On 17 April, she took another prize and sent her back to France. Captain Jones led a daring raid on the British port of Whitehaven, 23 April, spiking the guns of the fortress, and burning the ships in the harbor. Sailing across the bay to St. Mary's Isle, Scotland, the Jones planned to seize the Earl of Selkirk and hold him as a hostage to obtain better treatment for American prisoners of war. But the scheme failed. Several Royal Navy cruisers were searching for Ranger, and Captain Jones sailed across the North Channel to Carrickfergus, Ireland, to induce HMS Drake of 14 guns, to come out and fight. Drake came out slowly against the wind and tide, and, after an hour's battle, the battered Drake struck her colors (surrendered), with three Americans and five British killed in the combat. Having made temporary repairs, and with a prize crew on Drake, Ranger continued around the west coast of Ireland, capturing a stores ship, and arrived at Brest with her prizes on the 8th of May.

24 April 1778, during the American Revolution,
Continental Navy sloop-of-war Ranger,
 commanded by John Paul Jones, captured British HMS Drake

John Paul Jones gave up command of Ranger to command the refurbished prize, Bonhomme Richard. He left  his first officer, Lieutenant Simpson,in command. Ranger left Brest on the 21st of August, arriving at Portsmouth, New Hampshire on the 15th of October with three prizes taken in the Atlantic.The sloop sailed from Portsmouth on the 24th of  February 1779 and joined  the Continental Navy ships Queen of France and Warren in preying on British shipping in the North Atlantic. Seven prizes were captured early in April, and brought safely into port for sale. On  the 18th of June, Ranger was underway again with Providence and Queen of France, capturing two Jamaicamen in July and nine more vessels off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland. Of the 11 prizes, three were recaptured, but the remaining eight, with their cargoes, were worth over a million dollars when sold in Boston. These attacks on British merchantmen by Ranger and other sloops of war went a long way in funding US efforts and demoralizing British mercantile interests, ultimately causing them to pressure Parliament to come to terms. But Ranger's fate would be ignominious.

On the 23rd of November, Ranger was ordered to Commodore Whipple's squadron, arriving at Charleston on 23 December, to support the garrison there under siege by the British. On the 24th of January 1780, Ranger and Providence, in a short cruise down the coast captured three transports, loaded with supplies, near Tybee, Georgia. The British assault force was also discovered in the area. Ranger and Providence sailed back to Charleston with the news. Shortly afterwards the British commenced the final push. Although the channel and harbor configuration made naval operations and support difficult, Ranger took a station in the Cooper River, and was captured by the British when the city fell on the 11th of May 1780. USS Ranger was taken into the British Royal Navy and commissioned under the name HMS Halifax. But she was decommissioned the following year. A sort of anticlimax for the renowned and doughty sloop o' war.

USS Ranger captured by British during siege of Charleston

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