Thursday, March 24, 2016

Places: Block Island

Readers living in the New York metropolitan area likely have heard the broad weather reporting,"From Cape May to Block Island." The latter is much more than a meteorological Geo-reference point. Block Island is a noted vacation spot for those who want to get the feel of a trip to Ireland or Scotland without the jet lag. Or who want to get the feeling of an earlier time in America. But one of the most picturesque and quietly enjoyable destinations in America also had a small but noteworthy role among the numerous actions of the American War for Independence.

Block Island sits in a strategic position


Adriaen Block
The Narragansett Indians were the first inhabitants of Block Island.  Their name for the island was “Manisses” which translates to “Island of the Little God.” First noted by the same Verrazano whose namesake bridge spans New York harbor, the small island sits in a strategic location at the east end of the Long Island Sound and several miles off the New England coast. Verrazano wrote that the island was about the same size as the Mediterranean island of Rhodes, and this may have been the origin of the name of its parent colony and state: Rhode Island. In 1614, Adriaen Block, a Dutch explorer sailed to the island and gave it his name.  He called it Block Island and it was in 1661 that the Island was settled. Because of its geography, Block Island was a natural place for smugglers, pirates and during the War for Independence, for privateers. From its location, ships could rapidly strike towards New England or New York, or escape out to sea. From 1775-1783, during the Revolutionary War, the Block Islanders kept a lookout on 211 feet high Beacon Hill by lighting fires to warn that an enemy was in sight.

Block Island - an ideal haven for smugglers

The New American Navy's Debut?

The Second Continental Congress  established the Continental Navy in late 1775. By February 1776 the first ships of the fleet were ready for their maiden voyage. Commodore Esek Hopkins led a fleet of eight ships on an expedition to the Bahamas, where the British were known to have military stores. After executing a naval landing and seizing some stores and two prize ships, Hopkins sailed north on March 17th. He sent one ship  to Philadelphia, but took the rest of the fleet to the Block Island channel. At this time, there was still a controversy over the Continental Navy's role vis a vis British shipping. Some wanted the Continental Navy to focus on the Royal Navy to allow only privateers to seize British merchant ships as prizes. In any case, seizing prize ships of any kind was a key objective of all navies, as the prize money went to the officers and crew. When it did not kill you, war at sea could bring riches to some.

By April 4th, Hopkins's fleet had reached the waters off Long Island, and quickly captured as prizes, HMS Hawk, and the Bolton. Hoping to catch more easy prizes, Hopkins continued to cruise off Block Island that night, forming the fleet into a scouting formation of two columns. The right, or eastern, column was headed by the USS Cabot, followed by Hopkins' flagship, the USS Alfred, at 20 guns the largest ship of the fleet, and the left column was headed by the USS Andrew Doria, followed by the USS Columbus. Behind these came the USS Providence, with USS Fly and USS Wasp trailing further behind as escorts for the prizes. Besides the relative inexperience of his men, the need to provide crews for the prizes further reduced the fighting effectiveness of the fleet's ships.

A Chance Encounter on a Clear Night

Nearby Newport, Rhode Island was a British naval base and the Royal Navy continued to go about the business they do so well: control the seas. A large British naval force was assembling off Charleston, South Carolina. In earl April, the Royal Navy 20-gun frigate, HMS Glasgow.under the command Captain Tryingham Howe was sent from Newport to deliver dispatches to the fleet  at South Carolina. Between 1 and 2 am on April 6th, with the American fleet headed in a generally southerly direction, Andrew Doria and Glasgow spotted each other about 20 nautical miles southeast of Block Island.Glasgow was heading westerly towards the open sea, on its way to Charleston.  Howe decided to "come about" (turn around) and reconnoiter the ships. For the Americans' part, Commodore Hopkins gave no signals so the fleet formed no battle line. A confused maritime skirmish would follow.

Chance encounter on a clear night

Howe first came upon the Cabot. After some furtive attempts at recognition, an overzealous seaman on this ship then tossed a grenade onto the Glasgow's deck. The battle had begun. Cabot, a small brig, began with one ineffective broadside of its six-pounders. Glasgow replied with two broadsides with its heavier guns, rendering  Cabot ineffective. As she drifted away, the Alfred sailed up to engage Glasgow, and again broadsides ensued. Once more, superior British gunnery disabled its opponent.  Glasgow raked the Alfred and sent her drifting directly into the course of the next American ship, the Andrew Doria, which also had to maneuver away to avoid the drifting Cabot. The movements of the last two American ships were uncoordinated and neither could do much damage to Glasgow.

After the Battle

But with Glasgow now facing three ships, Howe broke off the battle in order to avoid being boarded, and returned to Newport. Despite overwhelming superiority in ships, Esek Hopkins had little to show for the night's work but damaged ships and the Glasgow's tender. This, he brought to New London, Connecticut on April 8. The American officers suffered must criticism, censure and even military discipline for their less than glorious efforts. The battle also pointed out deficiencies in the new Continental Navy's gunnery - the few British casualties were caused by musket fire.

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