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Randolph I (Frigate)


Peyton Randolph, born at Tazewell Hall, Williamsburg, Va., in September 1721, graduated from William and Mary College and studied law in England at Inner Temple, London. He was appointed King's Attorney for Virginia in 1748 and served in the House of Burgesses from that year to 1774, becoming speaker in 1766. His conservative temperament was balanced by a deep concern for colonial liberty.

During the Stamp Act crisis, Randolph wrote a remonstrance to the King in 1764 opposing suggested stamp duties, but the following year opposed Patrick Henry's radical "Stamp Act Resolutions." In the ensuing decade, he led the patriotic movement in Virginia, presiding over every revolutionary assemblage in the colony, especially the Committee of Correspondence, formed in 1773, and the Conventions of 1774 and 1775.

A member of the First Continental Congress, he was chosen as its first president on 5 September, 1774. He died of apoplexy in Philadelphia on the 22nd of October, 1775.


(Frigate: length 132'9" (between perpendiculars); beam 34'6"; depth of hold 10'6"; draft 18'; armament 32 guns)

Construction of the first Randolph was authorized by the Continental Congress on 13 December 1775. The frigate, designed by Joshua Humphreys, was launched on 10 July 1776, by Wharton and Humphreys at Philadelphia, Pa. Capt. Nicholas Biddle was appointed commander of the Randolph on 11 July, and he took charge of the frigate in mid-October.

Seamen were scarce and recruiting was slow, delaying the ship's maiden voyage; but Randolph, manned largely by captured British seamen taken from jail in Philadelphia, finally dropped down the Delaware on 3 February, 1777 and three days later rounded Cape Henlopen escorting a large group of American merchantmen to sea. On the 15th, the convoy separated, with some of Randolph's charges heading for France and the rest setting course for the West Indies.

The frigate herself turned northward hoping to encounter Milford, a British frigate which had been preying upon New England shipping. Before long, she boarded a ship which proved to be French and was set free. Then, as she continued the search, Randolph sprung her foremast. While the crew labored to rig a spar as a jury mast, the ship's mainmast broke and toppled into the sea.

Continuing the hunt was out of the question. Now seeking to avoid the Royal Navy's warships, Biddle ordered the ship south toward the Carolina coast.

Fever broke out as the Randolph painfully made her way, and many members of the crew were buried at sea. Even a mutiny of the English sailors had to be put down before the ship reached Charleston on the afternoon of 11 March.

Twice, after her repairs had been completed and as she was about to get underway, the frigate was kept in port by lightening-splintered mainmasts. Meanwhile, the ship, undermanned when she left Philadelphia, was losing more of her men from sickness, death, and desertion.

Recruiting was stimulated by bounty, and Randolph was finally readied for sea, this time with her masts protected by lightening rods. She departed Charleston on 16 August and entered Rebellion Road to await favorable winds to put to sea. Two days later, a party from the frigate boarded merchantman, Fair American, and impressed two seamen who earlier had been lured away from Biddle's ship.

Inshore winds kept Randolph in the roadstead until the breeze shifted on 1 September, wafting the frigate across Charleston bar. At dusk, on the 3rd, a lookout spotted five vessels: two ships, two brigs, and a sloop. After a nightlong chase, she caught up with her quarry the next morning and took four prizes: a 20-gun privateer, True Briton, laden with rum, for the British troops at New York; Severn, the second prize, had been recaptured by True Briton from a North Carolina privateer while sailing from Jamaica to London with a cargo of sugar, rum, ginger, and logwood; the two brigs, Charming Peggy, a French privateer, and L'Assumption [sic; L-Assomption], laden with salt, had also been captured by True Briton while plying their way from Martinique to Charleston.

Randolph and her rich prizes reached Charleston on the morning of 6 September. While the frigate was in port having her hull scraped, the president of South Carolina's General Assembly, John Rutledge, suggested to Biddle that Randolph, aided by a number of State Navy ships, might be able to break the blockade which was then bottling up a goodly number of American merchantmen in Charleston Harbor. Biddle accepted command of the task force, which, besides Randolph, included General Moultrie, Notre Dame, Fair American, and Polly.

The American ships sailed on 14 February 1778. When they crossed the bar, Biddle's ships found no British cruisers. After seeing a number of merchantmen to a good offing, the ships proceeded to the West Indies hoping to intercept British merchantmen. After two days, they took and burned a dismasted New England ship which had been captured by a British privateer while headed for St. Augustine. Thereafter, game was scarce. They encountered only neutral ships until Polly took a small schooner on 4 March bound from New York to Grenada. Biddle manned the prize as a tender.

On the afternoon of 7 March, Randolph's lookouts spotted sail on the horizon which proved to be the British, 64-gun ship of the line, Yarmouth. That evening, as Randolph engaged the British warship, the American frigate seemed to be on the verge of victory when some unknown cause, perhaps a chance spark in the chaos of battle, ignited her magazine and Biddle's plucky ship disintegrated in one blinding flash. Flaming debris from Randolph showered down on the Yarmouth preventing her from pursuing the South Carolina ships which slipped away in the darkness.

16 September 2005
Updated by Mark L. Evans on 30 April 2019

Published: Tue Apr 30 12:37:50 EDT 2019