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A Sea Change

Dennis Conrad

Early 1778 saw a dramatic change in naval warfare in the American Revolution. Globalization of the war, a re-direction of the British war effort, devastation of the Continental Navy, the emergence of New York as a center of loyalist privateering and-- the trend that will be highlighted in this paper--a move of American naval operations to the “periphery” of this Continent and to Africa, and, in the case of the Continental Navy, becoming a presence in European waters.

Let us briefly consider the first four developments before moving to the focus of this paper—the move of American naval operations away from the U.S. “heartland.”

The most important of these developments was the “internationalization” of the war with the dispatch of a French fleet under the Comte d’Estaing from Toulon on 13 April bound for American waters. The signing of a treaty of alliance between France and the United States in February 1778 was obviously a major event. It was not, however, a guarantee that the French would commit naval resources to support American independence or to operate in American waters. In fact, the first request made by the American Commissioners in France in early April asking that the French navy convoy and protect American merchantmen en route from France to America was denied.1 While the French leadership was unwilling to commit resources to protect American commerce, they were willing to commit their Navy to assist the Americans. In a bold move, the French decided to dispatch the Toulon squadron, commanded by the Comte d’Estaing, to American waters.2

Since the British had few ships in the Mediterranean that squadron was free to “go on the offensive.” At the same time, the presence of a larger French squadron at Brest, the threat of a cross-Channel invasion, and concern, supported by intelligence—incorrect but on good authority--that the Spanish were preparing to enter the war as allies of the French “disquieted” the British and forced them to keep significant naval forces off Ushant and in the English Channel and to delay sending a reinforcement, under Adm. John Byron, to North America.3 In fact, Byron first received orders to sail with reinforcements to America on 3 May but did not depart until 7 June.4 Then his fleet encountered horrific weather that battered and scattered it.5 Had d’Estaing’s execution of the strategy been as bold as the planning, the French navy could well have ended the war in the spring of 1778.6

The spring of 1778 also saw a dramatic change in British naval strategy. The British de-emphasized the war in “heartland” America. They abandoned Philadelphia and consolidated their forces in New York and Rhode Island (which they abandoned a short time later). Under the new strategy, mobile detachments sent by water from New York were to destroy American forces in detail, to raid American seaports to keep down American privateering activity, and to support a British attempt to create and build up a self-supporting Loyalist base, but the focus of British efforts would be on the West Indies and on the periphery of the United States.7

The concentration of the Royal Navy forces in American waters did open up the opportunities for British and Loyalist privateers, a trend that would continue until war’s end. While Admiral Howe fought a delaying action against allowing New York to become a center for Loyalist privateering activity, he lost the struggle the New York Royal Governor William Tryon began issuing letters of marque and reprisal in August 1778.8 The success of privateers operating out of Bermuda, St. Augustine, and especially New York, became more and more evident and saw them garner greater official support and have a greater impact on American shipping.

The Continental Navy, too, saw changes during this period. The foremost was a dramatic reduction in its size. In the period of March to May 1778, the Continental Navy had six ships captured or destroyed.9 Member of Congress William Ellery on 25 April wrote to a friend: “Our little fleet is very much thinned” and then listed six frigates, the biggest ships in the Continental Navy, that had been captured or destroyed within the last year adding, tellingly, “only one . . . hath been captured on the Ocean.”10

These losses called into question the competence and character of the Continental Navy’s leadership, particularly its ship commanders11 and also forced a change in the role the Continental Navy, and American privateers, played. Unable to contest British dominance in the bays and seas surrounding the major cities of the United States, American seamen were pushed to the peripheries where they enjoyed some success, at least in the spring and early summer of 1778.

In North America there were two areas: Nova Scotia and East Florida/Georgia where the Americans enjoyed naval dominance during this time, and a third—the Mississippi River and West Florida coast--where they successfully contested British control and with better leadership could have overthrown it.

In Nova Scotia and at the entrance to the St. Lawrence River—the “highway” to the urban centers of Canada in 1778--privateers from New England so “infested”–and that is the term used by a contemporary--the waters of that province that one correspondent wrote the British naval commander in the area that they were “defenceless.” The local army commander had to make provision to protect coal mines, which produced a key export for Nova Scotia, and the residents of Liverpool, Nova Scotia, voted on 1 June to dismantle the town’s fort and to inform American privateersmen that if they did not land “under Arms,” the town’s residents “should not molest them.”12 

In Georgia, gunboats of the Georgia State Navy manned largely by Continental soldiers scored a dramatic victory over a force of Royal Navy and East Florida Provincial vessels. To check an invasion of East Florida by the Southern Continental Army, Royal Navy Captain Thomas Jordan led a force of three vessels to Saint Simons inlet in Georgia with the intention of destroying three gallies of the Georgia State Navy. Instead, the British squadron was soundly defeated and two of its vessels, HM armed brig Hinchinbrook and East Florida Provincial armed sloop Rebecca, were captured.13 It was a dramatic victory and gave the Americans control of the inter-coastal waterway from Charleston to St. Augustine, thus threatening the very existence of East Florida. While an active Patrick Tonyn, the royal governor of East Florida, cobbled together a naval defensive force, thus mitigating the damage, and unrelated issues halted the American advance towards St. Augustine, it was nonetheless an important victory and established, at least in the short term, American dominance in those waters and could have, if it had been exploited correctly, changed the course of the war in the American deep South.14

Another success and missed opportunity for the Americans on the periphery in early 1778 occurred along the Mississippi River.

In order to facilitate the shipment of supplies, the Americans dispatched a small expedition--James Willing, who bore a Continental Navy commission, and twenty-nine men in an armed boat, the Rattletrap.15

With unbelievable luck, the Americans made it unmolested into the heart British West Florida where Willing’s party captured or ravaged a number of British settlements including Natchez, Manchac, Point Coupée, and Baton Rouge. They also captured several vessels, one of which was later turned into an American warship. At Natchez Willing convinced the inhabitants to sign an oath of neutrality. Had the expedition continued to practice restraint, Willing might have conquered West Florida. However, the Americans began plundering those not considered “friends” thus creating a pool of disaffected who were instrumental in helping the British to re-establish authority.16

One result of the Willing expedition was that it almost sparked a war between England and Spain. Willing’s party was too small to be viable without the help. The Spanish governor of Louisiana, Don Bernardo Gálvez decided to extend the Americans, in his words, “the sacred right of neutrality.”17 The English saw it as “aiding, assisting, abetting, entertaining, succoring, His Majesty’s rebellious subjects,” and illegally treating them representatives of “a separate and distinct power from that of Great Britain.”18 Gálvez also permitted an American agent, Oliver Pollock, to dispose of plunder accumulated by Willing’s raiders, including 680 slaves, through public sale.

In a letter of 7 May to Lord George Germain, Peter Chester, the royal governor of West Florida, argued that “the only Effectual Method, to redress our injuries, after all other means have been tried, would be to make Reprizals, and detain Spanish property untill ample restitution was made.”19

Therefore, it was not a paranoid rant, but a true appreciation of the situation that led a beleaguered, yet determined, Gálvez to write his superior on 14 April: . . . it seems that the English are plotting an attack against this City in retaliation for the refuge given to the Americans and their prizes. . . . I already have two frigates in front of the City and according to reports, an additional two or three are expected . . . I have been informed that the commander of these frigates is a brutal man, willing to commit any kind of transgression without regard to the consequences. It appears he intends to demand I turn over the Americans and their prizes, especially the Commander and the Officers in his party, and to open fire and destroy the city if I do not accede to it.”20 It is a testament to the strength of will of Gálvez and to his friendship for the United States that he was not cowed into submission.

What then ensued was an elaborate game of “chicken,” which went on for several months and was not resolved until Chester received a letter from Germain on 5 August forbidding him to take the “rash step” of “seizing Spanish property or committing any act of hostility against the King of Spain or his subjects.”21 By then the mercurial Willing had exhausted the patience of both Gálvez and Pollock, so that both were dedicated to getting Willing out of New Orleans and Spanish Louisiana as quickly as possible. Even so, it was November before Willing and a handful of his companions departed New Orleans aboard a privately-owned sloop.22

While the Willing expedition boosted Galvez’s reputation, it was a failure for the Americans. Contrary to the expectations of its planners, it did not permanently open the Mississippi River to American commerce. In fact, the river was less available for American use after the raid than before. It also hardened sentiment in British West Florida against joining the American cause. George Rogers Clark assessment of the expedition is probably spot on. He wrote, “When plunder is the prevailing Passion of any Body of Troops wheather Great or Small, their Cuntrey can Expect but little service from them.”23

Therefore, in West Florida as in Georgia/East Florida and in Nova Scotia the Americans were unable to transform temporary advantage into long-term success. The opportunity was fleeting. By the end of 1778, the British had reinforced both Floridas and Nova Scotia and had undertaken an offensive against Georgia.

However, the idea that the Continental Navy could not contend for or protect the “heartland” of the United States prevailed and Americans looked to attack the British where English strategists did not expect it or where Britain was weak.

An example of the former was the activity of the Continental Navy in European waters in 1778; an example of the latter was the activities of the Rhode Island privateer Marlborough on the coast of Africa.

First, let us consider European waters. While a number of Continental vessels were dispatched to European waters, the two Continental Navy captains who did the most to forward this strategy were Gustavus Conyngham and John Paul Jones.

Between May 1777 and May 1778, Conyngham in the Continental Navy cutter Revenge, captured 24 British vessels, including 6 in the spring of 1778. Thanks to this onslaught by Conyngham and others, British maritime insurance rates increased to 28% of the value of the cargo, higher than at any time during the Seven Years War. It is little wonder that “the pirate” Conyngham became a hated man in England.24

Another, more famous, Continental Navy captain who brought the fight to the British was John Paul Jones. While the battle between Jones’ Bonhomme Richard and the British ship Serapis is the one Americans know best, Jones’ 28-day voyage in the sloop-of-war Ranger in the spring of 1778 probably had more impact on British public opinion and the conduct of the war. 

Sailing from Brest, Jones and the Ranger cruised the Irish Sea, captured and destroyed British merchantmen and the British Navy ship Drake and, most notably, executed a land raid against the northern British coastal town of Whitehaven and an estate at Kirkcudbright, Scotland. At the former, Jones tried to burn some 200 merchant vessels lying aground in the port; at the latter, he attempted to capture the Earl of Selkirk, who Jones believed could be exchanged for large numbers of American captive seamen languishing in British prisons and prison hulks with virtually no possibility of exchange.25

While the attempted arson was thwarted and the Earl was away from home—and not important enough to command the kind of exchange envisioned—the fact that Jones and his crew landed on British soil twice and escaped demonstrated vulnerability for English coastal towns, or as Jones put it in his after-action report, “What was done. . . is sufficient to shew, that not all their boasted Navy can protect their own Coasts—and that the Scenes of distress which they have occasioned in American may soon be brought home to their own doors.”26 The raid provoked a firestorm of criticism of the Admiralty and strengthened the hand of those who wanted greater resources committed to defense of the home island--a goal of American planners when they committed the Continental Navy to this risky strategy.27

Finally, the raid strengthened the perception in Europe that the young republic might survive. According to a neutral Italian observer, the raid “confirmed . . . that American sea forces are vigorous.”28 Thus, the actions of Conyngham, and especially Jones, when paired with the entry of the French into the war, should be considered “game changers.”

The coast of West Africa was another area on “the periphery” in which the Americans enjoyed success in early 1778. The cruise of the Rhode Island privateer Marlborough illustrates how Americans operated in those waters. Testimony in Parliament in February 1778 analyzed the effect of the war on the African trade. Before the war, some two hundred ships engaged in the trade; by 1778, that number had been reduced to forty and fifteen had been taken by American privateers.29

Although most American privateers cruising for slave ships did so near Barbados, which meant complete cargoes and because of its proximity to the American coast, lessened the possibility of recapture, the Marlborough, a Rhode-Island based privateer, chose to operate on the African coast.

Marlborough, a 250-ton ship mounting twenty carriage guns, navigated by a crew of 125, sailed from New Bedford a few days after the New Year. En route to the English “factory” at Iles de Los on the African coast, it captured five vessels. It then burned Iles de Los when English factors there refused to surrender property they held. The climax of the cruise came off Cape Mesurado where Marlborough captured the Liverpool letter of marque ship Fancy mounting 16 guns, with a cargo of 300 slaves, ivory, and rice--a very lucrative prize. The ship then returned to New England, but not before having dealt a heavy blow to the English African slave trade.31

This very brief summary of events from the spring of 1778 I hope demonstrates that it was a time of “sea change” in the way the naval war of the American Revolution was conducted. Internationalization; a re-direction in British strategy; an increase in the numbers and effectiveness of Loyalist privateers in American waters; a dramatic reduction in the size of the Continental Navy; naval operations moving from the “heartland” to the “periphery” of North America; and Americans bringing the war to European and African waters; all these developments are to be found in early 1778. 


  1. American Commissioners to France to Comte de Vergennes, 19 April 1778, Steven’s Facsimilies, vol. 8: no. 812 and Naval Documents of the American Revolution 12: 585 (hereafter NDAR); American Commissioners to France to Gabriel de Sartine, 19 April 1778, ViU, Lee Family Papers and NDAR 12: 585; Sartine to Comte de Vergennes, 26 April 1778, DNA, PCC, item 102, vol. 4: 157; Sartine to the American Commissioners in France, 26 April 1778, MH-H, Arthur Lee Papers, and NDAR 12: 608-9.

  2. The orders from Louis XVI to Comte d’Estaing are dated 27 March, NDAR 11: 1120-23. The plan has been credited to the triumvirate of Sartine, Sartine’s assistant Chevalier de Fleurieu, and French Foreign Secretary the Comte de Vergennes. Jonathan R. Dull, The French Navy and Naval Independence: A Study of Arms and Diplomacy, 1774-1787. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1975), 190-96.

  3. See NDAR 12: 506-7.

  4. Lord Commissioners of the Admiralty to Adm. John Byron, 3 May and 25 May, UkLPR, Adm. 2/1334, fols. 11-16 and 24-26 and NDAR 12: 635 and 747.

  5. Byron’s fleet was so battered and scattered that by the time it arrived, in the words of historian Sam Willis, it had “little practical impact on the balance of sea power in America.” Sam Willis, The Struggle for Sea Power: A Naval History of American Independence. [London, Atlantic Books, 2015], 240.

  6. It is the belief of the editors of NDAR that d’Estaing used the voyage to America as a training voyage and therefore proceeded at what can only be termed a “leisurely” pace. For evidence of this see, “Station Bill for Officers of the French Navy Ship of the Line Languedoc, May 1778, NDAR 12: 626-41.

  7. The new strategy is spelled out in a letter from the Lords of the Admiralty to Viscount Howe of 21 March 1778. UkLPR, Adm. 2/1334, fols. 54-61 and NDAR 11: 1103-7; see also, George III to Henry Clinton, Ibid., 1100-2. It was a viable strategy. However, fear of invasion caused British leadership to limit reinforcements to its army and navy in America. Because of this, the British were overextended and outnumbered in both the United States and the West Indies. Also, New York was a difficult position to hold and limited the troops available for detaching. As a result, Britain forfeited naval initiative in the Western Hemisphere and became increasingly reactionary.

  8. Gov. William Tryon to Lord George Germain, 5 September 1778, UkLPR, C.O. 5/1108, fol. 262. Howe opposed the issuance of letters of marque and reprisal at New York because he feared that allowing privateering there would result in desertion from Royal Navy ships and a smaller pool from which to draw impressed sailors. Howe to Tryon, 11 April 1778, UkLPR, Adm. 1/488, fols. 256-57 and NDAR 12: 86.

  9. The ships lost were: Alfred, 3/6; Randolph, 3/7; Columbus, 3/28; Virginia, 3/31; Washington, 5/11; and Effingham, 5/11.

  10. William Ellery to William Vernon, 25 April 1778, “Papers of William Vernon and the Navy Board, 1776-1784.” Publications of the Rhode Island Historical Society, New Series, vol. 8 [Providence, Rhode Island Historical Society, 1901], 237-39 and NDAR 12: 189.

  11. Ibid.

  12. Extract of a Letter from Halifax, 2 July 1778, published in The London Chronicle, 13-15 August 1778; Maj. Gen. Eyre Massey to George Germain, 3 June 1778, UkLPR, C.O. 217/54, fols. 80-81; William Saunders to Vice Adm. John Montagu, 4 June 1778, UkLPR, Adm. 1/471, fols. 219-20; Diary of Simeon Perkins, entry of 1 June, The Diary of Simeon Perkins, 1766—1780, edited by Harold A. Innis. {Toronto: Champlain Society, 1948], 201-2. On 1 June, William Whipple wrote delegate to Congress Josiah Bartlett that there were in Portsmouth, NH, harbor alone six privateers preparing to sail to Canadian waters. The American Pioneer. 2 vols. [Chillicothe and Cincinnati, Ohio: Logan Historical Society, 1842-43], 2: 20-21.

  13. On the battle, see the after action reports of the two commanders, Col. Samuel Elbert and Capt. Thomas Jordan. Elbert’s is in his letter to Robert Howe, 19 April 1778 and Jordan’s is in Gov. Patrick Tonyn to Germain, 28 April 1778. ScHi, Henry Laurens Papers and UkLPR, C.O. 5/558, fols. 127-28 and NDAR 12: 138-39 and 212-13.

  14. On Tonyn’s actions see his letter to Germain, ibid.; on  the reasons why the American advance to St. Augustine ended, see Journal of John F. Grimké, 8 July, ScHi, Grimké Papers; Council of War held in Camp at Fort Tonyn, 11 July 1778. DLC, Robert Howe Orderly Book; and Charles E. Bennett and Donald R. Lennon, A Quest for Glory: Major General Robert Howe and the American Revolution. [Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991], 79-84.

  15. The origins of the expedition to conquer West Florida go back to the summer of 1777 when the governor of Spanish Louisiana, Don Bernardo de Gálvez, received a letter from Col. George Morgan at Fort Pitt proposing a 1,000-man American expedition against Pensacola and Mobile. Morgan asked Gálvez to provide intelligence, supply transports, artillery, powder, and provisions. Gálvez’s response was equivocal, but probably more convincing was the fact that the flotilla sent to deliver Morgan’s letter returned laden with arms, ammunition, and provisions worth some $70,000. After much debate, American leaders decided to dispatch a much scaled down expedition. Edward Hand to Continental Commerce Committee, 17 January 1778, DNA (National Archives, Washington, D.C.), PCC (Papers of the Continental Congress), item 159, pp. 431-32; John Stuart to Lord George Germain, 5 March 1778, UkLPR, C.O. 5/79, fol. 112 and in K.G. Davies, ed., Documents of the American Revolution, 1770-1783 (Colonial Office Series), 21 vols. (Shannon, Ireland: Irish University Press, 1972-81), 15: 54-56.

  16. On the expedition, see: J. Barton Starr, Tories, Dons, and Rebels: The American Revolution in British West Florida. (Gainesville, The University Presses of Florida, 1976), 78-121; and John W. Caughey, “Willing's Expedition down the Mississippi, 1778,” Louisiana Historical Quarterly, 15 (Jan., 1932), 5–36.

  17. Gálvez Proclamation, 3 March 1778, SpSAG, Papeles de Santo Domingo, Legajo 2596; Haynes, Natchez District, pp. 72-73.

  18. Anthony Hutchins to Lord George Germain, 21 May 1778, UkLPR, C.O. 5/594, p. 475 and K. G. Davies, ed., Documents of the American Revolution, 1770-1783 (Colonial Office Series), 21 vols. [Shannon, Ireland: Irish University Press, 1972-81], 15: 123-26.

  19. Chester to Germain, 7 May 1778, UkLPR, C.O. 5/594, fols. 499-507 and NDAR 12: 291-94; the quotation is on p. 291.

  20. Gálvez to Don Diego Josef Navarro, 14 April 1778, SpSAG, Cuba, Legajo 1232, no. 65 and NDAR 12: 110-14.

  21. The ship Willing was to have left on was damaged in a hurricane and it took some time to secure a replacement. When Willing did leave, the sloop he sailed in was captured at sea and Willing was taken prisoner, assuaging, to be sure, some of the British anger. Willing languished in British custody almost two years before his captors would permit his exchange in late 1781.

  22. UkLPR, C.O. 5/594, fol. 607; and in Davies, Documents of the American Revolution, 15: 178-79.

  23. Clark to Fernando de Leyba, 6 November 1778, in Lawrence Kinnaird, ed., “Clark-Leyba Papers,” American Historical Review, vol. 41 [October 1935], 101.

  24. For more on the activities of Gustavus Conyngham see Mark L. Hayes, “Gustavus Conyngham,” Sea Raiders of the American Revolution: The Continental Navy in European Waters. [Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 2003], 16-41 and NDAR 12: passim.

  25. On the voyage of the Ranger, see Log of the Continental Ship Ranger, NDAR 12: 837-56; Joseph G. Sawtelle, ed., John Paul Jones and the Ranger. [Portsmouth, NH: Portsmouth Marine Society, 1994]. Dennis M. Conrad, “John Paul Jones,” Sea Raiders of the American Revolution, 58-64.

  26. Jones to the American Commissioners in France, 27 May 1778, PPAmP, Benjamin Franklin Papers, and NDAR 12: 755-61; the quotation is on p. 758.

  27. For example, in the London Public Advertiser of 6 May is the following: “It is something strange, and worthy of particular Notice, that at a Time when the Ministry are boasting of the invincible Fleet which they have fitted out, which is now riding at Spithead. . . that [a] little American Privateer should not only plunder and ravage the Coasts of this Kingdom, but fight and take his Majesty’s Sloops of War.” NDAR 12: 668.

  28. Francesco Favi to Government of Florence, 18 May 1778, Archivio di Stato di Fierenze and NDAR 12: 707.

  29. “Proceedings in the Lords Respecting the Commercial Losses Occasioned by the American War,” 6 February 1778, NDAR 11: 971.

  30. While there is no record that Marlborough’s captain George Wait Babcock had sailed on slaving voyages; the ship’s owner, John Brown of Providence, had been involved in the trade his entire life.

  31. Information on the voyage of Marlborough is to be found in the series of log entries at NjMoHP, Lloyd W. Smith collection and NDAR 12: 817-31.


Published: Mon Oct 30 16:56:47 EDT 2017