Thursday, August 21, 2014

A Parcel of Plundering Scoundrels: The Virginia Navy Part 3

By Frank N. Barker
Assistant Education Coordinator

The departure of Lord Dunmore and his fleet of “pirates and renegadoes” in the summer of 1776 reduced the direct threat to the plantations of the Chesapeake. The war was being fought mainly in the northern states and in the Carolinas.

For much of the war, the British war planners did not completely recognize the importance of the Chesapeake region to the American war effort. Besides providing ground troops, an estimated 400 Patriot privateers, authorized by the Continental Congress or by individual states, operated out of the region. These privateers mustered more power than the state navies or even the Continental Navy. They seized ships and prize cargoes of gunpowder, weapons, salt, and clothing that were critical to supplying Washington’s army. They helped maintain trade, even in the face of the Royal Navy and British and Tory privateers.

In the spring of 1777, Virginia decided to send vessels to trade directly with France, nearly a year before the Treaty of Alliance that would bring France into the American Revolution. The American Congress, just back from a profitable voyage from the West Indies, was loaded with 105 hogsheads of quality tobacco and a long list of military supplies to be purchased. She was accompanied by one of the many Virginia Navy vessels called Liberty. The pair returned to Virginia late in the fall laden with valuable supplies.

From ’77 through ’79, the Virginia Navy dwindled. It was difficult to find able-bodied seamen, especially since most able-bodied men were already serving with the Continental Army or the militia or were aboard privateers.

Guns, on a carriage, like this one would have been used both 
on ships and in forts during the American Revolution.
In May of 1779, Gen. Sir Henry Clinton, the British commander in North America, and Adm. Sir George Collier, the senior naval officer developed plans to blockade and invade Virginia to include, according to Collier, “cutting off the resources by which the enemy could continue war, these being principally drawn from Virginia, and principally tobacco.” He set sail from Sandy Hook, NJ, on his 64-gun flagship HMS Raisonable, accompanied by Rainbow (44 guns), Solebay (28), Otter (16), Diligent (8), Haarlem (14), Cornwallis (8), and 28 transports carrying 2500 troops. Faced with that much firepower, the few available ships of the Virginia Navy could only disperse and head for shallower water up the Elizabeth and James Rivers.

Adm. Collier recommended to Gen. Clinton that the shipyard at Gosport be spared and turned into a permanent British base as it “appears to be of more real consequence and advantage, than any other the Crown now possesses in America for by securing this, the whole trade of the Chesapeake is at an end, and consequently the sinews of the rebellion destroyed.”

He was ordered to torch it.

The British destroyed five ships under construction, including the frigate USS Virginia being built for the Continental Navy, and burned tons of wood and stores. In all, the British burned 130 vessels. Instead of securing the area for the British and cutting off the trade so necessary for the Americans, the fleet was ordered to depart.

In 1780 attempts were made to consolidate, rebuild, and re-man the ships of the Virginia Navy. There was little money and few men, and very little progress was made. By the end of the year, a large British fleet and Brigadier General Benedict Arnold with supporting infantry and cavalry aboard transports were off the Virginia coast, bound for the Tidewater area.

By February 1781, few ships of the Virginia fleet were still in service to oppose them. Arnold and parts of the British fleet pillaged and burned their way through the plantations and warehouses around the bay and up the James as far as Richmond, then pulled back into the Portsmouth area. Despite Arnold’s vulnerable position and reliance on the British Navy for supply from the sea, there was little the Virginia Navy could do as they were short of sailors, armament, and vessels.

After the indecisive Battle of Cape Henry between the British and French fleets in March, the French withdrew to Newport, Rhode Island, and the British were able to reinforce Arnold’s command.

Arnold’s force resumed their attacks on Virginia’s economic base and headed back towards Richmond where what was left of the Virginia fleet, five ships, eight brigs, two schooners, and five sloops and about 200 supporting militia stood in their way at Osborne’s Wharf on the James River. The British commander asked the Virginia commodore to surrender his fleet. He proposes to “defend it to the last extremity.”

After a few shots from well-placed British shore batteries, and a short engagement, the Virginia fleet was scuttled or set fire. The British captured the few vessels that were not destroyed.

Meanwhile, the frigate Actaeon and the sloop Savage were spending two weeks cruising unopposed up the Potomac, burning prominent homes along the way. Their ultimate targets were Mount Vernon and Alexandria.

Having burned the plantation house across the river from Mount Vernon, Captain Thomas Graves of the Savage then threatened to do the same to Gen. Washington’s home. During the raid, 17 of the slaves from Mount Vernon escaped to the British. Lund Washington, George Washington’s cousin and caretaker of Mount Vernon during the war, came aboard Savage to negotiate with the British to spare the plantation. Capt. Graves said he respected Gen. Washington’s character and would not destroy his home. Lund Washington returned ashore and immediately sent provisions of sheep and hogs to the British in gratitude.

This clip from the VA Gazette discusses
the desertion of a Fairfax resident from
the Virginia Navy.
The two ships never reached Alexandria as they ran aground near Mr. Digges’ wharf at Warburton Manor (at present day Fort Washington in Prince George’s County, MD).

George Washington, hearing of his cousin’s negotiations with the British via a letter from him, was incensed. He wrote to his cousin “It would have been a less painful circumstance to me, to have heard, that in consequence of your non-compliance with their request, they had burnt my House, and laid the Plantation in ruins….[T]o go on board their Vessels; carry them refreshments; commune with a parcel of plundering Scoundrels, and request a favor by asking the surrender of my Negroes, was exceedingly ill-judged, and 'tis to be feared, will be unhappy in its consequences, as it will be a precedent for others, and may become a subject of animadversion.”

Some measure of revenge came in September 1781 when the Savage was defeated and captured in a battle off South Carolina by the Congress, a privateer from Pennsylvania.

By the Battle of Yorktown, most of the remaining sailors of the Virginia Navy were helping support the Continental Army. The Virginia Navy had one vessel left—the armed boat Liberty. She would serve Virginia until 1787. She had served longer than any other vessel in any state navy or the Continental Navy, from 1775 until 1787.

"George Washington to Lund Washington, 30 April 1781," The Writings of George Washington, Vol. 22, 14.
Hirschfld, Fritz. "George Washington and Slavery." Google Books. University of Missouri Press, 1997. Web. 24 June 2014.
Linder, Bruce. Tidewater's Navy: An Illustrated History. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute, 2005. Print.
Park, Edwards. "Virginia's Very Own Navy." Colonial Williamsburg Journal. Colonial Williamsburg, Spring 2002. Web. 24 June 2014.
Stewart, Robert Armistead. The History of Virginia's Navy of the Revolution. Richmond: Mitchell & Hotchkiss, Printers, 1934. Print.
Tilp, Frederick. This Was Potomac River. Bladensburg, MD: Tilp, 1978. Print.

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