Monday, April 26, 2010

April 26: Esek Hopkins, First Commander of the Fleet

He came from a strong Puritan line, raised on the concept of duty and the benefits of hard work. He would become the first commander of the American Navy, and another of his family - his brother - was one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Esek Hopkins was born on April 26, 1718, in the territory claimed by Providence, Rhode Island – which is today the town of Scituate. His parents were William and Ruth Hopkins, and he was the sixth of nine children.

He grew up on the Hopkins farm, which was named Chopomisk. The countryside in the early 18th century was wild and sparsely settled, and working on the farm and hunting provided the rawboned strength that would characterize Hopkins.

When his father died in 1738, Hopkins, a tall and handsome twenty-year-old, went to Providence where he signed on to work on a vessel that was preparing to sail to Surinam. With this event, Hopkins began a lifetime on the sea. Four of the brothers would become capable captains who made their livings on the sea.

Hopkins proved to be a quick study and an able seaman, soon rising to the command of a vessel in his own right. By the time he was twenty-three he felt secure enough in his trade to marry – and on November 28, 1741 he married Desire Burroughs, the daughter of a Newport, Rhode Island merchant and shipmaster. The marriage would yield six children. He would make Newport his homeport until 1748 when he relocated back to Providence.

The years of the French and Indian Wars provided colonial sailors with the opportunity to become privateers – private vessels sailing with permission of a government and being granted the right to seize enemy ships, and to share in the profit of the sail of that ship and its cargo. Hopkins apparently did very well as a privateer, seizing French (and occasionally Spanish) merchant ships.

Moses Brown, a Providence merchant, wrote on February 23, 1757:
"Capt. Esek Hopkins has Taken and sent in here a snow of about 150 tons, Laden with wine, oil, Dry goods &c to ye amount of about L6000 ye greater part of which will be Exposed to publick Vendue ye Tuesday next.”
During this time he bought a farm that he would add more property to over time until it eventually consisted of over two hundred acres. It was located just north of Providence. Between voyages he would supervise the tending of the farm and engage in local politics. His efforts largely contributed to the election of his brother Stephen Hopkins as the governor of Rhode Island in 1763. Hopkins himself was elected as a Deputy to the Rhode Island General Assembly.

At the outbreak of the American War for Independence, Hopkins was appointed a brigadier general and given command of the Rhode Island military forces. Later, on December 22, 1775, he was given the designation of Commander-In-Chief of the Continental Navy by the Continental Congress. One major factor in his achieving this position was the fact that during the French and Indian war he had commanded a veritable fleet of ten privateers in the war against the French, and hence had experience in commanding a number of ships.

In January 1776 he took command of the eight converted merchant ships that constituted the bulk of the Continental Navy. The flag he hoisted on the flagship of his small fleet, the Alfred (30-guns), was the Gadsden Flag - which had been designed by Christopher Gadsden of South Carolina. The Alfred would later be captained by young officer named Lieutenant John Paul Jones. The other ships in this first American fleet were the Columbus (28 guns); the brig Andrea Doria (14 guns); the brig Cabot (14 guns); the sloop Providence (12 guns); the sloop Hornet (10 guns); the schooner Wasp (8 guns); and the schooner Fly (6 guns).

Hopkins sailed from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on February 18, 1776, with orders to scout and if possible to attack British maritime forces in Chesapeake Bay, Charleston harbor (South Carolina), and those near Rhode Island. He believed he was given the option of forming plans of his own if he felt that the orders sent by the Maritime Committee of the Continental Congress proved to be unfeasible.

He quickly realized that the enemy naval strength was superior to his in the Chesapeake Bay area, so he exercised his command prerogative and led his squadron southward, to New Providence Island in the Bahamas. He landed there on March 3, 1776, and seized a large stock of supplies and equipment that were badly needed for the fledgling American army.

A month later, on route back to the colonies, the American fleet encountered and captured two small British warships – and two days later had an inconclusive engagement with the 20-gun HMS Glasgow. The Glasgow, heavily outnumbered, skillfully evaded the Americans and was able to escape. Also during this time he captured two British merchant vessels.

The American squadron would arrive back at New London, Connecticut, on April 8, 1776, and were at first welcomed as heroes. The President of the Continental Congress, John Hancock, wrote Hopkins:
"Your letter of the 9th of March, with the enclosure, was duly received and laid before Congress; in whose Name I beg leave to congratulate you on the Success of your Expedition. Your Account of the Spirit and Bravery shown by the men affords them [Congress] the greatest satisfaction; and encourages them to expect similar Exertions and Courage on every future Occasion. Though it is to be regretted, that the ‘Glascow’ Man of War made her Escape, yet as it was not thro any Misconduct, the Praise due to you and the other officers is undoubtedly the same."
However, soon Hopkins’ decision to change his orders was surrounded by controversy. Many of the officers who sailed with him had disagreed with his policies and decisions. On top of that, the small American fleet stayed at New London, not being used aggressively against the English. The reasons for this were twofold. One was a lack of men and supplies – with many of the qualified sailors and most of the supplies being used by American privateers, who paid better than the Navy did. The other was a loose British blockade of the American port.

The Continental Congress would censure him and two of his captains for breach of orders and, in 1777 – because of continuing complaints from his officers - he would lose his command. A year later – on January 2, 1778, he would be dismissed from his position as commander-in-chief of the Navy.

Hopkins maintained his popularity in Rhode Island. He was elected to the state legislature during the 1780s, and was involved in state politics until his death in 1802.


1911 Encyclopedia
Cruise of Commodore Esak Hopkins
Esak Hopkins, Google books
Gadsden Flag
Naval Historical Center
Novel Guide
Quarterman Family


Ezek Hopkins, Commander in Chief of the Fleet: Wikipedia
A French Engraving of Hopkins: Navy History
The flagship of Esek Hopkins, the Alfred: Aeragon
The Gadsden Flag: Wikipedia
A 19th Century engraving of Commodore Hopkins: Navy History


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