On This Day: The Battle of Nassau

On this day, in 1776, forces of the fledgling Continental Navy and Continental Marines (ancestors of the US Navy and US Marine Corps) performed its first ever amphibious assault when it attacked the port of Nassau in the Bahamas, capturing the town and seizing the munitions and gunpowder that had not been evacuated in advance.

Before the battle took place, at the start of the American Revolution the British governor of Virginia Lord Dunmore removed stores of gunpowder and munitions to the island of New Providence in the Bahamas in order to keep it from falling into the hands of the rebel militia.  Facing a desperate shortage of powder in order to prosecute its war against Britain, the Second Continental Congress organized a naval expedition to seize military supplies at Nassau.

A fleet of eight ships, departed Cape Henlopen, Delaware.  Gale force winds led to two of the ships becoming separated from the rest of the fleet.  The merchant sloop Hornet was forced to return to port for repairs and the sloop Fly eventually rejoined the fleet at Nassau.

The fleet arrived in the vicinity of Nassau on March 1 and captured two loyalist sloops, pressing their owners to serve as pilots to help navigate the local waters.  A local captain, George Dorsett,  escaped and warned the Bahamian governor of the presence of the rebel fleet.

A landing force of 210 marines were moved to the two captured sloops and the rebel sloop the Providence.  These three ships were to attack the port of Nassau at daybreak, hopefully before the alarm could be raised.

As it happened, the ships were spotted in the morning light.  Browne, awakened on the spotting of the ships ordered four of the guns at the fort fired to alert the militia.  Two of those guns came off their carriage in firing.

The attackers heard the guns and realized the element of surprise had been lost.  They called off the attack.  The traditional account has John Paul Jones, then a lieutenant to the fleet commander suggesting a new landing point and leading the expedition but as he was unfamiliar with local waters this is unlikely and one of the other officers is likely to have made the suggestion and a lieutenant on the Cabot, Thomas Weaver, is believed to have lead the expedition.

Fifty sailors were added to the marine landing force which sailed, joined by the schooner Wasp to provide covering fire, to a point south and east of Fort Montague.  They made a force landing, the first amphibious landing by United States Marines.

A lieutenant named Burke led a small detachment from the fort to investigate the rebel activity.  Heavily outnumbered, he asked, under a flag of truce what their intentions were and learned that they intended to seize powder and munitions.

Governor Browne, in the meantime reached the fort with additional militiamen.  On learning the size of the attacking force, he left a token force at the fort and returned to Nassau.  He, himself, returned to the Governor’s house and most of the militiamen returned to their own homes rather than take a stand.

The rebel force occupied the fort and Browne sent Burke back under flag of truce to once again ask the rebels’ intentions.  They repeated to him that they had come for powder and weapons.

The marines elected to remain in the fort overnight.  This, along with Hopkins’ error in not posting any ships to guard the harbor, proved to be a mistake.  Browne ordered powder and weapons loaded on ships for evacuation from the port.  Into the night, 162 of 200 barrels of gunpowder were loaded onto two ships:  the Mississippi Packet and the HMS St. John.  At 2:00 AM they sailed out of the harbor bound for St. Augustine.

The Marines occupied Nassau without resistance on the 4th.

The fleet remained in Nassau for two weeks, loading as much weaponry as they could fit onto the ships, including the remaining 38 barrels of powder.  They pressed the local sloop Endeavor to carry some of the material.

The fleet sailed from Nassau for Block Island Channel off Newport Rhode Island.  As they reached the vicinity of Long Island they encountered and captured the HMS Hawk and the Bolton, which included stores of more armaments and powder.  On April 6 they encountered the HMS Glasgow, which, though heavily outnumbered, managed to severely damage the Cabot and escape.  The fleet reached New London, Connecticut on April 8.

While initially lauded as a success, questions were raised about the handling of the mission, in particular in allowing the Glasgow to get away.  One of the consequences was relieving the captain of the Providence of command and giving an officer whose name should be familiar to many readers his first command in the Continental Navy:  John Paul Jones.

And the rest, as they say, is history.


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