Volume 8: 1777


The court of inquiry report into the loss of the Continental Navy brig Cabot, printed in this volume, was released publicly on 19 April 1777. Unnoted in the rush of events was the fact that this date also marked the second anniversary of Lexington and Concord. These first two years of open warfare had experienced unfolding events of singular moment, none with more far-reaching impact than the Declaration of Independence, and the emergence of the new embattled United States of America.

Within weeks of the first exchange of fire between British regulars and local militia, the rebellious colonists took their fight to the water on Lake Champlain and at Machias, Maine. General Washington, in the fall of 1775, set a small schooner offensive in motion against British supply ships making for Boston harbor. Individual colonies moved to form their own navies, privateering was sanctioned, and Congress authorized the beginnings of a Continental or national navy. These were bold and momentous steps in the genesis of American seapower, particularly when launched by an embryo government against the might of the Royal Navy. To be certain, it was not the intention or wildest hope of the most sanguine patriot that these efforts on the water could or would challenge the Royal Navy in the line of battle. But as America's maritime defensive-offensive expanded in size and operational reach, it would annoy, distract, and distress the enemy, and help provide the material means to sustain the light of resistance at home.

Events in the European Theatre during the first five months of 1777, treated here in Volume 8, show clearly that American naval vessels and privateers, out of French ports, were successfully cruising in British home waters in ever increasing numbers. England, in the words of Benjamin Franklin, was being "insulted on her own coasts" much to the discomfort of the North government and the Admiralty. Convoy coverage and search patrols by the Royal Navy had to be intensified.

Capture of the King's mail packet Prince of Orange in the English Channel by the Continental lugger Surprize, Captain Gustavus Conyngham, was particularly galling. Conyngham unwisely sent his prize into the treaty port of Dunkerque, and this action unleashed a virtual blizzard of diplomatic protests blowing from London to Paris. Of course, on balance, it must also be recorded that enhanced British naval vigilance netted a bountiful harvest of captured rebel vessels.

Across the ocean in America, defenses on the Delaware were readied to meet the expected sea and land assault on Philadelphia by the Howe brothers. Two more of the new Continental Navy frigates, Hancock and Boston finally put to sea. Meanwhile, frigate Randolph, on her maiden cruise, made her storm-battered way into Charleston. And, as previously noted, Cabot, of Commodore Esek Hopkins' original Continental squadron, was run aground and captured.

Manning continued to be a critical problem for the Continental Navy. Captain James Nicholson turned to the press gang to bring frigate Virginia up to complement, and found himself deeply embroiled with Maryland authorities and Congress.

British warships and American privateers played the continuing game of pursuer and pursued in the Atlantic and West Indies with a measure of success and failure on both sides. It is noteworthy that one British man-of-war was credited with taking no less than 45 prizes on a winter cruise off Bermuda.

Manuscripts from five depositories heretofore not represented are used in Volume 8—Boston Marine Society; Mariners Museum, Newport News, Virginia; New Hampshire Archives, Concord; Archivio di Stato, Florence, Italy; and Archivio di Stato, Naples, Italy. Unpublished Crown copyright material in the Public Record Office, London, is reproduced by permission of Her Majesty's Stationery Office.

Fortunately, many people who brought their knowledge, experience, and dedication to earlier volumes in the Naval Documents series have continued to make large contributions to Volume 8. Included are Mr. and Mrs. Henry J. Scheffenacker, Mr. E. Gordon Bowen-Hassell, Mr. Robert I. Campbell, Miss Joye Leonhart, Lieutenant Junior Grade Dorothy Apple, and Master Chief Petty Officer George K. McCuistion within the Naval History Division; Commander W.E. May, RN (Ret.) in England; Madame Ulane Bonnel in Paris; and Commander Canio Di Cairano, USNR (Ret.) who provided valuable foreign document review and translation services. In 1977, Dr. William S. Dudley joined the Naval History Division staff, and has since played a leading role in readying this volume for publication. Without the input of those named, as well as a legion of supporters unnamed here in the introduction, a work of this magnitude could not go forward. The appearance of each succeeding Naval Documents volume is a tribute to this truth.

The death of Walter Muir Whitehill on 5 March 1978 left this nation, the world of letters, and his host of friends poorer by far. AS, Chairman of the Secretary of Navy's Advisory Committee on Naval History, he enthusiastically and staunchly backed our historical programs including Naval Documents. His wisdom, humanity, and sound advice are sorely missed. He has left a legacy of excellence which the distinguished members of the Advisory Committee continue to embrace. For this, we are gratefully indebted.

John D. H. Kane, Jr.

Go Back Keep Reading