In December of 1775, the Continental Congress gave Esek Hopkins eight sailing ships and a set of orders to clear the British Navy out of the Chesapeake Bay, and when he lofted a rebel flag, bearing the popular slogan Don’t Tread on Me, the salty old Rhode Island sea captain was cheered from the wharves of Philadelphia. After that, things didn’t go so well.
From 1754 to 1763, privateering was rampant as the seven years’ war between England and France enveloped their North American territories. Privateers were free to attack French vessels and steal their cargo, keeping much of what they stole for themselves.
Overly enthusiastic privateers didn’t draw the line with French vessels, either, seizing ships belonging to Spain and other countries, as well, until official complaints curtailed that practice. Hopkins delved into the plunder with a passion, and he was very good at it.
Though he established a large farm in North Providence with his profits, it was the ocean life he loved, and he spent years at a time voyaging to South America and even Europe. When he was at home, his biographers say, Hopkins was brash and argumentative and eager to join in political fights. And some have suggested he was at least a supporter, and perhaps even a participant, in the Gaspee Affair.
In Spring of 1775, when open warfare erupted with Britain, Rhode Islanders were concerned about the safety of their colony, exposed as Newport was, surrounded by British war ships. Hopkins was tapped to help assist in fortifying the colony. But events moved quickly, and on December 22 his assignment shifted and he was named commander-in-chief of the entire continental navy, which then numbered a modest eight vessels. Hopkins’ brother Stephen, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, personally wrote to him urging him to accept the post.
When Hopkins, aboard the flagship Alfred, departed in the winter of 1776, he quickly determined that he would not attempt the southern U.S. coast. His orders told him clearing British war ships out of the Chesapeake, the Carolinas and finally Newport were his priorities.
Winter storms had driven the British into the harbors, making them difficult to attack, and his crews were not healthy. So, while lookouts in Charlestown, South Carolina kept watch in anticipation of Hopkins’ fleet, the Rhode Islander instead set course for the island of New Providence in the Bahamas. Hopkins orders from Congress gave him some leeway in his choice of targets, noting that if the first three targets weren’t feasible, it was up to his judgment to attack and harass the British as he saw fit.
“If bad winds or stormy weather or any other unforeseen accident or disaster disable you so to do, you are then to follow such courses as your best judgment shall suggest to you as most useful to the American cause and to distress the enemy by all means in your power,” his orders said.
New Providence was home to large stores of British munitions and Hopkins knew that George Washington and his army were in dire need of powder and weapons. Hopkins sailed to the island and, after promising that its residents would be left unmolested if they surrendered their fort, he sailed away with the munitions and powder from the fort at Nassau.
While British ships, alert to Hopkins’ arrival, had been able to remove a lot weapons before he reached the fort, the haul for the Americans was significant. On the return voyage, Hopkins hoped to make even a bigger victory by engaging the British Navy’s HMS Glasgow, but the British ship was able elude the new American Navy and escape.
When Hopkins first returned with his cache of arms and supplies, his victory was heralded. But the hot-headed commander-in-chief was soon in for trouble. The escape of the Glasgow soon overshadowed the success of the Navy.
Further, Hopkins found himself now in contest with his former fraternity, the privateers. Congress had authorized privateers, in addition to the Navy, to attack British vessels. While sailors in the Navy could keep 30 percent of the booty they took from merchant ships and 50 percent from armed vessels, the privateers could keep half of the cargo from all vessels they captured.
The result was predictable: the most able sailors were drawn to the privateers commanded by shrewd skippers motivated by money, while the navy ships, commanded by patriots, went begging for men. Sometimes, sailors would sign on for service on a naval ship only to collect the advance pay that all sailors received and then desert to take a spot on a privateer.
Frustrated, Hopkins and his undermanned Navy did little as they tried to relaunch themselves from Rhode Island. Congress ordered Hopkins to sail to Newfoundland to disrupt the British fishing fleet. He did not go. Congress ordered him to go to the Carolinas. Again, he didn’t go.
All the while, Hopkins blamed the privateers and ship owners – his former friends – with defeating his cause by taking all available men for their missions and even diverting money and labor Congress designated for building naval vessels toward building their own privateering vessels.
Hopkins vented his fury to anyone within earshot, calling the congressmen clerks and lawyers who nothing about what they were attempting, according to his men. He swore on his vessel and his critics said the reason he couldn’t get sailors to sign up was because he was so feared and disliked. They accused him of mistreating British prisoners, keeping them bound in chains when they refused to serve on the ships that had captured them.
Matters finally came to a head in January, 1777. The British vessel, HMS Diamond, had run aground in Narragansett Bay. It was tilted so dramatically that it could not fire its guns. Yet Hopkins and his new vessel, the Providence, couldn’t manage to capture it. Hopkins twice rowed to shore to converse with the rebels there, and on his second trip he let his launch drift away and was stranded on shore. When the tide came in, the Diamond sailed away unmolested.
What followed was a period of political and personal chaos. Hopkins’ men reported his deficiencies to Congress. Hopkins retaliated, firing some of his men. The whole mess resulted in his being brought to Philadelphia to answer charges.
Congress had already censured Hopkins for his first mission in which the Glasgow got away. This time Congress concluded Hopkins was not the right man for the job and relieved him of his command in January of 1778. History had treated Hopkins quite roughly, and his supporters would note that his initial move to attack British ships in the Bahamas was actually a wise strategy. Rather than confronting a superior force head-on on American shores, he forced the British to worry more about protecting foreign ports and shipping from attack – draining away resources needed to put down the Revolution.
Hopkins would remain active in politics and his reputation would be repaired somewhat over time, but he never found success in the navy the way he did as a privateer, and has not been celebrated the way military heroes are. Even at Brown University, where his portrait eventually wound up, the curator of the university’s portrait collection reports it has gone missing for about 100 years. One theory is that perhaps it was loaned out, and no one ever bothered to retrieve it.