The Battle of Nassau
March 3 to 4, 1776 at Nassau, Bahamas
The Raid of Nassau was a naval operation and amphibious assault by Colonial forces against the British port of Nassau, Bahamas. The battle is considered one of the first engagements of the newly established Continental Navy and the Continental Marines, the respective progenitors of the United States Navy and Marine Corps. The action was also the marines’ first amphibious landing. It is sometimes known as the “Battle of Nassau“.
On February 17, the fleet departed from Cape Henlopen, Delaware. It arrived in the Bahamas on March 1, with the objective of seizing gunpowder and munitions known to be stored there.
On March 3, the marines came ashore seizing Fort Montagu at the eastern end of the Nassau harbor, but did not advance to the town where the gunpowder was stored. That night Nassau’s governor had most of the gunpowder loaded aboard ships sailing for St. Augustine.
On March 4, the Continental Marines advanced and took control of the poorly defended town.
The Continental forces remained at Nassau for two weeks and took away all the remaining gunpowder and munitions found. The fleet returned to New London, Connecticut in early April after capturing a few British supply ships, but failed to capture HMS Glasgow in an action on April 6.
Facts about the Battle of Nassau
- Armies – American Forces was commanded by Esek Hopkins & Samuel Nicholas and consisted of about 260 Sailors and Marines. British Forces was commanded by Gen. William Howe and consisted of about 110 militia.
- Casualties – American casualties were unknown. British casualties were unknown.
- Outcome – The result of the battle was an American victory. The battle was part of the Atlantic Theater.
Browne received further intelligence in late February that a American fleet was assembling off the Delaware coast, but apparently took no significant actions to prepare a defense. New Providence’s harbor had two primary defenses, Fort Nassau and Fort Montagu. Fort Nassau was located in Nassau, but was poorly equipped to defend the port against amphibious attacks, as it had walls that were not strong enough to support the action of its 46 cannons.
As a result, Fort Montagu had been constructed in 1742 on the eastern end of the harbor, commanding its entrance. At the time of the raid, it was fortified with 17 cannons, although most of the gunpowder and ordnance was at Fort Nassau.
On March 1, the fleet arrived at Abaco Island. The force captured two sloops owned by Loyalists, one of whom was Captain Gideon Lowe of Green Turtle Cay, and pressed their owners to serve as pilots. George Dorsett, a local ship’s captain, got away from Abaco and alerted Browne to the presence of the American fleet. The landing force was transferred to the two captured sloops and Providence the next day, and plans were formulated for the assault.
While the main fleet held back, the three ships carrying the landing force were to enter the port at daybreak on March 3, and gain control of the town before the alarm could be raised. The decision to land at daybreak turned out to be a mistake, as the alarm was raised in Nassau when the three ships were spotted in the morning light, rousing Browne from his bed. He ordered four guns fired from Fort Nassau to alert the militia; two of the guns came off their mounts when they were fired.
At 7:00 AM, he held a discussion with Samuel Gambier, one of his councilors, over the idea that the gunpowder should be removed from the islands on the Mississippi Packet, a fast ship docked in the harbor. They ultimately did not act on the idea, but Browne ordered thirty mostly unarmed militiamen to occupy Fort Montagu before retiring to his house to make himself “a little decent“.
When the guns at Fort Nassau were heard by the attackers, they realized the element of surprise was lost and aborted the assault. The elements of the fleet then rejoined in Hanover Sound, about six nautical miles east of Nassau. There, Capt. Hopkins held council, and a new plan of attack was developed. According to accounts now discredited, Hopkins’ lieutenant, John Paul Jones, suggested a new landing point and then led the action. Jones was unfamiliar with the local waters, unlike many of the captains present in the council.
It is more likely that the landing force was led by Cabot’s lieutenant, Thomas Weaver, who was also familiar with the area. With the force enlarged by 50 sailors, the three ships, with the USS Wasp offering additional covering support, carried it to a point south and east of Fort Montagu, where they made an unopposed landing between 12:00 and 2:00 PM. This was the first landing of what eventually became the United States Marine Corps.
Lt. Burke led a detachment out from Fort Montagu to investigate the American activity. Given that he was severely outnumbered, he opted to send a truce flag to determine their intentions. From this he learned that their objective was the seizure of powder and military stores. In the meantime, Browne arrived at Fort Montagu with another 80 militiamen. Upon learning the size of the advancing force, he ordered three of the fort’s guns fired, and withdrew all but a few men back to Nassau.
Burke himself retired to the governor’s house, and most of the militiamen also returned to their homes rather than attempting to make a stand. Browne sent Burke out to parley with the rebels a second time, in order to “wait on the command officer of the enemy to know his errand and on what account he had landed his troops.”
The firing of Montagu’s guns had given Nicholas pause for concern, but his men had occupied the fort, and he was consulting with his officers on their next move when Burke arrived. They obligingly repeated to Burke that they had arrived to take the powder and weapons, and were prepared to assault the town. Burke brought this news back to Browne around 4:00 pm. Rather than advance further on Nassau, Nicholas and his force remained at Fort Montagu that night. Browne held a war council that evening, in which the decision was made to attempt the removal of the gunpowder.
At midnight, 162 of 200 barrels of gunpowder were loaded onto the Mississippi Packet and HMS St. John, and at 2:00 AM, they sailed out of Nassau harbor, bound for Saint Augustine. This feat was made possible because Hopkins had neglected to post even a single ship to guard the harbor’s entrance channels, leaving the fleet safely anchored in Hanover Sound.
Nicholas’ marines occupied Nassau without resistance the next morning after a leaflet written by Hopkins was distributed throughout the town. They were met en route by a committee of the town’s leaders, who offered up the town’s keys.
Hopkins and his fleet remained at Nassau for two weeks, loading as much weaponry as would fit onto the ships, including the remaining 38 casks of gunpowder. He pressed into service a local sloop, the Endeavour, to carry some of the material. Browne complained that the rebel officers consumed most of his liquor stores during the occupation, and also wrote that he was taken in chains like a “felon to the gallows” when he was arrested and taken to the Alfred. During their sojourn at Nassau, the Fly arrived. Her captain reported that she and the Hornet had fouled their riggings together and that Hornet suffered significant damage as a consequence.
On March 17, the fleet sailed for Block Island Channel off Newport, Rhode Island, with Browne and other officials as prisoners. The return voyage was uneventful until the fleet reached the waters of Long Island.
On April 4, the American fleet encountered and captured HMS Hawk, and on April 5, they captured the HMS Bolton, which was laden with stores that included more armaments and powder. The fleet finally met resistance on April 6, when it encountered the HMS Glasgow, a sixth-rate ship.
While Hopkins was initially lauded for the success at Nassau, the failure to capture the HMS Glasgow and crew complaints about some of the captains led to a variety of investigations and courts martial. As a result of these, the Providence‘s captain was relieved of his command, which was given to Jones. Jones, who had performed well in the Glasgow encounter in spite of a crew reduced by disease, thereafter received a captain’s commission in the Continental Navy.
The manner by which Hopkins distributed the spoils was criticized, and his failure to follow his orders to patrol the Virginia shore resulted in censure by the Continental Congress. After a series of further missteps and accusations, Hopkins was forced out of the navy in 1778
In the ensuing action, the outnumbered HMS Glasgow managed to escape capture, severely damaging the Cabot in the process, wounding her captain, Hopkins’ son, John Burroughs Hopkins, and killing or wounding eleven others.
On April 8, the fleet sailed into the harbor at New London, Connecticut.