The American Revolutionary War (1775–1783), also known as the American War of Independence,i began as a war between the Kingdom of Great Britain and thirteen united former British colonies on the North American continent, and ended in a global war between several European great powers. The war was the culmination of the political American Revolution, whereby the colonists rejected the right of the Parliament of Great Britain to govern them without representation.
Naval Operations of the American Revolutionary War
The naval operations of the American Revolutionary War can be naturally divided into two periods. The first ranges from 1775 until the summer of 1778, as the Royal Navy was engaged in cooperating with the troops employed against the American revolutionaries, on the coasts, rivers and lakes of North America, or in endeavouring to protect British commerce against the enterprise of American privateers. During the second period, the successive interventions of France, Spain, and the Netherlands extended the naval war until it ranged from the West Indies to the Bay of Bengal. This second period lasted from the summer of 1778 to the middle of 1783. Before France entered the conflict in 1778, the naval war consisted of many small operationsii. When the war began, the British had 131 ships of the line, but the Royal Navy was in neglect from rapid and poor quality ship construction during the Seven Years’ War. It was estimated that only 39 ships of the line could be battle ready in the first year of a conflict. The administration of Lord Sandwich, the First Lord of the Admiralty, had ambitious plans to upgrade the fleet, but it was not done in time for the American Revolutioniii. The naval force at the disposal of the British admirals commanding on the station, was insufficient to patrol the long coastline. During the first three years of the war, therefore, the Royal Navy was primarily used in support of operations on land, aiding General Thomas Gage and General Sir William Howe during the siege of Boston by seeking stores for the army and in supplying naval brigades. In one of these operations, the first naval engagement of the war, colonists in Machias, then part of Massachusetts, seized a British schooner in the Battle of Machias on June 12, 1775iv.
The last leg of this battle began on March 9, 1783, when the Alliance, led by Capt. John Barry, and the Due de Lauzun, under command of Capt. John Green, divided their precious cargo of $72,000 Spanish silver dollars badly needed by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. They completed the transfer and headed northward along the Florida coast. At this same time, the British ships Alarm, a 32-gun frigate commanded by Capt. Charles Cotton; Sybil, 28-gun frigate led by Capt. James Vashon; and Tobago, 18-gun sloop-of-war with Capt. George Martin at the helm, met off Cape Canaveral and began cruising southward, looking for the American shipsv. The British ships were spotted by Barry on the morning of March 10, 1783. Barry decided to head southwest for the protection of the Spanish fleet, which he knew was sailing for a raid on Jamaica. As they tried to escape, the slower ship, the Due de Lauzun, lagged behind. Barry slowed his ship for the Due de Lauzun to come alongside and advised Green to jettison his cannon to lighten his ship. A fourth ship appeared on the horizon and the British ships shifted their positions, one breaking off from the pursuit. Barry decided that the fourth ship was an ally, so he made the daring move to engage the one British ship, Sybil, which was closing in, and thus buy sufficient time for the Due de Lauzun to escape to safety. Barry deliberately placed his ship between the Due de Lauzun and the oncoming Sybilvi. The Sybil continued firing her cannon and the Alliance took several shots. One smashed into the captain’s cabin, killing a master’s mate and wounding several others. Barry left the quarter deck and personally walked from cannon to cannon encouraging and cautioning his men to not fire until he gave the order himself. He wanted to lure the enemy in as close as possible, “half a pistol range.” The Alliance took a full broadside from the Sybil and still did not fire her cannon. At the last moment, Barry ordered the main topsail raised to mast to position the Alliance directly abreast of the Sybil. At the order from Barry the full fury of a broadside from his ship was unleashed upon the Sybil. The British guns went silent after 40 minutes of close fighting; the Sybil lost two sails and had considerable damage to her hull. The Sybil quickly broke off from the fight and fled back to the other British vessels. Her casualties were reported to range up to 37 killed and 40 woundedvii.
Concluding the war into an American Victory
On March 20, 1783, the Alliance sailed into New Port, Rhode Island, abandoning the plan to return to Philadelphia given the strong British presence. A few days later, news reached America that on February 3,1783, the peace treaty had been ratified – the war for independence was overviii. Thus the last naval battle of the Revolutionary War was fought and won off the coast of Florida, just south of Cape Canaveral – sealing an American victory.
Reference / Endnotes:
i Mark M. Boatner (2006), Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, p. 769, May 2006
ii McCullough, David. 1776. Simon & Schuster. New York. May 24, 2005. ISBN: 978-0743226714
iii Schecter, Barnet. The Battle for New York: The City at the Heart of the American Revolution. Walker & Company. New York. October 2002. ISBN: 0-8027-1374-2
iv Black, Jeremy. War for America: The Fight for Independence, 1775–1783. St. Martin’s Press (New York) and Sutton Publishing (UK), 1991. ISBN 0-312-06713-5 (1991), ISBN 0-312-12346-9 (1994 paperback), ISBN 0-7509-2808-5 (2001 paperpack).
v Boatner, Mark Mayo, III. Encyclopedia of the American Revolution. New York: McKay, 1966; revised 1974. ISBN 0-8117-0578-1.
vi Rodger, N. A. M.. The Insatiable Earl: A Life of John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich. W.W. Norton & Company (New York), 1993, ISBN 0-393-03587-5.
vii Sugden, John. Nelson: A Dream of Glory, 1758–1797. New York: Holt; London: Jonathan Cape, 2004. ISBN 0-224-06097-X.
viii Allen, Gardner W. A Naval History of the American Revolution. 2 volumes. Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1913