When thinking about the pioneers of American naval history, Esek Hopkins would not likely be the first name to come to mind. Neither would Hector McNeill, Abraham Whipple, nor William Hallock. From the brief existence of the Continental Navy, only Captain John Paul Jones’ improbable victory over HMS Serapis and his famous declaration “I have not yet begun to fight” are well known. Yet Hopkins was the first commander-in-chief of the Continental Navy, and the others were among the first captains commissioned with Jones. These patriot-adventurers fought for their young country’s cause without gaining the acclaim given to Jones or to their colleagues on land.
Among these early Continental Navy captains was Samuel Nicholson. During his distinguished career, he made notable contributions to the maritime success of the American Revolution, capturing valuable prizes at sea. But these contributions came with many challenges. The Continental Navy was underfunded, undermanned, and outnumbered by its British opponents. Many of its European operations had to be aided by the French while under the spying eyes of England. However, the Revolution may have never succeeded had men, like Nicholson, not taken to the sea.
European Adventures of an American War
In 1775 few dared to challenge Britain’s dominant Royal Navy at sea. Yet that October, the Continental Congress in Philadelphia established a small naval force “to offset to some extent what would be otherwise be an uncontested exercise of British sea power.”1 Over the next five months the Continental Navy grew quickly, ordering 21 ships, commissioning 19 officers, and creating two Marine battalions. By February 1776, the Navy’s first fleet had captured military supplies and two British warships as prizes.
American leaders also knew they needed foreign allies to prevail. The Revolutionary cause wanted military supplies and funding, and France was eager to take advantage of England’s troubles. By December 1776, Silas Deane, Arthur Lee, and Benjamin Franklin—the American Commissioners in France (ACF)—had arrived in Paris to establish trading relations and acquire military aid. Ports in northwestern France soon became hubs of activity, busy with the construction of ships and the handling of American prizes. The proximity to England allowed Continental Navy ships and privateers the opportunity to attack British ships in their own waters. As George Washington later noted to the marquis de Lafayette, “It follows then as certain as that night succeeds the day, that without a decisive naval force we can do nothing definitive, and with it, everything honorable and glorious.”2
Samuel Nicholson was born in 1743 to a prominent Maryland family. Going to sea at an early age, he captained several merchant ships engaged in English trade starting in 1767. By 1776, however, Nicholson found himself unemployed and in London. Lambert Wickes, Nicholson’s hometown friend and distant cousin, was captain of the Reprisal, the first Continental Navy ship in Europe. Wickes, who had taken Benjamin Franklin to France, arranged a meeting for Nicholson with the statesman. Nicholson met with Franklin in Paris in late 1776 about a possible commission in the Continental Navy. Unbeknownst to both men, the Continental Congress had already commissioned him as a captain that December.3
The pursuit of the American cause in Europe lent itself to adventure and intrigue. Captain Nicholson’s first assignment, in January 1777, was a covert mission to purchase a new cutter. The ACF advised Nicholson to search in several French and English ports, but he only spent three days looking in France and Dover before heading to London to see his mistress.4 Meanwhile, the British had learned about his mission. With Nicholson in England was Joseph Hynson, Wickes’ stepbrother. Hynson had confided to his English landlady about Nicholson’s task, and she had informed local officials spying on Americans in London. Hynson subsequently was blackmailed to help the British obtain secret American dispatches that Nicholson was to take to America on the new ship. By the end of February, Nicholson had purchased the cutter that would become his ship, the Dolphin, and returned to France.5 (Fortunately, events led to the dispatches being sent on another American ship before Hynson could put the treasonous plan into action.)
Nicholson, commissioned as the Dolphin’s captain by John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress, returned to Paris while the vessel was refitted in Nantes.6 In April 1777 an American squadron, including Nicholson’s Dolphin and Wickes’ Reprisal, received orders to sail into the Irish Sea to intercept linen fleets from Dublin. Leaving port would be a challenge, however. The Dolphin was a well-equipped ship, except for the swivel guns, which had to be junked. By May the cutter had a crew of only 28 men, half of whom were French and not very adept as sailors. Nicholson’s second lieutenant and first mate also had never been on a warship.7
The American squadron finally set sail from Nantes on 28 May. Within two days British ships chased the Americans, damaging Nicholson’s ship. By mid-June the repaired Dolphin and the other American vessels were sailing in Atlantic waters as far as northern Ireland. The squadron took 18 prizes with a variety of valuable cargo, sending eight into port.8 A French prize-master absconded with one of the captures but was foiled when he brought the ship into port and attempted to cash her in under Nicholson’s name.
In July 1777, Nicholson and Wickes convinced the American commissioners that the heavily damaged Dolphin was beyond repair. In Nantes, the frigate Lyon, purchased by the ACF, was a good fit for Nicholson’s needs. Renamed the Deane (after Silas Deane), the ship was ready by December. However, Nicholson and his crew did not board the ship for several weeks, suspecting there were British ships nearby.9 Nicholson’s instructions directed him to sail to Boston or the first safe port in New England. By February 1778 Nicholson and crew were on board the Deane, but they were still waiting for provisions and the other ships with which they were supposed to sail. Quarreling sailors and a disgruntled French lieutenant added to the captain’s problems. Finally the Deane set sail for the United States in April 1778, arriving in Boston in early May with valuable supplies that included copper, tin, and clothes for the Continental Army.10
Final Years of the Continental Navy
The cost of maintaining the Continental Navy was straining the new American government by 1778. The shortage of funds prevented the proper outfitting and repairing of frigates. Nicholson and the Deane would be forced to spend the rest of the year in Boston. In fact, most of the Continental Navy was in Boston Harbor in December 1778.11 The Navy was essentially in decline by 1779. There were fewer ships, mainly patrolling the Eastern Seaboard and West Indies, including the Deane with Nicholson on board. In January 1779 he led his frigate out of Boston on a four-month cruise to the West Indies, arriving in Martinique in mid-February for careening and refitting. There he found many other Continental Navy ships also struggling with maintenance, crews, and paying for supplies.
Even strained, the Continental Navy still enjoyed its successes. In July 1779 the Deane sailed out of the Chesapeake Bay in a squadron that included the Continental Navy frigate Boston and two Virginia state-navy ships. The mission was to intercept England-bound ships coming out of British-held New York and get intelligence on privateers. Upon their return to Boston in September, the Deane and Boston had successfully captured four British ships, four privateers, more than 250 prisoners, and numerous cargos, including supplies for counterfeiting American currency. Then, after spending the rest of the year and the beginning of 1780 undergoing repairs, the Deane took four valuable prizes on an eight-week easterly cruise.12
The Continental Navy’s constant resource issues still remained an ongoing challenge for Nicholson. Having difficulty finding able-bodied seamen and Marines, he took his undermanned Deane and set sail to Delaware with the frigate Trumbull, captained by his younger brother James, in July 1780.13 In August the Eastern Navy Board reported that both ships were in need of many small repairs and articles, but they didn’t have enough money to fund them. The two ships captured only one small schooner carrying fruit, then were unable to find more valuable prizes the Navy desperately needed. On 2 September the pair embarked on a three-week cruise off the South Carolina coast, but again came up empty-handed.14
Naval bureaucracy occasionally came up in the captains’ duties as well. Nicholson already had presided over the court-martial of Captain Dudley Saltonstall and the ill-fated 1779 Penobscot expedition when he was called to sit on another court-martial at the end of 1780. During his leave of absence, his brother James took command of the Deane. The court-martial only lasted until 6 January 1781, but James continued to cruise with the Deane until mid-April.15
When Samuel Nicholson later resumed command, the Deane’s spar and mast were in desperate need of repair. It would be a long process, so Nicholson had to pay and discharge the Deane’s 215-man crew. When the ship was finally ready for service in the fall of 1781, Nicholson and John Barry, captain of the frigate Alliance, went on a recruitment drive. Despite authorization to offer higher pay and prize money than privateers, both captains still had a difficult time getting new recruits.16 In fact, Nicholson and Barry would soon come to odds over this very issue.
In December 1781, Captain Barry and the Alliance received orders to sail to France with the marquis de Lafayette. Barry wanted to draft men from the Deane, which was in port. Nicholson also was told to send 11 of his Marines to the Alliance, but he refused. Claiming they had signed up to sail specifically on the Deane, the crew asked the captain not to allow the transfer. Nicholson told Barry that he didn’t have authority to make such an unprecedented request. Nicholson did allow Barry aboard to ask for volunteers, but only a few signed up. An incensed Barry wrote that had there been a proper mode of court-martial, as the senior captain in port he would have put Nicholson under arrest.17
Nicholson was ordered back to sea in February 1782, directed to exchange prisoners and send rum and salt prizes to Charleston, South Carolina. The Deane was also shorthanded for this cruise. The General Court of Massachusetts allowed Nicholson to enlist up to 12 men from the garrison in the castle in Boston Harbor because he unwillingly had given up some of his crew to the Alliance. The Deane left Boston in March 1782 for a two-month cruise of the West Indies and captured five valuable prizes. However, Nicholson returned to Boston with a damaged ship full of sick crewmen and prisoners. The Deane had to remain in Boston Harbor for more than four months for repairs.18
It would not be a quiet stay in port, however. By June 1782, Lieutenant Michael Knies of the Deane filed a complaint against Nicholson, enrolling Robert Morris, the influential superintendent of Finance, in the situation. Knies claimed that Nicholson had insulted him and confined him to the ship without arresting or suspending him. Knies further claimed that since first taking command, Nicholson’s behavior was unbecoming an officer and of material injury. Morale on board the Deane already had been declining when the Knies incident occurred.
In a July response to Morris, Nicholson declared it was Knies’ behavior that had been unsupportable. The captain wrote that Knies—the senior watch officer on board—had ignored Nicholson as he approached the Deane from one of the ship’s boats. Nicholson claimed that no one had been there to man the side or give the ship’s captain a rope. Nicholson said Knies had done the same to another superior officer when he was trying to board the Deane.19
The Nicholson-Knies dispute would take a circuitous route over the next year. In August 1782 a court of inquiry was held on Knies’ charges against Nicholson. The inquiry found the captain guilty, but based on Nicholson’s charges, Morris was compelled to order Knies to go before a courtmartial; this was convened in September 1782. Knies successfully conducted his own defense and was acquitted after several of the Deane’s officers and midshipmen corroborated his claim that he had not been informed of Nicholson’s arrival and that the captain had undeservingly berated him.20
By now Nicholson had been relieved of command of the Deane, and the ship was renamed the Hague, as Silas Deane had fallen out of favor with Congress. In the meantime, Nicholson was determined to right the wrong done to him in his court of inquiry. In October 1782 he paid a visit to a sympathetic Robert Morris, who soon would issue a determination about the matter. Nicholson would have to wait several trying weeks for his decision. Now unemployed, he also had to ask Morris for financial help.21
Issuing his determination on Nicholson’s court of inquiry on 17 October 1782, Morris determined that the captain’s case had been mishandled and that the court mistook its task by acting as a court-martial and inappropriately finding Nicholson guilty. Morris declared the proceedings void and called for a legitimate court-martial to either clear or convict Nicholson.22 Morris told Nicholson that a courtmartial was in his best interest and assured him the matter would be quickly resolved. After several delays the courtmartial finally was held in Boston in September 1783. While no transcripts appear to have been retained regarding this proceeding, other documents reported that Nicholson was honorably acquitted.23 In any case his Continental Navy career, along with that of many others, had come to an end.
A Navy and Career Reborn
Over the course of the Revolutionary War, the Continental Navy fleet sailed 50 armed vessels that captured nearly 200 British prizes and much-needed enemy supplies. The Navy contributed “to the demoralization of the enemy and [forced] the British to divert warships to protect convoys and trade routes.”24 Without control of the Atlantic, it was difficult for the British to transport and sustain a large army in America. The Navy also carried correspondence and diplomats to Europe, and helped enroll the French in the American cause. As George Washington had asserted to Lafayette, the American naval force had indeed been decisive.
But the end of war meant making difficult decisions. Maintaining a standing navy would be a significant financial commitment, especially when most believed that a navy would only entangle the young nation in foreign conflicts. By August 1785, Congress had auctioned off the last remaining Continental Navy vessel. Some Navy men, including Samuel Nicholson, transitioned to civilian life, while others stayed at sea on private ships and in foreign fleets. John Paul Jones briefly served in the Imperial Russian Navy.
The Continental Navy had come to an end, but the advantages of a naval force were never forgotten. In the early 1790s, there was a growing need to protect American merchant fleets from attacks by Barbary pirates and harassment by British and French forces. Congress responded by passing the Naval ArmamentAct of 1794, calling for theconstruction of six frigates at shipyardsalong the Eastern Seaboard.
Samuel Nicholson also returned to service in 1794; he was appointed a captain—and the second highest-ranking officer—in the newly reorganized U.S. Navy. His first assignment was as superintendent for the construction of the frigate Constitution at Hartt’s Shipyard in Boston, a project that would take four years. Paul Revere’s foundry produced many of the brass fittings for the ship.25 President George Washington, who had ordered the ships and given the Constitution her name, also signed Nicholson’s commission as her captain. The Constitution was launched on 21 October 1797. Nine months later, on 22 July 1798, Nicholson, as captain and first commanding officer, took the frigate out of Boston Harbor for her maiden voyage off the Atlantic coast.
But already he was feeling out of place in the new U.S. Navy, which was more formal and institutional than the Continental Navy had been. The Constitution’s first cruise was beset with personnel problems, and Nicholson wrongly captured a British privateer, which he mistook for a French ship because of her French crew (sailing under British orders). Personal tragedy also marred the cruise when Nicholson’s son, Samuel Jr., died at sea while serving under his father’s command. Nicholson’s second cruise on board the Constitution in 1799, under Captain John Barry in the flagship United States, focused on protecting U.S. ships from French privateers in the West Indies.26 Nicholson unfortunately repeated his mistake from the Constitution’s first outing, this time intercepting, but then releasing, an English merchant ship that already had been taken prize by a French frigate. This mistake and other problems on board would make this cruise Nicholson’s last and end his career at sea.
In 1803 Nicholson was chosen to be the first superintendentof the Charlestown Naval Yard outside Boston. He served in this role until his death on 29 December 1811. He was buried in the crypt of Boston’s Old North Church.27 At the time of his death, Captain Samuel Nicholson was the senior officer in the U.S. Navy.
In October 1776, John Paul Jones had written to Robert Morris that “without a Respectable Navy, Alas America!” The country’s first naval force played a fundamental role in winning the Revolutionary War. Samuel Nicholson’s naval career was much like those of his early compatriots—full of intrigues and tribulations, but without the prominence and continuity of those who would follow. It is because of the Hopkinses, Joneses, and Nicholsons of the Continental Navy, however, that in great measure American naval history—and the United States of America—exist today.
2. Naval History and Heritage Command, “Famous Navy Quotes,” George Washington quote of 15 November 1781, www.history.navy.mil/trivia/trivia02.htm.
3. Maryland Historical Society, Annapolis Port of Entry Record Books, MS. 21 (1756–1775). William B. Willcox, ed., The Papers of Benjamin Franklin (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1983), vol. 23, 185. John A. McManemin, Captains of the ontinental Navy (Ho-Ho-Kus, NJ: selfpublished, 1981), 343. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes, American National Biography (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), vol. 16, 409.
4. McManemin, Captains, 344.
5. Benjamin Franklin Stevens, B. F. Stevens’ Facsimiles of Manuscripts in European Archives Relating to America, 1773–1783 (London: Mellifont, 1970).
6. William James Morgan et al., ed., Naval Documents of the American Revolution (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1980), vol. 8, 568, 606.
7. McManemin, Captains, 345–356.
8. Ibid, 346–357.
9. Naval Documents, vol. 10, 965. Benjamin Franklin Papers, vol. 25, 374.
10. McManemin, Captains, 349.
11. Ibid, 350.
12. Library of Congress, Naval Records of the American Revolution, 1775–1788 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1906). McManenim, Captains, 351–2.
13. McManenim, Captains, 352–3.
14. Ibid, 355.
15. Ibid. Naval Records. E. James Ferguson, ed., The Papers of Robert Morris 1781–1784 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1975), vol. 2, 300.
16. McManenim, Captains, 355–6.
17. Ibid, 356. Robert Morris Papers, vol. 3, 430–1.
18. Ibid, vol. 4, 214; vol. 5, 452–3. McManemin, Captains, 356.
19. Robert Morris Papers, vol. 6, 20.
20. Stephen Tallichet Powers, “Robert Morris and the Courts-Martial of Captains Samuel Nicholson and John Manley ofthe Continental Navy,” Military Affairs, vol. 44, no. 1 (February1980). Robert Morris Papers, vol. 6, 14.
21. McManemin, Captains, 357. Robert Morris Papers, vol. 6, 16.
22. Robert Morris Papers, vol. 6, 616–18.
23. McManemin, Captains, 357. Powers, “Robert Morris,” 16.
24. “The Continental Navy” www.thedearsurprise.com/?p=2519.
25. “Paul Revere: Copper Industry Pioneer” Copper Development Association Inc., March 1998, www.copper.org/publications/newsletters/innovations/1998/03/revere.html.
26. Garraty and Carnes, American Naval Biography, 409.