An often-overlooked aspect of Revolutionary War naval history involves the movement of combatants across bays, lakes, estuaries, rivers, streams, brooks, and canals to engage the enemy on land. For the American side, the Continental Navy, 11 state navies, a widespread fleet of privateers, and altered merchantmen used as transports made possible such operations.
When independence was declared, the Royal Navy had warships and transports anchored or docked at America’s seaports. Thus, loading ships without the adversary’s knowledge was difficult, and recognizing a flotilla at sea from leagues away was easy. Moreover, local Tories passed information concerning rebel activities to the British.
Continental forces, however, had a rarely noted advantage: Many of the men serving in their army were prewar coastal sailors, fishermen, and other waterborne tradesmen—they were soldier-sailor hybrids. Two officers became especially storied in their ability to move troops over water to fight on land.
Merchant Mariner–Army Officer
Silas Talbot, first an Army commander and then a Navy officer, was a true military hybrid. Born and raised in Dighton, Massachusetts, he became a cabin boy as a young man, sailing from nearby Rhode Island ports. Talbot later developed a reputation as a daring businessman who invested in mercantile speculations. He once raced other vessels in Narragansett Bay to intercept a vessel carrying southern lumber, buying the cargo from the captain on the spot and reselling it for a handsome profit.
When the war began, Talbot was appointed as a captain in the Rhode Island militia. “Talbot and his company like virtually all colonial militiamen, had little military experience,” according to historian William Fowler. “Drilling in the Providence sugarhouse might have fostered comradeship and boosted morale, but it bore little resemblance to the routines of warfare and camp life.”
Talbot’s band eventually became part of General George Washington’s Continental Army while the militiamen were stationed in New York, and in time an opportunity arose that required a seaman’s skill. Talbot volunteered to command a fire ship in an attack against the British. His target was the 64-gun HMS Asia, one of several Royal Navy vessels that had moved up the Hudson River above New York City. The mission was only a partial success; the Asia was badly damaged but repairable. But as a result, British Vice Admiral Richard Howe moved his fleet to a more defensible point below the city. Talbot was burned badly in his escape; however, his boldness prompted his promotion to major.
His next assignment was as an artillery officer in the defense of Fort Mifflin on Mud Island in the Delaware River near Philadelphia. The British had captured Philadelphia on 26 September 1777, but a series of American defenses downriver prevented waterborne supplies from reaching the occupiers. Iron-tipped chevaux-de-frise embedded in the river bottom forced enemy vessels under sail into narrow channels where they were vulnerable to fire from artillery at Fort Mifflin and Fort Mercer, on the New Jersey shore at Red Bank. Floating batteries would be rowed to engage and finally destroy the vulnerable warships.
As the 64-gun HMS Augusta sailed upriver on 22 October to support a Hessian assault on Fort Mercer, she ran aground. On 10 November, the British began a sustained day-and-night bombardment of Mifflin, which reached a crescendo five days later. The 70-gun Somerset, 50-gun Isis, 44-gun Roebuck, and several small frigates approached as close as possible to the fort and opened fire, as did a floating battery armed with 32-pounders that was towed within a few hundred yards of Mifflin. Amid the ensuing destruction on Mud Island, Talbot received wounds to his wrist and hip. The bloodied, surviving Americans retreated to Red Bank that night.
Newport Area Operations
In the summer of 1778, after a long recovery, Talbot took charge of constructing 86 flat-bottom boats that he and his men subsequently used to transport troops to Aquidneck Island, where Newport, Rhode Island, is located. The goal was to capture British-held Newport in a coordinated attack with French forces that had arrived by sea. Meanwhile, a British fleet had assembled off Rhode Island’s Point Judith to engage a French armada south of the Rhode Island coast.
With the approach of the Royal Navy, the French soldiers were reembarked and Admiral comte d’Estaing’s fleet sailed to give battle. But on 12 August, a storm interrupted, scattering both fleets. The French ships subsequently sailed to Boston for repairs, leaving the American forces besieging Newport badly outnumbered. They broke off the siege and were retreating when British troops attacked them on 29 August at the Battle of Rhode Island. After repelling several assaults, the American forces continued their retreat.
Talbot was given command of the rear guard and organized an ambush of pursuing British soldiers. The next day, he oversaw the ferrying of American troops to the mainland. Congress again commended him, this time for providing a safe and orderly retreat from Narragansett Bay’s major island.
Back to Sea
The British subsequently fortified the bay’s eastern channel with shore batteries and patrolled the passage with an armed galley, the Pigot. Talbot armed the sloop Hawk in Providence. Silently approaching the Pigot in the early hours of 28 October, he and his men grappled, boarded, and captured the galley without firing a shot. The official Admiralty report of the incident referred to Talbot as “the great archrebel.”
The removal of the Pigot from the eastern channel of Narragansett Bay opened a sea route for badly needed supplies. Talbot received yet another commendation from the Continental Congress and, for his valor, was promoted to lieutenant colonel.
Beginning that fall, several British privateers began causing havoc along the Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts coasts, soon virtually shutting down commerce. Talbot took command of the sloop Argo—a small privateer armed with 12 guns and a crew of 60—and in May 1779 set out to capture a fleet of raiders in Vineyard Sound. He would be credited with seizing 11 vessels, including armed and unarmed merchant ships, plus about 300 prisoners. On 17 September 1779, Talbot received a congressional appointment as captain in the Continental Navy.
Unable to get command of a Continental ship, the captain became skipper of the privateer General Washington in the summer of 1780, but later that year, the 74-gun HMS Culloden forced Talbot to strike his ship’s colors. He became a prisoner on board the infamous prison hulk Jersey in Wallabout Bay off Brooklyn and later endured a harrowing voyage in HMS Yarmouth to Old Mill Prison near Plymouth, England, where he was released in exchange for a British officer in 1781. After the war, Talbot became a state legislator and U.S. congressman and was selected as one of the six initial captains of the nascent U.S. Navy and the second commander of the USS Constitution. Captain Talbot died in New York City on 30 June 1813.
A Marblehead Soldier-Sailor
John Glover was born in Salem Village (present-day Danvers), Massachusetts, on 5 November 1732. After the death of his father, he and his family moved to Marblehead, where he apprenticed as a shoemaker. Later, he became a common sailor, before purchasing a fishing schooner and becoming a fisheries entrepreneur. He soon acquired several vessels and propelled himself into prominence, both politically in the Whig Party and in the local Marblehead militia. He had joined the unit in 1759, and by the time it arrived outside Boston in the spring of 1775 and became the 14th Massachusetts Continental Infantry, he was its colonel.
Glover subsequently supervised the building of fortifications along the colony’s coastline. General George Washington arrived in Cambridge in July to take command of the Continental Army. At the time, Glover was occupying the mansion owned by Colonel John Vassall, a Loyalist, but the colonel relinquished it for Washington to use as his headquarters. Impressed with the discipline of Glover’s seafaring Marbleheaders, Washington promptly engaged a unit of the regiment to serve as his guard.
Washington’s forces had laid siege to Boston, but the Continental Army was beset with shortages in every kind of military equipment. Realizing the Royal Navy and merchantmen were supplying the British in Boston, the general decided to establish a naval force to intercept and capture some of the supply ships. He ordered Glover to convert suitable vessels to warships and start operations. The colonel donated his own ship, the Hannah, and six other schooners, which became Washington’s schooner navy.
In Defense of New York
The continuing siege of Boston and menacing cannon on Dorchester Heights prompted the British to evacuate the city on 17 March 1776. Surmising that they next would target New York City, Washington ordered the Continental Army to march to its defense. Unfortunately, once there, his forces were divided into three parts—a fundamental military misstep. The largest portion was on Long Island, a slightly smaller force was on Manhattan, and a third was scattered along the New Jersey shore. After heated fighting on Long Island, Washington’s exhausted and demoralized troops retreated to fortifications on Brooklyn Heights.
Outnumbered six-to-one by British regulars, the Americans could not hold their position, so Washington ordered Colonel Glover to organize an evacuation. He rounded up any type of vessel he could find on both sides of the East
River and a few beyond. His men ferried more than 9,000 American troops, their horses, artillery, and supplies across the river to Manhattan on the night of 29–30 August 1776, initially under windy conditions. The weather improved just before midnight, making it easier to complete multiple trips. At daybreak, a dense fog covered their final evacuation effort. This masterful operation by Glover’s soldier-mariners saved much of Washington’s army from certain annihilation.
On 18 October, 4,000 British and Hessian troops made an amphibious landing at Pell’s Point, along western Long Island Sound, and started a “right-hook” flanking movement to dislodge the Americans from upper Manhattan. The only route inland from the point was a narrow road that passed through small fields lined with stone walls. Glover, in command of a brigade of Massachusetts Continentals, stationed his 750 men behind three of the walls. Once the British were in range, the first group of Continentals rose and fired volley after volley into their front ranks and then retreated.
The British assumed the Yankees were withdrawing and launched a frontal bayonet charge. When they reached the next wall, another unit of hidden Massachusetts men stood and fired, devastating the advancing troops. The Americans repeated this tactic several times, inflicting heavy casualties and slowing the British advance. Washington reached the safety of White Plains, where he was able to consolidate his retreating forces and then make a determined a stand.
The Iconic Crossing
In late 1776, Glover and his men next performed their most storied mission. Washington had encamped his cold troops behind the Pennsylvania bank of the Delaware River a few miles from Trenton, New Jersey. The river offered a much-needed barrier between the fatigued British and American forces. Most Continental enlistments were to expire on 31 December 1776, many of the men thought the war was about to be lost, and the Army’s morale was extremely low.
Washington convinced enough of his troops to prolong their enrollment and, on the day after Christmas, attack what his intelligence had found was a vulnerable Hessian garrison at Trenton. This meant the Continentals had to cross the ice-clogged river. Washington ordered Glover’s men to transport them to the New Jersey riverbank. At dusk on the 25th, the Marbleheaders started ferrying troops, horses, and 18 cannon across the Delaware in poled and rowed flat-bottom Durham boats.
In addition to the danger of the ice floes and darkness, shortly before midnight a sleet storm reduced visibility to near zero. Amplifying the soldier-mariners’ difficulty, the river’s current proved exceptionally strong, but a Herculean effort by Glover’s men made possible a tactical surprise. More than 900 Hessians were captured at Trenton, along with several brass cannon and urgently needed supplies.
Washington recognized Glover’s value and requested that Congress advance him to the rank of brigadier general, which occurred on 21 February 1777. Glover subsequently was summoned to upstate New York, placed under the command of Major General Horatio Gates, and assigned to escort the prisoners of war captured at the Battle of Saratoga to Boston. He later returned to his Marblehead home to look after family concerns.
During the summer of 1778, Glover returned to active service during the failed attempt to dislodge the British from Newport. At the end of the war, on 30 September 1783, Brigadier General Glover was awarded a brevet promotion to major general.
Glover’s health deteriorated, and the collapse of the Marblehead maritime economy greatly diminished his personal wealth. However, he served two terms in the Massachusetts state legislature and six terms as a selectman for Marblehead before passing away on 30 January 1797.
William M. Fowler Jr., Silas Talbot: Captain of Old Ironsides (Mystic, CT: Mystic Seaport Museum, 1995) 23.
J. Fredriksen, Revolutionary War Almanac (New York: Facts on File, 2006).
Nathan Miller, Sea of Glory: A Naval History of the American Revolution (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1974).
Louis Arthur Norton, “The Second Captain: Silas Talbot of the USS Constitution,” Sea History, no. 81 (1997): 37–39.