The War On The Sea And The Dutch Alliance
Washington's fleets.—From the beginning of the war American vessels were an important factor. They captured supply ships and transports, harassed commerce, captured many small war vessels, and protected trading vessels. At the opening of hostilities Washington turned to New England to supply him with vessels, and during the siege of Boston he sent out ten armed craft which made several important captures of arms and supplies. When operations were transferred to New York, he also engaged several vessels which rendered good service.
Congress provides a navy.—Largely through the influence of the Rhode Island delegates, Congress was convinced that a navy should be provided, and by January, 1776, ten vessels had been purchased and the building of thirteen others authorized. Before the end of the war over forty vessels were added to the high seas fleet in addition to minor craft on Lake Champlain.
First cruise of the fleet.—In February, 1776, Esek Hopkins, who had been appointed commander-in-chief of the navy, put to sea with a fleet of eight vessels. He cruised to the West Indies, captured New Providence, and sailed away with eighty-eight cannon, fifteen mortars, and a large quantity of stores. The fleet sailed to Long Island and off the eastern end it captured two small vessels, but on April 6 it allowed the Glasgow to escape.
Nature of the operations during 1776-1777.—By the end of 1776 the navy had been increased to twenty-five vessels. During the year it was constantly engaged in commerce destroying, and in capturing transports and small war craft. The operations were confined mainly to American and West Indian waters, although before the end of the year the Reprisal, which carried Franklin to France, had captured several vessels in European waters. During 1777 the congressional vessels, privateers, and state cruisers captured four hundred and sixty-seven vessels, many being taken near the British Isles. The depredations caused great alarm in England and the West Indies; merchants were often deterred from shipping goods, insurance rates and prices rose, and the demands for escorts became insistent.
Privateers.—The swift sailing craft of the Yankee skippers made ideal blockade runners and commerce destroyers, and hundreds of them put to sea. During the war Massachusetts commissioned nine hundred and ninety-eight. While the greater number of these vessels put out from New England, other states gave many commissions, Maryland alone commissioning two hundred and fifty. It is estimated that during the war the privateers captured or destroyed six hundred vessels with cargoes valued at $18,000,000, besides making several important captures of troops and supplies.
State navies.—With the exception of New Jersey and Delaware, the states had navies, the largest being those of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina. At times these operated independently, sometimes in conjunction with privateers, and at other times as adjuncts of the regular navy. They were used chiefly to protect the trade in home waters and for coast defence.
The Penobscot expedition.—The most pretentious operation undertaken by a state navy was the attempt to capture Penobscot in 1779. The British had established a naval base near the mouth of the Penobscot River and Massachusetts determined to break it up. Fifteen hundred men were loaded on privateers and transports, and were convoyed by the Warren, the Diligent, and the Providence. The expedition arrived off the Penobscot late in July, but before it could take the fort, a larger British fleet appeared (August 13). The privateers and transports scattered, but the three war vessels were forced to run up the river where their crews destroyed them.
The navy during 1778-1779.—During 1778 the British navy succeeded in greatly decreasing the depredations of American vessels. By the close of the year the national navy was reduced to fourteen. But in 1779 the fleet was somewhat rehabilitated by the securing of several French vessels.
The Bonhomme Richard and the Serapis.—In 1779 the most famous sea-fight of the Revolution occurred. John Paul Jones was given command of an old French East Indiaman which was refitted with forty-two guns and renamed the Bonhomme Richard. In August the French frigate Alliance and three small vessels accompanied the Bonhomme Richard on a cruise along the west coast of Ireland, northern Scotland, and the eastern coast of England, several prizes being taken. On September 23 off Flamborough Head Jones sighted a large merchant fleet convoyed by the forty-four gun frigate Serapis and the smaller Countess of Scarborough. The Bonhomme Richard engaged the Serapis in one of the most thrilling of naval battles. For three and a half hours the frigates fought at close range, much of the time being lashed together. Although Jones's vessel was in a sinking condition, he refused to surrender. When the English captain had lost more than a third of his crew, he pulled down his flag. The Pallas captured the Countess of Scarborough. Jones placed his crew on board the Serapis, and the squadron soon after arrived at the Dutch port of Texel.
Decline of the navy.—When Charleston surrendered in 1780, four ships fell into British hands and only six vessels were left in the American navy. At the same time parliament voted to increase the naval service. The American coast was closely blockaded, and though cruisers occasionally got through, the navy ceased to be an important factor in the war.
The league of armed neutrals.—As the war progressed England's exercise of the right of search on the high seas provoked the neutral powers. At that time international law recognized a belligerent's right to seize enemy's goods, but not the vessel in which they were being carried. England acted within the law, but her seizures worked great hardship upon neutrals. Largely through the influence of Frederick the Great, who had not forgiven England for abandoning him in the Seven Years' War, Catherine II of Russia was induced to champion the cause of the neutral states. On February 26, 1780, she addressed a message to the neutral courts which asserted, (1) that neutral vessels should be allowed to navigate freely even upon the coasts of powers at war; (2) that, with the exception of contraband, goods belonging to the subjects of belligerents should be free in neutral ships; (3) that naval stores and provisions of neutrals should not be considered contraband; (4) that a port must be effectively guarded to constitute a blockade; and (5) that the above principles should be considered as rules in determining the legality of prizes. Denmark and Sweden promptly entered into an agreement with Russia mutually to protect their commerce, by force if necessary, the arrangement being known as the League of Armed Neutrality. The principles proclaimed by the Czarina were approved by France and Spain. The Netherlands joined the league in November, 1780; Prussia came in in May, 1781, and the Empire in October. Even Portugal, the ancient ally of England, and Turkey became parties to the league.
Attitude of the Netherlands.—At the opening of the American Revolution there were two parties in The Netherlands; the English party headed by the stadtholder, William V, and the Anti-Orange party which had strong French leanings. The strength of the Anti-Orange party lay chiefly in Holland and in the large cities, especially in Amsterdam where the great merchants were powerful. The Dutch people watched the contest between the United States and Great Britain with a filial interest, looking upon it as a counterpart of their own struggle for independence, but policy forced the government to remain neutral.
St Eustatius.—The Dutch merchants saw an opportunity for immense profits in supplying the United States with war materials. The Dutch island of St. Eustatius in the West Indies became the center for a vast trade in contraband goods. The island became a veritable storehouse for the goods of all nations and here the American skippers brought tobacco and indigo, or gave promissory notes or continental currency in exchange for munitions of war. Great Britain complained of the trade and succeeded in getting the States General to prohibit the export of arms and munitions except by special permission from the Dutch admiralty, but nevertheless the traffic went merrily on. When British war vessels began to patrol the waters about the island and search vessels for contraband, it aroused the ire of the Dutch merchants.
The Scotch brigade and the Jones incident.—Two incidents added greatly to the ill-feeling which was growing rapidly between the two countries. The British government asked for the loan of the Scotch brigade, a body of troops which had been in Dutch service for many years. The government gave a suave answer. It was willing to loan the soldiers, but not for service outside of Europe. As George III wanted the troops for American service, the answer was practically a refusal. Another incident which increased the irritation was the sojourn of John Paul Jones at Texel. For over two months he remained on Dutch soil, while the government quibbled over its rights to order his departure.
British seizures.—During 1778 British seizures of Dutch vessels increased and the demands of the merchants for convoys became more and more insistent. France took advantage of the situation to bring The Netherlands to her side. Special commercial privileges in France had been granted to several of the Dutch cities. France now decided to force the Dutch government to take a more decided stand toward England by cutting off the special privileges to all the Dutch cities except Amsterdam. This led to a demand for an immediate adjustment with France and for convoys to protect Dutch vessels against British seizures. A climax was reached on December 31, 1779, when an encounter occurred between the convoys of a Dutch fleet and British war vessels. The result was soon evident, for The Netherlands began to build a large fleet.
The secret agreement.—The United States maintained secret agents in The Netherlands throughout the war. For several years they made unsuccessful attempts to obtain a loan, but the authorities of Amsterdam finally communicated to C.W.F. Dumas, the United States representative, that they desired to conclude a treaty provided Congress would not enter into engagements with Great Britain which might prove harmful to Dutch interests. Jean de Neufville, a prominent Amsterdam merchant, at the suggestion of Van Berckel, the pensionary of Amsterdam, visited Aix-la-Chapelle in 1778, where he met William Lee, an American representative to Germany and Austria; together they formulated the draft of a treaty which, however, was not to be considered until after the recognition of American independence by Great Britain. The agreement had no legal force, for Amsterdam could not enter into a treaty without the consent of the other provinces.
The declaration of war.—In 1780 Henry Laurens sailed for The Hague for the purpose of negotiating a loan and making a treaty with The Netherlands. On September 3 he was captured off Newfoundland. Among his papers was a copy of the secret compact drawn by Neufville and Lee. The British government demanded from the States General a disavowal of the action of Amsterdam and the punishment of Van Berckel. The States General finally disavowed the act but declared its incompetence to punish Van Berckel. On November 20, in the midst of the controversy, the States General decided to join the league of armed neutrals. When this became known at London, the British minister was ordered home, and on December 20 George III issued a manifesto which was a virtual declaration of war.
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