The story began on the seacoast–Americans have been an amphibious people from the beginning. The Revolutionary War started when the colonists gathered to throw the British army out of Boston seaport. It was ended when Major General Charles Cornwallis, hoping to be resupplied by the British Navy, retreated to the sea at Yorktown, Virginia, and was cut off by the French Fleet. Rather than starve, the British army marched out and laid down their arms. Between those two events, the story of American independence was repeatedly shaped by the sea and the wilderness waterways.
In the fall of 1775, seven months after the first gunfire at Lexington and Concord, George Washington commanded the Colonial Army and although desperately short of guns and gunpowder, ringed Major General Thomas Gage’s Boston troops in an uneasy siege. At Philadelphia, the new-born Continental Navy was organizing its first excursion to sea. The Thirteen Colonies were fighting for their liberty, and young Americans were making up their minds about entering the fight.
In this crisis, John Trevett stepped ashore at Philadelphia from the 75-ton sloop Katy with a number of other volunteers. Trevett was twenty-eight, a Rhode Islander of a seafaring family–with courage, level headed intelligence and a quiet New England sense of humor. He believed earnestly in the revolution: “We are engaged in a good cause,” he wrote later in his journal, “and are fighting the Lord’s battles.”
John Trevett was one of the first men to serve as an American Marine. On November 10, shortly before he reached Philadelphia, the Second Continental Congress, in session there, had resolved that two battalions of American Marines “be enlisted and commissioned to serve for and during the present war between Great Britain and the colonies.” The two battalions, intended as part of an expedition to bring Nova Scotia into the revolution, were never raised; General Washington did not want men taken from his army. But on November 28, the Congress commissioned Captain Samuel Nicholas, a Quaker and blacksmith’s son, as the first Marine officer. The American Marines were born.
The Congress had already begun to pull together a Continental Navy and appointed a longtime merchant sea captain, Esek Hopkins of Rhode Island, as commander-in-chief of the fleet. “Though antiquated in figure,” General Henry Knox wrote his wife of Hopkins, “he is shrewd and sensible.” Commodore Hopkins promptly recruited a hundred men in his home state. Abraham Whipple brought some of them to Philadelphia in Katy, which then joined the Continental Navy as the 12-gun Providence. John Trevett was one of these volunteers, arriving in Philadelphia on December 5. It is possible that Trevett was signed up in Robert Mullan’s Tun Tavern on the east side of King (now South Water) street at the corner of Tun (now Wilco’s) Alley, which led down to the Delaware River. As Trevett wrote in his diary, “I went aboard the Ship Columbus as a First Lieutenant of Marines.” His formal commission was dated February 13, 1776, by which time he was already on board.
While the winter ice imprisoned Hopkin’s eight ships in Delaware Bay, he prepared his fleet and his officers enlisted 234 men to serve as Marines. Captain Nicolas was aboard the 24-gun flagship Alfred with Lieutenant Matthew Parke, son of prominent British family, and Lieutenant John Fitzpatrick. Also on Alfred was a young naval officer, John Paul Jones. John Trevett was lieutenant of Marines on the next largest ship, the 20-gun Columbus, with Marine Captain Joseph Shoemaker and Captain Whipple in command. Isaac Craig, an Irish-born carpenter, was lieutenant of Marines on the Brig Andrea Doria. Captain John Welsh, also Irish-born, led the Marines on the Brig Cabot. Lieutenant Henry Dayton commanded the 20 Marines on Providence. On February 17, the ice freed the squadron.
Hopkins’ orders were to tackle the British men-of-war off the Virginia and Carolina coasts. He decided to use his discretion; he had a better idea. Knowing General Washington was practically out of gunpowder; Hopkins planned to seize a supply of it from the enemy’s naval depot in the Bahamas.
On March 1, the little American fleet rendezvoused of Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas. Hopkins organized a landing force of Marines under Captain Nicholas and 50 sailors led by Lieutenant Thomas Weaver of Cabot. Hopkins ordered them to sail, in Providence and two small captured sloops, to Nassau on the island of New Providence, where, he had heard; they would find 600 barrels of gunpowder.
Speeding ahead to surprise the British, the sloops with the landing force were spotted from the shore. The fort fired an alarm signal. Lieutenant John Paul Jones described the landing: “ We then ran in and anchored at a small key three leagues to windward of the town, and form thence the Commodore dispatched the Marines, with the sloop Providence and schooner Wasp to cover their landing, They landed without opposition.” They went ashore in whaleboats two miles east of Fort Montagu.
At 2 P.M. on Sunday, March 3 1778, American Marines had landed for the first time.
Lieutenant Trevett played a key role in the events that followed: “I took command of one of the companies and marched to the first fort (he wrote in his Journal.) They fired a few 18 pound shot, but did no damage. We saw an officer coming and I went up to know what he wanted. He informed me that Governor [Montfort] Brown[e] would wish to know who we were, and what our business was. We soon gave him his answer and the first fort [Fort Montagu] stopped firing, and that night we lodged in the fort.”
At daybreak, Nicholas marched the mile to the edge of town. There he demanded the keys to the second fort, Fort Nassau, and hauled down the British colors. It was as simple as that. But Nicholas’ decision to spend the night at Fort Montagu–and Hopkins failure to block the harbor–had been fatal to the success of the expedition. During the night, Governor Browne had sent off the bulk of the gunpowder–162 casks–to safety in Florida by two ships that sailed past Hopkins’ squadron.
With the landing force in possession of the forts, Hopkins brought Alfred into the harbor and came ashore. Trevett was assigned to take a detachment of 32 Marines and guard the governor in his house on the hill until they could back to the mainland as a prisoner.
The Americans found only 24 cask of gunpowder. They also took 46 cannon from Fort Nassau, 12 smaller guns from Fort Montagu, and 15 mortars. After loading this booty and assorted ammunition, they set sail on March 17, bringing with them three ships captured from the British and Governor Browne and two other officials as prisoners.
On the return cruise, Hopkins’ fleet met the 20-gun Glasgow off Block Island. At 2 A.M. on April 6, his flagship engaged the long frigate in a battle that opened when a Marine of Cabot tossed a grenade down on Glasgow’s deck. The fight raged for one and a half hours. Among the 11 Americans dead were 2nd Marine Lieutenant John Hood Wilson and two enlisted Marines of Cabot, which met the enemy first, and 2nd Lieutenant Fitzpatrick of Alfred. Fitzpatrick was standing next to Captain Nicholas on the quarter-deck when he was struck in the head by a musket ball. The damaged Glasgow high tailed it to Newport, Rhode Island; and Hopkins’ ships put in at New London. There were only one dead and three wounded on the British ships, all shot by the Marines musket fire.
News of the expedition stirred excitement in the colonies. Commodore Hopkins was congratulated by John Hancock, president of the Continental Congress; and on April 23 General Washington, on his way from Cambridge to New York, stopped at New London and honored Alfred with a visit. But later Hopkins was dismissed from the service on charges brought by a group of officers led by Marine Captain John Grannis.
Historians call the gunpowder expedition “the first fight in the records of the Regular Navy.” John Trevett was paid off in Continental Dollars–which, he noted, would pay him the equivalent of one pair of shoes for five months work–but he did not complain. He wrote cheerfully, “A grand cruise and I am glad it ended so well.”
THE COMMENTARY GAZETTE®
SOURCE: U.S. Marine Corps Story; BY: J. Robert Moskin
CONTRIBUTOR: Cade Pommeraan