By Marcus Fisk
“I wish to have no connection with any ship that doesn’t sail fast, for I intend to go in harm’s way.”
– Captain John Paul Jones (Letter to Jacques-Donatien Le Ray de Chaumont, November 1778)
ALEXANDRIA,VA- On the night of July 1-2, 2019, the tall ship PROVIDENCE slid quietly and stealthily up the Potomac to the City of Alexandria, much the way her forebear had done so many times during the American Revolution. This time, however, was different. The SV PROVIDENCE wasn’t entering port to wreak havoc on an opposing force, she was gracefully entering a friendly port where she will reign supreme as Alexandria’s tall ship for the next year.
Sure, she looks impressive, but what’s the big deal, you may ask?
I lived in Alexandria from 1998 to 2013 and thoroughly enjoyed all the colonial and civil war history at my doorstep. I walked the streets of Old Town, reading the multitude of plaques showcasing Alexandria’s quotable notables: Richard Henry Lee, Jim Morrison, Gerald Ford, Cass Elliot, Werner von Braun, Willard Scott, Donna Dixon, and, of course, G. Washington. There are also the plaques that capture Alexandria’s many, many martial and army ties throughout the city’s history.
But as a retired Naval Officer, having PROVIDENCE homeported in Alexandria is a really big deal for me. Her predecessor, for which she is named, was one hell of a ship, with a proud, storied history.
Originally named the sloop KATY, she was built in Rhode Island and, in December 1775, was commissioned by the Rhode Island General Assembly to protect American shipping from the British. From the very beginning, PROVIDENCE befitted her name. There seemed to be a mighty hand at her helm, an almost otherworldly deity protecting her during those dangerous days of the American Revolution.
Commodore Esek Hopkins was ordered to sail her in a miniature “squadron” of eight merchant ships to Philadelphia for outfitting and then to the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia, south to the Carolinas, and back to Rhode Island to clear the waters of British ships hunting American merchantmen. Ice and terrible winter conditions persuaded Hopkins to instead move his squadron to the Bahamas, where he landed his men ashore at New Providence and eventually captured Fort Nassau.
Now that’s leadership. Chesapeake Bay in the dead of winter or the Bahamas? Good call, Commodore.
After two weeks to provision, Hopkins’ squadron sailed north toward Rhode Island. En route home to Newport, on April 4 they encountered and captured the British sloop HAWK off Block Island and the next day met the British brig BOLTON – with the same result. And since the British Fleet was firmly ensconced at Newport, Hopkins instead took his squadron and prize ships to New London, Connecticut.
On May 10, 1776, Lieutenant John Paul Jones (1) took command of PROVIDENCE and there began a series of gallant actions by the brash, hot-headed, renegade young Captain.(2)
On August 21, PROVIDENCE met and engaged the British brigantine BRITANNIA, taking her prisoner and sending her into Philadelphia with a prize crew. In September, Jones and PROVIDENCE captured two more brigantines and sent them to Philadelphia, as well. He then went north to Nova Scotia and, on September 20, burned one British fishing schooner, sank another, and captured yet a third. From September 22 on, Jones and his merry men sank or captured 15 vessels and went on an assault ashore to capture the village of Canso, where he recruited men for the Continental Navy. The whaler PORTLAND, witnessing the Americans putting more up on the scoreboard than the British, saw the handwriting on the wall and surrendered to PROVIDENCE. On October 3, PROVIDENCE returned home to Narragansett Bay.
Jones was relieved and given command of the ALFRED and Captain Hoysted Hacker took command of PROVIDENCE. The two ships sailed for the Bahamas and captured the British brigantine ACTIVE and the armed transport MELLISH, which carried munitions and uniforms for the British Army in America. After those actions PROVIDENCE, plagued with leaks, sailed again for home and repairs.
Over the next three years, PROVIDENCE would sail the waters between the Bahamas, the Carolina coast, and New England with consistent success, engaging the British and winning or out-sailing them all and scurrying away to fight another day.
After sailing from Boston in May 1779, PROVIDENCE was part of a 44-ship flotilla carrying some 1,000 troops to conduct an amphibious assault against the British Army that had captured mid-coast Maine. The flotilla sailed into the Penobscot River where they offloaded their troops and supplies. The British, realizing what those crazy colonials were up to, hurriedly sent a naval force of their own from New York and bottled-up the American ships in the river. Things went south for the American forces, so to avoid capture the crews torched and sank their ships, then evaporated into the hinterlands.
The original PROVIDENCE went to Davey Jones’ Locker on August 14, 1779. It was a sad end for a legendary ship.
PROVIDENCE, in today’s parlance, was nothing short of BAD. And she held a lot of “firsts.”
She was the first ship of the Continental Navy.
She was the first command of John Paul Jones, Father of the American Navy.
She was the first vessel to land amphibious troops – Marines – on foreign soil.
She was credited with capturing or sinking 40 foreign fighting vessels.