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Esek Hopkins

Admiral Attacked British in Bahamas But Was Judged Ineffective by Congress

The “first admiral of the U.S. Navy” was Esek Hopkins, whose actual designation of Commander-in-Chief was bestowed upon him on Dec. 22, 1775 by the Continental Congress under guidance from its Marine Committee. This group, which included John Adams, was enthusiastic about the colonies’ chances for a maritime defeat of British forces and quickly recommended that Congress fit out a fleet of thirteen ships. With those vessels and Hopkins at their head, “an embryonic American navy was officially born,” according to historians Frances Diane Robotti and James Vescovi in their "The U.S.S. Essex and the Birth of the American Navy.

Hopkins had been given his new title in order to match Commander-in-Chief of the Army Gen. George Washington. Washington had had a great deal of “plague, trouble, and vexation” with naval crews and doubted whether they would support his land-based mission. Hopkins unfortunately proved him right. The brash sailor from Scituate, Rhode Island, mirrored his new service: energetic, bold, and aggressive. Both Hopkins and his navy would need these traits as they faced the strongest naval power on earth; however, these same traits would be the new commander’s undoing.

Hopkins left his family farm at 20 to follow the salt air not far away, and he soon worked as a seaman and trader of great ability. A fortunate marriage gave him charge of a large merchant fleet, which he used for privateering during the French and Indian War. With his newly increased fortune and fine connections (brother Stephen was governor of the colony and founder of what is now Brown University), Rhode Island named Hopkins a brigadier general at the war’s beginning, but he answered the Maritime Committee’s call instead.

The Continental Navy’s new Commander-in-Chief was instructed by Congress to sail “directly to Chesapeak (sic) Bay in Virginia,” scout the enemy, and if those forces were not “greatly superior,” to attack the British fleet. Both because of his personality and the vagueness of early naval regulations, Hopkins considered his orders discretionary. Finding the enemy forces too strong, he chose to sail his eight armed vessels to the Bahamas. There he made a successful raid on Britain’s New Providence materiel stores. In his flagship bearing the famed First Navy Jack with its motto of “Don’t Tread On Me,” Hopkins no doubt believed he was furthering his country’s cause.

Congress disagreed, especially after it came to light that he had allowed two British frigates to escape in Rhode Island waters. Disobedience of orders, combined with failure, inactivity, and numerous quarrels with fellow officers spelled out Hopkins’ fate. Despite Adams’ continuing support, Hopkins was dismissed from his position on Jan. 2, 1778. He entered Rhode Island politics, and died there on Feb. 26, 1802.

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