"The fame of the first admiral of the American Navy has suffered an eclipse almost total, while other men who were materially helped to do what they did through his exertions, have filled much larger places in the Naval history of the Revolution."
Esek Hopkins was a successful merchant who, at the Revolution’s beginning, held the same rank as Washington, but was destroyed by his former friends and business associates who did not share his sense of honor and unselfish love of country.
Taken from, Brown, John Howard, “American Naval Heroes.” Boston: Brown and Company, 1899. Edited by Gary M. Bohannon.
Esek Hopkins was born in Rhode Island, April 26, 1718. Esek's brother William was a sea captain and did some privateering during the French and Spanish wars, and another brother, Stephen, was delegate to the Continental Congress and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He gained a superior education for his time and environment, and, like all ambitious boys of Rhode Island in his day, saw no way to promotion except through sea service. Inspired by his brother William's example, he shipped early in life, gaining some experience as a sailor. As he matured he became more involved with the family shipping business until he was a successful merchant in his own right.
When the Seven Years' War began in 1756, he fitted out one of his vessels as a privateer and went upon a cruise. He continued in the business during the whole period of the war, training during this time many of the men who were the chief officers of the future United States Navy. He was acquainted with naval warfare, had visited nearly every port in the world, had excellent executive ability, and knew men thoroughly. These attributes and experiences marked him as a leader, and when the first necessities of the American Revolution pointed to the formation of a navy as the only way to provide for a defense, the Continental Congress turned to him for advice and help. Then, in 1775, Esek Hopkins was unanimously selected Commander-in-Chief of the fledgling United States Navy, the same rank held by George Washington in the army, with Esek’s title being that of Admiral.
British colonial governor Lord Dunmore had been raiding the seaport towns of the southern colonies with a considerable fleet, and it was Admiral Hopkins's plan to sail to the relief of the colonists. He found the harbors defended by detachments from this fleet, driven into port by the storm, and without means of knowing the strength of the enemy, he dared not attack. To add to his disappointment the crews of four of his vessels fell sick. So he decided to sail to the Bahamas and seize the guns and ammunition stored there.
Hopkins seized 88 cannon, 5,458 shells, 11,000 round shot and 15 barrels of gunpowder, and loaded as much of his valuable spoils, so necessary to the colonies, as could be carried by the vessels of the fleet. When he left port in the Bahamas his progress was necessarily slow, as all his vessels were heavily laden. Even so, on the return they fell in with the British schooner, easily captured, and the very next day took a second British prize.
His fleet, consisting of six armed vessels and a sloop, proceeded up Long Island Sound, where they encountered a strange ship, which gave out a broadside and successively engaged three of Hopkins's ships. The conflict lasted for three hours, ten Americans being killed and a number seriously wounded. The stranger proved to be the British frigate "Glasgow," 24 guns, which escaped into Newport harbor. Hopkins did not follow her into the harbor, which was defended by the British fleet of Commodore Wallace.
The news of this first naval exploit was received with joy by the colonists. The battery and ammunition captured were much needed, and the prowess of the American seamen had not been found wanting in their first sea fight. The facts that "Glasgow" had been fought in the dead of night, with his ships overloaded with spoils, encumbered with two prizes and a transport, and after a long voyage, with many of the men sick, were very good reasons for want of entire success.
Trouble then started for Admiral Hopkins. Smallpox broke out, which placed over two hundred on the sick list, in addition to the number of sick during the voyage, and Esek was obliged to appeal to General Washington for new men to take the places of the invalids. Admiral Hopkins had planned to prepare his fleet for a three months' cruise, but continued sickness, the recall of the Washington's soldiers, and the unwillingness of raw recruits to enlist on fever-infected ships, upset his plan.
Besides these discouragements, the authorization of privateering by the Continental Congress, March 18, 1776, had added another barrier to the progress of building up a navy. Enterprising shipping merchants were offering extraordinary inducements in the way of wages and prize money to seamen, and Congress had established a rate of wages and a share in prize money much less than the owners of the privateers were offering. Admiral Hopkins found himself deserted by all the able-bodied seamen of New England and his ships remained unmanned.
The owners of privateers then concerted to bring the navy into further disrepute by misrepresenting the condition of affairs to Congress, and they practically succeeded by intrigue and political influence to block for the time the efforts of Admiral Hopkins. They were inspired by self-interest to keep the government ships off the sea, as by their heavier armament they would naturally capture the more valuable prizes which otherwise would fall to the privateers.
In the spring of 1776 two of the thirteen frigates authorized by Congress were built at Providence. The contract for building these ships had been given to the leading merchants and ship-owners of the port, who constituted a committee appointed by the Marine Board. The delay in getting them ready was charged to the committee on the ground that they had used the men employed on the frigates to work upon their own privateers, and in a letter to John Hancock, Admiral Hopkins declared that the two vessels had cost twice their contract price, "owing to some of the very committee that built the ships taking the workingmen and the stock agreed for, to fit their privateers, and even threatening the workmen if they did not work for them."
The men charged with these unpatriotic and selfish acts were Admiral Hopkins's former friends and neighbors who had shared with him the profits from privateering in the Seven Years' War. He might easily have joined them in the speculations and gained a share in the profits had he been false to his duty, and his very honesty seems to have secured his official downfall.
Admiral Hopkins was summoned to Philadelphia to answer for "breach of orders," and he appeared before the Marine Committee with his two ranking captains. The captains were acquitted, but Hopkins's case was referred to Congress and that body on August 15th resolved: "that [Admiral] Hopkins, during his cruise to the southward, did not pay due regard to the tenor of his instructions, whereby he was expressly directed to annoy the enemy's ships upon the coast of the southern states, and that his reason for not going from New Providence immediately to the Carolinas are by no means satisfactory;" and the following day resolved: "that the said conduct of [Admiral] Hopkins deserves the censure of this House and this House does accordingly censure him."
John Adams ably defended Hopkins and prevented his immediate discharge from the service, so on August 19th it was ordered: "that he proceed to Rhode Island and resume command of the fleet."
Under new orders, Admiral Hopkins fitted out and dispatched all the ships he could crew: “Andrea Doria,” “Cabot,” “Columbia,” “Alfred,” and “Providence.” The remaining ships at home had no men, and to call back those sent on cruises of indefinite length was impossible. So it was therefore also impossible to carry out the order from the Marine Committee for him to proceed to Newfoundland, or another given later to prepare an expedition for the protection of the South Atlantic coast. Admiral Hopkins used extraordinary means to obtain men, but to no avail. The General Assembly of Rhode Island refused to place an embargo on privateering so that he could get sailors, the measure being defeated by two votes, through the influence of members interested in privateering.
The Marine Committee of Congress could not obtain from the General Assembly the authority to make drafts of men from the army, which being the first in the field had received in its ranks all the available New England seamen thrown out of employment by the suspension of commerce incident to the war. Admiral Hopkins also asked permission to raise the wages of seamen and to make a more competitive schedule for the distribution of prize money on government ships, which, after much delay, Congress finally approved.
But it was too late. When on December 8, 1776, British Admiral Sir Peter Parker came into Newport harbor with seven ships of the line, four frigates and seventy transports with 6,000 troops on board, Admiral Hopkins was at Providence with only three frigates and a sloop to oppose him. He had been urging the General Assembly of Rhode Island and the Continental Congress for help to man the fleet, but he had been given only partial authority over his officers, who were allowed to receive orders direct from the Marine Committee. Admiral Hopkins could neither direct his subordinates' movements nor share in the prizes.
The opposition of the enterprising merchants of Providence who could not brook the success of the new navy in capturing prizes under their very eyes, renewed itself in 1777, when on February 19th a number of the officers petitioned Congress to remove Admiral Hopkins, whom they accused of being "unfit for his position," but specified no direct charges. He wrote to John Hancock asking to be heard before the Marine Committee: "I am very willing to come to you to answer for my conduct with such of the committee who built the ships as I could name, but not with the poor men who only acted as machines to a set of men who I wish I could say had any other principle but avarice." He was not allowed to defend himself on the terms he named and so did not answer the summons.
He was suspended March 25, 1777, and on January 2, 1778, he was dismissed from the service. His friends feared that his treatment would drive him from his loyalty, but he wrote to William Ellery: "Although I have lost the interest of a parcel of mercenary merchants, owners of privateers, I do not think I have lost it in the major part of the state. I am determined to continue a friend to my country; neither do I intend to remain inactive." He was elected a representative in the General Assembly of the state for North Providence, and was active in drilling recruits for the American army.
Esek Hopkins was a martyr to the cause of nationality — to social unity as against the use of public service for private profit. His error, if error it was, was that of interfering with the plans of influential business men who were getting rich in the name of patriotism and liberty. He was too honest to conceal his indignation or to change his policy. The first admiral of the United States Navy died in North Providence, Rhode Island, February 26, 1802. May he be remembered as the patriot he was.