1777 Overview

by | Dec 20, 2015 | 1777 | 0 comments


General Sir William Howe

Vice-Admiral Lord Howe, commanding the North American station, began the year by enforcing a strict blockade of the American coast, and then as the war progressed he set sail with his brother, General Sir William Howe, to hasten its end by capturing the jewel in the rebels crown, their capital, Philadelphia. Having landed the army on 25 August the Howes secured the city after a three month campaign before tendering their resignations to a government whose policies and personalities they could no longer serve, although they did agree to remain on station until their successors could take over in the following year. In October Great Britain suffered its first major catastrophe of the war when Lieutenant-General John Burgoyne and four thousand men surrendered at Saratoga whilst marching on New York from Canada, having intended to cut off the belligerent New England states off from the remainder of the colonies. The ineptitude of the British ministry was fully illustrated by their failure to direct General Howe to force a juncture with Burgoyne, allowing him to attack Philadelphia instead.

The Earl of Sandwich, first lord of the Admiralty

Meanwhile France, together with Spain and Holland, continued to offer safe havens to the American privateers that attacked the British trade in its home waters, although later in the year King Louis XVI did try to convey the impression that the rebels use of French ports had been restricted, resulting in their privateers heading for Spain. Unsurprisingly the prime minister, Lord North, came to the view held by his first lord of the Admiralty, Lord Sandwich, that the French could not be trusted, and not before time he released additional funds to strengthen the Navy. Even so, with only thirty-six sail of the line in service by March, the British were outnumbered by the French nineteen and Spanish twenty-one sail of the line, and by August the figure had been revised to forty-three British capital ships opposing sixty-four allies.

The money released by the government was also required to purchase more vessels to counter the activities of the American privateers in European waters, and given that three American vessels were able to capture fourteen merchantmen in the Clyde during June this too was not before time. British patrols increased with some success, as illustrated by the cruise of the Foudroyant during June – August, and in the capture of the privateer Lexington by the Alert on 19 July. Soon Forton Prison at Portsmouth and Mill Prison at Plymouth were filling up with American seamen as more and more privateers were taken, and one such prisoner was the British-born commander of the swift-sailing privateer Montgomery, after he was detained in Cherbourg on 15 June by Lieutenant Thomas Gaborian of the cutter Sherbourne, who had entered the French port disguised as a smuggler.

In March a division of the French Brest fleet ventured out in response to the British men of war that had began cruising in the Channel, and indeed during her cruise from June-August the Foudroyant actually found herself sailing in company with a French division. As the possibility of war with France and Spain grew stronger there was no question of strengthening the North American fleet, and Lord Sandwich preferred to fight a defensive war in that theatre in order to concentrate on meeting the expected allied threat in Europe.

In ship to ship combat the British frigate Fox was taken by two rebel vessels of a similar class on 7 June but was recaptured, along with one of her captors, by the Rainbow, Captain Sir George Collier, and Flora, Captain James Brisbane on 8 July. Elsewhere Lieutenant John Thomas Duckworth faced a curious court-martial at Rhode Island following an incident that resulted in the deaths of five seamen on 18 January.