Commodore Collier’s North American Campaign – May to August 1779
Upon Rear-Admiral James Gambier returning to England, Commodore Sir George Collier assumed temporary command of the North American station at New York. Two months into his secondment, and acting on instructions from the minister for war, Lord Germain, he joined the army commander-in-chief, Major-General Sir Henry Clinton, in developing a plan of offensive action against the rebel works and stores in Virginia.
A man of superior talents but extreme Whig politics, Collier had spent the previous two years in command of the unexacting Nova Scotia station and he was not about to let slip the chance of distinguishing himself in a more active role. Hoisting his broad pennant aboard the Raisonnable 64, Captain Henry Evans, he quickly set about refitting Gambier’s inadequate squadron, and on 5 May he set sail in company with the Rainbow 44, Captain John Kendall, together with the sloops Otter 14, Commander Richard Creyk, Haarlem 14, Lieutenant Josias Rogers, and Diligent 12, Lieutenant Thomas Walbeoff. Also attendant were the galley Cornwallis 8, several privateers, and twenty-eight transports with a troop force of eighteen hundred men under the command of Brigadier-General Edward Mathew.
Unfortunately, the expedition did not enjoy the most auspicious of beginnings when the Diligent, which appears to have become detached from her consorts, was captured off Sandy Hook just two days into her voyage by the superior Continental sloop Providence 14. The British sloop’s appalling casualty list of eleven men killed and nineteen wounded bore testament to a gallant resistance.
By the evening of 9 May the rest of Collier’s squadron had reached the Hampton Roads, and the arrival of this imposing force obliged a whole plethora of American vessels to flee up the Elizabeth and James rivers. Finding that the Raisonnable’s draught consigned her to the roads, Collier shifted his pennant to the lighter Rainbow and in the early hours of the 10th he headed up the Elizabeth River with the rest of his command to attack the town of Portsmouth. An ebbing tide and the lack of a favourable wind forced the British to anchor some five miles shy of the intended disembarkation point, but not wishing to delay the attack any further a division of troops were quickly sent off in the flat-boats under the covering fire of the Cornwallis and two gun-boats and were landed unopposed some three miles short of the town. Shortly afterwards the rest of the squadron was able to advance upriver with the return of a favourable breeze, and their arrival allowed the remainder of the troops to be disembarked.
About a half-mile south of Portsmouth stood the timber and earth-walled Fort Nelson. After attempting to engage the Rainbow at long range the fort’s one hundred and fifty defenders decided to evacuate before the superior force arraigned against them and their colours were hauled down by the British troops who entered the works that evening. Prior to their retreat the rebels set fire to several ships upon the stocks at Fort Nelson including a 36-gun frigate, and the resulting blaze was so intense that it engulfed and destroyed two nearby French vessels laden with tobacco. Even so, a few vessels and a large quantity of stores did pass unharmed into British hands, and with the towns of Portsmouth and Norfolk being duly occupied a body of troops was despatched to Suffolk to destroy several thousand barrels of salted provisions destined for the colonial army.
Collier next sent the Cornwallis, two gun-boats, four flat-boats and four privateers further up the Elizabeth River under the command of Lieutenant Richard Rose Bradley to destroy a number of vessels on the stocks. This force also boarded and carried the American privateer Black Snake 14 in the face of fierce resistance for the loss of two men wounded. At the same time Captain Creyk of the Otter took a small force up the Chesapeake to capture several more ships in addition to destroying many others and generally harassing the rebels.
During the next two weeks Fort Nelson was razed, an attack upon Kempe’s Landing saw more stores destroyed, and a 16-gun privateer and five other vessels were burned on the stocks at Tanner’s Creek. Come the end of the carnage, and having suffered barely any casualties, Collier’s ships in consort with the army had captured or destroyed one hundred and thirty-seven privateers, men-of-war and merchantmen, together with stores to the value of over half a million pounds. To Collier’s dismay however, Brigadier-General Mathew refused a request to use the captured stores to prolong the campaign, preferring some to be ferried to New York and others to be distributed to local loyalists.
By 28 May the squadron had returned to Sandy Hook with seventeen prizes in tow. Here Collier conferred with Clinton once more and it was decided that he should immediately proceed up the Hudson River with Mathew’s troops to assist Major-General John Vaughan drive the Americans out of positions they were fortifying at Stony Point and Verplanks.
Departing New York on the 30th, the Raisonnable was joined by the Camilla 20, Captain John Collins, the sloop Vulture14, Commander Andrew Sutherland, the gallies Crane, Cornwallis and Philadelphia, and two gunboats. Having negotiated a rebel chevaux de fries, and with Collier shifting his pennant into the Camilla and being joined aboard by Clinton, the men-of-war enjoyed a fair wind that enabled them to anchor that night just out of range of Fort Lafayette on Verplanks Point. The next day troops were landed eight miles south of Verplanks on the east side of the Hudson, whilst the naval vessels and three regiments headed for Stony Point on the opposite bank of the river. After the slightest resistance the small number of rebels at the latter post torched a storehouse and fled, and with the aid of a bright moon the British were able to hoist artillery up the captured 150-foot high precipice that night.
At daybreak the newly installed cannon on Stony Point joined the Camilla, Vulture and Cornwallis in the bombardment of Fort Lafayette whilst Vaughan’s troops took up positions inland, his force outnumbering the seventy or so rebel defenders by about twenty to one. With an American surrender inevitable Collier ordered the Vulture and Cornwallis up past the fort to ensure nobody escaped, and thus the rebels were obliged to surrender.
The brief mission completed, Clinton now sought to draw General Washington out of the mountains by launching an attack upon the coast of Connecticut in the belief that the American commander-in-chief would seek to maintain the credibility of the fading rebellion by rushing to the aid of his colonial allies. The operation would also have the additional benefit of allowing the navy to attack the American privateer havens in Long Island Sound from which the rebels were enjoying great success in capturing incoming British merchant vessels.
Accordingly on 1 July Collier despatched the Renown 50, Captain George Dawson, Thames 32, Captain Tyringham Howe, the Otter, Commander Richard Creyk, and two armed vessels to blockade New London and the eastern entrance to the Sound, whilst he took the Camilla, 20, Captain John Collins, Scorpion 14, Commander Charles Osborne, brig Halifax and galley Hussar through the Hell Gate to the north. Departing Whitestone on the evening of 3 July having embarked a force of two thousand six hundred troops, Collier joined the Renown and anchored off the port of Newhaven, Connecticut, two days later. Troops being landed, the forewarned enemy put up a fierce resistance but were driven off, thereby allowing the harbour to be taken and vessels and stores destroyed along with a fort. The attack was not without casualties however, British losses numbering fifty-six men killed, wounded and missing.
A couple of days later the port of Fairfield was set alight and a number of whale boats destroyed despite considerable rebel resistance from the rooftops and upper windows of the houses. Norwalk and a good deal of shipping was fired on the 11th, as was Greenfield, but any further fun was dramatically curtailed by the news that the Americans had surprisingly and most brilliantly regained Stony Point in the Hudson River. Collier was now ordered to race back to New York and convey the army up river, but adverse northerly winds delayed his progress until 19 July. When his ships did appear at Stony Point the American defenders despatched into the waters any cannon they could not carry away or bury and abandoned the works.
No sooner had Stony Point been recovered than Collier learned that the vital British post at Castine on Penobscot Island in Maine was under attack by a large force from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The assailants had three thousand troops and eighteen armed vessels including a frigate of 32 guns, ten sloops with an overall firepower of one hundred and seventy-eight cannon, and seven brigs boasting a total of eighty-eight guns, in addition to nineteen transports. The British post, which had been established to deprive the Americans of the timber from that area and to prevent any incursions into Nova Scotia, was held by just six hundred and fifty men, whilst also present were the sloops Albany 16, Commander Henry Mowatt, North 16, Commander Jerrard Selby, and Nautilus 16, Lieutenant Thomas Farnham.
Even though he was suffering from a fever which confined him to a chair on his quarter-deck, Collier set off on 3 August with his squadron consisting of the Blonde 32, Captain Andrew Barkley, Virginia 28, Captain John Orde, Greyhound 28, Captain Archibald Dickson, Camilla 20, Captain John Collins, and Galatea 20, Captain John Howorth, together with the pennant ship, Raisonnable 64, and sloop Otter 14, Captain Creyk. A thick fog initially dispersed the squadron, but soon all bar the Otter had made the rendezvous, and the Galatea and Greyhound were both able to make prizes of privateers on the voyage north.
Upon learning that the British had anchored off the river mouth on the evening of 13 August, the surprised rebels re-embarked their troops and stores, and when Collier entered the river the next day they made the merest show of resistance by forming their ships in a crescent across the river before turning tail and heading upstream. Collier allowed the advanced Blonde, Virginia and Galatea to pursue them whilst signalling a general chase to his other vessels. Two American ships attempted to sneak around Maine’s Long Island in the dark of night, these being the Hunter 18, which after driving ashore with all sail set was boarded and carried under fire but without loss by fifty men of the Raisonnable, and the Defence 16 which was set alight by her crew after being discovered by the Camilla trying to hide in a small inlet. She blew up at midnight and her crew sought refuge in the woods.
In the meantime the rest of the British squadron, including the Albany, North, and Nautilus which had earlier been blockaded in the river by the rebels, sustained a perilous chase up river, having to contend with shoaling water and the narrow channels, not to mention the burning American ships. Ultimately there could be no escape for the rebels and four armed vessels fell into Collier’s hands including the Hampden 20, which surrendered to the Virginia, Captain John Orde. The remaining American ships were either fired by their crews or destroyed by the British, amongst them being the frigate Warren 32, Monmouth 24, Vengeance 24, Putnam 22, Sally 22, Hector 20, and the Black Prince 18.
The American crews meanwhile made their escape through the woods, nursing four hundred and seventy-four casualties against British losses of four men killed and nine wounded. During their struggle to regain Boston through hostile terrain the rebel’s discipline evaporated and more casualties were incurred when a fight broke out amongst their party.
During the campaign the Americans had suffered a huge financial loss that was estimated by the victorious British at seven million dollars, and this news was gleefully received back in London on 24 September after Captain Dickson of the Greyhound arrived home with Collier’s despatches.
Sadly for the active and capable Collier the opportunity for further distinction now came to an end, for on returning to New York he found to his utter dismay that he had been superseded by the arrival of Vice-Admiral Marriot Arbuthnot from England on 25 August. The blow of losing his independent command was further exacerbated in the knowledge that his senior was a government toady and an officer of far inferior ability and zeal. Collier therefore returned to England understandably embittered, and with his political leanings counting against him he was never allowed another opportunity to display his admirable qualities of leadership.