What was the USS Alfred?

Introduction

Alfred was the merchant vessel Black Prince, named for Edward, the Black Prince, and launched in 1774. The Continental Navy of what would become the United States acquired her in 1775, renamed her Alfred after 9th century English monarch Alfred the Great, and commissioned her as a warship. She participated in two major actions, the battle of Nassau, and the action of 06 April 1776. The Royal Navy captured her in 1778, took her into service as HMS Alfred, and sold her in 1782. She then became the merchantman Alfred, and sailed between London and Jamaica.

The Black Prince

Black Prince was built at Philadelphia in 1774. No record of her builder seems to have survived, but it is possible that John Wharton may have constructed the ship. She was owned by Willing, Morris & Co., a merchant trading firm operated by Thomas Willing and Robert Morris.

John Barry served as the ship’s only master during her career as a Philadelphia merchantman. Launched in the autumn of 1774 as relations between the American colonies and the mother country grew increasingly tense, Black Prince was fitted out quickly so that she could load and sail to Bristol on the last day of 1774. The ship did not return to Philadelphia until 25 April 1775, six days after the Battle of Lexington and Concord.

Fearing that American commerce would soon be interrupted, her owners were eager to export another cargo to England, so they again raced to load and provision her. Black Prince sailed on 07 May, this time bound for London. She did not reach that destination until 27 June. The ship left the Thames on 10 August but encountered contrary winds during much of her westward voyage and finally returned to Philadelphia on 04 October.

While the ship had been abroad, the Battle of Bunker Hill had been fought, the other colonies acting in Congress had pledged to support Massachusetts in its struggle for freedom, and George Washington had taken command of the American Army besieging British-occupied Boston. Moreover, private correspondence, between shipowner Morris, and his trading partner, Richard Champion of Bristol, was brought from England on Black Prince to members of the Continental Congress. It reported that the British Government was sending to America two unarmed brigs heavily laden with gunpowder and arms.

This intelligence prompted Congress on 13 October to authorise the fitting out of two American warships, one of 10 guns and the other of an unspecified size, to attempt to capture these ships and divert their invaluable cargoes to the ill-equipped soldiers of Washington’s army. Congress decided, on 30 October, to specify the second vessel as being 14 guns and to add two more ships to the navy, one of 20 guns and the other slightly larger but not to exceed 36 guns. One of the ship’s owners, Morris, was a member of the Marine Committee when that committee acquired the Alfred. A second ship, also owned by Willing Morris & Co. became the Columbus at the same time.

The Alfred

The Naval Committee purchased Black Prince on 04 November 1775, renamed her Alfred four days later, and ordered her fitted out as a man-of-war. Her former master, John Barry, was placed in charge of her rerigging; Joshua Humphreys was selected to superintend changes strengthening her hull, timbers, and bulwarks as well as opening gunports; and Nathaniel Falconer was made responsible for her ordnance and provisions.

Soon four other vessels joined Alfred in the Continental Navy: Columbus, Cabot, Andrew Doria, and sloop Providence. Esek Hopkins, a veteran master of merchantmen from Rhode Island, was appointed commodore of the flotilla. Alfred was placed in commission on 03 December 1775, Captain Dudley Saltonstall in command, and became Hopkins’ flagship. Sometime in December 1775, Alfred became the first vessel to fly the Grand Union Flag (the precursor to the Stars and Stripes); the flag was hoisted on the Delaware River by John Paul Jones. This event was documented in letters to Congress.

The new fleet dropped down the Delaware River on 04 January 1776; but a cold snap froze the river and the bay, checking its progress at Reedy Island for some six weeks. A thaw released Hopkins’ warships from winter’s icy grasp in mid-February, and the fleet sortied on 18 February for its first operation. The Marine Committee had ordered Hopkins to sail for Hampton Roads to attack British warships which were harassing American shipping in Virginia waters; then to render similar service at Charleston, South Carolina; and, finally, to head for Rhode Island waters. He was given the discretion of disregarding these orders if they proved impossible and planning an operation of his own.

However, by the time his ships broke free of the ice, growing British strength in the Chesapeake prompted Hopkins to head for the West Indies. Knowing that the American colonies desperately needed gunpowder, he decided to attack the island of New Providence in the Bahamas to capture a large supply of that commodity as well as a great quantity of other military supplies reportedly stored there.

A fortnight after leaving the Delaware capes, on the morning of 03 March, Hopkins arrived off Nassau and captured Fort Montague in a bloodless Battle of Nassau, in which Continental Marines under Capt. Samuel Nicholas joined Hopkins’ sailors in America’s first amphibious operation.

That evening, Hopkins issued a proclamation which promised not to harm “. . . the persons or property of the inhabitants of New Providence . . .” if they did not resist. The following morning, Governor Montfort Browne surrendered Fort Nassau but only after he had spirited away most of the island’s gunpowder from New Providence to St. Augustine, Florida.

After Hopkins stripped the forts of their guns and all remaining ordnance, Alfred led the American fleet homeward from Nassau harbour on St. Patrick’s Day, 17 March, the same day that British troops were evacuating Boston. On 04 April, during the homeward voyage, Hopkins’ ships captured the six-gun British schooner Hawk and the eight-gun brig Bolton. Shortly after midnight on 06 April, Hopkins encountered the 20-gun Glasgow. That British frigate – which was carrying dispatches telling of the British withdrawal – put up a fierce and skilful fight which enabled her to escape from her substantially more powerful American opponents. At the outset of the fray, fire from her cannon cut Alfred’s tiller ropes, leaving Hopkins’ flagship unable to manoeuvre or to pursue effectively. The American ships did attempt to chase their fleeing enemy, but after dawn Glasgow disappeared over the horizon and safely reached Newport, Rhode Island.

When Alfred and her consorts put into New London, Connecticut, on 08 April, the Americans were at first welcomed as heroes. still, many of the officers of the American squadron voiced dissatisfaction with Hopkins, and he was later relieved of command.

Alfred was inactive through the summer for a number of reasons, but high on the list of her problems were want of funds and a shortage of men. On 07 August, Captain John Paul Jones, who had helped to fit her out as a warship and had been her first lieutenant on the cruise to New Providence, was placed in command of the ship. She departed Providence, Rhode Island, on 26 October 1776 in company with Hampden, but that vessel struck a “sunken rock” before they could leave Narragansett Bay and returned to Newport. Her officers and men then shifted to sloop Providence accompanying Alfred to waters off Cape Breton Island which they reached by mid-November. There they took three prizes: on the 11th, the brigantine Active, bound from Liverpool to Halifax with an assorted cargo, the next day, the armed transport Mellish, laden with winter uniforms for British troops at Quebec; and, on the 16th, the scow Kitty, bound from Gaspé to Barbados with oil and fish.

Because of severe leaks, Providence sailed for home soon thereafter and Alfred continued her cruise alone. On 22 November, boats from Alfred raided Canso, Nova Scotia, where their crews burned a transport bound for Canada with provisions, and a warehouse full of whale oil, besides capturing a small schooner to replace Providence. Two days later, Alfred captured three colliers off Louisburg, bound from Nova Scotia to New York with coal for the British Army and, on 26 November captured the 10-gun letter-of-marque John of Liverpool. On the homeward voyage, Alfred was pursued by HMS Milford but managed to escape after a four-hour chase. She arrived safely at Boston on 15 December and began a major refit.

Captain Elisha Hinman became Alfred’s commanding officer in May 1777. She did not get underway until 22 August when she sailed for France with Raleigh to obtain military supplies. En-route, they captured four small prizes. They reached L’Orient on 06 October, and on 29 December sailed for America. They proceeded via the coast of Africa, where they took a small sloop, and then headed for the West Indies, hoping to add to their score before turning northward for home.

On 09 March 1778, near Barbados, they encountered British warships HMS Ariadne and HMS Ceres. When the American ships attempted to flee, Alfred fell behind her faster consort. Shortly after noon the British men-of-war caught up with Alfred and forced her to surrender after a half an hour’s battle.

HMS Alfred

Her captors took Alfred to Barbados where she was condemned and sold. The Royal Navy purchased her and took her into service as HMS Alfred, a sloop of 20 guns. The Admiralty sold her in 1782.

Alfred

Lloyd’s Register for 1789 shows an Alfred, of 400 tons (bm), built in Philadelphia, with master “Delamore” and owner T. Seale. Her trade is listed as London – Jamaica. Unfortunately there are no readily available interim or later issues of Lloyd’s Register so her history as a merchant vessel is unclear.

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