The first American Revolutionary War navy battle was undertaken by Rhode Island Navy Ships

This naval battle was started because the English Navy captured John Brown and 300 barrels of flour he was taking to sell the American troops.

On June 12, 1775, the General Assembly of the Crown Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations founded a Navy with an enactment that looks like Rhode Island simply decided, without any particular cause, to go into navel warfare with the English Navy.  But read the rest of the story!

“It is voted and resolved, that the committee of safety be, and they are hereby, directed to charter two suitable vessels for the use of the colony and fit out the same in the best manner, to protect the trade of this colony.

That the said vessels be at the risk of the colony, and be appraised, before they are chartered, by Messrs. Joseph Anthony, Rufus Hopkins and Cromell Child or any two of them; who are also to agree for the hire of the said vessels.

That the largest of the said vessels be manned with eighty men, exclusive of officers; and be equipped with ten guns, four-pounders; fourteen swivel guns, a sufficient number of small arms, and all necessary warlike stores.

That the small vessel be manned in a number not exceeding thirty men.

That the whole be included in the number of fifteen hundred men, ordered to be raised in this colony, and be kept in pay until the 1st day of December next, unless discharged before, by order of the General Assembly.

That they receive the same bounty and pay as the land forces, excepting that the first and second lieutenants and master receive the same pay as the first lieutenant of the land forces; and under or petty officers the same as sergeants of the army.

And that the lieutenant general, brigadier general and committee of safety, or the major part of them, have the power of directing and ordering said vessels; and in case it shall appear to them that the officers and men of said vessels can be more serviceable on shore, than at sea, to order them on shore, to defend the seaports in this colony.

And it is further voted and resolved that the following officers be, and are hereby appointed to command the said vessels, to wit: of the largest vessel,–
Abraham Whipple, commander, with the rank and power of commodore of both vessels.
John Grimes, first lieutenant.
Benjamin Seabury, second lieutenant.
William Bradford, of Providence, master.
Ebenezer Flagg, quartermaster, at the wages of 4 pounds, lawful money, per month.

Of the smallest vessel, —
Christopher Whipple, commander.
William Rhodes, lieutenant.”

With the passing of this enactment and the acquiring of the John Brown sloops Katy and Washington, the General Assembly created the first armed Navy of the colonies.

Three days later the sloop Katy, under the command of Captain Whipple, Commodore of the Rhode Island Navy, did capture the sloop Diana, a tender to the British Frigate Rose, in the first official naval action against the English.

How this came about is an interesting story involving the fact that the ship Diana was a ship owned by John Brown and had been captured by the British, while the ship Katy was also a ship owned by John Brown. The story starts in April 1775, with activities of John Brown, and the interception of those activities by Captain James Wallace, commander of the English Navy’s Rose, a 20 gun frigate.

After the Lexington conflict in April 1775, Providence merchant John Brown with his sloop Katy, on orders of the General Assembly, removed most of the cannon from Ft. George in Newport Harbor and returned to Providence with 44 cannon of various sizes. Wallace, who was stationed in Newport with his ship the Rose, was furious and on April 26, 1775 he seized the John Brown sloops Diana and Abigail, along with 300 barrels of flour and Brown who was aboard. Wallace sent Brown to Boston on the captured sloop Abigail, for trial before Admiral Graves, as a military matter.

Protests were made by various officials within the colonies. Offers of British prisoners to exchange for Mr. Brown came from many states with even Ethan Allen offering a Major, Captain and two Lieutenants captured at Fort Ticonderoga. By the time Abigail arrived in Boston Admiral Graves found a diplomatic hornets’ nest had erupted over the incident.

John Brown and his brother Moses appeared before the Admiral and General Gage. In a conciliatory atmosphere John Brown signed a pledge to urge cooperation between British and Colonial authorities and were released to return to Rhode Island. In return the British were to pay for the flour seized and order the ships returned to Providence at the cost of the British. John Brown in accordance with his pledge appeared before the General Assembly on May 17th to appeal for negotiation and moderation with the British. The motion passed the lower house but was defeated in the upper house.

With the defeat of the conciliatory motion, Capt. Wallace then made threats against Mr. Brown and refused to return the seized ships to Brown. On the contrary Wallace armed Brown’s seized ships Diana and Abigail, and used the Diana as a tender to HMS Rose. (Whether or not Wallace had Admiral Graves’ tacit consent or was part of a plan to cause renewed effort by Brown to cause the colony to seek peace is not known but no record shows Wallace him being reprimanded for not returning the ships to Brown.)

The now British ships Diana and Rose created a problem for Brown and those merchants who had ships still at sea and not aware of Captain Wallace’s actions. Diana and Rose could come upon these additional ships and seize them because the ships would appear to be Brown’s not English Navy ships.

On June 6, 1775, Diana seized a schooner loaded with supplies for Nantucket of June 6th 1775. The response by Brown was to offer his sloop Katy, which was already armed with 10 four pound carriage guns and smaller swivel guns. Her broad beam, shallow draft along with great spread of canvas made her ideal for the job of stopping his previous ship Diana, now an English ship. Captain Abraham Whipple was in the employment of Brown, so Brown was ready with both ship and crew.

At this point, John Brown wrote to the General Assembly the following letter.

A Gentlemen

Providence, June 12, 1775.

Applycation havg this Day bin made to persons to Risque Mr Hackers Boat, he being goine to the Camp, his Son was in Doubt wiether he Could Concent for her to go for fear his father mought Loose her as well as the one now in the hands of the men of warr, and as both the Boats now held by the men of warr are said to be Detained on Account of their having bin Imployed in the Colonys Service in bringing up the Guns Flour &c. it is Requested that You use your Interest in the Assembly that Sum Effectual Method be Immediately Tacon in Order that the Said Boats be forthwith Delivered up or Tacon.

Sum principle people proposes that if Capt. Wallace will not Deliver them up the Sherriff of the County of Newport be ordered by the Assembly to take him and Commit him to Jail till said Packetts are Delivered, Others thinks that if the Sloop Catey goes out as my Property that it will make me so much more Obnoctious then Any Other person to Capt. Wallace&c that my Vessils and Cargoes will all be tacon as they Came in and I now having 10 sail out, that its unreasonable that the publick Should Desire me to Sacrifise all my privite Interest for the Bennifitt of the Common Cause, Its therefore proposed that the Colony purchass Sum proper Vessill to be used in Garding the Coast, procureing powder or aney Other use they please

I Expect the Catey under the under the Command of Capt. Whipple will go Down with Hackers Boat tomorrow to meet Collo Vernon with his men so as to be Reddy to go out tomorrow nite I mention this that the General Assembly may if then think it worthy of Notice take the Same in to Consideration and Give such Directions in this Matter as they in their Wisdom may think proper.

I am Gentlemen

John Brown

Thereafter, the Rhode Island legislature made its decision to charter two suitable vessels for the use of the colony and fit out the same in the best manner, to protect the trade of this colony which just happened to be the ships Brown had ready and waiting, and further decided to appoint and pay the officers and men Brown had ready and waiting. The ships sailed out to protect the trade of this colony by immediately capturing Brown’s ship Diana back from the English and returning it to Brown. Thus the Navy of what would become the United States had its beginning in the recapture of 300 barrels of flour and two ships of John Brown.