On 12 July 1776, two British ships, the 40-gun Phoenix and the 20-gun Rose, along with the schooner Tryal and two tenders, took advantage of the tide and the wind and sailed up the North (or Hudson) River about three in the afternoon. Besides testing the American batteries, it appears the British also wanted to block American supplies from crossing the river and boost the morale of the loyalists in the area. The British ships sailed past Red Hook, Governor’s Island and the southern tip of Manhattan, staying closer to the Jersey shore. American batteries for three miles upriver fired upon the ships, starting at Red Hook and Governor’s Island, then Paulus Hook and the Battery at the tip of Manhattan Island, and continuing once the ships reached the batteries at Forts Washington and Lee further up the river.[i]
The British did not return fire until they were abreast of Paulus Hook, facing fire from the American guns there. General Washington reported to John Hancock, “a heavy and incessant Cannonade was kept up from our several Batteries” while the British “returned and continued the fire as they run by.” A report was received that the British fire was effective.“Several shot went thro’ different houses in the town; two into the house of Mr. Verdine Elsworth, at Powlis Hook.”[ii]
By half past four, the British ships had passed all of the lower batteries. One hundred and ninety-six shots were fired at the ships, twenty-seven from Paulus Hook. It appears the ships suffered little damage, besides to the sails and rigging. A deserter from the Rose reported that his ship received six 12-pound shot, “which took off the Thigh of one Man & Leg of two others,” though he was unsure of the damage done to the Phoenix. Henry Knox reported to his wife that he “was so unfortunate as to lose six men by accidents, and a number wounded.” The ships received another cannonade from the Americans when they sailed past Forts Washington and Lee about 12 miles further upriver, but they again suffered little damage. The British ships anchored at Tarrytown, New York, where they stayed until the 16th before proceeding further up the Hudson to Haverstraw, near Fort Montgomery.[iii]
The Phoenix and Rose remained stationed near Fort Montgomery in New York until early August. Sailing back downriver, the two ships met at least six American galleys near Tarrytown, New York, about ten miles north of the New Jersey border, just after noon on 3 August.[iv] A battle lasting about two hours ensued. At just before one in the afternoon the Phoenix opened the engagement with a shot that was returned by the Lady Washington, the latter which went through the Phoenix. The flagship, Washington, which was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Benjamin Tupper, and the Spitfire immediately came up in line within grape-shot of the British, and were subject to their broadsides as the Lady Washington fell slightly back. A strong tide kept the Whiting, Shark, Crane, and some whaleboats from joining the action for some time. Following two hours of intense firing Tupper called for the American fleet to withdraw. They retreated south about four miles to Dobbs Ferry, New York, still within sight of the two British ships.
The captains of the Phoenix and the Rose both believed they had done much damage to the American vessels, while suffering little damage themselves. Parker claimed to have received only two shots in the hull of his ship. Along with several shots in the hull of the Rose, Wallace stated that the starboard quarter galley was shot away and some rigging was damaged. He also listed one killed and four wounded.
One of the American sailors aboard the Washington later claimed the ship “had as hot a fire as perhaps ever was known for an Hour and a Half.” That ship, he wrote, “had the Ledgings of her bow Guns knocked away, which prevented our working them, and was otherways considerably damaged, being thirteen Times hulled, had three Shot in her Waist, [and had] many of her Oars carried away” before the battle was broken off. He went on to say that the Lady Washington alone hulled the Phoenix six times, while suffering the loss of her only gun, a thirty-two-pounder, which split. The Shark was hulled four times, and the Whiting and Crane received little damage. The hardest hit galley was the Spitfire. Not immediately realizing that the ship was “Shot between Wind and Water,” the Americans were late to realize how much water she was taking on, though she was able to limp to safety. All of the American vessels received damage to their sails and rigging.[v]
Two weeks later, the American navy made an attempt on the British ships in the Hudson River. The Phoenix and Rose, along with their tenders, sailed downriver once again. The Americans determined to use fireships in an attempt to destroy one of both of the British warships. On the night of the 16th, the warships were anchored about four miles north of Fort Washington, south of Yonkers, New York. That night, around eleven o’clock, someone aboard the Phoenix discovered a vessel close to the Rose’s tender ship, Charlotta. The vessel was hailed, but no answer was given. Before anything could be done, the tender was set aflame. A second American vessel was then set alight alongside the Phoenix. Though confusion set in among the British sailors, someone had enough sense to fire cannons into the flaming American vessel, and the Phoenix left its moorings, sinking the American vessel and sailing away before irreparable damage was done.[vi]
The Charlotta was not as lucky; she burned to the water’s edge. General William Heath reported Lieutenant Landon of Colonel Nichols Regiment with two other men towed the ship to shore while under fire from the cannons of the British ships. Landon, it was written, missed losing his head by only a few inches. The Americans retrieved four cannon – a six-pounder, two three-pounders, and one two-pounder – ten swivel guns, a caboose, two gun barrels, two cutlasses, one crow bar, four grappling hooks, and some chains from the wreck of the tender, as reported by Heath.[vii]
It appears that no one was killed in the attack, although Washington reported “One of the Captains—Thomas—it is to be feared perished in the attempt, or in making his escape by swimming, as he has not been heard of,” and Heath gave account of one man, a Sergeant Smith of Connecticut, who had been aboard the fireboat and jumped overboard to one of the waiting American ships, but “in communicating fire to one of the vessels, got considerably burnt in the face, hands, &c.” and later died of his wounds. Though the Phoenix was only slightly damaged and the Rose was unscathed, Washington believed the Americans had alarmed the British. He was correct; the British ships made plans to sail down the Hudson and past the American batteries to rejoin the fleet, rather than risk further attacks where they had been anchored.[viii]
On 18 August, at five o’clock in the morning, the Phoenix and Rose, with the schooner, the Tryal, and a tender, the Shuldham, made the journey back down the Hudson River. They would have to run the gauntlet of American batteries again. At twenty past five, American fire came from the east side of the river. The British ships returned fire, and as they sailed on and made their way around obstructions that the Americans sank in the river’s channel, they received fire from both shores. Wallace of the Rose and Parker of the Phoenix reported heavy fire from the batteries on the mountain. At 6:30, the British sailed past a number of American galleys on the Jersey shore, and fired at these with little effect. Fifteen minutes later, the ships approached the batteries surrounding New York City, where they faced a constant fire from the Americans. The British stayed closer to the Jersey shore to avoid the larger guns in New York.
Philip Vickers Fithian, an American chaplain, wrote to his wife, “The morning of our Lord’s Day was introduced with a dreadful Noise!” Fithian claimed the heaviest fire was during the time the ships passed between the America’s heaviest guns – “For about four Minutes the Fire was indeed tremendous!” – and a constant barrage continued past “The lower Batteries at New-York; the Powles Hook Batteries; the Gallies which lay between New-York & the Island; & all the Cannon on Governors Island; were every one, like incessant Thundred, rattling on them!”
The British ships returned fire during this time, but little damage was done. Captain Wallace recorded two men wounded on the Rose, while Captain Parker recorded a longboat sunk, and with her “the Stream Cable, a Hawser Oars, &ca &ca.” General Heath wrote to Washington, “the Phoenix was thrice Hull’d by our Shot from Mount Washington, & one of the Tenders once—The Rose was Hull’d once by a Shot from Burdit Ferry—They kept their men close, otherwise some of them wou’d have been pickd down by a Party of Rifle-men who were posted on the bank—They fired Grape Shot as they passed, but did no damage save to one Tent.”[ix]
In less than two weeks, the British would launch an invasion of Long Island, culminating in the British capture of New York and the American retreat across New Jersey.
[i] It was also reported, in the New-York Gazette of 15 July, that a number of shot also went into the house of Capt. Clarke, Daniel Phoenix and Christopher Smith of Greenwich (Naval Documents of the American Revolution Vol. 5. ed. William James Morgan. U.S. Navy Department, Washington, DC, 1970, 1089-90).
[ii] Battles and Skirmishes of the American Revolution in New Jersey, by David C. Munn. Bureau of Geology and Topography, 1976, 30 and the Pennsylvania Journal and Weekly Advertiser, 17 July 1776, qtd. in Documents Relating to the Revolutionary History of the State of New Jersey. Vol. I. Extracts from American Newspapers. 1776-1777. ed. William S. Stryker. The John L. Murphy Publishing Co., Trenton, NJ, 1901, 145-6.
[iii] Archibald Robertson: His Diaries and Sketches in America, 1762-1780. ed. Harry Miller Lydenberg. New York Public Library, New York Times and Arno Press, NY, 1971, 89; Naval Documents of the American Revolution Vol. 5. ed. William James Morgan. U.S. Navy Department, Washington, DC, 1970, 1040, 1042, 1245; Life and Correspondence of Henry Knox, Major-General in the American Revolutionary Army. By Francis S. Drake. Cambridge, John Wilson & Son, 1873, 28-9. Solomon Nash, in his journal, reported 3 wounded.
[iv] After sailing past the American defenses in New York City and New Jersey on 10 July, the Phoenix and Rose anchored at Tarrytown, which is located on the east side of the river at the current Tappan Zee Bridge. There they stayed until the 16th, when they sailed north near to Fort Montgomery, another 20 miles or so upriver.
[v] The accounts of this battle come from documents printed in Naval Documents of the American Revolution Vol. 6. ed. Vice Admiral Edwin B. Hooper. U.S. Navy Department, Washington, DC, 1972 – “Lt. Col. Benjamin Tupper to George Washington from Dobbs’s Ferry,” 3 August 1776, 38; “Journal of H.M.S. Phoenix, Capt. Hyde Parker, Jr., Sun., Aug. 3, 1776 from Tapan-Bay,” 38; “Journal of H.M.S. Rose, Capt. James Wallace, Sun., Aug. 3, 1776 in Hudsons River, NY,” 39; and “A Letter from a Gentleman, who was in the Engagement with the Ministerial Pirates off Tarry-Town, dated Sunday Morning, Aug. 4” (published in the New-York Gazette, Aug. 12, 1776), 49. See also Journal of Solomon Nash, A Soldier of the Revolution, from the original manuscript, ed. Charles I. Bushnell, New York, 1861, 27 and Philip Vickers Fithian of Greenwich, New Jersey Chaplain in the Revolution 1776 Letters to his Wife Elizabeth Beatty Fithian With a Biographical Sketch., by Frank D. Andrews. Vineland, NJ: Smith Printing House, 1932, 26.
The Americans had two men killed, one aboard the Spitfire and one on the Whiting. Among all of the American ships engaged there were between twelve and fourteen wounded. Captain Wallace listed Thomas Mayet as a Marine killed aboard the Rose during the action.
[vi] Capt. Hyde Parker, Jr. of the Phoenix and General William Heath recorded the attack, the reports which can be found in Naval Documents of the American Revolution Vol. 6. ed. Vice Admiral Edwin B. Hooper. U.S. Navy Department, Washington, DC, 1972, on pages 206 and 208.
The captains of the two ships – the Lady Washington galley and Independence – were Captains Fosdyke and Thomas according to American Archives Series 5, Volume 1. “Intelligence from New-York,” 19 August 1776, 983. Fosdyke attempted the attack on the Phoenix and Thomas was lost during the attack on the tender. Local histories claim Ephraim Anderson, an adjutant in the Second New Jersey Battalion, conceived the idea of attacking the British ships using fire ships. (Old Bergen History and Reminiscences. By Daniel Van Winkle. Jersey City: John W. Harrison, 1902, 98).
[vii] Heath’s account can be found in Naval Documents of the American Revolution Vol. 6 on pages 208 and 242.
[viii] “From George Washington to Jonathan Trumbull, Sr., 18 August 1776,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-06-02-0064 [last update: 2014-12-01]). Source: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 6, 13 August 1776 – 20 October 1776, ed. Philander D. Chase and Frank E. Grizzard, Jr. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994, pp. 70–71; and Naval Documents of the American Revolution Vol. 6, 208.
[ix] Ambrose Serle, who was aboard the Eagle during the action, wrote that during the fighting “A young Man came off from the Shore in a Canoe, and got on board the Ships[….]A Captain Hornneck, an Engineer, who came off with him, was drowned by the Canoes striking against the Rose. They tried to save the poor Gentleman, but in vain, as they could not stay for him, being in the midst of the Rebel’s Fire.” Naval Documents of the American Revolution Vol. 6. ed. Vice Admiral Edwin B. Hooper. U.S. Navy Department, Washington, DC, 1972, 225-6, 228; Philip Vickers Fithian of Greenwich, New Jersey Chaplain in the Revolution 1776 Letters to his Wife Elizabeth Beatty Fithian With a Biographical Sketch., by Frank D. Andrews. Vineland, NJ: Smith Printing House, 1932, 28-9; and “To George Washington from Major General William Heath, 18 August 1776,” Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-06-02-0060 [last update: 2014-12-01]). Source: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 6, 13 August 1776 – 20 October 1776, ed. Philander D. Chase and Frank E. Grizzard, Jr. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1994, pp. 63–65.