This is the replica of PROVIDENCE hauled out at Gloucester Marine Railway last winter for some repair work.
Sloop PROVIDENCE was the name she bore while she sailed under the flag of the Continental Navy. Not to be confused with the Frigate PROVIDENCE, an entirely different vessel. Having already been a gunship for the Navy of Rhode Island and before that a successful privateer owned by John Brown of Providence RI who had also operated her as a general cargo vessel; the KATY, before the war. Congress had authorized her purchase, in part because of her previous successes, and she was fitted with two more carriage guns about this time giving her a total of 12 in two batteries of six. The up gunning was only possible because the Navy Board of Congress had 1st claim on all captured ordinance; of which there was high demand and short supply. A vessel of her size and construction would have cannon no heavier than 6 pounders, (the weight of the shot) and likely had, during her active war career a mix of 4 and 6 pound carriage guns and assorted swivel guns of smaller calibre arrayed around her quarterdeck. These swivels were kept below until needed for action and then swiftly brought into place mounted on permanent pillars built into the framing. They were anti-personnel weapons only and aptly nicknamed “murderers”. Positioned high up on the quarterdeck they could sweep the whole of an opposing vessel’s helm, deck and waist, with the efficiency of an enormous shotgun and, once fired, quickly replaced by another equally lethal. They were justly feared by any crew and were highly effective weaponry for privateers whose aim was first and foremost to capture, intact if possible, enemy vessels and their valuable cargoes. This was also, for the most part, true of Continental Navy vessels, especially the smaller ones like the KATY/PROVIDENCE whose primary use was to intercept British supply shipping and divert anything useful to the Continental Army. Using stealth, ruse, superior sailing, aggressive tactics by captain and crew and as often as not dumb luck a privateer or official commerce raider would seek to get within hailing distance of a likely and hopefully unsuspecting target. Hailing distance on any windy day at sea is about 30 yards or less. Get that close and the surprise is sprung by suddenly revealing your carriage guns (whose ports are not marked as on a man-of-war), by suddenly mounting a half dozen “murderers” in commanding positions all around the highest deck and a whole lot of heavily armed men (40 or more) shouting for blood. This will probably be enough to convince even a patriotic British merchant captain sailing shorthanded (6 to 12) because of the Royal Navy Press gangs that the game was not worth the candle. Surrender was the only sensible choice and if armed a token unshotted firing of one gun for honor’s sake, striking of the colors, luffing up and awaiting boarding followed. In the early summer of 1779 the original Sloop PROVIDENCE (whose replica is at the town dock at Wiscasset) was in Boston Harbor awaiting orders and had just completed several local cruises including taking the brig DILIGENT (14 guns) as a prize off Cape Cod. Capt. Hoysted Hacker (pronounced “hoisted”) had been in command since the fall when John Paul Jones had been assigned the ALFRED. Capt. Hacker was himself a Providence son and had likely known the vessel since her days before the war. Being a fore and after rigged craft there were many of the deep-water career Continental captains who felt uncertain as how to best sail her in combat or flight; their careers and experience had been in square rigged ocean traders and it was for just this reason that John Paul Jones had once turned down command of her earlier in the war. But Capt. Hacker knew precisely how to sail her into and out of danger. The word came in late June that the Redcoats were fortifying a harbor on the eastern side of Penobscot Bay near to the mouth of the river called Bagaduce. Their presence was sudden, swift and in force. It cowed the local settler/trader/Indian inhabitants and landed a force of about 1000 of Regular highly trained troops that immediately built palisade and entrenched gun emplacements and did it really well from any strategic viewpoint. But the response in Massachusetts, whose province this was, was also swift and meant to be overwhelming. Three Continental warships, including the WARREN, a 32 gun frigate, were included in the Expedition and a fleet of no less than 17 more armed vessels and another twenty supply sailed within one month of the news of the British landing. This fleet of 40 something sail with an army of nearly equal numbers to the British arrived at the newly fortified harbor on July 25th 1779. The British commander McLean and his naval subordinate Capt. Mowet were as ready for the Americans as they could be but had dispatched a message to New York as soon as the American fleet hove into view. Any help for them that could be sent would be weeks away. Commodore Saltonstall, Continental Navy, was overall naval commander and General Lovell the Army commander. Their collaboration proved to be flawed and despite some setbacks and some extraordinary successes they could not find a way in or chance an all-out combined assault on the fort and harbor. Their efforts to crack the nut seem feeble to us but were fraught with danger and death to the participants. The sub commanders, including Capt. Hacker, felt a combined assault was feasible but only a combined assault was likely to succeed with reasonable casualties. It never happened. Time passed and despite warnings that a British fleet was at sea the fort remained untaken. An American militia army faced two battalions of Britain’s best on shore and that little harbor that swirled with tidal currents, rocks, shoal water and four Royal Navy warships anchored bow to stern making a solid wall of gun muzzles just seemed too dangerous to sail into. Imagination was lacking and procrastination fatal. Late in the afternoon of August 13th the vanguard of the British relief fleet began appearing at the mouth of Penobscot Bay. The entrapment of the Massachusetts fleet was complete; not a single vessel of any size would escape. The retreat itself quickly took on the air of a comically slow motion disaster. Anyone who has sailed the waters of the Penobscot in mid-August knows of the late day calms and slow drifting on tide currents. The soldiers abandoned all positions ashore as ordered but the reembarkment became increasingly chaotic. All the while the British fleet is visible a few miles away and closing slowly. The transports and supply vessels are headed off like a herd of sheep into the narrows of the river Penobscot and will beach and burn themselves before the next day is done. Two vessels of the Americans make a run for the western shore beyond Islesboro but are intercepted and beach and scuttle themselves to release the crews to the woods ashore. The management or lack of it of the fighting vessels was augmented by the light airs and already scattered condition of the fleet. What messages passed between officers were done so by rowing between craft. The whole, rapidly disintegrating expedition became beyond management in the long dusk, evening and night and PROVIDENCE was right in the thick of it with orders vaguely sent which sent her upstream all the way to what would become Bangor and Brewer at the head of navigation and tide. There were orders from somewhere to fortify at that spot but it made no sense to the few soldiers and sailors assembled there. The only intelligence they got of their own forces was nothing but bad news and so the decision was made by individual captains to scuttle and burn their own craft. It must have been a sight to see; at least nine vessels were reported to be there with PROVIDENCE and the burning must have lit the river like daylight. Her bones and those of all the others are still there in the Penobscot. The remains of at least two of the fleet have been located and identified but I could find nothing that exactly locates the site of the PROVIDENCE. There has been, in recent decades, some excellent archeological efforts to pin point fleet wrecks and more may now be known. There are artifacts recovered that are on display at several local museums and state and college archives. Twice there were major efforts to recover cannon from the wrecks with no small success. But much still lies buried in Penobscot mud. The Navy still has ownership of all remains wherever to be found and private attempts to recover anything are illegal and foolishly dangerous. So ended the story of the original Sloop PROVIDENCE, her captain and crew walking home overland. Capt. Hacker’s part in the farce was small and he gave testimony now in the public record. The material loose of the fleet; vessels, ordinance and supply, was enormous and it has been suggested that the condemnation of Commodore Saltonstall, a man whose record of command was sterling up till, by the Massachusetts’ Court was a secret effort to spread the loss and lay a major portion of the cost on the Continental Congress. I recommend the Penobscot Expedition by George E. Buker for an alternative to the conventional judgement of Saltonstall and the conduct of the siege. Despite her inglorious end the record of Sloop PROVIDENCE and the brave men who sailed her to make an infant cause live and her singular place as the first war-craft commissioned by the Continental Navy (a fluke of timing but it is true) made her the vessel to represent the best that Little Rhody had to offer for the Glorious Bicentennial of 1976. That Sloop PROVIDENCE is currently in the hands of Maine craftsmen being thoroughly overhauled for her new service on the Potomac. Her story to date will be my next article.