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USS Alfred (1774)


Man-of-War Sailing Warship


The 30-gun USS Alfred man-of-war began life as the merchantman Black Prince in 1774.
Authored By: JR Potts, AUS 173d AB | Edited: 5/2/2019
National Flag Graphic

Specifications


Year: 1774
Status: Decommissioned, Out-of-Service
Ships-in-Class: 1
Named Ships: USS Alfred (Black Prince; Black Princess; H.M. armed shup Alfred (20 guns))
Roles:
Complement: 220
Length: 140 ft (42.67 m)
Width: 32 ft (9.75 m)
Height: 15 ft (4.57 m)
Displacement (Surface): 450 tons
Propulsion: None. Wind-powered via sails across three-masts.
Speed (Surface): 10 kts (12 mph)
Range: Essentially Unlimited
Operators: Colonial America; United States; United Kingdom
The Alfred became a 30 gun man-of-war (20 x 9-pounder cannons and 10 x 6-pounder cannons, both smoothbore) for the burgeoning Continental Navy of the United States on November 4, 1775. After centuries of depleting her own hardwood forests, Europe sought merchant shipbuilding in Colonial America thanks to the natural rich source of timber lands. The Alfred was 140-foot long, 32-foot wide design drawing 15-feet of water. The Alfred was born as a three-masted, 450-ton merchant ship and built in 1774 at the Philadelphia docks, possibly by John Wharton. She was launched the same year under the name of "Black Prince" in honor of Edward, eldest son to King Edward III of England.

The situation between England and her American colonies were deteriorating for some time now. Colonists were growing in number and taking armed action against their British overseers. It was deemed probable that American commerce in the Atlantic would soon become a major target of the mighty British Royal Navy. As such, Benjamin Franklin, serving as the American ambassador of the Continental Congress to France, authorized a squadron of ships to be used to capture British ships and crews in exchange for imprisoned American naval personnel being held in England in Mill Prison at Plymouth and Forton Prison at Portsmouth. The ships captured were HMS Black Prince, HMS Black Princess and HMS Fearnot. The voyage was a success as the colonists claimed 35 total British ships as war prizes and captured some 161 British naval prisoners. The Black Prince returned to Philadelphia on April 25th, 1775, having missed out on the famous opening Battle of Lexington and Concord.

The Black Prince also yielded valuable intelligence that the British Government was sending two unarmed brigs with a cargo of gunpowder and arms to British troops stationed in the American colonies. This prompted Congress to authorize the fitting of two American warships of 10 guns each in an attempt to capture these incoming vessels and their valuable cargo to help equip the soldiers of Washington's army. John Barry, a Philadelphia merchantman ship owner, had purchased the Black Prince. Knowing of the upcoming revolution in the colonies, he offered the ship for purchase to the colonists. On October 30th, 1775 the American Congress decided to add two more ships to their navy - a 20-gun and 30-gun vessel, the latter becoming the Black Prince, renamed as the Alfred. The Naval Committee purchased four total ships on November 4th, 1775 and outfitted them for war. Her former owner, Mr. Barry, joined the American Revolution and headed the refit project along with Joshua Humphrey and Nathaniel Falconer. Soon the Continental Navy comprised of a small number of capable warships - the 30-gun USS Alfred, the 28-gun USS Columbus, the USS Cabot and the USS Andrew Doria (both 14-gun brigs) as well as the USS Providence, a 12-gun sloop. Taking command of the fleet was the newly appointed Commodore Esek Hopkins from Rhode Island, described as a master seaman.

USS Alfred was commissioned on December 3rd, 1775, with Captain Dudley Saltonstall at the helm and acted as Commodore Hopkins' flagship. However, the small fleet could make little headway early on as they became locked in the freezing Delaware River. For six weeks the fleet remained as such until a February 18th thaw allowed the ships to sail for Hampton Roads on their first mission. The fleet would be charged with attacking British ships who themselves were assailing American vessels in Virginia waters. However, Commodore Hopkins became aware that the British had overwhelming strength in the Chesapeake Bay so he turned the fleet towards Nassau in the West Indies to provide firepower against Fort Montague - a British-held installation containing some much-needed gunpowder supplies. Continental Marines were sent ashore, commanded by Captain Samuel Nicholas, and, without firing a shot, the fort was taken during the "Battle of Nassau". This marked the first American amphibious landing in their short history. Hopkins gave British Governor Montfort Browne 24 hours to surrender, though this allowed Browne time enough to move most of the powder to British forces in St. Augustine, Florida. When the fort was finally surrendered, cannon and the remainder of the powder was acquired. Interestingly enough, the British chose not to render their cannon useless to their conquerors.

The American fleet sailed from Nassau harbor on March 17th and came upon the British 6-gun schooner, HMS Hawk, and the 8-gun bomb brig, HMS Bolton - capturing both. On April 6th, Hopkins spotted the 20-gun frigate HMS Glasgow along the horizon and a battle ensued with the Glasgow giving as good as she got before making off after giving Alfred a direct hit on the tiller ropes, stopping the American flagship's ability to maneuver. The fleet made for New London, Connecticut on April 8th. The local populace welcomed the ships and crew but soon the fleet's officers came together against Hopkins forcing him to be relieved of his command. Hopkins went down in American history as the first Commodore and its only Commander-in-Chief that the United States Navy ever had. USS Alfred failed to participate in the pivotal actions of the summer of 1776 for she lacked capable proven seamen and there existed a general lack of funds to keep her active in any regard.

On August7th, having now been promoted to the rank of captain, Captain John Paul Jones was placed in command of the vessel. It was Jones himself who participated in arming the Alfred some time before and had served as 1st lieutenant on the voyage out to New Providence. After normal repairs were completed and taking on additional stores, she departed Providence, Rhode Island on October 26th, 1776. Sailing with her was the USS Hampdon who struck a rock and was forced to return to Newport for repairs. The crew was relocated to the sloop Providence and both vessels set a course for Cape Breton Island. Upon arriving, the group claimed the HMS Active, the HMS Mellish (containing winter gear for her British troops) and the cargo ship Kitty, her hold full of oil and fish. USS Providence had sprung a number of leaks that needed addressing and departed from the group. On November 22nd, Alfred sent her men ashore to raid Canso, Nova Scotia, where their crews burned a transport ship and claimed a small schooner.

Two days later, Alfred claimed three colliers loaded with coal off of Louisburg, Nova Scotia. Two days after that, she captured the British 10-gun sloop HMS John. Alfred arrived in Boston on December 15th to undergo a refit. Captain John Paul Jones, having a successful cruise, was relieved for other duties by Captain Elisha Hinman. Hinman was formally installed as captain of the Alfred in May of 1777. In August, the vessel set sail for French waters for supplies. Four more enemy vessels were captured along the way. After loading the much needed supplies, she sailed back to America in December. Another sloop was claimed on the route home. On March 9th, 1778 Alfred was sighted by the two British warships - HMS Ariadne, a 20-gun post ship, 6th rate and HMS Ceres, an 18-gun sloop.




Realizing they were outgunned, the American ships took flight. However, USS Alfred could not keep up with her group and fell behind, allowing the schooner to escape. The two men-of war vessels closed in on the Alfred and asked for a surrender to which Alfred replied with a broadside and a battle ensued. The battle had proven more than the Alfred could handle on her own and she and her crew was eventually forced to surrender. She was handed over to the British and taken to Barbados, eventually sold to the Royal Navy and renamed as "H.M. armed ship Alfred (20 guns)". She was then sold and broken up in 1782, ending her relatively short reign of the seas for the Americans.

Many recognized the USS Alfred as the first "true" warship of the Continental Navy. Captain John Paul Jones first flew the Grand Union Flag in 1775 (also known as the Continental flag) and this became the first "true" American flag to fly from her masts. The flag combined the colors of the British monarchy with the thirteen stripes of the American colonies (signifying colonial unity). George Washington approved of this design and chose it to be flown in celebration of the formation of the Continental Army on New Years Day in 1776.






Armament



20 x 9-pdr smoothbore cannons
10 x 6-pdr smoothbore cannons

Air Wing



None.
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