USS Wasp (1775)
8-gun Schooner Warship
The USS Wasp led a relatively short life for the US Navy, being commissioned in 1775 and lost in 1777.
Authored By: JR Potts, AUS 173d AB | Last Edited:
The short-lived eight-gun schooner USS Wasp was born as a two-masted merchantman known as the "Scorpion". The Continental Congress purchased the Scorpion in June of 1775 and commissioned the vessel as a warship in December of that year. The ship was armed with 8 x 2-pounder cannons and 6 x "swivel guns". Schooner-type vessels were purposefully designed to be fast in the water thanks to their shallow draught construction and their sails were rigged across multiple masts with the forward one being no taller than the rear ones. The schooner proved popular for the period and most every nation with a viable navy utilized the class. In fact, the British Royal Navy schooner HMS Pickle was one such vessel selected to carry the news of Lord Nelson's victory (and death) at Trafalgar to Britain mainly due to her excellent speed and windward ability. As such, schooners found a home across the American Colonies in strong numbers, more than in any other navy at the time. Additionally, they proved popular with all classes of commercial seamen - merchants, slavers, privateers, blockade runners - and could be used in more traditional roles such as fishing. The first of nine American ships to be named "Wasp", the original USS Wasp would go on to begin a proud linage for the infant Continental Navy.
The USS Wasp was assigned to convoy duty along with the USS Hornet on January 14th, 1776. They were charged with guarding a small fleet of ships sailing from the port of Baltimore to the Delaware Capes. It was this sailing action by American warships that became the first sortie ordered by the Continental Navy. They then joined Commodore Esek Hopkins' squadron at the Delaware Capes to which the squadron set sail on February 13th. This particular action marked the first time an American naval squadron was put to sea during wartime (the American Revolution was in full swing, formally beginning on April 19th, 1775 and lasting until September 3rd, 1783). The fleet sailed down the American coast to the Bahamas arriving at Abaco on March 1st. The American plan was for a surprise amphibious assault of US marines against British-controlled New Providence.
USS Wasp and USS Providence were ordered - if need be - to use their guns in protecting the landing which, surprisingly, was not opposed. On the same day, Fort Montague fell with no losses to which the landing force then attacked Nassau and its associated fort - both falling the following day. However, the two-day battle allowed just enough time for the enemy to hide the valuable black powder stores from the attackers. As such, the American invasion party found only 24 casks of gunpowder, some 150 having been removed before arrival. While a logistical disappointment, some 90 iron cannon and 15 brass mortars were confiscated and reconstituted for use by the burgeoning US Navy. The capture of these military weapons and supply stores became one of the first successful American naval raids in its short history. The American fleet then sailed out on March 17th and set course for New England, the fleet arriving there as heroes. The Wasp was then released from the squadron to make her way back to Philadelphia for minor repairs. She arrived there on April 4th, 1776.
On April 23rd, USS Wasp began active patrol of the Delaware River and Delaware Bay. On May 5th, two British warships entered the bay - the 44-gun HMS Roebuck and the 28-gun HMS Liverpool. These ships and crew had proven themselves in battles prior, having captured several American ships as prizes. Wasp was not seen by the British look outs and, being knowingly out-gunned, set sail for the protection offered by Christiana Creek. The shallow water of the creek could be used to the American advantage for the larger deeper British ships would run aground if following.
As luck would have it, the HMS Roebuck herself ran aground within the bay itself. The Wasp and thirteen allied galley ships attacked her and the HMS Liverpool. The battle raged for two days until the American ships forced the British warships to withdraw downriver. Some of the former British prizes present were liberated by the Americans while the USS Wasp captured the British brigantine "Betsey". The Wasp continued to sortie the river, bay and coastline and netted three additional captured enemy ships by the end of the year. In December, Wasp freed the USS Success, a vessel taken by HMS Roebuck back in May of 1776.
In the latter half of 1777, USS Wasp was active in the Delaware Capes. She was then assigned to the flotilla protecting Philadelphia from a British fleet commanded by Admiral Sir Richard "Black Dick" Howe. The American flotilla was beaten back as Philadelphia fell in late September. The Wasp and other American ships headed down the Delaware River in an effort to keep control of this important water route. During this "fighting retreat", the Wasp ran aground along the eastern shore of Maryland and caught fire during the battle. The fire increased to the powder room and her powder stores exploded, utterly destroying the vessel. Wasp's commanding officer, Lt. John Baldwin, was held responsible for the loss and subsequently court-martialed for the loss of the vessel. Upon further review of the battle, Baldwin was rightly acquitted of the charge.
Such ended the tenure of the first Wasp in service with the US Navy.