Previous Chapter: The Spirit of ’76
“We are to fire on our own ships sir?
I would rather see them at the bottom of the ocean than in the hands of filthy traitors!”
~ Sir George Brydges Rodney before the Battle of the Windward Passage
Excerpt from Douglas Oswald’s “Annotated History of the American Revolution”, University of Michigan Press, 1932.
As the Americans celebrated their formal declaration of independence in the summer of 1776 it is important to remember that the British were by no means defeated. Despite the loss of captured ships, the Royal Navy was still by far the strongest in the world. The Royal Army was highly trained and professionalized (augmented with professional German mercenaries) compared to the colonial militias and ragtag continental army. The sophisticated British economy and London’s financial capabilities meant that the Crown should be able to afford an unexpected rebellion. Furthermore, there was a general misunderstanding among the British populace about the colonial rebellion. To the common Englishman or Scotsman the revolution was little more than a severe public disturbance. There was a real belief that loyal colonials, as well as Royal forces, were surprised and caught off guard by rabble-rousers. British Prime Minister Lord Frederick North believed that a proper show of professional force by the Crown would intimidate the American mob and inspire loyalists to arms of their own.
Having lost most of their North American territory to the revolutionaries, the British were frustrated to find adequate staging grounds for a counterattack. It was decided that the bulk of British forces destined for the mainland colonies would depart from Bermuda while troops and naval forces meant to reconquer the Caribbean would mass in East Florida, at the old Spanish fortress at St. Augustine, and proceed from there. The sheer size of the war effort caused London to divide commanded into three phases. General William Howe would lead an expeditionary force from Bermuda to Long Island and attempt to capture New York City. Success would divide New England from the more southerly colonies, further hamstringing the colonial war effort. Sir Henry Clinton took his forces to St. Augustine to lead to the war effort against Georgia and the other southern mainland colonies. Also operating from St. Augustine would be Commander Sir George Brydges Rodney who would lead the Royal Navy’s war effort to retake the Caribbean.
The first clash of the renewed war came on August 12, 1776 when Rodney’s fleet clashed with a small continental naval patrol attempting to guard the Bahamanian capital of Nassau. The British scattered the colonial flotilla and Royal Marines retook their first colonial capital. Rodney toasted his officers with captured Caribbean rum but grimly noted in his diary:
“While we did not receive any true resistance once our men were dispatched upon the island neither were we received in good spirits. Indeed the mood here is decidedly dour and instead of restorers of order I cannot help but feel the same tension that we felt upon taking Martinique .”
Rodney desired to proceed to Jamaica and retake the jewel of the British Empire in the Caribbean but erred on the side of caution and opted to let the hurricane season pass. With plans to move to Jamaica in December, if the weather proved favorable, the commander settled in for the remainder of the summer, happy to support Clinton’s efforts against the southern mainland.
Clinton, having massed his forces in St. Augustine, was planning an expedition that would secure the southern port cities of Savannah, Charleston and Wilmington. Clinton hoped that by taking the population centers of the southern mainland, and appealing to recent immigrants and slaves, he could rally a loyalist cause against the rebellion and retake control of the colonies. Savannah fell with relative ease in November of 1776. To his disappointment, the large scale rally of loyalists never occurred and he spent much of the winter consolidating Georgia.
The northern campaign was much more perilous than the southern operations. Unlike Rodney and Clinton who could operate from nearby St. Augustine, Howe prepared and led an extensive landing force from Bermuda all the way to Long Island. Luckily for the British, weather that October was favorable and the landing caught the continentals by surprise. The Royal Marines defeated the New York militia on the island and the British were able to move in and bloodlessly capture the city. Howe secured and fortified New York for the winter, content to let the colonials suffer in the brutal cold, keeping watch while his forces consolidated their position and prepared for the 1777 campaign season. Just to keep the continentals on their toes and provide his forces with some breathing room, his forces took Princeton and Trenton in November just as the winter began to hit. Washington himself had to rush from New England, cross the Hudson, and into Pennsylvania to take control of the continental army and defend Philadelphia.
As the winter of 1776-1777 struck in full force, the continentals suddenly found themselves in a precarious situation. As Washington was inspecting fortifications outside of Trenton on Christmas Day, a dispatch made its way to him that boosted the spirits of the revolutionary cause.
On December 3, 1776 Rodney led a considerable fleet of vessels, including several troop ships filled with Royal Marines, from Nassau towards Jamaica. As the British fleet began to pass through the Windward Passage, rounding the Punta de Quemado on the eastern tip of Cuba, they were shocked to find a formidable fleet of continental ships, well organized and waiting in ambush. Unbeknownst to Rodney, he just met the young upstart Commodore of the Continental Navy, William Briggs. What Rodney did not know was that he and Briggs had more history than he knew of.
Excerpt from Dr. Samuel Hastings “Midshipmen and Marines: The Men Who Built the United States Navy”, Random House, 1987.
“To every school aged child, William Nathaniel Briggs is known as the father of the United States Navy. Despite his legendary stature, there are precious few sources about his early life. His father, John Nathaniel Briggs, was from Yorkshire but appears to have moved to Liverpool with William’s mother when William was a child. No sources are available about Mrs. Briggs but it appears Mr. Briggs found his way into a debtor’s prison in 1761. The 11-year old William found work as a powder monkey aboard a Royal Navy vessel. The only available primary sources about him jumps from the record of his birth to his name enrolled aboard the HMS Sutherland. Thus began Briggs’ naval career. Briggs served at the tail-end of the Seven Years War , participating in the Battle of Martinique in 1762, ironically as part of the fleet of Sir George Brydges Rodney who he would later take on at the infamous Battle of the Windward Passage. Briggs quickly worked his way up the Royal Navy’s ranks before stalling as a boatswain around 1773. Having come from humble beginnings and working his way up the ranks, he was not considered a gentleman of high enough social rank to become an officially commissioned officer, this despite his more than worthy naval record and the high degree of esteem in which even his superiors held him. Ultimately, this divide between nobility and commoners at sea, and the lack of merit advancement, disillusioned Briggs from the Royal Navy. Unlike countless navy veterans from years past who simply had to swallow their ambition and continue as far as their sealegs would take them, Briggs had the good fortune of finding himself stationed in the Caribbean just before the American Revolution. In between patrols, Briggs began to frequent local taverns where Caribbean patriots were having the same discussions their counterparts were having on the American Main . Eventually his focus turned from the rum that had initially lured him and towards the hushed whispers of revolution that occurred around him…”
Excerpt from Douglas Oswald’s “Annotated History of the American Revolution”, University of Michigan Press, 1932.
“Throughout the fall of 1775, Briggs helped the leeward island colonies organize their small local rebellions. As a longtime veteran of the Royal Navy in the Caribbean and a natural leader with great charisma and skill, he commanded respect amongst his peers. Throughout the Caribbean, as islands revolted and fell like dominoes, Briggs would suddenly appear and lead a lightning takeover of sleeping Royal Navy ships, add them to the rebellion’s naval registry, and disappear as quickly as he arrived . His legend as a commander that was always one-step ahead of the confounded British, and his ability to take ships with little bloodshed, landed him the unenviable task of building the Continental Navy from the ground up. The Continental Congress appointed him the Commodore-in-Chief of the navy and he began organizing sailors and ships in a way meant to defend the distant coasts of North America but also, more importantly, the extremely vulnerable and fabulously wealthy sugar islands of the Caribbean.
Just as Commander Rodney was taking Nassau, Briggs predicted the British plan to strike from the north into the Caribbean Basin. In a gamble, he placed some ships near the Virgin Islands in case the British attacked from the Bahamas southeastward towards the Leeward Islands but took the bulk of his fleet to Jamaica. Briggs bet that Rodney would be determined (and pressured by London) to retake Spanish Town, the capital and chief port of Jamaica, and secure the large island before the rebels became entrenched, or worse, the Spanish or French invade and took the island for themselves. After all it was no secret that the Spanish had never forgiven or forgotten the British capture of Jamaica over a century before.
Briggs’ gamble paid off . Rodney took his fleet south towards Jamaica and when word arrived of the plan, Briggs organized his fleet and resolved to ambush the British off the coast of Cuba.
The Battle of the Windward Passage is one of the stunning defeats in Royal Navy history. The continentals blindsided Rodney’s fleet, catching them completely off guard. Furthermore, the size of the Continental fleet initially made Rodney think that a French or Spanish fleet had ambushed his own. Unsure if either great power was in the war, or if they had simply stumbled on another fleet by happenstance, the various British captains and Rodney himself were unsure if a battle was even about to occur. This further exasperated the British situation as the initial confusion gave the Continentals somewhere between ten and thirty minutes to organize their ships and make initial opening shots before the British knew they were definitely in a battle and the enemy was colonials on captured British ships.
The continentals were dealing catastrophic damage even before the British began organizing. Initial American maneuvers cost Rodney several lead ships before effective lines formed up. American lines were able to squeeze the British towards the Cuban coast where they struggled to maintain organization while piloting through shallows and reefs. This gave the Americans a decided advantage that sunk, and damaged, several more British ships. Despite the severe situation, British crews showed remarkable resolve. Their shots were far more accurate than the Americans, and their discipline well maintained despite the ambush. The British sunk and damaged several Continental ships despite all of their advantages and one wrecked itself on an unexpected shoal. Much to Briggs’ frustration the Royal Navy was simply more professional than his own sailors. Despite this flaw in Continental discipline, he had executed the ambush to as near perfection. This is a remarkable feat given that the continentals had thrown their navy together over the preceding weeks and months.
To the Briton’s credit, they almost recovered from the ambush until a stray shot plunged into the Duke of Cumberland‘s powder magazine. The lucky hit detonated the 90-gun second rate ship-of-the-line, the second largest ship in Rodney’s fleet behind his own 100-gun first rate, the Royal George, arguably the most powerful ship in the world and easily the largest and most dangerous in the Caribbean. Further to his credit, Rodney likely could have bludgeoned Briggs’ fleet into submission with the Royal George alone but after the explosion of the Duke of Cumberland (which resulted in damage to neighboring Continental and Royal Navy ships), the losses were piling up. Already, the battle resulted in damage to several troop transport ships with several beaching on Cuba; without soldiers to occupy Jamaica the entire operation would prove useless.
His hand forced, Rodney signaled a retreat. The Continentals sunk three ships-of-the-line, dealt significant damage to four more, forced four ships to beach on Cuba, and sunk or damaged an additional five support ships. The Americans captured two brigantines and a frigate from boarding operations. In all, the British lost 628 sailors and marines (most from the Duke of Cumberland) and the Americans captured an additional 592. Three days after the battle, 418 exhausted, wounded and hungry sailors stumbled into the Cuban town of Baracoa. British and Spanish diplomats bickered over the sailors (soon to be interned in Santiago) for months before they eventually returned to Portsmouth in late 1777.
The rebels savored their hard fought victory but the price proved steep. Two Continental ships-of-the-line were sunk, three more severely damaged and two frigates were so damaged the rebels were forced to sink them. Every ship in the Continental fleet took at least some damage and suffered at least two deaths. A stray shot even mangled the top of Briggs’ left ear (though he would wear his scarred ear proudly until the end of his life). Who knows how differently history would have played out had the wind pushed the shot a few inches aside? Nevertheless, Briggs and the fledgling Continental Navy had taken on the Royal Navy head to head and come out victorious. Amazingly, the American Caribbean had survived the first swing from the Crown.
The victory on the seas that winter emboldened the spirit of colonials on the mainland whose newfound liberty was suddenly looking precarious with Royal armies in Georgia and New York. What neither side knew was that 1777 would see highs and lows for both the rebels and the Crown, the opening of two new fronts, and a battle that would turn the tide of the war.
———- Author’s Notes ———-
: Rodney led the British attack and capture of French Martinique during the French and Indian War.
: In our timeline the French and Indian War is the American name for the Seven Years War, which is the common British name for the same war (among several other local variations). In this timeline, the French and Indian War is the name for the war theather in North America, the Seven Years War is the name for that war’s European theater, and the Third Carnatic War is the name of the war in Asia. They can be used interchangeably but often maintain their local names.
: “American Main” being a colloquialism from in this time that roughly equates to the North American mainland. It is basically the Anglo-American equivalent of referring to Mexico, Central America, Colombia and Venezuela as the “Spanish Main” and indicated the closer relationship between the Caribbean islands and the North American colonies as opposed to out timeline where the Caribbean was much closer to Europe for decades longer (with many small islands remaining as European dependencies to this day).
: This strategy is impossible without Briggs’ use of the Stranger’s future technology. Most Royal Navy sailors, even if stationed in the Caribbean, would be from the British Isles and in no hurry to assist with a rebellion against their homeland to the benefit of some sugar islands. While all of the British Caribbean islands at the time had populations not involved in the sugar plantation or the slave trade, these people were few and far between. Just about every sugar island followed the same layout: 90% of land dedicated to sugar crops, a principal port and defense town (often the one that became the capital upon independence), and a few small villages in between. Everything revolved around growing, refining and exporting sugar. Outside of some small gardens they did not even dedicate land to growing food because it wasn’t economical; instead of food was shipped in from the mainland. One of the reasons France would sell Louisiana to the United States in our timeline is because the loss of Haiti made Louisiana useless to Paris. Louisiana primary existed to grow food for the French sugar colonies. In addition, the majority of the population would be a continuously imported stream of African slaves who were then worked to death. There were very few white settlers on the islands and almost all were either stationed for military duty, worked in the principal port in a skill position (blacksmith, dockmaster, etc.), or acted as plantation overseers. Unlike the American South where the plantation owners actually lived on the plantations themselves, most sugar plantation owners lived in Britain and owned and operated their plantations remotely. It was a very different set up from the colonial economy of the United States which actually developed its own internal economy and gave slaves luxuries unheard of in the Caribbean (as amazing as that sounds). This allowed a population of native born slaves to establish themselves and actually grow in number. In our timeline there was some passive support from the British Caribbean to the rebelling colonies and the Second Continental Congress even sent a letter to the Assembly of Jamaica almost apologizing for the interference of commerce between the mainland and Jamaica. However the power of the Royal Navy, the economic structure of the islands, the lack of settled population, the sheer size of the slave population, and the distance involved all prevented any serious thought of the rebellion spreading to the Caribbean (unlike in Canada where thought of spreading the revolution north was very real). In this timeline however, the Order of Freedom is able to push the issue more seriously and readily among the populations that do exist and inspire the revolution to expand south. Briggs is able to use the technology to island hop and organize rebellions while also outmaneuvering British ships and capturing many intact for the continental navy. Through the technology, the Order is able to create solidarity across the Caribbean and organize a formidable navy which has significantly changed the geopolitical and economic course of the war that we know from our timeline.
: Is it a gamble if you know what the other guy is going to do?
Next Chapter: The Times That Try Mens Souls