Who Was Commodore Whipple?

by Sally D. Wilson

(Originally published as "Who Was Whipple?" in Revolutionary Portraits: People, Places and Events from Rhode Island's Historic Past, written by members of the Rhode Island Short Story Club [Providence, R.I.: Rhode Island Bicentennial Foundation, 1976], pp. 6-15]. Used with the author's permission.)

Commodore Abraham Whipple

It was one of the strangest paradoxes of American Revolutionary War history that the accomplishments of Abraham Whipple [see his genealogy on the Whipple Website], one of Rhode Island's greatest sea-heroes, patriots and leaders, should now be honored by only two modest written memorials, a street sign bearing his name in Providence and the inscription on a stone marking his grave far from his native Rhode Island. No Rhode Islander could claim as many Revolutionary War "firsts" as Abraham Whipple, but in the last accounting his name is seldom recorded among those colonists of outstanding deeds. Truly he might be called the "forgotten man" of the Continental Navy.

How many historians would recognize the name of Abraham Whipple as the leader of that courageous band of men who, on June 9, 1772, made the Gaspee affair see [www.gaspee.org] the first open, armed opposition to the forces of His Majesty, Britain's King George III, during which the first blood was shed in the Revolutionary War?

When the first American Navy of the Revolution, that of Rhode Island, was created on June 12, 1775, it was Rhode Island's first Commodore, Abraham Whipple, who fired the first authorized naval gun at an English ship on the Atlantic, thereby winning the first official naval battle of the Revolution. It was Commodore Whipple, too, who in 1779 accomplished one of the greatest single exploits in naval history without firing I single shot, capturing ten richly-laden vessels of a Jamaican fleet bound for London.

After the war, it was Whipple who, as a merchant marine commander, first unfurled our American flag in London. Home once more in Rhode Island, Abraham Whipple was honored as one of the members of the first State Legislature.

Abraham Whipple was born in Providence on September 26, 1733, a son of John Whipple, one of the original owners of the Providence Plantations. [Webmaster's note: Actually, Abraham was the son of Noah Whipple, Jr. Captain John Whipple, Abraham's great-great grandfather, moved to Providence in 1658, 22 years after its founding by Roger Williams.] Like many a lad living in this town founded at the headwaters of Narragansett Bay, at an early age Abraham was drawn to the sea, a natural calling in a state that is one third tidewater.

While still a young man he was appointed captain of a merchantman sailing in the West Indian trade, and as a practical mariner he acquired an intimate knowledge of seamanship and navigation and an acquaintance with Northern harbors that was to stand him in good stead during the Revolution.

There is some evidence to show that, under letters of marque, Whipple engaged in privateering during the war with France. In default of a navy, the defense of the American colonists in time of war depended almost entirely upon privateers, fitted out by private enterprise, at the risk of individual owners who were reimbursed, if at all, by booty captured from the enemy. The Government, Royal or Colonial, granted letters of "marque and reprisal" to these adventurers, but was otherwise not responsible for their expenses, their conduct, or their fate. A tenth of the proceeds of a successful expedition was usually returned to the Government which thus became sharer of the profits, though not in the risks of the game. In the employment of such knights errant of the high seas, the colonies merely followed the example of the Mother Country and of Europe.

Whipple won early distinction in the regular service of his government after an apprenticeship in the ranks of the privateers. As a shining example of American pluck and seamanship combined, he was promoted from private to public service. In one cruise in the years 1759-60, as commander of the privateer Gamecock, he is said to have captured thirty-three French prizes, and the value of British vessels that succumbed to his superior skill and energy during the Revolution has been calculated at nearly one million dollars.

As early as 1764 there were rumblings of discontent and of colonial uprisings against the hated armed British vessels moored in Newport harbor for the collection of import duties. As historian Edgar Mahew Bacon phrases it:

"As for little Rhode Island, her manifest destiny was to do things, not to talk or write about them. She had acquired a taste for independence that by the time the struggle with Britain was imminent had become a controlling habit. Rhode Island did not cast off the British yoke--she simply refused to put it on; she denied ever having worn it."

The strenuous efforts made from time to time by the British government to replenish its depleted exchequer by the imposition or collection of duties on American commerce were not less earnest than the efforts of Rhode Island merchants and shipmasters to avoid paying tribute. Finally, on the night of June 9, 1772, the smoldering vengeance of the Rhode Island colonists burst forth into overt action, and the first spark of the conflagration that was to be the Revolution was struck with the Gaspee affair--with Abraham Whipple as leader.

The Gaspee was a British schooner stationed at Newport as a tender of a British sloop of war. In June, 1772, while in pursuit of a colonial trading ship, her captain, a Lieutenant Duddingston, Revenue Officer of the King, suddenly changed course and by so doing grounded his ship on Namquit Point off the coast of Warwick. Knowing that the tide would not rise until midnight, the exasperated citizens saw and seized upon their opportunity for the destruction of the Gaspee. John Brown, one of Providence's most respected merchants, instructed his trusted shipmaster, Abraham Whipple, to collect eight of the largest longboats in the harbor, to have the oars and the rowlocks well muffled to prevent noise, and to place them at Fenno's wharf which was nearly opposite the dwelling of James Sabin who kept a house of board and entertainment for gentlemen. At the beat of a drum the eager citizens crowded to Sabin Tavern on the night of June 9, 1772, and plotted the destruction of H.B.M. Schooner Gaspee.

There were some fifty men who, sworn to secrecy, pushed out from the city wharves that might to float with the tide to Namquit Point on their mission of vengeance. It was long after midnight when they came in sight of the doomed vessel and heard the first hoarse challenge from the watch. Without heeding it they dashed forward, and, as a second challenge came they were at the schooner's side. Abraham Whipple was beginning to answer Lieutenant Duddingston's hail with the words, "I am the sheriff of the county of Kent--" but while he was still speaking a shot rang out, and the King's Revenue Officer fell back wounded. The surprise was complete. The crew, with their wounded commander, were sent ashore and the vessel burned to the water's edge. The first English blood of the Revolution had been shed.

This first blow against British tyranny created intense excitement, not only in Rhode Island, but throughout the American colonies, and instead of allaying the excitement, the investigation that followed kept it at fever heat. It was a powerful incentive to resistance in the minds of the people, whose thoughts were gradually becoming familiar with the idea of armed self-protection against the efforts of the Crown to interfere with their rights and liberties. So loyal were the patriots to their cause, and so united in thought that, although a reward of several hundred pounds was posted for the apprehension and arrest of any of the perpetrators of the audacious act of revolution, not a single man was ever convicted for participation.

As a man of unquestioned patriotism and as a leader, Whipple was early chosen for a salient role in the activities of the smallest colony. The Colonial General Assembly, spurred on by the proddings of leading sea merchant John Brown, directed the committee of safety to charter two vessels to protect the trade of Newport, thereby, (on June 12, 1775,) creating the Rhode Island Navy, the first American Navy of the Revolution. Brown chartered one of his sloops, the Katy, to the infant Navy; and Abraham Whipple, as one of Brown's leading captains was invested with the command of her and a smaller vessel, the Washington.

The newly appointed commodore wasted no time in taking measures to protect the trade of the colony. In a report subsequently addressed to Congress, Whipple stated that he received his appointment on the 15th day of June (1775); that it was made his duty to clear the bay of the tenders belonging to the British frigate Rose then off Newport; and that on the first day of his appointment he discharged this duty by making prize of one of these tenders (the armed sloop Diana) after touching off at her the first cannon fired at any part of His Majesty's Navy in the Revolutionary struggle. The Katy's fire power was vastly greater in the match so after half an hour the British abandoned the Diana on the rocks off Conanicut Island (Jamestown) and escaped with no casualties, while Whipple calmly towed the Diana back to Providence. When the British frigate Rose, commanded by Sir James Wallace, sailed up the bay to investigate, Newport citizens were able to recapture five out of the six Newport merchant ships that Wallace had previously confiscated. So ended the first naval battle of the Revolution.

As a result of this action, relations between the Katy and the Rose were both prolonged and acrimonious. Though Whipple was ill-equipped to come to grips with the Rose, his courage and spirit were equal to any continency. Another incident further provoked Wallace's ire. While the Rose was absent on one of her many foraging expeditions, this time to Fisher's Island, Commodore Whipple boldly sailed into Newport Harbor and loaded all the remaining cannon from Fort George, Goat Island, aboard the Katy and transported them to Providence for the use of the Continental forces. Finally the exasperated Englishman wrote a note to the perverse American reminding him of his share in burning the Gaspee several years before. The celebrated correspondence is as follows:

From Captain Sir James Wallace of the Rose:

You, Abraham Whipple, on the 10th of June, 1772, burned His Majesty's vessel, the Gaspee, and I will hang you at the yard-arm. --James Wallace

To which note, more curt than courteous, Whipple replied with equal brevity, dispatch and touch of dashing humor:

To Sir James Wallace, Sir:

Always catch a man before you hang him. --Abraham Whipple

The irate Wallace finally threatened to bombard Newport for not supplying him with food, or for harboring rebel troops, for not returning his deserters, but in the last determination he knew that Newport was too valuable to do more than just threaten.

In August, 1775, more vessels were secured for defense, and the Rhode Island delegates to Congress were instructed:

"to use their whole influence for building, at the Continental expense, a fleet of sufficient force for the protection of these colonies, and for employing them in such manner and places as will most effectually annoy our enemies and contribute to the common defense of these colonies."

This movement on the part of Rhode Island led directly to the establishment of the National Navy. Congress met on September 5, and by October 3 a congressional committee was instructed to procure three vessels, one of fourteen guns, one of twenty, and one of thirty-six for the protection and defense of the United Colonies.

It might be said that the Navy of the United States was born in Rhode Island, for not only did she build and man some of the very earliest vessels to take to the sea against England, thereby providing many more times than her proportionate share of such vessels during the war, but Rhode Island also gave the country more captains and other naval officers than any of the other states. The first Commander-in-Chief of the newly formed National navy was Rhode Islander, Esek Hopkins. [See his Whipple ancestry on the Whipple Website.] Even though he was called the first Commodore of the American Navy, his exploits and bravery were hardly as bright or as courageous as those of Abraham Whipple. According to historian Dr. Samuel Prescott Hildreth, no man in the Continental Navy ever excelled Whipple for stern, rigid discipline. His accomplishments warrant his being ranked with the illustrious John Paul Jones and the redoubtable Captain John Barry.

So the Continental Navy was born, and Esek Hopkins of North Providence, fifth-seven years old, a brother of a member of the Naval Committee, and a brigadier-general in the service of his state, received the appointment of Commander-in-Chief. It was desirable that he repair to Philadelphia as soon as possible with as many officers and men as he could enlist. The Rhode Island Council of War thereupon dispatched the sloop Katy, under the command of Commodore Whipple, to Philadelphia to transport Commander Hopkins with his men, with orders to remain in the service of Congress in case any armed vessels were directed to cruise off New England, and if not, to return home.

Whipple's ship was retained in the Naval service, and her name was changed from Katy to Providence. [Visit the Sloop Providence web site.] (Naval records show that there were three vessels named Providence during the Revolutionary War.) The proposed naval armament was increased, and Commodore Whipple was appointed to the command of the ship Columbus. A listing dated December 22, 1775 gives Abraham Whipple the honor of second-ranking captain in the service, but there is reason to believe the selection was arbitrary and not entirely agreeable to those holding commissions. An official list from the Journals of Congress as of October 10, 1776 gives Whipple's rank as twelfth. On the same list John Paul Jones ranks eighteenth.

Abraham's Commission from the Congress of the United States, October 10, 1776

Abraham's Commission from the Congress of the United States, October 10, 1776
(Courtesy of Ralph W. Lange [valnal@frontier.com])

The new Navy under Hopkins left the Capes of Delaware on February 17, 1776. It consisted of the ships Alfred (the first flagship of the Continental Navy) under Captain Dudley Saltonstall and Columbus under Captain Abraham Whipple; the brigs Andrea Doria and Cabot; the sloops Providence (formerly Katy) and Hornet, and the schooners Wasp and Fly.

The original plan was for the cruise to begin with operations in the Chesapeake. Hopkins and his fleet were to enter the bay, search out and attack, take or destroy all the naval forces of the enemy. Having accomplished that task, the Commander was to sail at once to Rhode Island to perform the same feat there. This was the first naval expedition against the British under congressional sanction.

Hopkins, however, had made up his mind before sailing to take his fleet to the Bahamas, specifically New Providence, where there was a large supply of gun powder. Taking advantage of an "if" weather clause, Commodore Hopkins sailed straight for the Bahamas and easily marched on Fort Nassau, collecting considerable booty, consisting of all the cannon and military stores there. With great satisfaction Commander Hopkins ordered his armada to sail for home. As an added bonus, off the eastern end of Long Island his ship picked up the tender Hawk and the bombvessel Bolton. Two days later, however, on April 6, the fleet ran upon the British Glasgow, a twenty-gun frigate, as they were coasting along familiar waters between Block Island and the Rhode Island shore. The Glasgow should have been battered to a wreck, but the American gunners aimed too high, and the Glasgow made good her escape from the middle of Hopkins' squadron, after inflicting far more damage than she received. Whipple's ship Columbus was prevented by light air from getting into the action at all.

The American squadron, with its prizes, arrived at New London on April 8. At first Hopkins' exploits won great acclaim, but as time went on more and more attention was given to the Glasgow's escape and less to the fleet's actual accomplishments, against which the Navy had but the ineffectual yet truthful defense of lack of experience, organization and discipline. On April 30th, Captain Whipple of the Columbus, having been blamed for not closing with the Glasgow, demanded a court martial, which was held on board the Alfred in Providence, resulting in his acquittal. Ultimately Hopkins' leadership on this and other occasions was questioned, and finally he was dismissed from the service. The career of Commodore Whipple, however, was yet to soar to its zenith. He was to prove his canny seafaring skill and undaunted determination against indomitable odds.

In March of 1778 Whipple sailed from the port of Providence by order of the Marine Committee of the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Now he was captain of another ship Providence, this time a brand new frigate built, it is said, in the incredibly short time of seventeen working days, and mounting twenty-eight guns. For some time the sailing of the Providence and her sister ship the Warren had been delayed, owing to the presence of British ships of war in Narragansett Bay. But now, being ordered to carry some dispatches to France, Captain Whipple took advantage of a dark stormy night and slipped away. He went stealthily, showing no lights, and enforcing silence on board the frigate, till when near Prudence Island, he became aware of the proximity of a British warship. Unable to resist the pressing temptation, he poured a broadside into her at close range, and kept on his course, forcing a path through the hostile fleet in the blackness of the night, finally succeeding in sinking one of her tenders. The Providence and all her crew got safely away, and in due time the original mission was completed and the dispatches were safely delivered at Brest, France.

Commodore Whipple was destined to guide his frigate Providence through even more daring adventures and maneuvers against almost insurmountable opposition and accomplish what in retrospect seems an impossible feat.

On June 18, 1779, the frigates Providence, Queen of France and Ranger sailed from Boston on a cruise to the eastward, two of the ships carrying twenty-eight guns each, one mounting only eighteen. As to what occurred during that eventful month on the high seas off the Newfoundland banks, there are varying accounts but they agree in the main on one point: a large number of enemy vessels was captured and sent to Boston under prize crews to bring a vast sum to the wavering colonial fortunes of war. During this whole procedure not a shot was fired, the maneuver evidently relying for its success on the subterfuge of masquerading as friendly British vessels. The ships captured by this remarkable tour de force were of the 700-800 ton class. Winsor, in his ambitious History of America, observes with optimism; "Their cargoes were sold for more than a million dollars and the bold venture is spoken of as the most successful pecuniary enterprise of the war." Above and beyond his share of the prize money and cargoes Commodore Whipple received a communication dated September 19, 1779 from the Marine Committee of the Continental Congress, congratulating him on the success of his cruise and urging the speedy preparation of the vessel Providence for another cruise.

Whipple's next venture, however, was doomed to failure. In 1780 he was sent under orders to the relief of Charleston, South Carolina, which was besieged by the British. Commodore Whipple had under his command the only available vessels of the Continental Navy, thought to be three frigates and the sloop of war Ranger. To meet an overwhelming British force estimated at 8,500 troops, of which one-third were American Loyalists, Commodore Whipple adopted the plan of anchoring his ships close to the city in the hope that their guns might sink British landing craft as they entered the mouth of the Cooper River. The British Clinton and Cornwallis were much too smart to submit to this plan of frontal attack and with their ninety transports and fourteen men-of-war succeeded in sinking Whipple's small American fleet in the Cooper River between Charleston and Shutes Folly. The guns, stores and men were transferred to British defenses and Commodore Whipple was taken prisoner, and he with his officers confined until the close of the war, when the Continental Navy passed out of existence.

Back home in Rhode Island once again on his Cranston farm with his wife Sarah (Hopkins) [see her Whipple ancestry on the Whipple Website] and two daughters, for Whipple there remained a stark reminder of the War. A reluctant Congress refused to disburse back pay with which the retired Commodore could discharge debts that had accumulated in his absence. When no funds were forthcoming by 1784, Whipple went on a commercial maritime cruise to England, hoping thereby to raise money, but all he raised was the first American flag after the signing the peace treaty between England and the United States.

About this time the former naval hero once more served his country as a member of the first Rhode Island Legislature, but his straitened circumstances and actual need for money eventually forced him to the sad necessity of mortgaging his farm to obtain funds for temporary support. Like many of those who had taken part in the battles of the Revolution, the gallant patriot had thereby been reduced to penury and want. In a pitiful petition to Congress, Commodore Whipple stated his case: "My advances amount in the whole to nearly $7,000 specie, exclusive of interest. The payment of this, or a part of it, might be a happy means of regaining the farm I have been obliged to give up and snatch the family from misery and ruin." It is estimated that the whole amount due the Commodore for money he expended in the service of the United States, plus wages due him from December, 1776, to December, 1782, was $16,000, for which sum he was given securities eventually in final settlement. However, since he was forced to sell these at eighty percent discount there was enough only to regain his farm.

In 1788 the Whipple family moved from Rhode Island to Marietta, Ohio, and lived during the Indian War in the Block House in quarters with a son-in-law, Colonel Ebenezer Sproat, land agent of the Ohio Company.

By 1811 the aging Commodore Whipple was forced to apply to Congress for a pension, whereupon he was allowed half pay as a captain which was then sixty dollars a month. On this sum the family existed for the remainder of the old sailor's life. After living in the Marietta region for thirty-one years, Commodore Whipple died, six months after his wife, on May 19, 1819, at the age of eighty-six.

During his lifetime, even as one of the greatest leaders of the Revolution War, Abraham Whipple was destined to receive neither adequate pecuniary recompense nor the richly deserved accolades of a hero's acclaim. It is entirely fitting that during this Bicentennial Year in Rhode Island, by recounting his brilliant and daring naval exploits, we can perpetuate the tribute inscribed on this great Rhode Island patriot's tombstone:

(Photo courtesy of Ralph W. Lange)

to the memory of
Commodore Abraham Whipple
whose name [i.e. naval], skill and courage,
will ever remain the pride and
boast of his country. [...]"

Abraham's sword

Abraham's sword
(Courtesy of Ralph W. Lange [valnal@frontier.com])