The South Carolina Navy in the American Revolution
In an earlier post, The Strange Story of the Frigate L’Indien, was told. L’Indien, a.k.a. South Carolina (40 guns) was built in Amsterdam based on a French design. The South Carolina Navy came into existence in July 1775 when the Provincial Congress’ Council of Safety (officially it wasn’t a state until the Articles of Confederation were ratified on February 4th, 1778 by the South Carolina provincial legislature) authorized two captains to outfit a ship to assist neighboring Georgia to seize British gunpowder in Nassau, Bahamas.
Before the ship – Commerce – left Charleston, word was received that the British ships were headed to nearby Savannah. The action netted 25,000 pounds of gunpowder which was an enormous amount and desperately needed by the rebels. This success led to two more ships, the schooner Defence and a brig named Comet which was sent to Boston to recruit up to 300 men for the South Carolina Navy.
Of the 13 Colonies, three – South Carolina, Massachusetts and New York – formed what we would consider “blue water” navies, i.e. those that operated ships well outside territorial waters. Some of the other 10 Colonies formed smaller navies that stayed close to shore and could be classified as “brown water” navies. All of this activity was in addition to the Continental Navy that was formed by the Second Continental Congress and issuing letters of marque to consortiums who operated privateers.
Unlike the current U.S. Constitution, under the Articles of Confederation, the states had the rights to form their own armies and navies. The political and funding difficulties (because the Continental Congress could not levy taxes) with this situation plagued the Congress throughout the American Revolution.
Ultimately, in addition to L’Indien/South Carolina, the South Carolina Navy operated 10 other sea going ships – the frigates Bricole, (36 guns); Rattlesnake and Truite (26 guns) and General Moultrie (18 guns); brigs Polly (20 guns), Prosper (20 guns), Notre Dame (16 guns), Comet (16 guns), Hornet (14 guns), and Fair American (14 guns).
During their lifespan, the ships preyed on British merchant shipping and occasionally engaged smaller ships of the Royal Navy. Their primary mission was to keep the Royal Navy from effectively blockading Charleston.
History says the South Carolina Navy succeeded until 1780. The first British attempt to take Charleston was in 1776 and was beaten back. The landing failed and the Royal Navy had several ships heavily damaged and lost H.M.S. Acheon (28 guns) when it ran aground and couldn’t be pulled off. The failure to take Charleston caused the British to focus on the northern colonies.
But after the Royal Army’s defeat at Saratoga, the British strategy changed and again it turned its attention to Charleston. Knowing their ships could not stand up to the Royal Navy’s frigates that had more and heavier guns, the South Carolina Navy leadership pulled it ships into Charleston harbor.
Bricole was converted to a floating battery with fourteen 12-pounders and twenty-two 8-pounders. She was sunk along with Truite to prevent the Royal Navy from entering the harbor. Notre Dame and General Moultrie were destroyed and after Charleston was captured by the British, the South Carolina Navy no longer had a base and for the remainder of the war, was not very effective.
Do you know of any additional research materials regarding the SC Navy and in particular if there were any Letters of Marque issued? I am trying to make a connection between the privateer Capt. Jacob Milligan (ship Revenge) and the navy or a letter.
I am a graduate student at Coastal Carolina University studying this area.
Short answer is no. The best source I have found is this Wikipedia page – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/South_Carolina_Navy. At the end,there is a bibliography and you can do what I do which is start digging there. My problem is that the research is interesting and often takes me to places I haven’t considered. And, if you haven’t found out by now, doing the research and finding the nuggets you need takes longer than writing the piece!!!
Here are seven places in no particular order you may want to start researching. While these are indirect, one never knows where they will lead.
One is the Navy’s Documents from the American Revolution. You can reach them through the Navy History and Heritage Command website. It will take you some time, or at least it took me some time, to figure out how to use the search features, but it has lots and lots of good stuff.
Two is the National Archives. Go look to find any letters of marque issued by the Continental Congress for ships based in South Carolina. The Continental Congress issued 1,697 letters of marque. There’s a list someplace… The states issued somewhere between 942 and 1,151 depending on which source you believe. The South Carolina State Assembly was one of those who was most active so dig into those records as well. During the American Revolution, Charleston was as important a seaport as NY or Boston.
Three, this is a long shot, but merchants in Charleston were very active in sponsoring privateers. Incorporation type records from the period are scarce, but you may get lucky and find one or two showing the “incorporation” of a consortium to sponsor a privateer.
Four, look into the May 1780 Battle of Charleston. Most of the SC’s Navy’s ships were sunk in the harbor as a way to keep the Royal Navy from entering the harbor. Many of these ships were privateers and I am presuming there may be material in the state archives that document the letters of marque the state issued to these ships.
Five, there may be archival material in Luxembourg because the Duke of Luxembourg actually owned the frigate originally named L’indien and leased it back to South Carolina in return for a share of the prize money. Technically, to do this, the Duke of Luxembourg would have had to issue a letter of Marque because he “owned” the ship and technically, it had to fly his flag. This is a convention that was not always followed. BTW, this is the ship was later named South Carolina.
Six, also, you may want to start looking into shipbuilders in Amsterdam/Rotterdam who were in existence in the 1770s. There may be records on both the design and construction of L’Indien as well as the legal machinations that the British did to keep the ship from sailing. There may be some legal documents that the British or Dutch filed to allow or not to allow it to sail as a privateer.
Good luck and feel free to contact me through my email address at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d like to know what you find because I did a fair amount of research on a privateer by the name of Fair American out of Philadelphia.