The Hunted becomes the Hunter: Sloop Providence and the Revolutionary War

Sloop Providence, John Paul Jones, Pursued by HM Frigate Solebay and Firing a Swivel Cannon
Sloop Providence, John Paul Jones, pursued by HM Frigate Solebay and Firing a Swivel Cannon
oil on canvas, by William Gilkerson, 1984 

On the first of September, 1776, the Continental Navy sloop Providence successfully evaded the Royal Navy frigates Solebay and Milford. Her now legendary Captain, John Paul Jones, utilized the speed and skilled crew of the 12 gun sloop to accomplish this feat. Jones, who would go on to captain such famous ships as Ranger and Bonhomme Richard, would later say that Providence and her crew were his favorite command. Following her daring escape, Providence captured 16 vessels in the month of September alone. 

Bust of John Paul Jones, 1st Floor, Naval War College Museum

Originally named Katy, what would become one of the most successful ships of the Revolutionary War was utilized as a merchant vessel, privateer, and whaler before she became the flagship of the Rhode Island Navy in 1775. Realizing that a state navy was not enough to protect Rhode Island's merchant shipping, Rhode Island's August General Assembly urged its representatives in the Continental Congress (who all happened to be from Providence) to call for the formation of a Continental Navy. This proposal was heard on October 3rd, 1775; and on October 13th, what is now called the birthday of the United States Navy, Congress authorized the fitting out of two vessels for service in a Continental Navy. One of these vessels was Katy

Detail: Sailor fires a swivel gun from stern of Sloop Providence

Katy, now renamed Providence, began her service as part of Commodore Esek Hopkins' fleet, and landed sailors and Marines in the first amphibious assault in American military history at New Providence in the Bahamas in January of 1776. In May of that year, John Paul Jones took command of Providence. During his time as her commanding officer from May to November 1776, Jones captured the brig Britannia in August and the 16 ships in the aforementioned September cruise from Delaware Bay to Bermuda. Following her time under Jones' command, Providence captured the transport Mellish in mid-November 1776 while sailing with Alfred. Onboard Mellish were supplies and 10,000 winter uniforms for General Burgoyne's British Army in Quebec. She raided the fort at New Providence in the Bahamas again in 1778, captured six vessels, freeing 20 American prisoners in the process, and engaged the sloop of war Grayton

Detail: HMS Solebay pursues Sloop Providence

In August 1779, the sloop's luck ran out. After supporting American troops in the failed Penobscot Expedition, Providence attempted to evade British reinforcements by sailing upriver, but was ultimately burned to prevent capture. In her four years of service in the fledgling Continental Navy from 1775 to 1779, Providence captured 40 vessels, a record unparalleled in the conflict. She was the first vessel to escape the British Blockade of Newport during the winter of 1776-1777. It was Providence's Marines that raised the American flag on foreign soil for the first time in history during her 1778 expedition to the Bahamas. Today, a replica of the vessel, the Tall Ship Providence, operates out of Alexandria, Virginia. 

The famous sloop was the first of five vessels named for the city of Providence, Rhode Island, which was named, "in thanksgiving for God's guidance and care." Two of these vessels served in the Revolutionary War as well. The second Providence, a frigate, ran the British blockade of the Providence River in 1778, sailed to France for supplies for the Continental Navy, and later attacked a British fleet sailing from Jamaica with Ranger and Queen of France, capturing $1,000,000 worth of cargo. She was captured in 1780 by the British and put into service as HMS Providence. The third Providence was a Gundalow built in 1776 on Lake Champlain. She served under General Benedict Arnold in the battle of Valcour Island in October 1776. At the end of the battle, Providence was burned to prevent capture. While a tactical defeat for the Colonists, the Battle of Valcour Island bought the Colonies precious time that ultimately led to an American victory at Saratoga in 1777. The British commander who surrendered at Saratoga was General Burgoyne, whose shipment of supplies and winter uniforms onboard Mellish were captured by the first Providence the previous year. The fourth Providence, CL-82, a light cruiser commissioned in May 1945, served in the Atlantic and Mediterranean. She was decommissioned in 1949, but was reclassified as a guided missile cruiser, CLG-6, and recommissioned in 1957. Providence served during the Vietnam war, providing fire support in several engagements, notably during the Tet offensive of 1968. The fifth Providence, SSN-719, is a Los Angeles Class Attack Submarine commissioned in 1985. 

Painting of Providence and Solebay accompanied by a wood model of Sloop Providence
1st Floor, Naval War College Museum

The painting displayed at the Naval War College Museum, "Sloop Providence, John Paul Jones, pursued by HM Frigate Solebay and Firing a Swivel Cannon," is a 1984 oil on canvas painting by William Gilkerson. It was a gift from Mr. Richard Arthur, the Chairman of the Board of Sippican Company Inc., to the Naval War College Foundation. The painting was part of a lot of items donated for use in the McCarty Little Building, but Mr. Arthur expressed his desire for this painting to be seen by the public as much as possible. Displayed near the entrance to the Museum on the first deck, the painting is one of the first objects that visitors see. The painting of Providence's daring escape, placed next to a bust of John Paul Jones and artifacts from the Revolutionary War era, paint a vivid picture of the early days of our Navy in Narragansett Bay and New England. William Gilkerson was an author of 14 books, a historian, and a marine artist with paintings displayed in many notable locations both in the United States and abroad. His works can be seen in the Library of Congress, Naval Academy Museum, and the National Library of Scotland, just to name a few. Gilkerson passed away in 2015. 

by Alex Kania, Naval War College Museum volunteer


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