Esek Hopkins (1718-1802), first commander of the American Navy, was a Revolutionary patriot whose abilities were not equal to his important task.
Esek Hopkins, born in present-day Scituate, R.I., early turned to the sea for his livelihood. By the time of the American Revolution he was a veteran merchant captain who had sailed to almost every corner of the globe. His brother, Stephen Hopkins, served in the Continental Congress and was chairman of the Marine Committee, formed to supervise naval affairs. Consequently, Esek Hopkins's appointment as "commander in chief" of the infant navy was largely due to his brother's influence.
In January 1776 Congress instructed Esek Hopkins to raid British shipping along the coasts of Virginia and North Carolina. He decided instead to swoop down on New Providence in the Bahamas to capture guns and ammunition for the American Army. The undefended forts at the Nassau port were easy prey, and Hopkins's small fleet returned with badly needed military stores. This, however, was Hopkins's last triumph.
On his return voyage from the Bahamas, Hopkins missed an excellent chance to take the British Glasgow. Moreover, he angered southern congressmen by his failure to operate in the Chesapeake Bay and southward, and there were general complaints of his inactivity in late 1776 and early 1777. (In fairness to Hopkins, it should be noted that he found it impossible to enlist sailors because privateer captains were offering roughly twice the regular pay of Navy seamen.)
When H. M. S. Diamond ran aground on the Rhode Island coast and the sluggish Commodore Hopkins lost this excellent chance to destroy it, the officers of his own flag-ship petitioned the Marine Committee to remove him from office. Hopkins had already been indiscrete in criticizing both Congress and some of his subordinates. Therefore, it was with no particular remorse that Congress in March 1777 suspended Hopkins and soon afterward dismissed him from the Navy.
Though a loyal officer, Hopkins was "an old-fashioned, salt horse sailor" who was probably too old and too set in his ways by the time of his appointment to adjust to his new duties as a fighting officer and administrator. From 1777 to 1786 Hopkins sat in the Rhode Island Legislature, and from 1782 until his death he served as a trustee of Rhode Island College.
The two biographies of Hopkins are inadequate and should be used with caution: Edward Field, Esek Hopkins (1898), and Charles H. Miller, Admiral Number One: Some Incidents in the Life of Esek Hopkins, 1718-1802, First Admiral of the Continental Navy (1962). A background study is Gardner Weld Allen, A Naval History of the American Revolution (2 vols., 1913). □
HOPKINS, ESEK. (1718–1802). First commander in chief of the Continental navy. Rhode Island. Born in Scituate, Rhode Island, on 26 April 1718, Esek Hopkins was a successful sea captain, served as a privateer in the Seven Years' War, and retired to his farm in 1772. Having taken a keen interest in local politics, and being the brother of the most prominent figure in Rhode Island, Stephen Hopkins, Esek became state brigadier general on 4 October 1775 and was put in command of the militia. Stephen, meanwhile, was a delegate to Congress and an influential member of the Marine Committee. When the Continental navy was organized, Esek Hopkins was named commander in chief (confirmed on 22 December 1775), and his son, John Burroughs Hopkins, was appointed captain.
At the beginning of 1776, Congress ordered Hopkins to take his small fleet of eight ships and clear the coast from the Chesapeake Bay to a point south of the British ships. Reasoning that the British were too strong for him to best, Hopkins sailed to Nassau in the Bahamas. After a quick victory that included the taking of a great many cannon and other munitions, Hooper sailed for Rhode Island. On the return voyage, the U.S. fleet encountered a lone British frigate, the Glasgow, which out-sailed, out-fought, and out-foxed the superior American force before getting away. Humiliated, Hopkins was called to Philadelphia and was censured by Congress on 16 August 1776.
Hopkins intended to head back to sea, but his fleet collapsed around him. Congress suspended him from command on 26 March 1777, formally dismissing him on 2 January 1778. He served in the Rhode Island assembly from 1777 to 1786, but never again went to sea. He died on 26 February 1802.
Field, Edward. Esek Hopkins: Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Navy During the American Revolution, 1775 to 1778. Providence, R.I.: Preston & Rounds, 1898.
revised by Michael Bellesiles