USS Trumbull (1776)

Last updated
US flag 13 stars.svgUnited States
Name: USS Trumbull
Builder: John Cotton, Chatham, Connecticut
Laid down: March or April 1776
Launched: 5 September 1776
Commissioned: 1779
Fate: Captured, 28 August 1781
General characteristics
Type: Frigate
Tons burthen: 700 tons
Complement: 200
  • 24 × 12-pounder guns
  • 6 × 6-pounder guns
Service record

The second Trumbull was a three-masted, wooden-hulled sailing frigate and was one of the first of 13 frigates authorized by the Continental Congress on 13 of December 1775. They were superior in design and construction to the same class of European vessels in their day. [1] Its keel was laid down in March or April 1776 at Chatham, Connecticut, by John Cotton and was launched on 5 September 1776. [2]


Troubled Launch

After the frigate had been launched, her builders discovered that her deep draft would make it extremely difficult to get the ship across the bar at the mouth of the Connecticut River into Long Island Sound. The following spring, as Trumbull lay in the river at Saybrook awaiting assistance in getting out to deep water, her safety became a matter of great concern to Continental naval authorities. In April General Howe ordered General Tryon — the Royal Governor of New York — to lead a raid into neighboring Connecticut. Tryon's forces landed at Fairfield, Connecticut, marched inland, and burned Continental public stores at Danbury, Connecticut. A small force of Americans harassed the British troops as they marched back to their ships. Fortunately, Tryon did not attack the berth on the Connecticut River where Trumbull — protected by neither gun nor warships — lay virtually defenseless. [3]

After three years of inactivity, Trumbull was finally freed in 1779. Capt. Elisha Hinman suggested that casks of water be lashed with stout ropes running beneath the keel, along the port and starboard sides. When the casks were pumped out, they rose and lifted the ship just enough so as to permit passage over the bar. Trumbull then was fitted out for sea at New London, Conn. under the direction of Nathaniel Shaw. On 20 September 1779, Capt. James Nicholson received command of the frigate. [4] [5]

Combat Action

USS Trumbull depicted on the 1781 Granary Burying Ground grave of Jabez Smith, a sailor killed on the ship, labeled "anchored in the haven of rest" USS Trumbull 1776.jpg
USS Trumbull depicted on the 1781 Granary Burying Ground grave of Jabez Smith, a sailor killed on the ship, labeled "anchored in the haven of rest"

Nicholson did not receive his cruising orders until the following spring. Late in May 1780, Trumbull sailed for her first foray into the Atlantic. Action was not long in coming. At 1030 on 1 June 1780, Trumbull's masthead lookout sighted a sail to windward. In order to remain undetected for as long as possible, the frigate furled her sails until 1130. Then, upon ascertaining the strange ship's size, Trumbull then made sail and tacked towards, what soon proved to be the British letter-of-marque Watt, of 32 guns. [4] [6]

Nicholson delivered a short exhortation to his men who "most chearfully (sic) decided to fight". By noon, Nicholson noted that his ship seemed to "greatly outsail" the enemy and determined to utilize this advantage by moving to windward of the enemy. [7] [8]

Watt challenged Trumbull, running up the Cross of St. George and firing a gun. Trumbull, in order to keep her true identity cloaked until the last possible moment, also ran up the British colors. Watt's commanding officer, Capt. Coulthard, initially mistook Trumbull "for one of his Majesty's cruising frigates" but soon became suspicious of its movements and closed to windward. His suspicions were confirmed when Trumbull failed to respond to a "private signal". [9]

The Watt gave "three cheers and a broadside" to commence what historian Gardner W. Allen considered "one of the hardest fought naval engagements of the war". Trumbull soon ran up Continental colors and returned the first broadside at a range of 80 yards (73 m). For two-and-a-half hours, the two ships traded shot in a fierce action. The range — never wider than 80 yards (73 m) [Note 1] — most of the time was under 50 yards (46 m); and once the ships' yards nearly became locked together. Watt twice set the frigate aflame; Trumbull's shot caused fires on board Watt that proved impossible to extinguish until the British ship had cut away much of her rigging. Most of the men in Watt's tops were either killed, or wounded, or driven below. The Trumbull lost 30 killed or wounded, including two Lieutenants. [11] [12] The battle proved to be the most severe naval duel of the war. [13]

The British ship's hull, rigging, and sails were shot to pieces. Holed below the waterline, the letter of marque took on water at an alarming rate, and her danger was compounded by the fact that the American guns had left her with only one operable pump. Trumbull fared little better. Captain of Marines Gilbert Saltonstall subsequently noted: "We were literally cut all to pieces; not a shroud, stay, brace, bowling, or other rigging standing. Our main top must mast shot away, our fore, main mizzen, and jigger masts gone by the board...". [14]

Nicholson's crew lost eight killed and 31 wounded; Watt suffered 13 killed and 79 wounded. Both badly battered, Trumbull and Watt separated and retired. [10] Nicholson eagerly wanted to continue to pursue his adversary until his officers convinced him that — even if he managed to repair his only surviving mast — the condition of his crew would not permit another engagement. [15]

Trumbull weathered a gale while struggling back to Connecticut and reached Nantasket on 14 June, three days after Watt limped into New York. Nicholson subsequently reported that "was I to have my choice...I would sooner fight any two-and-thirty gun frigate...on the coast of America, then to fight that ship over again...". [16]

Return to Philadelphia

In the meantime, the Continental Board of Admiralty, after congratulating Nicholson on the "gallantry displayed in the defense" against Watt urged him to speed the outfitting of his ship for further service. Lack of money and scarcity of men combined to keep the frigate inactive at Philadelphia for the first part of the year 1781.


On 8 August 1781, Trumbull — the last remaining frigate of the original 13 authorized by Congress in 1775 — eventually departed from the Delaware capes in company with a 24-gun privateer and a 14-gun letter-of-marque. Under their protection was a 28-ship merchant convoy. On 28 August 1781, lookouts on the American ships spotted three sails to the eastward; two tacking to give chase to the convoy.

At nightfall, a rain squall struck with terrific force and carried away Trumbull's fore-topmast and her main topgallant mast. Forced to run before the wind, the frigate separated from the convoy and their escorts, and soon found herself engaged with the frigate Iris (the former Continental frigate Hancock), and the 18-gun ship General Monk (the former Continental privateer General Washington). Even with the "utmost exertion," the wrecked masts and sails could not be cleared away. Knowing he could not run, Nicholson decided to fight. [17] [18]

Trapped, Trumbull beat to quarters, but three-quarters of the crew failed to respond, and instead fled below. Undaunted, Nicholson bravely gathered the remainder. For one hour and 35 minutes, Trumbull and Iris remained engaged; General Monk soon closed and entered the contest as well. "Seeing no prospect of escaping in this unequal contest," Nicholson later wrote, "I struck...". Eleven Americans were wounded and five killed during the engagement before Trumbull surrendered. Iris reported that she had lost one man killed and six wounded, while Trumbull had two men killed and 10 wounded. [19]

Trumbull, by this point almost a wreck, was taken under tow by the victorious Iris to New York. However, because of her severe damage, the British did not take the frigate into the Royal Navy; and details of her subsequent career are lost or unknown.

See also


  1. Historian/author W.E.Griffis fixes the distance at 100 yards. [10]
  1. Maclay, 1894 p.585
  2. U.S.Navy, DANFS, Trumbull prgh.6
  3. U.S.Navy, DANFS, Trumbull prgh.7
  4. 1 2 Abbot, W. John, 1886 p.157
  5. U.S.Navy, DANFS, Trumbull prgh.8
  6. U.S.Navy, DANFS, Trumbull prgh.9
  7. U.S.Navy, DANFS, Trumbull prgh.10
  8. Cooper, 1856 p.109
  9. U.S.Navy, DANFS, Trumbull prgh.11
  10. Griffis, 1887 p.5
  11. U.S.Navy, DANFS, Trumbull prgh.12
  12. Cooper, 1856 p.110
  13. Griffis, 1887 p.4
  14. U.S.Navy, DANFS, Trumbull prgh.13
  15. U.S.Navy, DANFS, Trumbull prgh.14
  16. U.S.Navy, DANFS, Trumbull prgh.15
  17. Lincoln P. Paine (2000). Warships of the World to 1900. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. ISBN   0-395-98414-9.
  18. ABBOT, 1890 p.159
  19. "No. 12227". The London Gazette . 22 September 1781. p. 1.

Related Research Articles

Continental Navy Navy of Patriot forces in the American Revolution

The Continental Navy was the navy of the United States during the American Revolutionary War, and was formed in 1775. The fleet cumulatively became relatively substantial through the efforts of the Continental Navy's patron John Adams and vigorous Congressional support in the face of stiff opposition, when considering the limitations imposed upon the Patriot supply pool.

USS <i>Santee</i> (1855)

USS Santee (1855) was a wooden-hulled, three-masted sailing frigate of the United States Navy. She was the first U.S. Navy ship to be so named and was one of its last sailing frigates in service. She was acquired by the Union Navy at the start of the American Civil War, outfitted with heavy guns and a crew of 480, and was assigned as a gunboat in the Union blockade of the Confederate States. She later became a training ship then a barracks ship for the U.S. Naval Academy.

Isaac Hull

Isaac Hull was a Commodore in the United States Navy. He commanded several famous U.S. naval warships including USS Constitution and saw service in the undeclared naval Quasi War with the revolutionary French Republic (France) 1796–1800; the Barbary Wars, with the Barbary states in North Africa; and the War of 1812 (1812–1815), for the second time with Great Britain. In the latter part of his career he was Commandant of the Washington Navy Yard in the national capital of Washington, D.C., and later the Commodore of the Mediterranean Squadron. For the infant U.S. Navy, the battle of USS Constitution vs HMS Guerriere on August 19, 1812, at the beginning of the war, was the most important single ship action of the War of 1812 and one that made Isaac Hull a national hero.

USS <i>Wasp</i> (1807)

USS Wasp of the United States Navy was a sailing sloop-of-war captured by the British in the early months of the War of 1812. She was constructed in 1806 at the Washington Navy Yard, was commissioned sometime in 1807, Master Commandant John Smith in command. In 1812 she captured HMS Frolic, but was immediately herself captured. The British took her into service first as HMS Loup Cervier and then as HMS Peacock. She was lost, presumed foundered with all hands, in mid-1814.

HMS <i>Java</i> (1811) British Royal navy frigate

HMS Java was a British Royal Navy 38-gun fifth-rate frigate. She was originally laid down in 1805 as Renommée, described as a 40-gun Pallas-class French Navy frigate, but the vessel actually carried 46 guns. The British captured her in 1811 in a noteworthy action during the Battle of Tamatave, but she is most famous for her defeat on 29 December 1812 in a three-hour single-ship action against USS Constitution. Java had a complement of about 277, but during her engagement with Constitution she allegedly had 426 aboard, in comparison with her opponent's 475.

USS <i>Hornet</i> (1805)

The third USS Hornet was a brig-rigged sloop-of-war in the United States Navy. During the War of 1812, she was the first U.S. Navy ship to capture a British privateer.

Alexander Murray (1755–1821)

Commodore Alexander Murray was an officer who served in the Continental Navy, the Continental Army, and later the United States Navy, during the American Revolutionary War, the Quasi-War with France and the First Barbary War in North Africa.

USS <i>Insurgent</i> French then US frigate launched in 1793

L'Insurgente was a 40-gun Sémillante-class frigate of the French Navy, launched in 1793. During the Quasi War with the United States, the United States Navy frigate USS Constellation, with Captain Thomas Truxtun in command, captured her off the island of Nevis. After her capture she served in the United States Navy as USS Insurgent, patrolling the waters in the West Indies. In September 1800 she was caught up in a severe storm and was presumed lost at sea.

USS <i>Raleigh</i> (1776)

USS Raleigh was one of thirteen ships that the Continental Congress authorized for the Continental Navy in 1775. Following her capture in 1778, she served in the Royal Navy as HMS Raleigh. The ship is featured on the flag and seal of New Hampshire.

The second USS Ontario was a three-masted, wooden-hulled sloop of war in the United States Navy, bearing 16 guns, and saw service during and following the years of the War of 1812 and in the Second Barbary War. Ontario was built by Thomas Kemp, Baltimore, Maryland, in 1813; blockaded in Chesapeake Bay through the War of 1812; and sailed from New York for the Mediterranean on 20 May 1815, Master Commandant Jesse D. Elliott in command.

USS Java was a wooden-hulled, sailing frigate in the United States Navy, bearing 44 guns. She was named for the American victory over HMS Java off the coast of Brazil on 29 December 1812, captured by the Constitution under the command of Captain William Bainbridge. HMS Java had suffered severe damage during the engagement and being far from home port was ordered burned.

USS <i>Erie</i> (1813)

USS Erie was a three-masted, wooden-hulled sloop-of-war of the United States Navy in the early 19th century.

USS <i>Hancock</i> (1776)

The second Hancock was one of the first 13 frigates of the Continental Navy. A resolution of the Continental Congress of British North America 13 December 1775 authorized her construction; she was named for John Hancock. In her career she served under the American, British and French flags.

Capture of USS <i>Chesapeake</i> Naval battle between an American ship and a British ship

The Capture of USS Chesapeake, also known as the Battle of Boston Harbor, was fought on 1 June 1813, between the Royal Navy frigate HMS Shannon and American frigate USS Chesapeake, as part of the War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain. The Chesapeake was captured in a brief but intense action in which 71 men were killed. This was the only frigate action of the war in which there was no preponderance of force on either side.

HMS <i>Arethusa</i> (1781)

HMS Arethusa was a 38-gun Minerva-class fifth-rate frigate of the Royal Navy built at Bristol in 1781. She served in three wars and made a number of notable captures before she was broken up in 1815.

The second USS Hornet, was a single-masted, wooden-hulled sailing sloop-of-war of the United States Navy that saw service in the First Barbary War in the Mediterranean Sea along the shores of North Africa. The ship was formerly the merchant ship Traveller of Massachusetts and was purchased at Malta by the U.S. Navy to join in the American blockade at Tripoli.

HMS Ariel was a 20-gun Sphinx-class sixth-rate post ship of the Royal Navy. The French captured her in 1779, and she served during the American Revolutionary War for them, and later for the Americans, before reverting to French control. as well as the British. Her French crew scuttled Ariel in 1793 to prevent the British from recapturing her.

French frigate <i>Magicienne</i> (1778)

Magicienne was a frigate of the French Navy, lead ship of her class. The British captured her in 1781 and she served with the Royal Navy until her crew burned her in 1810 to prevent her capture after she grounded at Isle de France. During her service with the Royal Navy she captured several privateers and participated in the Battle of San Domingo.

Action of 29 July 1782

The Action of 29 July 1782 was a minor naval engagement that took place towards the end of the American War of Independence. The British Royal Navy frigate HMS Santa Margarita captured the 36-gun French frigate Amazone off Cape Henry, but the next day the squadron under Louis-Philippe de Vaudreuil intervened and recaptured the frigate.

Governor Trumbull was launched at Norwich, Connecticut in 1777 as a purpose-built privateer. There is no record of her having captured any British vessels but she did raid Tobago in 1779. The Royal Navy captured her shortly thereafter and took her into service as HMS Tobago. she served in the Leeward Islands until the Navy sold her in 1783, probably at Jamaica. She was apparently wrecked on 16 August 1787 at Tobago.