HMS Rose and the American War of Independence

HMS Rose was built by the Blaydes family in Hull in 1757. Carrying only twenty guns, she was classified as a sixth rate ship, the smallest size of frigate to be commanded by someone holding the rank of captain. She was the equivalent of a modern day destroyer and was not intended to participate in major fleet engagements, except for communications, but was designed to operate as a scout ship or for patrol duties off enemy coasts.

The Seven Years War started in the year that the Rose was launched. This conflict was a grim global struggle between Britain and France and, after leaving Hull and being commissioned, the vessel saw action off the French coasts and in the Caribbean. In 1768 the Navy Board considered the Rose for Cook’s first voyage but in the end the frigate was despatched to the North America station.

Blaydes House, High Street, Hull – home and place of business of the Blaydes family who built the HMS Rose in 1757
Source: Maritime Historical Studies Centre

The warship arrived off the coast of New England at a time when the relationship between the colonies and the government in London was deteriorating. Many economic, social and political factors contributed to an increasing rift between Britain and her original thirteen North American colonies and the simmering discontents came to the boil in the years following the British victory in the Seven Years War which pushed the French out of Canada and lifted any threat of their invading the British colonies. Trade and taxes were certainly a source of intense aggravation: many in the colonies were irked by the imposition of new taxes intended to recoup some of the costs of defeating the French. Moreover, in the past there had been widespread colonial evasion of several British regulations which the Americans regarded as oppressive but renewed attempts by the British government to enforce the letter of the law increased tensions and widened the rift.

The Rose sailed straight into this simmering conflict for a key part of her new role was to enforce British policy and stamp out smuggling. This soon brought the ship and her crew into conflict with the colonists. The British garrison in Boston became increasingly beleaguered as relations between the two sides worsened and the Rose spent a good deal of her time patrolling the north east coast of America, enforcing the hated regulations seeking out provisions and sometimes impressing American seamen. The Press was, of course, hated in American as well as in British ports and in 1768, the year that the Rose arrived on station there had been press gang riots in Boston. A year later, in 1769, four Americans killed an officer whilst resisting a press gang from the Rose and were brought before a Boston court on charges of piracy and murder but the American jury found the accused men not guilty on the grounds of ‘justifiable homicide’. Their acquittal could be seen as a significant event in terms of the approaching revolution for, as Tager says, Bostonians had made a stand about protecting themselves. ‘This position easily translated into a willingness to rebel’.

Relations between the British and the American colonies became worse after the Tea Act of 1773 by which the British government exempted the East India Company on paying import duties on goods destined for the colonies. This gave the East India Company a virtual monopoly and injured the interests of American importers. American business interests were incensed, attempts were made to block tea imports and, of course, on the 16th December 1773, a group of Boston citizens dressed up as American Indians, boarded vessels in the harbour and emptied tea into the harbour. The ‘Boston Tea Party’, as it was known, brought retaliatory action from the British in the form of the Coercive Acts of 1774 which closed the port of Boston until the duties were paid.

Events gathered pace, provincial congresses had already been formed in a number of colonies and in September 1774, the first continental congress of the colonies met in Philadelphia. This urged a boycott of British trade and drew up a declaration or rights and grievances. At this time there seems to have been little call for independence but armed resistance began in April 1775 when colonial militia opposed British forces sent to Lexington and Concord to collect arms. Soon afterwards the American militias besieged Boston and the British forces evacuated the port about eleven months later.

The hard line taken by the British authorities ashore and in London was certainly echoed by the Rose’s commander, James Wallace. He later expressed the opinion that America had grown rich at the expense and not the advantage of Great Britain and that North Americans in particular were rivals to British trade rather than merchants in it. His actions, as the situation deteriorated during 1774, were hardly conciliatory. In December 1774 the Rose and HMS Glasgow, along with several smaller vessels were sent to the colony of Rhode Island with orders to stamp out smuggling.

During the following months, the deteriorating situation made it difficult for the ships to get provisions in Newport but Wallace’s response was nothing if not robust. He allowed his sailors and marines to take what they wanted from the town but supplies dried up as the townsfolk drove their livestock deep into the countryside. Undeterred, on the 7th October, Wallace weighed anchor and sailed down the coast: to the small town of Bristol. Wallace probably knew that some townsfolk of Bristol had joined the militias and may have heard reports that some privately armed craft from there had harassed and attacked British shipping.

Wallace’s vessels dropped anchor close to the port. After some brief formalities he issued an ultimatum to the town. He requested that four representatives come aboard the Rose and that if this did not happen, the town would be attacked. The Bristol officials did not come on board and after an hour the fleet began a heavy cannonade that lasted for several hours. Terrified townsfolk ran in every direction and although most of the guns were set to fire over the buildings and into the neighbouring fields, several buildings including the church, courthouse and a brewery were hit.

The firing continued into the night but after a meeting with one of the town’s leaders who came aboard, Wallace agreed to give Bristol six hours to send a full committee of townsfolk on board to parley. The town’s representatives rowed across to the ship before dawn and terms were negotiated. Although Wallace initially demanded much more he agreed to settle for forty sheep which were duly delivered. . The following day his vessels had moved along the coast to Poppasquash Point and his men plundered ninety cows and various chickens and other livestock from nearby farms. Next the fleet opened fire on the community of Bristol Ferry and soon after the fleet departed, never to return. Only one person appears to have died in the British attack but Wallace’s actions merely heaped fuel on the revolutionary fires. A few months later, on the 4th May 1776, the Colony of Rhode Island declared itself to be sovereign and free of foreign domination. It has been said that the now city of Bristol has been celebrating American independence Day longer than any other place, no doubt thanks to the actions of Wallace and the Rose.

After Boston was evacuated by the British in 1776, the centre of the war shifted to the middle states and the British formulated a strategy to capture New York and send an expedition down from Canada to cut off New England from the other colonies. A force of soldiers commanded by Sir William Howe and a fleet under his brother, Lord Howe, drove General Washington out of New York and HMS Rose, which had been in action in the vicinity through much of that summer played a key role in the campaign.

Washington had reinforced the town during the summer but had dispersed his forces to various points. The British in return sent small parties to harass the American defenders at various points; small parties raided New Jersey whilst others forayed along the coasts of Long Island. On the afternoon of 12th July, eight days after the Declaration of Independence, Admiral Howe ordered HMS Rose and her fellow frigate HMS Phoenix to force a passage up the Hudson River. As they got underway they were fired on by everything the Americans could muster. Both ships were hit on many occasions but suffered little real damage and few casualties. As they came abreast of Governor’s Island and Paulus Hook they crashed broadsides into the shore, causing havoc amongst the defences.

The two ships sailed on past Lower Manhattan where they came under further fire from the battery. In return the Rose and the Phoenix sent round shot through New York and the village of Greenwich. Panic and general Washington noted ‘that the shrieks and cries of (the) poor creatures running in every direction was truly distressing’ and feared it would have ‘an unhappy effect on our young and inexperienced soldiers.’ The action between ships and shore continued for two hours and only ceased after the Rose and Phoenix had sailed beyond the American fortifications. Here, the vessels stopped and their situation threatened to strangle river traffic. The Americans sent fire ships amongst them but to no avail and the two ships soon sailed south again, passing New York once more. Their almost total disregard for the shore fortifications was a shock to the Americans who regarded these fortifications as one of their strongest points.

The Rose was in action at later stages in the campaign. In early September, for example, she was attacked by enemy batteries whilst sailing down the East River and received many hits on her hull and amongst her masts but only one man was lost in the action and her brisk cannonade silenced one of the batteries. Washington was, of course, driven out of New York and New Jersey and the Rose’s Commander, James Wallace was knighted for his part in the campaign.

In the long-term, however, the campaign did not go the way of the British and they were eventually defeated after first the French, then the Dutch and Spanish sided with the Americans. One of the two principal British armies was captured at Saratoga in 1777 and eventually General Cornwallis, stranded on the Yorktown Peninsula, had to surrender his army in 1781. By this time the Rose was no longer afloat. Her epic naval career had ended in 1779 in the defence of Savannah. The British had occupied the town but the French fleet determined on sailing up the river and attacking the waterfront whilst the Americans with their other allies attacked from the land. However, the then commander of the Rose, Captain Brown, moved the vessel into the river and over the bar where he scuttled it. The tactic proved successful and the hulk of the Rose blocked their passage upriver. Captain Brown then took his men to man the fortifications and was later killed but some have said that that his action with the Rose saved Savannah from destruction by French bombardment.

Replica of HMS Rose fitted out as HMS Surprise at the San Diego Maritime Museum
Source: Maritime Museum of San Diego

The official end of the American War of Independence came with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in 1883 and the exploits of the Rose have gone down in history. Some historians have since attributed the formation of the Continental Navy, the precursor, of the United States Navy, to the depredations of HMS Rose. As to the vessel itself, after the cessation of hostilities its remains were dispersed to allow vessel to pass into the port but this was not quite the end of the story. In 1970 a replica ‘HMS’ Rose was built in Lunenburg Nova Scotia – in the same yard that had earlier built the replica Bounty – by the Newport Historian John Fitzhugh Millar using originals plans obtained from the National Maritime Museum. This vessel has since had an interesting history in its own right and featured as HMS Surprise, in the film Master and Commander starring Russell Crowe.

Select Bibliography

Lincoln Diamant, Chaining the Hudson (USA: Fordham University Press 2004) David Hackett, Washington’s Crossing (UK: Oxford University Press 2006)

Mark V Kwasny, Washington’s Partisan War 1775 – 1783 (USA: Kent State University Press 1998)

Lincoln P. Paine, Ships of the World (USA: Houghton Miffin 1997)

Ambrose Serle, The American Journal of Ambrose Serle, Secretary to Lord Howe, 1776 – 1778 (USA: Ayer Publishing 1969)

Jack Tager, Boston Riots. Three Centuries of Social Violence (USA: UPNE, 2001)

On-line References

Sailing Warships: HMS Rose

San Diego Maritime Museum: HMS Surprise