A naval battle on the Delaware
It was this time of year in 1776 that the banks of the Delaware
River were lined with spectators watching a naval battle.
About 9 A.M. on May 6, a rider galloped into town from Delaware
to report that two of His Majesty's warships were coming up the river. In the lead was HMS Roebuck, a 44-gun ship with a crew
of 280. Following was the HMS Liverpool, 28 guns and 100 men, with some frigates
and other smaller vessels,
All crews of the Pennsylvania Navy were called to their boats,
and artillerymen were sent down to Fort Island (a year later to be named Fort Mifflin.). The navy began moving out fire rafts,
designed to hit and burn enemy ships. Next morning, oarsmen began rowing 13 one-cannon galleys down the river.
Pennsylvania's flagship, the 38-gun Montgomery, set sail, accompanied
by a floating cannon battery, the Arnold. The fleet assembled off Hog Island.
The British armada was cruising up the river, capturing small
American ships and making stops ashore to seize supplies from inhabitants. Sailors butchered cattle and took the meat on board.
Anchored off the Christiana River, Capt. Andrew Snape Hamond,
in command of the Roebuck, sent a man with a flag of truce to Philadelphia. He
carried a letter from Capt. Henry Bellew of the Liverpool, asking for a safe conduct pass for Mrs. Bellew to travel to New
England and visit relatives there.
The Pennsylvania and British fleets came within sight of each
other on the 8th. The American crafts were low in the water, difficult targets for the British guns.
2 P. M., cannons from some of the row galleys fired the first shots. The British ships swung around broadside, the Roebuck's
bow pointing east and the Liverpool's to the west. The galleys stayed about a mile away.
There was heavy firing for two
hours. Trying to pull within range of the galleys, the Roebuck ran aground on the Jersey side. A sailing ship of that size
was built for fighting at sea., not for maneuvering in a river.
The ship tilted so close to the
water that its gun ports had to be closed. The galleys withdrew when ammunition ran short. Neither side suffered much damage
The Roebuck was afloat by dawn, and started toward the Pennsylvania
fleet. But Hamond ran into an area with only six inches clearance to the river bottom, and withdrew. The Americans, re-supplied
with ammunition, pursued.
A four hour exchange of fire thundered in the afternoon. Hamond
later reported that the Pennsylvanians "fired away seven tons of powder without doing us the least mischief," but most observers
said the Roebuck took a beating. Bellew wrote detailed reports of damage on the Liverpool
Both sides drew back. The British ships lay at anchor for three
days, making repairs.
Pennsylvania officer, under flag of truce, dropped in on the Liverpool to offer to escort Mrs. Bellew as she started her trip
to New England. Her husband grumbled that "the inhabitants of America could never be capable of showing civility to any person
after this," and refused to let her go.
The British ships moved down to near Lewes on the 15th, and
on the 16th set out to sea. It was Philadelphia's first taste of war.
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