Captain Nicholas Biddle and The Randolph

My wife and I enjoy flea markets and I usually head for any table selling books. This past Saturday we went to a flea market and I found an interesting book that fit into my current interest in the US Navy. I tend to go in streaks. I get interested in something historical, read some things I have not read before and stay the course until another subject grabs my attention and then repeat the process.

The book’s title is On Seas of Glory by John Lehman, former Secretary of the Navy under Ronald Reagan.

What makes this book interesting, to me anyway, is the fact it’s not a comprehensive history of the US Navy from the Revolutionary War to the present.  Yet, it’s not a superficial survey either. In Lehman’s words the book is…

…is a selection of stories on people, ships and battles of the American Navy set in historical context…it is deliberately selective and subjective.”

I like that and the book is so divided into sub-topics that one can read one short tidbit in one sitting, no pun intended.

So rather than review the book as a whole I’d thought I’d write a brief summary of things that interested me the most.

The Revolutionary War-Captain Nicholas Biddle

Lehman calls Biddle America’s first naval hero. Here’s why.

Captain Nicholas Biddle

Biddle was one of the first Captains in the Continental Navy and by February, 1777 had command of the Randolph, a frigate of 32 guns. Biddle led a squadron of his own ship plus four smaller ships whose mission was to either destroy British ships on blockade duty and failing that raid British commerce.

The little squadron headed for the Caribbean where it was hoped they would find unsupported merchant vessels that they could take as prizes. Biddle sighted a sail and ordered the squadron to give chase, his own ship and largest of the squadron in the lead.

The General Moultrie, also a frigate but of only 20 guns and part of the squadron recognized too late that the sail sighted was the Yarmouth, a British Ship-of-the-Line mounting 64 guns!

Fighting it out with a Ship-of-the-Line was not part of Biddle’s directive nor was it all that wise even if you included the General Moultrie’s 20 guns. The weight of broadside from a Ship-of-the-Line compared to a frigate was simply too much.

Never-the-less Biddle opened fire on the Yarmouth and the Brit returned fire immediately. Although Biddle had trained his crew well and they were getting off 4-5 broadsides for everyone of the Yarmouth’s, the Yarmouth’s meant more!

The General Moultrie also got off three broadsides at the Yarmouth but ceased to fire because the commanding officer thought he was hitting the Randolph. This says something aboout how close the Randolph and the Yarmouth were to one another.

Biddle was apparently wounded and while being tended to by the surgeon the Randolph exploded, literally disintegrating, showering the Yarmouth with debris. The General Moultrie presumably headed for the hills and the rest of the American squadrom would have not have come close enough to risk a broadside from Yarmouth. Therefore, no American ship was around to look for survivors and it was left to the Yarmouth who returned to the area four days later to find four Americans who had been blown clear by the explosion.

The Randolph, newly built frigate of 32 guns. Destroyed in a battle with HMS Yarmouth.

There were no other survivors and why the ship exploded is a mystery. Biddle was 27-years-old when he died. He became a hero because he took on a more powerful ship.

Biddle was the only professional officer in the Continental Navy at the time and while the time period is a bit short of Nelsonian heroics the Royal Navy of which Biddle was once a part of had a tradition of not backing off a fight against a nominally stronger ship. Perhaps Biddle thought that between the Randolph and the General Moultrie the Americans had a chance against the Yarmouth.

As a side note the Randolph was a newly built frigate and it was designed by a young Joshua Humphreys who would later design the 44 gun super-frigates of War of 1812 fame.

4 comments on “Captain Nicholas Biddle and The Randolph

  1. I wonder if the magazine could have been the source of the explosion.

    • That would be my guess. Can’t imagine anything else totally destroying a frigate. I think the mystery may involve what caused the magazine to explode. I think it must have been uncommon. Thanks for the comment J.G.

  2. I love a great find in books. I am old enough to remember Lehman and think that who he chooses to write about, and why, is as interesting as the context he gives. I enjoyed learning about Biddle.

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