Revolutionary Rhode Island

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Blog Post by Gloria Schmidt

Abraham Whipple and the First Naval Battle of the Revolution

When and where was the first naval battle of the American Revolution? You might not be surprised to know that battle took place off of Newport. The date was the 15th of June in 1775, not long after the Colonial General Assembly enacted a resolution to charter and arm two vessels for the protection of trade on June 12, 1775.

In 1774, the British frigate, the Rose, under the command of Sir James Wallace, was sent to Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island. The Rose was successful in ending the smuggling that had made Newport wealthy. John Brown and other leading merchants advocated for the protection of Rhode Island trade. The Rhode Island Assembly directed the committee of safety to charter two vessels for protection. This action created the Rhode Island Navy, the first American Navy of the Revolution.

Merchant Brown chartered one of his sloops, the Katy, to this new Navy. Abraham Whipple, one of Brown’s best captains, assumed command of the Katy and a smaller vessel – the Washington. As the new commodore, Whipple lost no time in trying to clear the smaller ship tenders of the Rose from their positions in Narragansett Bay. Whipple had more fire power than the tenders and he was able to fire on the sloop Diana and take her as a prize on June 15, 1775. This was the first naval engagement of the Revolutionary War.

Whipple towed the Diana back to Providence and when the Rose sailed up the Bay to investigate what happened to the Diana, Newport citizens were able to recapture five out of the six Newport merchant ships that Wallace had confiscated.

Book on the Katy

The Katy and Rose continued to be opponents.  When the Rose was out at sea, Whipple and the Katy sailed into Newport and loaded all the remaining cannon from Fort George on Goat Island and moved them to Providence to be used by the Patriots.

Whipple and Wallace exchanged barbs.

From Wallace of the Rose:

  You, Abraham Whipple, on the 10th of June, 1772, burned his Majesty’s vessel, the Gaspee, and I will hang you at the yard-arm.—James Wallace

Whipple replied:

To Sir James Wallace, Sir:

Always catch a man before you hang him.  —Abraham Whipple.


“Who Was Whipple?” in Revolutionary Portraits: People, Places and Events from Rhode Island’s Historic Past, written by members of the Rhode Island Short Story Club [Providence, R.I.: Rhode Island Bicentennial Foundation, 1976], pp. 6-15.)

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