Abraham Whipple: Continental Navy Commander

This early American naval commander made his mark during the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War.
Abraham Whipple: Continental Navy Commander
The Columbus, under the command of Capt. Abraham Whipple, bringing in the British brig Lord Lifford, while operating off the New England coast in 1776. A painting by W. Nowland Van Powell. (Public Domain)
11/8/2023
Updated:
11/8/2023
0:00

Many accounts tell stories of the Revolutionary War fought in the eastern part of what is now the United States, but the Continental Army also won some major battles on the seafront. After sailing on merchant ships from a young age, Capt. Abraham Whipple went on to capture and defeat several enemy vessels during his stint as a commander of the U.S. Navy during the French and Indian and Revolutionary Wars.

Whipple was born in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1733 to Noah and Mary Whipple. His relatives were some of the original settlers in the region.

At a young age, Whipple must have known that his path in life would involve sailing ships at sea. He first started working on merchant ships hauling goods in the West Indies trade industry for the influential and wealthy Brown family.

Commodore Abraham Whipple, 1786, by Edward Savage. Dept. of the Navy, Naval Historical Center. (Public Domain)
Commodore Abraham Whipple, 1786, by Edward Savage. Dept. of the Navy, Naval Historical Center. (Public Domain)

Always a Sea Dog

Once the French and Indian War broke out in 1754, Whipple served as a privateer under Cmdr. Esek Hopkins. Later, he captained a vessel called the Gamecock and, while in command, captured 23 French vessels between 1759 and 1760, which awarded the captain much wealth and fame.

The young captain would really earn a name for himself just before the official start of the Revolutionary War. His big claim to fame came after a British tax enforcement ship called the Gaspee got stuck in the mud in the Narragansett Bay off the shores of Rhode Island. The Gaspee had been chasing the American merchant vessel Hannah, commanded by Capt. Benjamin Lindsey, in June 1772.

When Lindsey docked his ship in Providence, he quickly spread the word of the stuck British ship. Whipple’s former merchant trade boss, John Brown, held a meeting at Providence’s Sabin’s Tavern to rally a group of townsmen to chasten the British ship.

Destruction of the schooner Gaspee, from an old engraving. From "The Providence Plantations for 250 Years," 1886. (Public Domain)
Destruction of the schooner Gaspee, from an old engraving. From "The Providence Plantations for 250 Years," 1886. (Public Domain)

Whipple at the time was the sheriff of Rhode Island’s Kent County. He was able to secure an arrest warrant for the captain of the Gaspee and British revenue officer William Duddington.

Whipple then commanded a group of 50 men who boarded eight five-oared longboats in an attempt to arrest Duddington. Just after midnight, the men boarded the Gaspee and, in the midst of the tussle, Duddington was shot twice and wounded. The crew of masked men under Whipple’s command then set fire to the ship after Duddington was taken into custody.

The pre-war attack prompted Whipple to engage in a heated exchange of letters with Capt. James Wallace of the British ship HMS Rose that was in charge of patrolling Narragansett Bay.

“You, Abraham Whipple, on June 10, 1772, burned his majesty’s vessel, the Gaspee, and I will hang you at the yardarm!” Wallace exclaimed.

Whipple responded defiantly with the words, “Sir, always catch a man before you hang him.”

Naval Commander

After the burning of the ship, King George III of England launched an investigation and even offered a substantial award of 1,000 pounds for information leading to the arrest of the “Gaspee raiders.” But the locals remained tight-lipped due to the rising animosity towards the British government, and no arrests surrounding the incident were ever made.

Whipple’s service as a Navy commander in the Revolutionary War continued, with him taking trips across the world to serve his country. On one trip in 1778, Whipple commanded a ship that went to France to deliver messages that would eventually bring France into the war on America’s side.

On his way back from France, Whipple conducted one of the most successful U.S. raids on British ships when he ran across 60 enemy vessels that were sailing off the coast of Newfoundland. The raid ended up being one of the richest during the Revolutionary War with almost 1 million dollars’ worth of valuable supplies being taken.

A brick located on the Veterans Walk of Honor adjacent to the Ohio National Guard Armory on Front Street in Marietta, Ohio. (Public Domain)
A brick located on the Veterans Walk of Honor adjacent to the Ohio National Guard Armory on Front Street in Marietta, Ohio. (Public Domain)

In 1779, Whipple was sent south to Charleston, North Carolina, to defend the seas against British attack. When the city was taken by the British in 1780, Whipple was captured and taken as a prisoner.

After being held in a prison camp for two years, Whipple was released once the war ended. He later moved to Marietta, Ohio, where he led one of the first successful boat expeditions from Ohio down the Mississippi River to Havana, Cuba.

Whipple died in the Ohio town he helped found in 1819 and was buried in Marietta’s Mound Cemetery.

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For about 20 years, Trevor Phipps worked in the restaurant industry as a chef, bartender, and manager until he decided to make a career change. For the last several years, he has been a freelance journalist specializing in crime, sports, and history.
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