Continental Navy Sloop Surprize


Lieutenant and Commander Benjamin Dunn

Armed Sloop

14 January 1777-21 November 1777

Continental Navy Sloop

Commissioned/First Date:

13 January 1777

Out of Service/Cause:

21 November 1777/burned to prevent capture




Date Reported: 17 March 1777

Number/Caliber  Weight      Broadside

10/4-pounder      40 pounds 20 pounds

Total: 10 cannon/40 pounds

Broadside: 5 cannon/20 pounds




59' length on the deck, 43' length on the keel, with a beam of 20'9" and a depth in the hold of 9'


(1) First Lieutenant Luke Matthewman, -21 November 1777; (2) First Mate Roberts, -21 November 1777





On 13 January 1777, the Continental Congress ordered the prize sloop (HM Sloop Racehorse), captured by Andrea Doria, purchased and fitted out for the Continental Navy.  At that time she was at Philadelphia.1 Racehorse was the former sloop Hercules, purchased in June 1776 at Jamaica in the British West Indies for the Royal Navy. She measured 59' length on the deck, 43' length on the keel, with a beam of 20'9" and a depth in the hold of 9', and measured 98 45/94 tons. She had been captured by Andrew Doria on 8 December 1776.2

On 14 January, she was named Surprize and Benjamin Dunn was appointed Lieutenant and Commander of her.3 Surprize lay at Philadelphia fitting out for the next two months. Richard Henry Lee suggested that Surprize patrol off the Virginia Capes to warn incoming vessels away on 3 February 1777, as well as to suppress small British tenders.4 However, Racehorse wasn’t officially sold to the Continental Navy until 26 February 1777.5 Surprize was still fitting out at Philadelphia on 17 March 1777 when the Navy Board of  the Middle Department requested the Pennsylvania Council of Safety  to return her ten guns, which had been borrowed by that organization.6 Surprize mounted 4-pounder guns.7

By 18 April 1777 Surprize had regained her guns. The Marine Committee was intending to send her to the West Indies with a cargo of goods, which had been loaded aboard. However the British blockade in and near Delaware Bay was threatening the American sea communications. On 18 April Surprize was part of a force of Continental Navy vessels sent to the assistance of the Pennsylvania Navy, to open up the Cape May channel leading to the mouth of Delaware Bay. The Continental Navy Brig Andrew Doria (Captain Isaiah Robinson), who was the senior officer, and the Continental Navy Sloop Fly (Captain Elisha Warner), were the other two vessels. Dunn was ordered to drop down the Cape May channel until he met Robinson, from whom he would take his orders. When Robinson no longer needed his services, Dunn was to open sealed orders and proceed on his voyage. He was to be mindful of his cargo in these operations and “you will be careful not to expose it unnecessarily to risque of being lost or taken.”8 Similar orders were sent to Robinson of the Andrew Doria,9 and to Warner of the Fly.10

These sealed orders have not been found, but were probably those contained in a letter to Dunn, which was begun on 19 April. These orders were to proceed to Cape Fran*ois in Saint-Domingue, French West Indies, and report to Commercial Agent Stephen Ceronio.  Dunn was to land his cargo,  pick up a return cargo, and return to America, trying for a southern port. If there was no cargo at Cape Fran*ois, Surprize was to proceed to M*le Saint Nicolas, Saint-Domingue and report to John Dupuy. In any case, Dunn was to recruit his crew if possible. If there was no cargo, Dunn was permitted to cruise until 1 July 1777, when further sealed orders were to be opened.11 The letter was concluded on 2 May 1777. The Marine Committee stated that Surprize had been delayed “for want of men,” and now ordered Dunn to deliver his cargo of flour to Dupuy and then cruise until 10 July 1777, when he was to open his sealed orders.12

It seems unlikely that Surprize ever made this voyage to Saint-Domingue. She was still at Philadelphia in the mid-summer of 1777. The British were targeting Philadelphia in this campaign and British cruisers had blocked the lower part of Delaware Bay. On 5 August 1777 Captain Isaiah Robinson was put in charge of a fleet of Continental and Pennsylvania Navy vessels with orders to occupy the Cape May channel and to assist American shipping entering or departing Delaware Bay. Surprize was assigned to this squadron.13

On 25 August the Continental Navy Ship Delaware (Captain Charles Alexander) was sent down the main channel. The vessels under Robinson joined him, along with Pennsylvania Navy vessels, and the Navy Board of the Middle District ordered an attack on the British shipping. Following the attack, the Delaware, Andrew Doria, and Surprize were to proceed to sea.14 This probably indicates that Surprize still had her cargo from April aboard. The attack, if it was ever carried out, was unsuccessful and Surprize remained in the Delaware River.

On 19 September 1777, the Conrinental and Pennsylvania navies had concentrated near Marcus Hook, where they could engage and observe the British warships in the lower river and bay. Surprize was part of this fleet.15 On 26 September, following the fall of Philadelphia, the American naval command of the river was consolidated under Commodore John Hazelwood of the Pennsylvania Navy. Surprize was still part of the Continental squadron (now under Captain Charles Alexander of the Delaware). Both commanders were charged with maintaining the river defenses below Philadelphia and preventing the British warships from getting up the river.16

Surprize was in the mixed Pennsylvania Navy-Continental Navy fleet defending the Delaware River in the autumn of 1777. She was not an active participant in the fighting because of the nature of the river and the campaign. On 14 November 1777 Dunn attended an important council-of-war held aboard Pennsylvania Navy Galley Chatham, signing the official results of the council.17

On the early morning of 20 November, Surprize’s officers intercepted some deserters from the Continental Navy Xebec Repulse. From the records of the court-martial it appears that Lieutenant Luke Matthewman and one Roberts (serving as Mate) were aboard the Surprize.18

Following the fall of Fort Mifflin and the impending fall of Fort Mercer, portions of the Pennsylvania Navy escaped up river, running past British held Philadelphia. On the morning of 21 November there was no wind to assist the sailing craft in running up the river. According to previously made plans all were set on fire: Continental Navy Brig Andrew Doria, Continental Navy Xebecs Champion and Repulse, and Continental Navy Sloops Surprize and Fly.19 The officers and crews got safely up to Bordentown, New Jersey. By 4 December 1777 most of the sailors had deserted.20

Both Dunn and Matthewman testified in the trial of the deserters from the Repulse, held on 25 November aboard the ship Lion at Bordentown.21

If Dunn was promoted to captain the date is unknown. The references to “Captain Dunn” are, seemingly, no more than the usual eighteenth century courtesy to a commanding officer.

1 NDAR, “Autobiography of Joshua Barney,” V, 924 and note

1 NDAR, “Journal of the Continental Congress,” VII, 946. In Silverstone, 13, and Colledge, 284, Racehorse is listed as a former French privateer (Marquis de Vaudreuil) captured by the British in 1757. Her dimensions are given as 96'6" in length, with a beam of 30'; and measured 385 tons. However, this identification is incorrect.

2 Winfield, British Warships in the Age of Sail 1714-1792, 334

3 NDAR,”John Hancock to Robert Morris,” VII, 954 and note

4 NDAR, “Richard Henry Lee to Robert Morris,” VII, 1096-1097

5 NDAR, “Pennsylvania Evening Post, Saturday, February 22, 1777,” VII, 1263 and note

6 NDAR, “Continental Navy Board of the Middle Department to the Pennsylvania Council of Safety,” VIII, 137

7 NDAR, “Captain John Barry to the Continental Navy Board of the Middle Department,” X, 598-601

8 NDAR, “Continental Marine Committee to Captain Benjamin Dunn,” VIII, 367

9 NDAR, “Continental Marine Committee to Captain Isaiah Robinson,” VIII, 367-368

10 NDAR, “Continental Marine Committee to Captain Elisha Warner,” VIII, 368-369

11 NDAR, “Continental Marine Committee to Captain Isaiah Robinson,” VIII, 380-381 and 381 note

12 Paullin, Out-Letters of the Continental Marine Committee and the Board of Admiralty, I, 103-105

13 NDAR, “Continental Navy Board of the Middle District to Captain Isaiah Robinson, Continental Navy Brig Andrew Doria,” IX, 711-712

14 NDAR, “Continental Navy Board of the Middle District to Captain James Josiah, Continental Navy Ship Champion,” IX, 806-807

15 NDAR, “Journal of H.M.S. Pearl, Captain John Linzee,” IX, 942

16 NDAR, “Continental Marine Committee to Commodore John Hazelwood,” IX, 969; “Continental Marine Committee to Captain Charles Alexander,” IX, 969-970

17 NDAR, “Council of War held on Board the Pennsylvania Navy Galley Chatham,” X, 488 and 489 notes

18 NDAR, “Captain John Barry to the Continental Navy Board of the Middle Department,” X, 598-601

19 NDAR, “William Bradford to Thomas Wharton, Jr.,” X, 568-569 and notes

20 NDAR, “William Bradford to Thomas Wharton, Jr.,” X, 666 and notes

21 NDAR, Captain John Barry to the Continental Navy Board of the Middle Department,” X, 598-601

Revised 6 August 2014 ©