Historyman presents: Hurricanes of the Revolution

Hurricanes of the Revolution

Tracking hurricanes has become a science as satellites, planes and radar merge with storm surge data, wave measurements and wind calculations to mitigate damage to life and property.  It is a relatively new science and the recorded history of these devastating storms prior to the 1950s is obviously spotty in terms of damage. 

During the colonial period; especially the Revolutionary War, hurricanes were extremely dangerous. The lack of technology in terms of early warning systems and propulsion left the huge sailing ships at the mercy of the forces of nature.  Seashore communities were often caught off guard and ill prepared to deal with the ferocity of the high winds and storm surge.

The super powers of Europe were colonizing the new world and their fleets were constantly sailing from the old world and into the Bahamas, and Gulf of Mexico. The Spanish, French, Dutch and English all had ports of call and shared the waterways with pirates and privateers.

In 1700 a ship called The Rising Sun, bearing Scottish immigrants, grounded on a sandbar outside of Charleston without a mast. A hurricane blew in and over 100 perished with the ship. Those that survived only did so because they had come ashore earlier.  One of those was a Presbyterian preacher named Archibald Stobo, who had been invited to preach to some colonists of varying faiths at the church known today as the Circular Congregation Church in Charleston. He would later stay in the colony and help organize the Presbyterian community in the vicinity.  These same communities would become hotbeds for the Patriotic cause during the War of Independence.

From late August to early September of 1772 a hurricane blew through the Leeward Islands, St. Thomas, St. Croix, and Puerto Rico.  Documented by seventeen-year-old Alexander Hamilton, it later blew into Mobile, Alabama and Louisiana.  Hamilton, because he felt called to write about the huge storm and petition the well-to-do for relief on behalf of the victims, received benefactors who helped fund his education in North America.  This set Hamilton, one of the founding fathers, on a course that shaped Liberty to this day.

Harvest season was in full swing in 1775 when the Independence hurricane hit.   Dumping rain for upwards of a week before slamming into North Carolina and Virginia on September 2, it decimated the mature crops still in the field.  And as the coastal towns were destroyed, ships and warehouses filled with tobacco, grain and other stores were ruined. Financially, recovery would be slow as the Continental Congress’ trade ban with England would go into effect a week later.  Coastal villages and harbors as far away as Newfoundland experienced storm surges and flooding that took its toll on human souls and industry for months and years to come. 

In Hampton, Virginia, Patriots took advantage of the hurricane of 1775 by boarding the grounded HMS Liberty, arresting her crew and setting it afire.  A similar stand-off in Norfolk occurred when Patriots threatened the HMS Mercury.  The British Captain turned his guns on the city and vowed to fire on it should anyone try and take the ship by force.  In the end he was able to dislodge the vessel and sail away.

In October 1780 the British had moved the Revolution to the Southern colonies.  Their fleet now had to contend with the French and the Spanish navies on both sides of the Atlantic.  In the lesser Antilles, the islands that include Barbados, St. Lucia and Martinique, a massive hurricane hit, killing upwards of 20,000 people. It also sank many of the French and British ships vying for superiority in the waters.  Later, the storm would sink an additional 50 ships in Bermuda. 

Another storm that same month, in the Gulf of Mexico, would sink or disperse 64 Spanish ships sent to attack British West Florida at Pensacola.  The set-back delayed the Spanish string of victories against the Brits on the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to West Florida for over a month.

From June 13 to November 17, 1780, no less than 8 storms are documented as causing destruction in the Americas and among the European navy fleets, thus bringing a Divine anointing to the cause of Liberty in the colonies seeking independence. 

The hurricane seasons through the years have become high tech events relying on state-of-the art forecasting.  Though destructive in so many ways, they have also brought wonderful gifts as well to the American cause of Freedom.  Liberty was stirred in the breasts of man in the early Presbyterian churches of the southern colonies when a preacher was stranded by a storm in 1700.  A future statesman, who was also an aid-de-camp to General Washington, received his formal education because of a big blow in 1772.  Some of the first acts of Liberty came in the wake of a hurricane by the name of Independence in 1775.  And frustrations would mount for the European nations in their attempts to influence America, for nature seemed to always have a say in 1780.





Early American hurricanes 1492-1870, David Ludlum

The Greatest and Deadliest Hurricanes of the Caribbean and the Americas: The Stories Behind the Great Storms of the North Atlantic, Neely, Wayne

Archaeology of colonial Pensacola. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, Bense, Judith Ann

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