Warship. At the beginning of the Revolutionary War, patriot leaders of South Carolina worried about threats from the sea. Local officials dealt with this problem by creating a state navy—the most famous component of which was the frigate South Carolina, the largest warship under American command during the war. The ship was 168 feet long and 47 feet wide, sported forty guns, and carried 550 men. To obtain such a ship, the state sent Commodore Alexander Gillon to Europe in 1778. A successful merchant, Gillon spoke fluent French and Dutch, had extensive sea experience, and possessed marriage ties to influential Charleston families.
Surplus warships were scarce, but a nearly completed French frigate called L’Indien existed in Amsterdam. Through personal connections, Gillon secured a three-year lease of the ship in 1780 but did not get to sea until August 1781. The South Carolina arrived off Charleston in December, only to find the city occupied by the British. The commodore then took the ship south to Havana, where he received supplies from the Spanish government. In return, Gillon assisted the captain-general of Havana in capturing New Providence in the Bahamas in May 1782. After a dispute among allies over the spoils of war, the frigate headed north to Philadelphia. The South Carolina was refitted during autumn 1782 and left on her second cruise in December, only to fall captive to three British cruisers at the mouth of the Delaware River.
Since the South Carolina failed to benefit Gillon’s state, the frigate generated considerable controversy. Some questioned as impracticable the idea of defending the state’s coast. Many challenged the choice of Gillon to command, particularly since John Paul Jones also wanted the frigate. Most telling of all, the mass of confusing debts generated by the ship remained unsettled until 1856 and clouded the reputation of all tied to the enterprise.
Grimball, Berkeley. “Commodore Alexander Gillon, South Carolina, 1741–1794.” Master’s thesis, Duke University, 1951.
Lewis, James A. The Final Campaign of the American Revolution: Rise and Fall of the Spanish Bahamas. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1991.
———. Neptune’s Militia: The Frigate South Carolina during the American Revolution. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1999.
Middlebrook, Louis E. The Frigate “South Carolina”: A Famous Revolutionary War Ship. Salem, Mass.: Essex Institute, 1929.
Smith, D. E. Huger. “Commodore Alexander Gillon and the Frigate South Carolina.” South Carolina Historical and Genealogical Magazine 9 (October 1908): 189–219.