George Collier


Britain defending New Ireland from the Penobscot Expedition by Dominic Serres.


Sir George Collier.

(May 11, 1738-April 6, 1795) English Admiral

George Collier was easily the most effective Royal Navy commander of the American Revolution. He rendered brilliant service on several occasions but, lacking patronage and political connections, never rose far in the stodgy, aristocrat-dominated officer corps. Following this near-complete lack of recognition, Collier tendered his resignation in disgust.

George Collier was born in London on May 11, 1738, of common origin. He joined the Royal Navy in 1751 and three years later, by dint of good service, received a lieutenant’s commission. Following several cruises in the West Indies and elsewhere, he advanced to captain in 1762. A succession of warship commands followed, and in 1775 Collier was dispatched on a secret mission to North America just prior to the Revolutionary War. The exact nature of this errand has never been discovered, but he was knighted by King George III as a consequence. Furthermore, in May 1776 he took command of the 42- gun frigate HMS Rainbow and was dispatched under Adm. Richard Howe for service in American waters.

Collier, an officer who exuded leadership ability, quickly distinguished himself in action. In August 1776, he helped the Howe brothers land a large British army on Long Island, New York, a force that soundly defeated the Americans under Gen. George Washing ton. However, Collier declared his “inexpressible astonishment and concern” when the fleeing Americans escaped by boat to New York City, without any interference from the Royal Navy. He was not aware of, and certainly did not agree with, Lord Howe’s attempts to mollify the rebels by going easy on them. Perhaps for this reason, the admiral dispatched Collier and a naval squadron to Nova Scotia to organize naval defenses there. Within months his ships were responsible for the seizure of 76 American vessels, and in July 1777 Collier capped his success by the signal capture of the new 32-gun American frigate Hancock. At length, he also became involved with events on land by forwarding a squadron with reinforcements to relieve Fort Cumberland, New Brunswick, then under siege. The following June, intelligence arrived regarding an impending rebel attack against Nova Scotia by troops concentrated at Machias (in present-day Maine). Collier reacted swiftly by sending six vessels crammed with soldiers who landed and quickly dispersed enemy forces. Many vessels were burned, and large quantities of military stores were also taken.

Collier’s excellent reputation held him in good stead in April 1779, when he replaced Adm. James Gambier as acting commander in chief with the rank of commodore. He was also unique among naval commanders in American waters for his uncanny ability to get along with Gen. Henry Clinton, the prickly senior military commander at New York. That May, Collier prevailed upon Clinton to lend him 2,000 troops for an ambitious foray into Chesapeake Bay. Clinton was duly impressed by the plan and assigned Gen. Edward Mathew to the task. On May 10 the two men attacked and burned Fort Nelson before also putting the ports of Norfolk and Suffolk to the torch. Over the next two weeks Collier cruised the lightly defended coastline, burning ships, supplies, and anything useful to the enemy. By the time the endeavor ended in June, Collier had accounted for 28 vessels and more than 1,000 hogsheads of tobacco, a vital cash crop. He then returned to New York and shortly after assisted Clinton in the capture of Fort Lafayette (present-day Verplanck, New York). He subsequently provided material assistance throughout a protracted raid along the Connecticut coast for several weeks. Compared to his unpopular predecessor, Collier was an extremely aggressive, cooperative naval leader. Clinton came to value his cooperation highly-and would miss it dearly when he departed.

Collier’s greatest contribution to the British war effort occurred in August 1779, when he learned that a major American naval expedition had entered Penobscot Bay, Maine. Mustering every vessel that floated, he left New York and sailed quickly, hoping to trap the enemy in place. On August 13, his squadron captured two American vessels before they could get out an alarm, then sealed the entire expedition of 38 vessels inside the bay. The Americans quickly sortied up the Penobscot River, where they beached and then burned their flotilla. In one fell swoop, Collier single-handedly annihilated the largest American amphibious effort of the Revolutionary War. It was a humiliating rebel defeat, and the captain was roundly praised by King George III. The Royal Navy, then headed by the Earl of Sandwich, was desperate for aggressive, competent naval commanders. However, Collier suffered a major disappointment when he returned in triumph back to New York. There he learned, much to his disgust, that he had been replaced by the aging and indecisive Adm. Marriot Arbuthnot. Incensed by this continuing lack of recognition, Collier sought and obtained an immediate transfer home. The British Admiralty, then under the indolent Sandwich’s sway, apparently had no place for a man of his caliber.

Back in England, Collier resumed his naval career by serving in the Channel Fleet, and in 1781 he assisted in a major relief effort at Gibraltar. On the return trip, he captured the Spanish frigate Leocadia after a stiff engagement. However, Collier never again held an independent command, and this gratuitous neglect prompted his resignation.

Collier’s problem was his family pedigree: Lacking an aristocratic background, money, or influence, Collier never enjoyed the political patronage necessary to secure a high rank or important commands. This was especially tragic for the Royal Navy, which, being saddled by men of the likes of Arbuthnot and Thomas Graves, very much needed men of Collier’s quality. However, he opted instead for a political career and was elected to Parliament in 1784. Collier continued there in obscurity for nearly a decade before rejoining the navy as a rear admiral in 1793. Clearly, his best years were behind him, but in 1794 the government saw fit to raise him to vice admiral.

The following year Collier became commander of the naval base at Nore and died while visiting London on April 6, 1795. Considering his skill and decisiveness-the finest traditions in the Royal Navy-his employment during the American Revolution was altogether too brief, a wasted opportunity.

Bibliography Bellico, Russell. “The Great Penobscot Blunder.” American History Illustrated 13, no. 8, (1978): 4-9; Bourne, Russell. “The Penobscot Fiasco.” American Heritage 75, no. 6 (1974): 28-33, 100-101; Flood, Charles B. Rise and Fight Again: Perilous Times Along the Road to Independence. New York: Dodd, Mead, 1976; Ireland, Bernard. Naval Warfare in the Age of Sail. New York: Norton, 2000; Syrett, David. The Royal Navy in American Waters During the Revolutionary War. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1998; Tilley, John A. The British Navy in the American Revolution. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1987; Tracy, Nicholas. Navies, Deterrence, and American Independence: Britain and Seapower in the 1760s and 1770s. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1988; Tucker, L. L. “`To my inexpressible astonishment’: Admiral Sir George Collier’s Observations on the Battle of Long Island.” New York Historical Society Quarterly 48 (1964): 292-305.

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