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Ceremony to mark Revolutionary War's final Naval battle from 1783 near Cape Canaveral

By Rick Neale, Florida Today,

2023-03-14
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Unbeknownst to most Space Coast residents, the final sea battle of the Revolutionary War — where Capt. John Barry, "the father of the U.S. Navy," soundly defeated a British frigate — took place 240 years ago in the vicinity of the Cape Canaveral shoreline.

"Sadly, even though we've done the ceremony every year, it remains not well-known that Florida — (which was) not a state at the time — was an area of participation in the American Revolution," said Donn Weaver, who chairs the Brevard Veterans Council.

Saturday, the annual ceremony commemorating the landmark American Revolution Naval conflict takes place from 10 to 11 a.m. at the Brevard Veterans Memorial Center, 400 S. Sykes Creek Parkway, Merritt Island.

The agenda includes a "first volley" fired by a sloop on nearby Sykes Creek, dedication of a marker donated by the Daughters of the American Revolution, a short parade featuring participants wearing colonial-era garb, and ceremonial cannon blasts by Port Canaveral's Naval Ordnance Test Unit.

Battle details: Two Continental Navy ships, including the USS Alliance, a 36-gun frigate under Barry's command, were spotted by a trio of British warships on March 10, 1783.

Loaded with 72,000 Spanish silver dollars, the Alliance was heading from Havana, Cuba, to Philadelphia to financially support the Continental Army, according to the battle's Florida historical marker.

One of the British ships, the 28-gun frigate HMS Sybil, gave chase. In a daring strategy, Barry reversed his ship's course and — while under fire — waited for the Sybil to make a close approach.

" 'Captain Barry went from gun to gun on the main deck, cautioning against too much haste,' and warning his gunners not to fire 'until the enemy was right abreast' ... " according to an account in "Sea of Glory: A Naval History of the American Revolution" by Nathan Miller.

"The range began to shorten. A shot from the Sybil struck the Alliance's cabin, smashing it to splinters and mortally wounding a man. Still, Barry held his fire ... " the book said.

"Coolly measuring the dwindling distance between the two vessels, Barry waited until the British ship was within pistol shot. Then he gave the order to fire. The Alliance's broadside smashed into the Sybil, ripping long splinters from her sides and tearing her sails and rigging," the book said.

"Again and again, the frigate's guns hurtled in and out, firing much faster than the stricken British vessel," the book said.

Within a half-hour — and "transformed into a battered wreck" — the Sybil rejoined the other British ships and departed the scene.

Lindsey Brock is past president general of the National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution. The Jacksonville resident hopes to wrap up paperwork to establish a national historic site commemorating the Alliance-vs.-Sybil battle within the next year or so.

Brock said Barry's strategic battle maneuvers secured financial stability for the Continental Army.

"Washington needed money. Of course, we didn't have a lot of money at that time because we had spent a lot fighting the war against Great Britain," Brock said.

"They needed the money. And it arrived safely in Washington for the troops. They hadn't been paid in some time," he said.

The Brevard Veterans Memorial Center plaza features a black replica of an 18th-century cannon that commemorates the historic Naval battle. This battle marker was rededicated on Merritt Island in 2012 — it had been previously displayed near the Canaveral Port Authority Maritime Center office building.

A granite monument and plaque honoring Barry and the crew of the Alliance also stands at Jetty Park at Port Canaveral.

A Florida historic marker at the Merritt Island veterans center says the Naval battle took place "off the coast of Cape Canaveral." However, the exact location remains undetermined, Florida Historical Society Executive Director Ben Brotemarkle explained in a 2017 FLORIDA TODAY column — with new research showing the battle may have occurred roughly 140 miles to the south.

Ceremony scheduled Saturday

A ceremony commemorating the last Naval battle of the Revolutionary War takes place from 10 to 11 a.m. Saturday at the Brevard Veterans Memorial Center, 400 S. Sykes Creek Parkway, Merritt Island.

Rick Neale is the South Brevard Watchdog Reporter at FLORIDA TODAY (for more of his stories, click here.) Contact Neale at 321-242-3638 or rneale@floridatoday.com. Twitter: @RickNeale1

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