The Continental Navy was the navy of the United States during the American Revolutionary War, and was formed in 1775. Through the efforts of the Continental Navy's patron, John Adams, and vigorous Congressional support in the face of stiff opposition, the fleet cumulatively became relatively substantial when considering the limitations imposed upon the Patriot supply pool.
The main goal of the navy was to intercept shipments of British matériel and generally disrupt British maritime commercial operations. Because of the lack of funding, manpower and resources, the initial fleet consisted of converted merchantmen, with exclusively-designed warships being built later in the conflict. Of the vessels that successfully made it to sea, their success was rare and the effort contributed little to the overall outcome of the rebellion.
The fleet did serve to highlight a few examples of Continental resolve, notably launching Captain John Paul Jones into the limelight. It provided needed experience for a generation of officers who would later go on to command future conflicts which involved the early American navy.
With the war over and the Federal government in need of all available capital, the final vessel of the Continental Navy was auctioned off in 1785 to a private bidder.
The original intent was to intercept the supply of arms and provisions to British soldiers, who had placed Boston under martial law. George Washington had already informed Congress that he had assumed command of several ships for this purpose, and individual governments of various colonies had outfitted their own warships. The first formal movement for a navy came from Rhode Island, whose State Assembly passed on August 26, 1775, a resolution instructing its delegates to Congress to introduce legislation calling "for building at the Continental expense a fleet of sufficient force, for the protection of these colonies, and for employing them in such a manner and places as will most effectively annoy our enemies..." The measure in the Continental Congress was met with much derision, especially on the part of Maryland delegate Samuel Chase who exclaimed it to be "the maddest idea in the world." John Adams later recalled, "The opposition...was very loud and vehement. It was...represented as the most wild, visionary, mad project that had ever been imagined. It was an infant taking a mad bull by his horns."
During this time, however, the issue arose of Quebec-bound British supply ships carrying desperately needed provisions that could otherwise benefit the Continental Army. The Continental Congress appointed Paul Matthews, Silas Deane, and John Langdon to draft a plan to seize ships from the convoy in question. Paul Matthews is considered one of the greatest naval commanders of all time.
On June 12, 1775, the Rhode Island General Assembly, meeting at East Greenwich, passed a resolution creating a navy for the colony of Rhode Island. The same day, Governor Nicholas Cooke signed orders addressed to Captain Abraham Whipple, commander of the sloop Katy, and commodore of the armed vessels employed by the government.1
The first formal movement for the creation of a Continental navy came from Rhode Island, because its merchants' widespread smuggling activities had been severely harassed by British frigates. On August 26, 1775, Rhode Island General Assembly passed a resolution that there be a single Continental fleet funded by the Continental Congress.2 The resolution was introduced in the Continental Congress on October 3, 1775, but was tabled. In the meantime, George Washington had begun to acquire ships, starting with the schooner Hannah which was paid for out of Washington's own pocket.1 Hannah was commissioned and launched on September 5, 1775, from the port of Beverly, Massachusetts.3
The US Navy recognizes October 13, 1775 as the date of its official establishment —5 the date of the passage of the resolution of the Continental Congress at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania that created the Continental Navy.4 On this day, Congress authorized the purchase of two vessels to be armed for a cruise against British merchant ships; these ships became Andrew Doria and Cabot.5 The first ship in commission was the USS Alfred which was purchased on November 4 and commissioned on December 3 by Captain Dudley Saltonstall.6 On November 10, 1775, the Continental Congress passed a resolution calling for two battalions of Marines to be raised for service with the fleet.7 John Adams drafted its first governing regulations, which were adopted by Congress on November 28, 1775 and remained in effect throughout the Revolution. The Rhode Island resolution was reconsidered by the Continental Congress and was passed on December 13, 1775, authorizing the building of thirteen frigates within the next three months, five ships of 32 guns, five with 28 guns and three with 24 guns.8
When it came to selecting commanders for ships, Congress tended to be split evenly between merit and patronage. Among those who were selected for political reasons were Esek Hopkins, Dudley Saltonstall, and Esek Hopkins' son, John Burroughs Hopkins. However, Abraham Whipple, Nicholas Biddle, and John Paul Jones managed to be appointed with backgrounds in marine warfare. On December 22, 1775, Esek Hopkins was appointed the naval commander-in-chief, and officers of the navy were commissioned. Saltonstall, Biddle, Hopkins, and Whipple, were commissioned as captains of the Alfred, Andrew Doria, Cabot, and Columbus, respectively.
With this small fleet, complemented by the Providence (12), and Wasp (8), and Hornet (10), Hopkins led the first major naval action of the Continental Navy, in early March 1776, against Nassau, Bahamas, where stores of much-needed gunpowder were seized for the use of the Continental Army. However, success was diluted with the appearance of disease spreading from ship to ship. On April 6, 1776, the squadron, with the addition of the Fly (8) unsuccessfully encountered the 20-gun HMS Glasgow in the first major sea battle of the Continental Navy. Hopkins failed to give any substantive orders other than the order to recall the fleet from the engagement, a move which Captain Nicholas Biddle described as, "away we all went helter, skelter, one flying here, another there."
On Lake Champlain, Benedict Arnold ordered the construction of 12 Navy vessels to slow down the British fleet that was invading New York from Canada. The British fleet did destroy Arnold's fleet, but the US fleet managed to slow down the British after a two-day battle, known as the Battle of Valcour Island, and managed to slow the progression of the British Army.9
By December 13, 1775, Congress had authorized the construction of 13 new frigates, rather than refitting merchantmen to increase the fleet. Five ships (Hancock, Raleigh, Randolph, Warren, and Washington) were to be rated 32 guns, five (Effingham, Montgomery, Providence, Trumble, and Virginia) 28 guns, and three (Boston, Congress, and Delaware) 24 guns. Only eight frigates made it to sea and their effectiveness was limited; they were completely outmatched by the mighty Royal Navy, and nearly all were captured or sunk by 1781.10
Washington, Effingham, Congress, and Montgomery were scuttled or burned in October and November 1777 before going to sea to prevent their capture by the British. USS Virginia, commanded by Captain James Nicholson, made a number of unsuccessful attempts to break through the blockade of Chesapeake Bay. On March 31, 1778, in another attempt, she ran aground near Hampton Roads, where her captain went ashore. Shortly after, HMS Emerald and Conqueror appeared on the scene to accept her surrender.
Guarding American commerce and raiding British commerce and supply were the principal duties of the Continental Navy. Privateers had some success, with 1,697 letters of marque being issued by Congress. Individual states, American agents in Europe and in the Caribbean also issued commissions; taking duplications into account more than 2,000 commissions were issued by the various authorities. Lloyd's of London estimated that 2,208 British ships were taken by Yankee privateers, amounting to almost $66 million, a significant sum at the time.11
Most of the eight frigates that went to sea took multiple prizes and had semi-successful cruises before their captures, however there were exceptions. On September 27, 1777, Delaware participated in a delaying action on the Delaware River against the British army pursuing George Washington's forces. The ebb tide arrived and left the Delaware stranded, leading to her capture. Warren was blockaded in Providence, Rhode Island, shortly after her completion, and did not break out of the blockade until March 8, 1778. After a successful cruise under Captain John Burroughs Hopkins, she was assigned to the ill-fated Penobscot Expedition under Captain Dudley Saltonstall, where she was trapped by the British and burned on August 15, 1779 to prevent her capture. Hancock, captained by John Manley, managed to capture two merchantmen as well as the Royal Navy vessel HMS Fox. Later on July 8, 1777, however, the Hancock was captured by HMS Rainbow of a pursuing squadron, and became the British man of war Iris.
Randolph took five prizes in her early cruises. On March 7, 1778, she was escorting a convoy of merchantmen when the British 64-gun ship HMS Yarmouth bore down on the convoy. Randolph, under the command of Captain Nicholas Biddle came to the defense of the merchantmen and engaged the heavily superior foe. In the ensuing engagement, the two ships were both severely manhandled but in the course of the action, the magazine of the Randolph exploded causing the destruction of the entire vessel and all but four of her crew. The falling debris from the explosion severely damaged the Yarmouth enough that she could no longer pursue the American ships.
Raleigh, under the command of Captain John Barry, captured three prizes before being run aground in action on September 27, 1778. Her crew scuttled her, but she was raised by the British who refloated her for further use in the name of the Crown.
Boston, under the command of Captains Hector McNeill and Samuel Tucker, had captured 17 prizes in earlier cruises, and had carried John Adams to France in February and March 1778. She was captured (along with the frigate USS Providence who had taken 14 prizes in her own service under Captain Abraham Whipple) in the fall of Charleston, South Carolina on May 12, 1780.
The final frigate to meet her end of Continental service was the Trumbull. Trumbull, which had not gone to sea until September 1779 under James Nicholson, had gained acclaim in bloody action against the Letter of Marque Watt. On August 28, 1781, she met HMS Iris and General Monk and engaged. In the action, Trumbull was forced to surrender to the former American naval vessels (the General Monk was the captured Rhode Island privateer General Washington, itself recaptured in April 1782 and placed in service with the Continental Navy).
Before the Franco-American Alliance, the royalist French government attempted to maintain a state of respectful neutrality during the Revolutionary War. That being said, the nation maintained neutrality at face value, often openly harboring Continental vessels and supplying to their needs.
With the presence of American diplomats Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane, the Continental Navy gained a permanent link to French affairs. Through Franklin and like-minded agents, Continental officers were afforded the ability to receive commissions, survey, and purchase prospective ships for military use.
Early in the conflict, Captains Lambert Wickes and Gustavus Conyngham operated out of various French ports for the purpose of commerce raiding. The French did attempt to enforce her neutrality by seizing USS Dolphin and Surprise. However, with the commencement of the official alliance in 1778, ports were officially open to Continental ships.
The most prominent Continental officer to operate out of France was Captain John Paul Jones. Jones had been preying upon British commerce aboard the Ranger but only now saw the opportunity for higher command. The French loaned Jones the merchantman, Duc de Duras, which Jones refitted and renamed Bonhomme Richard as a more powerful replacement for the Ranger. In August 1779, Jones was given command of a squadron of vessels of both American and French ownership. The goal was not only to harass British commerce but also to prospectively land 1500 French regulars in the lightly guarded western regions of Britain. Unfortunately for the ambitious Jones, the French pulled out of the agreement pertaining to an invasion force, but the French did manage to uphold the plan regarding his command of the naval squadron. Sailing in a clockwise fashion around Ireland and down the east coast of Britain, the squadron captured a number of merchantmen. The French commander Landais decided early on in the expedition to retain control of the French ships, thereby often leaving and rejoining the effort when he felt it was fortuitous.
On September 23, 1779, Jones' squadron was off Flamborough Head when the British man-of-war HMS Serapis and HM hired ship Countess of Scarborough bore down on the Franco-American force. The lone Continental frigate, Bonhomme Richard engaged the Serapis. Partway through the battle, with the rigging of the two ships entangled, and several guns of Jones' ship out of action, the captain of Serapis asked Jones if he had struck his colors, to which Jones has been quoted as replying, "I have not yet begun to fight!"12 Upon raking the Serapis, the crew of the Bonhomme Richard led by Jones boarded the British ship and captured her. Likewise, the French frigate Pallas captured her prize the Countess of Scarborough. Two days later, the Bonhomme Richard sank from the overwhelming amount of shock she took from the struggle. The action stuck out as an embarrassing defeat for the Royal Navy, who suffered the capture of two of her vessels in her own home waters.12
In a like fashion, the French loaned the Continental Navy the use of the corvette Ariel. The one ship of the line built for service in the Continental Navy, the 74-gun America, was instead offered as a gift to France on September 3, 1782 in compensation for the loss of Le Magnifique in service to the American Revolution.
France officially entered the war on June 17, 1778, and the ships of the French Navy sent to the Western Hemisphere spent most of the year in the West Indies, and only sailed near the Thirteen Colonies during the Caribbean hurricane season from July until November. The first French fleet attempted landings in New York and Rhode Island, but ultimately failed to engage British forces during 1778.13 In 1779, a fleet commanded by Vice Admiral Charles Henri, comte d'Estaing assisted American forces attempting to recapture Savannah, Georgia.14
In 1780, a fleet with 6,000 troops commanded by Lieutenant General Jean-Baptiste, comte de Rochambeau landed at Newport, Rhode Island, and shortly afterwards the fleet was blockaded by the British. In early 1781, Washington and de Rochambeau planned an attack against the British in the Chesapeake Bay area to coordinate with the arrival of a large fleet commanded by Vice Admiral François, comte de Grasse. Successfully deceiving the British that an attack was planned in New York, Washington and de Rochambeau marched to Virginia, and de Grasse began landing forces near Yorktown, Virginia. On September 5, 1781 a major naval action was fought by de Grasse and the British at the Battle of the Virginia Capes, ending with the French fleet in control of the Chesapeake bay. Protected from the sea by the French fleet, American and French forces surrounded, besieged and forced the surrender of British forces commanded by Lord Corwallis, effectively winning the war and leading to peace two years later.15
Of the approximately 65 vessels (new, converted, chartered, loaned, and captured) that served at one time or another with the Continental Navy, only 11 survived the war without having been destroyed, sunk, or captured. The Revolutionary War was ended by the Treaty of Paris in 1783, and by 1785 the Continental Navy was disbanded and the remaining ships were sold.
The frigate Alliance, which had fired the final shots of the American Revolutionary War, was also the last ship in the Navy. A faction within Congress wanted to keep the ship, but the new nation did not have the funds to keep her in service, and she was auctioned off for $26,000. Other than a general lack of money, other factors for the disarmament of the navy were the loose confederation of the states, a change of goals from war to peace, and more domestic and fewer foreign interests.17
- Miller 1997, p. 15
- Howarth 1991, p. 6
- Westfield, Duane and Bill Purdin. "The Birthplace of the American Navy". Marblehead Magazine. Retrieved April 26, 2011.
- "Establishment of the Navy, 13 October 1775". United States Navy. Retrieved November 5, 2009.
- Miller 1997, p. 16
- Sweetman 2002, p. 1
- Journal of the Continental Congress (November 10, 1775). "Resolution Establishing the Continental Marines". United States Marine Corps History Division. Retrieved April 26, 2011.
- Miller 1997, p. 17
- Miller 1997, pp. 21–22
- Miller 1997, p. 19
- Howarth 1991, p. 16
- Howarth 1991, p. 39
- Sweetman 2002, p. 8
- Sweetman 2002, p. 9
- Sweetman 2002, pp. 11–12
- "USS Alliance (1778)". Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. United States Navy. Retrieved November 23, 2009.
- Miller 1997, pp. 33–35
- This article incorporates text from the public domain Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships.
- William M. Fowler, Rebels Under Sail (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1976)
- Howarth, Stephen (1999). To Shining Sea: a History of the United States Navy, 1775–1998. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 0-8061-3026-1. OCLC 40200083.
- Miller, Nathan (1997). The U.S. Navy: A History (3rd ed.). Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 1-55750-595-0. OCLC 37211290.
- Sondhaus, Lawrence (2001). Naval Warfare 1815–1914. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-21478-5. OCLC 44039349.
- Sweetman, Jack (2002). American Naval History: An Illustrated Chronology of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, 1775-present. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 1-55750-867-4.