Birthplace of the U.S. Navy

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Birthplace of the U.S. Navy History

The Continental Congress's resolution to procure two armed vessels, adopted in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on 13 October 1775, was the original legislation out of which the Continental Navy grew.  Within a few days of that vote, Congress established a Naval Committee, which directed the purchasing, outfitting, manning, and operations of the first ships of the new Navy, drafted naval legislation, and prepared rules and regulations to govern the Navy's conduct and internal administration.  Philadelphia was also the port where the purchase and outfitting of the first four vessels of the Continental Navy took place.

Because the Continental Navy began in Philadelphia on 13 October 1775, the Navy claims that date as its birthday.  A logical corollary would be to recognize Philadelphia as the Navy's birthplace.  The Navy, however, also honors the significant naval roles that many other towns played in the American Revolution and does not recognize any as its sole place of origin.

Several localities, in addition to Philadelphia, claim the title "birthplace of the Navy."  Machias, Maine, points to the seizing of the Royal Navy schooner Margaretta by a small sloop armed with woodsmen on 12 June 1775.

Providence, Rhode Island, asserts its title as the site of the first call for the establishment of a Navy.  Beverly and Marblehead, Massachusetts, base their claim on their role in fitting out and manning the small fleet of schooners George Washington employed in the autumn and winter of 1775 to prey on enemy transports.  The claim of Whitehall, New York, is based on naval and amphibious operations on Lake Champlain undertaken by the Continental Army under the command of Benedict Arnold.  It should be noted that Washington's and Arnold's operations were manned and officered entirely under the authority of the Continental Army.  There was no institutional continuity between Washington's or of Arnold's command and the Continental Navy, established as a separate institution by the Continental Congress.  The United States Navy considers its beginnings to have been the Continental Navy, not the Continental Army.

Unquestionably the contributions of all of these as well as of other towns to the commencement of naval operations in the American Revolution deserve recognition in any naval history of our country.  Perhaps it would be historically accurate to say that America's Navy had many "birthplaces."

Source: DEPARTMENT OF THE NAVY -- NAVAL HISTORICAL CENTER, WASHINGTON DC 20374-5060

Recommended Reading: Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy. From Publishers Weekly: Starred Review. Toll, a former financial analyst and political speechwriter, makes an auspicious debut with this rousing, exhaustively researched history of the founding of the U.S. Navy. The author chronicles the late 18th- and early 19th-century process of building a fleet that could project American power beyond her shores. The ragtag Continental Navy created during the Revolution was promptly dismantled after the war, and it wasn't until 1794—in the face of threats to U.S. shipping from England, France and the Barbary states of North Africa—that Congress authorized the construction of six frigates and laid the foundation for a permanent navy. Continued below…

A cabinet-level Department of the Navy followed in 1798. The fledgling navy quickly proved its worth in the Quasi War against France in the Caribbean, the Tripolitan War with Tripoli and the War of 1812 against the English. In holding its own against the British, the U.S. fleet broke the British navy's "sacred spell of invincibility," sparked a "new enthusiasm for naval power" in the U.S. and marked the maturation of the American navy. Toll provides perspective by seamlessly incorporating the era's political and diplomatic history into his superlative single-volume narrative—a must-read for fans of naval history and the early American Republic.

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Recommended Reading: George Washington's Secret Navy (Hardcover). Description: In July 1775, in his first inspection of the American encampment on the outskirts of Boston, the Continental Army's newly arrived commander-in-chief noted its haphazard design and shabby construction--clearly the work of men unprepared to face the world's most powerful fighting force. George Washington had inherited not only an army of woefully untrained and ill-equipped soldiers, but a daunting military prospect as well. To the east he could see the enemy's heavily fortified positions on Bunker Hill and a formidable naval presence on the river beyond. British-occupied Boston was defended by impressive redoubts that would easily repel any American assault, and Boston Harbor bristled with the masts of merchant ships delivering food, clothing, arms, ammunition, and other necessities to the British. Washington knew that the king's troops had all the arms and gunpowder they could want, whereas his own army lacked enough powder for even one hour of major combat. The Americans were in danger of losing a war before it had truly begun. Continued below…

Despite his complete lack of naval experience, Washington recognized that harassing British merchant ships was his only means of carrying the fight to the enemy and sustaining an otherwise unsustainable stalemate. But he also knew that many in Congress still hoped for reconciliation with England, and in that climate Congressional approval for naval action was out of the question. So, without notifying Congress and with no real authority to do so, the general began arming small merchant schooners and sending them to sea to hunt down British transports “in the Service of the ministerial Army.” In George Washington's Secret Navy, award-winning author James L. Nelson tells the fascinating tale of how America's first commander-in-chief launched America's first navy. Nelson introduces us to another side of a general known for his unprecedented respect for civilian authority. Here we meet a man whose singular act of independence helped keep the Revolution alive in 1775.

"James Nelson is not the first historian to reveal this little-known albeit incredibly important aspect of our Revolution, but no one has done it more thoroughly or with greater literary grace." --William M. Fowler, author of Empires at War

 

Recommended Reading: If By Sea: The Forging of the American Navy-From the Revolution to the War of 1812. From Publishers Weekly: Daughan brings a long academic career and solid command of his sources to this provocative history of the origins of the U.S. Navy. Conventional wisdom has the navy beginning in the 1790s. Daughan instead traces its roots to the Revolution. The fleet established by the Continental Congress had a relatively undistinguished career, but Daughan demonstrates that the Americans gained technical experience, produced talented officers, trained seamen and developed a basic understanding of how a navy should be employed. Continued below…

The question then was whether a navy would concentrate too much authority in the central government and risk embroiling the new country in foreign quarrels. By contrast, a coastal defense force of small ships threatened nobody, foreign or domestic. Daughan traces the debate through four administrations, smoothly integrating political with external influences like the Quasi-War with France (1798–1800) and the campaign against the Barbary pirates. Not until the War of 1812, when the navy proved critical, did a national consensus emerge that preparing for war was the best way of avoiding one—a lesson that remains worth remembering.

 

Recommended Reading: Lincoln's Navy: The Ships, Men and Organization, 1861-65 (Hardcover). Review: Naval historian Donald L. Canney provides a good overview of the U.S. Navy during the Civil War, describing life at sea, weapons, combat, tactics, leaders, and of course, the ships themselves. He reveals the war as a critical turning point in naval technology, with ironclads (such as the Monitor) demonstrating their superiority to wooden craft and seaborne guns (such as those developed by John Dahlgren) making important advances. The real reason to own this oversize book, however, is for the images: more than 200 of them, including dozens of contemporary photographs of the vessels that fought to preserve the Union. There are maps and portraits, too; this fine collection of pictures brings vividness to its subject that can't be found elsewhere.

 

Recommended Reading: John Paul Jones: America's First Sea Warrior (Hardcover). Description: This fresh look at America’s first sea warrior avoids both the hero worship of the past and the recent, inaccurate deconstructionist views of John Paul Jones’s astonishing life. The author goes beyond a narrow naval context to establish Jones as a key player in the American Revolution, something not done by previous biographers, and explains what drove him to his achievements. At the same time, Admiral Joseph Callo fully examines Jones’s dramatic military achievements—including his improbable victory off Flamborough Head in the Continental ship Bonhomme Richard—but in the context of the times rather than as stand-alone events. Continued below…

The book also looks at some interesting but lesser-known aspects of Jones’s naval career, including his relationships with such civilian leaders as Benjamin Franklin. How Jones handled those often-difficult dealings, Callo maintains, contributed to the nation’s concept of civilian control of the military. Suggesting that Jones might well be the first U.S. apostle of sea power, the author also focuses on the fact that Jones was the first serving American naval officer who emphasized the role naval power would play in the rise of the United States as a global power. Another neglected aspect of Jones’s career that gets attention and analysis is his brief tour in the Russian navy, a revealing chapter of his life that has been underreported in the two hundred years since Jones’s death. Rather than looking at Jones in a rearview mirror, Callo illuminates how this unique naval hero is linked to the nation’s present and future. As a result, he gives us a sea saga that tells much about our own lives and times. About the Author: Rear Admiral Joseph Callo, USNR (Ret.), Naval History magazine’s 1998 Author of the Year, has written three books about Admiral Lord Nelson, including Nelson Speaks: Admiral Lord Nelson in His Own Words and Nelson in the Caribbean: The Hero Emerges, was the U.S. editor for Who’s Who in Naval History, and regularly writes on maritime subjects for magazines and newspapers.

 
Recommended Viewing: America at War Megaset (History Channel) (Number of discs: 14) (Run Time: 1948 minutes). Description: From the first musket shots at Lexington and Concord to the precision-guided munitions in modern-day Baghdad. America's history has been forged in the heat of battle. AMERICA AT WAR presents twenty-five documentaries from THE HISTORY CHANNEL charting U.S. military conflict over two centuries. This "fourteen disc set" explores key moments of the American Revolution, the Alamo, Mexican American War, the Civil War, Spanish American War, World Wars I and II as well as the conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, and Iraq. 

The chronological collection draws upon the expertise of noted historians, military authorities, engineers, and war correspondents to convey the personal side of conflict not often found in history books. A trove of archival footage and documents brings viewers closer than ever to the heated heart of combat. This is truly a one-of-a-kind collector's set!

 

Recommended Viewing: The History Channel - The Battle History of the United States Military (2005) (Number of discs: 5) (766 minutes). Description: A mighty compendium of America’s five major military branches--Marines, Navy, Army, Air Force, and Coast Guard--THE BATTLE HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES MILITARY trumpets the myriad strengths of one of the world’s greatest military powers. Plunge headlong into the great battles fought on land, sea, and air. Marvel at the arc of musket to missile. Meet the key figures and lesser-known heroes who have shaped the organization, the strategy, and the future of the United States armed forces. Encompassing over two centuries of courage and conquest, THE BATTLE HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES MILITARY marches through America’s military development from its earliest Coast Guard days to the technological wonders of the Gulf War. Continued below...

With official government documents, extensive combat footage, and commentary by historians and decorated veterans, THE BATTLE HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES MILITARY is a full-scale, full-dress salute to the men and women who give and have given to America’s fight for freedom. DVD Features: Downloadable Historical Documents; Branch Heraldries; Bonus Film: "Pageantry of the Corps"; Interactive Menus; Scene Selection.

 

Recommended Viewing: The World at War (30th Anniversary Edition) (1357 minutes) (A&E). Description: Sir Jeremy Isaacs highly deserves the numerous awards for documentaries he has earned: the Royal Television Society's Desmond Davis Award, l'Ordre National du Mérit, an Emmy, and a knighthood from Queen Elizabeth II. His epic The World at War remains unsurpassed as the definitive visual history of World War II. Continued below...

The Second World War was different from other wars in thousands of ways, one of which was the unparalleled scope of visual documents kept by the Axis and Allies of all their activities. As a result, this war is understood as much through written histories as it is through its powerful images. The Nazis were particularly thorough in documenting even the most abhorrent of the atrocities they were committing--in a surprising amount of color footage. The World at War was one of the first television documentaries that exploited these resources so completely, giving viewers an unbelievable visual guide to the greatest event in the 20th century. This is to say nothing of the excellent, comprehensible narrative. Some highlights:


• A New Germany 1933-39: early German and Nazi documentation of Hitler's rise to power through the impending attack on Poland

• Whirlwind: the early British losses in the blitz in the skies over Britain and in North Africa

• Stalingrad: the turning point of the war and Germany's first defeat
• Inside the Reich--Germany 1940-44: one of the most fascinating documentaries that exists on life inside Nazi Germany, from Lebensborn to the Hitler Youth
• Morning: prior to Saving Private Ryan, one of the only unromanticized views of the Normandy invasion
• Genocide: this film is one of the most widely shown introductions to the Holocaust
• Japan 1941-45: although The World at War is decidedly focused more on the European theater, this is an important look into wartime Japan and its expansion--early 20th-century history that lead to Japan's role in World War II is superficial
• The bomb: another widely shown documentary of the Manhattan Project, the Enola Gay, Hiroshima, and Nagasaki


The World at War will remain the definitive visual history of World War II, analogous to Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. No serious historian should be missing The World at War in a collection, and no student should leave school without having seen at least some of its salient episodes. Rarely is film so essential. --Erik J. Macki

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