Birth of the US Navy

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The Birth of the U.S. Navy History

On Friday, October 13, 1775, meeting in Philadelphia, the Continental Congress voted to fit two sailing vessels, armed with ten carriage guns, as well as swivel guns, and manned by crews of eighty, and to send them out on a cruise of three months to intercept transports carrying munitions and stores to the British army in America. This was the original legislation out of which the Continental Navy grew and as such constitutes the birth certificate of the navy.

To understand the momentous significance of the decision to send two armed vessels to sea under the authority of the Continental Congress, we need to review the strategic situation in which it was made and to consider the political struggle that lay behind it.

Americans first took up arms in the spring of 1775 not to sever their relationship with the king, but to defend their rights within the British Empire. By the autumn of 1775, the British North American colonies from Maine to Georgia were in open rebellion. Royal governments had been thrust out of many colonial capitals and revolutionary governments put in their places. The Continental Congress had assumed some of the responsibilities of a central government for the colonies, created a Continental Army, issued paper money for the support of the troops, and formed a committee to negotiate with foreign countries. Continental forces captured Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain and launched an invasion of Canada.

In October 1775 the British held superiority at sea, from which they threatened to stop up the colonies' trade and to wreak destruction on seaside settlements. In response a few of the states had commissioned small fleets of their own for defense of local waters. Congress had not yet authorized privateering. Some in Congress worried about pushing the armed struggle too far, hoping that reconciliation with the mother country was still possible.

Yet, a small coterie of men in Congress had been advocating a Continental Navy from the outset of armed hostilities. Foremost among these men was John Adams, of Massachusetts. For months, he and a few others had been agitating in Congress for the establishment of an American fleet. They argued that a fleet would defend the seacoast towns, protect vital trade, retaliate against British raiders, and make it possible to seek out among neutral nations of the world the arms and stores that would make resistance possible.

Still, the establishment of a navy seemed too bold a move for some of the timid men in Congress. Some southerners agreed that a fleet would protect and secure the trade of New England but denied that it would that of the southern colonies. Most of the delegates did not consider the break with England as final and feared that a navy implied sovereignty and independence. Others thought a navy a hasty and foolish challenge to the mightiest fleet the world had seen. The most the pro-navy men could do was to get Congress to urge each colony to fit out armed vessels for the protection of their coasts and harbors.

Then, on 3 October, Rhode Island's delegates laid before Congress a bold resolution for the building and equipping of an American fleet, as soon as possible. When the motion came to the floor for debate, Samuel Chase, of Maryland, attacked it, saying it was "the maddest Idea in the World to think of building an American Fleet." Even pro-navy members found the proposal too vague. It lacked specifics and no one could tell how much it would cost.

If Congress was yet unwilling to embrace the idea of establishing a navy as a permanent measure, it could be tempted by short-term opportunities. Fortuitously, on 5 October, Congress received intelligence of two English brigs, unarmed and without convoy, laden with munitions, leaving England bound for Quebec. Congress immediately appointed a committee to consider how to take advantage of this opportunity. Its members were all New Englanders and all ardent supporters of a navy. They recommended first that the governments of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut be asked to dispatch armed vessels to lay in wait to intercept the munitions ships; next they outlined a plan for the equipping by Congress of two armed vessels to cruise to the eastward to intercept any ships bearing supplies to the British army. Congress let this plan lie on the table until 13 October, when another fortuitous event occurred in favor of the naval movement. A letter from General Washington was read in Congress in which he reported that he had taken under his command, at Continental expense, three schooners to cruise off Massachusetts to intercept enemy supply ships. The commander in chief had preempted members of Congress reluctant to take the first step of fitting out warships under Continental authority. Since they already had armed vessels cruising in their name, it was not such a big step to approve two more. The committee's proposal, now appearing eminently reasonable to the reluctant members, was adopted.

The Continental Navy grew into an important force. Within a few days, Congress established a Naval Committee charged with equipping a fleet. This committee directed the purchasing, outfitting, manning, and operations of the first ships of the new navy, drafted subsequent naval legislation, and prepared rules and regulations to govern the Continental Navy's conduct and internal administration.

Over the course of the War of Independence, the Continental Navy sent to sea more than fifty armed vessels of various types. The navy's squadrons and cruisers seized enemy supplies and carried correspondence and diplomats to Europe, returning with needed munitions. They took nearly 200 British vessels as prizes, some off the British Isles themselves, contributing to the demoralization of the enemy and forcing the British to divert warships to protect convoys and trade routes. In addition, the navy provoked diplomatic crises that helped bring France into the war against Great Britain. The Continental Navy began the proud tradition carried on today by our United States Navy, and whose birthday we celebrate each year in October.

Source: DEPARTMENT OF THE US 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 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. Continued below...

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 Reading: John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy. Description: Evan Thomas’s John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy grounds itself on the facts of Jones’s life and accomplishments to bolster his place among the pantheon of Revolutionary heroes while also working to deflate the myths that have circulated about his name. Jones, we learn, was confronted throughout his life with controversy and was crippled by ambition. But Thomas lauds Jones for early innovations as an American self-made man who rose from Scottish servitude. Continued below…

Jones, despite his too brisk manner, was a true success, if not genius, as a naval captain. Early in the Revolutionary War, he captured a shipload of winter uniforms destined for General Burgoyne’s army in Canada, which instead warmed General Washington’s troops as they swept across the Delaware to defeat British at Princeton and Trenton. Later, Jones helped formulate the Navy’s plan of psychological warfare on British citizens. And Jones’s strategy to cut off the British fleet via the French Navy was arguably the most decisive strategic decision of the War. In the end, Thomas makes a good case for a renewed appreciated for Jones’s role in the broader revolution, citing his many connections to the Founding Fathers and his contributions to the broader war effort. While it may be that the John Paul Jones who proclaimed "I have not yet begun to fight" never existed, the real man behind the textbook legend is every bit as compelling a figure in Thomas’s hands. This temperate biography situates Jones in what will likely prove durable fashion among portraits of Adams, Franklin, Washington, and Jefferson.

 

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: Civil War Ironclads: The U.S. Navy and Industrial Mobilization (Johns Hopkins Studies in the History of Technology). Description: "In this impressively researched and broadly conceived study, William Roberts offers the first comprehensive study of one of the most ambitious programs in the history of naval shipbuilding, the Union's ironclad program during the Civil War. Perhaps more importantly, Roberts also provides an invaluable framework for understanding and analyzing military-industrial relations, an insightful commentary on the military acquisition process, and a cautionary tale on the perils of the pursuit of perfection and personal recognition." - Robert Angevine, Journal of Military History "Roberts's study, illuminating on many fronts, is a welcome addition to our understanding of the Union's industrial mobilization during the Civil War and its inadvertent effects on the postwar U.S. Navy." - William M. McBride, Technology and Culture"

 

Recommended Reading: Rebels and Yankees: Naval Battles of the Civil War (Hardcover). Description: Naval Battles of the Civil War, written by acclaimed Civil War historian Chester G. Hearn, focuses on the maritime battles fought between the Confederate Rebels and the Union forces in waters off the eastern seaboard and the great rivers of the United States during the Civil War. Since very few books have been written on this subject, this volume provides a fascinating and vital portrayal of the one of the most important conflicts in United States history. Naval Battles of the Civil War is lavishly illustrated with rare contemporary photographs, detailed artworks, and explanatory maps, and the text is a wonderful blend of technical information, fast-flowing narrative, and informed commentary.

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