Continental Navy

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Continental Navy. The first vessel to sail under authority of the Continental Congress was the schooner Hannah. Shortly after taking command of the Continental army at Cambridge, George Washington realized the usefulness of interdicting British supply vessels entering Boston as a means of tormenting the enemy and supplying his own troops. Hannah went to sea on 5 September 1775.

Hannah's success encouraged the Congress to take further action. At the urging of Rhode Island and other colonies, Congress on 13 October 1775 authorized the fitting out of a “swift vessel to carry ten carriage guns” and formed a committee to oversee this task, as well as to find additional vessels and bring in an estimate of the expense. This legislation marked the official launching of the Continental navy.

As often happened with the Continental Congress, ambition exceeded resources. Spurred by dreams of naval glory and an exaggerated opinion of American capabilities, Congress eventually authorized the construction of twenty frigates (thirteen in December 1775), three ships of the line, and at least two smaller vessels. Some of these vessels were never built and many never got to sea. Almost all of those that did set sail were captured or destroyed by the British.

Nevertheless, the Continental navy made important contributions to American victory. Continental vessels harassed British trade, carried American diplomats to foreign posts, and forced the Royal Navy to stretch its resources further than they would otherwise have been required to do.

Among the earliest accomplishments of the Continental navy was Commodore Esek Hopkins's capture of the Bahamas Islands. Sailing from Philadelphia in mid‐February 1776, Hopkins's squadron captured Nassau, remaining only long enough to load cannon from the fort before returning to Connecticut. En route Hopkins's squadron encountered the British frigate Glasgow, which managed to inflict considerable damage on its pursuers and then escape. This unhappy engagement cast a pall over what had until that moment been an important accomplishment. Hopkins came under heavy criticism and Congress later dismissed him from the service.

Among the chief achievements of the Continental navy was to bring the war to Europe. Both Capt. Lambert Wickes and Gustavus Conyngham sailed in British home waters, capturing several enemy vessels and generally embarrassing the Royal Navy. The most famous Continental captain to sail these waters, however, was John Paul Jones.

Having sailed the Continental sloop of war Ranger to France, Jones lobbied the French for the loan of a large warship. Thanks to help from Benjamin Franklin, the French provided him with an old East Indiaman, Duc de Duras, which he renamed Bon Homme Richard in honor of his friend Franklin. Jones took his ship, sailed around the British Isles, and on 23 September 1779, in a bravely fought battle, defeated the British frigate HMS Serapis off Flamborough Head. It was the most celebrated American naval victory of the Revolution.

While Jones, Conyngham, and other captains brought fame to the American navy, in home waters the story was less encouraging. A few weeks before Flamborough Head, a combined expedition of Continental navy and state naval vessels, with reinforcements of privateers, suffered a disastrous defeat at Penobscot Bay on the Maine coast. Sent to dislodge the British from that area, the expedition was surprised by the Royal Navy and completely destroyed. Less than a year later at Charleston, South Carolina, the Continental navy lost four additional vessels when that city fell to the enemy.

When Gen. Charles Cornwallis surrendered in mid‐October 1781 at the Battle of Yorktown, the Continental navy had been reduced to two frigates, Alliance and Deane. In November 1782, after innumerable delays, the Continental navy launched its first and only ship of the line, America, at Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Eager to economize, Congress quickly presented her to the French to replace a ship of the line that had run aground in Boston.

By early in 1783, only Deane and Alliance remained in service; at the end of the year Alliance was the sole American warship left. She remained in commission but inactive until 1785, when she too was sold out of the service.

The federal Constitution of 1787 stipulated (Art. I, sec. 8) that Congress might “provide and maintain a Navy,” and made the president its commander in chief (Art. II, sec. 2). It was not until 1794, however, that the new government authorized a navy; and not until 1797 were the first ships launched. Several captains from the Revolution, including John Barry and Silas Talbot, received commissions in the new navy.

In addition to the vessels that sailed under the authority of the Continental Congress all of the states also authorized public warships. Most of these vessels remained close to their own states and were used primarily to defend local commerce. Far more numerous than public warships were privateers. Commissioned by either the Continental Congress or the state governments, several hundred of these vessels sailed during the Revolution. Although they captured hundreds of enemy merchant vessels they did not have a dramatic effect on the war. As the Royal Navy dispatched more warships to American waters many privateers were either trapped in port or captured at sea.

Although not a direct part of the naval effort American sailors did make a contribution to Washington's army. During the escape from Manhattan sailors from Marblehead, Massachusetts manned the small boats that evacuated American troops. They were also important later in that same year when Washington depended upon them to help his army cross the Delaware River.
[See also Commander in Chief, President as; Revolutionary War.]


Gardner W. Allen , A Naval History of the American Revolution, 2 vols., 1913.
William James Morgan, ed., Naval Documents of the American Revolution, 9 vols., 1964.
William M. Fowler, Jr. , Rebels Under Sail, 1976.

William Fowler, Jr.