Iconic images of the American Revolution often portray ragtag American Minutemen marching to fifes and drums, or General George Washington on his white horse leading his Continental Army into battle. The American victory was actually achieved through a combination of factors that included not only land battles, but British politics, clever diplomacy, European alliances, and one essential component that is not always recognized and often underestimated—sea power.
If we could write the Navy’s history the way we would like it to be, the Continental Navy would have risen from virtual nothingness to miraculously overcome the Royal Navy and carry the nation to victory in a grand fleet battle. While the reality is very different, it is nonetheless very significant.
Early on, the British enjoyed a monopoly on sea power, but the Americans were able to incorporate elements of sea power in diverse but significant ways, and they were able to midwife a navy of sorts. From this genesis they were able to lay the foundations for a future navy that would eventually exercise sea power in ways that would far surpass the successes of the Royal Navy in this era.
Early Naval Operations
The U.S. Navy celebrates its birthday on 13 October. This is appropriate enough, for it was on that day in 1775 that the Continental Congress authorized the outfitting of two vessels to be the first of what would be called the Continental Navy and appointed a three-man committee to oversee the endeavor as a “Naval Committee.” But in truth, this formal establishment of a navy had been preceded by other related events.
In June of that same year, some daring citizens of Machias, Massachusetts (now Maine), led by Jeremiah O’Brien, boarded and captured a British armed schooner, killing the British ship’s captain in the process. In that same month, two vessels commanded by Abraham Whipple that had been chartered by the Rhode Island government captured a Royal Navy frigate’s tender in Narragansett Bay.
These early actions were paralleled on a more formal basis by none other than General George Washington, who created what one might loosely describe as a navy more than a month before Congress created its Naval Committee. During his siege of Boston, Washington was desperate for ammunition and other supplies, so on 2 September, without congressional authorization, he chartered the 78-ton schooner Hannah to attack British transports in search of those much-needed supplies. This was an uncharacteristically autonomous move for Washington, who was usually meticulous about his adherence to the principle of civilian control of the military. But these were desperate times, and this Army general was already beginning to appreciate the importance of sea power as a vital component to successful strategy. He subsequently added more vessels to the endeavor, and on 28 November 1775, one of them—the schooner Lee, commanded by Captain John Manly—captured the brig Nancy, netting a significant cache of arms and ammunition. Before this squadron of armed merchant ships was disbanded in 1776, it had captured 55 British vessels.
In May of 1776, James Mugford of Marblehead, Massachusetts, was impressed aboard a Royal Navy warship near his hometown, and while in captivity he overheard British officers talking about the anticipated arrival of a large stores ship. After his wife was able to obtain his release by appealing to the British captain, Mugford convinced the commander of American forces around Boston, General Artemus Ward, to give him command of the Franklin, a schooner armed with six carriage guns and a number of rail-mounted swivel guns.
Sailing immediately, Mugford soon spotted the anticipated British supply ship Hope. She was considerably larger than the Franklin and, worse, she was within visual range of the British fleet she had come to resupply. Mugford warned his crew of 17 that they were probably in for a desperate fight but pressed on.
At first, he was happily surprised that the Hope surrendered without a fight. But as he closed in to claim his prize, he realized that the clever British captain had passed the order for his men to cut the ship’s halyards, knowing that this would prevent Mugford from being able to sail the disabled ship away before the nearby enemy fleet could respond.
Mugford opened fire with a volley of oaths and promises that the captain and his entire crew would suffer a horrid death if they persisted in cutting the lines. Knives and axes dropped to the deck, and Mugford soon had his undamaged prize. He immediately set sail and delivered much-needed supplies—including 1,500 barrels of gunpowder and 1,000 carbines—to the American soldiers ashore.
Knowing the Royal Navy would be seeking retribution, Mugford then headed for the open sea. But an opposing tide prevented him from getting far, and he was soon compelled to anchor. Expecting the worst, Mugford ordered a quantity of 12-pound shot heated until red hot and had spring lines fixed to his anchor cables to allow him to swing his ship about should he need to unmask batteries.
Before dawn could ease the inky darkness, lookouts heard the creak and splash of approaching oars. When Mugford hailed them, a voice replied, “For God’s sake, don’t shoot! We are friends from Boston come to help you.” Unfooled by this attempted ruse, Mugford opened fire with a broadside.
Of 14 boats filled with 200 British soldiers, five were immediately destroyed, but the others pressed the attack and soldiers began clamoring up the Franklin’s hull. In the vicious fight that ensued, the Americans dropped red-hot cannonballs on the attackers’ heads, and as the enemy soldiers grasped at the Franklin’s rails, the Americans lopped off a great many fingers and whole hands. Mugford alone severed five pairs of hands. But he soon paid battle’s ultimate toll and fell, mortally wounded.
Before he died, Mugford told his second in command, “I am a dead man. But do not give up the vessel. You will be able to beat them off. If not, cut the cable and run the schooner on shore!” Not as succinct as the iconic “Don’t give up the ship,” uttered by a dying Captain James Lawrence years later, but the spirit was the same.
The examples set by Mugford, Washington, and the others led the Continental Congress to formally authorize privateering, a recognized practice of the day. Also known by the French term guerre de course, merchantmen were issued letters of marque authorizing them to arm themselves and to capture enemy vessels. Prize courts legitimized the captures and awarded a portion of the spoils to the privateer captain and his crew. In this manner, valuable supplies were denied the enemy and provided to the cause, while some of the more successful practitioners’ pockets were lucratively lined. John Adams described this practice as “a short, easy, and infallible method of humbling the English.”
While two-masted schooners and brigantines were most common, vessels of every size and description were pressed into service as privateers, from the 8-ton boat Defense of Falmouth, Massachusetts to the 600-ton, 26-gun ship Caesar of Boston.
There were 26 times more privateers than Continental Navy ships—1,697 letters of marque were issued during the war. Their effect on the outcome, while not decisive, was considerable. These marauding ships captured more than 600 prizes, obtaining desperately needed supplies for the rebels, weakening the British economy by the loss of much merchandise, and significantly raising maritime insurance rates for shipowners and investors, many of whom were members of the British Parliament. Former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman praised “the enormous success of American privateers,” observing that “the battles of the American Revolution were fought on land, [but] independence was won at sea.”
There was a downside to this success, however. Because many potential recruits preferred the more lucrative and less-disciplined privateer service, this made recruiting for the Continental Navy more difficult.
Tactical Defeat—Strategic Victory
In the spring of 1776, a British army headed south from Canada, the British commander intent upon taking control of the Richelieu-Champlain-George-Hudson waterways to separate New England from the rest of the colonies. But when he learned that the Americans were putting together a “fleet,” at the southern end of Lake Champlain, he decided to do likewise before proceeding, and the summer passed as both sides labored to build makeshift—but amazingly capable—vessels to supplement the few they already had.
As an early winter set in, the Americans took station partway up the lake with their 16 vessels—eight gondolas, four galleys, three schooners, and one sloop. The oncoming British force of 25 ships included 20 gunboats, some larger vessels, and a raft-like monstrosity that was crewed by 300 men and carried a formidable battery of guns. All told, the Americans could fire about 600 pounds of shot to the British total of 1,100 pounds.
While waiting for the British, the men slept on the open decks with snow falling on their shivering bodies as gale winds added to their misery. These winds were out of the north, and the Americans realized that this would give the southbound Redcoats the “weather gage,” a decided advantage when maneuvering sailing vessels. So, the Americans cleverly hid in the lee of Valcour Island along the western side of the lake, hoping the British would pass by, thereby ceding the upwind advantage. For camouflage, the Americans cut spruce trees and rigged them along the sides of the vessels, and they anchored stem to stern in a gradual crescent formation across the waterway between the island and the western shore, which would force the enemy to approach one or two at a time through the narrow channel and be subjected to the full force of the American firepower.
As hoped, the British fleet sailed on past Valcour Island without spotting the Americans. Once the bulk of the force was well south—downwind—of the island, several American vessels came out of the bay and lured the British northward. As planned, the lead enemy vessel was funneled into the narrowing waterway, and her commander barely had time to see the wall of American vessels ahead when they suddenly disappeared behind a great cloud of white smoke. A great rumble rolled across the water as geysers erupted from the water close aboard the British ship. The American trap had been sprung.
As the battle wore on, these Americans—who just a short while before had been merchants, farmers, fishermen, teachers, and all manner of things but soldiers or sailors—served their guns well, and for a time, it seemed that they might actually prevail. But despite their clever tactics, they were no match for the superior British force. By the end of the next day, the American “fleet” had been defeated.
But what may have seemed a decisive British victory was not, in strategic terms. Facing a cold winter, the British decided to return to Canada until spring. This bought the Americans valuable time to prepare for the British return and ultimately led to an American victory in the Battle of Saratoga the following summer. This important battle prevented the British from severing the colonies as planned and dealt them a terrible blow to their morale. More importantly, coupled with the masterful cajoling of Benjamin Franklin, this victory helped convince the French to enter the war as an American ally, changing the nature of the war in ways that were favorable to the Americans and proving to be one of the crucial factors in the outcome.
First Continental Navy Operation
On 28 November 1775, Congress moved ahead with its plans for creating a “Continental Navy,” issuing “Rules for the Regulation of the Navy of the United Colonies”—written by John Adams—and purchasing eight vessels to be fitted out for service in the fledgling navy. A few weeks later, Congress further approved the building of 13 frigates and commissioned 18 officers, among them a 28-year-old Scotsman known as John Paul Jones.
By January 1776, the new navy was ready for its first venture. Congress appointed Esek Hopkins—a brother of one of the members of the Naval Committee—as commodore of a newly formed squadron of eight purchased ships. Rather optimistically—if not entirely realistically—Congress ordered Hopkins to clear British naval forces from the Chesapeake Bay and then to rid the Virginia and Carolina coasts of British raiders that had been lurking there. Once underway from Philadelphia, however, the newly appointed commodore—apparently over-interpreting a closing clause in his orders that read “You are then to follow such courses as your best judgment shall suggest to you as most useful to the American cause”—bypassed the Chesapeake Bay and instead headed south for the Bahamas.
Two of Hopkins’ ships— the Hornet and Fly—collided early on and had to return to port, but the remaining six— the Alfred, Columbus, Wasp, Providence, Cabot, and Andrea Doria—pressed on and arrived in the Bahamas on 3 March. Hopkins sent 300 men ashore on New Providence Island, and although they captured the British forts at Nassau and confiscated their artillery pieces and various other supplies, they were slow and inefficient, which allowed the British to remove most of the powder and shot that had been stored there before the forts fell.
On the return voyage, the Columbus, under the command of Abraham Whipple, captured the British Schooner Hawk on the 4th of April, and the next day Hopkins’ flagship, the Alfred, captured the brig Bolton. But early on the morning of 6 April, the remaining ships encountered the 20-gun British frigate Glasgow off Block Island, and these successes were soon overshadowed. Although the Americans clearly had the numerical advantage, in a four-hour, chaotic melee, the Royal Navy captain demonstrated what a difference years of training and experience could make by not only escaping, but seriously damaging his American opponents in the process.
Considering their fledgling status, what they had to work with (makeshift vessels and inexperienced officers), and what they were facing (the world’s most powerful navy), the mediocre showing in this early expedition was not surprising, but it also was not very inspiring. Inspiration would come from a different source and from the other side of the ocean.
Raiders in British Waters
When one side in a conflict is greatly outnumbered or outclassed, the lesser side often relies on guerrilla or “Fabian” tactics, which rely on harassing the superior force, only when it can be done without risk of annihilation, while avoiding situations where the enemy has a notable advantage. While certainly less satisfying than toe-to-toe warfare, this “hit and run” approach can be highly effective, usually in psychological rather than physical terms. Such was the case during the Revolution, when several intrepid naval commanders chose to take the fight to the enemy’s home waters by attacking British ships and even conducting raids ashore. The physical losses to the British were relatively slight, but the psychological effect was significant. Support for the war was dealt a blow when members of Parliament were shocked to find that these upstart faraway colonists were able to strike at the mother country. Wariness and even panic took hold among some of the coastal citizenry. Perhaps most significant of all, like the activities of the privateers, these raids caused shipping insurance rates to rise significantly, dealing a tangible blow to the British economy.
Three of these American marauders stood out: Lambert Wickes, Gustavus Conyngham, and John Paul Jones. Wickes was the first, pioneering the use of French ports as a base of operations with the underlying hope of creating diplomatic disputes between Britain and France that would ultimately result in war between them. Conyngham’s attacks on British commerce caused the Royal Navy to assign warships as escorts to merchant convoys, which meant that fewer combatants were available for blockade duty along the coasts of the American colonies. Jones was the most aggressive of all, not only capturing merchant ships in British home waters, but also conducting raids ashore and boldly engaging British warships. His infamy spread through the coastal towns to the extent that mothers were known to tell their children that if they did not eat their vegetables, “the Pirate Jones” would come and take them away.
Jones’ most famous engagement took place off Flamborough Head near the English-Scottish border in the North Sea when he defeated the powerful new frigate HMS Serapis while in command of a worn-out French East Indiaman Duc de Duras that Jones had renamed the Bonhomme Richard in honor of his patron Benjamin Franklin. The legendary battle was the high point for the Continental Navy, and Jones’ actions that night immortalized him, making him an inspiration to the Navy he is often credited with fathering.
John Kilby is one of the few early American sailors to have left behind a written account of his service, including a description of the famous battle between his ship and the more powerful frigate HMS Serapis—which he calls “Sea-Raper” in his memoir.
The battle began after dark, and solid and grape shot poured into both vessels, smashing into masts and bulkheads, splintering wood into deadly shards, crushing bones, and tearing flesh. At first, it seemed that the Bonhomme Richard would succumb as she suffered far more damage and several of her guns exploded, killing a number of her crew. When she lost her colors, Jones had another flag hoisted and Kilby remembered that there was “run up the glory of America, I mean the most handsome suit of colors that I ever saw. They were about thirty-six feet in the fly.”
With that as inspiration, the crew of the Bonhomme Richard fought on despite the raging fires, exploding ordnance, rising water, flowing blood, flying shrapnel, and screams of agony. Kilby and his mates loaded and fired time and again, shored up damaged bulkheads, slipped on the blood that ran across the decks, manned the pumps in a losing battle with the sea, fought back fires, choked on great clouds of smoke, ignored the crushing fatigue that strained their laboring muscles, and suppressed the terrible fear that clutched at their hearts. By 2230, the battle was over and, incredibly, Jones was the victor.
By continuing to fight on, even when defeat seemed inevitable, Kilby and his shipmates established a tradition—a standard—that would guide those that followed through times of violent war and arduous peace, taking the new Navy to heights unimaginable to those iron men fighting in wooden ships. It probably did not occur to any of them—not even Jones—that their Navy had just begun to fight!
On the night of 4 March 1776, Continental Army batteries positioned at Cambridge, just east of Boston, opened fire on the British-occupied city. It seemed a waste of precious ammunition because the barrage had little effect other than to cause the British to expend some of their more abundant ammunition to retaliate. But what the British did not know was that while they were preoccupied with returning fire, 2,000 American troops ascended Dorchester Heights south of Boston and began digging in. Using hay bales positioned to muffle the sounds, the Americans hauled up the slopes a number of heavy cannon that they had captured from Fort Ticonderoga.
When dawn came, the British were astonished to see the maws of American guns pointed at them from the tactically advantageous heights to their south. It was a brilliant American tactical maneuver. With the memory of the Battle of Bunker Hill still fresh in his mind, British General William Howe rejected the idea of another costly assault on higher ground and decided instead to evacuate Boston.
It seemed like a great victory for the upstart Americans—driving the powerful British Army out of the city that had long been the epicenter of the rebellion. But strategically, it represented something more fundamental. General George Washington’s correspondence confirms that he understood that although the seizure of Dorchester heights had effectively dislodged the British from Boston, it also clearly illustrated that their control of the sea meant that they could come and go as they pleased, and he realized that the war could not be won until this advantage could be countered.
Washington also understood that the sea-power advantage enjoyed by the British for much of the Revolution was also its Achilles heel. He knew that the British Army’s dependence on their navy put them at a geographical disadvantage, that their army could never stray very far from the coast or the navigable inland waterways without risk of being cut off from the Royal Navy. In later defending his actions during the war, General Howe acknowledged that the “general enmity and hostility of the people” and the “nature of the country” made it “impossible for the army to carry on its operations at any distance from the fleet.” This limitation provided Washington a virtual sanctuary by allowing him to move beyond the reach of the Royal Navy.
Understanding that the British could not quell the rebellion and restore control over their colonies as long as the Continental Army remained in the field, Washington was able to keep the Revolution alive by employing a Fabian strategy that entailed keeping his distance and only selectively engaging the British when circumstances prevented his being trapped or becoming too heavily engaged. By doing so, Washington bought the time necessary until the alliance with the French changed the nature of the war in ways favorable to the Americans.
In his 1932 study The Naval Genius of George Washington, famed historian Dudley Knox convincingly argued that the “cause of American independence was indeed fortunate in having combined in Washington the rare qualities of a great general and a great naval strategist.” In his foreword to Knox’s book, Admiral Hillary P. Jones agreed, writing: “we have been taught to regard Washington as a great general, a great statesman, and above all a great citizen. . . . To these titles now we may add another: a great admiral.”
Battle of the Capes and Yorktown
As long as British generals, relying on the Royal Navy, could come and go as they pleased, and Washington was able to take advantage of the virtual sanctuary provided by British reluctance to stray far from their navy, neither side could find a decisive advantage. Frustrated by this virtual stalemate and the failure of their ventures in New England and the Mid-Atlantic colonies to quell the rebellion, the British decided to concentrate on the South, where they believed there was a greater concentration of Loyalist support.
In the spring of 1780, the British laid siege to Charleston, South Carolina. Although they had been forced to abandon an earlier siege in 1776, this time the British were prepared to see it through with 14 warships escorting 90 transports loaded with thousands of soldiers. Commodore Abraham Whipple’s two frigates and five smaller ships—fully half of the Continental Navy at that time—were no match for the Royal Navy’s five ships-of-the-line, seven frigates, and two sloops. Trapped in Charleston Harbor, Whipple ordered the guns removed from his ships and scuttled them at the north end of the harbor. Soon after, the city fell, and a large American army surrendered. Despite the ignominy of this defeat, it would prove to be the first step in a chain of events that would eventually lead to the most decisive battle of the war.
The fall of Charleston provided a Southern foothold from which British Major General Charles Cornwallis began a campaign in the southern colonies in the summer of 1780. Over the better part of a year, Cornwallis moved through the Carolinas, winning a number of victories but suffering significant losses in the process. The anticipated Loyalist support materialized as hoped, but so did Patriot forces in the form of local militias and guerrilla bands. Further, Nathanael Greene waged an effective hit-and-run campaign with his Continental Army forces, often relying on pre-positioned boats to escape across the rivers. Cornwallis, convinced that most of Greene’s logistical support was coming from Virginia, decided to move his army northward to Yorktown—a fateful decision that would at last bring resolution to the conflict.
When Washington learned of Cornwallis’ arrival in Yorkton and that the French naval commander, Rear Admiral Francois Comte de Grasse, was bringing a force northward from the Caribbean to the southern Chesapeake, he saw the opportunity he had long awaited. With his French allies, Washington quickly and quietly moved his army south from the outskirts of New York and headed for Yorktown.
French and British fleets clashed off the Virginia Capes on 5 September 1781. Although it was not an outright victory for the French, it did prevent the Royal Navy from being able to support Cornwallis, leaving him logistically isolated and unable to depend upon the Navy to extricate him, as had been the case in Boston and at other times during the war.
Cut off from the usual trump card of maritime support, Cornwallis was trapped and ultimately forced to surrender at Yorktown on 19 October, a strategic defeat for the British that eventually led to the end of the Revolution and to American independence.
A Final Sea Battle
On 10 March 1783, just a few months before the Revolutionary War ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris on 3 September, Captain John Barry in the frigate Alliance, accompanied by the smaller Duc de Lauzun, sighted three sails bearing down off the coast of Florida. They were the British frigates Alarm and Sybil and the sloop-of-war Tobago. Even though struck by enemy fire on the way in, Barry closed with the enemy and, holding his fire until reaching pistol-shot distance, he at last let loose a powerful broadside into the Sybil. After nearly an hour of exchanging fire, the appearance of a French warship convinced the British that it was time to retire. The Alliance had suffered only minor damage, while the British captain later reported that he had never before “received such a drubbing.”
It was fitting that this final battle was fought by a ship named Alliance, for the war might not have succeeded without French intervention. But there was something else symbolic in this final fray at sea, a reminder that sea power had indeed played a pivotal role in this world-changing contest. The Americans, through determination and often superior strategy, had managed to win their independence from the most powerful nation on earth at the time.
This relatively small engagement also served as a reminder of the hundreds of encounters at sea that were not decisive but, coupled with the constant threats and periodic setbacks on land, chipped away at the logistics, the morale, and ultimately, the will of that powerful nation, until the defeat at Yorktown became the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back. Although unable to directly challenge the Royal Navy’s control of the sea, the combined effects of the Continental Navy, the state navies, and the privateers assisted the Americans in keeping their Revolution alive, while establishing gallant traditions that would help shape what would later become the most powerful navy in the history of the world.