Birth of the U.S. Navy

Thursday, October 13, 2005

By RP3 Bryan J. Dickerson

The U.S. Navy was born on 13 October 1775 by an act of the Continental Congress. Long-building political tensions between the British Empire and its American colonies had broken out into armed conflict. Peace and reconciliation efforts were failing.

If the colonies were going to win their independence, they would need a Navy.

1775 was a tumultuous year for the British Empire and its American colonies. Political conflict became military conflict in April when colonists and British soldiers clashed at the Massachusetts towns of Lexington and Concord. Two months later, colonists and British soldiers clashed again; this time they fought on the outskirts of Boston on Bunker Hill with far greater casualties. The members of the Continental Congress struggled and debated over independence or reconciliation. In June, the Congress formed an Army.

The American colonies were heavily dependent upon the sea for commerce. Many American colonial leaders, particularly New Englanders like John Adams of Massachusetts, pushed for the creation of a navy to protect colonial shipping, defend coastal settlements and raid British ships. But challenging the Royal Navy on the seas would be no easy task, for Britain had the most powerful navy in the world.

Ultimately Congress passed a Resolution on 13 October 1775 to purchase and fit out two vessels as warships. In addition, a Marine Committee consisting of John Adams, Silas Deane and John Langdon was formed to oversee naval affairs. This date is regarded as the birth date of the U.S. Navy. The Marine Committee was expanded to thirteen members two months later.

Less than a month later, Congress purchased the merchant vessel Black Prince, renamed her Alfred and converted her to a warship with thirty cannons. By year’s end, Congress acquired four other warships: Columbus, Cabot, Andrew Doria, and Providence.

On 10 November 1775, Congress passed a Resolution to raise two battalions of Marines to serve with the new Continental Navy. This momentous event occurred at Tun Tavern in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This date is regarded as the birthday of the U.S. Marine Corps. Captain Samuel Nicholas was appointed commander of these two battalions and is regarded as the first Commandant of the Marine Corps.

The new Continental Navy needed officers and sailors as well as warships. Over the next couple months, officers were commissioned, many of whom were drawn from the colonial seafaring community. In late December 1775, Congress appointed Esek Hopkins as the first Commander-in-Chief of the Navy.

In March 1776, Commodore Hopkins led a four-ship squadron that included Alfred to the Bahamas. Led by now Major Nicholas, a landing party of 250 Marines and sailors stormed ashore on the island of New Providence island and captured munitions and stored there. This was the Navy and Marine Corps’s first amphibious operation.

Despite facing the most powerful navy in the world at the time, the Continental Navy was able to achieve some impressive victories against the Royal Navy, most notably John Paul Jones’ capture of the frigate HMS Serapis in September 1779.

The Navy sent over fifty armed vessels to sea, fought numerous battles against the Royal Navy, and captured over 200 British merchant vessels. Unfortunately, nearly every American warship was either captured or destroyed by the Royal Navy or scuttled to prevent capture. This included Alfred, which was captured in a battle with two Royal Navy warships near Barbados.

Nevertheless, the fledgling Continental Navy contributed significantly to the winning of independence from Britain and established a fine tradition of service to the new United States of America.

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