Thursday, October 13, 2016, marks the Two Hundred Forty-First birthday of the United States Navy. I have compiled a history of the Navy from its inception through the present. The entire document comprises over eleven thousand words and twenty pages. I will post it here in four installments culminating in the final posting on October 13.
U. S. Navy
The Beginning Through 1812
Compiled and Authored by: Garland Davis
The Navy claims 13 October 1775 as the date of its official establishment, when the Second Continental Congress passed a resolution creating the Continental Navy. With the end of the American Revolutionary War, the Continental Navy was disbanded. Under President George Washington threats to American merchant shipping by Barbary pirates from four North African Muslim States, in the Mediterranean, led to the Naval Act of 1794, which created a permanent standing U.S. Navy. The original six frigates were authorized as part of the Act. Over the next 20 years, the Navy fought the French Navy in the Quasi-War (1798–99), Barbary states in the First and Second Barbary Wars, and the British in the War of 1812. After the War of 1812, the U.S. Navy was at peace until the Mexican War in 1846, and served to combat piracy in the Mediterranean and Caribbean seas, as well fighting the slave trade. In 1845, the Naval Academy was founded. In 1861, the American Civil War began, and the U.S. Navy fought the small Confederate Navy with both sailing ships and ironclad ships while forming a blockade that shut down the Confederacy’s civilian shipping. After the Civil War, most of its ships were laid up in reserve, and by 1878, the Navy was just 6,000 men.
In 1882, the U.S. Navy consisted of many outdated ship designs. Over the next decade, Congress approved building multiple modern armored cruisers and battleships, and by around the start of the 20th century had moved from twelfth place in 1870 to fifth place regarding numbers of ships. After winning two major battles during the 1898 Spanish-American War, the Navy continued to build more ships, and by the end of World War I had more men and women in uniform than the Royal Navy. The Washington Naval Conference recognized the Navy as equal in capital ship size to the Royal Navy, and during the 1920s and 1930s, the Navy built several aircraft carriers and battleships. The Navy was drawn into World War II after the Japanese Attack on Pearl harbor on 7 December 1941, and over the next four years fought many historic battles including the Battle of the Coral sea, the Battle of Midway, multiple naval battles during the Guadalcanal Campaign, and the largest naval battle in history, the Battle of Leyte Gulf. Much of the Navy’s activity concerned the support of landings, not only with the “island hopping” campaign in the Pacific but also with the European landings. When the Japanese surrendered, a large flotilla entered Tokyo Bay to witness the formal ceremony conducted on the battleship Missouri, on which officials from the Japanese government signed the Japanese Instrument of Surrender. By the end of the war, the Navy had over 1,600 warships.
After World War II had ended, the U.S. Navy entered the Cold War and participated in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Persian Gulf War, and the Iraq War. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Soviet Navy fell apart, which made the United States the world’s undisputed naval superpower. Nuclear power and ballistic missile technology led to new ship propulsion and weapon systems, which were used in the Nimitz-class aircraft carriers and Ohio-class submarines. By 1978, the number of ships had dwindled to less than 400, many of which were from World War II, which prompted Ronald Reagan to institute a program for a modern, 600 ship Navy. Today, the United States is the world’s undisputed naval superpower, with the ability to engage and .project power in two simultaneous limited wars along separate fronts. In March 2007, the U.S. Navy reached its smallest fleet size, with 274 ships, since World War I. Former U.S. Navy admirals who head the U.S. Naval Institute have raised concerns about what they see as the ability to respond to ‘aggressive moves by Iran and China.
Continental Navy (1775–1785)
The Navy was rooted in the American seafaring tradition, which produced a large community of sailors, captains, and shipbuilders in the colonial era. During the Revolution, several states operated their own navies. On 12 June 1775, the Rhode Island General Assembly passed a resolution creating a navy for the colony of Rhode Island. The same day, Governor Nicholas Cooke signed orders addressed to Captain Abraham Whipple, commander of the sloop Katy, and Commodore of the armed vessels employed by the government.
The first formal movement for the creation of a Continental Navy came from Rhode Island because the states merchants’ widespread smuggling activities had been severely harassed by British frigates. On 26 August 1775, Rhode Island passed a resolution that there be a single Continental fleet funded by the Continental Congress The resolution was introduced in the Continental Congress on 3 October 1775 but was tabled. In the meantime, George Washington had begun to acquire ships, starting with the schooner USS Hannah that was paid for out of Washington’s pocket. Hannah was commissioned and launched on 5 September 1775, from the port of Marblehead, Massachusetts.
Resolved, That a swift sailing vessel, to carry ten carriage guns, and a proportional number of swivels, with eighty men, be fitted, with all possible dispatch, for a cruise of three months, and that the commander be instructed to cruise eastward, for intercepting such transports as may be laden with warlike stores and other supplies for our enemies, and for such other purposes as the Congress shall direct.
That a Committee of three be appointed to prepare an estimate of the expense, and lay the same before the Congress, and to contract with proper persons to fit out the vessel.
Resolved, that another vessel be fitted out for the same purposes, and that the said committee report their opinion of a proper vessel, and also an estimate of the expense.
Resolution of the Continental Congress that marked the establishment of what is now the United States Navy.
The US Navy recognizes 13 October 1775 as the date of its official establishment — the date of the passage of the resolution of the Continental Congress at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania that created the Continental Navy. On this day, Congress authorized the purchase of two vessels to be armed for a cruise against British merchant ships. Congress on 13 December 1775, authorized the building of thirteen frigates within the next three months, five ships of 32 guns, five with 28 guns and three with 24 guns.
On Lake Champlain, Benedict Arnold ordered the construction of 12 Navy vessels to slow down the British fleet that was invading New York from Canada. The British fleet did destroy Arnold’s fleet, but the U.S. fleet managed to slow down the British after a two-day battle, known as the Battle of Valcour Island, and managed to slow the progression of the British Army. By mid-1776, a number of ships, ranging up to and including the thirteen frigates approved by Congress, were under construction, but their effectiveness was limited; they were completely outmatched by the mighty Royal Navy, and nearly all were captured or sunk by 1781.
Privateers had some success, with 1,697 letters of marque being issued by Congress. Individual states, American agents in Europe and the Caribbean also issued commissions; taking duplications into account more than 2,000 commissions were issued by the various authorities. Over 2,200 British ships were taken by Yankee privateers, amounting to almost $66 million, a significant sum at the time.
One particularly notable American naval hero of the Revolution was John Paul Jones, who in his famous voyage around the British Isles defeated the British ship Serapis (1779) in the Battle of Flamborough Head. Partway through the battle, with the rigging of the two ships entangled, and several guns of Jones’ ship Bonhomme Richard out of action, the captain of Serapis asked Jones if he had struck his colors, to which Jones has been quoted as replying, “I have not yet begun to fight!”
France officially entered the war on 17 June 1778, and the ships of the French Navy sent to the Western Hemisphere spent most of the year in the West Indies, and only sailed near the Thirteen Colonies during the Caribbean hurricane season from July until November. The first French fleet attempted landings in New York and Rhode Island but ultimately failed to engage British forces during 1778. In 1779, a fleet commanded by Vice Admiral Charles Henri, Comte d’Estaing assisted American forces attempting to recapture Savannah, Georgia.
In 1780, a fleet with 6,000 troops commanded by Lieutenant General Jean-Baptists, Comte de Rochambeau landed at Newport, Rhode Island, and shortly afterward the fleet was blockaded by the British. In early 1781, Washington and de Rochambeau planned an attack against the British in the Chesapeake Bay area to coordinate with the arrival of a large fleet commanded by Vice-Admiral Francois, Comte de Grasse. Successfully deceiving the British that an attack was planned in New York, Washington, and de Rochambeau marched to Virginia, and de Grasse began landing forces near Yorktown, Virginia. On 5 September 1781, a major naval action was fought by de Grasse and the British at the Battle of the Virginia Capes ending with the French fleet in control of the Chesapeake Bay. The U.S. Navy continued to interdict British supply ships until peace was finally declared in late 1783.
The Barbary War was ended by the Treaty of Paris in 1783, and by 1785 the Continental Navy was disbanded, and the remaining ships were sold. The frigate Alliance, which had fired the last shots of the American Revolutionary War, was also the last ship in the Navy. A faction within Congress wanted to keep the ship, but the new nation did not have the funds to keep her in service. Other than a general lack of money, other factors for the disarmament of the Navy were the loose confederation of the states, a change of goals from war to peace, and more domestic and fewer foreign interests.
After the American Revolutionary War, the brand-new United States struggled to stay financially afloat. National income was desperately needed, and most came from tariffs on imported goods. Because of rampant smuggling, the need was immediate for strong enforcement of tariff laws. On 4 August 1790, the United States Congress urged on by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, created the Revenue-Marine, the forerunner for the United States Coast Guard, to enforce the tariff and all other maritime laws. Ten cutters were initially ordered. Between 1790 and 1797 when the Navy Department was created, the Revenue Marine was the only armed maritime service for the United States. American merchant shipping had been protected by the British Navy, and as a consequence of the Treaty of Paris and the disarmament of the Continental Navy, the United States no longer had any protection for its ships from pirates. The fledgling nation did not have the funds to pay annual tribute to the Barbary States, so their ships were vulnerable to capture after 1785. By 1789, the new Constitution of the United States authorized Congress to create a navy, but during George Washington’s first term (1787–1793) little was done to rearm the navy. In 1793, the French Revolutionary Wars between Great Britain and France began, and a truce negotiated between Portugal and Algiers ended Portugal’s blockade of the Strait of Gibralter which had kept the Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean. Soon after, the pirates sailed into the Atlantic and captured 11 American merchant ships and more than a hundred seamen.
In reaction to the seizure of the American vessels, Congress debated and approved the Naval Act of 1794, which authorized the building of six frigates, four of 44 guns and two of 36 guns. Supporters were mostly from the northern states and the coastal regions, who argued the Navy would result in savings in insurance and ransom payments, while opponents from southern states and inland regions thought a navy was not worth the expense and would drive the United States into more costly wars.
After the passage of the Naval Act of 1794, work began on the construction of the six frigates: USS United States, President,Constellation, Chesapeake, Congress, and Constitution. Constitution launched in 1797 and the most famous of the six, was nicknamed “Old Ironsides” and, thanks to the efforts of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., is still in existence today, anchored in Boston harbor. Soon after the bill was passed, Congress authorized $800,000 to obtain a treaty with the Algerians and ransom the captives, triggering an amendment of the Act which would halt the construction of ships if peace was declared. After considerable debate, three of the six frigates were authorized to be completed: United States, Constitution, and Constellation. However, the first naval vessel to sail was USS Ganges, on 24 May 1798.
At the same time, tensions between the U.S. and France developed into the Quasi-War, which originated from the Treaty of Alliance (1778) that had brought the French into the Revolutionary War. The United States preferred to take a position of neutrality in the conflicts between France and Britain, but this put the nation at odds with both Britain and France. After the Jay treaty was authorized with Britain in 1794, France began to side against the United States and by 1797 they had seized over 300 American vessels. The newly inaugurated President John Adams took steps to deal with the crisis, working with Congress to finish the three almost-completed frigates, approving funds to build the other three, and attempting to negotiate an agreement similar to the Jay Treaty with France. The XYZ Affair originated with a report distributed by Adams where alleged French agents were identified by the letters X, Y, and Z who informed the delegation a bribe must be paid before the diplomats could meet with the foreign minister, and the resulting scandal increased popular support in the country for a war with France. Concerns about the War Department’s ability to manage a navy led to the creation of the Department of the Navy, which was established on 30 April 1798.
The war with France was fought almost entirely at sea, mostly between privateers and merchant ships. The first victory for the United States Navy was on 7 July 1798 when USS Delaware captured the French privateer Le Croyable, and the first victory over an enemy warship was on 9 February 1799 when the frigate Constellation captured the French frigate L’Insurgente. By the end of 1800, peace with France had been declared, and in 1801, to prevent a second disarmament of the Navy, the outgoing Federalist administration rushed through Congress an act authorizing a peacetime navy for the first time, which limited the Navy to six active frigates and seven in ordinary, as well as 45 officers and 150 midshipmen. The remainder of the ships in service were sold and the dismissed officers were given four months’ pay.
The problems with the Barbary States had never gone away, and on 10 May 1801, the Tripolitans declared war on the United States by chopping down the flag in front of the American Embassy, which began the First Barbary War. USS Philadelphia was captured by the Moors but then set on fire in an American raid led by Stephen Decatur. The Marines invaded the “shores of Tripoli” in 1805, capturing the city of Derna, the first time the U.S. flag ever flew over a foreign conquest.This Act was enough to induce the Barbary rulers to sign peace treaties. Subsequently, the Navy was reduced for reasons of economy, and instead of regular ships, many gunboats were built, intended for coastal use only. This policy proved completely ineffective within a decade.
President Thomas Jefferson and his Republican party opposed a strong navy, arguing that small gunboats in the major harbors were all the nation needed to defend itself. They proved useless in wartime.
The Royal Navy continued to illegally press American sailors into the Royal Navy; an estimated 10,000 sailors between 1799 and 1812. In 1807, in the Chesapeake-Leopard affair, HMS Leopard demanded that USS Chesapeake submit to an inspection, ostensibly looking for British citizens but in reality looking for any suitable sailors to press into the Royal Navy. Leopard severely damaged Chesapeake when she refused. The most violent of many such encounters, the affair further fueled the tensions, and in June 1812 the U.S. declared war on Britain.