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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 1

This webpage reproduces a chapter of

W. D. Puleston

published by
D. Appleton-Century Company, Inc.
New York • London

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 3
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

Colonial Midshipmen

Colonial midshipmen were a natural product of their environment. Colonial towns and villages were all located on the seacoast, along the shores of bays and the banks of navigable rivers; small sailing craft and coasting vessels furnished the only means of transportation and, with the fishing fleets and early whaling vessels, offered adventurous youths numerous sea‑going berths. Colonial lads could pull an oar and sail a boat soon after learning to walk. these striplings of the sea were often mates in their teens, and the more successful were captains in their early twenties.

In a few instances, sons of the older colonial families were entered as midshipmen in the Royal Navy, but no documentary evidence can be found in the naval records in London to support the oft‑told tale that George Washington intended to join the Royal Navy as a midshipman. Officers and men of the colonial merchant ships frequently served in Britain merchant vessels, and during the wars with France and Spain the colonial merchant marine usually furnished and manned the storeships and transports of the Royal Navy.

Soon after Virginia and Massachusetts were settled they found it necessary to organize colonial navies just as they did colonial militias. Ships of the Massachusetts Navy escorted the New England Militia to Cape Breton Island when Louisburg was captured in 1745. Connecticut organized  p6 a navy to fight the Dutch in New York for control of Long Island Sound. Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and South Carolina maintained armed ships to protect their sea‑borne trade from pirates and enemy privateers. During the wars with France and Spain the colonies fitted out privateers and letter-of‑marque ships to attack enemy commerce.​1 The officers, midshipmen, and men of these colonial navies and private ships of war came from the colonial merchant marine, which enjoyed many, but not all, of the privileges of the merchant marine of England, and they adopted, with few changes, the organization, regulations, and customs of the Royal Navy to their smaller ships.

In the colonial period the officer personnel of the Royal Navy and of the British merchant marine had much in common. When hostilities threatened, officers from merchant ships were commissioned in the Navy; when peace was obtained, the Admiralty discharged most of them, and they returned to the merchant service. The organization of British men-of‑war and merchant ships was similar: the captain was comparable to the master, the first lieutenant to the first mate, and midshipmen to the fourth mates and cabin-boys. Men-of‑war were larger, and they mounted more and heavier guns, but the rigging was practically the same, and intelligent merchant officers were competent to sail a man-of‑war and quickly learned enough gunnery to command a battery. In a British man-of‑war there was usually a sailing master, certified by Trinity House, who piloted, navigated, and sailed the ship. The master was under orders of the captain, who fought the ship, with the first lieutenant in general charge as his assistant. The second,  p7 third, and fourth lieutenants were in charge of the batteries in different parts of the ship, and of the supply of ammunition to the guns.

Midshipmen assisted the lieutenants in their duties, supervised the execution of the orders of the sailing master, and attended the captain and first lieutenant to carry important messages to their subordinates. Midshipmen were stationed aloft to supervise the dispositions of the rigging, spars, and sails that were ordered by the sailing master, and to command the sharpshooters whose particular targets were the captains and officers of enemy ships. The brief and general references to midshipmen in the regulations of the Royal and United States navies may convey the erroneous impression that midshipmen were not considered important. General terms were employed because the duties of midshipmen were too numerous and varied to enumerate. They assisted all the senior officers and carried out all the duties not specifically assigned other officers, their tasks taking them from the main truck to the orlop deck. At no time in their history have American midshipmen been neglected, and many times they have felt they were getting too much attention from their seniors.

As soon as General Washington took command of the Army in front of Boston, he created his own navy under Captain John Manley, which captured valuable military stores and reinforcements consigned to the British Army. Washington's navy was soon demobilized, Captain Manley entering the Continental Navy. Under the leader­ship of John Adams and Robert Morris, in November and December, 1775, the Continental Congress authorized thirteen frigates and provided their personnel. They obtained most of the "Rules for Regulation of the Navy of the United States" by substituting Congressional authority for royal proclamation in existing British regulations. At Benedict  p8 Arnold's suggestion, General Washington recommended the creation of a naval squadron on Lake Champlain, which, although defeated, delayed the British advance from Canada in 1776. When the advance was resumed a year later, the Continental Army forced Burgoyne to surrender. This was the greatest single contribution of Continental Navy to American independence.

During the Revolution, eleven of the thirteen independent states established their own navies. As the war progressed, a reinforced British squadron operating in American waters destroyed the Continental Navy and the states' navies in succession. It was not the Continental Navy, however, nor the states' navies, nor American privateers, but the French fleet in co‑operation with Washington's Continental Army and Lafayette's contingent which finally gained our independence.

Although they were overcome by the superior British fleet, the gallant conduct, audacious seaman­ship, and indomitable spirit displayed by the best of our sea‑going officers bequeathed a rich legacy to the next naval generation. Midshipmen served in the Continental Navy, the states' navies, and aboard the privateers. Midshipman Fanning of the Bonhomme Richard probably made the greatest individual contribution: a hand grenade which came from his fighting top, thrown from the yard‑arm of the Richard, passed through a hatch on the Serapis and caused the explosion on her lower deck that made her capture possible. Midshipman Mayrant earned the praise of John Paul Jones. Midshipmen Samuel Barron of the Virginia Navy captured a small British ship in the Chesapeake with a little gunboat. Midshipman Alexander Moore of the Virginia Navy commanded a brig-of‑war and distinguished himself in the Caribbean. Christopher R. Perry, father of Oliver Hazard Perry and Matthew C. Perry and founder of a naval  p9 dynasty, served first as a midshipman on a privateer and later on the Trumbull, continental frigate, under Captain James Nicholson. Oddly enough, the Nicholson family is the only one, with the exception of the Truxtuns and their collaterals, the Cravens and the Tingeys, that can compete with the Perrys and their collaterals, the Rodgers, in their contribution of distinguished members to the Navy.​2 Midshipman Edward Preble served first on a privateer, then on the 26‑gun Massachusetts frigate Protector, which, after several successful engagements, was captured by H. M. S. Roebuck of 44 guns and the Medea of 16 guns. Preble was exchanged after his capture and served as a lieutenant in the Massachusetts ship Winthrop.

The Navy Regulations of Great Britain and the United States recommended midshipmen to the special care of the captains. John Paul Jones required two of his midshipmen to be on the quarter-deck at all times. The remainder were distributed between the waist (the part of the ship between the quarter-deck and the forecastle) and the forecastle. They were to be ready to "lay aloft" at any time. Midshipmen were punished severely during the Revolution. It is recorded in the log of the Ariel that John Paul Jones put  p10 Midshipman Potter in irons and kicked the afterwards distinguished Midshipman Fanning. Conditions in the Revolutionary ships, with their undisciplined officers, demanded the methods of the merchant marine, which most of them accepted as a matter of course.

John Paul Jones was soon convinced that special instruction was necessary for officers of the American Navy. In his plan for the Navy submitted to the President of the Continental Congress in April, 1777, he recommended that candidates for a commission serve as "Midshipmen or Master's Mate" before they were examined for promotion to lieutenant. Jones also recommended an academy at each of three dockyards "under proper Masters, whose duty it should be to Instruct the Officers of the Fleet when in Port in the Principles and Applications of the Mathematics, Drawing, Fencing and other Manly Arts and Accomplishments." American midshipmen had borne themselves well during the War of Independence, and the leading officer of the infant Navy had the vision to recommend a comprehensive course of instruction for them.

The Author's Notes:

1 Privateers cruised solely for the purpose of attacking enemy ships. Letter-of‑marque ships were armed merchantmen primarily designed to carry cargo but authorized to capture enemy ships.

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2 Three brothers, James, Samuel, and John Nicholson, were all captains in the Continental Navy. Samuel had four sons in the Navy; John had three. In three generations of Nicholsons there were fifteen naval officers, two of whom became commodores. A third died just as he was due for that rank. Captain Christopher Perry's five sons all entered the Navy: Oliver Hazard, Raymond Henry, Matthew Calbreath, and James Alexander as midshipmen; Nathaniel Hazard as a purser. A daughter of Christopher Perry, Jane Tweedy, married Surgeon William Butler of the Navy. Among her fourteen children was General Matthew Calbreath Butler, a distinguished Confederate officer. Another daughter, Anna Maria, married George Washington Rodgers. In the next generation, Sarah, daughter of Commodore Matthew C. Perry, married the son of Commodore John Rodgers. The Rodgers and Perrys can be considered one naval clan. Similarly the Truxtuns, the Tingeys, and the Cravens have intermarried, the last flag officer of that clan being Vice-Admiral Thomas Tingey Craven, lately retired.

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Page updated: 10 Nov 20