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This webpage reproduces a chapter of
A Short History of the United States Navy

George R. Clark et al.

published by
J. B. Lippincott Company,
Philadelphia & London 1939

The text is in the public domain.

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Chapter 2
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p9  I
The Navy in the Revolution

Causes of Naval Activity in the Colonies

The Revolution, like most of the wars in which America has been engaged, was one in which the army did the greater part of the fighting, but also one in which sea power was a deciding factor. Great Britain had the most power­ful navy of the time, against which no force in open battle could have escaped defeat. But she fought at a disadvantage against an enemy 3000 miles distant, easily hidden in the countless harbors and inlets of an extensive coast line. The colonists, on the other hand, were of the same stock as the English, even better inured to hardship, and ready to take desperate chances as they attacked merchantmen or isolated units of the Royal Navy.

As the Continental Army seemed to spring out of the soil, so the navy seemed to spring out of the sea. When, on June 12, 1775, a party of Maine Woodsmen, armed, for the most part, with pitchforks and axes, and fired by the news of the battle of Lexington, captured with a lumber sloop an armed British schooner off Machias, Me., O'Brien, their leader, quickly armed his sloop with the captured cannon and ammunition, and  p10 put to sea in quest of prizes. Without a commission, letter of marque, or legal authority of any sort, this freebooter captured several prizes and sent them to Machias. O'Brien's example was quickly followed by others. Our coasts soon swarmed with the privateers of New England, and those of Massachusetts were particularly success­ful.

The daring and success of these privateers so angered Admiral Graves, the commander of the British fleet on the coast, that he reduced to ashes the town of Falmouth (now Portland), Me., thus leaving the inhabitants shelterless at the beginning of the bleak New England winter. Smarting already under the wrongs that precipitated the war, the hardy coast dwellers of the new world, whose rights to fisheries and navigation had been curtailed by shortsighted acts of Parliament, hardly needed this act of Admiral Graves to spur them to building ships of war.

Other causes contributed to the beginning of a naval force along the Atlantic coast. The colonists, from their origin and environment, were naturally seafarers. Some of the New England Colonies even before the Revolution had made remarkable progress in ship-building, fishing, and commerce; they were thus not unprepared to furnish vessels and daring sailors. Then, too, the country, being new and largely agricultural, needed manufactured articles, clothing, and munitions of war; and these things had to be either captured from the enemy, or brought from European countries, at the risk of seizure by British men-of‑war. In order to capture from English supply ships designed for Boston articles much needed by his troops, Washington, in the fall of 1775, fitted out several small vessels, manned by soldiers, under the command of army officers. Washington had the entire management of this fleet. One of these ships, the Lee, whose commission,  p11 as well as that of her captain, John Manly, was signed by Washington, captured the Nancy, "an ordnance ship . . . containing, besides a large mortar upon a new construction, several pieces of brass cannon, a large quantity of small arms and ammunition, with all manner of tools, utensils, and machines necessary for camps and artillery, in the greatest abundance. The loss of this ship was much resented in England."​1 Altogether Washington's fleet captured about thirty-five prizes.2

Thus not only the bitter feelings of resentment against tyranny, coupled in numerous instances with motives of personal gains from prize money, but also the needs of the Continental Army quickly gave birth to a heterogeneous collection of ships. This was composed partly of privateers, partly of vessels owned and commissioned by individual Colonies, and partly of vessels commissioned by Congress.

The Marine Committee

A letter from General Washington, reporting the burning of Falmouth, was read in Congress, November 1, 1775; and Congress acted promptly. The following day it voted $100,000 for a naval armament and appointed a committee to buy the ships. A few weeks later it appointed a second committee, which suggested a fleet of thirteen vessels ranging from 32 to 24 guns, to be ready by March, 1776, and recommended the appointment of a third committee to supervise their construction and equipment. The report was adopted by Congress. In the third committee, known as the Marine Committee, there were thirteen members, one for each colony. Its personnel was practically the same as that of the second committee,  p12 and included such men as Robert Morris, John Hancock, and Samuel Chase, a remarkable body of men, who worked with the greatest ardor and patriotism.

The Marine Committee administered our naval affairs from December, 1775, to December, 1779. It was the forerunner of our Navy Department, but its functions were far more complex. Like the Congress of its day, it exercised legislative, judicial, and executive powers, always, however, under the direction of that body; and the same weaknesses, the lack of an administrative head and of actual authority over the States, hampered the committee as they did Congress.

Some of the confusion with which the Marine Committee struggled is suggested by the fact that naval officers then, instead of being commissioned by the President with the consent of the Senate, might be appointed in any one of the following ways: by the Marine Committee itself, by its subordinate boards at Philadelphia and Boston, by any naval commander, by recruiting agents, by commissioners abroad, or even by local authorities in the several States. Further, besides building and equipping ships of war and directing their movements, the committee had to hold courts-martial, send abroad dispatches and diplomatic agents, and trade American produce for European munitions of war. Under such conditions it is remarkable that the committee accomplished as much as it did.

As the Marine Committee proved to be a clumsy administrative machine,​3 it was superseded in 1779 by a "Board of Admiralty," consisting of three commissioners and two members of Congress, which was in power until 1781. Finally, Robert Morris was appointed "Agent of Marine," and he managed very efficiently what was left  p13 of the American Navy. By this time, Congress realized that an administrative department, especially in time of war, must be under one head.

The First American Fleet

The first naval committee bought and fitted out two 24‑gun frigates, the Alfred and the Columbus, and two brigs, the Andrea Doria and the Cabot, and supplied them with powder and muskets borrowed from the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety. On December 22, 1775, Congress organized the first "American fleet" by granting commissions to Esek Hopkins, commander-in‑chief of the fleet; Dudley Saltonstall, captain of the Alfred; Abraham Whipple, captain of the Columbus; Nicholas Biddle, captain of the Andrea Doria; and John Burroughs Hopkins, captain of the Cabot. John Paul Jones headed a list of five first lieutenants commissioned at the same time.

By the end of January, 1776, the committee had added to this fleet the sloops Providence and Hornet and the schooners Wasp and Fly. For these first eight vessels of the navy the committee had spent $134,333. With this tiny force, the commander-in‑chief was ordered to proceed directly to Chesapeake Bay to attack the British fleet of Lord Dunmore; then, if success­ful, he was to proceed to the Carolinas and attack the British force there, and thence he was to sail to Rhode Island and "attack, take, and destroy all the enemy's naval force that you may find there." This was the gigantic task of a fleet of eight vessels carrying 110 guns, and manned by landsmen or, at least, men without naval discipline. To oppose this force, the British had in American waters, or on the way hither, seventy-eight men-of‑war mounting 2078 guns. In Commodore Hopkins' fleet, only forty  p14 guns threw shot of nine pounds or more in weight, while the seventy-eight British ships on this coast had at least 500 18‑pounders and heavier guns. The orders of the Marine to the Committee to the commander-in‑chief of the navy, Esek Hopkins, were therefore foredoomed to failure.

Perhaps Commodore Hopkins himself foresaw the futility of trying to adhere too strictly to his orders, for, instead of going to Chesapeake Bay, he proceeded to Nassau in the Bahamas, which he captured. After taking a large quantity of shot and shell, besides some eight cannon, fifteen mortars, and other munitions of war, he sailed northward with the Governor and Lieutenant Governor as prisoners. As he neared his destination, Rhode Island, he came upon his Majesty's ship Glasgow, of 20 guns. Captain Tyringham Howe, which singlehanded, inflicted considerable damage on Hopkins' fleet, and made good its escape. The loss of the British was four men; that of the Americans, twenty-four, among the latter two lieutenants.

This injury inflicted upon a fleet by a single vessel which escaped showed little tactical skill on the part of the officers of the American fleet. As Commodore Hopkins had, besides, disobeyed his orders, he was court-martialed and finally dismissed.

Commodore Hopkins was the only man to hold the rank "commander-in‑chief of the navy." This title was later merged in that of the President of the United States. During the rest of the Revolutionary War, the only commissioned officers in the navy were captains and lieutenants; but Congress, evidently providing for the future, fixed the relative ranks of army and navy officers as follows: admiral equivalent to general, vice-admiral equivalent to lieutenant-general, rear-admiral to major-general, commodore to brigadier-general, captain of a ship of forty guns and upwards to colonel, captain of a ship of twenty  p15 to forty guns to lieutenant-colonel, captain of a ship of ten to twenty guns to major, and lieutenant in the navy to captain. This table, taken from the British regulations of those times, has, in the main, continued in force to our day.

Important Naval Events During the Revolution

From our standpoint it will hardly be profitable to follow all of the various actions fought by the little United States Navy during the Revolution. Paullin, in his Navy of the American Revolution, makes the total number of vessels under the Continental Congress forty‑two. These were practically all annihilated before the end of the war; but the heroic struggles of this early navy were not without result. In considering them, we shall outline the work of Benedict Arnold on Lake Champlain, of Wickes, Conyngham, and especially Jones, in British waters, and of Biddle, Barry, and others on the American seaboard; and we shall not omit some mention of the State navies and the privateers, as well as of the assistance rendered by France.

The First Battle of Lake Champlain

The possession of Lakes Champlain and George was felt early in the war to be of strategic importance. Not only did these lakes furnish an excellent waterway from Canada to the Colonies, but it was the design of the British that Carleton's army from Canada should rendezvous about Albany and thereby cut off all communications between the northern and southern Colonies. The American Army had invaded Canada in September, 1775, and during the following winter it had held Governor Guy Carleton shut up in Quebec. On the arrival of a  p17 British fleet with reinforcements, the Americans retreated to Crown Point, where they arrived on July 3, 1776. Brigadier-General Benedict Arnold, who, earlier in his career as a West India merchant, had at times commanded his own ships, started immediately to build a fleet on the lakes in competition with the British. Late in July, he was appointed by Gates to the command of the naval forces on the lakes. By October, he was able to muster one sloop, three schooners, eight gondolas, and four galleys. These vessels mounted altogether ninety-four cannon, from 2‑pounders to 18‑pounders, and they were manned by 700 officers and men, according to Arnold, "a wretched motley crew; the marines the refuse of every regiment, and the seamen few of them ever wet with salt water." Arnold chose for his flagship one of the galleys, the Congress, a vessel of fifty-foot keel and of thirteen-foot beam, mounting one 18‑pounder, one 12‑pounder, and two 6‑pounders.

But the British, with their greater resources in skilled seamen and in manufactured articles, won this race in building a fleet. Captain Charles Douglas, who had charge of the construction work of the enemy, had ready in twenty-eight days a full-rigged ship, the Enterprise, carrying eighteen 12‑pounders. She had been begun at Quebec, and had been brought from the St. Lawrence up the Richelieu. The Enterprise was of 180 tons burden, and greatly exceeded in size and armament any of Arnold's fleet. Early in October, General Sir Guy Carleton, thanks to Captain Douglas' energy in ship-building, had under his command one ship, two schooners, one radeau (raft), one large gondola, twenty gunboats and four armed tenders. The British fleet in the St. Lawrence furnished Carleton with 700 experienced officers and seamen. The enemy also had a large detachment of savages under Major Thomas Carleton.

 p18  The first squadron battle to be fought by Americans, "a strife of pygmies for the prize of a continent," as Mahan styles it, was begun on October 11, 1776. Arnold was lying in wait for Carleton behind Valcour Island, not far from the site of a later battle of Lake Champlain (September 11, 1814), where the struggle was again for the control of this great waterway.
[image ALT: A schematic map of Lakes Champlain and George between Vermont and New York State, with several towns, forts and other points of importance to the war actions in the Revolutionary War.]

As the British van, coming down under a fair north wind, with full press of sail, passed the Americans before discovering Arnold's fleet, Carleton's heavier vessels had to beat back slowly to help his hard-pressed gunboats. The Americans fought desperately from eleven o'clock in the morning till five o'clock that afternoon. With the British attacking in front and the Indians occupying the shore in the rear, Arnold was indeed "between the devil and the deep sea." That night, however, under cover of the lake mist, he slipped through the British line toward Ticonderoga. The British gave chase, and on the two days following they continued the battle. Finally, Arnold beached his boats, and fought with desperate courage until his men had fired their gondolas and taken refuge in the woods. Most of Arnold's vessels were either captured or destroyed. In this battle the enemy captured 110 prisoners, among them being General Waterbury, the second in command. Arnold, with the rest of his men, made good his escape to Crown Point.

Although Arnold had lost his fleet, the delay which he thus forced on Carleton was of the greatest advantage to the Americans. "Never had any force," says Mahan, "big or small, lived to better purpose, or died more gloriously; for it had saved the lake for that year." The delay compelled Carleton to give up his plan of joining Howe to the south. When, next year, Burgoyne, renewing the attempt, invaded New York, he had not the aid which  p19 Carleton could have relied on in 1776. Hence Arnold's work on the lakes opened the way for the surrender of Burgoyne at Saratoga.4

Wickes and Conyngham in European Waters

Nothing illustrates so completely the daring and enterprise of the Americans, save possibly the boldness of certain privateersmen, as the harrying of the British coast by Wickes, Conyngham, and Jones. In the fall of 1776, Captain Lambert Wickes, of the 16‑gun brig Reprisal, while carrying Benjamin Franklin to France, captured two prizes. The next spring, the Lexington joined the Reprisal, and these two vessels captured about fifteen prizes. With these the cruisers returned to France; but, as the latter country was ostensibly at peace with England, the vessels were ordered to leave. After disposing of the prizes clandestinely to French merchants, the Lexington quickly refitted and sailed from Morlaix on September 18, 1777. She was captured shortly after by the Alert, and her officers and men were taken to Plymouth and thrown into Mill prison on a charge of high treason. Richard Dale, who later distinguished himself on the Bonhomme Richard under Jones, was one of these prisoners; but he made his escape a year later by boldly walking past the guards, dressed in a British uniform. On the insistence of the British, the Reprisal also left France; she foundered on the way home, off the Banks of Newfoundland, and, with the exception of one of the crew, all hands, including the brave Wickes, were lost.

The reckless daring and success of Captain Conyngham in harrying British commerce, strained almost to the breaking point the relations between England and France.  p20 The American Commissioners at Paris, through an agent, had bought a cutter at Dover, and had then manned and equipped her at Dunkirk, naming her the Surprise. Congress, over the signature of John Hancock, as president, had issued blank commissions to the American Commissioners in France; it was such a commission, dated March 1, 1777, that Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane, the commissioners, had filled out with the name of Gustavus Conyngham, authorizing him to sail in the Surprise as a captain of the American Navy. A great deal of difficulty was encountered in getting the Surprise out of Dunkirk. Captain Conyngham "took his arms out of the ship and said he should load it with merchandise for one of the ports in Norway. As this declaration was suspected, security was demanded. Two persons, Hodge and Allen, became responsible for him. Conyngham actually left the port of Dunkirk without arms, but he caused sailors, cannon, and ammunition to be sent out to him in the night, while he was in the road, off Dunkirk; and he shortly after took the English packet boat, Prince of Orange. As soon as this came to the knowledge of the French Government, Hodge, one of the securities, was arrested, and conducted to the Bastille. The packet boat was restored to the British Government without the form of process. After six weeks of confinement, Hodge was released."5

Shortly after this, Conyngham captured the Harwich packet and took it to a French port. This open violation of neutrality so enraged the British, that their ambassador threatened to leave France if Conyngham and his prize were not at once given up. The French Government imprisoned the captain and crew of the Surprise, and  p21 returned the vessel to her owners. But before England could enforce her demand for the delivery of Conyngham and his men to the sloops of war sent over for this purpose, the Americans, by some intrigue, had been released and sent to sea in another cutter, the Revenge, a vessel provided and equipped partly by the American Commissioners, and partly on private account. It seems probable that Hodge, a Philadelphia merchant, and perhaps some others, were pecuniarily interested, at least in the later cruises of this cutter.

The Revenge captured many prizes, and on two occasions boldly sailed in disguise into British ports and refitted. As Deane wrote to Robert Morris in August, 1777: "Conyngham's cruise effectually alarmed England, prevented the great fair at Chester, occasioned insurance to rise, and even deterred the English merchants from shipping goods in English bottoms at any rate, so that in a few weeks forty sail of French ships were loading in the Thames on freight — an instance never known before. . . . In a word, Conyngham, by his first and second bold expeditions, is become the terror of all the eastern coast of England and Scotland, and is more dreaded than Thurot​6 was in the late war."7

On a later cruise, Conyngham sent most of his prizes to Ferrol, Spain, and thus his depredations on British commerce embarrassed France and the American Commissioners less than former expeditions had done. In 1778, Captain Conyngham was captured, and while in prison he was treated with such severity, that Congress,  p22 in a resolution on July 17, of that year, protested against a treatment "contrary to all dictates of humanity and the practice of civilized nations."

This matter of naval prisoners in England, combined with the violations of neutral rights committed by our vessels, was a great source of worry to the American Commissioners. These officials, having merely the status of private citizens in France, were treated by the French court with all civility, but they could not yet be openly received or recognized. Hence their work required the utmost tact and delicacy. That naval prisoners in England were treated with extreme harshness is admitted even by British authorities. This cruelty was undoubtedly due partly to the low conditions of prison systems in England, as indeed in other parts of Europe in the eighteenth century. One of the reasons for the cruises of American vessels in British waters was to capture Englishmen in retaliation for the treatment of Americans in Forton prison at Portsmouth, Mill prison at Plymouth, and the prison ship Jersey at Brooklyn.

"The British Government resisted the exchange of prisoners taken in European waters on three grounds: (1) This involved a recognition of belligerent rights in the insurgents. (2) The American prisoners could be kept out of harm's way in England; the same condition did not apply to British prisoners taken by American vessels, as long as France refused to permit such prisoners to be landed and imprisoned on her shores. (3) British seamen being far more numerous than American, exchange  p23 would tell more favorably for the latter than for the former."8

To end their sufferings, some of these prisoners in England enlisted in the British Navy, or in whaling fleets, while others escaped from prison. Conyngham and sixty companions, in November, 1779, burrowed their way out of captivity, thus "committing treason through his Majesty's earth," as Conyngham remarked. It was long after the secret treaty between France and the United States was signed in February, 1778, before Franklin could persuade the English to take a more liberal view as regards exchanging prisoners. In fact, the first exchange was not effected till March, 1779. The Americans, before the treaty with France, had to confine their captives taken in British waters on shipboard, or let them go. After the treaty and after the breaking out of war between Spain and England in 1779, these men were imprisoned in France and Spain. So, likewise, the question of the disposition of prizes captured in European waters was a difficult one before the treaty. Many prizes were taken to France, where they were secretly sold, in spite of official orders commanding the American captains to leave port with their prizes. Indeed, it is very probable that, if hostilities between France and England had not for other causes broken out in 1778, the countries would have gone to war because of the connivance of the French at these breaches of neutrality.

The Authors' Notes:

1 Dodsley's Annual Register, London, 1776, p147.

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2 Paullin, The Navy of the American Revolution, p65.

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3 Paullin, The Navy of the American Revolution, p182, ff.

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4 Clowes, Royal Navy, III, 368.

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5 Sparks, Diplomatic Correspondence, I, 292, note (Franklin and Deane to the Committee of Foreign Affairs, May 25, 1777).

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6 A French corsair who did great damage in commerce-destroying expeditions against British shipping during the Seven Years War.

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7 Wharton, Diplomatic Correspondence, II, 379‑380 (Deane to Morris, Aug. 23, 1777).

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8 Wharton, Diplomatic Correspondence, II, 724, note (Franklin, Lee, and Adams to the President of Congress, Sept. 17, 1778).

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