By Joshua L. Wick, Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
Despite the success of the fledgling Continental Navy during the American Revolution the ending of the war actually brought an end to our nation’s first navy. A few months after the British defeat at the Battle of Yorktown Oct. 19, 1781, the British Parliament made its first overtures to the United States to begin peace talks the following spring.
Nearly a year later, the Confederation Congress issued a proclamation on this date (April 11) in 1783, “declaring the cessation of arms” against Great Britain, which had passed a similar proclamation Feb. 4, 1783. It was an incredible victory for an upstart nation with no navy against the power of Great Britain and the fleet of the Royal Navy.
From the littorals, lakes, and the sea, to coastal towns from north to the south, the young republic’s hastily pieced-together and inexperienced Continental Navy was mostly made up of private vessels carrying their “Letter of Marque,” which granted privateers the authority to attack foreign ships. Though most of their actions aren’t well known, they played a pivotal role in naval operations and showed the importance and need for vessels to challenge the British and their ships of the line.
On May 14, 1775 in the waters of Buzzard Bay, off the coast of Fairhaven, Mass., one of the first naval battles was fought just 25 days after the Battle of Lexington and Concord. It began what is often considered today a lost chapter of the navy’s history. Aboard sloop Success, commanded by Capt. Nathaniel Pope and Capt. Daniels Egery, a small force of men from the town of Fairhaven captured two British sloops and their crews.
In mid-June moving north we come to the port of Machias, Maine, then part of northern Massachusetts. Local towns were experiencing first hand harassment by the British, so, like in Fairhaven, they took matters into their own hands. Local Capt. Jeremiah O’Brian and an armed crew aboard sloop Unity joined by other ships attacked and captured schooner HMS Margaretta. O’Brian went on to actively engage enemy ships that posed threats to the Massachusetts coast during the war.
That was followed in August when the townspeople of Gloucester, Mass., called upon their militia to capture British seamen attempting to seize a grounded American merchant and then recaptured another merchant schooner.
These first battles sparked a level of confidence among the townspeople and seafaring communities that they could challenge and overcome the British as they seized American merchant ships of commerce and harassed local communities up and down the Eastern seaboard. And it finally convinced the leaders of our developing nation they needed to combat the vulnerability of the coastal seafaring communities to British waterborne assault.
It was Oct. 1775 when the Continental Congress authorized the building our Nation’s first Navy. They selected a commander for the Continental Navy, Esek Hopkins, and commissioned 18 naval officers, established two Marine battalions; even established pay and subsistence standards; authorized prize moneys for the capture and sale of enemy warships; adopted a naval code of discipline drafted by John Adams; and formed an administrative body, the Marine Committee, to give guidance and direction to our new navy.
It was a bold signal by America’s early leaders they were willing to challenge Great Britain on the high seas.
Commodore Hopkins was responsible for one of the early American naval victories when his squadron traveled south to the Bahamas in February 1776. Along with a battalion of Marines, the Hopkins-led squadron launched an amphibious landing on March 3 and raided the British colony of Nassau for military supplies that would benefit the Continental Army.
Another American naval legend, Capt. John Barry, was doing his part protecting merchant ships as they brought supplies into the port cities of Philadelphia and Delaware Bay. In June 1776, as the American brig Nancy, loaded with her cargo of weapons and supplies intended for the Continental Army, moved closer to Cape May, N.J., two British ships were seen in pursuit of the brig.
Barry, aboard his frigate Lexington and his companion schooner Wasp, were called to engage the two ships. Heavy fog caused Nancy to sail into the delightfully-named Turtle Gut Inlet. Barry and his men boarded and successfully unloaded her cargo while manning and engaging the British who had heavily damaged the ship.
In a daunting gamble, Barry abandoned the Nancy, lowered her flag but not before leaving 50 pounds of gunpowder wrapped in the mainsail leading to the powder hold below deck. As British closed in, the fuse reached the hold … the explosion could be heard for miles. Barry, his ships and crew safely eluded the British and claimed both the victory and much-needed supplies.
While those battles were mostly in American waters, another legendary Continental Navy captain was making a name for himself a bit closer to the motherland. Capt. John Paul Jones, as the commanding officer of the sloop of war Ranger, battled the HMS Drake for an hour before claiming victory on April 24, 1778 in the North Channel off Ireland.
Then more than a year later on Sept. 23, 1779, as commanding officer of the 42-gun former merchant ship Bonhomme Richard, Jones uttered his famous cry: “I have not yet begun to fight” as his crippled ship fought the larger 50-gun HMS Serapis in the waters off Flamborough Head.
Despite his sinking and burning ship, Jones refused to strike his colors. A well-timed grenade landed near ammunition on Serapis, and its ensuing explosion allowed Jones to get the upper hand and board the British ship upon their surrender. The captain who struck his colors that day was British. The Bonhomme Richard, however, sank the following day.
So what Revolutionary naval battle was the most important? The records and many historians might say it was the Battle of Nassau, the first victory of the newly-formed Continental Navy. That mission brought much-needed ammunition and gunpowder to the American army.
However your examination of history answers that question, it was on this date 232 years ago that, after eight years of skirmishes, smaller battles and outright war – on land and sea, Congress declared hostilities against its former motherland over. A few months later, on Sept. 3, 1783, the signing of the Treaty of Paris by members of the negotiating team brought an end to the American War of Independence. That treaty was ratified by Congress on Jan. 14, 1784.
What the British could not accomplish in war, peace did — the U.S. Navy which was disbanded after the war, leaving the new nation without a Navy until March 27, 1794, when President George Washington signed the Naval Act of 1794 authorizing the construction of six frigates. But that’s a whole ‘nother story… or two… or three.