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You Are Here: Home > Essay Topics > History Essays and Research Papers > Revolutionary War & War of 1812  > Essay on The Continental Navy

  Revolutionary War & War of 1812

Essay on The Continental Navy

Soon after the outbreak of hostilities between Great Britain and her colonies in 1775, the Second Continental Congress began discussing the creation of a navy, but it was not until October 13, 1775, that it officially approved the formation of the Continental navy. On November 28, 1775, the Continental Congress adopted the "Rules and Regulations of the Navy of the United States," drafted by John Adams, who based the document on the regulations of the British navy for discipline and punishment. However, the Continental navy's rules were less severe in punishment than the British rules.

At first, the navy came under the supervision of the naval committee, but a marine committee composed of one person from each colony replaced the naval committee in January 1776. The marine committee was too unwieldy for efficient administration, and in November 1776 the Navy Board for the Middle Department, composed of three men, superseded it. In April 1777 Congress authorized a second naval board, based in Boston, for the eastern department. As the war continued, these organizations also appeared inefficient, and Congress established the fivemember Board of Admiralty in October 1779 to oversee the navy. This organization, too, ran into problems, and in accordance with other administrative reforms by Congress, the navy was placed under a single executive, the secretary of marine, in 1781. However, no one would accept this position, and it fell by default to the minister of finance, Robert Morris. By the time Morris left the government in 1784, the navy had all but ceased to exist.

The administrative instability of the Continental navy reflected the numerous problems that confronted it. In many ways it was impractical for the Continental Congress to even try to organize a navy since nothing it could do would seriously challenge the hundreds of ships in the British navy. Moreover, Revolutionary efforts at sea took on a variety of forms, ranging from George Washington's ad hoc commissioning of ships to attack British supply lines in 1775; the creation of 11 state navies (only Delaware and New Jersey did not form their own navies); and, most important, the extensive privateering that occurred during the war. Taken altogether, these efforts were a drain on financial and manpower resources that could have gone to the Continental navy. The navy administration compounded their difficulties by often relying on patronage for appointments. The most senior captain of the navy in 1775 was Esek Hopkins, brother and business partner of navy board member Stephen Hopkins.

The Continental navy had a mixed record during the Revolutionary War (1775-83). Its first major expedition was led by Esek Hopkins, who ignored his orders and raided New Providence in the Bahamas instead of clearing Chesapeake Bay of the British and cruising along the southern coast to relieve the area of British naval raids. After Hopkins sailed to New England and avoided a battle with a British warship, he was severely criticized and eventually forced to leave the navy. The officers in the navy seemed to be constantly arguing over rank and seniority (as did officers in the Continental army) to the point where it adversely affected naval operations. However, a few captains stood out for their daring exploits and captures of British shipping. John Paul Jones was the most famous of these, especially after his victory aboard the Bon Homme Richard over the HMS Serapis on September 23, 1779. But Jones, like most other officers in the Continental navy, was often embroiled in controversy, and many of the men aboard his ships detested their autocratic captain.

Typical of the Continental navy's difficulties was the fate of its ambitious building program for 13 frigates, authorized on December 13, 1775. Because of poor planning and difficulties in getting building materials, construction of the ships was delayed. Only seven of the frigates got to sea, and by 1781 all seven had been captured by the British; the six uncompleted vessels had to be destroyed in their shipyards to prevent their seizure by the British. By the end of the war, about 60 vessels of various sizes had been commissioned into the Continental navy, which had captured about 200 British merchant and naval vessels. By comparison, there were at least 2,000 privateers commissioned that had captured about 2,200 British vessels.

In 1783 there were only a few ships left in the Continental navy. All but the USS Alliance were sold as soon as hostilities had ceased. Some members of Congress wanted to keep the Alliance to fend off pirates and possibly deal with the Barbary states, but without any money to support a navy, Congress had to accept the inevitable and sold the ship for $26,000 on August 1, 1785 ending the history of the Continental navy.



1) Gardner W. Allen, A Naval History of the American Revolution, 2 vols. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1913)

2) Nathan Miller, The U.S. Navy: A History, 3rd ed. (Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1997)

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