American Revolution, naval history

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The naval history of the American Revolution involves the interaction of three navies that were central to the conflict: those of the British, the French and the Americans. In addition, the Spanish and Dutch navies, and American state navies, played a role. The primary missions of the British Royal Navy were to shut down American local and international shipping, provide logistical support for the British Army, defend British shipping against American privateers, and, after France (and Spain and the Netherlands) entered the war, defend Great Britain from an invasion from France, and maintain naval supremacy in the Atlantic. It proved incapable of handling all those duties. The French role in supporting the Americans was more vague, but it played a decisive part in October 1781 by defeating the British relief fleet that came to the aid of Cornwallis and the army trapped at Yorktown. The American state and private naval forces were primarily privateers. The small U.S. navy was primarily used against British shipping and was to avoid combat; but when combat was needed it acquitted itself well, as exemplified by the victory of John Paul Jones in one of the great ship-on-ship battles of world history.


Preston argues[1] that the British navy was responsible for losing the American Revolutionary War because it spent too much time fighting the French in European waters. To win the war the British needed to use their great Royal Navy much more effectively than they did. After winning the Seven Years War, London allowed its great fleet to literally rot--66 ships sank because of rotting wood. Improvements were made during the late 1770s, and by 1782 Admiral Hood was able to defeat the French fleet in the West Indies to regain control of the seas. But in the critical year 1781 the French, Spanish and Dutch allies had about 168 major warships of 60 or more guns, versus 114 for the British (and none for the U.S.).

A "ship of the line" was a main battleship, built from 2,000 oak trees and flashing 74 or so guns, each effective out to 300 yards. Battles had to be fought close in, with marines essential as sharpshooters and boarding parties. Frigates were smaller ships carrying 30 to 50 guns, used for reconnaissance, convoys and raids. Sloops were even smaller and cheaper; their 20 guns were enough to overpower any merchant ship, or control rivers and bays.

With a 3,000 mile supply line, it was imperative for the British fleet to organize and guard convoys of food, fodder, money and supplies. The results were fair; although 342 merchant ships were captured in 1776, and 464 in 1777, many were recaptured and enough got through to ensure the redcoats barely adequate supplies. With the long coastline and numerous ports, the United States was vulnerable to assault from the sea; the Royal Navy did an effective job in capturing the major ports, New York City, Philadelphia, Newport, Charleston and Savannah. Likewise it did moved troops around smoothly and without loss, as in the evacuation of Boston in 1775, the relief of Quebec in 1776 and the attack on Philadelphia in 1777. In defensive terms, the Royal Navy did protect the home island of Britain, the possessions in the West Indies, and the occupied American cities. Its efforts to blockade both the American and French coasts overstrained its resources.[2]

The Royal Navy's main failures were its inability to destroy a major French fleet (until 1782), its failure to support Burgoyne at Saratoga in 1777, and its inability to defend or evacuate Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781. Why did the much vaunted British navy perform so poorly? The administration in London was heavily politicized, thoroughly corrupt, and blind to the larger issues of strategy. The officer corps was comprised of aristocrats more concerned with status and honor than with expertise and excellence. They showed timidity in battle and neglected to develop new tactics. Half the seamen were paupers who volunteered for the poor pay, putrid food, inhuman discipline and deadly scurvy and yellow fever of the navy only because there were no other jobs for them. The other half were merchant sailors who had been impressed (kidnapped) into service against their will. "Our fleets, which are defrauded by injustice, are first manned by violence and then maintained by cruelty," admitted one British admiral. Morale was bad, but mutinies of the sort that erupted in the 1790s did not come sooner because the spirit of liberty first had to be sparked by the American and French Revolutions. Thousands of American mariners were aware of the bad conditions in the Royal Navy. In reaction these "Jack Tars" became outspoken rebels, and signed up on the privateers that raided British shipping throughout the war.

With its exposed position and slender resources, the United States could scarcely afford a navy of its own. Congress saw a need for prestige, however, and quickly authorized a navy and marine corps. The Navy was unable to break the British blockade; it could not dream of challenging a battle fleet ten times as large. It did seize some merchantmen. A Scottish adventurer flying the American flag, John Paul Jones in the Bon Homme Richard, with 40 guns, raided a 40 ship convoy off the British coast. Suddenly the Serapis, with 44 guns, intervened. In a heroic battle Jones captured the Serapis just before his own ship sank; the convoy escaped. The main mission of the Continental navy was to ferry diplomats, supplies, money, and intelligence to and from Europe and the West Indies.

American: Continental Navy

Continental Navy Jack

The Continental Navy was formed in 1775 as the principal naval branch of the American forces during the American Revolution. Its main missions were to provide limited coastal defense and interdiction of British war matériel as well as the disruption of British maritime commercial operations.

The Continental Navy lacked funding, resources, and qualified officers and personnel. The initial fleet consisted of converted merchantmen but those ships that successfully made it to sea rarely were successful and the effort contributed little to the overall outcome of the rebellion.


A continual conundrum for the Colonists during the Revolution were the twin concerns of interdicting British military supplies, while simultaneously preventing interdiction of their own. To this end, the Continental Congress approved, on 13 October 1775, the refit and armament of two 14-gun brigs, the Andrew Doria and the Cabot. These vessels were then dispatched to intercept British shipping en route to Canada.

The original intent was to intercept the supply of arms and provisions to British soldiers, who had placed Boston under martial law. George Washington had already informed Congress that he had assumed command of several ships for this purpose, and individual governments of various colonies had outfitted their own warships. The first formal movement for a navy came from Rhode Island, whose State Assembly passed on August 26, 1775, a resolution instructing its delegates to Congress to introduce legislation calling "for building at the Continental expense a fleet of sufficient force, for the protection of these colonies, and for employing them in such a manner and places as will most effectively annoy our enemies..." The measure in the Continental Congress was met with much derision, especially on the part of Maryland delegate Samuel Chase who exclaimed it to be "the maddest idea in the world." John Adams later recalled, "The opposition...was very loud and vehement. It was...represented as the most wild, visionary, mad project that had ever been imagined. It was an infant taking a mad bull by his horns."

But during this time the issue arose of Quebec-bound British supply ships carrying desperately needed provisions that could otherwise benefit the Continental Army. The Continental Congress appointed John Adams, Silas Deane, and John Langdon to draft a plan to seize ships from the convoy in question.

The Continental Navy is born

John Paul Jones, hero of 1779 battle

On October 13, 1775, Congress authorized the building of the first vessels of the Continental Navy, literally the birth of the US Navy as it is considered officially.

Hearn (1995) relates one major success: the campaign against British shipping waged by a flotilla of schooners outfitted and organized by George Washington. Never numbering more than eight vessels, Washington's rag-tag squadron seized 55 prizes in and around Massachusetts Bay during the first two years of the war. The kind of guerre de course carried out by Washington's schooners--mostly attacks on unarmed, enemy storeships that hauled loads of foodstuffs and the like--simply resulted in few dramatics. Topping the list of captures were two heavily laden ordnance ships whose cargoes proved an absolute windfall for the munitions-starved Continental Army.

By the end of October, Congress authorized the purchase and outfitting of four armed vessels. Soon a Naval Committee was formed which quickly purchased merchantmen and oversaw their proper outfitting and readying for combat. Regulations were drafted by John Adams and adopted November 28, 1775. When it came to selecting commanders for ships, Congress tended to be split evenly between merit and patronage. Among those who were selected for political reasons were Esek Hopkins, Dudley Saltonstall, and Esek Hopkins' son, John Burroughs Hopkins. However, Abraham Whipple, Nicholas Biddle, and John Paul Jones managed to be appointed with backgrounds in marine warfare.

On December 3, 1775 the Alfred (24), Andrew Doria (14), Cabot (14), and Columbus (24) were commissioned. On December 22, 1775, Esek Hopkins was appointed the naval commander-in-chief, and officers of the navy were commissioned. With this small fleet, complemented by the Providence (12), and Wasp (8), and Hornet (10), Hopkins led the first major naval action of the Continental Navy, in early March 1776, against Nassau, Bahamas, where stores of much-needed gunpowder were seized for the use of the Continental Army. However, success was diluted with the appearance of disease spreading from ship to ship.

On 6 April, 1776 the squadron, with the addition of the Fly (8) unsuccessfully encountered the 20-gun HMS Glasgow in the first major sea battle of the Continental Navy. Hopkins failed to give any substantive orders other than the order to recall the fleet from the engagement, a move which Captain Nicholas Biddle described as, "away we all went helter, skelter, one flying here, another there."

The thirteen frigates

By December 13th, 1775 Congress had authorized the addition of 13 frigates to the fleet, which were constructed as warships, rather than refitted merchantmen. Of the eight frigates that made it to sea - five were destroyed to prevent capture before carrying out any missions - all were captured or sunk. Raiding British commerce and supply was the principal duty of the frigates. Most of them took multiple prizes and had semi-successful cruises before their captures. ==State and private navies== Most of the states operated their own little navies, but were scarcely able to confront 74-gun men-of-war.

When in June 1779 the British started building a base in Penobscot Bay in Maine, Massachusetts sent 1,000 militia in 40 ships. Unfortunately the commodore commanding the fleet could not agree with the colonel commanding the troops about who was to attack when and where. Delay was fatal, for a more powerful British fleet arrived. The Americans ran their ships aground and fled for home overland. The British could have been defeated readily, but Commodore Dudley Saltonstall, the American naval commander, failed to press the attack. As a result, the American force suffered a devastating naval defeat when attacked by a British relief expedition. It was a resounding failure due to poor planning, inadequate training, and timid leadership on the part of Saltonstall.

The state of Massachusetts operated its own navy,[3] and letters of marque were issued to hundreds of merchant ships which raided British commerce.

Private ship owners, unable to carry on normal business because of the British blockade, obtained letters of marque from Congress or the states and set out to attack the British merchant fleet anywhere in the world. Some 2,000 privateers captured about 2,000 British ships and 12,000 prisoners, and divided prize money totaling a stunning 18 million pounds (worth perhaps one billion dollars today). However, 10,000 American sailors were in turn captured and imprisoned by the Royal Navy; they rotted away in stinking prison ships dreaming of the fabulous prize money they almost had won. The U.S. army set up a small naval force, manned by fishermen militia. Arnold built a little navy on Lake Champlain which successfully delayed an invasion coming down from Montreal in October 1776. The British army suffered less damage from the Continental Navy warships than it did from the army rowboats which ferried Washington across the Delaware, and which raided British foraging areas in Long Island.

French Navy

After 1740 in France, the standard type of battleship or "ship of the line" was the 74-gun ship, with 28 thirty-six pounders on the lower deck, 30 eighteen-pounders on the upper deck, and 16 eight-pounders on the quarterdeck and forecastle deck. Three masts supported square sails supplemented by triangular staysails, providing a total of about 4,300 square meters of sail area, enabling the ship to travel at better than 20 km per hour. During the American Revolution, the fleet of Pierre-André de Suffren consisted of six 74-gun ships, seven of 64 guns, one of 60 guns, and one of 50 guns.[4]

The French leadership was, however, lacking. Antoine de Sartine was poorly prepared to be minister of the French Navy; however he did modernize administration and accelerated ship construction. He failed to initiate offensive operations against the British and was replaced by Charles de laCroix, Marquis de Castries, whose dynamic policy contributed to the success of the American Revolution. This goal might have been accomplished much more rapidly if almost all of the navy's top officers had not been superannuated and unfit for commanding the fleet in a combat situation. The navy's experience in the course of the war led to some amelioration of this condition.[5]

French naval collaboration

Before the Franco-American Alliance, the royalist French government attempted to maintain a state of respectful neutrality during the Revolutionary War. That being said, the nation maintained neutrality at face value, often openly harboring Continental vessels and supplying to their needs.

With the presence of American diplomats Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane, the Continental Navy gained a permanent link to French affairs. Through Franklin and likeminded agents, Continental officers were afforded the ability to receive commissions, survey, and purchase prospective ships for military use.

Early in the conflict, Captains Lambert Wickes and Gustavus Conyngham operated out of various French ports for the purpose of commerce raiding. The French did attempt to enforce her neutrality by seizing Dolphin and Surprise. However, with the commencement of the official alliance in 1778, ports were officially open to Continental ships.

John Paul Jones

The most prominent Continental officer to operate out of France was Captain John Paul Jones. Jones had been preying upon British commerce aboard the Ranger but only now saw the opportunity for higher command. The French loaned Jones the merchantman, Duc de Duras, which Jones refitted and renamed Bonhomme Richard as a more powerful replacement for the Ranger. In August 1779, Jones was given command of a squadron of vessels of both American and French ownership. The goal was not only to harass British commerce but also to land 1500 French regulars in the lightly guarded western regions of Britain. The French cancelled its invasion force but gave Jones command. Sailing in a clockwise fashion around Ireland and down the east coast of Britain, the squadron captured a number of merchantmen. The French commander Landais decided early on in the expedition to retain control of the French ships, thereby often leaving and rejoining the effort when he felt it was fortuitous.

On 23 September, 1779, Jone's squadron was off Flamborough Head when the British men-of-war Countess of Scarborough and Serapis bore down on the Franco-American force. The lone Continental frigate, Bonhomme Richard engaged the Serapis. In a particularly bloody, destructive fight, the English captain called out to inquire if the Bonhomme Richard had struck her colors. Jones cried out, "I have not yet begun to fight!" Upon raking the Serapis, the crew of the Bonhomme Richard led by Jones boarded the English ship and captured her. Likewise, the French frigate Pallas captured her prize the Countess of Scarborough. Two days later, the Bonhomme Richard sank from the overwhelming amount of shock she took from the struggle.

The action stuck out as an embarrassing defeat for the Royal Navy, who suffered the capture of two ships in her own home waters, but Paul became a hero even in Britain for winning one of the great one-on-one battles in world history.

The French loaned the Continental Navy the use of the corvette Ariel. The one ship of the line built for service in the Continental Navy, the 74-gun America, was instead offered to France as compensation for the loss of its Le Magnifique, lost in service in the war.

Royal Navy

Conway (1999) shows that in 1775, the Royal Navy had less than 16,000 seamen while the army totaled only 36,000 troops. During the first three years of conflict, growth in these forces was slow because Lord North wanted to avoid provoking France and creating large increases in expenditures. With French intervention in 1778, serious expansion of the military began. By 1782, the navy had 100,000 seamen and marines. The creation of the new corps, which King George III had previously opposed, expanded the army. The possibility of a French invasion led to rapid expansion of militia units in Britain. While exact figures are not available, Conway estimates about 500,000 men were under arms during the course of the war. Though the aristocracy and gentry dominated the higher ranks in both army and navy, officers and men were drawn from a variety of social groups. In size and composition, this mobilization foreshadowed what was to come during the wars with revolutionary and Napoleonic France.

Buel (1998) shows how the Royal Navy severely disrupted the American economy after 1775, as conditions worsened each year until 1779, Buel explores several reasons: the effectiveness of the British navy, British occupation of the major ports, a shortage of manpower to harvest the crops, much reduced trade with Europe and the West Indies, and a flood of paper money. Recovery began in 1780 and gathered strength in 1781. Underlying this recovery were the influx of specie from France, booming trade with St. Eustatia and Cuba, the decision to repudiate the inflated currency, the establishment of the Bank of North America, and victories that reaffirmed American control over the mainland. Recovery slowed, however, in 1782 because of poor harvests and a tightening British blockade.

Syrett (2001) discusses the naval career of Rear Admiral James Gambier, concentrating on the brief occasions between 1770 and 1779 when he assumed command of the Royal Navy's squadron stationed in America and proved himself to be the most incompetent and ineffectual of all the British naval commanders during that period. Gambier managed to rise through the officer ranks of the Royal Navy to high command by utilizing the system of patronage and personal connections to his utmost advantage. Syrett concludes he was neither fit nor qualified for the positions of responsibility and high command which he secured for himself before and during the American Revolution, and an endless array of complaints about his incompetence were lodged with the government in London.

Dull (1988) critiques the famous interpretation of Alfred Thayer Mahan (1890) of the role of sea power in the American Revolution. The two critical elements in sustaining the revolution - the only war Great Britain lost in the 18th century - were the supply of trained seamen available to each side's fleet and the availability of ready credit to maintain the fighting year after year. Dull emphasizes the roles of France and Spain, whose fleets acted as the deciding factor in tipping the scale to the side of the colonists. Although Great Britain lost her most important and prosperous colony, trade with the newly independent United States soon expanded to become more profitable than ever, thus strengthening British commerce, shipping, and finances in time for the next war.

Tilley (1987) examines the British admirals who commanded on the North American Station 1775-1781. The naval war had two phases. The second phase began when the entry of France, and later of Spain and Holland, turned the conflict into a world-wide naval war in which, the British government insisted, North America was far from the most important of several theaters. The admiral on the scene when the war started was Samuel Graves. His failure to cope with the siege of Boston, and with an Admiralty, led by the notorious Earl of Sandwich, that first sent him no orders and later sent him orders he could not obey, led to his being cashiered and demolished his career.

Graves was succeeded by Rear Admiral Molyneux Shuldham, whose brief tenure encompassed the evacuation of Boston and an unsuccessful attempt, under General Sir Henry Clinton and Commodore Sir Peter Parker, to take Charleston, South Carolina. The Admiralty replaced Shuldham with Richard, Viscount Howe, one of the most distinguished naval officers of his generation, in the hope that he and his brother, General William Howe, would bring the Revolution to a spectacular end. In 1776 and 1777 the British were presented with the best opportunity they ever would have to win the war by force of arms. Modern authors have attributed the Howes' failure to their Whig political affiliations and their belief that the brutal use of military force would hamper the conclusion of a peace rather than encourage it. The scarcity of Howe papers makes the period of an enigmatic one for the historian.

Admiral Howe resigned in 1778, ostensibly because of the disgust he felt toward the Sandwich administration. For several months the North American Squadron was commanded by Rear Admiral James Gambier, who became symbolic of the "old woman" variety of naval officer. In the summer of 1779 Vice Admiral Marriot Arbuthnot arrived, and inaugurated what came to be regarded as the darkest period of the naval war. Arbuthnot presided over the successful expedition against Charleston, the indecisive battle between his fleet and that of des Touches off Cape Henry, and his epic feuds with General Clinton and Admiral Sir George Rodney. Though Arbuthnot's intentions were good he was a man past his prime and of dubious qualifications. Any defense of Sandwich's Admiralty collapses when required to explain why such an admiral was retained in such a command for so long.[6]

When Arbuthnot went home in July, 1781, he left the North American Squadron temporarily under the command of Rear Admiral Thomas Graves (cousin of Samuel). Graves had the misfortune to command the British line at the Battle of the Chesapeake, which sealed the fate of Cornwallis's army at Yorktown.

During the American Revolution the Royal Navy suffered a series of failures, tactical, strategic, material, and administrative. Initially the war was one in which sea battles were irrelevant; later, when confronted with the opportunity to fight a traditional naval war, the Royal Navy proved itself unable to win that sort of conflict as well. The war's most positive contribution to British naval history lay in demonstrating the inadequacy of the navy's tactical, communications, and administrative systems to the generation of officers who were to fight the next naval war--and win it.

Ports and shipbuilding

Boston quickly became a center of naval activity after the British evacuated the area in March 1776. Fowler describes privateering, shipbuilding, and the naval supply businesses in the city; the disastrous Penobscot expedition, which sailed from the city in 1779, and port visits by various French ships.

Sea power at Yorktown

In September, 1781, Lord Cornwallis surrendered the British army under his command to the American forces under George Washington. British forces in 1781 were concentrated in a few strongholds, while expeditionary forces were transported, supported, and protected by naval fleets. Cornwallis, on an expedition into South and North Carolina, and eventually the Chesapeake, was critically dependent on constant support from the British navy.[7] With naval superiority, his safety was assured; without it, he was vulnerable in the extreme. In the fall of 1781, the American forces achieved a superiority at sea, through the intervention of a French fleet under Admiral de Grasse. The fate of Cornwallis and his army was sealed.[8]

With over fifty ships under his direct control in the harbor at Yorktown, Cornwallis was forced to pay close attention to the naval side of his defense. Because of its accessible harbor, the post was vulnerable to attack from the water side; the shipping in the harbor was therefore integrally involved in the defense of the town. As the river was the major weak link in the defenses of Yorktown, so too was it the weak link in the siege lines Cornwallis had the capability of using his shipping to effect an escape from the trap which Washington constructed, a trump card which he played too late. The role of the shipping in the battle, as well as the attempts at relief by the main British force at New York, are here detailed. At the termination of the battle, virtually the entire British fleet held captive within the harbor had been sunk.[9] [10]

The end of the Continental Navy

With the close of the war, Congress was desperate for funds to run the new, fledgling nation. In response to the financial crisis, Congress considered ending the Continental Navy's existence. One of the justifying factors was the insistence that an extended US Navy would only serve to involve America in conflicts it had no service in being a part of. Furthermore, the cost of maintaining a standing navy in addition to operating costs severely drained what little funds the Congress had to begin with.

The Continental Navy saw defeat in almost every venture it undertook. Of all of its vessels, only a handful made it through the war without having been destroyed, sunk, or captured. The Continental Navy posed no significant threat to Royal Navy supremacy and did little to alter the course of the war.

The Continental Navy did, however, keep American morale and spirit up as the war progressed, adding to the hope that one day the 13 Colonies would emerge successful from their struggle.


  1. David L. Preston, "The Royal Navy Lost the Revolution." Naval History 1996 10(1): 10-14. Issn: 1042-1920
  2. When a merchant ship was captured, it was taken to port, it and its cargo were sold, and its sailors imprisoned. The victorious sailors would divide the prize money according to a fixed formula. A typical prize was worth several year's pay.
  3. As did Pennsylvania and North Carolina; see John W. Jackson, The Pennsylvania Navy, 1775-1781: The Defense of the Delaware. Rutgers U. Press, 1974. 514 pp.; and William N. Still, Jr. North Carolina's Revolutionary War Navy. North Carolina Dept. of Cultural Resources, 1976. 36 pp.
  4. Jean Boudriot, "Les Navires De Combat de la Guerre de l'independence Americaine," Revue Historique Des Armées 1983 (4): 44-49. Issn: 0035-3299
  5. Etienne Taillemite, La Marine et ses Chefs pendant la Guerre de l'independence Americaine," Revue Historique Des Armées 1983 (4): 20-31. Issn: 0035-3299
  6. Tilley (1987)
  7. Sands (1980)
  8. Brendan Morrissey and Adam Hook. Yorktown 1781: The World Turned Upside Down (1994)
  9. Though salvage attempts continued sporadically for the next one hundred seventy-five years, the site remains today the largest known deposit of 18th-century shipwrecks in British North America. An effort has been made to assess the archaeological potential of the site, mainly through electronic remote sensing surveys and on-site investigation.
  10. Sands (1980)