The Continentals would form their own navy. When the second Continental Congress met after the events of Lexington and Concord, they established the Continental Army in June and selected George Washington to be its commander-in-chief. The Congress, however, gave no thought to a navy; perhaps they felt they did not need one or that they could never hope to match the power of the Royal Navy. Before doing so, many of the individual colonies created their own state navies. These were used throughout the war to protect state’s waterways from the British, protect trade and even attacking British merchant and small war vessels. Every colony except New Jersey and Delaware will establish such navies.
Rhode Island was the first colony to establish a state navy and authorize privateering. A mix of privately and state-owned vessels patrolled off Rhode Island’s coast and General Washington decided to use them to secure supplies he so desperately needed for his army besieging the British in Boston. The commander in chief gave the order in September 1775 for the schooner Hannah with Nicholas Broughton as captain and flying the pine tree flag of the “Army’s Navy” to set sail and prey on enemy vessels. The crew of Hannah and many others of these state’s ships had sailors who signed onto the army but reassigned due to their seagoing experience. Only a few days at sea, Broughton’s crew captured Unity heading for Boston with lumber and naval stores. This ship is the first to be captured by the Americans and proves that a navy would be useful in the war. Another small Rhode Island fleet under command of Captain John Manley took several prizes in the fall of 1775 including the brigantine Nancy, which held gunpowder equalling eighteen months of production in the colonies. This powder and other stores were used by General Washington’s young Continental Army. Soon vessels from Massachusetts and Connecticut would join Manley’s fleet and captured many prizes in 1776. The Army’s Navy would be disbanded in 1777 but by then naval matters had taken the forefront in Congress.
The Army’s Navy’s exploits had gotten the attention of Congressmen. On October 13th, 1775, Congress votes to fit ships for the purpose of naval warfare and the Continental Navy is born. At first it was just on paper headed by a Naval Committee of three: John Adams, John Langdon, and Silas Deane. This committee drafts the suggestion that the Continental Navy should be used for the purpose of securing supplies; the small size and number of vessels outfitted see success. However, Congress does not stop at just this small fleet. Truly committing to naval expansion, they enlarge the Naval Committee to seven, authorize the purchase of four ships of war and extend the Committee’s power to the whole of the thirteen colonies. When King George III denied the Olive Branch Petition that November Congress goes a few steps more, passing resolutions to purchase more ships, allocate funds to the Naval Committee, approve rules and regulations for the navy, muster Continental Marines, and soon authorized privateering.
The Continental Navy had several great achievements early on. While the New England navies tussled with the British up north, a more powerful fleet was fitting out in Philadelphia. A fleet under command of Esek Hopkins, flagship Alfred, and seven other vessels set sail in February 1776. Their original target was the Chesapeake Bay but Hopkins decided to sail to New Providence in the Bahamas to seize a stock of gunpowder at Fort Nassau. The Continental Marines landed on the island on March 3rd and walked into the fort uncontested. They captured seventy-one cannons, fifteen brass mortars and two dozen barrels of gunpowder. Satisfied, Hopkins set a course for Rhode Island. He took two prizes on his way. Off the coast of Rhode Island, the fleet engaged the ship Glasgow which eventually gave up the fight and sailed away. Esek Hopkins served well in the Continental Navy until being dismissed in 1778.
Not many actions in the American Revolution between the Americans and British can be considered naval battles and even less of strategic importance, the one exception being the Battle of Valcour Island on Lake Champlain. Ironically, the commander of this American force was not an admiral nor did he go down in history as being a great American. After the failure of Quebec, General Benedict Arnold knew the British would use New York’s waterways to cut the colonies in two. He needed a fleet on Lake Champlain so one of strange vessels was made up of captured British ships and newly constructed ones. Around Fort Ticonderoga on the southern end of the lake trees were being chopped down to build such a fleet which grew to fourteen ships, holding between three and twelve guns, and crewed by soldiers. Meanwhile on the northern end Sir Guy Carleton was building his own fleet of almost doubled sized, crewed by Royal Navy seamen and was crowned by the three masted Inflexible carrying eighteen guns. The two fleets would meet around Valcour Island on the eastern shore of the lake on October 11th, 1776, and the engagement would last for two days. Arnold was soundly defeated as he lost eleven ships. But Arnold had achieved his goal of delaying the British. Carleton had concluded that it was too late in the fighting season to besiege Fort Ticonderoga and push to Albany. That will be General John Burgoyne’s mission and setting up the significant British defeat at Saratoga the following year.
There is a man that shines above all when exploits of the Continental Navy are discussed. John Paul Jones, a native of Scotland and a merchant captain, found his way to Philadelphia in December 1775. This proved perfect timing as the new Continental Navy was looking for capable officers and he was commissioned a lieutenant and sailed on Alfred during Esek Hopkin’s cruise to the Bahamas. Jones served as captain on several vessels until given command of the newly built sloop Ranger and was ordered to France. Though officially neutral, Jones was able to operate out of Brest for the purpose of attacking vessels around the British Isles, even leading a raid on Scotland. Ranger was soon ordered back to America, leaving Jones behind in France, promised of a new ship.
Finally, the French government (by now officially in the war) purchased a ship for Jones; a merchant vessel used for the East India trade, though she required refitting, she was sturdy and strong. Renamed Bonhomme Richard, she was Jones’ flagship of a squadron of six Continental Navy vessels and was also accompanied by two privateers. The squadron set sail on August 14, 1779 from Lorient, France. They took several prizes and soon became scattered. Bonhomme Richard and another ship in his squadron Pallas were still together, soon to fight a battle that would see them slated in American history.
Off of Flamborough Head on September 23, 1779, Jones sighted a large fleet of merchant vessels escorted by the frigate HMS Serapis and the sloop of war Countess of Scarborough. Jones’ ship would take on the British frigate shortly after 6pm, however the enemy ship outgunned and outmaneuvered his vessel so he needed to fight in close quarters. During this duel of maneuvering and several broadsides, Serapis’s captain asked if Jones had surrendered, to which Jones famously replied “I have not yet begun to fight!” As the ships became locked and boarders began climbing onto their enemy’s ship, a fierce battle began which lasted nearly three and a half hours until finally the British captain surrendered to Jones. Both ships were badly damaged with Richard taking on water. Her crew tried to save the ship but the next morning Jones knew she was doomed, transferred his flag to Serapis and watched as his gallant ship slipped beneath the waves. The feat made Jones famous and gave the Continental Navy its finest hour.
All in all, the Continental Navy played a role in the American Revolution, but could not hope to match the Royal Navy. Though they raided British merchants well, they did very little to turn the tide of war with many actions being isolated. Throughout the war around sixty vessels of various size sailed in the Continental Navy (all of which would be captured or destroyed) and peaked in 1777 with thirty-one vessels. John Paul Jones and the Battle of Flamborough Head may be the most notorious among exploits of the navy, but if one naval battle fought by the Americans during the war could be deemed strategically important, it would be the Battle of Valcour Island. Valcour would set up John Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga the next year and bring an important naval power into the war on the side of the Americans; the French.