Naval Warfare during the American Revolution

Christopher Wands

David versus Goliath

George Washington, Trenton, Saratoga, Yorktown. When the American Revolution is discussed, the subject matter may be focused upon the important people and battles of the war such as these. The War for American Independence in North America is often seen as a land-based war, with the British and Continental soldiers colliding on the battlefield… but what about the waterways in and around the continent? Though taking a backseat in discussion, naval warfare during the American Revolution played a crucial role in dictating strategy, logistics and influence in the region along with playing a huge part in winning several battles. Prior to, during, and many years after the war, the Goliath that was the British Royal Navy is the largest fleet in the world. At the beginning of the Revolution in 1775, His Majesty’s fleet consisted of two-hundred and seventy vessels of various size. This number included smaller ships with eight to eighteen guns, to Ships of the Line carrying sixty to one hundred cannons. By war’s end in 1783, the Royal Navy would nearly double that number to four-hundred and eighty ships of multiple types. As large as these numbers may be, it was spread across their global empire and at times was dangerously overextended. Still, the David playing Americans could not hope to match this might during the American Revolution. The section of the Royal Navy that was responsible for North America was the North American and West Indies Station, a joint command that had their main bases in Bermuda and Halifax. At the beginning of the year 1775, British Admiral Samuel Graves had just around thirty ships of various size to patrol the whole east coast. Though he will slowly be reinforced when hostilities commence, it is slow going. By August 1776, these reinforcements, along with a new command by Admiral Richard Howe (brother of British General William Howe) will be seen first-hand by General Washington and those defending New York City. A massive fleet of thirty warships and one hundred and seventy transports carrying thirty-thousand British regulars soundly defeats the Continental troops at the Battle of Long Island. The navy and the army often cooperated throughout the war, with the former transporting soldiers to and from coastal locations of the colonies, giving the British ease of movement. New York City is not the only campaign in which the Royal Navy assisted in the army’s victory. For example, when the British looked to the southern colonies, they had to move forces from New York City to their desired targets. Savannah, Georgia in 1779 and Charleston, South Carolina in 1780 were two port cities captured by the British army, feats made possible by assistance from the Royal Navy. Along with direct assistance, the Royal Navy also ravaged coastal cities in Connecticut and elsewhere.
Naval Warfare during the American Revolution
Commander-in-Chief Samuel Graves, North American Station, 1774-1776

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Naval Warfare during the American Revolution
Action between Bonhomme Richard and Serapis during the Battle of Flamborough Head, 1779

Creation and Exploits of the Continental Navy

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.
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The French Connection and the Final Showdown

The French and British had been rivals for many decades when the American Revolution began. Still hurting from her loss in the Seven Years’ War, France was itching to get back at her long-time adversary. The American Revolution could be such a place and France secretly sent money and munitions to the Continentals. With the British surrender at Saratoga in October 1777, the French believed that the British could be beat. On February 6, 1778, France and the United States signed a treaty bringing France officially into the war and made the American Revolution a world war. With this move it openly provided more weapons, money, supplies, soldiers and most importantly, ships. Now the British had to contend with a real navy, forcing them to change their overall strategy. The American theater took a back page in this world war, with the British in New York sending thousands of troops, along with ships, away to the West Indies and Florida, strengthening those garrisons while weakening General Sir Henry Clinton’s, but did not make his army any less a threat. Most importantly, the Royal Navy could not spare many ships from the home fleet because it had to protect the British Isles. When the Spanish joined the war in 1779, a Franco-Spanish armada was massed to invade Great Britain. Though that never happened, it made the British wearier of home and less of their American colonies. News of the alliance with France reached General Washington at Valley Forge in March 1778 and soon word that a small fleet of a dozen warships under Admiral Charles Hector, Comte d’Estaing was on its way, which arrived in July. The admiral made contact with Washington and the two began planning, with Washington eager to take New York. Now possible d’Estaing’s fleet but he discovered that his ships were too big to cross the bar into the harbor, thus the idea was scrapped before planning even began. Although New York could not be attacked, the British were also garrisoned at Newport, Rhode Island. A plan was set; the Americans commanded by General John Sullivan would attack by land and the French fleet would attack by sea. General Clinton and Admiral Richard Howe learned of the French fleet’s destination and dispatched their own fleet to counter. In early August the two fleets maneuvered for favorable position but soon a storm broke, scattering the fleets along the coast. Comte d’Estaing’s ships took heavy damage and sailed for repairs in Boston. The besieging Americans soon withered away and after a rearguard action on August 29th, they had to leave Newport in British hands. The first coordinated attack by the French fleet and Continental army failed. The British would abandon Newport in Autumn 1779. After repairs were complete, the French sailed for the West Indies where d’Estaing failed to capture the British territories of St. Lucia and Grenada. In 1779, d’Estaing sailed for Savannah, Georgia and laid siege to the city with Continental Navy ships, while the army did so on land. An assault would be made and failed. Comte d’Estaing would return to France in 1780 to be replaced by Francois Joseph Paul Comte de Grasse. De Grasse’s promotion to commander would set a course for the final showdown of the American Revolution and American Independence. In the spring of 1781, Washington, along with his French ally General Comte de Rochambeau, had to make the decision of where to strike the British. Washington, ever eager to recapture New York City, insisted on attacking such while Rochambeau favored attacking the British under Lord Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia, who was awaiting reinforcements from the Royal Navy to come through the Chesapeake Bay. Both destinations would require naval support so the two generals appealed to de Grasse and his West Indies fleet. Admiral de Grasse sided with Rochambeau as the Chesapeake was much more suited to his large ships and set sail in August while the allied armies of nearly 8,000 marched to Virginia, joining 12,000 other militia, French and Continental troops outside Yorktown. The plan to entrap Cornwallis cannot work without de Grasse, who does not disappoint. Undoubtedly the most important naval battle of the American Revolution takes place when the armies on still on the move. On the morning of September 5, 1781, the French fleet of twenty-four ships of the line guards the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay when a Royal Navy fleet of nineteen ships of the line under Admiral Thomas Graves began sailing up the bay. The two fleets lined up in midafternoon but don’t engage until 4pm; the Battle of the Chesapeake had begun. The French had superior fire power and with the tactic of aiming at masts and rigging of the British ships, the ships at the front of the line, HMS Shrewsbury and HMS Intrepid fall out of line. Both fleets engaged in combat until sunset, then set at a stalemate. That night both admirals took damage assessment. Graves had taken severe damage to his already outnumbered fleet while de Grasse’s fleet was in much better condition. Graves did what he could but it was hopeless. With the French fleet back in the Chesapeake and reinforced by the 13th, Graves had to withdraw and leave Cornwallis to his fate. On September 28th the allied armies arrived at Yorktown and began their siege, which lasted until October 19th when the capitulation of Cornwallis’s army takes place and it could not have been done without the help of the French fleet. Though the war didn’t end right there, it broke the will of the British war effort in America. Word reaches London on November 25th and in March 1782 parliament authorizes the government to make peace with the United States. The war officially comes to an end when the Treaty of Paris in signed on September 3, 1783.
Naval Warfare during the American Revolution
Battle of the Chesapeake, often known as the Battle of the Capes. The French fleet (left) engages the British fleet (right)
Naval Warfare during the American Revolution

Christopher Wands

I grew up in Ringwood, New Jersey and from a young age I was drawn to American history. I sought out my family history which led me to read and discover the history of our country. I took this passion to the State University of New York at Oswego, where I studied History and Political Science, earning my Bachelor's degree in May 2021. Post graduation I secured an internship at the American Battlefield Trust, working in their education department for a year. I am currently seeking a position in historic preservation.
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