Thursday, October 13, 2011

Ships: A New Navy

Today marks the official anniversary of the founding of the Continental Navy by an act of the Continental Congress in 1775. Though the actual establishment by written measures outlining important issues like rank and number of officers, pay scales, ship building/purchase and provisioning did not occur until November, it was on October 13th that the contentious congress, unable it seems to agree thoroughly on anything (sound familiar?), approved the formation of a navy. This would plant the seed that would flower into the official United States Navy in 1794.

While plenty will be written about this anniversary today, the most compelling thing about the Continental Navy for me is that it was established specifically as a privateer fleet. Most of its original ships were thoroughly or in part privately owned and its ranks were entirely volunteer. Just like the big dog on the oceans at the time – the Royal Navy – the U.S. Navy spent its infancy as a gang of pirates.

Congress was clear that the foremost mission of the Continental Navy was, as noted at The Naval History Center online, “… to raid commerce and attack the transports that supplied British forces in North America.”

Of course the most famous of these raiders, and arguably the most successful, was Scotsman John Paul Jones. Like many colonials, Jones was a bit of a fugitive. He added “Jones” to his name to avoid a charge of murdering a subordinate officer aboard a merchant vessel in commanded prior to the Revolution, and then high-tailed it from the West Indies to Philadelphia. Not only did Jones raid the British coast and her merchant shipping, he managed to take at least two Royal Navy ships: HMS Ranger and HMS Serapis. The capture of these ships by the rebellious colonials was an embarrassment that rankled with the Royal Navy for years to come. Their distress at being bested by the U.S. would lead to a policy of impressments of American sailors and, in turn, the War of 1812.

It probably goes without saying that the Continental Navy was made up of small ships. Most were brigs, sloops or schooners that ran fast but could carry a reasonable compliment of men and arms; none were above frigate class. Fortunately for the memory of those who risked their lives at sea to help bring the U.S. into being, we know every ship by name. The list is memorialized online at the Naval Historical Center website; click the names noted in blue for more information about each ship.

To paraphrase Dulcie Kennard, the sea may be too impersonal to love but every sailor loves his ship. Since we cannot recall every Continental sailor’s name, let us remember their ships and take a moment to thank them – and those who continue to serve today – for their courage and sacrifice.

More on today’s anniversary can be found at Naval History Blog and The Naval Historical Society. Follow the U.S. Navy on Twitter here. Let me end with a quote from perhaps the wisest of U.S. Presidents, George Washington, who opposed Congress’ insistence on abandoning the navy in 1783:

Without a decisive naval force we can do nothing definitive, and with it, everything honorable and glorious.

Header: A French illustration of the battle between Jones’ Bonhomme Richard and HMS Serapis via Eon Images


Timmy! said...

Ahoy, Pauline! I like that there were two different ships named Surprise...

And, as usual, George knew better than the Congress... No surprise there.

Pauline said...

Surprise was actually quite the popular ships' name. I guess it really is good to have surprise on your side.

Charles L. Wallace said...

Paul Jones.... what a quipster!

Happy Navy Birthday to all - I'd like to say I enjoyed a proper celebration, but instead I fought the traffic going down to the big naval base. Reckon that's apropos...

Pauline said...

That is unfortunately appropriate, I suppose. But thank you and your mates for all you do!