The Navy: The Continental Period, 1775-1890


by Michael A. Palmer

The North American colonies of Great Britain developed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries as parts of a powerful European maritime empire. Americans provided the mother country with a variety of export goods, among them naval stores, and even constructed ships. American sailors, some by choice, some as the result of the efforts of British press gangs, served in the men-of-war of the Royal Navy. Continental navy Captain Nicholas Biddle, for example, served as a youth in the Royal Navy alongside Horatio Nelson.

During the colonial wars of Great Britain with France and Spain, Americans took part not only in the campaigns fought in the west along the frontier but also in the North Atlantic and Caribbean. Americans, among them Lawrence Washington, the elder half-brother of George Washington, served in Admiral Edward Vernon's abortive Central American expedition (1739-1741). In 1745 New England sailors and troops landed on Cape Breton Island and besieged and captured the French fortress of Louisburg, which guarded the approaches to the Saint Lawrence River. American merchants armed scores of ships as privateers and operated them against the commerce of Great Britain's enemies.

Thus, in 1775, Americans were no strangers to the ways of the sea, either in peace or in war. In the years immediately before the outbreak of the rebellion, Americans demonstrated their growing disenchantment with British rule by taking action against ships collecting revenue or delivering tea in Boston Harbor. Once the revolution began, Americans recognized that events in the Atlantic Ocean theater would have a major, and potentially decisive, impact on the course of the war in North America. In the fall of 1775, Americans initiated a privateering campaign against British commerce, and on 13 October the Continental Congress, after some difficult political debate, also established a small naval force, hoping that even a diminutive navy would be able to offset to some extent what would otherwise be an uncontested exercise of British sea power.

The Continental Congress had a very limited role in mind for the navy. It was not expected to contest British control of the seas, but rather to wage a traditional guerre de course against British trade, in conjunction with the scores of privateers outfitting in American ports. The Continental navy's ships were to raid commerce and attack the transports that supplied British forces in North America. To carry out this mission, the Continental Congress began to build up, through purchase, conversion, and new construction, a cruiser navy of small ships--frigates, brigs, sloops, and schooners. For the most part, Continental navy ships cruised independently or in pairs in search of their prey, avoiding whenever possible fights with Royal Navy men-of-war.

The record of the Continental navy was mixed during the revolutionary war. Its cruisers ranged far and wide and demonstrated that British commerce was nowhere safe, not even in British home waters. Few of the navy's larger ships ever put to sea, however, because most of the frigates Congress authorized to be built were either destroyed by British forces or burned by the Americans to prevent capture. There were occasional triumphs in single-ship engagements--for example, the capture by Captain John Paul Jones's Ranger of the British sloop of war Drake in April 1778. Jones gained international notoriety for his operations against the British in the North Sea and raided the coast of Great Britain itself. The navy was somewhat less successful in small-squadron actions. Its successes included the 1776 amphibious raid against New Providence in the Bahamas, but there were even more failures, most notably the ill-fated Penobscot expedition of 1779. While the Continental navy had its share of tactical triumphs, not once did its efforts cause the British an operational or strategic check.

Many of the failures of the Continental navy were directly attributable to the uneven and uncertain quality of the highly politicized officer corps. Mediocre officers vied for rank and privilege. Many commanders lacked drive, and others, while perhaps excellent seamen, were simply incompetent warriors. Even highly successful officers, such as Jones, labored under marked character deficiencies. Nevertheless, whatever the shortcomings of the Continental navy, the course of the war demonstrated to Americans the importance of sea power. The control of the Atlantic by the Royal Navy allowed Great Britain to transport a large army to North America and to sustain it there. French sea power, allied with the American cause after 1778, enabled General George Washington to isolate and destroy the British army of Lord Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown in 1781. One of the decisive battles of the war, it ended Great Britain's hope of crushing the rebellion.

While sea power clearly had played an extremely important role in the Revolution, the years immediately following the war were difficult ones for the Continental navy. Under the Articles of Confederation, the Congress reserved for itself greater control over the nation's naval than its land forces, but this had less to do with a judgment of the importance of sea power than with the traditional Anglo-American fear of standing armies. The national government could be trusted with control of less politically dangerous, and more expensive, naval forces. Two years after the end of the war, the money-poor Congress sold off the last ship of the Continental navy, the frigate Alliance.

The failure of Congress to maintain a naval force was understandable. Navies were, and remain, expensive instruments of national power. Moreover, there were virtually no roles or missions that a small American navy could realistically be expected to play in the mid-1780s. The primary threats the new republic faced were to be found along the western frontier. In the Northwest, the native American tribes and the British, who refused to complete their withdrawal, challenged U.S. sovereignty and control of potentially valuable western lands. In the Southwest, the Spanish and their tribal allies held a lock on the lower Mississippi and disputed the southern boundary of the United States. Naval power could do little to change these balances of force.

A navy also could not remove the major impediments to the complete recovery of U.S. commerce. The problems the United States faced in its relations with Great Britain, Spain, and France were rooted in the philosophy of mercantilism and, as such, were more likely to be settled diplomatically than through the application of military force. Although a small effective navy might have been a source of national pride and an international display of nationhood, most congressmen were understandably less than eager, given the rather mixed record of the Continental navy, to embark on an expensive naval program.

Conditions began to change when the question of a proper response to aggressors became a national issue. In the Mediterranean, the corsairs of the Barbary states began to prey on U.S. merchant ships, no longer protected by the Royal Navy. Ships and cargoes were captured, and U.S. seamen were ransomed or sold into slavery. Although the number of ships and seamen actually lost were few, the psychological effect on Americans was marked. Among the possible responses that the United States debated were paying the Barbary states to spare U.S. commerce from attacks and building a small navy to protect trade.

The debate over naval policy was both economic and philosophical. Many Americans, among them Thomas Jefferson, later minister to the French court from 1785 to 1789, favored a naval response. Jefferson wrote in the fall of 1784: "We ought to begin a naval power, if we mean to carry on our commerce. Can we begin it on a more honorable occasion, or with a weaker foe?" Other Americans feared the establishment of a navy, which they viewed as an instrument that, while less politically dangerous than a standing army, nevertheless could lead the United States into innumerable foreign embroilments. Still others, such as John Adams, took the exceedingly practical position that the American people had had their fill of war and that a negotiated settlement--that is, payment for protection-- was the best course to pursue. Moreover, given the fiscal weakness of the Confederation Congress, the United States lacked the resources to undertake the establishment of a navy. In fact, Congress lacked the funds to offer a negotiated settlement.

While the Barbary depredations did not lead immediately to the resurrection of U.S. naval power, they did highlight the apparent helplessness of the country in the international arena and helped shape a consensus in the United States for the establishment of a stronger national government. In Philadelphia in 1787, delegates drew up a constitution, which was adopted in 1789. As part of that debate, the Federalists, the nationalists who supported the new scheme of government, envisioned a state powerful enough to maintain a navy capable of protecting U.S. commerce. Some Federalists went even further. Alexander Hamilton argued that while the United States could not challenge Europe's principal maritime powers on the seas, in the event of a European war pitting France against Great Britain, a small fleet of American battleships would allow the United States to play the makeweight in the balance of power in the Western Hemisphere. For Hamilton and his supporters, a navy could play a broad national role in pursuit of the interests of the United States, and not just a limited role protecting the ships and cargoes of U.S. merchants.

The U.S. Constitution gave the government the power to play such a role. In language that reflected the Anglo-American antiarmy tradition, Congress was given the right "to raise and support armies" but "to provide and maintain" a navy. Nevertheless, no consensus yet existed to support a large national navy. In fact, until the mid-1790s, the United States continued as it had under the Confederation Congress--without any naval force at all. Potential challenges to U.S. interests were many, but actual threats addressable by naval forces were few.

The outbreak of war in Europe in 1793 dramatically altered the equation. For Americans, European war presented the United States with opportunities. Both the French and the British began to rely heavily on U.S. shipping and, under the pressures of war, began to relax many mercantile commercial restrictions that had hindered the recovery of U.S. commerce. U.S. trade and the shipping industry expanded accordingly. Along with these opportunities, however, came great hazards. As more and more U.S. ships took to the seas, the possibility increased of depredations against them by the European powers. The British, for example, were more than happy to see U.S. ships plying the sea-lanes in service of the interests of Great Britain, but did not look kindly on Yankee vessels trading with France or its colonies.

The initial challenge to the rapid expansion of U.S. commerce, however, came not from London or Paris but from the corsairs of the Barbary coast. In the 1790s the Algerians again began to prey on U.S. commerce in the Mediterranean. Once again, Congress debated whether the nation ought to buy protection or establish a navy to safeguard shipping. In March 1794 Congress decided to respond with force and passed a naval act that called for the construction of a half-dozen frigates.

The United States again had a navy. The new frigates were to be well built and heavily armed, akin to twentieth- century battle cruisers-fast enough to run from European ships of the lines, powerful enough to overwhelm any European or Barbary cruiser in a single-ship duel. Work began on the forty-four-gun frigates Constitution, United States, and President and the thirty-six-gun frigates Congress, Constellation, and Chesapeake. Successful diplomacy, however, cut short the program. The demonstrated willingness of the United States to respond militarily helped American diplomats negotiate a more reasonable financial agreement with Algiers in 1796, and the naval building program was put on hold, its future uncertain. U.S. diplomats were likewise able to negotiate successful treaties with Spain and Great Britain that secured the Northwest and Southwest frontiers and temporarily ended British harassment of U.S. trade.

In 1797, however, the French, enraged by their former ally's agreement with Great Britain, retaliated by striking at U.S. commerce. Hundreds of ships and cargoes were seized worldwide, although most were taken in the Caribbean. The United States responded as it had in 1794 to the Algerian depredations, by offering to negotiate, while work resumed on the frigates already under construction. Since the bulk of the French navy was blockaded in its home ports by the Royal Navy, the prospect of a limited U.S. naval response to depredations primarily in the Caribbean appeared to be realistic. When the negotiations with the French collapsed, in what has become known as the XYZ Affair, Congress between 1798 and 1800 passed a series of bills expanding the navy to a force of more than thirty ships and, on 30 April 1798, passed an act that established the independent executive Department of the Navy.

Between 1798 and 1800, this new, jury-rigged navy fought the undeclared Quasi-War with France. For the United States, this was not another guerre de course. Because the Royal Navy had all but swept French commerce from the seas, there were few targets for U.S. privateers or navy cruisers. Instead, the navy found itself protecting U.S. ships from French corsairs. Operations were centered in the Caribbean, although during the course of the war U.S. Navy ships operated along the American coast, in the approaches to the Mediterranean, and in the Indian Ocean basin, cruising as far as the Sunda Strait.

The Quasi-War was a limited conflict. Congress, in an effort to protect U.S. commerce, allowed the navy to operate only against armed French ships on the high seas. Directed by its first civilian secretary, Benjamin Stoddert, the navy employed a variety of techniques to carry out its congressional mandate. Warships convoyed merchant vessels and patrolled the shipping lanes on the lookout for French privateers, but Stoddert also chose to employ his small force as offensively as possible. He dispensed with escorts for convoys and patrolling and, in a move that carried the war to the Caribbean, sent virtually the entire navy south, where French privateers operated, and eliminated the French threat along the coast.

Stoddert also excelled as a manager, weeding out many of the service's mediocre officers, among them more than a few Continental navy veterans, and establishing a pipeline of young midshipmen and lieutenants who made the navy their career and would become the future "ornaments" of the service. The U.S. Navy managed during the Quasi-War to do what the Continental navy had failed to do during the American Revolution, that is, to emerge from the conflict with an excellent reputation and broad political support. Stoddert and other U.S. navalists used wartime political backing in an attempt to build not only a small force to protect commerce but a larger battle fleet that would be able to play the broader national role envisioned by Hamilton. Congress initially supported Stoddert's ambitious programs, and in 1799 and 1800, construction began of six powerful ships of the line. In 1801, however, waning political support for a large navy, discontent over the high taxes necessary to complete the program, and a change in administration ended the effort.

If Stoddert's hopes of building a U.S. battle fleet were doomed by the election of President Thomas Jefferson in 1800, the future of the U.S. Navy was not in doubt. Jefferson took office in March 1801 as a crisis with Tripoli loomed on the horizon, and the U.S. Navy found its squadrons en route to the Mediterranean. Between 1801 and 1805, the U.S. Navy protected U.S. commerce from Tripolitan corsairs, but Jefferson did not limit the navy to patrolling and convoy escort. He used sea power in a forward, offensive manner, blockading and bombarding Tripoli, and supporting the march of an army of mercenaries in 1805 from Egypt to Derna in an effort to topple the dey of Tripoli from his throne or force him to negotiate.

The successful application of naval power during the Quasi-War and Barbary Wars by the Federalist administration of Adams and the Republican administration of Jefferson marked the political coming of age of the U.S. navy. By 1807 there existed in the United States a clear political consensus supporting a naval establishment. Its role was circumscribed, being restricted to protecting the nation's commerce and not the nation itself. Primary responsibility for coastal defense rested, and would continue to rest, primarily with the U.S. Army and its coastal fortifications and the state militias, although the navy's fleet of gunboats, principally the brainchild of Jefferson, were expected to play a supporting role. This was not by any means a witless policy, given the nature of the threat and the nature of the newly established federal government. While the small but powerful navy envisioned by Stoddert might have been able to play a role in national policy, perhaps even deterring Great Britain from harassing Americans on the seas during the years leading up to the War of 1812, the United States in 1800 possessed neither the fiscal resources nor the manpower necessary to provide and maintain such a force. Already saddled with an enormous debt from the Revolution, the country could not afford the additional cost of Stoddert's naval program. Nor could the nation, which at the time filled the ranks of its navy with volunteers, have found the thousands of seamen and officers necessary to man such a fleet. Ships were generally undermanned during the Quasi-War by about 10 percent, and the officer corps was barely up to the demands imposed by a small force.

The second war with Great Britain--the War of 1812--led to a resurrection of the naval debate in the United States. As it had during the wars with the French and the Tripolitans, the U.S. Navy found itself fighting a guerre de course, this time not to protect U.S. commerce but against British shipping. The frigates built in the 1790s, commanded by officers who had begun their professional careers under Stoddert, scored numerous successes. In 1812 the Constitution, commanded by Captain Isaac Hull, destroyed the Royal Navy frigate Guerriere. The United States, commanded by Captain Stephen Decatur, Jr., captured then scuttled the British frigate Macedonian. Late in the year, the Constitution, commanded by William Bainbridge, captured the Java. U.S. men-of-war won many other single-ship engagements, although several were also lostfor example, the Chesapeake was captured by the Shannon in June 1813.

Despite the brilliant victories, and despite the successes of the campaign waged by the U.S. Navy and hundreds of American privateers against British commerce, the costs to the United States because it lacked adequate naval power were quickly driven home. Great Britain was able to send numerous naval squadrons and several armies across the Atlantic. The United States found its ports blockaded and its trade all but destroyed. The British raided the coast at will. In the summer of 1814 a small British force captured Washington, the national capital, and burned many public buildings and facilities, including the navy yard and the White House.

Command of the sea also allowed Great Britain to build up powerful forces along the Great Lakes. During the campaigns fought along the lake frontier between 1812 and 1814, Americans struggled to keep pace with the British in naval building races that consumed enormous amounts of money, manpower, and resources. Dramatic U.S. victories on Lake Erie (September 1813) and Lake Champlain (September 1814), unfortunately, were not matched on Lake Ontario, the most important of the lakes, and there, at the end of the war, the Americans faced a difficult dilemma.

When he resigned in late 1814, Secretary of the Navy William Jones informed President James Madison that Great Britain's ability to move resources, including partly disassembled ships, across the Atlantic to the lakes, principally to Lake Ontario, made loss of control by the United States inevitable. Jones suggested that the lakes be abandoned, the ships already constructed burned, and the frontier defended inland. Fortunately, Great Britain had no desire to continue the struggle and signed a treaty of peace late in the year.

For U.S. navalists, the course of the War of 1812 appeared to be a clear lesson of the importance of sea power. The commerce of the nation had been swept from the seas and its coast blockaded and subjected to raids and invasions, despite the presence of an enormous fleet of gunboats and an extensive, and expensive, network of fortifications. As the need for a seagoing battle fleet to keep the enemy at bay became increasingly obvious, navalists found themselves in the political ascendancy, with a national consensus to support the creation of a powerful battle fleet, much like that envisioned by Hamilton and Stoddert in the 1790s.

The crash naval building program that began in 1812 could not, of course, reach fruition before the end of the war, but this time the consensus for a strong navy survived the peace, and the program continued in the postwar years. Ironically, by the time the first of the ships took to sea, they were no longer needed. The century-long era of Anglo-French wars ended in 1815 with the Congress of Vienna and opened a new age of "free security" for the United States. The prospect of a British, French, or Spanish invasion of the United States was virtually nil, and the U.S. Navy did not need battleships to protect commerce from pirates or to suppress the slave trade.

Moreover, the United States, along with the rest of the industrializing world, had entered an era of rapid technological transformation that would shortly bring about enormous changes in warship-building technology that had heretofore been in a period of relative stasis for more than a century. For the most part, the powerful, beautiful, and expensive ships of the line constructed by the United States during and after the War of 1812 proved to be all but useless.

The major post-War of 1812 mission of the U.S. Navy remained commerce protection. Not long after the ink had dried ending the war with Great Britain, a squadron sailed for the Mediterranean, where it blockaded and bombarded Algiers (1815). In the decades after the War of 1812, the Navy kept small squadrons in the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, off the west African coast, and in the Pacific. While its ships supported commerce and diplomacy in the far flung corners of the world and suppressed piracy in the Caribbean and the slave trade off the African coast, as before, the navy was limited to support of the merchant class, and it was still not assigned any broad national roles during peacetime.

The U.S. Navy struggled during the decades following the War of 1812 to keep up with rapidly changing technology. While the navy was not in the forefront of technological change, it experimented with steam-powered propulsion systems, armor plating, breechloaders, shell guns, and the telegraph. The service also organized an engineering-oriented naval academy in 1845 at Annapolis, Maryland, in an effort to enhance what was already a well-established professionalism.

During the Mexican War (1846-1848), the U.S. Navy again demonstrated the value of sea power and, for the first time, proved itself to be a national asset. Along the California coast and in the Gulf of Mexico, U.S. naval forces blockaded Mexican ports and supported operations ashore. When President James Polk found himself confronting a weak Mexican government unable to negotiate a peace settlement, he turned to sea power as part of the answer. At Polk's direction, Major General Winfield Scott's army in 1847 moved by sea to Veracruz, Mexico. From there it marched inland on the Mexican capital, Mexico City, ultimately forcing an end to the war.

The Civil War, which began in 1861, also highlighted for the United States the potential national virtues of sea power. The Union had a near monopoly on naval power during the war. Naval officers, more so than army officers, remained loyal to the Union. The majority of the U.S. Navy's men-of-war were in northern ports. The absence of Confederate oceangoing sea power initially gave the Union de facto control of the seas.

As the war progressed, the Confederacy managed to purchase several swift cruisers with auxiliary steam power that wreaked havoc on commercial shipping in the North, although the Confederates were never able to challenge northern control of the seas, and warships such as the CSS Alabama were eventually run down and destroyed by Union men-of-war. Union control of the sea allowed the North to blockade the coastal ports of the South. Historians continue to debate the effectiveness of the blockade, and many now doubt whether it was as decisive as initially believed. Innumerable Confederate blockade runners evaded capture and carried critically needed supplies into southern ports. Without doubt, however, the blockade handicapped the southern war effort and was yet another advantage enjoyed by the North in the secession struggle.

Control of the sea and possession of strong naval forces also allowed the North to apply military force against the entire coastline of the South. Confederate commanders had to maintain tens of thousands of troops to guard against Union forays from the sea, a burden that northern leaders did not share. As had Scott's army in 1847. [Major] General George B. McClellan's Army of the Potomac moved by sea in 1862 to the James River to strike directly, although unsuccessfully, against an enemy capital, in this case Richmond. Two years later, Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant directed the operations against Richmond of two Union armies, both supplied by sea.

The North also flexed its naval muscles along inland waters. Armor-clad gunboats fought their way south with army ground operations and safeguarded river routes that usually became major conduits for supply. In the critical battles fought along the Mississippi River, Union oceangoing and inland-water naval forces combined in a classic campaign to cut the Confederacy in two.

The victory of the North in the Civil War might have been expected to further cement the political position of pronaval forces in the United States. Union superiority on the seas had played a large role in assuring northern victory. Moreover, the quickening pace of technological change, epitomized in the May 1862 clash between the Confederate ironclad Virginia (actually the captured and rechristened Union Merrimack) and the Union ironbuilt Monitor, demonstrated that henceforth it would be increasingly difficult to create the jury-rigged naval forces that the United States had relied upon in its previous wars.

Nevertheless, after 1865 the U.S. Navy entered a generation-long period of decline. The reasons for the deterioration of the service were many. Americans, North and South, were tired of war and struggled to reconstruct the nation politically and socially. The Civil War had challenged the country's belief in preordained progress. Almost a generation would pass before Americans recovered from the conflict and began to shape a new national consensus.

There also were no obvious threats to the nation's security in the decades immediately following the Civil War. Once the French had been chased from Mexico, there existed no foreign peril. No European struggle threatened to spill across the Atlantic or onto the ocean that might endanger U.S. commerce. American merchants and missionaries continued their work abroad in an era of relative global security and order.

On distant stations the U. S . Navy recommenced its pre- 1861 roles and missions--commerce protection and support for diplomacy, likewise aimed at expanding U.S. markets. U.S. naval forces returned to the Mediterranean, the Pacific, the Indian Ocean, and the Persian Gulf. The ships of the navy were aging and not always gracefully. In addition, as the pace of technological change accelerated, the service fell even further behind the navies of Europe. By the 1870s, the U.S. Navy was a collection of antiquated, obsolescent men-of-war, notable for their quaintness rather than their prowess as warships.

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