The years of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars were filled with rich opportunities and dangers for the United States. As a neutral, America's trade benefitted, but Old World powers challenged her position. France, our former ally, applied political, diplomatic, and military pressure to force the United States into a pro-French alignment. French seizure of over 300 ships led the Americans to respond with force in 1798, under the leadership of President John Adams and Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert.
On July 7, 1798, Congress rescinded treaties with France, and the Quasi War began. Also on that date, the U.S. Navy ship Delaware, commanded by Stephen Decatur, captured the French privateer, La Croyable, off Great Egg Harbor, New Jersey. During the next two-and-half years, an undeclared naval war was fought primarily in the West Indies. U.S. Navy frigates also ventured into the Far East where French armed vessels were disrupting American commerce. Dismasted during a storm, Congress sailed back to the United States, though Essex remained the course and recaptured a few American vessels and drove off ships in the region.
American warships, by defeating their equals and capturing more than 80 French vessels, gave the world a convincing demonstration that the U.S. Navy was a professional fighting force. The major engagements involved the frigate Constellation when she engaged the French frigate I'Insurgente in February 1799 and the French frigate La Vengeance in February 1800. The conflict also involved U.S. Marines on September 23, 1800, when they landed at Curacao, where the French were in possession of two forts. The sloops of war, Merrimack and Patapsco, landed Marines driving off the enemy within two days.
The Treaty of France, signed at Mortefontaine in September 1800, was ratified on February 3, 1801. During the conflict, the Navy grew from six vessels to about thirty commissioned ships. American Navy vessels had made prizes of approximately 85 French vessels. The experience built the Navy into a unified service protecting the American merchant fleet that previously didn't have protection besides weak armament onboard. Lessons gained from the Quasi-War with France would prove to be fruitful in the early 19th century with the first Barbary War, the War of 1812, and the second Barbary War.
Reestablishment of the Navy: 1787-1801
National Museum of the U.S. Navy: Forgotten Wars of the 19th Century exhibit