Prior to the onset of the American Revolution, the original 13 colonies had no real naval force other than an abundance of merchant vessels that were engaged in domestic and foreign trade. The colonies' merchant service had vast experience with the open sea and with warfare, which included British naval expeditions against Cartagena, Spain, and Nova Scotia during the nine years of war with France (1754–1763). Thus, the importance of naval power was recognized early in the conflict. On 13 October 1775, the Continental Congress authorized the creation of the Continental Navy, and established the U.S. Marine Corps on 10 November. By 1776, the colonies had 27 warships—in contrast to the powerful Royal British Navy, which had about 270 warships. Also problematic was that American commanders were often confronted by sailors and Marines who had not been adequately trained and lacked discipline.
Despite the overwhelming odds, the Continental Navy had some early successes. On 17 February 1776, Esek Hopkins’ fleet attacked a British colony in the Bahamas. During the raid, they captured a large number of guns and ammunition, and took the governor and lieutenant governor prisoner. It was the first amphibious assault by U.S. Marines and sailors. The fleet also captured two British vessels. Other Continental Navy captains, such as Lambert Wickes, Gustavus Conyngham, and John Barry, also enjoyed successes. However, it was John Paul Jones who was especially notable. As captain of Ranger, Jones captured British man-of-war Drake, and as captain of Bonhomme Richard, defeated British frigate Serapis in one of the longest and bloodiest battles of the American Revolution.
The most damaging aspect of the naval war for the British was the attackss by American privateers on British shipping. Before the war, colonial ships traveled the seas armed to protect themselves against pirates, and when the war broke out, considerable numbers of merchant vessels were converted to armed privateers. The practice continued until the war ended. Although records are incomplete, it is estimated that over the course of the war there were more than 2,000 privately armed vessels, carrying more than 18,000 guns, with some 70,000 men. In addition, several of the colonies organized state navies that also preyed on British commerce. Together with the few Continental Navy ships, they constituted the only sustained American naval pressure brought to bear on the British. By the end of 1777, American ships had taken more than 500 British vessels, and by the end of the war, had seized around 1,500. More than 12,000 British sailors were also taken as prisoners of war. British marine insurance rates rose to unprecedented levels, and British coastal populations feared an American and—once they became American allies—French, Spanish, and Dutch invasions. By 1781, British merchants appealed to the Crown for an end to hostilities.
Most of the American naval actions during the war occurred on the open sea. The significant exceptions were Benedict Arnold’s battles on Lake Champlain on 11 October 1776, and two days later, off Split Rock, New York. Although Arnold lost both battles, his construction of a fleet of tiny vessels, mostly oar-powered gondolas and galleys, forced the British to build a fleet to counter them. This, in turn, delayed the British attack on Fort Ticonderoga. The delay also had a significant longer-term impact on the British campaign leading up to the 1777 Battle of Saratoga.
The entrance of France and Spain into the war in 1779, followed by the Netherlands in 1780, changed the nature of the naval element of the conflict. The Spanish and Dutch were not particularly active, but they did keep British naval forces tied down in Europe. As Royal Navy vessels were often neither adequately modern nor sufficient in numbers, the British had already encountered difficulties blockading American ports. This mission was now expanded to the coasts of much of continental Europe, the Caribbean, and to European colonies in southeast and south Asia, dangerously stretching British naval capacity. However, despite periodic French and Spanish naval superiority in the English Channel, threat of possible invasion, and loss of several British islands in the West Indies, Britain managed to maintain naval superiority on the North American seaboard for most of 1779 and 1780, enabling their land campaigns in the southern colonies. They also reinforced Gibraltar, which the Spaniards had besieged in the fall of 1779, and sent a fleet under Admiral Sir George Rodney to the West Indies in early 1780.
While Rodney was in the West Indies, a French squadron slipped out of Brest, France, and sailed to Newport, Rhode Island, landing General Marshal Jean-Baptiste Rochambeau’s army there. Rodney allowed himself to become tied down in the West Indies for nearly six months, in which time a French fleet was able to slip out of Brest and sail for the Caribbean. From there, a squadron commanded by Admiral François-Joseph-Paul de Grasse subsequently set sail for the American colonies.
To counter De Grasse, Rodney dispatched Admiral Samuel Hood north with a portion of his forces while he sailed for England, mistakenly taken with him several formidable ships. Soon after Hood’s fleet dropped anchor in New York, the French made their landfall in the Chesapeake Bay. On 5 September 1781, the Battle of Virginia Capes (also known as the Battle of the Chesapeake) ensued between De Grasse’s and Hood’s forces. The battle was strategically decisive in that it prevented the Royal Navy from reinforcing or evacuating the besieged British forces at Yorktown, Virginia. The French were able to main control of the sea lanes and provided the Washington and Rochambeau’s Franco-American army with artillery and reinforcements. These proved decisive in the defeat of the British forces under General Lord Charles Cornwallis. The American victory at Yorktown was instrumental in securing independence for the Colonies. Preliminary articles of peace were signed on 30 November 1782, and the Peace of Paris (3 September 1783) officially ended the American Revolution. Great Britain recognized the independence of the United States (with western boundaries to the Mississippi River) and ceded Florida to Spain.
Naval History and Heritage Command presents the first 13 volumes of its award-winning series Naval Documents of the American Revolution. The volumes contain more than 16,000 pages of authentic words through diaries, letters, petitions, and ship logs, as well as muster rolls, orders, official reports, and newspaper accounts. The collection includes American, British, French, and Spanish points of view and gives voice to common seamen, civilians, women, and slaves, as well as policy makers, political leaders, and naval and military officers.
NHHC’s predecessor organization, the Naval History Division, published the first volume in 1964. It includes a foreword by President John F. Kennedy. Succeeding volumes include forewords by President’s Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush. William B. Clark, Dr. William J. Morgan, and Dr. William Dudley preceded Dr. Michael J. Crawford as editors of the series. NHHC produced Volume 13 in 2019.