The Continental Navy was formed during the American Revolution in 1775. Through the efforts of the Continental Navy's apparent patron, John Adams and vigorous Congressional support in the face of stiff opposition, the fleet cumulatively became relatively substantial when considering the limitations imposed upon the Patriot supply pool.
The main goal of the navy was to intercept shipments of British war matériel and generally disrupt British maritime commercial operations. Because of the lack of funding, manpower and resources, the initial fleet consisted of converted merchantmen, with exclusively-designed warships being built later in the conflict. Of the vessels that successfully made it to sea, their success was rare and the effort contributed little to the overall outcome of the rebellion.
The fleet did serve to highlight a few examples of Continental resolve, notably launching Captain John Paul Jones into the limelight. It provided needed experience for a generation of officers who would later go on to command future conflicts which involved the early American navy.
With the war over and the Federal government in high demand of all available capital, the final vessel of the Continental Navy was auctioned off in 1785 to a private bidder, thus ending the duration of the Continental Navy.
The original intent was to intercept the supply of arms and provisions to British soldiers, who had placed Boston under martial law. George Washington had already informed Congress that he had assumed command of several ships for this purpose, and individual governments of various colonies had outfitted their own warships. The first formal movement for a navy came from Rhode Island, whose State Assembly passed on August 26, 1775, a resolution instructing its delegates to Congress to introduce legislation calling "for building at the Continental expense a fleet of sufficient force, for the protection of these colonies, and for employing them in such a manner and places as will most effectively annoy our enemies..." The measure in the Continental Congress was met with much derision, especially on the part of Maryland delegate Samuel Chase who exclaimed it to be "the maddest idea in the world." John Adams later recalled, "The opposition...was very loud and vehement. It was...represented as the most wild, visionary, mad project that had ever been imagined. It was an infant taking a mad bull by his horns."
But during this time, the issue arose of Quebec-bound British supply ships carrying desperately needed provisions that could otherwise benefit the Continental Army. The Continental Congress appointed John Adams, Silas Deane, and John Langdon to draft a plan to seize ships from the convoy in question.
On October 13, 1775, Congress authorized the building of the first vessels of the Continental Navy, literally the birth of the US Navy as it is considered officially.
By the end of October, Congress authorized the purchase and outfitting of four armed vessels. Soon a Naval Committee was formed which quickly purchased merchantmen and oversaw their proper outfitting and readying for combat. Regulations were drafted by John Adams and adopted November 28, 1775. When it came to selecting commanders for ships, Congress tended to be split evenly between merit and patronage. Among those who were selected for political reasons were Esek Hopkins, Dudley Saltonstall, and Esek Hopkins' son, John Burroughs Hopkins. However, Abraham Whipple, Nicholas Biddle, and John Paul Jones managed to be appointed with backgrounds in marine warfare.
On December 3, the (24), (14), (14), and (24) were commissioned. On December 22, 1775, Esek Hopkins was appointed the naval commander-in-chief, and officers of the navy were commissioned. With this small fleet, complemented by the (12), and (8), and (10), Hopkins led the first major naval action of the Continental Navy, in early March 1776, against Nassau, Bahamas, where stores of much-needed gunpowder were seized for the use of the Continental Army. However, success was diluted with the appearance of disease spreading from ship to ship. On April 6, 1776 the squadron, with the addition of the (8) unsuccessfully encountered the 20-gun in the first major sea battle of the Continental Navy. Hopkins failed to give any substantive orders other than the order to recall the fleet from the engagement, a move which Captain Nicholas Biddle described as, "away we all went helter, skelter, one flying here, another there."
By December 13, 1775 Congress had authorized the construction of 13 new frigates, rather than refitting merchantmen to increase the fleet. Five ships (Hancock, Raleigh, Randolph, Warren, and Washington) were to be rated 32 guns, five (Effingham, Montgomery, Providence, Trumble, and Virginia) 28 guns, and three (Boston, Congress, and Delaware) 24 guns. Of the eight frigates that made it to sea, all were captured or sunk.
Washington, Effingham, Congress, and Montgomery were scuttled or burned in October and November 1777 before going to sea to prevent their capture by the British. , commanded by Captain James Nicholson, made a number of unsuccessful attempts to break through the blockade of Chesapeake Bay. On March 31, 1778, in another attempt, she ran aground near Hampton Roads, where her captain went ashore. Shortly after, and appeared on the scene to accept her surrender.
Guarding American commerce and raiding British commerce and supply were the principal duties of the Continental Navy. Much of its accomplishments is recorded as prizes taken in commerce raiding, which, as was the practice of the time, brought personal gain to officers and crew.
Most of the eight frigates that went to sea took multiple prizes and had semi-successful cruises before their captures, however there were exceptions. On September 27, 1777, participated in a delaying action on the Delaware River against the British army pursuing George Washington's forces. The ebb tide arrived and left the Delaware stranded, leading to her capture. was blockaded in Providence, Rhode Island, shortly after her completion, and did not break out of the blockade until March 8, 1778. After a successful cruise under Captain John Burroughs Hopkins, she was assigned to the ill-fated Penobscot Expedition under Captain Dudley Saltonstall, where she was trapped by the British and burned on August 15, 1779 to prevent her capture. , captained by John Manley, managed to capture two merchantmen as well as the Royal Navy vessel . Later on July 8, 1777, however, the Hancock was captured by HMS Rainbow of a pursuing squadron, and became the British man of war Iris. took five prizes in her early cruises. In March 7, 1778, she was escorting a convoy of merchantmen when the British 64-gun ship bore down on the convoy. Randolph, under the command of Captain Nicholas Biddle came to the defense of the merchantmen and engaged the heavily superior foe. In the ensuing engagement, the two ships were both severely manhandled but in the course of the action, the magazine of the Randolph exploded causing the destruction of the entire vessel and all but four of her crew. The falling debris from the explosion severely damaged the Yarmouth enough that she could no longer pursue the American ships.
, under the command of Captain John Barry, captured three prizes before being run aground in action on September 27, 1778. Her crew scuttled her, but she was raised by the British who refloated her for further use in the name of the Crown. , under the command of Captains Hector McNeill and Samuel Tucker, had captured 17 prizes in earlier cruises, and had carried John Adams to France in February and March 1778. She was captured (along with the frigate who had taken 14 prizes in her own service under Captain Abraham Whipple) in the fall of Charleston, South Carolina on May 12, 1780.
The final frigate to meet her end of Continental service was the . Trumbull, which had not gone to sea until September 1779 under James Nicholson, had gained acclaim in bloody action against the Letter of Marque Watt. On August 28, 1781, she met HMS Iris and General Monk and engaged. In the action, Trumbull was forced to surrender to the former American naval vessels (the General Monk was the captured Rhode Island privateer General Washington, itself recaptured in April 1782 and placed in service with the Continental Navy).
Before the Franco-American Alliance, the royalist French government attempted to maintain a state of respectful neutrality during the Revolutionary War. That being said, the nation maintained neutrality at face value, often openly harboring Continental vessels and supplying to their needs.
With the presence of American diplomats Benjamin Franklin and Silas Deane, the Continental Navy gained a permanent link to French affairs. Through Franklin and likeminded agents, Continental officers were afforded the ability to receive commissions, survey, and purchase prospective ships for military use.
Early in the conflict, Captains Lambert Wickes and Gustavus Conyngham operated out of various French ports for the purpose of commerce raiding. The French did attempt to enforce her neutrality by seizing and . However, with the commencement of the official alliance in 1778, ports were officially open to Continental ships.
The most prominent Continental officer to operate out of France was Captain John Paul Jones. Jones had been preying upon British commerce aboard the but only now saw the opportunity for higher command. The French loaned Jones the merchantman, Duc de Duras, which Jones refitted and renamed as a more powerful replacement for the Ranger. In August 1779, Jones was given command of a squadron of vessels of both American and French ownership. The goal was not only to harass British commerce but also to prospectively land 1500 French regulars in the lightly guarded western regions of Britain. Unfortunately for the ambitious Jones, the French pulled out of the agreement pertaining to an invasion force, but the French did manage to uphold the plan regarding his command of the naval squadron. Sailing in a clockwise fashion around Ireland and down the east coast of Britain, the squadron captured a number of merchantmen. The French commander Landais decided early on in the expedition to retain control of the French ships, thereby often leaving and rejoining the effort when he felt it was fortuitous.
On September 23, 1779, Jones' squadron was off Flamborough Head when the British men-of-war and bore down on the Franco-American force. The lone Continental frigate, Bonhomme Richard engaged the Serapis. In a particularly bloody, destructive fight, the English captain called out to inquire if the Bonhomme Richard had struck her colors. Jones cried out, "I have not yet begun to fight!" Upon raking the Serapis, the crew of the Bonhomme Richard led by Jones boarded the English ship and captured her. Likewise, the French frigate Pallas captured her prize the Countess of Scarborough. Two days later, the Bonhomme Richard sank from the overwhelming amount of shock she took from the struggle.
The action stuck out as an embarrassing defeat for the Royal Navy, who suffered the capture of two of her vessels in her own home waters.
In a like fashion, the French loaned the Continental Navy the use of the corvette . The one ship of the line built for service in the Continental Navy, the 74-gun , was instead offered as a gift to France on September 3, 1782 in compensation for the loss of Le Magnifique in service to the American Revolution.
With the close of the war, Congress was desperate for funds to run the fledgling nation. In response to the financial crisis, Congress considered ending the Continental Navy's existence. One of the justifying factors was the insistence that an extended US Navy would only serve to involve America in foreign conflicts. Furthermore, the cost of maintaining a standing navy placed an additional drain on the limited revenues the Congress was able to raise.
On August 1, 1785 the financially strapped Congress auctioned off the last remaining Continental Navy vessel, , for $26,000.
The Continental Navy saw defeat in many ventures it undertook. Of the appoximately 65 vessels (new, converted, chartered, loaned, and captured) that served at one time or another with the Continental Navy, only 11 survived the war without having been destroyed, sunk, or captured. The Continental Navy posed no significant threat to Royal Navy supremacy and did little to alter the course of the war. The Continental Navy did, however, keep up American morale and spirit as the war dragged on, adding to the hope that one day the 13 Colonies would emerge successful from their struggle.