by Dana Stefanelli, Assistant Editor
October 11, 2017
The 18th-century British navy ruled the waves, and George Washington’s Continental forces could not have hoped to win the Revolutionary War against such a power without the help of the French navy. Overshadowed in this narrative are Continental efforts to develop a fleet.
A nominal Continental navy was formed in 1775, but privateers sympathetic to the Revolutionary cause proved more effective. Financed by private citizens and authorized by various states, these vessels preyed on vulnerable British ships and distracted imperial officials. The celebrated victory of John Paul Jones in the Bonhomme Richard over the Serapis on Sept. 23, 1779, boosted Continental navy credibility and public morale. Certainly with undue optimism, the Continental government set about building a 74-gun warship, America. It was not completed, however, until 1782, when the war was winding down.
Early in the war, several states had tried to fill the vacuum by employing their own navies, apart from the privateers they authorized. Advocates for a true Continental navy–among them John Adams of Massachusetts, Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island, Samuel Chase of Maryland, and William Gadsden of South Carolina–generally represented states with significant sea-trade communities. Delegates from other states saw warship building as a wasteful extravagance, and too risky based on America’s long odds of success at sea.
Adams described a heated congressional debate on Oct. 5, 1775, over whether to send vessels to harass British armed ships. Advocates cited “the great Advantages of distressing the Ennemy, supplying ourselves, and beginning a System of maritime and naval Opperations,” while opponents characterized plans for American warships as “the most wild, visionary mad project that had ever been imagined. . . . an Infant, taking a mad Bull by his horns.” Ultimately, the delegates set into motion events that would culminate in the establishment of the Continental navy.2
When George Washington had assumed command of Continental forces in July 1775, he stood among those who believed that challenging British maritime supremacy would prove fruitless while draining resources and manpower from the land war. He modified his views after gaining a better sense of the threat the British posed by sea, as well as of the opportunities to disrupt the long British supply lines that ran between Great Britain and the states. On Oct. 5, 1775, the same day as the congressional debate over sending Continental ships to harass the British, he wrote to John Hancock, then president of Congress, that he had “directed 3 Vessels to be equipped in order to cut off the supplies” and concluded that with “the Number of Vessels hourly arriving it may become an object of some importance” to capture as many British supply ships as possible.3
Just a week later, Washington wrote again to Hancock about his hopes for capturing British ships: “Nothing shall be omitted to secure Success: a fortunate Capture of an Ordnance Ship would give new Life to the Camp, & and an immediate Turn to the Issue of this Campaign.”4 And only 10 days after that optimistic letter, Washington relayed to Hancock the extreme danger of letting British ships go unchallenged, describing British naval actions at Falmouth, Mass., as “an Outrage exceeding in Barbarity & Cruelty every hostile Act practised among civilized Nations.” Washington wrote that this would happen again if not prevented by fortifications and armed vessels: “it appears the same Desolation is meditatd upon all the Towns on the Coast.”5
For these two immediate reasons, then–the promise of captured weapons and other supplies (and the consequent loss of them to the British), and the fears of British attack by sea–Congress and George Washington initiated aggressive naval operations. Challenges to Continental naval efforts remained complex, and I anticipate exploring these complications in later blog posts. Still, it is important to know that even before the French navy’s decisive entry into the war, Continental ships were crucial to the Revolutionary cause.
- L. H. Butterfield, et al., eds. The Adams Papers, The Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, (Cambridge, Mass., 1961), 3:342–44.
- Ibid., 3:343, n. 9. See also note 6 to “From George Washington to Joseph Reed, Jan. 4, 1776,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-03-02-0016. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series 3:23–27.
- “From George Washington to John Hancock, Oct. 5, 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-02-02-0098-0001. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series 2:98–103.
- “From George Washington to John Hancock, Oct. 12, 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-02-02-0140-0001. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series 2:146–50.
- “From George Washington to John Hancock, Oct. 24, 1775,” Founders Online, National Archives, last modified June 29, 2017, http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-02-02-0210-0001. Also available in print: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series 2:227–28).