From the time the first pilgrims and settlers arrived on America’s shores, sailing and shops played a very important part of everyday life. Colonies sprung up along over 1,000 miles of coast and the main form of communication and trade was carried out by ships. A number of merchants owned and fitted out their own fleet of ships used for trading across the Atlantic and in the West Indies.
In many of the colonies, especially those of the northeast, fishing was also a very important part of life and supply of food, and only the heartiest and best sailors could manage the wild seas off the northeast US and Canada.
After the signing of the treaty that ended the French-Indian War, Great Britain turned their attention to the American colonies in hopes of suppressing them into paying off their massive war debts. Between various taxes and shipping restrictions, many colonists began to rebel.
While most people think that the people of Boston were among those who first rebelled, they may be surprised to learn that Rhode Islanders were among the first to take action against the British.
In 1764, Rhode Island fired upon the British schooner St. John.
In 1769, the residents of Newport, Rhode Island grew so upset over the oppression of the British that they seized and burned the British armed sloop Liberty.
In 1772, the British schooner Gaspee, had been stopping and searching American ships sailing in and out of Rhode Island, greatly aggravating many Rhode islanders. When the Gaspee ran aground on June 9, 1772, a number of men from Providence, rowed out to the grounded ship in the dark and captured it, wounding the ship’s captain. The men removed all British prisoners and everything of value from the Gaspee and then set it ablaze.
On April 29, 1775, the schooner Quero, captained by John Derby, was dispatched as perhaps one of the first public service voyages from the colonies. The Quero set sail from Salem, Massachusetts with news about the battle at Lexington. Even though the Quero set sail two weeks after British ships set sail with news, she arrived in England before them.
On June 12, 1775, the first navy officially commissioned in the American colonies was the Rhode Island Navy. It was commissioned to have armed ships tasked with actively fighting against the British oppression.
On this day, October 13, 1775, the Continental Congress officially established the Continental Navy to help in their war for independence against Great Britain. Today’s US Navy recognizes this date as their official birthday.
On September 23, 1779, John Paul Jones won a decisive naval battle against the British far from American shores. Jones was commander of the Bonhomme Richard and was involved in the Battle of Flamborough in the North Sea. When the British captain of the HMS Serapis asked Jones to surrender, he replied with his now famous response:
“I have not yet begun to fight.”
The battle raged on and Jones proved victorious over the British and won the victory. Many consider Jones as the Father of the US Navy and ironically, he is often referred to as the Father of Russian Navy as well.
In the latter days of the Revolutionary War, most of the crew aboard Continental Navy ships were Citizen Sailors, which is considered to be the foundation of today’s Navy Reserve. In many instances, they were no match against the experienced and professional British Navy, but with the help of the French and their ships, we began to gain an upper hand and started sinking a number of British ships and ending their blockade of the colonies.
On March 27, 1794, Congress passed the Naval Act due to the increased threat of piracy. The act commissioned the construction of 6 new warships, one of which was the USS Constitution, also known as Old Ironsides because of how so many cannon balls bounced off the hull during the battle with the British ship, HMS Guerriere on August 19, 1812. The USS Constitution is the oldest commissioned ship of the US Navy still afloat. It is still listed as ‘active duty’ serving as a special duty historical museum.
On April 30, 1798, the Department of The Navy is formed. One of the main reasons for the formation of the new department was over how the Department of War handled the Quasi-War with France.
During the War of 1812, British ships outnumbered American ships 50-to-1, but many American ships held their own and won a number of victories, including control of the Mississippi River.
On June 1, 1813, the famous line ‘Don’t give up the ship’ were uttered by American Captain James Lawrence of the USS Chesapeake during a battle with the HMS Shannon. Lawrence was fatally wounded in the battle and spoke these works to his officers and crew who went on to victory, capturing the Shannon. Lawrence’s words are an important part of Navy lore and have been repeated countless times since.
On September 10, 1813, the US Navy won one of its most important battles, but it was not fought at sea. Commandant Perry and his fleet of American ships defeated the British on Lake Erie. This victory played an important role in the British ceding over control of Detroit and the Great Lakes to America.
Between 1846-1848, the US Navy plays an important role during the Mexican-American War. They placed a very successful blockade around Mexico which helped capture California from Mexico.
The US Navy has played an important role in every war the United States has been engaged in.
Sources for the above includes: Today, October 10, 1845: US Naval Academy Opens; Navy Timeline; Continental Navy Established; Continental Congress Authorizes First Naval Force; American Independence and the Naval Factor; Continental Navy; A Naval History of the American Revolution: Chapter I; A Naval History of the American Revolution: Chapter II