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John Paul Jones and the Naval Battles of the Revolutionary War

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  • 0:10 The Young Continental Navy
  • 2:12 A Sailor's Life
  • 4:26 John Paul Jones
  • 6:25 Foreign Intervention…
  • 8:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Alexandra Lutz

Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.

Naval battles in the American Revolution are something of a lost chapter in history. Find out about the world's first military submarine, the privateers of the Continental Navy, and the helpful actions of three foreign allies at sea.

The Young Continental Navy

Esek Hopkins led the U.S. Navy after its formation in 1775
Esek Hopkins

The first sea battle of the Revolution was like a scene from the movie Shrek, where townsmen armed with pitchforks, swords, and axes gave chase to a hated loyalist.

Rather than give in to the owner of a merchant fleet who refused to sell his supplies unless the town gave him wood to build soldiers' barracks in Boston, the townsmen of Machias, Maine, had plotted to arrest the owner and seize the ships' cargo; however, the crew had spotted the militia, fled to the safety of the British military escort, and set sail. After commandeering one of the merchant ships, the militia armed themselves as best they could and overtook the British Navy schooner. After ramming her side, 40 patriots boarded the enemy vessel, killed her commander, and took control of the ship. The Battle of Machias occurred on June 12, 1775.

The U.S. Navy was officially created later that year, on October 13th, under the command of Esek Hopkins, but the Commodore isn't nearly as famous as the flag he adopted. Named for its creator, the Gadsden Flag and its motto - 'Don't Tread on Me' - are recognizable even today as a symbol of patriotism. (Historians debate whether or not the related Navy Jack was also flown during the Revolution.)

When the Declaration of Independence was signed the following summer, the United States had just 31 ships. Some states had ships, which were added to the service, and Congress authorized the construction of many more throughout the war. The world's first military submarine was even built. Named the Turtle, the submersible could be fully maneuvered and was designed to attach explosives to the bottom of British ships in the harbors. Though the Turtle was documented as deploying twice, it never sank a ship.

To boost their maritime power, the Continental Congress and some states issued Letters of Marque to private ship owners, authorizing them to attack foreign ships during war. They were paid a percentage of the value they seized, so incentive was high. These commissioned private vessels were called privateers, and though their actions aren't well known, they played an important role in gaining independence.

A Sailor's Life

The Turtle was the first military submarine in the world
Turtle Submarine

But even with 2,000 Letters of Marque issued, America's Navy was still tiny, and with no ships of the line, it couldn't face off against the British fleet. What they could do was impede British troop and supply movement in the freshwater of the American continent, raid English colonies, and capture British merchant ships throughout the Atlantic, the Caribbean, and even English waters. By 1777, the American Navy brought in 2 million pounds of gunpowder and saltpeter. One privateer alone was responsible for capturing 1,000 British cannons from the high seas. Another privateer - in just one victory - supplied 2,000 guns, 31 tons of musket shot, 7,000 round shot for cannon, and other ammunition. Estimates vary widely, but Lloyd's of London suggests that Yankee privateers commandeered 2,208 British ships, valued at almost $66 million, at that time. If all those numbers seem a little overwhelming, it all adds up to this: the American Navy was pretty effective at capturing supplies from British merchant ships.

But seizing British ships did more than just bring in supplies. The Continental Navy kept an estimated 16,000 British soldiers and sailors out of battle, transported American diplomats and occasional troops, and helped defend several important cities - not to mention, more than a few personal fortunes were made.

It was dangerous work. Ships were constantly lost - at one point, only two were left in active service - and even if a sailor survived a losing battle, there was nowhere to run. Captured crew might be pressed into service for the Royal Navy or sent onto a prison ship. An estimated 8,000-11,000 prisoners of war died aboard these ships because of conditions, their bodies dumped into what is today the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The crew of one boat was kept on board in 3-foot high boxes for nearly two months while being transported to prison in England. But they were paid well for their service (the average salary was $9 per month), so the Navy didn't have trouble finding volunteers. Throughout the course of the war, about 55,000 Americans volunteered or were pressed into service onboard one of these boats, and out of all of them, one man stands out from the rest: John Paul Jones.

John Paul Jones

Born John Paul, the young Scotsman was apprenticed to a sailor at the age of 13, served on board many slaving missions, and earned his first command at the age of 21. He might have spent his entire life on board British merchant ships if not for a fateful trip to the Caribbean in which his crew mutinied. After killing one of the rebels, John Paul escaped to America in 1773 and added the surname Jones to avoid detection. He volunteered for naval service immediately when the war erupted in 1775. The following year, he defeated 16 British ships on a single mission.

Scotsman Jones became famous for his naval victories on behalf of the U.S.
John Paul Jones

Early in 1778, John Paul Jones commanded the first American ship to be formally recognized by the French, receiving a nine-gun salute. Jones then took the war to England's shores, attacking a seaside village in hopes of taking a hostage that could be exchanged for American prisoners of war. The voyage was unsuccessful, but the aggressive move caught the British off-guard and led him to His Majesty's Ship Drake, anchored nearby, which he successfully captured after barely an hour.

But Jones is perhaps most famous for his 1779 victory over His Majesty's Ship Serapis. When his ship's rigging became entangled, all but two of her guns were out of action, and with water pouring through several holes in the ship's hull, the British captain asked Jones if he was ready to surrender. He famously replied 'I have not yet begun to fight!' After hours of bloody hand-to-hand combat, the Serapis surrendered when a grenade exploded her ammunition. Though both the Serapis and the American ship were lost, Jones had still earned the surrender of a British warship and took Scarborough (an accompanying British ship) as a prize. This victory at sea was rivaled only by Washington's defeat of General Burgoyne in terms of garnering international attention to the conflict between Britain and her rebellious colonies.

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