Back To CourseHistory 103: US History I
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Alexandra has taught students at every age level from pre-school through adult. She has a BSEd in English Education.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The assistance of foreign navies was critical to America's success in the war by diverting Britain's attention and resources away from the colonies. When France sailed for America in 1778, British General Howe decided to abandon his occupation of Philadelphia. French action in the West Indies was indecisive, but it drew off manpower from the war on land, and it interrupted the cash flow from the islands to England, as well as the flow of supplies into the colonies. Spain entered the war in 1780, laid siege to Gibraltar, and captured Florida, which England had occupied since the French and Indian War. In 1782, they captured the British naval base in the Bahamas. (The town of Galveston, Texas, is named for the Spanish naval commander of these actions, Bernardo de Gálvez.) The Dutch Navy started interfering with trade routes in the North Sea, further distracting the British from their main task of controlling the rebellious colonies.
France's navy was indispensable in bringing the Revolution to a close in the fall of 1781. In the Battle of the Chesapeake, one French fleet forced the British navy to retreat to New York, while a smaller force slipped into the Chesapeake Bay to effectively blockade the British Army. The British surrendered at Yorktown on October 19, 1781. It was the end of the war in North America, though naval engagements between the European powers continued for another two years.
The new United States decided it didn't need a standing navy after the war and decommissioned the little force. The great John Paul Jones spent the next decade in Europe, first as a diplomat collecting money owed to Americans, and later as an Admiral in the Russian Imperial Navy under Catherine the Great. He died, alone, in France, and due to the onset of the French Revolution he was buried in an unmarked grave. His remains were located and brought home to America in 1906, and even though he couldn't stop Congress from disbanding the Revolutionary fleet, John Paul Jones is still considered to be the founding father of the US Navy.
Naval operations in the American Revolution started shortly after the war had begun on land. Consisting largely of privateers, the Continental Navy concentrated its efforts on engaging English merchant ships. Their efforts helped supply the army and also impeded the arrival of British reinforcements. It was dangerous work, but higher pay kept the ships sailing throughout the war.
One of the most famous commanders was John Paul Jones, who captured three British warships and even launched an attack on an English village. His actions encouraged foreign navies to join the war, and soon the French, Spanish, and Dutch Navies were on America's side, diverting Britain's attention away from the colonies.
Two French fleets played key roles at the Battle of the Chesapeake, which led the British to surrender at Yorktown on October 19, 1781; however, the war continued on foreign seas for another two years. After the war, the American Navy was disbanded.
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Back To CourseHistory 103: US History I
13 chapters | 115 lessons | 5 flashcard sets