COMMENTARY: Continental Navy helped Americans win Revolution

While the exploits of the Continental Army in defeating England to gain independence are well-known, the activities and accomplishments of the Continental Navy are largely ignored. The anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence affords the opportunity to review America’s military performance in a more comprehensive manner than usual.

Initially, one must be careful not to confuse the Continental Navy with the subsequent establishment of the U.S. Navy under the Constitution. While the former was certainly a precursor of the latter, that is where the linkage ends.

The Continental Navy was in fact a combination of maritime resources, not a single or cohesive unit. For instance, while the Continental Congress approved several resolutions in late 1775 to create a naval force and fund construction of a dozen ships, that was only part of the complete maritime arsenal.

Privateers — American craft not officially part of the military — were invaluable to the pursuit of freedom, particularly when those who commanded them were incentivized by letters of marquis and reprisal authorized by the Continental Congress.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff

Additionally, nations which eventually allied with the Americans against the British likewise contributed to the Continental Navy, including Spain, France, and the Netherlands. Finally, most American states had some form of naval organization, and some states’ maritime resources rivaled that provided by the Continental Congress.

Those American officers who received naval commissions played a pivotal role in formulating and executing a successful naval strategy for defeating the British. The first and only commander-in-chief of the Continental Navy was Esek Hopkins, a well-connected Rhode Islander whose brother signed the Declaration of Independence.

Though later suspended and removed from his post, Hopkins led a naval assault on British territory in the Bahamas, which gave the Americans hope and momentum. The list of those persons commissioned as captains in the Continental Navy included John Berry, Nicholas Biddle, and John Paul Jones among others.

As the Revolutionary War progressed, victories in naval battles involving Americans became more commonplace, a startling development given Britain’s global naval power. To wit, the USS Franklin schooner captured the British transport HMS Hope off the Massachusetts coast in 1776; the USS Ranger commanded by John Paul Jones captured the British sloop HMS Drake along Ireland’s coast in 1778; the American sloop USS Argo captured British privateer and merchant vessels in 1779; the American frigate Protector sank the British privateer Admiral Duff off the Newfoundland coast in 1780; and the USS Alliance frigate forced surrender of two British sloops in 1781.

Just as the Continental Army remained intact for two years after Britain’s surrender to combined American-French forces at Yorktown in 1781, so did the Continental and state naval forces. In fact, Pennsylvania’s naval sloop Hyder Ally fought and captured a British sloop and Tory privateer in 1782, while a Continental frigate and sloop fought off a British squadron near Cuba in 1783 in what is considered the last naval engagement of the American Revolution.

Associated with America’s naval exploits in the War for Independence was the first use of a submarine in combat. Although invented in the 17th century, the initial utilization of a sub took place in 1776, when the donated contraption named the Turtle was employed in an attempt to plant time bombs on British ships.

Shortly after the American Revolution began in earnest, the debate raged in the Continental Congress over how the war should be waged and what resources should be committed to the conflict. Luckily for the American cause, patriots like John Adams observed that no land holdings near the sea could be safe without an effective naval force. Because of their foresight and follow-through, a long-colonized populace won the right to govern as a free nation.

Dr. Samuel B. Hoff is George Washington Distinguished Professor of History and Political Science and Law Studies Director at Delaware State University. In 2015, Dr. Hoff was awarded honorary membership in the Delaware State Society of the Cincinnati, becoming the sixth person so recognized; he was granted full membership in the national society the following year. He is a past recipient of a military history fellowship from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and served as ROTC Director at DSU from 1993-1999.

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