Prompted by a letter from George Washington, the Continental Congress voted on October 13, 1775, to arm two sailing vessels with carriage and swivel guns in the hope of intercepting British supplies—an event now celebrated as the birth of the Navy. Explore some surprising facts about the seafaring branch of the U.S. armed forces, from its humble beginnings during the Revolutionary War to its arrival as a world powerhouse.

Continental ship Columbus with captured British ship Long Lifford. (Credit: Naval Historical Center)
Continental ship Columbus with captured British ship Long Lifford. (Credit: Naval Historical Center)

1. George Washington was the father of the Navy.
Despite having virtually no experience at sea, Washington was a huge early proponent of the Navy, believing among other things that it would disrupt British supply lines. “It follows then as certain as that night succeeds the day, that without a decisive naval force we can do nothing definitive, and with it, everything honorable and glorious,” he wrote. Rather than wait for the Continental Congress to act, he used his authority as commander in chief of the Army to convert a small flotilla of fishing schooners into warships. The first of these, named Hannah after the wife of its owner, departed the Massachusetts coast in September 1775—over a month before the Continental Congress, upon being apprised of Washington’s activities, officially established the Navy. The Hannah has since entered into lore as the Navy’s founding vessel. Though it ran aground scarcely a month into service and was decommissioned, the rest of Washington’s flotilla fared better. All told, it captured 55 British ships by the time it dissolved in 1777.

John Paul Jones, an early commander in the Continental Navy. (U.S. Senate Historical Collection)
John Paul Jones, an early commander in the Continental Navy. (U.S. Senate Historical Collection)

2. The Navy was disbanded following the Revolutionary War.
The Continental Navy, state navies, Washington’s flotilla and privateers all battled the British during the Revolutionary War. But some notable victories aside—commander John Paul Jones, for instance, captured the frigate HMS Serapis after purportedly yelling, “I have not yet begun to fight!”—the American presence at sea was minimal compared to that of Britain’s all-powerful Royal Navy. By August 1781 the Continental Navy had shrunk to just two active warships. Luckily for the colonists, France had joined their side. In a major September 1781 naval battle, the French gained control of the Chesapeake Bay, thus paving the way for the British surrender at Yorktown the following month. With money tight and no clear reason to maintain them, the Continental Navy’s remaining ships were then sold or given away. The last to go, in 1785, was Alliance, a frigate that just two years earlier had participated in the final skirmish of the war off the Florida coast.

3. The Navy was brought back largely to fight pirates.
Without the protection of the Royal Navy, U.S. merchant ships began coming under attack from the so-called Barbary pirates of North Africa (which, in reality, were more like privateers). American sailors were seized and imprisoned in 1785 and then again in 1793. To secure both the release of these men and commercial access to the Mediterranean Sea, the United States agreed to pay tribute to the Barbary States. But not before Congress revived the Navy in 1794, authorizing the construction of six warships, including USS Constitution, which remains afloat to this day in Boston Harbor. In 1801 the ruler of Tripoli declared war as part of an attempt to extract increased tribute, and this time the Navy was sent in. Despite losing a 36-gun frigate that ran aground chasing a blockade runner, the Americans gained peace without tribute after capturing the port city of Derna in a daring 1805 raid. Hostilities with another Barbary State, Algiers, then broke out in 1815. In this Second Barbary War, a Navy squadron quickly defeated the opposing flagship and secured a lasting end to the Barbary practice of tribute and ransom. Meanwhile, over the same few decades, the Navy engaged the French in the Quasi-War (1798-1801), the British in the War of 1812 (1812-1815) and pirates in the Caribbean.

USS Constitution defeats HMS Guerriere during the War of 1812. (Credit: Naval Historical Center)
USS Constitution defeats HMS Guerriere during the War of 1812. (Credit: Naval Historical Center)

4. The Navy was outnumbered about 40 to 1 in the War of 1812.
At the start of the War of 1812, the U.S. Navy had only 16 seagoing warships at its disposal, compared to more than 600 on the British side. Even with most of the Royal Navy occupied fighting Napoleon in Europe, a stifling blockade of the Atlantic coast took shape. The U.S. Navy did manage to win some single-ship actions in the Atlantic. In trouncing HMS Guerriere, for example, USS Constitution earned the nickname “Old Ironsides” for the way opposing cannonballs supposedly bounced right off. Yet its main successes came inland. With African-Americans playing a big role—due to manpower shortages, a prohibition on black sailors had gone out the window—Navy squadrons blasted their way to control of strategically important Lake Erie and Lake Champlain.

5. The Navy (haphazardly) fought the slave trade even as slavery continued.
In 1807 Congress banned the importation of new slaves into the United States (though not slavery itself, which continued in the South). For the next 35 years, enforcement of this law was sporadic at best. The Navy rarely patrolled the west coast of Africa and only stopped vessels flying American flags. At the same time, other countries were denied permission to search suspected U.S. slavers. Finally, in 1842, the United States and Britain agreed to cooperate in suppressing the slave trade. A permanent U.S. Navy squadron was subsequently dispatched to Africa, yet even then it captured only 36 vessels in almost two decades of work. By comparison, the British detained several hundred vessels over the same time period. Critics accused the Navy’s leaders of failing to properly equip the squadron and southern-born officers of deliberately forsaking their duty.

6. The Navy produced six future presidents during World War II.
No president had ever served in the Navy until World War II, when it suddenly turned into a near prerequisite for reaching the White House. John F. Kennedy commanded a motor torpedo boat that was run over by a Japanese destroyer in the Solomon Islands; Lyndon B. Johnson was briefly stationed in New Zealand and Australia despite being a sitting member of Congress; Richard Nixon supervised air cargo operations; Gerald Ford served as an aircraft carrier’s assistant navigator and was nearly swept overboard in a typhoon; Jimmy Carter attended the Naval Academy (and became a submariner after the war); and George H.W. Bush flew 58 combat missions, including one in which he was shot down over the Pacific. In fact, from 1961 to 1993, the only non-Navy man to become president was Ronald Reagan.

The light aircraft cruiser USS Princeton under attack during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, 1944. (Credit: Naval Historical Center)
The light aircraft cruiser USS Princeton under attack during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, 1944. (Credit: Naval Historical Center)

7. The Navy won history’s largest maritime battle.
The Navy fought in numerous major confrontations during World War II, none more important than the Battle of Leyte Gulf—the largest naval clash ever in terms of ship tonnage (though probably not in terms of number of men or ships). After U.S. forces landed on the Philippine island of Leyte in October 1944, Japan responded by dispatching virtually every operational warship it had left. In four separate but related actions, four Japanese aircraft carriers, nine battleships, 19 cruisers, some three-dozen destroyers and hundreds of planes matched up against 32 American carriers, 12 battleships, 24 cruisers, more than 140 destroyers and some 1,500 planes. Both sides also had submarines and small auxiliary boats. In the end, the U.S. Navy repulsed the attack, giving it essentially undisputed command of the Pacific Ocean for the remainder of the war.

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