U.S. Military History: Some U.S. Navy History

Ross Dunfee

Prior to the American Revolution, the colonies had no naval forces, but did have a large maritime population and many merchant vessels employed in domestic and foreign trade. That merchant service was familiar not only with the sea but also with warfare. On Oct. 13, 1775, the Continental Congress authorized the first Navy. On Dec. 22, the Navy had its first commander in chief, Esek Hopkins. Congress also named four captains, five first lieutenants (including John Paul Jones), and five second lieutenants. The fleet consisted of two 24-gun frigates (three square-rigged masts), two 14-gun brigs (two square-rigged masts), and three schooners (two fore-and-aft gaff-rigged masts); the Navy was born. During the Revolution, the Continental Navy successfully preyed on British merchant ships and won many victories over British warships. The Continental Navy was disbanded in 1785, after the Revolutionary War, and reestablished by the U.S. Congress with President John Adams signing the act on April 30, 1798.

Early in U.S. history, U.S. merchant ships were plagued by the Barbary Coast (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Tripoli [now Libya]) pirates (corsairs). The pirates extracted tribute from the European nations (who could afford the ransom) and other nations (who could not afford the ransom) for safe passage in the Mediterranean Sea. Prior to 1783, the colonies, as part of the British Empire, were protected from the piracy. After 1783, U.S. merchant ships became easy prey for the pirates, and Americans were imprisoned in Algeria. Would the U.S. pay tribute to the pirates and free the Americans placed in hard labor, or would the U.S. challenge the Barbary corsairs? President Washington’s Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson reported that there were three options: one, pay tribute; two, leave the Mediterranean; or three, build a Navy.

With much trepidation, President Washington persuaded the Congress on March 27, 1794, to construct six frigates. Because the Treaty of Tripoli was signed Nov. 4, 1796, only three frigates were initially built and launched in 1797: the United States, the Constellation, and the Constitution. To cope with cost controls and material supplies, Congress formed the Department of the Navy on April 30, 1798. After feuding with France, the final three frigates were completed and launched in 1799 and 1800: the Congress, the Chesapeake, and the President. The USS Constitution, still commissioned, floating in Boston Harbor, and open for tours, is the oldest commissioned warship in the world.

By 1801, negotiations had failed with Tripoli and tensions became heated when Tripoli declared war with the U.S. The Barbary pirates captured America’s best fighting ship, the Philadelphia, on Oct. 31, 1803, and 300 U.S. sailors were placed in Tripolitan prisons. The rest of the story includes two wars with the pirates (1801–1805 and 1815–1816); our first Naval war hero, Steven Decatur (the youngest ever commissioned captain, age 25); a late-night raid to destroy the Philadelphia; hand-to-hand combat; and a duel at eight paces—stuff novels are written about. The need for a Navy had been proven.

Support Our Troops–Arizona (SOT–AZ) proudly honors our U.S. sailors and all members of the military by placing U.S. flags along the principal roadways in Robson Ranch during dedicated events each year. Visit supportourtroopsaz.org to learn more about SOT–AZ.