American naval history

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American naval history is the history of the U.S. Navy since 1775.

American Revolution

see American Revolution


The Continental Navy was founded on 13 October 1775, in part to aid General George Washington in his siege of Boston during the American Revolution; Congress funded two warships of 10 guns each, while Washington funded a third, larger ship (named Alfred). The Continental Navy during the Revolutionary Period achieved marked successes, but was disbanded at war's end, with all of its vessels sold or scrapped.

The Navy was created to fight the American Revolution on October 13, 1775, when the Continental Congress voted to fit out two sailing vessels, armed with ten carriage guns, as well as swivel guns, and manned by crews of eighty, and to send them out on a cruise of three months to intercept transports carrying munitions and stores to the British army in America. The Royal Navy was so powerful it blockaded the American coast and moved the British army from point to point at will. The American Navy's role was to attack British shipping, while avoiding direct combat. John Paul Jones, briefly an officer in the American Navy, gained fame with his astonishing victory in the "Bonhomme Richard" over the British frigate "Serapis" (Sept. 23, 1779), Jones however never received another ship and joined the Russian navy.[1] Of twenty-seven small men-of-war at sea, only three survived hard fighting and cruising.

Several states operated their own navies—the Massachusetts fleet led by Captain Dudley Saltonstall (called commodore while commanding a fleet) with 18 ships attacked a British outpost at Penobscot Bay in Maine in 1779; it was trapped and destroyed as the sailors fled and the ships were all burned or captured.[2]

The national and state navies and the privateers flying the American flag brought in about 800 prizes, whose cargoes were indispensable to the cause, especially before 1779 when the French alliance and sea power became effective. They captured 102 minor British warships mounting 2,322 guns, besides 16 privateers with 226 guns. It was the French navy that was decisive, by defeating the Royal Navy off Yorktown in October 1781 it forced the surrender of besieged General Charles Cornwallis and his entire army.

The national and state navies were disbanded in 1783 and the privateers went back to the merchant trade.

New Nation: 1789-1860

The War Department was created in 1789 and handled naval affairs. The Federalist Party, especially under John Adams favored the Navy and created the cabinet-level Department of the Navy in 1798. On 27 March 1794 a Naval Act [1] was passed by Congress, and on 30 April 1798 the Department of the Navy was established in response to protect American shipping from the depredations of the Barbary States in the Mediterranean.


The Marines originated in 1775, when two battalions of men were raised for continental service; it was deactivated in 1783. The Marine Corps was reactivated by Congress on July 11, 1798, within the new Navy Department.


Designed by Joshua Humphreys, three heavy frigates of 44 guns and three light frigates of 36 guns were the first ships of the United States Navy:


Benjamin Stoddert was the first secretary and directed operations during the "Quasi-War", the undeclared naval war with France (1798-1800). The Navy started with twelve frigates and sloops to protect trade in the West Indies against French privateers; many American privateers operated against the French as well, but they were not coordinated by the Navy. The Navy expanded to 49 warships through the conversion of merchantmen. Three French warships and eighty-one French privateers were captured; Thomas Truxtun was the outstanding captain.


The Jeffersonian Republicans opposed having a navy as elitist. Thomas Jefferson became president in 1801 and halted construction on eight 74-gun ships that Stoddert had started and put in place the strategy of defending American harbors by 176 small gunboats. Stephen Decatur led successful expeditions against the Barbary pirates during the Barbary Wars (1801-1805; 1815) fought between the United States and Morocco, Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli; but he was also famed for his defeat and capture of the British frigate "Macedonian" in the War of 1812.

War of 1812

In the War of 1812 the British held naval supremacy on the high seas, and blockaded the East Coast, shutting down American commerce. The main contest was building ships for supremacy on the Great Lakes. The British won the race on Lake Ontario and the Americans won on Lake Erie and Lake Champlain. The result was the defeat of the Indian allies of the British, who depended on British aid coming through Lake Erie. The defeat of the British on Lake Champlain in 1814 ended a major invasion of New York.

Jefferson's gunboat strategy proved a failure as the British landed forces behind the ports and captured them overland.

Numerous one-on-one engagements became famous for their courage, if not for their importance. One took place between the U.S.S. Constitution ("Old Ironsides"), commanded by Capt. Isaac Hull, and the British frigate Guerrière, culminating in a brilliant U.S. victory (August 19, 1812). The Navy lost 12 ships and captured 15 minor warships and 165 merchantmen. The privateers took an additional 991 British merchantmen and 5 small men-of-war.

More important was gaining control of Lake Erie and with it the western frontier. That was the achievement of the Battle of Lake Erie (Sept. 10, 1813) when the U.S. fleet, in command of Oliver Hazard Perry, was attacked by a larger British naval force. Perry's guns had longer range which decided the victory. Perry's decisive victory gave the U.S. control of Lake Erie, precluded a British invasion of the Ohio Valley, and permitted an American attack upon upper Canada. It also marked the first time in history in which Britain lost an entire naval squadron by surrendering. Capt. Thomas Macdonough's victory on Lake Champlain (Sept. 11, 1814) halted a British invasion of New York. Lacking naval supremacy the British turned around and marched home.


The Algerian War (1815), suppression of West Indian pirates (1816–29), and antislavery patrols (1820–50) provided training for the Mexican-American War of 1846–48. Mexico lacked a navy so the unchallenged American the navy of 63 warships vessels conducted blockade and amphibious operations, the latter destined to become an American specialty. Captains John Sloat and Robert Stockton helped secure California. Captains David Conner and Matthew Perry commanded the bulk of the fleet in the Gulf of Mexico, making possible the transportation to, and landing at, Veracruz (Mar. 13, 1847) and maintenance of the logistics lifeline for Gen. Winfield Scott's triumphal march to capture Mexico City.

In 1815 the Board of Navy Commissioners, consisting of three senior officers, was created to provide technical advice to the department regarding naval technology, naval operations being excluded from its purview. In 1842 an organization of technical bureaus was instituted, including bureaus for the Navy Yards and Docks; Construction, Equipment, and Repairs; Provisions and Clothing; Ordnance and Hydrography; and Medicine and Surgery.

The Navy professionalized the officer corps, with the Naval Academy (1854). It experimented with steam propulsion and sponsored overseas explorations, notably the Pacific expedition (1838-1842) of Lieutenant Charles Wilkes. In the Mexican War (1846-1848) the Navy transported troops, participated in amphibious assaults, and blockaded the Mexican coast. The Navy's most dramatic exploit was the "opening" of Japan by Commodore Matthew C. Perry without bloodshed in 1854

Prior to the Civil War, the small number of U.S. warships did not justify having admirals, the naval equivalent of generals. The highest rank was that of captain, equal to an army colonel. As a practical matter when two or more vessels operated together, the senior captain temporarily assumed the flag-pendant and title of commodore, an honorary title equal to brigadier general. At the onset of the Barbary War, Thomas Truxtun, hero-leader in the Quasi-War with France, sought to make the rank of commodore permanent, but was forced into retirement for presumed pretensions.

Civil War

see Union Blockade


The naval war was entirely one-sided affair, as the Union built hundreds of gunboats that took control of the southern river system, as well as ships to blockade the southern ports. 95% of Southern exports were shut down as well as the usual coastal and river trade, The British were neutral officially but they built and operated a fleet of blockade runners that shipped munitions and luxuries into the South and bringing out a little cotton and tobacco.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, the North controlled most of the ships, officers, seamen, and shipyards. Gideon Welles, the U.S. secretary of the navy, had only 8,800 personnel and 42 warships, only 23 of which were steam ships.

By 1865 the Union navy had mushroomed to 58,000 sailors in 671 vessels. In action, 34 warships were sunk conventionally and 14 by mines, while 16 were captured. The blockade involved little fighting but did capture or destroy 1500 blockade runners; operations in bad weather cost 38 warships. including the famous "Monitor". Seven more burned accidentally.

Lingering republican abhorrence for aristocratic titles led to the invention of the ambiguous title "flag officer" for the first year of the Civil War. It was unsatisfactory for senior naval officers cooperating with army leaders holding clear-cut and traditional general ranks. On July 16, 1862, Congress established the ranks of rear admiral (two-star flag and insignia) and commodore (one star). In 1864 David Farragut was made the first vice admiral (three stars) and, a year later, the first "full" admiral (four stars). His protégé, David Dixon Porter, became vice admiral, heading ten rear admirals. Following the deaths of Farragut and Porter, the two senior grades remained unfilled for some years.


The Union navy, numbering 42 active ships at the outset of the Civil War and expanding to some 700 at the peak of the conflict, gave the Union an advantage in mobility and flexibility if the resources were well used. The Navy had to blockade the Confederate coastline, which contained 185 registered harbors in 12,000 miles of indented coastline.

Control of the sea enabled the Union to transport and support troops; to move supplies rapidly by water; to launch large-scale amphibious assaults directed at Confederate ports and strongholds; to pursue warfare on the western rivers that split the Confederacy along the vital Mississippi River line; and to maintain a blockade of more than 3,000 miles of Confederate coastline from Virginia to Texas.


As the Union Blockade gained in strength and effectiveness, it sealed off southern ports and made blockade-running of critical military and civilian supplies increasingly difficult and hazardous; it denied the South easy access to supplies from Europe and the West Indies, while the markets of the world remained open to the North. The blockade also discouraged direct foreign intervention in the war.


In combined operations with the Union army—particularly at Hatteras Inlet (Aug. 29, 1861) and Port Royal, S.C. (Nov. 7, 1861), and at Wilmington, N.C. (Jan. 13–15, 1865)--the Union navy seized strategic locations on the Confederate coast. These actions not only deprived the South of blockade-running havens but also provided the North with base facilities and coaling stations, which enabled the blockading steamships to keep the sea for extended periods.

River war

On the western waters, shallow-draft Union gunboats carried out a series of decisive riverine operations that ultimately divided the South along the Mississippi River. After the capture of New Orleans (Apr. 25, 1862) by a fleet under Flag Officer David G. Farragut, Union naval forces steaming up the Mississippi and forces fighting their way downstream converged on Vicksburg, Mississippi, the main Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River. After a prolonged siege by water and land, Vicksburg fell to Generally Ulysses S. Grant on July 4, 1863. President Abraham Lincoln wrote: "The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the Sea."


Stephen Russell Mallory, the Confederate secretary of the navy, began with 3,000 personnel and twelve captured U.S. ships. During the war Mallory doubled manpower and commissioned 209 vessels, but it was always too little and too late. The Confederacy lacked a naval tradition, warships or an industrial infrastructure that could build ships and cannon. Most of the riverboat captains and engineers were northerners who went North, taking their boats with them. It seized many Union ships in Southern ports, but was unable to make use of them. However it did raise the scuttled frigate "Merrimack" after capturing the Norfolk navy yard and made it into an ironclad. For a single day the "Merrimack", renamed the "Virginia", threatened to destroy the blockading Union Navy of wooden ships. But the Northern ironclad "Monitor" showed up, neutralizing the "Virginia;" the battle was a draw. (The Confederates had to abandon Norfolk and they burned the "Virginia."). The low-slung Monitor was equipped with a revolving gun turret, an epoch-making development in naval warfare.

The South contracted with the British who built a dozen commerce raiders, notably the "Alabama," which was finally tracked down and sunk off the coast of France. The raiders, with Confederate officers in command and international crews, effectively ruined the U.S. merchant marine on the high search; it never recovered.

The Confederate Congress allowed for flag officers but commissioned only Admiral Franklin Buchanan and Rear Admiral Raphael Semmes.


The U.S. Navy withered in peace. European admirals loved to see the American fleet pay a courtesy call, for it enabled them to relive their youth in the days of sailing ships. All major navies had steel fleets before the U.S., which started catching up around 1890.


Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan was the most influential naval theorist; he taught all the modern navies that sea power was decisive and the best fleet controls the seas.

Spanish American War, 1898

By 1898 the small "new navy", with 21 modern warships, was far readier than the Spaniards for the War of 1898. The Navy scored the first voctory days after the start when Commodore George Dewey sank the Spanish fleet at Manila on May 1, 1898. Commodore William Sampson sank the other Spanish fleet at Santiago, Cuba, on July 3. In both cases victory at sea opened the way for the army to land and capture the Philippines and Cuba.

In 1899 George Dewey was given the four-star rank Admiral of the Navy. The eighteen rear admirals he headed displaced the need for commodores, and the grade was abolished in 1912.

White Fleet, 1907

U.S. Navy recruiting poster, 1908

President Theodore Roosevelt, a strong navy man, proudly sent his powerful new "great white fleet" of sixteen new battleships around the world in 1907–09, demonstrating the maturity of American naval engineering as well as the substance for the "big stick" foreign policy.

Rear Admiral Bradley A. Fiske was at the vanguard of new technology in Naval guns and gunnery, thanks to his innovations in fire control 1890–1910, and his six books and 65 professional articles. He immediately grasped the potential for air power, and called for the development of a torpedo plane.

Fiske, as aide for operations in 1913–15 to Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels and Assistant Secretary Franklin D. Roosevelt, proposed a radical reorganization of the Navy to make it a war-fighting instrument. Fiske wanted to centralize authority in a chief of naval operations and an expert staff that would develop new strategies, oversee the construction of a larger fleet, coordinate war planning including force structure, mobilization plans, and industrial base, and insure that the US Navy possessed the best possible war machines. Eventually, the Navy adopted his reforms and by 1915 started to reorganize for possible involvement in the World War then underway.

World War I

The navy entered World War I with thirty rear admirals. Three billets had the temporary rank of admiral—Chief of Naval Operations, or CNO (William S. Benson), Commander-in-Chief, Atlantic Fleet (Henry T. Mayo), and Commander of Naval Forces Operating in European Waters (William S. Sims). Congress did not make the rank permanent for Benson, Mayo, and Sims, who after the war completed service as rear admirals, the highest rank at which they could retire, although the temporary admiral rank continued with the billets of CNO or fleet command, and vice admiral for seconds-in-command.

World War II

see World War II, Pacific

World War II opened the way to for permanent higher ranks. Equivalent top ranks were needed for other navies, so Congressin 1944 created super, five-star rank of fleet admiral; it was given to four men in history, Ernest J. King, Chester W. Nimitz, William D. Leahy, and William F. Halsey. They led to victory 252 line and staff (supply, etc.) admirals and 111 commodores (whose one-star grade was reinstituted for command of wartime convoys). They commanded 3,381,000 sailors, a few thousand of whom were women in WAVES and Navy Nurse Corps.

Cold War

The Korean War, 1950-53 had some 200 line and 60 staff admirals. In 1972, the navy had 9 four-star, 40 three-star, and 313 two-star admirals. There was some newspaper criticism that 362 flag officers commanding 602,000 men was excessive in comparison to the same number of flag officers in World War II leading five times as many men.

Since 1990

In 2007 top Navy officials told Congress it has underway an unprecedented modernization program across the full spectrum of its weapons platforms in both the Navy and Marine Corps. In seeking a $139.8 billion budget for fiscal year 2008, a $12 billion increase, SECNAV Donald C. Winter said the transformation of the sea services underway includes a new generation of ships, submarines, and aircraft—with programs in development, production, or already in operation with the fleet. CNO Adm. Mike Mullen said, "Through the Fleet Response Plan, we continue to meet the demands of the Combatant Commanders for trained, flexible and sustainable forces, with six Carrier Strike Groups available on 30 days notice and an additional Carrier Strike Group (CSG) ready to surge within 90 days." The budget allots $14.7 billion for shipbuilding, an increase of about $3.2 billion over 2007. The FY08 ship construction and aviation procurement plan includes the first CVN-21 aircraft carrier, a Virginia-class submarine, one amphibious assault ship, one logistics ship and three Littoral Combat Ships. It also calls for 18 EA-18Gs; 24 F/A-18E/Fs; 21 MV-22 Ospreys, unmanned aerial vehicles, mine-resistant ambush protected vehicles (MRAP vehicles) and the continued development and procurement of F-35 joint strike fighters.[3]



  • Baer, George W. One Hundred Years of Sea Power: The U.S. Navy, 1890-1990 (1994), 553pp
  • Coletta, Paolo E., ed. American Secretaries of the Navy (2 vol 1980) 1028 pp; essays by scholars on each secretary down to 1972
  • Dorwart, Jeffery M. The Philadelphia Navy Yard: From the Birth of the U.S. Navy to the Nuclear Age (2000) excerpt and text search
  • Hagan, Kenneth J. People's Navy: The Making of American Sea Power (1991), 434pp
  • Howarth, Stephen. To Shining Sea -- A History of the United States Navy, 1775-1991 (1991).
  • Love, Robert W. History of the US Navy: 1775-1941 (1992) excerpt and text search; 'History of the US Navy: 1942-1991 (1992) excerpt and text search
  • Potter, E. B. Sea Power: A Naval History (1982), stress on battles

1775 to 1890

  • Anderson, Bern. By Sea and by River: The Naval History of the Civil War (1989) excerpt and text search
  • Coggins, Jack. Ships and Seamen of the American Revolution (1969). encyclopedic survey of the ships, cannon, gear, sailors , tactics, and actions of U.S. and British navies.
  • Fowler, William M., Jr. Rebels Under Sail: The American Navy During the Revolution (1976). a topical analysis of the operations and administration of the Continental Navy
  • Fowler, William M. Jack Tars and Commodores: The American Navy, 1783-1815 (1984), popular
  • Karsten, Peter. The Naval Aristocracy: The Golden Age of Annapolis and the Emergence of Modern American Navalism (1972)
  • Mahan, Alfred Thayer. The influence of sea power upon the War of 1812 2 vols (1905) online edition
  • McKee , Christopher. A Gentlemanly and Honorable Profession: The Creation of the U.S. Naval Officer Corps, 1794-1815 (1991).
  • Miller, Nathan. Sea of Glory: A Naval History of the American Revolution (1974); covers all aspects of the naval war
  • Morison, Samuel Eliot. John Paul Jones (1959), Pulitzer Prize excerpt and text search
  • Nash, Howard P., Jr. The Forgotten Wars: The Role of the U. S. Navy in the Quasi War with France and the Barbary Wars, 1798-1805 (1968).
  • Palmer, Michael A. Stoddert's War: Naval Operations During the Quasi-War with France, 1798-1801 (1987).
  • Roosevelt, Theodore. The Naval War of 1812 (1882). eText at Project Gutenberg
  • Skaggs, David Curtis. Thomas Mcdonough: Master of Command in the Early U.S. Navy. Naval Institute Press, 2003. 257 pp.
  • Thomas, Evan. John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy (2003) excerpt and text search
  • Toll, Ian W. Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy (2006)
  • Tucker, Spencer C. The Jeffersonian Gunboat Navy (1993).

1890 to 1939

  • Andrade, Jr., Ernest. "Submarine Policy in the United States Navy, 1919-1941," Military Affairs, Vol. 35, No. 2 (Apr., 1971), pp. 50-56 in JSTOR
  • Braisted, William Reynolds. The United States Navy in the Pacific, 1909-1922 (1972)
  • Challener, Richard. Admirals, Generals and American Foreign Policy, 1898-1914 (1973)
  • Coletta, Paolo. Admiral Bradley A. Fiske and the American Navy (1979)
  • Feuer, A.B. The U.S. Navy in World War I: Combat at Sea and in the Air 1999 online edition
  • Harrod, Frederick S. The Manning of the New Navy: The Development of a Modern Naval Enlisted Force, 1899-1940 (1978). By 1930 the navy successfully recruited and trained a nearly permanent force of technically skilled career seamen
  • Puleston, W. D. The Life and Work of Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, U.S.N 1939 online edition
  • West, Richard S. Admirals of American Empire: The Combined Story of George Dewey, Alfred Thayer Mahan, Winfield Scott Schley, and William Thomas Sampson (1948)
  • Williams, William J. "Josephus Daniels and the U.S. Navy's Shipbuilding Program During World War I," The Journal of Military History, Vol. 60, No. 1 (Jan., 1996), pp. 7-38 in JSTOR

World War II

  • Blair, Clay Jr. Silent Victory: The U.S. Submarine War Against Japan (1975).
  • Hoyt, Edwin P. Submarines at War: The History of the American Silent Service (1983), popular
  • King, Ernest J. U.S. Navy at War, 1941-1945: Official Reports to the Secretary of the Navy (1946) online edition
  • Lindley, John M. Carrier Victory: The Air War in the Pacific (1978).
  • Love, Robert W. History of the US Navy: 1942-1991 (1992) excerpt and text search
  • Morison, Samuel Eliot. The Two-Ocean War: A Short History of the United States Navy in the Second World War (1963), one-volume version of his massive 15 vol history (1947-62) of combat operations:
    • The Battle of the Atlantic: September 1939 - May 1943
    • Operations in North African Waters: October 1942 - June 1943
    • The Rising Sun in the Pacific: 1931 - April 1942
    • Coral Sea, Midway, and Submarine Actions: May 1942 - August 1942
    • The Struggle for Guadalcanal: August 1942 - February 1943
    • Breaking the Bismarcks Barrier: 22 July 1942 - 1 May 1944
    • Aleutians, Gilberts, and Marshalls: June 1942 - April 1944
    • New Guinea and the Marianas: March 1944 - August 1944
    • Sicily - Salerno - Anzio: January 1943 - June 1944
    • The Atlantic Battle Won: May 1943 - May 1945
    • The Invasion of France and Germany: 1944 - 1945
    • Leyte: June 1944 - January 1945
    • The Liberation of the Philippines: Luzon, Mindanao, the Visayas: 1944 - 1945
    • Victory in the Pacific: 1945
    • Supplement and General Index
  • Potter, E.B. Nimitz (1988)
  • Prange, Gordon W. Miracle at Midway (1982).
  • Reynolds, Clark G. The Fast Carriers: Forging of an Air Navy (1968).
  • Turnbull, Archibald D. and Clifford Lord. History of United States Naval Aviation (1949).
  • Willmott, H. P. The Barrier and the Javelin: Japanese and Allied Pacific Strategies, February to June, 1942 (1983). The Japanese island-centered strategy was flawed because it spread their forces thin & allowed USN to concentrate its forces to stop the Japanese at the Coral Sea and then to win at Midway.
  • Woodward, C. Vann. The Battle of Leyte Gulf (1947)
  • Y'Blood, William T. Red Sun Setting: The Battle of the Philippine Sea (1981), popular narrative

Cold war and after

  • Brasher, Bart. Implosion: Downsizing the U.S. Military, 1987-2015 (2000) online edition
  • Duncan, Francis. Rickover and the Nuclear Navy (1990).
  • Hartmann, Frederick H. Naval Renaissance -- The U.S. Navy in the 1980s (1990).
  • Lehman, John F. Jr. Command of the Seas: Building the 600 Ship Navy (1989).
  • Love, Robert W. History of the US Navy: 1942-1991 (1992) excerpt and text search
  • Marolda, Edward J., and Oscar P. Fitzgerald. The United States Navy and the Vietnam Conflict: From Military Assistance to Combat 1959-1965. (1987), 591pp
  • Muir, Malcolm Jr. Black Shoes and Blue Water: Surface Warfare in the United States Navy, 1945-1975. (1996). 348pp
  • Polmar, Norman. The American Submarine (1981). well-illustrated popular history
  • Ryan, Paul B. First Line of Defense -- The U.S. Navy Since 1945

Primary sources


  1. Evan Thomas, John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy (2003)
  2. George E. Buker, The Penobscot Expedition: Commodore Saltonstall and the Massachusetts Conspiracy of 1779 (2002)
  3. See Navy News Service, "DoN Budget Request for FY08 Addresses Near and Long-term Needs," March 1, 2007