The events already related took place under the stress of circumstances, most of them unauthorized by Continental or Provincial Congress. It is now necessary to interrupt the narrative of naval operations in order to sketch briefly the various sources of authority and the administrative systems under which acted the different classes of vessels throughout the course of the war. These classes were: First, Continental vessels; second, the state navies; third, the privateers, commissioned either by the Continental government or by the various states, and in some cases by both (In the preparation of so much of this chapter as relates to the administration and organization of the American naval forms, Paullin's Navy of the American Revolution has been closely followed. See also Am. Arch., IV, iii, 1888-1904, 1917-1957; Works of John Adams, ii, 462-464, 469, 470, 479-484, iii, 6-12.)
Public vessels cruising under Continental authority comprised not only the Continental navy, strictly speaking, including vessels fitted out in France, but also the fleets organized by Washington in Massachusetts Bay in 1775 and later in New York; by Arnold on Lake Champlain in 1776 and by Pollock in 1778 on the Mississippi River.
General Washington took the first actual step towards placing a Continental force upon the sea by fitting out the schooner Hannah, which sailed from Beverly September 5, 1775, and returned to port two days later with a prize. An important measure in making effective the siege of Boston, then in progress, was the intercepting of supplies coming to the town by water; the supplies being at the same time of the utmost value to the American army investing the town. Before the end of the year seven other vessels, officered and manned from the army, were fitted out by Washington. The next year he organized a similar but smaller fleet at New York (see next chapter.)
The first official suggestion of a Continental navy came from the Assembly of Rhode Island which, August 26, 1775, declared "that the building and equipping an American fleet, as soon as possible, would greatly and essentially conduce to the preservation of the lives, liberty and property of the good people of these colonies," and instructed the delegates from that province in the Continental Congress "to use their whole influence at the ensuing congress for building at the Continental expence a fleet of sufficient force for the protection of these colonies." (Am. Arch., IV, iii, 231.) The Rhode Island delegates presented their instructions to Congress October 3 and this brought the matter fairly before that body. Discussion of these instructions was postponed from time to time and it was several weeks before definite action was taken on them. Meanwhile intelligence had been received of the sailing from England of two brigs laden with military supplies bound to Quebec. The practicability of intercepting these vessels was considered in Congress October 5. Strong opposition was developed on the part of a vociferous minority to any participation of the Continental government in maritime warfare; to them it appeared sheer madness to send ships out upon the sea to meet the overwhelming naval force of England. After a lively debate the matter was referred to a committee consisting of John Adams, John Langdon, and Silas Deane. Upon the recommendation of this committee it was decided to instruct Washington at once to procure two Massachusetts cruisers for that service and to request the cooperation of the governors of Rhode Island and Connecticut (Journals of Continental Congress, October 3, 5, 1775; Am. Arch., IV, iii, 950, 1038, 1888-1890.)
Elbridge Gerry wrote from Watertown, October 9, 1775, to Samuel Adams, then a member of the Continental Congress at Philadelphia, saying: "If the Continent should fit out a heavy ship or two and increase them as circumstances shall admit, the Colonies large privateers, and individuals small ones, surely we may soon expect to see the coast clear of cutters." (Am. Arch., IV, iii, 993.)
On the advice of the committee appointed October 5, Congress voted on the 13th to fit out two vessels, one of them to carry ten guns, to cruise three months to the eastward in the hope of intercepting British transports. Another committee of three was appointed to inquire into the expense. October 30, 1775, is an important date in naval legislation. Congress resolved to arm the second of the vessels already provided for with fourteen guns and also authorized two additional vessels which might carry as many as twenty and thirty-six guns respectively, "for the protection and defence of the United Colonies." By this vote Congress was fully committed to the policy of maintaining a naval armament. On the same day a committee of seven was formed by adding four members to those already appointed (Jour. Cont. Congr., October 6, 7, 13,17, 30, 1775.) This committee was the first executive body for the management of naval affairs. It was known as the Naval Committee and the members were John Langdon of New Hampshire, John Adams of Massachusetts, Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island, Silas Deane of Connecticut, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, Joseph Hewes of North Carolina, and Christopher Gadsden of South Carolina.
During the closing months of 1775 much legislation necessary for the organization of the navy was enacted by Congress on the recommendation of the Naval Committee. In the beginning there was strong opposition to all enterprises of a naval character, but it gradually broke down before the arguments of the more far-sighted and reasonable members. November 10 the Marine Corps was established. On the 25th captures of British ships of war, transports, and supply vessels were authorized and the several colonies were advised to set up prize courts. The apportionment of the shares in prizes was prescribed. In the case of privateers all the proceeds went to the owners and captors; in the case of Continental or colony cruisers two thirds of the value of a prize when a transport or supply vessel, one half when a vessel of war, went to the government, while the captors took the rest. November 28, "Rules for the Regulation of the Navy of the United Colonies" (See Appendix II) were adopted. These early navy regulations were brief, relating chiefly to discipline and prescribing the ration and pay. The rules provided for courts martial, but not for courts of inquiry; there was much subsequent legislation on the subject of naval courts. Pensions for permanent disability and bounties, to be awarded in certain cases, were provided for, the necessary funds for which were to be set apart from the proceeds of prizes. The rules of November 28 were framed by John Adams and were based on British regulations. Adams was a leader in all this early legislation and the part he took in the founding of the Revolutionary navy was important and influential (Jour. Cont. Congr., November 10, 17, 23, 24, 25, 28, 1775; Adams's Works, iii, 7-11; Am. Arch., IV, v, 1111.)
In November the Naval Committee purchased four merchant vessels under the provisions of October 13 and 30, to be converted into men-of-war. These vessels, as named by the committee, were the ships Alfred and Columbus and the brigs Cabot and Andrew Doria. The first was named in honor of the supposed founder of the English navy, the second and third for famous discoverers, and the fourth for the great Genoese admiral. Other vessels were authorized and purchased from time to time, the first of which was a sloop called the Providence (Adams, iii, 12; Am. Arch., IV, iii, 1938; .Jour. Cont. Congr., December 2, 1775.)
Definite action was taken in Congress on the Rhode Island instructions December 11, when a committee of twelve was "appointed to devise ways and means for furnishing these colonies with a naval armament." Two days later this committee "brought in their report, which being read and debated was agreed to as follows: That five ships of thirty-two guns, five of twenty-eight guns, three of twenty-four guns, making in the whole thirteen, can be fitted for the sea probably by the last of March next, viz: in New Hampshire one, in Massachusetts Bay two, in Connecticut one, in Rhode Island two, in New York two, in Pennsylvania four, and in Maryland one. That the cost of these ships so fitted will not be more than 66,666 2/3 dollars each on the average, allowing two complete suits of sails for each ship, equal in the whole to 866,666 2/3 dollars."
Of these frigates, the Raleigh, of 32 guns, was built at Portsmouth, New Hampshire; the Hancock, 32, and the Boston, 24, at Salisbury and Newburyport on the Merrimac River; the Warren, 32, and the Providence, 28, at Providence; the Trumbull, 28, at Chatham on the Connecticut River; the Montgomery, 28, and the Congress, 24, at Poughkeepsie on the Hudson River; the Randolph, 32, Washington, 32, Effingham, 28, and Delaware, 24, at or near Philadelphia on the Delaware River; and the Virginia, 28, at Baltimore. The actual number of guns on a ship was generally in excess of the rate; a thirty-two gun frigate commonly carried about thirty-six guns. With a few exceptions these frigates were armed with no guns heavier than twelve-pounders. The smaller vessels of the Revolutionary navy carried only four and six-pounders. All were long guns; the light, short, large-calibre guns called carronades had not yet come into general use. Some vessels carried a secondary battery, mounted on deck or in the tops, of small light mortars called coehorns or of swivels, which were light guns mounted on pivots. December 13, 1775, the day when these thirteen frigates were provided for, is another important date in the early history of the navy. On the 14th a committee of thirteen was chosen by ballot to superintend the construction and equipment of the frigates (Jour. Cont. Congr., December 11, 13, 14, 1775. See Appendix V.)
From descriptions of three of these frigates, furnished nearly two years later to Admiral Howe, commanding the British fleet on the North American station, we are able to get an idea of their appearance and dimensions. The Hancock is describedas follows, beginning with the figure head: "A Man's Head with Yellow Breeches, white Stockings, Blue Coat with Yellow Button Holes, small cocked Hat with a Yellow Lace, has a Mast in lieu of an Ensign Staff with a Latteen Sail on it, has a Fore and Aft Driver Boom, with another across, Two Top Gallant Royal Masts, Pole mizen topmast, a whole Mizen Yard and mounts 32 Guns, has a Rattle Snake carved on the Stern, Netting all around the Ship, Stern Black and Yellow, Quarter Galleries all Yellow." "Principal Dimensions of the Rebel Frigate Hancock. Length on the upper Deck, 140 ft. 8 ins. Breadth on Do. 30.2. Length of Keel for Tonnage, 116.2 3/4. Extreme Breadth, 35.2. Depth in the Hold, 10.7. Burthen in Tons, 764. Heigth between Decks, 5.6. Do. in the Waste, 5.0. Size of the Gun Ports, fore & aft, 2.7. up & down, 2.2. Length on the Quarter Deck, 57.8. Length on the Forecastle, 31.3. Draught of Water, afore, 14.0, abaft, 15.10. Heigth of the Ports from the Surface of the Water, Forward, 9.0, Midships, 8.2, Abaft, 9.2." Then the Boston: "An IndianHead with a Bow and Arrow in the Hand, painted White, Red and Yellow, Two top gallant Royal Masts, Pole mizen topmast on which she hoists a Top gallant Sail, painted nearly like the Hancock with Netting all round, has a Garf, a Mast in room of an Ensign Staff with a Latteen Sail on it, and mounts 30 guns." "Dimensions of the Armed Ship named the Delaware...Length on the Gun Deck, 121 Feet; Keel for Tonnage, 96; Extreme Breadth, 32.6. The Ship lately built, Mounts twenty four Guns on the Upper Deck; And when furnished with proper Artillery, capable of carrying twelve Pounders with great facility." (Brit. Adm. Rec., Adm. Desp. 487, August 28, 1777, nos. 7 and 8; A. D. 488, November 23, 1777, no. 3.) The figures for the Warren and Providence, from the journal of the committee in charge of building those ships, are: length on the gun deck, 132 feet, 1 inch and 124.4, respectively; keel 110.10 3/4 and 102.8 1/2; beam, 34.5 1/2 and 33.10 3/8; hold 11, and 10.8. The committee voted to have a few eighteen pounders cast for these two frigates, and accordingly some guns of that weight were mounted on them (Magazine of History, December, 1908, and February, 1909. For the whole journal see lbid., November, 1908, to April, 1909. See Archives de la Marine, B7 459 (Whipple's letter of May 31, 1778)
Meanwhile, November 2, 1775, the Naval Committee had been given power by Congress to "agree with such officers and seamen as are proper to man and command " the vessels they had purchased and were fitting out. On the 5th the committee selected Esek Hopkins, an old sea captain of Providence and brother of Stephen Hopkins, for the command of this little fleet (Field's Life of Hopkins, 78.) December 7 John Paul Jones "was appointed Senior Lieut. of the Navy." (Jones MSS., October 10, 1776; Sands's Life of Jones, 33.) On the 22d the Naval Committee "laid before Congress a list of the officers by them appointed, agreeable to the resolutions of Congress, viz: Ezek Hopkins, Esqr., commander-in-chief of the fleet. Captains, Dudley Saltonstall, Esqr., of the Alfred, Abraham Whipple, Esqr., of the Columbus, Nicholas Biddle, Esqr., of the Andrew Doria, John Burrows Hopkins, Esqr., of the Cabot. 1st lieutenants, John Paul Jones [etc.] . . . Resolved, That the pay of the commander-in-chief of the Fleet be 125 dollars per calendar month. Resolved, That commissions be granted to the above officers agreeable to their rank in the above appointment." In addition to those named above there were in the list four other first lieutenants, five second lieutenants, and three third lieutenants (Jour. Cont. Congr., November 2, December 22, 1775.) This is the beginning of a list of officers for the Continental navy which, in the course of the war and including marine officers and those commissioned in France, contained nearly three hundred and thirty names (See Appendix VI.) There were in addition medical officers, pursers, midshipmen, and warrant officers of whom no lists have been preserved. The largest number of petty officers, seamen, and marines in the navy at any one time may have been about three thousand.
Uniforms for the officers of the navy were adopted by the Marine Committee September 5, 1776, but probably they were not commonly worn, as few officers could afford a complete outfit. For line officers a blue coat with red lapels, blue breeches, and red waistcoat were prescribed; for marine officers, a green coat faced with white and with a silver epaulette on the right shoulder, white waistcoat and breeches and black gaiters (Am. Arch., V, ii, 181.)
It has generally been supposed that the intention of Congress in making Hopkins commander-in-chief was to give him the same rank that Washington held in the army. It seems more likely, however, that Congress merely meant to give him command of this particular fleet. The wording of his appointment by the Naval Committee and of the resolutions quoted above, together with the fact that each of the captains was assigned, also by resolution of Congress, to a specified vessel, would indicate this. Stephen Hopkins, writing to Esek November 6, 1775, says: "You will perceive by a letter from the Committee, dated yesterday, that they have pitched upon you to take the Command of a Small Fleet, which they and I hope will be but the beginning of one much larger." (Hopkins, 78.) A resolution of Congress dated January 2, 1778, states that Hopkins "was appointed commander in chief of the fleet fitted out by the Naval Committee." (Jour. Cont. Congr., January 2, 1778.) He does not appear to have been mentioned officially and authoritatively, that is to say by the Naval or Marine Committee, though he was once by a special committee (Sands, 310.), as the commander-in-chief of the navy. In addition to his own fleet, several other Continental vessels cruised in 1776, which do not seem to have been under his orders (see ch. V) Hopkins was an elderly man at this time, having been born in 1718. He had spent much of his life at sea and was a privateersman in the French and Indian War (Hopkins, ch. i.)
Of the members of the committee of thirteen chosen December 14, 1775, "for carrying into execution the resolutions of Congress for fitting out armed vessels," ten had served on the committee of twelve which had recommended building the frigates and five had been members of the original Naval Committee. This new committee, consisting of one representative from each colony, became the second executive body for the administration of naval affairs. It was called the Marine Committee and was at first constituted as follows: Josiah Bartlett of New Hampshire, John Hancock of Massachusetts, Stephen Hopkins of Rhode Island, Silas Deane of Connecticut, Francis Lewis of New York, Stephen Crane of New Jersey, Robert Morris of Pennsylvania, George Read of Delaware, Samuel Chase of Maryland, Richard Henry Lee of Virginia, Joseph Hewes of North Carolina, Christopher Gadsden of South Carolina, and John Houston of Georgia. The membership changed from time to time. The Naval Committee continued in the meantime to occupy itself in fitting out the small fleet of vessels purchased for the service and placed under the command of Commodore Hopkins, and to prepare for an expedition which was being planned. January 25,1776, although the Marine Committee had already taken charge of general naval affairs, Congress voted to leave the direction of this fleet to the Naval Committee, which soon afterwards, this duty being accomplished, ceased to exist (Jour. Cont. Congr., January 25,1776.) The Marine Committee employed agents to supervise the construction of the frigates in the distant colonies, taking charge itself of those at Philadelphia. Before the end of the year 1775 the organization of a Continental navy was achieved.
In the course of time the mass of details connected with naval administration became too much for the Marine Committee easily to handle. Prize agents in the various seacoast towns were appointed to superintend the trial and condemnation of the prizes taken by Continental cruisers. Most of the prize agents were also Continental agents, in which capacity they performed various other duties of a naval sort. John Bradford at Boston had the most important of these agencies (Am. Arch., V, ii, 1113, 1114.) For the further relief of the Marine Committee and at their suggestion, Congress appointed three persons, November 6, 1776, "to execute the business of the navy, under the direction" of the committee. This body of three was known as the Navy Board and the men appointed to serve on it were John Nixon and John Wharton of Pennsylvania and Francis Hopkinson of New Jersey. The lack of maritime knowledge and experience among members of Congress was keenly felt at this time. William Ellery of Rhode Island, who had recently become a member of the Marine Committee, wrote home to his friend William Vernon, November 7, 1776, "The Conduct of the Affairs of a Navy as well as those of an Army We are yet to learn. We are still unacquainted with the systematical Management of them." (Publications of R.I. Hist. Soc., viii (January, 1901), 201.) April 19, 1777, another committee of three was authorized, to take charge of naval affairs in New England; the men selected for this board were William Vernon of Rhode Island, James Warren of Massachusetts, and John Deshon of Connecticut. The first of these boards was then called the Navy Board of the Middle Department or District, the second the Navy Board of the Eastern Department, or they were called the boards at Philadelphia and at Boston respectively (Jour. Cont. Congr., April 23, November 6,1776, April 19,1777.)
The Eastern Navy Board, owing to its distance from the seat of government at Philadelphia, was allowed more discretion and became a more important body than that of the middle department. The greater naval activity in New England waters, due to remoteness from the centre of military operations, put more work and responsibility on the eastern board. Its original members retained office several years without change. Their instructions, dated July 10, 1777, imposed upon them "the Superintendance of all Naval and Marine Affairs of the United States of America within the four Eastern States under the direction of the Marine Committee" in "whatever relates to the Building, Manning, and fitting for Sea all Armed Vessels of the United States built, or ordered by the Congress to build in the Eastern Department, and to provide all materials and Stores necessary for that purpose." They were "to keep an exact Register of all the Officers, Sailors, and Marines in the Continental Navy fitted and Manned within" the eastern district, and were "empower'd to order Courts Martial." They were also instructed to keep strict account of expenditures and to do many other things (Publ. R.I. Hist. Soc., viii, 207-210.)
With further experience it became apparent that the Marine Committee was too large and its members too deficient in special knowledge of naval science to admit of prompt, capable, and expert handling of the affairs entrusted to them. In October, 1776, John Paul Jones wrote to Robert Morris (Am. Arch., V, ii, 1106; Sands, 55) that efficiency in naval administration could only be obtained by the appointment of a competent board of admiralty. William Ellery wrote to William Vernon, February 26, 1777: "The Congress are fully sensible of the Importance of having a respectable Navy and have endeavoured to form and equip One, but through Ignorance and Neglect they have not been able to accomplish their Purpose yet. I hope however to see One afloat before long. A proper Board of Admiralty is very much wanted. The Members of Congress are unacquainted with this Department. As One of the Marine Committee I sensibly feel my Ignorance in this Respect." (Publ. R. I. Hist. Soc., viii, 204.) For three years, however, little was done in the way of improving administration except the appointment of the navy boards and agents. Finally, October 28, 1779, upon the recommendation of the Marine Committee a Board of Admiralty was established by Congress. This was a body of five members, two of whom were to be members of Congress, while the other three, called commissioners, were to be men possessing a knowledge of naval matters. A quorum of three was necessary for the transaction of business. The Marine Committee then came to an end, but the navy boards at Philadelphia and Boston and the navy agents were retained under this reorganization (Jour. Cont. Congr., June 9, October 28, 1779.)
Positions on the Board of Admiralty were declined by several to whom they were offered, and it was not only difficult to keep two congressional members continuously on the board, but it proved to be impossible to find three suitable persons willing to serve as commissioners. Consequently the membership was never full and the work of the board was much interrupted by frequent lack of a quorum. As first organized, in December, 1779, the Board of Admiralty contained three members: Francis Lewis of New York, commissioner; James Forbes of Maryland and William Ellery of Rhode Island, congressional members. A few months later Forbes died and his place was taken by James Madison of Virginia. The Board of Admiralty was much hampered by half-hearted cooperation on the part of Congress and by want of money. Its membership dwindled to a point where nothing could be done in default of a quorum, until finally, in the summer of 1781, it passed out of existence (Jour. Cont. Congr., November 26, December 3, 7, 8, 1779.)
Meanwhile, February 7, 1781, Congress had passed a resolution putting the affairs of the navy under a single head, to be called the Secretary of Marine. No one was found, however, to take the place and the office was never filled. Robert Morris, who as Superintendent of Finance had close relations with the navy, gradually assumed direction of naval affairs as the Board of Admiralty became more and more helpless. August 29 Congress voted to appoint an Agent of Marine to take charge of naval matters until a secretary could be found, and September 7 it placed these affairs under the care of the Superintendent of Finance until an agent could be appointed. The navy boards were abolished, although the board at Boston continued its functions several months longer. The result of it all was that Morris continued to direct naval affairs, as Agent of Marine, during the remainder of the war. He had already served on the Marine Committee and his great ability, business experience, and familiarity with maritime affairs made him the best executive head that the navy could have had (Jour. Cont. Congr., February 7, August 29, September 7, 1781.)
By way of summary it is perhaps well to review in a few words the history of the administration of the Continental navy. The first executive of the service was the Naval Committee which in 1775 began the work of organizing a navy. Next came the Marine Committee which directed naval affairs for four years, ending in December 1779. Then followed the Board of Admiralty which managed the department a year and a half, when, in the summer of 1781, Robert Morris took charge and as Agent of Marine remained at the head of the navy until after the end of the war.
As soon as representatives of the United States had established themselves in France, naval affairs became an important part of their duties. This began in July, 1776, with Silas Deane, the first American agent. After the arrival of Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Lee in the following December, to serve with Deane as commissioners, they shared the duties with him, although he still continued to exercise special supervision of naval matters until the spring of 1778, when he was superseded as commissioner by John Adams. After this, Franklin did the largest share of naval work, and from the time of his assuming the office of minister to France in February, 1779, he had sole charge of naval affairs abroad until the end of the war. This naval office in Paris had agents in various ports of France and in a few of Spain and Holland. It performed many functions, such as buying, building, manning, and fitting out vessels and providing naval stores, commissioning officers, directing cruises, disposing of prizes, exchanging prisoners, and commissioning privateers. Besides this office in France the naval interests of the United States in the West Indies and in Louisiana were entrusted to agents. These were William Bingham at Martinique, and Oliver Pollock in New Orleans (Paullin, ch. ix; Wharton's Diplomatic Correspondence of the Revolution, letters of Deans and Franklin; Hale's Franklin in France.)
The sentiment of local independence and the loose federation of the colonies, united only for mutual protection, naturally led to individual action, and the need that each state felt of the defense of its own shores, too urgent to wait for the deliberations of the Continental Congress, brought about the establishment of separate small navies; so that, in addition to the Continental navy, eleven of the thirteen states maintained armed vessels, New Jersey and Delaware being the exceptions. Naval administration in the various states was generally, at the outset, in charge of the Committee of Safety, and later, of the state executive or of a board which had under its care naval affairs alone or in combination with military affairs. The state navies varied much in size and force. Being used chiefly for coast defense, the vessels were usually smaller than those of the Continental navy, and many of them were merely boats and galleys adapted for operating in shallow waters. Some of the state ships, however, were ocean cruisers of considerable size and force (For the state navies, see Paullin, chs. xi-xvii.)
The first American armed vessels commissioned by any public authority were two sloops fitted out by Rhode Island, June 15, 1775. The people of this colony had been annoyed by the British frigate Rose, cruising in Narragansett Bay. These sloops immediately went to sea under the command of Abraham Whipple, and on the same day, June 15, chased ashore and destroyed a tender of the Rose (Boston Gazette, July 3, 1775; Historical Magazine, April, 1868; Am. Arch., IV, ii, 1118; Hopkins, 63-67; Brit. Adm. Rec., A. D. 485, June 19, 1775.) One of the sloops, the Katy, was subsequently taken into the Continental service under the name Providence. The state of Rhode Island afterwards kept a small force cruising in the bay.
In the course of the war the Massachusetts navy comprised fifteen seagoing vessels and one galley.
The Provincial Congress of Massachusetts, after some ineffectual attempts in June, 1775, to provide for armed vessels, made a beginning August 21, by taking the Machias Liberty and Diligent into the service of the colony (Jour. Third Provincial Congress of Mass., June 7, 11, 13, 20, 1775.) The actual establishment of a state navy, however, came in the following winter, when a committee was appointed December 29, of which John Adams was a member, "to consider & report a plan for fitting out Armed Vessels for the defence of American Liberty." (Records of General Court of Mass., December 29, 1775, January 11, February 7, 8, 17, April 20, 1776; Paullin, ch. xi.) In decisive action looking towards a naval force Connecticut preceded Massachusetts. Early in July, 1775, two vessels were provided for and in August they were purchased. A valuable prize was taken in October. Connecticut fitted out twelve vessels during the war, four of them galleys (Papers New London Hist. Soc., Part IV, i (1893), 34; Am. Arch., IV, iii, 264-268; Paullin, ch. xii.)
Pennsylvania began July 6, 1775, by providing for the defense of the Delaware River by means of boats and galleys. The Pennsylvania navy consisted of about ten vessels and nearly thirty boats and galleys for river and bay defense. The fleet was under the command of a commodore (Am. Arch., IV, iii, 495, 510, 511, 858, 862, 1811, 1820, 1836, 1839, iv, 515, 521; Penn. Archives, Series II, i; Wallace's Life of William Bradford; Paullin, ch. xiii.) The Virginia navy, authorized by the Provincial Convention in December, 1775, comprised first and last seventy two vessels of all classes including many ships, brigs and schooners; but apparently most of them were small, poorly manned, and lightly armed, and were used largely for commerce. The naval duties of the fleet were confined mostly to Chesapeake Bay (Southern Literary Messenger, January to April, 1857; Virginia Hist. Register, July, April, October, 1848; Va. Mag. Hist. and Biogr., July, 1893; Am. Arch., IV, iv, 114, 866, v, 227, vi, 1598; Paullin, ch. xiv.) Maryland shared with Virginia the defense of Chesapeake Bay, and in addition to one vessel of some size and force, maintained a considerable fleet of galleys, boats, and barges (Am. Arch., IV, v, 1509,1510.) The chief concern of North Carolina was to protect and keep open Ocracoke Inlet, connecting Pamlico Sound with the ocean, through which an important part of the commerce, not only of North Carolina but of Virginia, was carried on. A small fleet for this purpose was stationed in the sounds (Ibid., 1357, 1363.) Georgia's navy was small and unimportant, consisting mostly of galleys. A schooner, however, was commissioned as early as June, 1775 9Paullin, ch. xvi, for Georgia, Maryland, and North Carolina.) The defense of Charleston required a considerable force, and South Carolina was one of the first states to begin the organization of a navy. She appears to have had about fifteen sea-going vessels, some of them larger and more heavily armed than any other state or Continental ships. The force also included several galleys (Am. Arch., IV, iii, 180, iv, 45-54; Paullin, ch. xv.) As regards the two remaining states, New York's naval enterprise was confined to organizing a small fleet for local defense. The early occupation by the British of New York City and the adjacent waters prevented any further operations (Jour. Prov. Congr. of New York, i, 228, 349; Am. Arch., IV, v, 1401, 1450.) New Hampshire voted in 1776 to build a galley and appointed a committee to procure an armed vessel. After this her only naval activity, aside from encouraging privateering and setting up a prize court, consisted in fitting out a twenty-two-gun ship for temporary service in 1779 (Ibid., 10, 15, 17, 24; Paullin, ch. xvii.)
Privateers composed the third and a very important class of vessels employed during the Revolution. The word privateer was used at that time, and later, too, with the utmost disregard of its true meaning. Persons with an understanding of maritime affairs constantly spoke of Continental and state cruisers, especially the smaller ones, as privateers. The term was often wrongly used even in official correspondence. It is necessary that lines should be sharply drawn between these different classes of armed vessels. Letters of marque, so called from the letters or commissions they carried, were armed trading vessels authorized to make prizes. They also were generally, and more properly, called privateers. The latter name should, strictly speaking, be reserved for private armed vessels carrying no cargo and devoted exclusively to warlike use. All kinds of armed vessels, however, during the Revolution, even Continental frigates, were employed under special circumstances as cargo carriers.
The General Court of Massachusetts, November 1, 1775, passed "An Act for Encouraging the Fixing out of Armed Vessells, to defend the Sea Coast of America, and for Erecting a Court to Try and Condemn all Vessells that shall be found infesting the same." The preamble of this important measure, written by Elbridge Gerry, set forth in detail the justification of the colonists in taking up arms. "Whereas the present administration of Great Britain, being divested of justice and humanity and strangers to that magnanimity and sacred regard for liberty which inspired their venerable predecessors, have been endeavouring thro' a series of years to establish a system of despotism over the American colonies and by their venal and corrupt measures have so extended their influence over the British parliament that, by a prostituted majority, it is now become a political engine of slavery; and whereas the military tools of these our unnatural enemies, while restrained by the united forces of the American colonies from proceeding in their sanguinary career of devastation and slaughter, are infesting the sea coast with armed vessells and daily endeavouring to distress the inhabitants by burning their towns and destroying their dwellings . . . and making captures of provision and other vessels, being the property of said inhabitants; and whereas their majesties King William and Queen Mary by the royal charter of this colony . . . did grant, establish and ordain that, in the absence of the governor and lieutenant-governor of the colony, a majority of the council shall have full power . . . for the special defence of their said province or territory, to assemble in martial array and put in warlike posture the inhabitants of their said province or territory and to lead and conduct them and with them to encounter, expulse, resist and pursue by force of arms, as well by sea as by land, . . . and also to kill, slay, destroy, and conquer by all fitting ways, enterprizes and means whatsoever all and every such person and persons as should at any time thereafter attempt or enterprize the destruction, invasion, detriment or annoyance of their said province or territory . . . ; and whereas it is expressly resolved by the grand Congress of America, 'That each colony, at their own expence, make such provision by armed vessells or otherwise . . . as their respective assemblies . . . shall judge expedient . . . for the protection of their harbours and navigation on the sea-coasts,' . . . and it is the duty and interest of this colony to exert itself, as well for the purpose of keeping supplies from the enemy as for those mentioned in the paragraphs of the charter and resolve now recited; therefore . . . Be it enacted," etc. This act authorized a majority of the council to commission masters of private armed vessels. During the following winter and spring other acts were passed supplementing or superseding that of November 1. Courts for the trial of prizes were established at Plymouth, Ipswich, and Falmouth (Portland); and April 13, 1776, it was provided that in addition to these places courts might also be held in Barnstable or Dartmouth for the southern district, in Boston, Salem, or Newburyport for the middle district, and in Pownalborough (Wiscasset) for the eastern district (Acts and Resolves of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, November 1, 1775, February 14, March 19, April 13, May 8, 1776.) Massachusetts probably sent out not far from one half of all the American private armed vessels commissioned during the Revolution.
The Continental Congress authorized privateering March 23,1776, and on April 2 and 3 adopted a form of Commission for privateers and resolved to send copies in blank, signed by the President of Congress, to the various colonies, there to be issued to privateersmen giving bonds; a set of instructions for commanding officers was drafted (See Appendix III.) Several of the colonies or states used these Continental commissions altogether, not establishing state privateering. Pennsylvania sent out flve hundred vessels under Continental commissions and, it is believed, used no others. Six hundred and twenty-six Massachusetts privateers sailed under Continental letters of marque, but that state also sent nearly a thousand others to sea under her own commissions; it is probable, however, that in many instances the same vessel may have sailed at one time under one commission and later under the other. New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, Maryland, and South Carolina, and probably some of the other states, issued their own commissions, but the first four also employed those of the Congress - Connecticut and Maryland more than two hundred each. Sixty-four Virginia privateers sailed under Continental commissions. The American Commissioners in Paris - later the minister to France - and the naval agent of Congress in the West Indies likewise commissioned privateers. A rough estimate only of the total number and force of American vessels engaged in privateering on the patriotic side during the Revolution is possible. The Library of Congress has printed a list of nearly seventeen hundred letters of marque issued by the Continental Congress to privateers carrying, approximately, fifteen thousand guns - probably light ones for the most part - and fifty-nine thousand men. After deducting duplicates, that is to say, in cases of two or more commissions being successively issued to the same vessel, and deducting also armed boats and galleys, there remain more than thirteen hundred sea-going vessels. The thousand commissions issued by Massachusetts probably represented more than seven hundred different vessels, after making the same proportionate allowance for duplicates. Several hundred additional privateers must have been commissioned by other states and in France and the West Indies. Assuming the total number of private armed vessels to have been two thousand, and there were probably a good many more, they doubtless carried very nearly eighteen thousand guns and seventy thousand men. There seem to have been about the same number of British privateersmen, according to Governor Hutchinson, who, speaking of the difficulty of manning the British navy, says: "Some have proposed pressing the crews of all privateers, in which service it is computed 70,000 men are employed." (Diary, ii, 264 (June 27, 1779.) Judging from the scanty information at hand concerning British privateering, it is probable that their vessels engaged in this form of warfare were considerably less numerous but decidedly superior in force to the Americans; the latter seem to have carried on the average between eight and nine guns and less than thirty-five men, the British about seventeen guns and seventy-five or more men (Jour. Cont. Congr., March 23, April 2, 3, 1776, May 2,1780; Naval Records of Amer. Rev. (calendar), 217-495; Emmons's Statistical History of the Navy, 127; Mass. Archives, clxiv to clxxii; Penn. Archives, II, i, 366; Papers New London Hist. Soc., IV, i, 27; Sheffield's Rhode Island Privateers; Paullin; Diary and Letters of Thomas Hutchinson; Williams's History of Liverpool Privateers, App. iv, list of 95 vessels; London Chronicle, April 1, 29,1779, lists of 100 privateers from Liverpool and 121 from New York; Brit. Adm. Rec., A. D. 489, February 27, 1779, No. 3, list of 69 New York privateers. See Appendix VII.)
Valuable service to the country was rendered by the privateers, and they contributed in a large degree to the naval defense, and so to the fortunate outcome of the war. On the other hand, the system was subject to abuses and was in many ways detrimental to the regular naval service. William Whipple, writing to Josiah Bartlett from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, July 12, 1778, says: "I agree with you that the privateers have much distressed the trade of our Enemies, but had there been no privateers is it not probable there would have been a much larger number of Public Ships than has been fitted out, which might have distressed the Enemy nearly as much & furnished these States with necessaries on much better terms than they have been supplied by Privateers ? . . . No kind of Business can so effectually introduce Luxury, Extravagance and every kind of Dissipation, that tend to the destruction of the morals of people. Those who are actually engaged in it soon lose every Idea of right & wrong, & for want of an opportunity of gratifying their insatiable avarice with the property of the Enemies of their Country, will without the least compunction seize that of her Friends . . . There is at this time 5 Privateers fitting out here, which I suppose will take 400 men. These must be by far the greater part Countrymen, for the Seamen are chiefly gone, & most of them in Hallifax Gaol. Besides all this, you may depend no public ship will ever be manned while there is a privateer fitting out. The reason is plain: Those people who have the most influence with Seamen think it their interest to discourage the Public service, because by that they promote their own interest, viz., Privateering." (Historical Magazine, March, 1862.)
As intimated in the foregoing, privateers at times made trouble by seizing neutral vessels. In his advocacy of a strong navy in preference to a service under private control Whipple was in advance of his time. William Vernon, of the Navy Board at Boston, wrote to John Adams, December 17, 1778, that the Continental ships in port "may sail in Three Weeks, if it was possible to get Men, wch we shall never be able to accomplish, unless some method is taken to prevent desertion, and a stopage of Private Ships Sailing, until our ships are Mann'd. The infamous practice of seducing our Men to leave the ships and taking them off at an out-Port, with many other base methods, will make it impossible ever to get our ships ready to Sail in force, or perhaps otherwise than single Ships." He wishes that "an Embargo upon all Private Property, whether Arm'd or Merchant ships, may take Place thro' all the United States, until the Fleet is compleatly Mann'd.... You can scarsely form an Idea of the increase and groath of the extravagance of the People in their demands for Labour and every Article for Sale &c; dissipation has no bounds at present; when or where it will stop, or if a reform will take place, I dare not predict." (Publ. R. I. Hist. Soc., viii, 256.) The expedient of laying a temporary embargo upon privateers was occasionally resorted to.
A more favorable opinion of privateering is found in a letter of John Adams to the President of Congress, dated Amsterdam, September 16, 1780. Speaking of commerce destroying he says: "This is a short, easy, and infallible method of humbling the English, preventing the effusion of an ocean of blood, and bringing the war to a conclusion. In this policy I hope our countrymen will join [the French and Spanish] with the utmost alacrity. Privateering is as well understood by them as any people whatsoever; and it is by cutting off supplies, not by attacks, sieges, or assaults, that I expect deliverance from enemies." (Wharton, iv, 58. On the Profits Of privateering, see Channing, iii, 398.)
No doubt what was then needed, as in every war, was a well-balanced naval force made up of a sufficient number of fighting ships and commerce destroyers in the right proportions. Privateering was more popular than the regular naval service on account of the greater freedom from the restraints of military discipline and because the profits were larger; for privateersmen were devoted almost wholly to commerce destroying and were consequently likely to take more prizes in the long run. In addition to this and besides having higher pay, the entire value of their prizes went to the owners and captors. When the prizes of Continental cruisers were ships of war, one half the proceeds went to the captors, and in other cases only one third. In October, 1776, Congress increased the shares of the captors to the whole and to one half the value of these two classes of prizes respectively, in order to put Continental vessels more nearly on terms of equality with privateers. Bounties and other inducements were resorted to for the purpose of obtaining recruits. It would probably have been better if not more than half as many private commissions had been issued, provided that a correspondingly more powerful regular fleet could have been put upon the sea (Jour. Cont. Congr., April 17, August 5, October 30, 1776, March 29, 1777, July 11, 1780. For further discussion of privateering and commerce destroying, see ch. XIX.)
It occasionally happened during the Revolution that vessels built or purchased and fitted out for the Continental service subsequently found their way into one of the state navies, or perhaps became privateers ; and the reverse was also true in one or two instances. It was also the case not infrequently that two or all three of the different classes of vessels cruised together in squadrons or on expeditions. Officers likewise, beginning as privateersmen or in state service, were sometimes transferred to the Continental navy; and, on the other hand, unemployed Continental officers and seamen, especially towards the end of the war, sought service in the state navies or in privateers. For these reasons there was to some extent a sort of blending of the three classes of sea service, both as regards ships and personnel. The narrative therefore will follow a more natural course in describing the naval operations of the war to a certain extent in a chronological or geographical order and not strictly in conformity with the classes of service concerned.
The disparity between the sea power of America and that of England, great as it actually was, will be found less marked than mere figures would indicate, when we inquire into the true condition of the British fleet and of naval administration in England. Our enemy had many difficulties to contend with which must be set off against the numbers of ships, guns, and men to be found in statistical tables. After the Revolution of 1688 the navy was less dependent on the King than it formerly had been and looked more to Parliament for favor, which was an advantage in some ways, but brought the service more into partisan politics. During the first three quarters and more of the eighteenth century the British navy suffered much from corruption and mismanagement in civil administration, and at times also from incompetent commanders at sea. Before the end of the Seven Years' War in 1763 a high degree of efficiency had been brought about, but after that a decided falling off took place and continued many years (Hannay's Short History of the Royal Navy, ii, 2, 101, 117, 118,133,134,136.)
It is not easy to make an estimate of the real strength of the British navy at the time of the American Revolution, for figures derived from different sources vary, and many ships were sent to sea in such poor condition that they were by no means able to perform the service to be expected from their nominal force. The number of vessels of all classes in 1775 was stated to be two hundred and seventy, including one hundred and thirty-one ships of the line, that is, ships carrying sixty or more guns on two or more decks; in 1783 the number was four hundred and sixty- eight, including a hundred and seventy-four ships of the line. During the same time the number of men increased from eighteen thousand to one hundred and ten thousand. In January, 1778, there were supposed to be two hundred and seventy-four vessels of all classes ready for immediate service, of which ninety-two were on the North American station besides thirteen at Newfoundland and forty-one in the West Indies. At the end of the year the total effective force was three hundred and seventeen, while the numbers in the Western Hemisphere were somewhat reduced. These figures seem formidable when compared with those of the Continental navy, including Washington's little fleet in Massachusetts Bay, which comprised altogether, during the whole course of the war, between fifty and sixty vessels in actual service, rating from thirty-two-gun frigates down to small schooners and sloops. To these are to be added the small craft on inland waters, the state navies, including perhaps forty or more sea-going cruisers, and the privateers, numerous to be sure, and capable of inflicting serious injury upon commerce, but in no sense a menace even to the lighter regular cruisers of the enemy. These American figures of course very greatly exceed the number in service at any one time. Nevertheless the British were beset with manifold troubles and their ships found plenty of occupation. The active and fast-sailing rebel privateers required close watching and led their pursuers many a long chase. Supplies had to be brought from Europe, and for the convoy of these as well as of troop-ships a considerable part of their force must be diverted from purely warlike employment. The loss of the seafaring population of America as a source of supply for the manning of the British navy was likewise severely felt at a time when naval expansion was necessary. In 1778 the navy of France and later those of Spain and Holland entered the contest against England and threatened her naval supremacy (Hannay, ii, 210-214, 219; Clowes's Royal Navy, iii, 327, 328; Schomberg's Naval Chronology, i, 424, 436, 440, 453, ii, 1, 36, 68, 124; Beatson's Naval and Military Memoirs, iv, 291; Data collected by R. W. Neeser from Parliamentary Reports and other sources. See also Weeser's Introduction to Naval History Society Publications, iii.)
Yet a foe to the British navy more malign than foreign navies was found in the Admiralty at home, and that was maladministration. In 1771 the Earl of Sandwich, who had previously been first lord of the Admiralty for two short terms, was again appointed to the office and held it until 1782. The administration of the navy under Sandwich was not only weak, but reached nearly the lowest depths of corruption. In 1778, "embezzlement, larceny, swindling" and other like abuses prevailed in the dockyards. Money was voted for repairs and the ships were not repaired. "Vessels reported as well found and ready for sea lay in the naval harbours rotting." From 1775 to 1782, seventy-six vessels of the navy, including fourteen of sixty-four or more guns, "capsized, foundered, or were wrecked." The nation was charged with four thousand more men than were rated on the books of the navy. There was collusion between dockyard officials and shipowners; the former would inspect and condemn vessels and the latter, having bought a ship, would change her name and appearance and sell her back to the government for transport service (Belcher's First American Civil War, i, 290-292.) Some of the admirals participated in the fruits of embezzlement, and the management of naval affairs at New York under Arbuthnot was corrupt. Maltreatment of seamen, bad food, scurvy, and other evils were due largely to the dishonesty of pursers. Insubordination and disaffection resulted, and it was said that from 1774 to 1780 forty-two thousand men deserted from the navy. During the same time eighteen thousand died of disease. Incompetent medical service was the rule, and the mortality, especially in tropical seas, was appalling; but an exception to this is to be found in the fleet of Admiral Rodney, whose surgeon brought about reforms which saved countless lives (Belcher, 295-297, 304-308; Publications of Navy Records Soc., xxxii, 80-83; Hannay, ii, 205-210, 214-216; Mass. Hist. Soc. Proc., xliv, 364-368 ; Data collected by R. W. Neeser.)
Charles Middleton, the comptroller of the navy, in the course of correspondence with Sandwich, spoke very plainly of the abuses in naval administration (Navy Rec. Soc., xxxviii, 2-10, 16-30.) In 1779 he writes, "The desertions from ships and hospitals are beyond imagination. The discipline of service is entirely lost, and to a great measure owing to admiralty indulgences, but still more to admiralty negligence. The want of vigour at that board has weakened its authority to such a degree over the officers of the fleet, that no respect is paid to its orders . . . For want of Plan, for want of men of professional knowledge used to business to assist at the admiralty, and for want of method and execution, one error has produced another, and the whole has become such a mass of confusion, that I see no prospect of reducing it to order. All I can do at the navy office will avail but little if the admiralty continues what it is at present. It is, indeed, so wretchedly bad, that if I waited for official orders and kept within the mere line of duty without pressing or proposing what ought to come unasked for, we must inevitably stand still . . . The whole system of the admiralty is rotten . . . The dockyards, from want of proper attention to appointments, are in wretched disabled state, without spirit, without discipline." (Navy Rec. Soc., xxxviii, 4, 5, 6.) In another letter he says: "For want of proper men to conduct the business at the ports, no expedition is used in refitting the ships. The officers are not kept to their duty. The men are daily deserting in scores, and those who remain are inclined to mutiny." (Ibid., 7.) Again, February 3, 1781, after relating much of the same sort, he observes: "I cannot be an acquiescent witness of the present weak state of the yards, and likely to continue so, according to the current arrangements, at a crisis when the utmost efforts of every officer in every department of the navy from the highest to the lowest, are most loudly demanded." (Ibid., 26.) To this Sandwich replies: "I have neither leisure nor inclination to enter into a discussion upon the subject of the letter with which you have favoured me." (Ibid., 27.) In 1786, Middleton, speaking of Sandwich's administration, says that "all his successors, notwithstanding their great pretensions to a regard for the public service, have proceeded in the same way; and I find politics have got too great a hold on this branch of the navy for me to withstand it." (Navy Rec. Soc., xxxviii, 30.)
It may be inferred from all this that the British navy was less formidable than the imposing array of ships on the printed lists would indicate; and yet service traditions of the right sort and fitness for the sea gave the English a superiority as a fighting force over other European navies out of proportion to their numbers.
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