An Historical Account of the United States Navy, 1775-Present
The history of the United States Navy should be divided into two parts: the first part consists of (roughly) the Navy's first 100 years; the second (and modern) part follows. It is the difference between the Old and the New, the days of sailing ships and the days of industrial and technological advancement so astounding that the "Old Navy" must now surely seem quaint. This paper will detail the history of the U.S. Navy and describe its transformation from a small force of six frigates in 1794 to the naval superpower of the world that it is today.
In October of 1775, the Continental Congress knew it ought to have some sort of American sea power, and it "passed a resolution urging each colony to fit out armed vessels for its individual defense."
Rhode Island had been the first to propose and Samuel Chase is on record for calling the proposal "the maddest idea in the world" -- but if it was not out of line with any of the other outrageous proposals that the Continental Congress had been proposing: it was, after all, revolution.
The first warship (actually a merchantman that had been converted for the cause) was paid for by George Washington himself and was dubbed Hannah. It was the first ship of the American Navy.
John Adams had also thought the idea novel. He did not envision anything on too great of a scale -- but something modest, a few sailing vessels, enough to "destroy small concerts or fleets."
A few short months later, the idea had apparently caught fire, for the man who called the whole thing mad had wholeheartedly changed his mind and his position 180 degrees: "I would exert every nerve…to fit out a number of vessels from 10 to 30 guns. I would cruise for the West India and Jamaica men. I would make prizes of every British vessel wherever found."
It may have been that the Founding Fathers knew very well that whatever victory the Americans hoped for would not come by land. The real battle would be on the sea -- just as it had been at Salamis when Themistocles sank the hopes of the Persian king. George Washington seemed to intuit this -- which perhaps explains why he so willingly paid for Hannah out of his own purse: "Whatever efforts are made by the Land Armies, the Navy must have the casting vote in the present contest."
It may have been intuition -- then again, it may have been the arrival of the French fleet which enabled Yorktown to be saved from the British. Indeed, it may have been nothing more than the sensible awareness of the practicality that the sea lanes played in distributing supplies. Whoever controlled the waves, controlled the world -- as the saying has gone.
John Paul Jones, immortalized in one of Melville's greatest land and sea-faring adventures Israel Potter, actually received the very "first salute to the Stars and Stripes by a foreign man-of-war" when he fired thirteen guns (symbolically it doubtlessly does not need to be added) to a French flagship, receiving in return a salute of nine.
Jones then, of course, notoriously invaded the British isle, torching the Whitehaven docks. England had not been attacked by sea in some 700 years -- and it was the American Navy that brought history home to the U.K. Jones capped it all off by capturing the "20-gun sloop-of-war Drake."
The exploits of the inimitable Jones so impressed Benjamin Franklin who was in France at the time that the latter maneuvered to get a loan from his Parisian intimates and quickly made a purchase that would add to the Navy's prestige: a 42-gun, 900-ton East Indiaman. Jones named her Bonhomme Richard in deference to Franklin's Almanac. The U.S. Navy was off to a stellar start.
By 1783, the Captain John Barry was still capturing and/or fighting off foreign ships -- but the war for independence was over. The Continental Congress retired the Continental Navy and sold the last of its ships at auction.
However, America without a Navy was as good as no America at all: "The same year that Congress abolished the navy, Algerian corsairs captured two Yankee merchantmen and held their crews for $59, 496 ransom."
Jefferson and Adams both cynically agreed that outfitting another Navy would cost less than paying off the pirates -- but money was tight, just as it had been when Washington dipped into his own pockets. This time, however, there would be no dipping, and piracy would continue for another half decade.
In 1792, war was declared between the French and the British and the following year, it was Washington again who demanded the Navy be put back onto the high seas. He got...
Washington and Congress would disagree on the extent to which the Navy should be built: Washington wanted a substantial force, and Congress was simply not willing to pay for it.
The Barbary War caught Jefferson's attention in the first decade of the 19th century. Unlike Washington, Jefferson had seen little use for an American navy -- but with Tripoli declaring war on the United States, Jefferson acknowledged the necessity. The same year of his election, Jefferson dispatched a Navy to the Mediterranean to safeguard American commerce.
The buildup of the Navy also served to intensify relations with Britain. Negotiations were opened in hopes of easing the animosity and ensuring the safety of American shipments -- but to no avail. Blockades were imposed. Meanwhile, Britain was receiving the ire of Napoleon.
In 1807, the Chesapeake left port in Virginia for the Mediterranean but was abruptly halted by the British frigate Leopard. Britain demanded to board the American ship and search for deserters. The Chesapeake refused consent and was suddenly fired upon. The Leopard then boarded, found its man, and managed to give a swift kick to American dignity. Jefferson was outraged and ordered "all British naval vessels to leave American ports."
That same year the first steamship made its voyage up the Hudson, foretelling things to come.
As Lisle Abbott Rose states, "Industrialism brought not peace but the sword. And the tip of that sword was sea power."
By 1890, the face of sea power had changed significantly. Not only had the U.S. Navy grown up during the 19th century -- so had Britain's, Germany's, and Japan's. The only things that kept Italy, France, and Russia from joining that list were finances. Industry was changing everything -- and the bigger and deadlier Navies were reshaping the boundaries of Empires.
The United States Navy was in the odd position of being utilized at a time when anti-Imperialism was reaching a crescendo in American politics. At the same time the Navy was being deployed to the furthest reaches of the globe, the anti-Imperialists were trying to rouse public sentiment to bring the Navy back. Commercial interests, as always, were at stake. From 1896 up to the WWI and beyond, while a Republican controlled White House attempted to appease both the people and Wall Street, wars were constantly being fought on several different fronts. The U.S. Navy was becoming more professional, more industrial, more technical, and more stable. Iron and steel had replaced wood; steam had replaced sail: "Steam power at sea transformed international commerce and opened formerly remote areas to flourishing trade."
Those remote areas had to be protected by employing the same technological advancements as had enabled commercial freighters to get there in the first place. Thus, the Navy grew up alongside the American Empire necessarily. And as empires grew so did tensions. Roosevelt's dispatching of the Great White Fleet to the East was a perfect example of this.
The new battleship would police the waters and act as Roosevelt's Big Stick while he spoke softly elsewhere. The U.S. Navy's expansion came with new concerns: the need for fueling stations -- and a faster way from East to West: thus the Panama Canal was built, finished just before WWI began. The U.S. Navy, however, played a limited function in the WWI. Other than laying mines at sea, dispatching destroyers to Ireland, and sinking the odd U-boat, it saw little activity. However, it was during this time that the Navy became the first division of to U.S. military to enlist women in capacities that departed from their traditional roles as nurses.
Following the war was the time for U.S. Navy to act. As treaties followed treaties, U.S. saw the need to develop lighter and faster ships. Aircraft carriers were developed, and military forces continued to grow with the help of the Navy. However, naval forces were not necessarily welcome all over the world. The U.S. naval bases in the East were an annoyance to foreign powers. And aggression was shown from time to time. The Pacific theater was becoming a hotbed of tension. It was only a…
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