13 October 2006

Happy Birthday US Navy!

231 years ago today on 13 October 1775, in support of the growing American privateering campaign against British commerce, the Continental Congress authorized the establishment of the Continental Navy.

It was hoped that even a tiny navy would be able to offset, to some extent, what was otherwise uncontested British sea power. This navy had a very limited mission; it was not expected to contest British control of the seas but rather to generally harrass British shipping in conjunction with the scores of privateers outfitting in American ports. To carry out this mission the Continental Congress acquired, through purchase, conversion, and new construction, a cruiser navy of small ships. For the most part they cruised independently or in pairs in search of their prey, avoiding pitched battles whenever possible. There were a few victories, such as the capture of British sloop Drake by Capt. John Paul Jones aboard Ranger, but they never did give the British any great cause for concern. This was the humble beginning, and the event that is recognized as the birth, of the US Navy. However, navies are notoriously expensive to maintain, and the new republic was more concerned with British and Spanish threats on it's western frontier than along it's sea coast. So, in 1783 the last of the Continental Navy ships were sold, leaving the Revenue Cutter Service (now the US Coast Guard) as America's only armed sea service.

On 27 March 1794, in response to the attacks on American shipping by the Barbary corsairs, President George Washington signed the Naval Act of 1794 to provide for naval armament. The Third Congress subsequently authorized the construction of six new frigates, which in effect created the United States Navy as we know it today.

These six frigates would not see immediate action against the Barbary corsairs since an agreement with Algiers was reached in 1796. Their construction was put on hold, and the nascent Navy slept until the French, upset that their "allies" were helping the British war effort through their trade, started attacking American shipping. This began the undeclared Quasi-War. The six ships were quickly completed; the first of them, USS Constellation, launched on 7 September 1797. On 30 April 1798 the Department of the Navy was established with Benjamin Stoddart as the first Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV). By 1800 the Navy boasted a fleet of 30 ships, and under Stoddart's care evolved as a professional warfighting service with an excellent reputation.

The Navy served well during the Quasi-War, and later against the Tripoli pirates, but the War of 1812 drove home the need for a large and effective Naval force. Although the Navy performed well in single combat against British ships on the Atlantic they were not so successful on the Great Lakes. Because of their relatively small size they lacked the necessary naval muscle to affect matters to a great degree even on the high seas, and Great Britain was able to send numerous naval squadrons and armies across the Atlantic. The United States quickly found its ports blockaded and its trade destroyed. The British raided the coast at will, and in the summer of 1814 a small British force captured Washington DC. The Washington Navy Yard and the White House were among the facilities destroyed in this raid, the British officers first sitting down to dinner at the White House before setting it to the torch.

To rectify this situation a crash program of ship building was instituted, and this time the program did not end with the war but continued through the postwar years. This was a time of rapid technological change, and the Navy experimented with advanced propulsion systems (the Constitution was fitted with experimental man-powered paddle wheels), armor plating, breechloaders, shell guns, and the telegraph. The Naval Academy was established in 1845 at Annapolis, Maryland in an effort to enhance with engineering training what was already a well-established professional officers corps.

The Civil War ushered in the era of steam and steel, rendering the wooden sail-powered ships obsolete. USS Constellation, second of her name, was built in 1853 (the same year that the first Constellation, the first of the original six frigates authorized in 1794, was being broken up for scrap) and was the last sail-powered warship built for the US Navy.

In 1907 President Theodore Roosevelt sent 16 new steel hulled steam powered battleships, dubbed the Great White Fleet due to their sparkling white paint, on a global cruise to signify that the US Navy was not a localized force but was able to project power worldwide if needed. The two World Wars proved yet again the importance of a strong Navy. From the ashes of Pearl Harbor in the beginning of World War Two the Navy built an unstoppable force of battleships, aircraft carriers, submarines and surface ships. This tradition continues to this day.

One of the six original frigates authorized by the Naval Act of 1794, the 44 gun USS Constitution still serves on active duty (although not in active service). Launched on 21 October 1797, she is the oldest commissioned warship still afloat in the world (the HMS Victory, Lord Admiral Nelson's flagship, is older but is unseaworthy and sits on land in Portsmouth England). The USS Constitution is homeported in Boston MA at the former Boston Navy Yard. She is pictured above, under her own sail power, during one of her turnaround cruises.

The aforementioned USS Constellation, the last sail powered ship built for the Navy, also survives. Decomissioned in 1955, she is now owned by the private non-profit USS Constellation Museum and is homeported in Baltimore's inner harbor. The only Civil War battleship still afloat, Constellation made her last trip under sail on a Navy Academy training cruise in 1893.

Happy 231'st US Navy, here's to 231 more (at least).
US Navy photograph

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