A Brief History
On October 13, 1775, an order of the Continental Congress established the Continental Navy, later better known as the United States Navy, the greatest maritime fighting force the world has ever seen.
During the American Revolution there was little time to build a world class navy that could go toe to toe with the British Royal Navy, then the grandest fleet in the world. Still, merchant ships were pressed into duty as fighting ships armed with cannon, and despite some remarkably able and courageous engagements, the effect on the Revolution was minimal, with the French Navy actually carrying a good portion of the load against the British. Even worse, this inauspicious beginning was capped off by selling off all the Continental Navy ships when the Revolution was over!
Although Congress had authorized 13 new frigates to be built as the core of a professional navy, only 8 ever went to sea and those were overwhelmed by the pesky British with their larger and more numerous ships. Still, before being captured or destroyed, those 8 frigates managed to capture their share of merchant prizes, an early indication of what American sailors could do with a proper warship.
A total of 65 ships had served at one point or another during the Revolution, and only 11 survived the war, all to be sold off. It was not until 1797 that predation by pirates underscored the need for a powerful standing navy to protect US merchant vessels, and the US Navy was born, reconstituted from the ashes of the Continental Navy. (During the decade without a navy, the only US combat ships were the Revenue Cutter Service, what became the Coast Guard.) The tiny US Navy grew slowly, but more quickly once the War of 1812 began, with the US Navy playing a more substantial role than during the Revolution.
During the US Civil War an enormous expansion of the US Navy was needed to enforce the blockade of the South, and the advent of steam power and iron clad armored ships hinted at the future of sea power. Of course, as is usually the case, the military was largely ignored after the war, and the Navy languished. During the 1880’s a rebuilding and modernization program began bringing an all steel ship Navy powered by steam driving propellers. In 1907 President Teddy Roosevelt showed off his mighty Navy to the world with his round the world voyage of the “Great White Fleet.” This voyage was a statement to the world that the US Navy was a major player and would remain so.
America’s brief involvement in World War I included mostly anti-submarine and mine warfare, but the years from 1914 to 1941 saw the Navy truly become modern, with post-Dreadnaught battleships and the first aircraft carriers. By the time the US entered World War II, the US Navy was a formidable force indeed, and new ships were planned and being built. World War II saw the emergence of the US Navy as the greatest fighting navy the world has ever known, with an incredible striking capability of fast, well armed and armored battleships and an enormous fleet of aircraft carriers. By 1945 the US Navy had an astounding 70% of the world’s tonnage of warships! (A whopping 6768 ships by August 1945.)
Never looking back from that time, the US Navy has remained by far the premier navy in the world, and although the numbers of ships is much smaller today (430 total ships and 3700 aircraft), the greatly expanded capabilities of each of these vessels means today’s Navy is much more powerful than even the World War II version. The US Navy currently has 11 aircraft carrier task forces, each centered on an incredibly powerful nuclear powered carrier, any one of which is more capable than the total aircraft carrier fleet of any other navy in the world. Today’s Navy also has the most extensive and effective amphibious fleet in the world for landing US Marines anywhere the President sees fit. (The US Marine Corps is not part of the US Navy, per se, but is a co-equal branch of service with the Department of the Navy. Just saying…) All of our submarines are nuclear powered and do not need to surface at all during their multi-month patrols.
The US Navy also fields one third of the “Nuclear Triad” of US nuclear weapons, meaning sub launched ballistic missiles with multiple warheads. Of course, nuclear cruise missiles can also be fired from surface ships and subs as well, and nuclear bombs can be delivered by carrier aircraft.
Some of our recent Presidents have had service in the US Navy, including John Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, and George HW Bush. Naval aviator and war hero John McCain ran for President on top of the Republican ticket in 2008.
Question for students (and subscribers): Who are some of your favorite US Navy heroes? (Plenty to pick from!) How about your favorite US Navy ship, past or present? Please let us know and share your thoughts with our readers in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Goodspeed, M. Hill. U.S. Navy, a Complete History. Universe, 2003.
Symonds, Craig L. The U.S. Navy: A Concise History. Oxford University Press, 2015.
Toll, Ian W. Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy. W. W. Norton & Company, 2008.