A Revolution At Sea?


The developments in American Colonial maritime link directly to and lead to the American War For Independence (1775-1783). In fact, some of the war’s causes were part of the maritime scene. Trade. Taxes. Import/Export Regulations. And – don’t forget – The Boston Tea Party!

The war seemed ludicrous to the world powers during the 18th Century. Did a bunch of colonial farmers and seamen really think they were going to win against one of the strongest nations in Europe? The British Army and Navy had been honing the art of war on battlefields and the waves for centuries, but – perhaps – that was the American’s advantage.

This blog post focuses on some aspects of the Revolutionary War at sea. It looks into some of the problems and advantages for both sides during the conflict. It explores how the war prepared the new nation to want/need its own navy – a navy that would protect the country’s trade interests and allow for continued success in maritime ventures.

Understanding The British Royal Navy In The 1770’s

I’m afraid most of us have this idea “oh, yeah, the British had a few big ships in the 1700’s.” We don’t always grasp the literal concept “Britain ruled the waves.” Let’s try to change that…

One of the first things to understand: Britain’s naval history. It goes far back to King Alfred in the 800’s A.D. Their navy defends the island nation from invading Catholic armies (Spanish Armada, 1588). It helped defend the colonial empire. By the 1770’s, Britain had established sea dominance, and fighting the French had helped them achieve that position.

Lord Richard Howe

Lord Richard Howe

Second, you have to start understanding the ships. The largest: Ships-of-the-Line carried between 50 to 100 guns (cannons) depending on their size and rating (which is another topic for another time. Frigates carried between 22 and 44 guns and were designed to be faster and more maneuverable. Then there were the “little” ships – sloops, bomb vessels, brigs, schooners, cutters, and gunboats. During the 1770’s, Britain had approximately 400 ships with about 110,000 men!

Thirdly, meet the leadership. The First Lord of the Admiralty was part of the king’s cabinet; John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, held the post during the American Revolutionary War. Then there were the Admiralty Boards (and they had a board for just about everything). Next, the admirals. Lord Richard Howe was a notable fleet commander during the American conflict. Captains commanded the ships directly and either operated together in a fleet, guarded convoys, or raided the coastline, following orders. Because the British weren’t enthusiastic about the war or simply thought the Americans would be super easy to defeat, they didn’t always send their best commanders or support the good commanders.

Understanding American Advantages At Sea

The Americans did not have 400 warships. In fact, they had no navy. They struggled to build and keep their ships. However, there were a couple advantages on their side.

First, Americans knew how to build ships and had forests in their backyards. Congress ordered frigates to be built; they were built, but unfortunately most were captured or destroyed to avoid capture at various points during the war.

Second, they used privateers. The American “navy” had its problems during the 1770’s and 1780’s, but sea power was effectively placed in the hands of common citizens. Privateers were “commissioned” and outfitted to attack and prey upon British trade routes and shipping. And these “legalized pirates” were successful.

Third, they learned to use the element of surprise (sort of). Fighting fleet against fleet wasn’t a great idea for the Americans, but a few of the navy captains learned to make surprise attacks on loner ships or convoys and had good success.

Meet Two American Heroes

John Paul Jones – One of the most famous sea captains from the Revolutionary War, Jones took the war to the waters around Britain. He and his little “fleet” cruised around the British Isle and boosted morale at home and French interest in Europe. His memorable ship was the Bonhomme Richard, and his legendary defiant words as he engaged a 50 gun British frigate have inspired generations of American navy personnel. “I have not yet begun to fight.”

Serapis and the Bonhomme Richard, John Paul Jones's famous battle

Serapis and the Bonhomme Richard, John Paul Jones’s famous battle

John Barry – He captured many prize vessels, commanded the first ship commissioned for the Continental Navy, and won the final naval battle of the war – Cape Canaveral, 1783. He shares or competes with John Paul Jones for the title “Father of the American Navy.” Barry was known for his religiosity and patriot beliefs. According to one account, the British offered him 100,000 pounds and command of any British frigate if he would desert and betray the American cause. Barry refused.

A Bigger Impact?

Could the American privateers and “navy” have had a bigger impact on the war? Author and historian George C. Daughan says “yes.” In his book If By Sea: The Forging of the American Navy From the Revolution to the War of 1812, Daughan points out the British navy commanders’ fears. They were afraid of small boats attacking their large ships at anchor in the American harbors, bays, and capes. If an armada of little boats appeared, the cannons would not be really effective; the patriots could burn the British ships and disappear. It would’ve been like minute-man tactics on the sea.

On a few isolated occasions, small boat tactics were tried. However, Congress and patriot leaders wanted to build a navy – big boats that would challenge Britain’s sea dominance. They never seriously considered the damages and possibilities available with little boats.

Could different naval tactics have changed the war? Possibly. Could better leadership at sea of the American “fleets” resulted in concerted effects between army and navy? Probably. Was Congress the right organization to dictate captains’ missions? No – but they were copying (or trying to copy) the British methods and the admiralty.


The American War For Independence prompted patriot leaders to establish a navy. They used the British navy as their model which was overly ambitious for the time, place, and funds. In the coming years, they would revisit the idea and argue about it. The war launched American armed conflict at sea and the new nation would be able to create their naval power in the coming years.

Ultimately, the war gave America it’s first naval heroes, limited successes, and the dreams of building big, ocean-dominating fleets to protect their maritime interests abroad.

Your Historian,

Miss Sarah

P.S. They didn’t really get featured in this article…but don’t forget the French navy in this conflict. The French navy played a major role in the alliance and actually helped to secure the British surrender at Yorktown in 1781.

One thought on “A Revolution At Sea?

  1. Pingback: Why Create A Navy? | Gazette665

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