In an effort to curb British Sea Control, the Continental Congress established the Continental Navy, which later, on October 13, 1775, became the United States Navy. When the infant Navy was first formed, it consisted of just two armed vessels – tasked with disrupting munition ships supplying the British Army in America. Yet over the past nearly two and one-half centuries, our Navy has grown to become the largest, most advanced, and most lethal fighting force the world has ever known.
In 1972, the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, designated October 13 as the Navy’s offical birthday, and directed that it be commemorated so as to “enhance [the] appreciation of our Navy heritage” and reinforce “pride and professionalism in the Naval Service.”
In addition to this year marking the Navy's 243rd birthday, the year ahead will mark several other historic milestones for the Navy. Throughout the year, Navy will celebrate the 25th anniversary of women’s first assignment aboard a combat ship, the 50th anniversary of Navy’s Fighter Weapons school -- Top Gun, the 75th anniversary of Navy’s success during Operation Overlord (D-Day) and the Battle of Leyte Gulf and the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.
Establishment of the Continental Navy
The United States Navy traces its origins to the Continental Navy, which is established at the beginning of the American Revolution. On October 13, 1775, the Continental Congress decides to purchase two armed ships to attack British supply ships and keep their supplies from reaching British soldiers in the colonies. A second resolution passes the same day creating a naval committee to oversee the purchase of the ships and write a set of regulations for their management. Thus was born the Continental Navy, and October 13 remains the official birth date of the U.S. Navy.
First Overseas Expedition of the Continental Navy
Commodore Esek Hopkins, recently appointed “commander in chief of the fleet,” sails from the Delaware with a squadron of eight vessels, with orders to clear the Chesapeake Bay and the coasts of Virginia and the Carolinas of British raiders. Taking advantage of a flexible clause in his orders, Hopkins sets course for the Bahamas. On March 3, Hopkins lands a force of 300 sailors and marines, which storms Forts Nassau and Montagu and occupies New Providence Island. Some 73 cannons, mortars, and a large quantity of munitions are captured and loaded on board Hopkins’s ships to be carried back to the Continental Army.
Reestablishment of the U.S. Navy
After the United States won its independence in 1783, the remaining ships of the Continental Navy are sold and its officers and sailors return to civilian life. But the need to defend the nation’s seaborne commerce finally moves Congress to re-establish the Navy in the spring of 1794. Urged on by President George Washington, Congress authorizes the construction or purchase of six frigates to protect American shipping from Algerine corsairs. Three frigates are to mount 44 guns and three are to mount 36 guns, though Congress stipulates that their construction will be cancelled in the event that peace is made with Algiers before their completion.
The first officers of the new navy are appointed. There are six captains: James Sever, John Barry, Richard Dale, Samuel Nicholson, Silas Talbot, and Thomas Truxtun. Each captain is assigned to oversee the construction of one of the six frigates. Construction proceeds slowly due to the difficulty of gathering supplies and the decision to build major structural components out of live oak, which must be harvested in southern forests.
Despite the conclusion of peace with Algiers in 1795, Congress authorizes the completion of frigates Constitution (44 guns), United States (44 guns), and Constellation (36 guns). The other three frigates then under construction are postponed. The frigate United States is launched on May 10, 1797, while the frigates Constellation and Constitution are launched on September 7, 1797 and October 21, 1797, respectively. USS Constitution remains a commissioned warship today and is homeported in Boston, Massachusetts – the world’s oldest commissioned warship afloat!
Establishment of the Navy Department
In early 1798 an overworked Secretary of War James McHenry complains to Congress about his responsibility for naval affairs. Naval administration had become a large portion of his department’s work, as it had for the Treasury Department, which oversaw all of the navy’s contracting and disbursing. The Department of War had also been criticized by Congress for the excessive cost of the naval construction program. Seeing the obvious need for an executive department responsible solely for naval affairs, Congress passes a bill establishing the Department of the Navy. President John Adams signs this historic act on April 30, 1798.
First Secretary of the Navy Appointed
Benjamin Stoddert is appointed as the nation’s first secretary of the navy, upon confirmation by the Senate. Stoddert, a prominent merchant who had served as secretary of the Continental Board of War during the American Revolution, had been nominated by President John Adams three days prior. When he becomes secretary in June 1798, only one American warship was deployed for operations in the undeclared Quasi-War with France. Before the Quasi-War ends in 1801, the Navy possesses almost 30 ships, with some 700 officers and 5,000 seamen.