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History and Heritage

Happy Birthday, Navy

242 years of service

October 13, 1775, the Continental Congress, "Resolved, That a swift sailing vessel, to carry ten carriage guns, and a proportionable number of swivels, with eighty men, be fitted, with all possible despatch, for a cruise of three months, and that the commander be instructed to cruize eastward, for intercepting such transports as may be laden with warlike stores and other supplies for our enemies, and for such other purposes as the Congress shall direct."*

The resolution went on to authorize a second ship, while a second resolution created a committee to oversee the purchase of the ships and write regulations. The Continental Navy, soon to become the United States Navy, was born.

The two ships initially purchased by Congress were merchant ships. They became the brigantines Andrew Doria, "The Black Brig," and Cabot. By the end of the year, Congress had authorized thirteen frigates. The new Navy's mission was primarily interrupting the transport of arms and provisions to British forces, as well as protecting American merchants.

The first real naval battle of the war came the following March in the British colony of the Bahamas. Under the command of Commodore Esek Hopkins, the fledgling fleet and a contingent of Marines captured two small enemy sloops, then took Fort Montague, Fort Nassau and the town of Nassau, Mar. 3 and 4. With a severe ammunition shortage at home, their objective had been to seize large stores of gunpowder and munition.

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The British governor managed to sneak many of the supplies off the island, and the Continental Sailors and Marines were riddled with fever and smallpox after two weeks in the tropical Caribbean climate. Still, they managed to commandeer some 38 barrels of gunpowder and as many weapons as their ships could carry. They also arrested the colony's governor and eventually transported him back to Connecticut.

After the war, the Continental Navy was disbanded, its ships sold off. By the mid-1790s, however, Congress realized the nation needed to defend its seagoing merchants and its coasts, and authorized the construction of new ships in 1794. Congress then passed a bill establishing the Department of the Navy, Apr. 30, 1798.

For more information about the history of the U.S. Navy, including a timeline, historic recruiting posters and a video, click here.

*Editor's Note: Primary sources retain original spelling and punctuation. Sources for this story are the U.S. Navy and Navy History and Heritage Command.