To understand the momentous significance of the decision to send two armed vessels to sea under the authority of the Continental Congress, we need to review the strategic situation in which it was made and to consider the political struggle that lay behind it.Some aspects of the enormous decision:
Americans first took up arms in the spring of 1775 not to sever their relationship with the king, but to defend their rights within the British Empire. By the autumn of 1775, the British North American colonies from Maine to Georgia were in open rebellion. Royal governments had been thrust out of many colonial capitals and revolutionary governments put in their places. The Continental Congress had assumed some of the responsibilities of a central government for the colonies, created a Continental Army, issued paper money for the support of the troops, and formed a committee to negotiate with foreign countries. Continental forces captured Fort Ticonderoga on Lake Champlain and launched an invasion of Canada.
In October 1775 the British held superiority at sea, from which they threatened to stop up the colonies' trade and to wreak destruction on seaside settlements. In response a few of the states had commissioned small fleets of their own for defense of local waters. Congress had not yet authorized privateering. Some in Congress worried about pushing the armed struggle too far, hoping that reconciliation with the mother country was still possible.
Yet, a small coterie of men in Congress had been advocating a Continental Navy from the outset of armed hostilities. Foremost among these men was John Adams, of Massachusetts. For months, he and a few others had been agitating in Congress for the establishment of an American fleet. They argued that a fleet would defend the seacoast towns, protect vital trade, retaliate against British raiders, and make it possible to seek out among neutral nations of the world the arms and stores that would make resistance possible.
Still, the establishment of a navy seemed too bold a move for some of the timid men in Congress. Some southerners agreed that a fleet would protect and secure the trade of New England but denied that it would that of the southern colonies. Most of the delegates did not consider the break with England as final and feared that a navy implied sovereignty and independence. Others thought a navy a hasty and foolish challenge to the mightiest fleet the world had seen. The most the pro-navy men could do was to get Congress to urge each colony to fit out armed vessels for the protection of their coasts and harbors.
Then, on 3 October, Rhode Island's delegates laid before Congress a bold resolution for the building and equipping of an American fleet, as soon as possible. When the motion came to the floor for debate, Samuel Chase, of Maryland, attacked it, saying it was "the maddest Idea in the World to think of building an American Fleet." Even pro-navy members found the proposal too vague. It lacked specifics and no one could tell how much it would cost.
If Congress was yet unwilling to embrace the idea of establishing a navy as a permanent measure, it could be tempted by short-term opportunities. Fortuitously, on 5 October, Congress received intelligence of two English brigs, unarmed and without convoy, laden with munitions, leaving England bound for Quebec. Congress immediately appointed a committee to consider how to take advantage of this opportunity. Its members were all New Englanders and all ardent supporters of a navy. They recommended first that the governments of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut be asked to dispatch armed vessels to lay in wait to intercept the munitions ships; next they outlined a plan for the equipping by Congress of two armed vessels to cruise to the eastward to intercept any ships bearing supplies to the British army. Congress let this plan lie on the table until 13 October, when another fortuitous event occurred in favor of the naval movement. A letter from General Washington was read in Congress in which he reported that he had taken under his command, at Continental expense, three schooners to cruise off Massachusetts to intercept enemy supply ships. The commander in chief had preempted members of Congress reluctant to take the first step of fitting out warships under Continental authority. Since they already had armed vessels cruising in their name, it was not such a big step to approve two more. The committee's proposal, now appearing eminently reasonable to the reluctant members, was adopted.
The Continental Navy grew into an important force. Within a few days, Congress established a Naval Committee charged with equipping a fleet. This committee directed the purchasing, outfitting, manning, and operations of the first ships of the new navy, drafted subsequent naval legislation, and prepared rules and regulations to govern the Continental Navy's conduct and internal administration.
Over the course of the War of Independence, the Continental Navy sent to sea more than fifty armed vessels of various types. The navy's squadrons and cruisers seized enemy supplies and carried correspondence and diplomats to Europe, returning with needed munitions. They took nearly 200 British vessels as prizes, some off the British Isles themselves, contributing to the demoralization of the enemy and forcing the British to divert warships to protect convoys and trade routes. In addition, the navy provoked diplomatic crises that helped bring France into the war against Great Britain. The Continental Navy began the proud tradition carried on today by our United States Navy, and whose birthday we celebrate each year in October.
Many Americans considered a navy a wasteful luxury that the young republic did not need and could not afford. After all, Europe was three thousand miles away--a fact that gave Americans a false sense of security. To many others, a navy represented the type of imperialism they had just fought to overthrow. A permanent naval force also seemed to represent the very qualities of British aristocracy that Americans found so distasteful.How were the ships to be named:
Yet America's future rested on the seas. Even when the colonies were part of the British Empire, Americans were tied to the maritime world in one way or another. Whether one was a shipowner or a small merchant, a resident of New England or the agrarian South, American trade and commerce increasingly rested on the seas.
While most Americans in the late eighteenth century were still subsistence farmers, more and more of them were becoming tied to commerce and therefore to the maritime trade. In order to protect that trade, as well as enforce American diplomatic demands, the young nation discovered that it needed a navy that was more than merely a coastal defense force. Between 1794 and the conclusion of the War of 1812, the U.S. Navy would not only become a permanent entity, but also create heroes and traditions that would bring all Americans a sense of security and pride.
Ship names in the Continental Navy and the early Federal navy came from a variety of sources. As if to emphasize the ties that many Americans still felt to Britain, the first ship of the new Continental Navy was named Alfred in honor of Alfred the Great, the king of Wessex who is credited with building the first English naval force. Another ship was named Raleigh to commemorate the seagoing exploits of Sir Walter Raleigh. Some ships honored early patriots and heroes (Hancock and General Greene). Others commemorated the young nation's ideals and institutions (Constitution, Independence, Congress). A 74-gun ship-of-the-line, launched in 1782 and donated to the French Navy on completion, was named America. A Revolutionary War frigate named Bourbon saluted the King of France, whose alliance would further the cause of American independence. Other ship names honored American places (Boston, Virginia). Small warships-- brigs and schooners--bore a variety of names. Some were named for positive character traits (Enterprise, Diligent). Others had classical names (Syren, Argus) or names of small creatures with a potent sting (Hornet, Wasp).So, the Navy's first ship was named after an English king but managed to run up a pretty good record:
Alfred-a ship-rigged vessel originally named Black Prince-was built at Philadelphia in 1774. No record of her builder seems to have survived, but it is possible that John Wharton may have constructed the ship.A upstart Navy -born 233 years ago. Thanks to all who have ever worn Navy blue.
John Barry served as the ship's only master during her career as a Philadelphia merchantman. Launched in the autumn of 1774 as relations between the American colonies and the mother country grew increasingly tense, Black Prince was fitted out quickly so that she could load and sail for Bristol on the last day of 1774. The ship did not return to Philadelphia until 25 April 1775, six days after the battles of Lexington and Concord.
Fearing that American commerce would soon be interrupted, her owners were eager to export another cargo to England, so they again raced to load and provision her. Black Prince sailed on 7 May, this time bound for London. She did not reach that destination until 27 June. The ship left the Thames on 10 August but encountered contrary winds during much of her westward voyage and finally returned to Philadelphia on 4 October.
While the ship had been abroad, much had happened to deepen the American conflict with England. The Battle of Bunker Hill had been fought, the other colonies acting in Congress had pledged to support Massachusetts in its struggle for freedom, and George Washington had taken command of the American Army besieging British-occupied Boston. Moreover, private correspondence which Black Prince had brought from England to members of the Continental Congress reported that the British Government was sending to America two unarmed brigs heavily laden with gunpowder and arms.
This inteligence prompted Congress on 13 October to authorize the fitting out of two American warships, of 10 guns each, to attempt to capture these ships and divert their invaluable cargoes to the ill-equipped soldiers of Washington's army. Congress decided, on 30 October, to add two more ships to the navy, one of 20 guns and the other slightly larger but not to exceed 36 guns. Alfred undoubtedly was the latter ship.
As a result, the Naval Committee purchased Black Prince on 4 November 1775, renamed her Alfred four days later, and ordered her fitted out as a man-of-war. Her former master, John Barry, was placed in charge of her rerigging; Joshua Humphreys was selected to superintend changes strengthening her hull, timbers, and bulwarks as well as opening gunports; and Nathaniel Falconer was made responsible for her ordnance and provisions.
Soon four other vessels joined Alfred in the Continental Navy: Columbus, Cabot, Andrew Doria, and sloop Providence. Esek Hopkins, a veteran master of merchantmen from Rhode Island, was appointed commodore of the flotilla. Alfred was placed in commission on 3 December 1775, Capt. Dudley Saltonstall in command, and became Hopkins' flagship.
The new fleet dropped down the Delaware River on 4 January 1776; but a cold snap froze the river and the bay, checking its progress at Reedy Island for some six weeks. A thaw released Hopkins' warships from winter's icy rasp in mid-February, and the fleet sortied on 18 February for its first operation. The Marine Committee had ordered Hopkins to sail for Hampton Roads to attack British warships which were harassing American shipping in Virginia waters; then to render similar service at Charleston, S.C.; and, finally, to head for Rhode Island waters. He was given the discretion of disregarding these orders if they proved impossible and planning an operation of his own.
However, by the time his ships broke free of the ice, growing British strength in the Chesapeake prompted Hopkins to head for the West Indies. Knowing that the American colonies desperately needed gunpowder, he decided to attack the island of New Providence in the Bahamas to capture a large supply of that commodity as well as a great quantity of other military supplies reportedly stored there. A fortnight after leaving the Delaware capes, on the morning of 3 March Hopkins arrived off Nassau and captured Fort Montague in a bloodless battle in which Continental marines under Capt. Samuel Nicholas joined Hopkins' sailors in America's first amphibious operation.
That evening, Hopkins issued a proclamation which promised not to harm ". . . the persons or property of the inhabitants of New Providence . . ." if they did not resist. The following morning, Governor Montfort Browne surrendered Fort Nassau but only after he had spirited away most of the island's gunpowder from New Providence to St. Augustine, Fla.
After Hopkins stripped the forts of their guns and all remaining ordnance, Alfred led the American fleet homeward from Nassau harbor on St. Patrick's Day, 17 March, the same day that British troops were evacuating Boston. On 4 April, during the homeward voyage, Hopkins' ships captured the six-gun British schooner Hawk and the eight-gun bomb brig Bolton. Shortly after midnight on 6 April, Hopkins encountered the 20-gun HMS Glasgow. That British frigate--which was carrying dispatches telling of the British withdrawal--put up a fierce and skillful fight which enabled her to escape from her substantially more powerful American opponents. At the outset of the fray, fire from her cannon cut Alfred's tiller ropes, leaving Hopkins' flagship unable to maneuver or to pursue effectively. The American ships did attempt to chase their fleeing enemy, but after dawn Glasgow disappeared over the horizon and safely reached Newport, R.I.
When Alfred and her consorts put into New London, Conn., on 8 April, the Americans were at first welcomed as heroes. However, many of the officers of the American squadron voiced dissatisfaction with Hopkins, and he was later relieved of command.
Alfred was inactive through the summer for a number of reasons, but high on the list of her problems were want of funds and a shortage of men. On 7 August, Capt. John Paul Jones, who had helped to fit her out as a warship and had been her first lieutenant on the cruise to New Providence, was placed in command of the ship. She departed Providence, R. I., on 26 October 1776 in company with Hampden, but that vessel struck a "sunken rock" before they could leave Narragansett Bay and returned to Newport. Her officers and men then shifted to sloop Providence accompanying Alfred to waters off Cape Breton Island which they reached by mid-November. There they took three prizes: on the 11th, the brigantine Active, bound from Liverpool to Halifax with an assorted cargo, the next day, the armed transport Mellish, laden with winter uniforms for British troops at Quebec; and, on the 16th, the scow Kitty, bound from Gaspe to Barbados with oil and fish.
Because of severe leaks, Providence sailed for home soon thereafter and Alfred continued her cruise alone. On 22 November boats from the ship raided Canso, Nova Scotia, where their crews burned a transport bound for Canada with provisions and a warehouse full of whale oil, besides capturing a small schooner to replace Providence. Two days later, Alfred captured three colliers off Louisburg, bound from Nova Scotia to New York with coal for the British Army and, on 26 November captured the 10-gun letter-of-marque John of Liverpool. On the homeward voyage, Alfred was pursued by HMS Milford but managed to escape after a four-hour chase. She arrived safely at Boston on 15 December and began a major refit.
Captain Elisha Hinman became Alfred's commanding officer in May 1777, but she did not get underway until 22 August when she sailed for France with Raleigh to obtain military supplies. En route, they captured four small prizes. They reached L'Orient on 6 October, and on 29 December sailed for America. They proceeded via the coast of Africa, where they took a small sloop, and then headed for the West Indies, hoping to add to their score before turning northward for home.
On 9 March 1778, near Barbados, they encountered British warships Ariadne and Ceres. When the American ships attempted to flee, Alfred fell behind her faster consort. Shortly after noon the British men-of-war caught up with Alfred and forced her to surrender after a half an hour's battle.
After surrendering, Alfred was taken to Barbados where she was condemned and sold. She was purchased and taken into the Royal Navy as H.M. armed ship Alfred (20 guns) and was sold in 1782.