August 7, 2019
Continental Navy – “The Maddest Idea in the World”
In 1775, the American cause of liberty was uncertain and troubled. An empire built on its mastery of the oceans and seas, Great Britain controlled everything that came in and out of American ports. Even though a few believed the Atlantic should not be surrendered so quickly, the thought of an American fleet pitched against the British seemed impossible, if not absurd. It was called “the maddest idea in the world,” and would bankrupt the cause. A naval force, however, quickly became necessary to achieve independence. And its champion was a man who had sailed only once in his life, John Adams. In the summer of 1775, Adams proposed, “We ought to have had in our Hands a month ago the whole Legislative, executive and judicial of the whole Continent … to have raised a naval Power, and opened our Ports wide.”
Meanwhile, the British navy continued to threaten American trade, ports, and seaside settlements. Gen. George Washington realized that much-needed supplies would come from ships and took out three ships to acquire gunpowder and other items. Washington’s success and the thwarting efforts of local ships in Massachusetts and Rhode Island rallied the support of other Continental Congress representatives from New England. Other states, especially from the South, remained vehemently opposed, fearing British attacks on vulnerable Southern ports. In October 1775, news arrived that 15 British ships were on their way with guns, soldiers, and supplies. Then more news came about Scottish and Irish forces being sent to augment the British. Adams saw an opportunity to sway his opponents, arguing if American seamen “were let loose upon the ocean they would contribute greatly to the relief of our wants as well to the distress of our enemy.” Adams now had growing support within Congress and Washington pushed them to act, writing that Lord Frederick North, British Prime Minister, was “determined to push the War to the utmost.” Congress passed a resolution to establish the Continental Navy, fit several ships, and establish a naval committee to manage costs and operations. A triumphant Adams wrote, “We begin to feel a little of a Seafaring Inclination here.”
The Continental Navy began to take shape during the final months of 1775 as regulations were drafted, and ships were refitted and constructed. Over 40 captains and 100 lieutenants were commissioned in the Navy, as well as several dozen officers in a Marine Corps. Over the course of the war, the Continental Navy sailed some 50 armed vessels that captured nearly 200 British prizes and enemy military supplies, food, and other goods, also denying the British the same resources. The Navy contributed “to the demoralization of the enemy and [forced] the British to divert warships to protect convoys and trade routes.” Without control of the Atlantic, it was difficult for the British to transport and sustain a large army in America. The Navy also carried correspondence and diplomats to Europe, helping bring France into the war. The Continental Navy proved crucial in winning American independence.