Here’s a trivia question: Which is older – the United States Navy or the United States of America?
If you guessed the Navy, you’d be correct. You might wonder, how did the creation of the Navy precede the formation of the nation? Why not? The Navy even preceded itself.
In the summer of 1775, General George Washington commandeered a flotilla of fishing ships – one named the “Hannah,” for the owner’s wife – and converted them into warships to harass the British Navy.
A month later, and after hearing of Washington’s improvised fleet and its successes, the Continental Congress formally established the Navy on October 13, 1775. That became the traditional birthdate of the U.S. Navy. Nine months later, on July 4, 1776, the founders signed the Declaration of Independence and formed the United States of America.
The Navy intended to counter the sea superiority of the British, who had stymied the Colonists’ trade, and had attacked coastal cities in an attempt to maintain the Crown’s stronghold in America. Over the course of the Revolutionary War, more than 50 armed U.S. Naval ships moved people, goods, and ammunition, and captured more than 200 British ships, many of which were then used against the enemy.
After defeating the British, the Americans disbanded their Navy and sold off most of the fleet by 1785. But the Barbary privateers, who operated out of North Africa, captured American sailors in the Mediterranean Sea that year, and then again in 1793. Initially, the Americans paid “tributes” to the privateers to prevent further incidents. In 1794, President Washington convinced Congress to re-fund a permanent Navy consisting initially of six frigates to combat the privateers. One of those ships is the USS Constitution, also known as “Old Ironsides,” which remains in active duty and is the world’s oldest commissioned warship. It is now a floating museum in Boston Harbor.
The American Navy has played a role in every conflict involving the United States since, including the two wars with the Barbary privateers, and then defeating the British in the War of 1812, to the American Civil War, the Spanish-American War, and World War I. The Navy overcame the bombing of Pearl Harbor to defeat Japan in the Pacific during World War II, and played significant roles in the Korean, Vietnam, and Gulf wars as well.
Today, the Navy has 337,121 active personnel and 101,583 ready reserves, 290 deployable battle force ships, and 10 commissioned carriers with an 11th – the USS John F. Kennedy – nearing completion.
Happy birthday to the U.S. Navy!