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From humble beginnings to maritime dominance — the thrilling story behind the Navy's 248-year history

Published in Blog on October 13, 2023 by Jakob Fay

On October 13, 1775, the Continental Congress in Philadelphia opened a letter from George Washington, dated October 5, and read it aloud. The 43-year-old general informed delegates first of espionage against the Continental Army and second—and perhaps most concerning—of a massive British fleet “consisting of a 64—& 20 Gun Ship, 2 Sloops of 18 Guns, [and] 2 Transports with 600 Men,” that set sail from Boston as of October 4, “calculated for the Bombardment of a Town—their Destination was kept a profound Secret.”

For his part, Washington feared the worst. Later that month, his apprehensions were “unhappily verified” when the fleet razed the city of Falmouth, Massachusetts, leaving nearly 1,000 citizens homeless in what Washington called an act “exceeding in Barbarity & Cruelty.” The Burning of Falmouth shocked the colonies and many parts of Europe, which could hardly believe an “enlightened” nation could commit such an atrocity. The nearly 8-hour bombardment, followed by a landing party that set fire to any surviving structure, convinced the colonists, at last, that the Motherland could not be negotiated with. Even many one-time loyalists soured on the Crown.

But on October 13, five days before the innocent town was leveled, the mere news of such a formidable fleet was enough to rouse the sometimes sheepish delegates in Congress. Until then, many feared that an American Navy would irreversibly damage relations with England, hinting at a newfound colonial independence, a step that many men in Congress were not yet willing to take. Only six days prior, after Rhode Island introduced a proposal to arm American ships, an incredulous Samuel Chase famously called it “the maddest Idea in the World to think of building an American Fleet.” Washington’s letter changed everything.

Confronted with the prospect of an assemblage of well-armed ships “calculated for the Bombardment of a Town,” the Continental Congress quickly reconsidered Rhode Island’s days-old proposal. In his letter, Washington disclosed that he had obtained “3 Vessels to be equipped in order to cut off” the enemy. Emboldened by the letter, the delegates authorized Washington to fit his ships for war.

Resolved,” delegates wrote, “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 cruise 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.”

With that crucial act, America’s Navy was born. Nearly 200 years later, in 1972, war hero and Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, “authorized official recognition of October 13 as the birthday of the United States Navy.”

The Continental Navy speedily became an indispensable force in the war effort against Great Britain, with over 50 armed vessels. Five years after the war ended, at the Constitutional Convention, the Founders granted Congress power to “provide and maintain a Navy (Article I, Section 8),” which prompted the federal government to establish the Department of the Navy on April 11, 1798. John Adams, second president of the United States, signed the act.

For 248 years, the U.S. Navy has courageously protected us. What started as “the maddest Idea in the World” has since evolved into the most powerful navy in the world (although the U.S. Navy is only the fourth largest in the world, the World Directory of Modern Military Warships ranks it as the strongest). We are grateful for the heroic men and women who have made this possible.

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