The navy of the American Revolution was
fragmented into many parts, each often acting
independently of the others. For instance, several
naval engagements between the Americans and the
British actually occurred before the Continental
Congress authorized a navy. Congress finally
authorized a naval committee and ordered the
purchase and fitting out of a number of ships in
October 1775. Thus, the American navy had
officially begun; but some time would elapse
before it would have any great effect on the
mighty British navy.
The first warships of the Continental navy,
built during the revolutionary war and into the
19th century, were classified into three types of
Ships-of-the-line The battleships of
the sailing days, these ships were the largest
of all sailing warships. These battleships
carried 64 to over 100 guns of various sizes.
While the British maintained several of
these ships during the revolutionary war,
America did not build any until long after
the wars end.
Frigates These vessels were the
cruisers of the 18th century. They were
smaller and usually faster than the average
ships-of-the-line and carried 28 to 44 guns.
Sloops-of-warThese were small, sail-
ing warships that carried 10 to 20 guns.
In addition, the Continental Congress and
individual states commissioned independent fleets
of privateers to capture enemy merchant ships as
prizes of war.
A typical vessel of the fleet of privateers was
the schooner. The schooner was a small, fast,
maneuverable ship that carried smoothbore
cannons. The size and flexibility of such ships
proved to be an advantage that eventually helped
the colonists break the British stronghold on New
England harbors. Being small and maneuverable,
these ships allowed the colonists to slip past the
Royal Navys men-of-war by hiding in inlets. They
also allowed the colonists to deliver small but
effective blows to the large British ships by out-
maneuvering them instead of meeting them head
THE CIVIL WAR
27 Apr. 1861
President Lincoln orders block-
ade of entire Confederate coast.
3 Aug. 1861
Navy ends daily rum rations for
17 Feb. 1864
Steam sloop Housatonic torpe-
doed and sunk by first sub-
marine, Confederate submarine
22 Jun. 1865
Confederate raider Shenandoah
fires last shot of Civil War while
in Bering Sea.
During the Civil War, control of the sea was
overwhelmingly in the hands of the North. For
4 years the Union navy was constantly occupied
with the task of blockading more than 3,000 miles
of coastline. It was also kept busy running down
Southern commerce raiders and opening the
Mississippi and other waterways leading into the
South. In addition, it worked in cooperation with
the army in capturing coastal strongholds.
The South countered with commerce raiders,
but the strangling effect of the Union blockade
eventually took its toll. It crippled the finances
of the Confederacy, shut out foodstuffs and
munitions, and proved to be a major influence
in the outcome of the war. The country learned
from this war that a navy could not be quickly
and readily improvised in an emergency. Even
then, the days were past when merchant vessels
could be converted rapidly into efficient men-of-
Both Union and Confederate navies were
engaged in frantic shipbuilding programs, which
brought the era of ironclads into full swing. In
1862 the Union launched the New Ironsides.
Equipped with the finest armor of any American
ship in history, this powerful ironclad once
survived 50 hits.
The Civil War also gave us two new types of
ironclads, the famed Merrimack, renamed the
Virginia by the Confederacy, and the Unions
Monitor (which sported a turret). Although the
ungainly Monitor was called a cheese box on a
raft, it and its Confederate counterpart began
a new era of ironclads. When the two engaged
in battle, the outcome was indecisive, with both
sides claiming victory.
The period also introduced the use of river-
boats, rams, and gunboats. More changes and
advances were made in ship designs during the