SHIPS OF THE CONTINENTAL NAVY
What constituted a warship in the late 1700s?
During the revolutionary war and into the 19th century,
naval vessels were grouped into three major classes
1. Ships-of-the-line. These were the battleships of
the sailing days. These ships were the largest of
all sailing warships and carried 64 to over 100
guns of various sizes. However, our Navys
ships-of-the-line didnt come into existence
until years later, long after the Revolutionary
War was over.
2. Frigates. These were the cruisers of the 18th
century. These cruisers were next in size, usually
smaller and faster than average ship-of-the-line.
They generally carried 28 to 44 guns.
3. Sloops-of-war. These were the small sailing
warships. They carried 10 to 20 guns.
Another group of naval vessels were the privateers.
Privateers were commissioned by the Continental
Congress and by individual states to capture enemy
merchant ships as prizes of war.
Typical of the independent fleet of privateers was
the schooner. The schooner was a small, fast, flexible,
flush-deck ship that carried smooth-bore cannon. With
small ships like these schooners, the colonists broke the
British stranglehold on main New England harbors by
slipping past the Royal Navys men-of-war and hiding in
inlets. Unable to meet the British head-on, the American
ships outmaneuvered them and jabbed here and there
instead of standing full force and slugging it out.
Navy ships in the Continental Navy included the
Providence, a 12-gun sloop; the Lexington, a 16-gun
brig (converted from a merchantman); and the
Bonhomme Richard, a loan from the French, an old East
Indiaman. Later in this chapter, you will find out how
other ships bearing some of these names made history in
their own right.
THE FIRST UNITED STATES SUBMARINE
A young American experimented with a subsurface
craft he hoped would help drive the British out of New
York harbor and away from American shores for good.
David Bushnell was a Yale medical student who had
been working on a small submarine for some 4 years
and finally completed it in 1775.
This first warfare submarine, named the Turtle, was
described by Bushnell as having some resemblance to
two upper tortoise shells of equal size, joined
It was 7.5 feet deep, and under ideal
conditions had a maximum speed of 3 knots. A single
operator could stay down for 30 minutes.
The Turtle was armed with an oak casing filled with
150 pounds of explosives. This charge could be attached to
the bottom of an enemy ship where it was intended to
After completing the submarine, Bushnell took it
for several dives to prove its seaworthiness. Finally, in
September 1776, he was ready to try it against the
British in New York harbor. Sergeant Ezra Lee, a
volunteer from the Connecticut militia, maneuvered the
Turtle through the use of hand-driven screw propellers.
His mission was to attach a time-fuse charge of
gunpowder to the hull of HMS Eagle. However, the
mission was aborted when the auger failed to penetrate
the copper sheathing of the Eagle.
Bushnell made a few more attempts to use the Turtle
against the British in the Delaware River. He attached
mines to the Turtle and floated the mines against ships.
These attempts failed. The submarine was finally sunk
by the British in New York harborthe first recorded
instance of an antisubmarine attack.
CONTINENTAL NAVY ACTIONS
The new Navy ordered to be established by the
Continental Congress came into being in the last months
of 1775. To build a fleet, Congress authorized the
construction of 13 new frigates (ranging from 24 to 32
guns) and the conversion of 6 merchant ships (ranging
from 10 to 24 guns). These merchant ships included the
USS Hornet and the USS Alfred. The USS Alfred had the
distinction of being the U.S. Navys first flagship and is
said to be the first U.S. naval vessel on which the Flag of
Freedom was hoisted (by John Paul Jones). All were
solidly constructed ships with a number of guns. Even so,
they were at a serious disadvantage because they were
pitted against the established and superior British
forcethen the finest Navy in the world.