When the Continental Navy was authorized by the Continental Congress on October 13th, 1775, the Americans had no ships, the Royal Navy had 350 rated ships and 550 in commission. Its officers and crews were all seasoned professionals and at the time, were part of the biggest, best trained, and equipped navy. The Royal Navy had money, an organization and a supply chain that knew how to support ships at sea.
The Continental Navy had none of the above. With few exceptions, its ships were crewed by inexperienced amateurs. We had shipyards but no cannon foundries. Throughout the American Revolution, a lack of money plagued the Continental Army and Navy.
When one looks at the situation when the war started on April 19th, 1775, it is fair to ask, “What were our Founding Fathers thinking?” They had just declared war on arguably one of the wealthiest and most powerful countries in the world.
Despite having a governmental system that did not allow the Continental Congress to raise taxes, the Continental Navy managed to build, man, and equip frigates to take on the Royal Navy. If one looks at the numbers, the inexperienced Continental Navy had its clock cleaned. Out of the 63 frigates it sent to war, 20 were captured, 19 were burned to avoid capture and four were sunk by the Royal Navy.
Yet, despite losing 43 of its ships, the Continental Navy and American Privateers managed to capture between 12 and 15% of the British Merchant fleet. Their success made it difficult for the British government to resupply and reinforce its forces fighting the Continental Army and the French and Spanish in the Caribbean and the French on the Indian Subcontinent.
The lack of numbers and experience forced the captains of the Continental Navy ships to adapt their tactics to their ships they were sailing. Many were converted merchantmen. Others were brigs or frigates with fewer and/or smaller cannon than those they faced.
Royal Navy captains were trained to get side by side with an enemy ship and trade broadsides and use rate of fire and the discipline of its crews to carry the day. Continental Navy captains, even those who spent time in the Royal Navy, preferred to use their skill as seamen.
Rather than trade broadsides, Continental Navy captain tried to out-maneuver the Royal Navy ship and fire from either the bow or stern where the Royal Navy ships could not fire back. This is not to say that the Royal Navy captains didn’t try to gain tactical advantage, but when battle was inevitable, they shortened sail and invited the enemy ship to fight it out, side by side.
These “maneuver first/avoid trading broadsides” tactics were called melees. American captains used chain and bar shot to rip up the Royal Navy ship’s rigging, thus hindering the enemy ship’s ability to maneuver. They were first used by the French Navy to counter the better trained and equipped Royal Navy and take advantage of their faster and more maneuverable ships.
Melee tactics had another advantage. If the Continental Navy ship’s lookouts spotted another frigate on the horizon, the chances were that it was British. Melee tactics enabled the Continental Navy captain to break off the action and hopefully escape rather than take on two Royal Navy ships.
While the Royal Navy continued to hold to its doctrine of trading broadsides, the Continental Navy’s tactics continued to evolve with the nascent U.S. Navy. When the Royal Navy faced off against the U.S. Navy in the War of 1812, it again had the advantage of numbers.
This time the Royal Navy found itself facing a navy with ships that were better built, faster, more maneuverable and carried heavier armament. The U.S. Navy crews led by professional Naval officers who honed their skills fighting the French in the Quasi War and then the Barbary Pirates. Their ships could either trade broadsides and win or maneuver and win. The net result was the U.S. Navy, its ships and tactics were an ugly surprise to the Royal Navy.
Drawing is of the U.S.S. Alliance, 40 guns, the last ship of the Continental Navy courtesy of Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships.