At the beginning of the American Revolution, the Royal Navy had approximately 350 rated ships, i.e. first-raters of 90 guns or more down to sixth rated ships with 20 to 30. Add in smaller sloops and brigs and the total reaches close to 500. We had none.
In the eight years of war – 1775 – 1783, the Continental Congress scraped together enough money to covert or build 63 ships ranging from vessels designed to fight on lakes, sloops and brigs with 12 – 18 guns and to frigates carrying between 20 and 36 guns intended for commerce raiding.
Several – Hornet (34 guns); Virginia (28 guns); Providence (28 guns); Congress (28 guns) – are just a few of the first of famous ships bearing their names. We even built a new 76-gun ship of the line named America classified as a third-rate ship-of-the-line along with several frigates carrying 24 to 44 guns. America was given to the French as partial payment of our debts.
Privateers played a vital role during the war. Between the Continental Congress and the colonial legislatures, 1,700 letters of marque were issued to individuals or consortiums and 800 privateers sallied forth from U.S. ports hoping to make a profit. Their mission was the same as the Continental Navy’s – wage guerilla warfare against the Royal Navy and England’s merchant fleet and capture ships carrying supplies to the Royal Army.
At the end of the war, the surviving privateers reverted to back to their original use. But what happened to the 63 ships built or modified exclusively for the Continental Navy?
The Royal Navy’s view is that they beat us pretty handily and the statistics support this view. Twenty or 31.75% of the 63 of the Continental Navy’s ship’s were captured or sunk. Another 19 (30.15%) were scuttled or burned to prevent them from being captured. Four more, or 6.35% were sunk due to enemy action. In other words, 43 or almost 68% of the ships acquired by Congress were lost either through enemy action or our own efforts to keep them out of British hands.
Operationally, these losses are staggering and would put any modern Navy out of business. But it is not the whole story.
Combined with the privateers, the Continental Navy captured between 12 and 15% of Britain’s merchant fleet. At a time when the Royal Navy and its merchant ship owners were struggling to find enough men to fully man their ships, we took 15,000 sailors into custody. That’s two thousand more prisoners than Washington’s army captured.
Sadly, right after the war, the surviving Continental Navy ships were sold. However, by 1794, the nation realized it needed a Navy to protect our own merchant ships and defend our nation. Luckily, there was a cadre of men who served in the Continental Navy who used the lessons learned from the American Revolution to build a Navy that could take on the Royal Navy on more equal terms.