A Birthday Timeline of the United States Navy

The official birthday of the United States Navy is October 13, 1775, which means it turned 235 last week. America’s naval history dates all the way back to the pilgrims who first settled the New World; after all, they had to get there somehow. As a colony of England, maritime commerce was of primary importance. Once America declared independence, that importance increased as the young nation found itself pitted against the world’s foremost naval power. They managed to thwart England’s invasion attempts at the Battle of Valcour Island despite having no real ships to speak of. Years later, during the War of 1812, England was to discover just how greatly they had underestimated their former colony as America’s Navy took ship after ship.

Since those days the United States Navy has upheld as proud a tradition of bravery and service as the Royal Navy, or any other navy in the world. Jack Aubrey himself would certainly raise a glass to honor the many heroes who have fought and died for America’s freedom. The following timeline of the birth of the United States Navy is posted in their honor.

1650 – 1815

1651 The Navigation Act is passed by Britain’s Parliament to channel exports from the colonies through an English port before continuing to a foreign harbor.
1663 The Staple Act adds to the existing laws by requiring goods to be unloaded, inspected, paid for in duties, and repacked for shipment.
1673 The Act of 1673 states that all goods not bonded in England must have a duty and bond placed on them when the ship reaches the colonies.
1733 The Molasses Act attempts to stop trade between the New England colonies and the French West Indies.
1764 The Revenue Act (Sugar Act) reduces taxes on molasses from six to three pence a gallon, but it also adds to the list of American exports that must pass through English ports.
1765 The Stamp Act requires that a revenue stamp be placed on all newspapers, pamphlets, almanacs, legal documents, liquor licenses, college diplomas, playing cards, and even dice.
1766 Repeal of the Stamp Act due to violent opposition.
1767 The Townshend Acts adds duties to the importation of paper, lead, painters’ colors, and tea.
1773 The Tea Act is designed to help the nearly bankrupt East India Company by giving it direct access to the American market.
1774 The Coercive Acts are actually a series of acts which include the Port Act, the Massachusetts Regulating Act, and the Quebec Act.
1775 April-The American militia confront British troops at Lexington and Concord.June 16-The British attempt to break the American defensive line by attacking the militia’s fortified positions at Breed’s Hill.

August-Washington charters the fishing schooner Hannah to raid British shipping of valuable military supplies.

Fall-Washington gives Benedict Arnold command of an American expedition into Canadian territory.

October 13-Continental Congress establishes a Naval Committee. Celebrated today as the official “birthday” of the U.S. Navy.

1776 Summer-At Lake Champlain, under the command of General Horatio Gates, Benedict Arnold constructs a squadron of sixteen ships.

October 11-At Valcour Island, Lake Champlain, British and American ships face off in a two-day running battle down the lake.

1778 February 6-France signs treaties of alliance and commerce with the United States.April 24-John Paul Jones, in his Continental Navy sloop, Ranger, defeats British sloop of war Drake.
1779 September 23-John Paul Jones, in the French East Indiaman Bonhomme Richard, defeats the British frigate Serapis.
1781 Summer-General Cornwallis establishes a base of operations at Yorktown, Virginia.Summer-Admiral de Grasse begins moving his fleet north from the West Indies, bound for the Chesapeake Bay.

Summer-Admiral Sir George Rodney dispatches fourteen British ships in pursuit.

August 21-Washington’s army begins moving south from New York to confront Cornwallis at Yorktown.

August 29-French fleet arrives in Virginia, anchoring in the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. French troops land to hold Cornwallis at Yorktown. Washington’s men are ferried by the French from the northern bay. Now Cornwallis is effectively trapped.

September 5-British fleet arrives at mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. At 3:45 P.M., the two fleets face off in a confrontation known as the Battle of the Capes. The French successfully protect the Chesapeake Bay from the British.

October 22-Cornwallis surrenders to Washington at Yorktown.

1789 Henry Knox is appointed first secretary of war by George Washington.
1793 Without the protection of the British navy, losses of American shipping to the Algerine pirates grow at an alarming rate.
1794 March 18-Congress passes An Act to Provide for a Naval Armament, authorizing the creation of a fleet of six ships to be used against the Algerine pirates.Jay’s Treaty of 1794. America and Great Britain sign the Jay Treaty.
1795 Construction begins on the six frigates authorized by the 1794 Naval Armament Act at various American ports along the Atlantic seaboard.Angered by Jay’s Treaty, French vessels begin to seize American ships on the high seas.
1796 March-A peace accord is signed between the United States and the Dey of Algiers.
1797 President John Adams dispatches a special commission to France to renegotiate trade treaties with the French Republic.

May 10-United States, the first of six frigates authorized by the 1794 Naval Armament Act, is launched in Philadelphia.

1798 March-After a year of fruitless negotiations the American commission to France returns empty-handed.March-President Adams notifies Congress of the commission’s failure, producing proof of bribes requested by French officials. The incident is named the XYZ Affair.

April 27-A new naval appropriations bill passes Congress. It calls for the building or purchase of twelve ships of war, the raising of a naval officers corps, and the creation of a budget of $950,000. Benjamin Stoddert is appointed to administer this new office.

May-Congress authorizes U.S. warships to seize “armed vessels under authority or pretense of authority from the Republic of France” when they are found operating in American coastal waters.

July-Captain Stephen Decatur, Sr., in the 20-gun schooner Delaware, encounters French privateering ship Croyable and wins the first encounter of the Quasi-War by capturing the enemy.

1799 February 9-Constellation, commanded by Thomas Truxton, defeats French ship L’Insurgente in the Leeward Islands of the Caribbean.
1801 May 10-Tripoli declares war on the United States.July 1-The American fleet sent by President Jefferson arrives in Gibraltar. This is a naval “squadron of observation” under the command of Commodore Richard Dale, assigned to the Mediterranean in response to Tripoli’s demand for higher tribute.

July-Treaty of Mortefountaine ends hostilities with France. Through the terms of the treaty, the 1778 Franco-American Treaty of Alliance is annulled and France agrees to respect United States neutrality.

August 1-Lieutenant Andrew Sterrett, in command of the Enterprise, defeats the corsair Tripoli.

1802 April-Commodore Dale returns to the United States and resigns from the navy. He is replaced by Commodore Richard Morris.
1803 June-Commodore Edward Preble is given command of the Mediterranean Squadron.September-Commodore Richard Morris is recalled to the United States. Furious at his lack of initiative, Jefferson dismisses him from the navy when a court of inquiry censures him for lack of diligence.

October 31-Captain William Bainbridge, commanding the Philadelphia, runs his ship aground on an uncharted reef near the entrance to Tripoli Harbor.

1804 February 4-The Intrepid enters Tripoli Harbor and recaptures the Philadelphia. The Americans set the Philadelphia afire and make good their escape.September 4-The Intrepid, loaded with one hundred barrels of gunpowder, sails into Tripoli Harbor to be abandoned by her crew and then exploded. However, a direct hit from Tripoli Harbor ignites the Intrepid‘s gunpowder before the crew can escape, obliterating the ship.

September-Commodore Samuel Barron arrives off Tripoli with reinforcements. Senior in rank to Preble, Barron assumes command of the squadron.

1805 June 4-The Pasha of Tripoli accepts the last American offer of $60,000 for the release of American prisoners and approves a new treaty that does not require tribute payments.October-The British defeat the French at the Battle of Trafalgar.
1807 January 7-The British Orders in Council decree that ships entering or leaving French ports shall be seized.June 22-The American ship Chesapeake is fired on and boarded by the crew of the HMS Leopard. The British arrest four deserters from the American ship and sail for Halifax.

July 2-Jefferson signs an official decree ordering all British vessels out of American waters.

December-Congress, at Jefferson’s request, imposes a worldwide embargo on American trade called the Non-Intercourse Act.

December-Napoleon issues the Milan Decree, which labels all ships from any nation engaged in commerce with the English as lawful French prizes.

1810 May-Macon’s Bill Number 2 replaces the Non-Intercourse Act. This bill lifts all restrictions on trade with both England and France.
1812 June 15-The U.S. Congress declares war on Britain. June 23-Captain John Rogers, commanding the frigate President, fires the first shot of the War of 1812 at the British frigate Belvidera.

August-Brigadier General William Hull takes an army of two thousand American militiamen to invade Canada. He instead fortifies his army at Detroit, where the British surround and lay siege to the American army, forcing their surrender.

August 16-Commander Isaac Chauncey is sent north to take command of the new fleet being built at Lake Erie and Lake Ontario.

August 19-The Constitution, under the command of Captain Isaac Hull, is the first American ship to defeat a Royal Navy frigate, the Guerrière, in combat.

October 25-Captain Stephen Decatur, in command of the United States, sights the British ship Macedonian five hundred miles west of the Canary Islands. The two ships engage one another. After only ninety minutes of pounding, the Macedonian strikes her colors and becomes a prize of the United States.

December 29-William Bainbridge, now in command of the Constitution, sights the Royal Navy frigate Java off the coast of Brazil. The ships are closely matched, and it is only after a long, heated battle that the American ship prevails.

1813 March-September-Captain Porter and the frigate Essex attack British whaling ships along the west coast of South America.April 27-Commander Chauncey takes his squadron on the offensive, crossing Lake Ontario to capture and burn York (Toronto).

June 1-Perhaps the greatest American defeat of the War of 1812 occurs when the Chesapeake and the Shannon fight near Boston. The British win decisively; fifty-six Americans are killed and eighty-five wounded.

August 6-Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry sails out of Presque Isle, intent on crossing Lake Erie to set up an advanced base at Put-in-Bay. An American naval presence there would pose a threat to British-occupied Detroit.

September 10-The American squadron on Lake Erie faces off against the British forces. Surging ahead of the Americans, the Lawrence, under the command of Perry, is badly pounded. Forced to abandon his ship, Perry transfers his command and battle flag, inscribed with the slogan “Don’t Give Up the Ship,” to the Niagara. The American squadron attacks with such furious fire that the British are forced to surrender.

October-Americans defeat the British at the Battle of the Thames.

1814 March 28- Essex is engaged by two Royal Navy warships, Phoebe and Cherub, at Valparaiso, Chile. Outmatched and outgunned, Porter surrenders the Essex.June-American defenses under the command of Commodore Joshua Barney fail to repel a superior British force at the mouth of the Potomac River.

August 19-British troops land at Benedict, Maryland.

August 31-The British burn Washington, D.C.

September 11-Plattsburg Harbor is the site of the battle for control of Lake Champlain. Led by Master Commandant MacDonough, the less experienced American ships remain at anchor in the harbor, forcing the British to attack at close quarters. Badly outgunned, the British strike their colors and withdraw.

September 13-The British attack Baltimore. Major General Ross plans to attack the city while British ships bombard Fort McHenry. Despite heavy bombardment by the British, Fort McHenry cannot be taken. This failure and the death of General Ross in battle lead to the British withdrawal the following morning.

December 14-The British proceed toward New Orleans from the east via Lake Borgne. An American naval force under the command of Lieutenant Thomas ap Catesby Jones blocks their way. In the ensuing battle, Jones, his ships, and his men are captured. The battle delays the British attack on New Orleans.

December 23-Andrew Jackson, commanding the American forces, attacks the British camp eight miles south of New Orleans. American ships Carolina (fourteen guns) and Louisiana (twenty-two guns) begin to fire on the British encampment. The Americans fall back to earthworks.

December 24-The Treaty of Ghent is signed, ending the War of 1812.

December 28-The British attempt to advance toward New Orleans, but are thwarted by heavy fire from both the American troops and the Louisiana.

1815 January 8-The Battle of New Orleans culminates with the launch of a major British offensive on the city. The British experience a disastrous defeat.January-The President, under the command of Stephen Decatur, runs aground in a snowstorm. Damaged and hard to maneuver, the ship is attacked by the HMS Endymion, and both are badly shot up. Decatur is forced to surrender when two pursuing frigates from the British squadron move to attack.

February 20-The last naval battle of the War of 1812 is held in the Atlantic Ocean, off the Cape Verde Islands. The Constitution, under the command of Captain Charles Stewart, engages the British ships Cyane and Levant. Constitution prevails against a double attack and takes both ships as prizes.

Courtesy of the Mariner’s Museum.
Image: Oliver Hazard Perry at the Battle of Lake Erie, artist unknown.

Dr. Maturin suggests further reading

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2 Comments on A Birthday Timeline of the United States Navy

  1. Thank you indeed for the high praise of my favorite Navy of all time (even if it is Nelson week over at Triple P). A couple of points from the geeky nautical girl:

    First off allow me to give credit where it’s due: David Porter didn’t just “attack British whalers” in the South Pacific, he all but shut down British whaling, costing Britain literally millions of dollars.

    Second, the Treaty of Ghent as signed on Christmas Eve 1814 did not, in fact, end the War of 1812. It held a “claus ante bellum” which would have ceded any land then held by the British in Louisiana and Mississippi to them if ratified by the U.S. Congress. Congress insisted on removal of this claus even after Jackson beat back the British on Rodriguez Canal and did not officially ratify the treaty until January, 1815. I’ve relatives who manned guns at the Battle of New Orleans (those storied Louisiana “pirates”) and it always irks me that the bravery on both sides of the line are so easily dismissed by this erroneous and unfortunately almost universal belief.

  2. The Dear Knows // October 19, 2010 at 3:28 pm //

    Thanks for the clarification! There was quite a long article to go with the timeline which may have addressed some of those points but if I post it I’ll have to do it in parts. I think I’ll have to post it if only to do my friends currently serving justice.

    P.S. I’m loving Nelson week!

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