American Warships of the Age of Sail

Navies are born out of a spirit of independence and under the threat of war, nurtured into maturity by the urgent demands of defense and sharpened by conflict. So it was with the first American Navy.

The story of American ships and sailors is an epic of blue water which seems singularly remote, almost unreal, to the later generations. A people with a native genius for seafaring won and held a brilliant supremacy through two centuries and then forsook this heritage of theirs. The period of achievement was no more extraordinary than was its swift declension. A maritime race whose topsails flecked every ocean, whose captains courageous from father to son had fought with pike and cannonade to defend the freedom of the seas, turned inland to seek a different destiny and took no more thought for the tall ships and rich cargoes which had earned so much renown for its flag.

The American colonies were heavily dependent on the sea for their livelihood. Harbors and shipbuilding docks provided livelihood and income to many people. When the conflict between the colonies and England began, the British struck first at the ports. From these ports, the colonies deployed small ships from a hastily organized naval force to harass the mightiest sea power in the world. The principal objective of the colonial fleet was to capture enemy supply and munitions vessels.

The first man-of-war built for the United States navy on the Delaware was the good ship Randolph, armed with 32 guns, which in 1778 blew up at sea, 311 men perishing with her. That and three others were built by Joshua Humphreys, a far-seeing ship-constructor, who set forth a rule of practice that remains for decades thereafter, that, inasmuch as American vessels must be inferior in numbers to those of European navies, they must always be better fighters, and, ship by ship, improve on those built across the sea.

Great sailing ships-of-the-line, carrying from 64 to over 120 heavy guns on two or three decks, were the tangible symbols of national power upon the seas throughout the 1700’s and until the end of the 1830’s. These 18th century forerunners of the late l9th- and 20th-century battleships were massive sailing fortresses, formidable under any conditions, but attained their greatest effectiveness when operating in squadrons or fleets. From the earliest period of their history, they were the most powerful means by which the British, French, and other European navies exercised control of the seas-the key to national power, wealth, and survival. They dominated the naval scene until mechanical propulsion appeared in the great steam frigates.

During the Revolution, ships-of-the-line would have been the ideal means to prevent a strong maritime enemy from controlling American colonial coastal waters, driving the Continental frigates and smaller armed ships to cover, blockading the principal seaports, and opening the way for invasion of the seaboard. The Colonies, however, did not have the means to build major warships in numbers to counter the overwhelming seapower of England. France eventually provided the powerful Navy of ships-of-the-line that cut off British communication with the sea, making possible the victory at Yorktown. As George Washington foretold in writing to Lafayette: “a naval superiority would compel the enemy to draw their whole force to a point . . . ” forcing them from conquered territories where, deprived of naval support, they would “be cut off in detail ….”

The Boston Navy Yard was kept busy manufacturing rope and other items for the “New Navy” of steel, it garnereed no orders for ship construction other than minor barges until 1903, when it was directed to build one of two steel training ships authorized that year. The yard’s first steel ship, however, was in some ways a throwback to an earlier era, for, with her sister Intrepid, USS Cumberland was the last naval vessel to be solely powered by sail.

Courtesy of John Pike and Global Security.
Image: Raising the Grand Union Flag on Continental Ship Alfred by W. Nowland Van Powell. Courtesy of Seattle USSVI Base.

Dr. Maturin suggests further reading

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3 Comments on American Warships of the Age of Sail

  1. This piece mentions Joshua Humphreys and his influence on American naval construction, but does not cite the innovation of the American 44s, the heavy frigates USS United States, USS President, and of course the oldest warship afloat the USS Constitution. For a wonderful treatment of the early US Navy – including the politics and history of young republic and her dashing naval victories in the War 1812 – I highly recommend “Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the United States Navy” by Ian W. Toll (SBN 13:978-0-393-05847-5).

  2. The Dear Knows // August 8, 2011 at 11:15 pm // Reply

    Thank you so much for the tip, Tim! I agree that this article barely scratches the surface of the early US Navy so I definitely am excited to read something more in-depth. Hopefully I can find more articles on the same subject and make those available as well!

  3. Hi All
    I just found this site and love it!
    In addition to Toll’s excellent book, some further reading thoughts:
    Henry Gruppe’s The Frigates (1979) ISBN 0809427176, is an easy read that gets the facts right.
    Far more (deliciously) detailed are Howard I. Chapelle’s History of the American Sailing Navy (1949) republished in 1998 ISBN 1568522223 and Donald L. Canney’s Sailing Warships of the US Navy (2001) ISBN 1557509905, that builds respectfully on Chapelle’s work.

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