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The USS Texas, commissioned 1892, was the first battleship of the United States Navy and the first of four ships to bear the name "USS Texas". Photochrom print c. 1898.

The history of the United States Navy divides into two major periods: the "Old Navy", a small but respected force of sailing ships that was also notable for innovation in the use of ironclads during the American Civil War, and the "New Navy", the result of a modernization effort that began in the 1880s and eventually made the U.S. Navy the most powerful in the world.


Foundations of the "Old Navy"

Continental Navy (1775–1785)

On 12 June 1775, the Rhode Island General Assembly, meeting at East Greenwich, passed a resolution, which created the first formal, governmentally authorized navy in the Western Hemisphere.[1] The same day, Governor Nicholas Cooke signed orders addressed to Captain Abraham Whipple, commander of the sloop Katy, and commodore of the armed vessels employed by the government.[1]

The first formal movement for the creation of an Continental navy came from Rhode Island, because its merchant's widespread smuggling activities had been severely harassed by British frigates.[2] On 26 August 1775, Rhode Island General Assembly passed a resolution that there be a single Continental fleet.[2] The resolution was introduced in the Continental Congress on 3 October 1775, but was tabled.[1] In the meantime, George Washington had begun to acquire ships, starting with the schooner Hannah which was paid for out of Washington's own pocket.[1] Hannah was commissioned and launched on 5 September 1775, from the port of Beverly, Massachusetts.[3]

Resolved, That a swift sailing vessel, to carry ten carriage guns, and a proportionable number of swivels, with eighty men, be fitted, with all possible despatch, for a cruise of three months, and that the commander be instructed to cruize eastward, for intercepting such transports as may be laden with warlike stores and other supplies for our enemies, and for such other purposes as the Congress shall direct.
That a Committee of three be appointed to prepare an estimate of the expence, and lay the same before the Congress, and to contract with proper persons to fit out the vessel.
Resolved, that another vessel be fitted out for the same purposes, and that the said committee report their opinion of a proper vessel, and also an estimate of the expence.
— Resolution of the Continental Congress that marked the establishment of what is now the United States Navy.[4]

The U.S. Navy recognizes 13 October 1775 as the date of the official establishment of the Navy —[5] the date of the passage of the resolution of the Continental Congress at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania that created the Continental Navy.[4] On 13 October, the Congress started commissioning its own ships, starting with Alfred out of Philadelphia.[5] Regulations for the governing of the navy were drafted by John Adams, adopted by Congress on 28 November 1775 and remained in effect throughout the Revolution. The Rhode Island resolution was reconsidered by the continental congress and was passed on 13 December 1775, authorizing the building of thirteen frigates within the next three months, 5 ships of 32 guns, five with 28 guns and three with 24 guns.[6]

On Lake Champlain, Benedict Arnold ordered the construction of 12 Navy vessels to slow down the British fleet that was invading New York from Canada.[7] The British fleet did destroy Arnold's fleet, but the U.S. fleet managed to slow down the British after a two day battle, known as the Battle of Valcour Island, and managed to slow the progression of the British Army.[7] By mid-1776, a number of ships, ranging up to and including the thirteen frigates approved by Congress, were under construction, but their effectiveness was limited; they were completely outmatched by the mighty Royal Navy, and nearly all were captured or sunk by 1781.[8]

Privateers had some success, with 1,697 letters of marque being issued by Congress.[9] Individual states, American agents in Europe and in the Caribbean also issued commissions; taking duplications into account more than 2,000 commissions were issued by the various authorities.[9] Lloyd's of London estimated that 2,208 British ships were taken by Yankee privateers, amounting to almost $66 million, a significant sum at the time.[9]

One particularly notable American naval hero of the Revolution was John Paul Jones, who defeated the British ship HMS Serapis in the Battle of Flamborough Head.[10] Partway through the battle, with the rigging of the two ships entangled, and several guns of Jones' ship Bonhomme Richard out of action, the captain of Serapis asked Jones if he had struck his colors, to which Jones has been quoted as replying, "I have not yet begun to fight!"[10]

Disarmament (1785–1794)

A black and white photograph of a painting of a three masted ship, its sails full of wind
Alliance at sail[11]

The Revolutionary War was ended by the Treaty of Paris in 1783, and by 1785, the Continental Navy was disbanded and the remaining ships were sold. The frigate Alliance, which had fired the last shots of the American Revolutionary War, was also the last ship sold.[12] A faction within Congress wanted to keep the ship, but the new nation did not have the funds to keep her in service.[12] Other than a general lack of money, other factors for the disarmament of the navy was the loose confederation of the states, as well as a change of goals from war to peace as well as more domestic and less foreign interests.[13]

After the American Revolutionary War the brand-new United States struggled to stay financially afloat. National income was desperately needed and a great deal of this income came from import tariffs. Because of rampant smuggling, the need was immediate for strong enforcement of tariff laws, and on August 4, 1790 the United States Congress, urged on by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, created the Revenue-Marine to enforce the tariff and all other maritime laws. Ten cutters were initially ordered. Between 1790 and 1798 when the Navy Department was created, the Revenue-Marine was the only armed maritime service for the United States.[14]

American merchant shipping had been protected by the British Navy and a consequence of the Treaty of Paris and the disarmament of the Continental Navy was the United States no longer had any protection for its ships from pirates. The fledgling nation did not have the funds to pay annual tribute to the Barbary states, so ships who flew the stars and stripes were targeted for capture after 1785.[15] By 1789, new Constitution authorized Congress to create a navy, but during George Washington's first term (1787-1793) little was done to rearm the navy.[15] In 1793, the wars of the French Revolution between Great Britan and France began and a truce negotiated between Portugal and the Algerians ended Portugal's blockade of the Strait of Gibraltar which had kept the Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean. Soon after, the pirates sailed into the Atlantic, and captured 11 American merchant ships and more than a hundred seamen.[16]

In reaction to the seizure of the American vessels, Congress debated and approved the Naval Act of 1794, which authorized the building of six frigates—four of 44 guns and two of 36 guns. Supporters were mostly from the northern states and the coastal regions, who argued the Navy would result in savings in insurance and ransom payments, while opponents from southern states and inland regions thought a navy was not worth the expense and would drive the United States into more costly wars.

United States Navy (1794–1812)

After the passage of the Naval Act of 1794, work began on the construction of the six frigates: USS United States, USS President, USS Constellation, USS Chesapeake, USS Congress, and USS Constitution. USS Constitution, launched in 1797 and the most famous of the six, was nicknamed "Old Ironsides" and, thanks to the efforts of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., is still in existence today, anchored in Boston harbor. Soon after the bill was passed, Congress authorized $800,000 to obtain a treaty with the Algerians and ransom the captives, triggering an amendment of the Act which would halt the construction of ships if peace was declared.[17] After considerable debate, three of the six frigates were authorized to be completed: United States, Constitution and Constellation.[18]

A color painting of two ship at sail. Both ships have 3 masts in which the sails are partially set. The ship on the left is moving toward the right side of the frame, and the ship on the right is moving straight ahead.
TheConstellation(left), firing upon the L'Insurgente(right).[19]

At the same time, tensions between the US and France developed into the Quasi-War, which was entirely fought at sea. The conflict originated in the Treaty of Alliance (1778), which had brought the French into the Revolutionary War. The United States preferred to take a position of neutrality, which put the nation at odds with both Britain and France.[18] After the Jay Treaty was authorized with Britain in 1794, France began to side against the United states and by 1797 they had seized over 300 American vessels.[18] The newly inaugurated President John Adams took steps to deal with the crisis, working with congress to finish the three almost-completed frigates, approving funds to build the other three, and attempting to negotiate an agreement similar to the Jay Treaty with France.[18] The XYZ Affair originated with a report distributed by Adams where alleged French agents were identified by the letters "X", "Y", and "Z", the scandal increased popular support in the country for a war with France.[18] Concerns about the the War Department ability to manage a navy lead to the creation of the Department of the Navy, which was established on 30 April 1798.[20]

The war with France was fought entirely at sea, mostly between privateers and merchant ships.[21] The United States Navy fought its first battles during this time, with the frigate Constellation famously capturing L'Insurgente in 1799 and defeating the La Vengeance in 1800.[22] By the end of 1800, peace with France had been declared, and in 1801, to prevent a second disarmament of the Navy, the outgoing Federalist administration rushed through Congress an act authorizing a peacetime navy for the first time, which limited the navy to six active frigates and seven in ordinary, as well as 45 officers and 150 midshipmen.[23] The remainder of the ships in service were sold and the dismissed officers were given four months pay.[24]

The problems with the Barbary pirates had never gone away, and on 10 May 1801 the Tripolitans declared war on the United States by chopping down the flag in front of the American Embassy, which began the First Barbary War.[24] The Philadelphia was lost to the Moors, but then blown up by an American ruse led by Stephen Decatur.[25] The Marines invaded the "shores of Tripoli" in 1805, capturing the city of Derna (the first time the US flag ever flew over a foreign conquest), which was enough to induce the Barbary rulers to sign peace treaties.[26] Subsequently the Navy was greatly reduced for reasons of economy, and instead of regular ships many gunboats were built, intended for coastal use only, a policy proven completely ineffective within a decade.[27]

The Royal Navy continued to illegally press American sailors into the Royal Navy; an estimated 10,000 sailors between 1799 and 1812[28]. In 1807, in the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair, HMS Leopard demanded that Chesapeake submit to an inspection, ostensibly looking for British citizens but in reality looking for any suitable sailors to press into the Royal Navy. Leopard severely damaged Chesapeake when she refused.[29] The most violent of many such encounters the affair further fueled the tensions and in June 1812 the US declared war on Britain.[29]

War of 1812 (1812–1815)

The USS Constitution defeats the HMS Guerriere, a significant event during the war.

Much of the war was expected to be fought at sea; and within an hour of the announcement of war, the diminutive American navy set forth to do battle with an opponent outnumbering it 50-to-1. After two months, Constitution (44) encountered HMS Guerriere (38) and demolished her in single combat; Guerriere's crew were most dismayed to see their cannonballs bouncing off the Constitution's unusually strong live oak hull, giving her the enduring nickname of "Old Ironsides".[30] The Constitution also engaged HMS Java (38) off of Brazil and likewise reduced her to a hulk.[31] USS United States (44) met HMS Macedonian (38) and proceeded to completely defeat her British opponent.[31] The Macedonian was captured and entered into American service.[31]. In 1813, USS Essex (38) commenced a very fruitful raiding venture into the South Pacific, preying upon the British merchant and whaling industry.[32] The Essex was already known for her capture of HMS Alert and a British transport the previous year, and gained further success capturing 15 British merchantmen/whalers, the British finally took action, dispatching HMS Cherub and HMS Phoebe to stop the Essex.[32] After violating Chile's neutrality, the British captured the Essex in a hard fought battle at Valparaiso.[32]

The capture of the three British frigates led the British to deploy more vessels on the American seaboard to tighten the blockade.[33] On 1 June 1813, off Boston Harbor, the frigate USS Chesapeake, commanded by Captain James Lawrence, was captured by the British frigate HMS Shannon under Captain Sir Philip Broke.[34] Lawrence was mortally wounded and famously cried out, "Don't give up the ship!".[34] Despite their earlier successes, by 1814 many of the Navy's best ships were blockaded in port and unable to prevent British incursions on land via the sea.[35]

During the summer of 1814, the British fought the Chesapeake Campaign which was climaxed by amphibious assaults against Washington and Baltimore. The capital fell to the British almost without a fight, and several ships were burned at the navy yard, including the 44-gun frigate Columbia.[35] At Baltimore, the bombardment by Fort McHenry inspired Francis Scott Key to write The Star-Spangled Banner, and the hulks blocking the channel prevented the fleet from entering the harbor, and the army reembarked on the ships, ending the battle.[35]

The American naval victories at the Battle of Lake Champlain and Battle of Lake Erie halted the final British offensive in the north and helped to deny the British exclusive rights to the Great Lakes in the Treaty of Ghent.[36]

Continental Expansion (1815–1861)

After the war, the Navy's accomplishments paid off in the form of better funding, and it embarked on the construction of many new ships. However, the expense of the larger ships was prohibitive, and many of them stayed in shipyards half-completed, in readiness for another war, until the Age of Sail had almost completely passed. The main force of the Navy continued to be large sailing frigates with a number of smaller sloops during the three decades of peace. By the 1840's, the Navy began to adopt steam power and shell guns, but they lagged behind the French and British in adopting the new technologies.[37]

Decatur's squadron off Algiers

During the War of 1812, the Barbary states took advantage of the weakness of the United States Navy to again capture American merchant ships and sailors. After the Treaty of Ghent was signed, the United States looked at ending the piracy in the Mediterranean which had plagued American merchants for two decades. On 3 March 1815, the US Congress authorized deployment of naval power against Algiers, beginning the Second Barbary War. Two powerful squadrons under the command of Commodores Stephen Decatur, Jr. and William Bainbridge, including the 74-gun ships of the line Washington, Independence, and Franklin, were dispatched to the Mediterranean.[38] Shortly after departing Gibraltar en route to Algiers, Decatur's squadron encountered the Algerian flagship Meshuda, and, after a sharp action, captured it.[38] Not long afterward, the American squadron likewise captured the Algerian brig Estedio.[38] By June, the squadrons had reached Algiers and peace was negotiated with the Dey, including a return of captured vessels and men, a guarantee of no further tributes and a right to trade in the region.[38]

Piracy in the Carribean sea was also a major problem, and between 1815 and 1822 an estimated 3000 ships were captured by pirates.[39] In 1819, Congress authorized President James Madison to deal with this threat, and since many of the pirates were privateers of the newly independent states of Latin America, he decided to decided to embark on a strategy of diplomacy backed up by the guns of the Navy.[39] An agreement with Venezuela was reached in 1819, but ships were still regularly captured until a military campaign by the West India Squadron, under the command of David Porter, used a combination of large frigates escorting merchant ships backed by many small craft searching small coves and islands, and capturing pirate vessels.[40] Although isolated instances of piracy continued into the 1830's, by 1826 the frequent attacks had ended and the region was declared free for commerce.[40]

Another international problem was the slave trade, and the African squadron was formed in 1820 to deal with this threat. Politically, the suppression of the slave trade was unpopular, and the squadron was withdrawn in 1823 ostensibly to deal with piracy in the Caribbean, but did not return to the African coast until the passage of the Webster–Ashburton treaty with Britain in 1842. After the treaty was passed, the United States used fewer ships than the treaty required, ordered to ships based far from the coast of Africa, and used ships who were too large to operate close to shore. Between 1845 and 1850, the United States Navy captured only 10 slave vessels, while the British captured 423 vessels carrying 27,000 captives.[41]

Congress formally authorized the establishment of the United States Military Academy in 1802, but it took almost 50 years to approve a similar school for naval officers.[42] During the long period of peace between 1815 and 1846 midshipmen had few opportunities for promotion, and their warrants were often obtained via patronage. The poor quality of officer training in the US Navy became visible after the Somers Affair, an alleged mutiny aboard the training ship USS Somers in 1842, and the subsequent execution of midshipman Philip Spencer.[43] George Bancroft, appointed Secretary of the Navy in 1845, decided to work outside of congressional approval and create a new academy for officers.[42] He formed a council lead by Commodore Perry to create a new system for training officers, and turned the old Fort Severn at Annapolis into a new institution in 1845 which would be designated as the United States Naval Academy by Congress in 1851.[42]

Gun boat attack during Battle of Veracruz

Naval forces participated in the effort to forcibly move the Seminole Indians from Florida to a reservation west of the Mississippi.[44] After a massacre of army soldiers near Tampa, Marines and sailors were added to the forces which fought the Seminoles for 6 years.[44] A "mosquito fleet" was formed in the Everglades out of various small craft to transport a mixture of army and navy personnel to pursue the Seminoles into the swamps.[44] About 1,500 soldiers were killed during the conflict, some Seminoles agreed to move but a small group of Seminoles remained in control of the Everglades and the area around Lake Okeechobee.[44]

The Navy played a role in two major operations of the Mexican-American War (1845-1848); during the Battle of Veracruz, it transported the invasion force that captured Veracruz by landing 12,000 troops and their equipment in one day; leading eventually to the capture of Mexico City, and the end of the war. Its Pacific Squadron's ships facilitated the capture of California.[45]

In 1853 Commodore Matthew Perry visited Japan in an expedition which convinced the Japanese to end three centuries of isolation and sign a treaty of friendship with the US; a momentous step with many unforeseen consequences.[46]

American Civil War (1861–1865)

The French-designed 1862 Alligator, first submarine of the US Navy.

The opening of the American Civil War hastened the final end of the sailing Navy. On 20 April 1861, the Union burned its ships that were at the Norfolk Navy Yard to prevent their capture by the Confederates, but not all of the ships were completely destroyed.

The screw frigate Merrimack had been so hastily scuttled that her hull and steam engine were basically intact, which gave the South's Stephen Mallory the idea of raising her and then armoring the upper sides with iron plate. The resulting ship was named CSS Virginia.

Meanwhile, John Ericsson had similar ideas, and received funding to build Monitor. The two met in the storied "Battle of the Ironclads" in early 1862, slugging away at each other for hours, and both apparently tacitly agreeing to a draw. Nevertheless, no wooden ship could have survived the encounter, and naval officers worldwide took great interest in the battle and its implications for the future.

Naval actions in the Civil War mostly consisted of blockades by the North against Southern ports, interspersed with assaults on forts. A number of operations were conducted on the Mississippi River.

In addition, the CSA operated a number of commerce raiders and blockade runners (CSS Alabama being the most famous) who played a deadly cat-and-mouse game with the Union frigates sent out to stop them. The CSS Alabama finally ran afoul of the USS Kearsarge and was sunk off the coast of France after a prolonged chase.

Decline of the Navy

After the war, the Navy went into a period of decline. The ships of the Civil War were broken up or sold, and the Navy quickly shrank to a force of just 2,000 officers and 10,000 enlisted sailors. To a great extent, this was to be expected. Much American commerce had shifted to foreign flags to avoid Confederate raiders, and for those American ships still plying the seas, the pax Britannica had made piracy a rarity. But perhaps most importantly, immigration and westward expansion had resumed and was consuming the nation's attention.

The U.S. Navy ended the Civil War with about fifty monitor-type coastal ironclads; by the 1870s most of these were laid up in reserve, leaving the USA virtually without an ironclad fleet. When the Virginius affair first broke out in 1873, a Spanish ironclad happened to be anchored in New York Harbor, leading to the uncomfortable realization on the part of the U.S. Navy that it had no ship capable of defeating such a vessel. The Navy hastily issued contracts for the construction of five new ironclads, and accelerated its existing repair program for several more. USS Puritan (BM-1) and the four Amphitrite class monitors were subsequently built as a result of the Virginius war scare.[47] All five vessels would later take part in the Spanish-American War of 1898.

By the time the Garfield administration assumed office in 1881, the Navy's condition had deteriorated still further. A review conducted on behalf of the new Secretary of the Navy, William H. Hunt, found that of 140 vessels on the Navy's active list, only 52 were in an operational state, of which a mere 17 were iron-hulled ships, including 14 ageing Civil War era ironclads. Hunt recognized the necessity of modernizing the Navy, and set up an informal advisory board to make recommendations.[48]

Also to be expected, morale was considerably down; officers and sailors in foreign ports were all too aware that their old wooden ships would not survive long in the event of war. The limitations of the monitor type effectively prevented the USA from projecting power overseas, and until the 1890s the USA would have come off badly in a conflict with even Spain or the Latin American powers.[49] One of the low points came in 1879, when the US attempted to intercede in the War of the Pacific between Chile, Peru, and Bolivia - the Chilean admiral threatened to send the American ships to the bottom of the ocean, and with two new British-built battleships in his fleet, he was well able to deliver on the threat.

The "New Navy"

The Rising Influence of Sea Power

At the beginning of the 1880s, a few naval officers were raising the alarm about the vulnerability of the nation, but were criticized or ignored. But by 1897 the Navy included a half-dozen large modern warships, with more on the way - a transformation so sudden that it has come to be called the New Navy.

In 1882, on the recommendation of an advisory panel, the Navy Secretary requested Congress for funds to construct modern ships. The request was rejected initially, but in 1883 Congress authorized the construction of three small steel cruisers (Chicago, Boston, and Atlanta). Increasing interests in overseas locations, including Samoa and Central America (where canal-building schemes were being proposed), and the awareness that other countries were building up their navies provided additional impetus.

Alfred Thayer Mahan's book The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660-1783, published in 1890, was very influential in justifying the naval program to the civilian government and to the general public. With the closing of the frontier, some Americans began to look outwards, to the Caribbean, to Hawaii and the Pacific, and with the doctrine of Manifest Destiny as philosophical justification, many saw the Navy as an essential part of realizing that doctrine beyond the limits of the American continent.

Spanish-American War

The Flying Squadron, 1898.

The tensions of the late 1890s finally broke with the explosion of Maine in Havana harbor. The explosion was most likely caused by a sea mine, as concluded in the most recent studies of the Sinking of the Maine. The Navy quietly positioned for attack by assistant Navy secretary Theodore Roosevelt when the Spanish-American War was declared in April 1898. The Asiatic Squadron, under the command of George Dewey, immediately left Hong Kong for the Philippines, attacking and decisively defeating the Spanish fleet in the Battle of Manila Bay. A few weeks later, the North Atlantic Squadron destroyed the Spanish ships in the Caribbean in the Battle of Santiago de Cuba.

The Navy's experience in this war was both encouraging, in that it had won, and cautionary, in that the enemy had one of the weakest of the worlds' modern fleets, and that the Manila Bay attack was extremely risky - if the American ships had been severely damaged or had run out of supplies, they were 7,000 miles from the nearest American harbor. This realization would have a profound effect on Navy strategy, and, indeed, American foreign policy, in the next several decades.

Great White Fleet

The Great White Fleet in 1907.

Fortunately for the New Navy, its most ardent political supporter, Theodore Roosevelt, became President in 1901. Under his administration, the Navy added many more surface ships and the latest technological innovation of the time, submarines that were developed in the state of New Jersey around this time by an Irish-American inventor, John Philip Holland. His submarine, the USS Holland (SS-1) was officially commissioned into U. S. Navy service in the fall of 1900. Theodore Roosevelt's administration became involved in the politics of the Caribbean and Central America, with interventions in 1901, 1902, 1903, and 1906.

The Russo-Japanese War of 1905 and the launching of HMS Dreadnought in the following year lent impetus to the construction program. At the end of 1907 Roosevelt had sixteen new battleships to make up his Great White Fleet, which he sent on a cruise around the world. While nominally peaceful, and a valuable training exercise for the rapidly expanding Navy, it was also useful politically as a demonstration of US power and capabilities; at every port, the politicians and naval officers of both potential allies and enemies were welcomed on board and given tours. The cruise had the desired effect, and US power was subsequently taken more seriously.

World War I

"Find the Range of Your Patriotism By Enlisting in the Navy", recruitment poster from 1918. Digitally restored.

Despite US declarations of neutrality and German accountability for its unrestricted submarine warfare, in 1915 Gulflight and more famously Lusitania were sunk. The US reaction was to contemplate increased funding for the Navy, although the bill went through six months of debate in Congress before being passed. When the war began for the US in 1917, the Navy's role was mostly limited to convoy escort and troop transport, and the laying of a minefield across the North Sea. During World War I, the Navy was the first branch of the United States armed forces to allow enlistment by women in a non-nursing capacity, as Yeoman (F).

Inter-war retrenchment and expansion

After a short period of demobilization, the nations of the globe began rebuilding armaments at a tremendous rate, in preparation for the next war; but widespread revulsion at the prospect of further carnage led to the Washington Naval Conference of 1921 and its results, the Nine-Power Treaty, the Treaty for the Limitation of Naval Armament, and limitations on the use of submarines and poison gas. The naval limitation treaty was especially curious in its prescription of numbers and size ratios for the navies of the treaty nations, and many ships were scrapped to meet those limitations.

USS Langley, the USN's first aircraft carrier.

One consequence was to encourage the development of light cruisers and aircraft carriers. The United States's first carrier, a converted collier named USS Langley was commissioned in 1922, and soon joined by Lexington and Saratoga, which had been planned to be battlecruisers until the treaty forbade it. Organizationally, the Bureau of Aeronautics was formed in 1921; naval aviators would become referred to as members of the United States Naval Air Corps.

Rivalries continued to simmer, and an additional conference in 1927 failed to agree on limitations to the loopholes that navies were busy exploiting. But the financial crash of 1929 encouraged governments to save money by not building ships, and in 1930 the London Naval Conference produced the London Naval Treaty, which improved Anglo-American relations, but whose results were soon overshadowed by the nationalist movements that were taking control of countries around the globe.

The US Navy had a presence in the Far East with a naval base in the Philippines, and river gunboats on the Yangtze River. The gunboat USS Panay was bombed and machine gunned by Japanese airplanes, (together with the HMS Bee) as she lay off Nanking in 1937. This would, in effect, be the opening shot in the Pacific War, but at the time it was viewed as ongoing strife in China going back to 1927. Nanking was devastated in the same raid.

In reaction the Vinson-Trammell Act of 1934 set up a regular program of ship building and modernization. The Navy's preparation was helped along by another Navy assistant secretary turned president, Franklin D. Roosevelt.

USS North Carolina

The first new battleship since 1921, North Carolina, was laid down in October 1937. In June 1940 an act authorized an 11% expansion in the Navy, and Chief of Naval Operations Harold Rainsford Stark asked for another 70% increase, embodied in the Two-Ocean Navy Act, amounting to about 200 additional ships, which was authorized by Congress in less than a month. Early in 1941, Lend-Lease gave Britain much-needed destroyers in exchange for US use of British bases.

In 1941, the Atlantic Fleet was reactivated. The Navy's first shot in anger came on 9 April, when the destroyer USS Niblack dropped depth charges on a U-boat detected while Niblack was rescuing survivors from a torpedoed Dutch freighter. A week later, orders were given to attack all Axis ships within 25 miles of the US East Coast. In October, the destroyers Kearny and Reuben James were torpedoed, and Reuben James was lost.

World War II

USS Shaw explodes during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor came as a complete surprise to almost everyone, and tactically it was a brilliant maneuver; the US Navy was off-balance and was unable to effectively counter Japan's takeover of the Far East. In quick succession the Philippines were occupied, the Battle of the Java Sea was lost, the Dutch East Indies were taken over, Wake Island was lost. But strategically it was a foolish act; the urge for vengeance was strong, and the isolationists silenced.

It also became clear that the era of the battleship had come and gone; while the battleships at Pearl were raised and repaired (with the dual exceptions of the unrepairables Arizona and Oklahoma), they were mostly used for shore bombardment. The carrier Hornet launched the Doolittle Raid against Tokyo in April 1942, while task forces organized around carriers fought the Battle of the Coral Sea in May and the Battle of Midway in June, checking Japanese advances to the east and south.

When the US launched its first counteroffensive, the invasion of Guadalcanal, the Navy became involved in a series of little-known fights with the Japanese; the disastrous Battle of Savo Island, where four cruisers were sunk, the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands, the Battle of Cape Esperance, and the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.

General MacArthur signs the Japanese surrender document aboard the USS Missouri.

Much of the Navy's activity was in support of landings, not only in the "island-hopping" campaign in the Pacific, but also in the landings in Europe; Torch, Husky, Shingle, Overlord, and Dragoon.

A hunter-killer group of the U.S. Navy captured the German submarine U-505 on 4 June 1944. This was the first time a U.S. Navy vessel had captured an enemy vessel at sea since the 19th century.

The reconquest of the Philippines began at Leyte in October 1944. The Japanese fleet came out to resist the landings, resulting in the four-day Battle of Leyte Gulf, one of the largest naval battles in history.

When the Japanese surrendered, a large flotilla entered Tokyo Bay to witness the ceremony conducted on the battleship Missouri. By the end of the war the U.S. Navy had over 1600 warships.

Cold War

The immediate postwar fate of the Navy was the scrapping and mothballing of ships on a large scale. This did not last; tension with the Soviet Union came to a head in the Korean War, and it became clear that the peacetime Navy would have to be much larger than ever imagined. Fleets were stationed strategically around the world, and their maneuverings were a standard part of the response to the periodic crises.

The 1950s saw the development of nuclear power for ships, under the leadership of Hyman G. Rickover, and the development of missiles and jets for Navy use. The Navy gradually developed a reputation for having the most highly-developed technology of all the US services; ballistic missile submarines grew ever more deadly and quiet.

US Navy gunboat using napalm in Vietnam.

An unlikely combination of Navy ships fought in the Vietnam War; aircraft carriers offshore launched thousands of airstrikes, while small gunboats of the "Brown-water navy" patrolled the rivers. Despite the naval activity, new construction was curtailed by Presidents Johnson and Nixon to save money, and many of the carriers on Yankee Station dated from WWII. By 1978 the fleet had dwindled to 217 surface ships and 119 submarines.

The Cold War on the oceans was dominated by war games in which, for example, United States and Soviet submarines would trail each other for days on end.

Meanwhile the Soviet fleet had been growing, and outnumbered the US fleet in every type except carriers. This concern led the Reagan administration to set a goal for a 600-ship Navy, and by 1988 the fleet was at 588, although it declined again in subsequent years. Several of the old battleships were reactivated after 40 years in storage, modernized, and made showy appearances off the shores of Lebanon and elsewhere. In 1987 and 1988, the United States Navy conducted various combat operations in the Persian Gulf against Iran, most notably Operation Praying Mantis, the largest surface-air naval battle since World War II.

Modern Navy

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Soviet Navy fell apart, without sufficient personnel to man many of its ships or the money to maintain them - indeed, many of them were sold to foreign nations. This left the United States as the world's undisputed naval superpower.

Supercarrier USS Nimitz

US naval forces did undergo a decline in absolute terms. Relative to the rest of the world, however, United States naval power only increased. All the world's oceans are dominated by the United States Navy, and United States naval power, as evinced by its 11 aircraft supercarriers and their supporting battle groups, is a guarantor of freedom of the seas.

The USS Liberty incident was an attack on a neutral U.S. Navy technical research ship, USS Liberty, by Israeli jet fighter planes and motor torpedo boats on 8 June 1967, during the Six-Day War. The combined air and sea attack killed 34 and wounded more than 170 crew members, and damaged the ship severely. The ship was in international waters north of the Sinai Peninsula, about 25.5 nautical miles northwest from the city of Arish.[1]

During the 1990s, the United States naval strategy was based on the overall military strategy of the United States which emphasized the ability of the United States to engage in two simultaneous limited wars along separate fronts.

The United States Navy's "core values," of Honor, Courage and Commitment, were formally adopted by Admiral Frank B. Kelso II in 1992.

Since the September 11, 2001 attacks, the United States Navy has been undergoing reform to meet perceived new threats, designing several new classes of ships, like the Zumwalt class destroyer and the LCS, or Littoral Combat Ship, in order to be able to meet more diverse and disparate missions with a reduced force.

As of 2005, the Navy is the smallest numerically, with less than 300 ships, than it has been at any time since World War I. However, the comparison is misleading since modern ships are larger and carry more firepower than those of 100 years ago.

In 2007, the U.S. Navy joined with the U.S. Marine Corps and U.S. Coast Guard to adopt a new maritime strategy called “A Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Seapower” that raises the notion of prevention of war to the same philosophical level as the conduct of war. The strategy was presented by the Chief of Naval Operations, the Commandant of the Marine Corps and Commandant of the Coast Guard at the International Seapower Symposium in Newport, R.I. on 17 October 2007.[50] The strategy recognized the economic links of the global system and how any disruption due to regional crises – manmade or natural – can adversely impact the U.S. economy and quality of life. This new strategy charts a course for the Navy, Coast Guard and Marine Corps to work collectively with each other and international partners to prevent these crises from occurring or reacting quickly should one occur to avoid negative impacts to the United States.

A U.S. Navy warship shot down a malfunctioning spy satellite in February 2008.

The "Westward Venture,", a U.S.-contracted cargo ship fired warning shots in the Persian Gulf at two small patrol boats believed to be from Iran on 10 April 2008. The United States and Iran, which have no diplomatic relations and blame each other for problems in Iraq, have had at least two other tense incidents in the Persian Gulf since January 2008. Earlier April 2008, the U.S. military reported that three small Iranian boats approached a U.S. patrol craft in a "taunting manner." On 6 January 2008, five boats belonging to the Army of the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution "harassed and provoked" three U.S. Navy ships in the Strait of Hormuz.[51]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d Miller 1997, p. 15
  2. ^ a b Miller 1997, p. 154
  3. ^ Westfield, Duane and Bill Purdin. "The Birthplace of the American Navy". Marblehead Magazine. Retrieved 2007-02-03.  
  4. ^ a b "Establishment of the Navy, 13 October 1775". United States. Retrieved 2009-11-05.  
  5. ^ a b Miller 1997, p. 16
  6. ^ Miller 1997, p. 17
  7. ^ a b Miller 1997, pp. 21–22
  8. ^ Miller 1997, p. 19
  9. ^ a b c Miller 1997, p. 20
  10. ^ a b Miller 1997, p. 27
  11. ^ "USS Alliance (1778)". Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. United States Navy. Retrieved 2009-11-23.  
  12. ^ a b Miller 1997, p. 33
  13. ^ Miller 1997, pp. 34–35
  14. ^ "Coast Guard History". United States Coast Guard. Retrieved 2009-11-25.  
  15. ^ a b Miller 1997, p. 35
  16. ^ Miller 1997, pp. 35–36
  17. ^ Miller 1997, p. 36
  18. ^ a b c d e Miller 1997, p. 38
  19. ^ "Photo #: KN-2882: Action between U.S. Frigate Constellation and French Frigate Insurgente, 9 February 1799". United States Navy. Retrieved 2009-11-18.  
  20. ^ Miller 1997, p. 39
  21. ^ Miller 1997, p. 40
  22. ^ Miller 1997, p. 43
  23. ^ Miller 1997, p. 45
  24. ^ a b Miller 1997, p. 46
  25. ^ Miller 1997, p. 51
  26. ^ Miller 1997, pp. 52–53
  27. ^ Miller 1997, p. 59
  28. ^ Miller 1997, p. 58
  29. ^ a b Miller 1997, p. 56
  30. ^ Miller 1997, p. 65
  31. ^ a b c Miller 1997, pp. 66–67
  32. ^ a b c Miller 1997, p. 70
  33. ^ Miller 1997, p. 68
  34. ^ a b Miller 1997, p. 69
  35. ^ a b c Miller 1997, p. 72
  36. ^ Miller 1997, pp. 75–77
  37. ^ Miller 1997, p. 84
  38. ^ a b c d Miller 1997, p. 81
  39. ^ a b Miller 1997, p. 85
  40. ^ a b Miller 1997, p. 87
  41. ^ Miller 1997, p. 90
  42. ^ a b c Miller 1997, p. 103
  43. ^ Miller 1997, p. 102
  44. ^ a b c d Miller 1997, pp. 90–91
  45. ^ Miller 1997, p. 104–106
  46. ^ Miller 1997, p. 107
  47. ^ Swann, pp. 138, 141-142.
  48. ^ Swann, pp. 152-154.
  49. ^ Sondhaus, pp. 126–8 173–9.
  50. ^ Jim Garamone (2007-10-17). "Sea Services Unveil New Maritime Strategy". Navy News Service. Retrieved 2008-05-26.  
  51. ^ CNN. U.S. Navy: Cargo ship fires shots in Persian Gulf. Retrieved 2008-04-25.  



  • Howarth, Stephen (1999). To Shining Sea: a History of the United States Navy, 1775-1998. University of Oklahoma Press.  
  • Miller, Nathan (1997). The U.S. Navy: a history (3rd ed.). Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. ISBN 1557505950. OCLC 37211290.  
  • Chapelle, Howard I. (1935). The History of American Sailing Ships. ISBN 0-517-00487-9, ISBN 1-56852-222-3.  
  • Sondhaus, Lawrence (2001). Naval Warfare 1815–1914. London: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-21478-5.  
  • Swann, Leonard Alexander Jr (1965). John Roach, Maritime Entrepreneur: the Years as Naval Contractor 1862–1886. United States Naval Institute. ISBN 9780405130786.  


External links

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