On Friday, October 13, 1775, the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia and voted to arm two sailing vessels manned by eighty men each, and dispatch them on a three-month excursion to intercept transports carrying munitions and stores to the British army in America. It was out of this legislation that the Continental Navy grew, and is widely considered the birth certificate of the Navy.
The decision to send two armed vessels to sea under the authority of the Continental Congress was not made lightly. To understand its significance, let's look at the history.
Americans first took up arms in the spring of 1775 in order to "defend their rights within the British Empire." By the fall of that year, British North American colonies from Maine to Georgia were in open rebellion -- Royal governments had been forced out of many colonial capitals and revolutionary governments had been set up instead. At this point in time, the Continental Congress had been partially acting as a central government for the colonies: they'd created a Continental Army, issued paper money, and even formed a committee to negotiate with foreign nations. Continental forces actually captured Lake Champlain's Fort Ticonderoga and launched a full-on invasion of Canada.
Then, in early October, the British threatened to thwart the colonies' trade and tear down seaside settlements, prompting a few states to commission small fleets of their own to defend nearby waters. Privateering had not yet been authorized by a Congress worried about taking the armed struggle too far.
However, the Naval History and Heritage Command reports that a small group of men in Congress had been advocating a Continental Navy from the outset of armed hostilities -- the ringleader of these men being John Adams, of Massachusetts. For months, he and his supporters had been strongly advocating for the establishment of an American fleet that would defend trade, coastal towns, and protect against British invasion.
Still, not everyone was on board. Some southerners agreed that a fleet would probably help protect the trade of New England, but they weren't sure it would do much for southern colonies. Most of Congress felt the conflict with England was only temporary, and feared that forming a navy was too bold a move -- "a hasty and foolish challenge to the mightiest fleet the world had seen." Samuel Chase, of Maryland, allegedly called it "the maddest Idea in the world to think of building an American Fleet." Instead, Congress urged each colony to arm its own vessels to protect their harbors and coastlines.
But by October 5, Congress had heard word that two English brigs, unarmed but hauling munitions, were headed for Quebec. Immediately they formed a committee in an effort to use the opportunity to their advantage. The committee's members, all New Englanders, were strong supporters of a navy, and suggested that the states of Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut dispatch armed vessels to quietly intercept the munitions ships. They then outlined a plan for two armed vessels to cruise eastward to intercept any ships that might be bearing supplies to the British army. This plan sat on the table until October 13, when a letter from General George Washington arrived. In it he reported that he'd taken three schooners under his command, which would be cruising off the coast of Massachusetts to intercept enemy supply ships. Members of congress who were initially reluctant to approve a fleet now found themselves singing a different tune: If there were already armed vessels cruising in their name, why not approve two more? And with that, the Continental Navy was born.
Over the course of the War of Independence, the Continental Navy grew stronger and stronger, eventually sending more than fifty armed vessels to sea. The Navy's vessels were imperative to the effort, seizing enemy supplies and carrying correspondence and precious cargo to Europe, while also bringing back munitions. It was during this period that the Continental Navy began the proud tradition carried today by our United States Navy, and whose birthday we celebrate each year on this day.
Chelsea has a long and storied history aboard U.S. Navy ships, one that dates back to the early 1900s when the U.S. government began ordering marine clocks. The Navy hoped to take advantage of Chelsea’s growing reputation for nautical excellence, and continues to do so today. Please join us in wishing a happy birthday to the U.S. Navy and its brave service men and women.
[The historical information in this post was provided by the Naval History and Heritage Command. ]