SO482A.  Historic Shipwrecks: Science, History, and Engineering

The Navy in the Revolution

About the Presenter:

Associate Professor Virginia Lunsford is in the History Department of the Naval Academy, where she teaches HH104 (American Naval History), HH377A (The Golden Age of Piracy, Myth and Reality), and HH382 (Warfare in the Age of Sail, 1500-1815). She holds Ph.D. and M.A. degrees from Harvard University and is the author of Piracy and Privateering in the Golden Age Netherlands (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) and is currently at work on Dead Men Tell No Tales: A Cultural History of Piracy in the Modern Age, under contract with Routledge.  An expert in maritime history and in the history of piracy, Professor Lunsford has appeared on television for the History Channel production of “Unconventional Warfare” (2002) where she spoke on Sir Francis Drake and the failure of the Spanish Armada in 1588. More recently she was featured, at length, in the History Channel program “True Caribbean Pirates” (2006) as an expert on the buccaneers. In response to the upsurge in Somali piracy, Professor Lunsford has written articles for the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, “Why Does Piracy Work?” (December 2008) and for the Baltimore Sun: “Navy Can’t Do it Alone” (April 2009).


Lesson Objectives:


Lesson Introduction--Click for MPG video clip.

Lesson Components  Historical Documents on Reputable Web Sites
Readings for this lesson
USNA Blackboard for quiz and discussion forum.

Historical Document 1.

 Reading:  Michael Palmer, The History of the US Navy

  • Provides succinct overview of how the colonists fought the naval war
  • Excerpt from chapter on “The Continental Period, 1775-1890.”
  • Read paragraphs 1-9


The Naval War in the American Revolution

How did the American colonists fight the naval war?

 1.   The “Army’s Fleets” (active 1775-1776)

George Washington’s Navy

  • Goal: to confiscate military supplies and equipment from the British

  • Thus central purpose was to practice guerre de course warfare

  • Total of 55 prizes

Benedict Arnold’s Fleet

  • Battle of Valcour Island (Lake Champlain)

 2.   Continental Navy (est. 1775)

  • Maximum size (1777): 34 vessels

  • Minimum size (1781): 2 ships

  • Practiced guerre de course warfare; transported soldiers; ferried diplomats across the Atlantic

  • Source of first naval “heroes” (including John Paul Jones)

 3.   Privateering (est. 1775)

  • MA and RI were the first colonies to authorize privateering

  • During war, 1697 letters of marque issued; and American privateers captured some 600 prizes

  • 1781: peak prize year: 450 prizes

  • Practiced guerre de course warfare

 4.   States Navies (est. 1777)

  • 11 states had navies: Virginia’s was ultimately the biggest

  • MA and RI were the first states to establish state navies

  • Created to protect the states’ ports and harbors

 5. The French Navy (allied since 1778; decisive in 1781)

  • A proxy navy for the Americans

  • This large and established European navy was capable of facing the Royal Navy in fleet warfare (guerre d’escadre)

  • Battle of the Chesapeake/Battle of the Capes ( (Sept. 1781)

  • Thus played a fundamental role in the achievement of American independence.



Why did the Colonists Wage a Guerre de Course?

Why was John Paul Jones in the waters of the British isles?  What was his naval mission and why?


The American colonists were forced to fight a naval guerre de course because of a lack of money, time, and skilled personnel.  All professional navies were (and are) expensive institutions to create and maintain, for ships are costly to acquire, and personnel must be trained.  Furthermore, developing a fleet and a corps of knowledgeable officers and sailors takes considerable time to achieve.  Fleet vs. fleet warfare – guerre d’escadre – was especially expensive during the Age of Sail, as it required a multitude of the largest and most powerfully armed ships (ships-of-the-line) and thousands of trained personnel.  The Americans had no time to develop a fleet of this size and caliber, nor did they possess the necessary funds.  Indeed, on the one occasion during the Revolutionary War when a fleet battle took place, it was not the Americans who fought the British.  The Americans, with their meager naval assets, could not have done this.  Rather, it was the professional navy of the colonists’ ally, France, which faced and defeated the British at the 1781 Battle of the Chesapeake (also called Battle of the Capes).


With a modest investment, however, a state could mount a naval guerre de course, and this is exactly what the Americans did.  Over the course of the war, using “Washington’s Navy” (a small naval squadron cobbled together at the wishes of George Washington), privateers and the Continental Navy, the Americans sent their ships out alone or in pairs to harass British trade.  American commerce raiders targeted British shipping in the Caribbean, the Atlantic -- and after cementing a formal alliance with France in 1778, and thus able to make use French ports as bases -- the North Sea and waters surrounding Britain itself.  This, then, was John Paul Jones’ mission when he faced off against the HMS Serapis, a warship whose duty was to escort a convoy of British merchant vessels.  The Battle of Flamborough Head was a decisive, successful, and now famous instance of guerre de course warfare that occurred in Britain’s own backyard.


Historical  Document 2.

 Reading: The History of the USS Bonhomme Richard

  • Provides very brief (1 paragraph) history of the ship, from an accurate source (US Naval Historical Center)
Historical  Document 3.

 Definition of “Guerre de Course

  • Good definition for term denoting the key naval strategy the Americans employed against the British in the Revolutionary War
  • From The Oxford Companion to American Military History
  • Read paragraphs 1-3.
Historical  Document 4.

  Definition of “Commerce Raiding”

  • Good definition for term denoting the key naval strategy the Americans employed against the British in the Revolutionary War
  • From
  • Read paragraphs 1-7

Historical  Document 5.

 Primary Source, Resolution of the Continental Congress, 25 November 1775

  • Evidence that reveals the Continental Congress’ naval strategy


Video:  History of the U.S. Navy - the War of Independence
1775-1783 (link may be broken, 11/2018)

Watch section from minute 13.28-17:03.

Provides video overview of the Continental Navy’s commerce raiding campaign in Britain, and Jones’ activities in particular.    

Excerpt from a 1952 USN training film (#FN 6943A)

Entertaining and amusing – an emphatically positive, triumphalist, Cold War-era depiction of Jones’ campaign, narrated in that serious, quintessential 1950s style, all while being more-or-less accurate (if overly self-congratulatory)

Video: Commerce Raiding in Action (link may be broken, 11/2018)
  • What did an actual ship-on-ship attack look and feel like?
  • Excerpts of battle scene from Master and Commander, The Far Side of the World
  • Shows the actions between a French privateer and the HMS Surprise
  • Clip lasts 5:50 minutes



I  Lesson summary--Click for WMV video clip.


Return to course syllabus

USNA Blackboard for quiz and discussion forum.

Last revision 1/1/2011