Modern history


“The Maddest Idea in the World”—An American Navy

THE Andrew Doria, vehicle and protagonist of the drama of the first salute, was not just any ship but already the possessor of a historic distinction. She was one of four converted merchantmen of the “singularly small” body—as one of its officers, John Paul Jones, regretfully acknowledged it—that composed the first navy of the United States, created by Act of the Second Continental Congress on October 13, 1775, and she was shortly to take part in its first belligerent action.

Named for a famed figure in the cause of liberty, the valorous Admiral of Genoa (Andrea Doria in his own country), who led the fight for the freedom of his city against the French in 1528, she was about 75 feet long and 25 feet in the beam, with a mixed or “hermaphrodite” rigging of square sails on her mainmast and a fore-and-aft rig of triangular sails on her mizzenmast. For armament she had sixteen 6-pounders, meaning guns that could fire small 6-pound cannonballs as well as a number of swivel guns mounted on deck for a wider field of fire. She carried a crew of 130.

The importance of sea power as a strategic arm was accepted as understood in the 18th century, well before Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan in 1890 formulated it as a fundamental principle, to the surprise of seagoing nations which had risen or fallen by its means through the centuries. Defeat of the Spanish Armada had determined the rise of Britain and the decline of Spain 300 years before Mahan’s discovery, and Nelson’s ships at the Battle of Trafalgar put an end to the threat of Napoleon and altered the balance between Britain and France ninety years before The Influence of Sea Power upon History was published. Nations, like people, are often more pragmatic than they know or can explain.

The American Colonies had no need to wait for a principle. Their need for resupply of arms and powder, and their need to disrupt the enemy’s supply lines and to defend themselves against British naval attacks on and burning of their coastal towns, was imperative. They were fortunate in a Commander-in-Chief who had formed in his own mind the fixed belief that the colonial forces could never achieve victory without sea power to use against the enemy. In August-September, 1775, to interrupt the British supply lines when he was besieging Boston, Washington had chartered and armed several small fishing schooners which had been commissioned by Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut to protect their coasts against British raids. By October 6, schooners commissioned by the Congress were watching the entrance of Boston harbor to fall upon British transports, which, not expecting naval action by the Colonies, carried no naval armament. “Washington’s Navy,” as the schooners came to be known, collected prizes of muskets, ball and powder and one fat 13-inch mortar, badly needed to bombard the British in Boston.

In his dire need of gunpowder, Washington in August, 1775, barely four months after the first shots were fired at Lexington and Concord, asked the Council of Rhode Island to commission an armed ship to go to Bermuda, “where,” he said, “there is a very considerable magazine of powder in a remote part of the island and the inhabitants well disposed not only to our Cause in general, but to assist in this enterprize in particular.”

Rhode Island, with its great bays and long vulnerable seacoast, understandably shared the Commander-in-Chief’s urgency about sea power. Going further than Washington, the colony, together with the associated Providence Plantations, passed a startling resolution in August, 1775, that no less than “an American fleet” should be built, and in the same month presented the resolve formally to the Continental Congress. Washington followed it in October with a request to Massachusetts for two armed ships to intercept two brigs loaded with military stores on their way from England to Quebec. Out of the need to organize this kind of enterprise on a larger scale and to interrupt British supply lines during the siege of Boston, the United States Navy was born. Privateers and fishing schooners manned by merchant seamen and fishermen were regularly commissioned and fitted out by the separate colonies. From this faint start Congress was being asked to authorize a national force responsible to the Continental government.

Because of the 18th century’s fixed method of fighting by ship against ship and gun against gun, numerical odds were always considered the decisive factor, and for our first navy they were not favorable. Its ships numbered less than one-third and its guns less than one-quarter of the enemy’s in American waters. The British were deployed the length of the coast from Halifax to Florida. They had three ships of the line and six smaller warships, with a total of 300 guns, based on Boston and at New England ports further north, two sloops of war in Narragansett Bay off Rhode Island, one ship of the line and two sloops at New York, three sloops in Chesapeake Bay, another with 16 guns at Charleston and ten smaller vessels of 6–8 guns at various ports along the way. Against these odds it was small wonder that some of the Patriot party who were offered commissions as officers declined on the grounds that “they did not choose to be hanged.” Soldiers of the army if captured were treated as prisoners, but sailors as pirates. Bolder gentlemen accepted the assignments, among them Captain Nicholas Biddle of Philadelphia, who took command of the Andrew Doria, and his successor, Captain Isaiah Robinson, the captain who was to take the ship into St. Eustatius.

“Was it proof of madness in the first corps of sea officers?” asked John Paul Jones, looking back after the Revolution had been won, “to have at so critical a period launched out on the ocean with only two armed merchant ships, two armed brigantines and one armed sloop” (a fifth ship, the Providence, had been added to the first four). So small a force “had no precedent in history to make war against such a power as Great Britain.…”

Feeling the force of Jones’s argument, the delegates in Congress nervously debated the proposal for a national fleet. Samuel Chase of Maryland affirmed that to build an American fleet to oppose Britain was, indeed, “the maddest idea in the world,” but a fellow-delegate from Virginia, George Wythe, argued what was to be Washington’s thesis, that “no maritime power near the sea-coast can be safe without it. Had not Rome built a fleet for the Carthaginian war? Why should we not take counsel from the example?” Even more than the practical need or historical example, it was the aching desire for a weapon of retaliation against the British for the savagery of their attacks on the coastal towns that created the navy. “You have begun to burn our towns and murder our people,” wrote Benjamin Franklin to an English M.P. “Look upon your hands! They are stained with the blood of your relations! You and I were long friends. You are now my enemy and I am yours.”

Embracing the delusion of all invaders in every time that punitive brutality will cow defenders into giving up their resistance, the British burned houses, farms, barns and timber resources, slaughtered livestock and left a trail of ruin wherever the redcoats and Hessians reached, and their marines were doing no less. Desire to return the injuries in some way upon their tormentors fired the Colonies’ naval enterprise.

Adopting Rhode Island’s resolution, Congress decided to establish a national navy, and on October 13, 1775, appointed a Naval (later Marine) Committee to govern naval affairs, with authority to spend up to $500,000 to purchase and equip four armed ships and construct thirteen frigates, the class of warship carrying fewer than 44 guns, next below ship of the line. With some overconfidence, it was announced that they would be ready for sea in three months’ time. The first four were purchased in November, marking the physical birth of the United States Navy, called at this time the Continental Navy. Because the United Colonies possessed no regular ships of war, merchant and fishing vessels had to be purchased, converted and armed. Hulls had to be reinforced, holes pierced to receive the guns for the broadside firing that was the basic and only tactic of naval warfare. Masts and rigging had to be strengthened for belligerent action and crews had to be recruited. Washington arranged for the small rough vessels newly transformed into warships to be chartered, armed and manned by soldiers recruited from New England regiments. Sailing crews had to be assembled by press-gang procedures because naval service in wet and squalid quarters and the smaller opportunity on national ships for prize money—of which the greater part went to the government, leaving much less to be divided among the owners and crews than on a privateer—offered few attractions to volunteer recruits. The greater danger on national ships than on privateers, which preyed largely on merchantmen, and the longer enlistments further discouraged volunteers. For the Continental Navy, press-gangs were a necessity.

Privateers were essentially ships with a license to rob issued to them by local or national governmental authority. The practice was a paradox in the development of law and order, which, as it progresses, is supposed to represent the advance of civilization. Privateers were fitted out for the express purpose of attack and seizure of commercial cargoes for the profit of owner and crews and of the authorizing power. In this business of maritime breaking and entering, the commission to a privateer authorized offensive action while letters of marque covered seizure of the cargo. Equivalent to a policeman giving his kind permission to a burglar, the theory was one of the happy hypocrisies that men fashion so ably when they want to combine law and greed.

The Marine Committee, afflicted by nepotism, did not give much promise of greatly strengthening the new navy. Esek Hopkins, commodore of the new fleet, was an elderly merchant skipper who had followed the sea for forty years. With the disdain of the practitioner for the administrator, he designated the committee “as a pack of damn fools” (although one of them was John Adams), ignorant as lawyers’ clerks, who thought the navy could help pay for the war. Esek’s brother Stephen Hopkins was chairman of the Marine Committee, and his son John was given command of the Cabot, one of the first four ships of the squadron.

A flag was as necessary as commodore or crew, for a national navy was nothing without it. If a flag for an army unit or a headquarters on land was a tradition to express a sense of pride and loyalty, for a ship on the trackless seas it was a necessity as a sign of identity so that it should not be taken for a pirate. Until now, ships commissioned by the separate colonies flew the colony’s flag, like the pine tree of Massachusetts, or a personal standard, like the coiled serpent of George Washington with its device “Don’t tread on me.” For the Continental Navy, a flag was wanted to represent the hard-won confederation of colonies under one sovereignty, the great step that made feasible a war of revolution. This flag, made at the seat of Congress in Philadelphia, by a milliner, Margaret Manny, was to be the one to receive the first salute. Everyone knows about Betsy Ross, why do we know nothing about Margaret Manny? Probably for no better reason than that she had fewer articulate friends and relatives to build a story around her.

Rather than venture into the tangled web of flag origins where a dispute attaches to every point, let us simply accept the fact that a red-and-white-striped flag made its appearance aboard a ship of the new navy at its dock in Philadelphia in December, 1775. What is on record here is that Margaret Manny, milliner, received from James Wharton of Philadelphia, 49 yards of broad bunting and 52 1/2 yards of the narrow width with which to prepare an ensign. The goods were charged to the account of the ship Alfred, flagship of the squadron and, with 30 guns, largest of the first four. The finished product, leaving aside the question of who designed it, displayed thirteen red and white stripes, representing the union of the thirteen colonies, together with the combined crosses of St. Andrew and St. George in the canton or upper left quadrant retained from the Union Jack. The crosses had appeared on the British flag since 1707, when the two kingdoms of England and Scotland formed a union under the Crown of Great Britain. Their appearance on the American flag indicated that the Colonies were not yet ready to detach themselves from the British Crown or declare themselves a new sovereign state. Richard Henry Lee’s path-breaking resolution in Congress in June, 1776, “that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States … and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved” was still under heavy dispute. What the Colonies wanted at this stage was more autonomy, the irreplaceable sense of freedom of a mature people with the right to tax themselves, free of the imposition of taxes and statutes by the British Parliament without their consent, and what they were fighting for was to force Great Britain to accept this position.

On a mid-winter day, December 3, 1775, the new flag was flown. “I hoisted with my own hands the flag of freedom,” Jones recalled on the deck of his ship, the Alfred, at her dock in Philadelphia in the Delaware River, while the commodore and officers of the fleet and a cheering crowd of citizens hailed the event from shore. Washington, shortly afterward, on January 1, 1776, raised what is believed to be the same flag on Prospect Hill in Cambridge, Massachusetts, during his siege of Boston. Testimony as to whether this flag, called the Grand Union, was carried at Trenton and Brandywine and other land battles is elusive, though it was soon to fly visibly in active combat at sea. The Grand Union gave way to the Stars and Stripes, officially adopted by Congress in June, 1777, with thirteen white stars on a blue field replacing the British crosses. In 1795, two stars were added, representing the adherence to the union of Kentucky and Vermont.

Congress did not wait until adoption of the flag to assign the newborn navy a mission. Ordered to attack the enemy in the Chesapeake if feasible, Commodore Hopkins decided on his own responsibility to pursue another objective. It was to seize, by a surprise landing of marines, the ports of Nassau on the island of New Providence in the Bahamas for the capture of military stores known to be cached there. The Marine Corps for land operations in support of naval action had been established within a month after creation of the Continental Navy.

Breaking ice in the Delaware, the little squadron, with the Continental flag waving from the Alfred’s mast, sailed out into the stormy seas of February at a low moment in American fortunes after the loss of Long Island and New York in August, 1776, gave the British control of the New York coast. Later, Washington succeeded in withdrawing his troops from Manhattan and retreating to Harlem Heights and into New Jersey, saving his army from dissolution and keeping unbroken his tenuous land front from New England to the South.

On its excursion to the Bahamas, the navy met success in the mission to capture arms: loot of 88 cannon, 15 mortars and 24 barrels of gunpowder were taken in the surprise attack on New Providence, and on the way home two small British marauders which had been raiding the coast of Rhode Island were captured as prizes.

The first memorable maritime fight followed on April 6, 1776. Against the dark horizon off Block Island at about 1 a.m., the Andrew Doria sighted a strange sail and signaled a warning to her companions. The stranger proved to be a British ship of force, theGlasgow, bringing dispatches from the Admiralty to British garrisons in southern ports. Fortunately, she was alone, for the American squadron suffered from untried crews, many sick from an outbreak of smallpox, and others unfit for duty, “having got too much liquor out of the prizes,” while the ships themselves were clumsy sailers, burdened by the weight of the captured cannon. A three-hour duel lasting until daybreak was a helter-skelter affair under no combined orders, with each captain left to do as he thought best. The Andrew Doria, firing at close range, acquitted herself well until her aim was distracted by near entanglement with the Alfred, which, with her rigging damaged, had become unmanageable. Shots by others in the squadron found their target, forcing the enemy to crowd on sail for a retreat toward Newport. “Away came poor Glasgow,” reported an observer on shore, “under all the sails she could set, yelping from the mouths of her cannon like a broken-legged dog as a signal [to the British fleet at Newport] of her being sadly wounded.” The Americans gave chase, but the Glasgow’s superior speed, in spite of damages, brought her so close to Newport that the chase was abandoned for fear of being caught under the British guns coming out of the harbor in answer to Glasgow’s bellows of alarm.

With its prize of war material intact, the Americans made for New London, bringing the first Continental naval action to a successful, if not heroic, end. Officers in ex post facto critique were not satisfied with their performance. In Captain Biddle’s words, “a more imprudent ill-conducted affair never happened.”

Other encounters followed off the Delaware Capes and Bermuda and Nova Scotia and Cape Breton Island, of no great concern to this story except insofar as they made the Continental flag known to its enemies and no doubt to neutrals.

After her fight with the Glasgow, the Andrew Doria, repaired and refitted at her home port in Gloucester, New Jersey, sailed on October 23, under a new captain, Isaiah Robinson, carrying sealed orders from the Marine Committee. Opened at sea, they gave him his destination as St. Eustatius and his mission to deliver a copy of the Declaration of Independence to Governor de Graaff and to buy cloth and a load of arms and ammunition for the Continental Army. With a new national navy under his feet and “conscious of conducting a diplomatic mission,” Captain Robinson wanted to make a noticeable entry. Sailing into the harbor, he ran up his striped flag and moved forward to anchor right below Fort Orange. Following custom, he dipped his flag to the fort and when the fort’s flag was dipped in return he fired his entering salute. Abraham Ravené, the fort’s commander, as he later testified, surmising the identity of his visitor and realizing that recognition would cause trouble with the British, was uncertain what to do. Sending hastily for the Governor, who lived close by, he was instructed to reply with two guns less than a national salute. The volley and the white puffs of smoke followed. Three English sailors aboard a sloop in the roadstead saw the whole scene and hurried afterward to discuss it with the excited townspeople of St. Kitts who had watched from on shore.

The colonial authorities, obviously pleased by the response gained by the Andrew Doria, were inspired to invite a repetition. In February, 1777, orders were issued by the Marine Committee to Captain Nicholas Biddle of the Continental frigate Randolfinstructing him that “As you command the first American frigate that has got out to sea it is expected that you contend warmly on all necessary occasions for the honor of the American flag. At every foreign port you enter, salute their forts.…” No further salutes, however, were recorded.

Whether it was madness or not to launch a fleet, Congress made the naval challenge explicit on November 25, when it formally declared British warships, though not yet merchantmen, open to capture in retaliation for British attacks on American coastal towns. At the same time it issued naval regulations for action at sea by the United Colonies of North America.

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