- History of the United States Navy
United States Navy
United States Navy portal
Active 13 October 1775–Present Country United States Branch Navy Part of Department of Defense
Department of the Navy
Headquarters The Pentagon Motto "Honor, Courage, Commitment"
"Non sibi sed patriae" (Not self but country) (unofficial)
Colors Blue, Gold March Anchors Aweigh EngagementsRevolutionary War
War of 1812
Anti-Piracy in the West Indies
Anti-Piracy in the Aegean Sea
Anti-Slavery in Africa
American Civil War
World War I
World War II
Persian Gulf War
Operation Allied Force
Operation Enduring Freedom
Operation Iraqi Freedom
Anti-Piracy in Somalia
War in Libya
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 made it the largest in the world by the 1920s.
The United States Navy recognizes 13 October 1775 as the date of its official establishment, when the Continental Congress passed a resolution creating the Continental Navy. Soon after the end of the Revolutionary War the last ship was sold and the Continental Navy was disbanded. Eleven years later, conflicts between American merchant shipping and pirates in the Mediterranean Sea led to the Naval Act of 1794, which created the US Navy. The original six frigates were authorized as part of the Act. During the next 20 years the Navy fought the French Navy in the Quasi-War, Barbary states in the First and Second Barbary Wars, and the British in the War of 1812. After the War of 1812, the Navy was at peace until the Mexican-American war in 1846, and served to combat piracy in the Mediterranean and Caribbean seas, and the slave trade. During this period the Naval Academy was founded in 1845. In 1861, the American Civil War began and the US Navy fought the small Confederate Navy with both sailing ships and ironclad ships while forming a blockade on the confederacy. After the Civil war most of the ships were laid up in reserve and by 1878 the Navy only included 6,000 men.
In 1882, the US Navy consisted of many outdated ship designs. In the next decade Congress approved building multiple modern armored cruisers and battleships and by the turn of the century had moved from twelfth place in 1870 to fifth place in terms of numbers of ships. After winning two major battles during the Spanish–American in 1898, the Navy continued to build more ships and by the end of World War I had more men and women in uniform than the Royal Navy. The Washington Naval Conference recognized the Navy as equal in capital ship size to the Royal Navy, and during the 1920s and 1930s, the Navy built several aircraft carriers and modern battleships. The Navy was drawn into World War II after the Attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, and over the next 4 years fought many historic battles including the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Battle of Midway, multiple naval battles during the Guadalcanal Campaign, and the largest naval battle in history, the Battle of Leyte Gulf. 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. 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 Navy had over 1600 warships.
After World War II ended, the US Navy entered the Cold War and participated in the Korean War, Vietnam War, Gulf War and Iraq War. Nuclear power and ballistic missile technology led to new ship propulsion and weapon systems which were used in the Nimitz-class carriers and Ohio-class submarines. By 1978 the number of ships had dwindled to less than 400, many of which were from World War II, and Ronald Reagan instituted a program for a modern 600-ship Navy. Today, the United States is the world's undisputed naval superpower, with the ability to engage in two simultaneous limited wars along separate fronts.
- 1 Foundations of the "Old Navy"
- 2 "New Navy"
- 3 Notes
- 4 References
- 5 External links
On 12 June 1775, the Rhode Island General Assembly, meeting at East Greenwich, passed a resolution creating a navy for the colony of Rhode Island. 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.
The first formal movement for the creation of a Continental navy came from Rhode Island, because its merchants' widespread smuggling activities had been severely harassed by British frigates. On 26 August 1775, Rhode Island General Assembly passed a resolution that there be a single Continental fleet funded by the Continental Congress. The resolution was introduced in the Continental Congress on 3 October 1775, but was tabled. 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. Hannah was commissioned and launched on 5 September 1775, from the port of Beverly, Massachusetts.
The US Navy recognizes 13 October 1775 as the date of its official establishment — the date of the passage of the resolution of the Continental Congress at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania that created the Continental Navy. On this day, Congress authorized the purchase of two vessels to be armed for a cruise against British merchant ships; these ships became Andrew Doria and Cabot. The first ship in commission was the USS Alfred which was purchased on 4 November and commissioned on 3 December by Captain Dudley Saltonstall. On November 10, 1775, the Continental Congress passed a resolution calling for two battalions of Marines to be raised for service with the fleet. John Adams drafted its first governing regulations, which were 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, five ships of 32 guns, five with 28 guns and three with 24 guns.
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. The British fleet did destroy Arnold's fleet, but the US 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. 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.
Privateers had some success, with 1,697 letters of marque being issued by Congress. 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. 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.
One particularly notable American naval hero of the Revolution was John Paul Jones, who defeated the British ship Serapis (1779) in the Battle of Flamborough Head. Partway through the battle, with the rigging of the two ships entangled, and several guns of Jones' ship Bonhomme Richard (1765) 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!"
France officially entered the war on June 17th, 1778, and the ships of the French Navy sent to the Western Hemisphere spent most of the year in the West Indies, and only sailed near the Thirteen Colonies during the Caribbean hurricane season from July until November. The first French fleet attempted landings in New York and Rhode Island, but ultimately failed to engage British forces during 1778. In 1779, a fleet commanded by Vice Admiral Charles Henri, comte d'Estaing assisted American forces attempting to recapture Savvanah, Georgia.
In 1780, a fleet with 6,000 troops commanded by Lieutenant General Jean-Baptiste, comte de Rochambeau landed at Newport, Rhode Island, and shortly afterwards the fleet was blockaded by the British. In early 1781, Washington and de Rochambeau planned an attack against the British in the Chesapeake Bay area to coordinate with the arrival of a large fleet commanded by Vice Admiral François, comte de Grasse. Successfully deceiving the British that an attack was planned in New York, Washington and de Rochambeau marched to Virginia, and de Grasse began landing forces near Yorktown, Virginia. On 5 September 1781 a major naval action was fought by de Grasse and the British at the Battle of the Virginia Capes, ending with the French fleet in control of the Chesapeake bay. Protected from the sea by the French fleet, American and French forces surrounded, besieged and forced the surrender of British forces commanded by Lord Corwallis, effectively winning the war and leading to peace two years later.
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 in the Navy. A faction within Congress wanted to keep the ship, but the new nation did not have the funds to keep her in service. Other than a general lack of money, other factors for the disarmament of the navy were the loose confederation of the states, a change of goals from war to peace, and more domestic and fewer foreign interests.
After the American Revolutionary War the brand-new United States struggled to stay financially afloat. National income was desperately needed and most came from tariffs on imported goods. Because of rampant smuggling, the need was immediate for strong enforcement of tariff laws. On 4 August 1790 the United States Congress, urged on by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, created the Revenue-Marine, the forerunner for the United States Coast Guard, 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.
American merchant shipping had been protected by the British Navy, and as a consequence of the Treaty of Paris and the disarmament of the Continental Navy, 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 their ships were vulnerable for capture after 1785. By 1789, the new Constitution of the United States authorized Congress to create a navy, but during George Washington's first term (1787–1793) little was done to rearm the navy. In 1793, the French Revolutionary Wars between Great Britain and France began, and a truce negotiated between Portugal and Algiers 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.
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.
After the passage of the Naval Act of 1794, work began on the construction of the six frigates: USS United States, President, Constellation, Chesapeake, Congress, and Constitution. USS Constitution, launched in 1797 and the most famous of the six, was nicknamed "Old Ironsides" (like the earlier HMS Britannia) 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. After considerable debate, three of the six frigates were authorized to be completed: United States, Constitution and Constellation. However, the first naval vessel to sail was the USS Ganges, on 24 May 1798.
At the same time, tensions between the US and France developed into the Quasi-War, which originated which the Treaty of Alliance (1778) that had brought the French into the Revolutionary War. The United States preferred to take a position of neutrality in the conflicts between France and Britain, but this put the nation at odds with both Britain and France. 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. 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. The XYZ Affair originated with a report distributed by Adams where alleged French agents were identified by the letters X, Y, and Z who informed the delegation a bribe must be paid before the diplomats could meet with the foreign minister, and the resulting scandal increased popular support in the country for a war with France. Concerns about the War Department's ability to manage a navy led to the creation of the Department of the Navy, which was established on 30 April 1798.
The war with France was fought almost entirely at sea, mostly between privateers and merchant ships. The first victory for the United States Navy was on 7 July 1798 when the USS Delaware captured the French privateer Le Croyable, and the first victory over an enemy warship was on 9 February 1799 when the frigate Constellation captured the French frigate L'Insurgente. 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. The remainder of the ships in service were sold and the dismissed officers were given four months pay.
The problems with the Barbary states 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. The USS Philadelphia was lost to the Moors, but then blown up by an American raid led by Stephen Decatur. 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. This act was enough to induce the Barbary rulers to sign peace treaties. Subsequently the Navy was greatly reduced for reasons of economy, and instead of regular ships many gunboats were built, intended for coastal use only. This policy proved completely ineffective within a decade.
The Royal Navy continued to illegally press American sailors into the Royal Navy; an estimated 10,000 sailors between 1799 and 1812. In 1807, in the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair, HMS Leopard demanded that USS 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. The most violent of many such encounters, the affair further fueled the tensions and in June 1812 the US declared war on Britain.
War of 1812 (1812–1815)
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, USS Constitution sank HMS Guerriere; 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". On 29 December 1812 Constitution defeated HMS Java off the coast of Brazil and Java was burned after the Americans determined she could not be salvaged. On 25 October 1812, the USS United States captured HMS Macedonian; after the battle Macedonian was captured and entered into American service. In 1813, USS Essex commenced a very fruitful raiding venture into the South Pacific, preying upon the British merchant and whaling industry. The Essex was already known for her capture of Battle of Valparaíso.
The capture of the three British frigates led the British to deploy more vessels on the American seaboard to tighten the blockade. 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. Lawrence was mortally wounded and famously cried out, "Don't give up the ship!". 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.
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 Washington Navy Yard, including the 44-gun frigate USS Columbia. 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.
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. Shortly before the treaty was signed, the USS President was captured by 4 British frigates. Three days after the treaty was signed the Constitution captured HMS Levant and Cyane. The final naval action of the war occurred almost 5 months after the treaty on 30 June 1815 when the sloop USS Peacock captured the East India Company brig Nautilus.
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 1840s, the Navy began to adopt steam power and shell guns, but they lagged behind the French and British in adopting the new technologies.
Enlisted sailors during this time included many foreign born men, and native Americans were usually social outcasts who had few other employment options or they were trying to escape punishment for crimes. In 1835, almost 3,000 men sailed with merchant ships out of Boston harbor, but only 90 men were recruited by the Navy. It was unlawful for black men to serve in the Navy, but the shortage of men was so acute this law was frequently broken.
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. Shortly after departing Gibraltar en route to Algiers, Decatur's squadron encountered the Algerian flagship Meshuda, and, in the Action of 17 June 1815, captured it. Not long afterward, the American squadron likewise captured the Algerian brig Estedio in the Battle off Cape Palos. 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.
Piracy in the Caribbean sea was also a major problem, and between 1815 and 1822 an estimated 3000 ships were captured by pirates. 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 embark on a strategy of diplomacy backed up by the guns of the Navy. 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. During this campaign the USS Sea Gull becomes first steam-powered ship to see combat action. Although isolated instances of piracy continued into the 1830s, by 1826 the frequent attacks had ended and the region was declared free for commerce.
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 the ships based far from the coast of Africa, and used ships that 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.
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. 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. George Bancroft, appointed Secretary of the Navy in 1845, decided to work outside of congressional approval and create a new academy for officers. He formed a council led 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.
Naval forces participated in the effort to forcibly move the Seminole Indians from Florida to a reservation west of the Mississippi. After a massacre of army soldiers near Tampa on 28 December 1835, marines and sailors were added to the forces which fought the Second Seminole War from 1836 until 1842. 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. 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.
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.
In 1853 Commodore Matthew Perry lead the Perry Expedition, a squadron of four ships which sailed to Japan to establish normal relations with Japan. Perry's two technologically advanced steam-powered ships and calm, firm diplomacy convinced Japan to end three centuries of isolation and sign Treaty of Kanagawa with the US in 1854. Nominally a treaty of friendship, the agreement soon paved the way for the opening of Japan and normal trade relations with the United States and Europe.
American Civil War (1861–1865)
Between the beginning of the war and the end of 1861, 373 commissioned officers, warrant officers, and midshipmen resigned or were dismissed from the United States Navy and went on to serve the Confederacy. 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 USS Merrimack was 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 USS Monitor.
Winfield Scott, the commanding general of the US Army at the beginning of the war, devised the Anaconda Plan to win the war with as little bloodshed as possible. His idea was that a Union blockade of the main ports would weaken the Confederate economy; then the capture of the Mississippi River would split the South. Lincoln adopted the plan in terms of a blockade to squeeze to death the Confederate economy, but overruled Scott's warnings that his new army was not ready for an offensive operation because public opinion demanded an immediate attack.
On 8 March 1862, the Confederate Navy initiated the first combat between ironclads when the Virginia successfully attacked the blockade. The next day, the Monitor engaged the Virginia in the Battle of Hampton Roads. Their battle ended in a draw, and the Confederacy later lost the Virginia when the ship was scuttled to prevent capture. The Monitor was the prototype for the Monitor warship and many more were built by the Union Navy. While the Confederacy built more ironclad ships during the war, they lacked the ability to build or purchase ships that could effectively counter the monitors.
Along with ironclad ships, the new technologies of naval mines, which were known as torpedoes after the torpedo eel and submarine warfare were introduced during the war by the Confederacy. During the Battle of Mobile Bay, mines were used to protect the harbor and sank the Union monitor USS Tecumseh. After Tecumseh sank, Admiral David G. Farragut famously said, "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!". The forerunner of the modern submarine, CSS David, attacked the USS New Ironsides using a spar torpedo. The Union ship was barely damaged and the resulting geyser of water put out the fires in the submarine's boiler. Another submarine, the CSS H. L. Hunley, was designed to dive and surface but ultimately did not work well and sank on five occasions during trials. In action against the USS Housatonic the submarine successfully sank its target but was lost by the same explosion.
The Confederate States of America operated a number of commerce raiders and blockade runners, CSS Alabama being the most famous, and British investors built small, fast blockade runners that traded arms and luxuries brought in from Bermuda, Cuba, and The Bahamas in return for high-priced cotton and tobacco. When the Union Navy seized a blockade runner the ship and cargo were sold and the proceeds given to the Navy sailors; the captured crewmen were mostly British and they were simply released.
The blockade of the South caused the Southern economy to collapse during the war. Shortages of food and supplies were caused by the blockade, the failure of Southern railroads, the loss of control of the main rivers, and foraging by Union and Confederate armies. The standard of living fell even as large-scale printing of paper money caused inflation and distrust of the currency. By 1864 the internal food distribution had broken down, leaving cities without enough food and causing food riots across the Confederacy. The Union victory at the Second Battle of Fort Fisher in January 1865 closed the last useful Southern port, virtually ending blockade running and hastening the end of the war.
After the war, the Navy went into a period of decline. In 1864, the Navy had 51,500 men in uniform, and almost 700 ships and about 60 monitor-type coastal ironclads which made the US Navy the second largest in the world compared with the Royal Navy. By 1880 the Navy only had 48 ships in commission, 6,000 men, and the ships and shore facilities were decrepit but Congress saw no need to spend money to improve them. The Navy was unprepared to fight a major maritime war before 1897.
In 1871, an expedition of five warships commanded by Rear Admiral John Rodgers was sent to Korea to obtain an apology for the murders of several shipwrecked American sailors and secure a treaty to protect shipwrecked foreigners in the future. After a small skirmish, Rodgers launched an amphibious assault of approximately 650 men on the forts protecting Seoul. Despite capturing the forts, the Koreans refused to negotiate, and the expedition was forced to leave before the start of typhoon season. Nine sailors and six marines received Medals of Honor for their acts of heroism during the Korean campaign; the first for actions in a foreign conflict.
By the 1870s most of the ironclads from the Civil War were laid up in reserve, leaving the United States 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 US 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 and the four Amphitrite-class monitors were subsequently built as a result of the Virginius war scare. 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. 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 United States from projecting power overseas, and until the 1890s the United States would have come off badly in a conflict with even Spain or the Latin American powers.
In 1882, on the recommendation of an advisory panel, the Navy Secretary William H. Hunt requested funds from Congress to construct modern ships. The request was rejected initially, but in 1883 Congress authorized the construction of three protected cruisers, the USS Chicago, USS Boston, and USS Atlanta, and the dispatch vessel USS Dolphin, together known as the ABCD ships. In 1885, two more protected cruisers, USS Charleston and USS Newark which was the last American cruiser to be fitted with a sal rig, were authorized. Congress also authorized the construction of the first battleships in the Navy, USS Texas and USS Maine. The ABCD ships proved to be excellent vessels, and the three cruisers were organized into the Squadron of Evolution, popularly known as the White Squadron because of the color of the hulls, which was used to train a generation of officers and men.
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.
In 1890, Mahan's doctrine influenced Navy Secretary Benjamin F. Tracy to propose the United States start building no less than 200 ships of all types, but Congress rejected the proposal. Instead, the Navy Act of 1890 authorized building three battleships, USS Indiana, USS Massachusetts, and USS Oregon, followed by USS Iowa. By the turn of the century, two Kearsarge-class battleships and three Illinois-class battleships were completed or under construction, which brought the US Navy from twelfth place in 1870 to fifth place among the world's navies.
Spanish–American War (1898)
The United States was interested in purchasing colonies from Spain, specifically Cuba, but Spain refused. Newspapers wrote stories, many which were fabricated, about atrocities committed in Spanish colonies which raised tensions between the two countries. A riot gave the United States an excuse to send the USS Maine to Cuba, and the subsequent explosion of Maine in Havana Harbor increased popular support for war with Spain. The cause of the explosion was investigated by a board of inquiry, which in March 1898 came to the conclusion the explosion was caused by a sea mine, and there was pressure from the public to blame Spain for sinking the ship. However, later investigations pointed to an internal explosion in one of the magazines caused by heat from a fire in the adjacent coal bunker.
Assistant Navy secretary Theodore Roosevelt quietly positioned the Navy for attack before 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 majority of heavy Spanish naval units 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.
Fortunately for the New Navy, its most ardent political supporter, Theodore Roosevelt, became President in 1901. Under his administration, the Navy went from the sixth largest in the world to second only to the Royal Navy. Theodore Roosevelt's administration became involved in the politics of the Caribbean and Central America, with interventions in 1901, 1902, 1903, and 1906. At a speech in 1901, Roosevelt said, "Speak softly and carry a big stick, you will go far", which was a cornerstone of diplomacy during his presidency.
Roosevelt believed that a US-controlled canal across Central America was a vital strategic interest to the U.S Navy, because it would significantly shorten travel times for ships between the two coasts. Roosevelt was able to reverse a decision in favor of a Nicaraguan Canal and instead moved to purchase the failed French effort across the Isthmus of Panama. The isthmus was controlled by Colombia, and in early 1903, the Hay-Herran Treaty was signed by both nations to give control of the canal to the United States. After the Colombian Senate failed to ratify the treaty, Roosevelt implied to Panamanian rebels that if they revolted, the US Navy would assist their cause for independence. Panama proceeded to proclaim its independence on 3 November 1903, and the USS Nashville impeded any interference from Colombia. The victorious Panamanians allowed the United States control of the Panama Canal Zone on 23 February 1904, for US$10 million. The naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba was built in 1905 to protect the canal.
The latest technological innovation of the time, submarines, were developed in the state of New Jersey by an Irish-American inventor, John Philip Holland. His submarine, the USS Holland was officially commissioned into US Navy service in the fall of 1900. 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 United States 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 American power was subsequently taken more seriously.
The voyage taught the Navy more fueling stations were needed around the world, and the strategic potential of the Panama Canal, which was completed in 1914. The Great White Fleet required almost 50 coaling ships, and during the cruise most of the fleet's coal was purchased from the British, who could deny access to fuel during a military crisis as they did with Russia during the Russo-Japanese War.
World War I (1914–1918)
When United States agents discovered that the German merchant ship Ypiranga was carrying illegal arms to Mexico, President Wilson ordered the Navy to stop the ship from docking at the port of Veracruz, which became known as the Ypiranga incident. On 21 April 1914, a naval brigade of marines and sailors occupied Veracruz, and afterwards a total of 55 Medals of Honor were awarded for acts of heroism at Veracruz, the largest number ever granted for a single action. After Veracruz was occupied, the ABC Powers arbitrated the differences between the US and Mexico. Ultimately, the United States troops left Mexican soil and Ypiranga unloaded her arms.
Despite US declarations of neutrality and German accountability for its unrestricted submarine warfare, in 1915 Gulflight and more famously Lusitania were sunk. The United States' reaction was to contemplate increased funding for the Navy, although the Naval Act of 1916 went through six months of debate in Congress before being passed. The Act authorized a $500 million construction program over three years for 10 battleships, 6 battlecruisers, 10 scout cruisers, 50 destroyers and 67 submarines. By the end of the war 273 destroyers had been ordered to counter the submarine threat; most were finished after World War I ended but many served in World War II.
When the United States entered World War I 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. The United States Navy sent a battleship group to Scapa Flow to join with the British Grand Fleet, destroyers to Queenstown, Ireland and submarines to help guard convoys. Several regiments of Marines were also dispatched to France. The first victory for the Navy in the war occurs on 17 November 1917 when the USS Fanning and USS Nicholson sink the German U-boat U-58. 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 entrenchment and expansion (1918–1941)
At the end of World War I, the United States Navy had almost 500,000 officers and enlisted men and women and in terms of personnel was the largest in the world. 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 prescribed a ratio of 5:5:3:1:1 for capital ships between treaty nations. The treaty recognized the US Navy as being equal to the Royal Navy with 525,000 tons of capital ships and 135,000 tons of aircraft carriers. Many ships were scrapped by the five nations to meet the treaty limitations.
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 USS Lexington and USS 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 Vinson-Trammell Act of 1934 set up a regular program of ship building and modernization to bring the Navy to the maximum size allowed by treaty. The Navy's preparation was helped along by another Navy assistant secretary turned president, Franklin D. Roosevelt. The naval limitation treaties also applied to bases, but Congress only approved building seaplane bases on Wake Island, Midway Island and Dutch Harbor and rejected any additional funds for bases on Guam and the Philippines. Navy ships were designed with greater endurance and range which to allowed them to operate further from bases and between refits.
The 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.
African-Americans were enlisted during World War I, but this was halted in 1919 and they were mustered out of the Navy. Starting in 1930s a few were recruited to serve as servants for officers and were rigidly segregated aboard ships as mess attendants. African-Americans were recruited in larger numbers only after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The Naval Act of 1936 authorized the first new battleship since 1921, and USS North Carolina, was laid down in October 1937. The Second Vinson Act authorized a 20% increase in the size of the Navy and , and in June 1940 the Two-Ocean Navy Act authorized an 11% expansion in the Navy, and Chief of Naval Operations Harold Rainsford Stark asked for another 70% increase, amounting to about 200 additional ships, which was authorized by Congress in less than a month. In September 1940, the Destroyer Deal gave Britain much-needed destroyers in exchange for United States 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 East Coast of the United States. In October, the destroyers Kearny and Reuben James were torpedoed, and Reuben James was lost.
World War II (1941–1945)
On 7 December 1941, Japan launched the Attack on Pearl Harbor, sinking 5 battleships at their anchorages and severely damaging 3 more while overlooking the naval base's strategically more significant repair facilities and oil tank farm. At approximately the same time on the opposite side of the International Date Line, the Japanese attacked Wake Island, invaded Guam, the Philippines. The Japanese also attack Hong Kong, Thailand from its bases in French Indochina and Malaya after passing through Thai territory. These attacks lead to the US, Britain, Australia and other Allies to declare war on Japan.
On 10 December Germany and the other members of the Tripartite Pact supported Japan by declaring war on the United States. A unified American-British-Dutch-Australian Command (ABDA) was formed in January 1942 to stop the Japanese from advancing past Malaya. However, Singapore surrendered in 15 February 1942, and by 28 February 1942 the Japanese decisively defeated the ABDA forces in the Battle of the Java Sea, sunk the USS Houston in the Battle of Sunda Strait, and invaded Java.
The Allies agreed upon the "Europe First" strategy in 1941 which called for the early defeat of Germany before attacking the Japanese, defending a line from Midway to Samoa to Fiji to Australia and building up their forces in the Pacific. The carrier USS 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 United States launched its first counteroffensive, the invasion of Guadalcanal, the Navy became involved in a series of 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.
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, Operations Torch, Husky, Shingle, Overlord, and Dragoon.
In the Atlantic, the Allies waged a long battle with German submarines which was termed the Battle of the Atlantic. Navy aircraft flew from bases in Greenland and Iceland to hunt submarines, and hundreds of escort carriers and destroyer escorts were built which were specifically designed to protect merchant convoys. In the Pacific, the US submarines fought against Japanese shipping in a mirror image of the Atlantic, with US submarines hunting Japanese merchant ships. At the end of the war the US had 260 submarines in commission and lost 52 submarines during the war, 36 in actions in the Pacific. Submarines inflicted devastating losses on Japanese merchant shipping and effectively destroyed the Japanese merchant fleet by January 1945.
In the summer of 1943, the US began the Gilbert and Marshall Islands campaign to retake the Gilbert and Marshall Islands. After this success, the Americans went on to the Mariana and Palau Islands in summer 1944. Following their defeat at the Battle of Saipan, the Imperial Japanese Navy's Combined Fleet, with 5 aircraft carriers sortied to attack the Navy's Fifth Fleet during the Battle of the Philippine Sea, which was the largest aircraft carrier battle in history. The battle was so one-sided that it became known as the "Marianas turkey shoot"; the US lost 130 aircraft and no ships while the Japanese lost 411 planes and 3 carriers. Following victory in the Marianas, the US began the reconquest of the Philippines at Leyte in October 1944. The Japanese fleet sortied to attack the invasion fleet, resulting in the four-day Battle of Leyte Gulf, one of the largest naval battles in history. The first kamikaze missions are flown during the battle, sinking USS St. Lo (CVE-63) and damaging several other US ships; these attacks were the most effective anti-ship weapon of the war.
The island of Iwo Jima served as the next area of battle, which began on 19 February 1945. The Japanese had learned from their defeats in the Marianas campaign and prepared many fortified positions on the island, including pillboxes and underground tunnels. The Japanese put up fierce resistance, but American forces reached the summit of Mount Suribachi on 23 February. It was there that five Marines and one Navy Corpsman famously planted the American flag.
The Battle of Okinawa became the last major battle between US and Japanese ground units. Okinawa was to become a staging area for the eventual invasion of Japan since it was just 350 miles (550 km) south of the Japanese mainland. Marines and soldiers landed unopposed on 1 April 1945, to begin an 82-day campaign which became the largest land-sea-air battle in history and was noted for the ferocity of the fighting and the high civilian casualties with over 150,000 Okinawans losing their lives. Japanese kamikaze pilots enacted the largest loss of ships in US naval history with the sinking of 36 and the damaging of another 243. Total US casualties were over 12,500 dead and 38,000 wounded, while the Japanese lost over 110,000 men, making Okinawa one of the bloodiest battles in history.
The fierce fighting on Okinawa is said to have played a part in President Truman’s decision to use the atomic bomb and to forsake an invasion of Japan. When the Japanese surrendered, a flotilla of 374 ships entered Tokyo Bay to witness the ceremony conducted on the battleship USS Missouri. By the end of the war the US Navy had over 1200 warships.
Cold War (1945–1991)
The immediate postwar fate of the Navy was the scrapping and mothballing of ships on a large scale; by 1948 only 267 ships were active in the Navy. 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 assigned to geographic areas around the world, and ships were sent to hot spots as a standard part of the response to the periodic crises.
The Navy gradually developed a reputation for having the most highly developed technology of all the US services. The 1950s saw the development of nuclear power for ships, under the leadership of Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, and the development of missiles and jets for Navy use. The USS Enterprise, was the world's first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier and was followed by the Nimitz-class supercarriers. Ballistic missile submarines grew ever more deadly and quiet, culminating in the Ohio-class submarines.
Because the North Korean navy was not large, the Korean War featured few naval battles; the combatant navies served mostly as naval artillery for their in-country armies. A large amphibious landing at Inchon succeeded in driving the North Koreans back across the 38th parallel. The Battle of Chosin Reservoir ended with the evacuation of almost 105,000 UN troops from the port of Hungnam.
An unlikely combination of Navy ships fought in the Vietnam War; aircraft carriers offshore launched thousands of air strikes, 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 World War II. By 1978 the fleet had dwindled to 217 surface ships and 119 submarines.
Meanwhile the Soviet fleet had been growing, and outnumbered the US fleet in every type except carriers, and the Navy calculated they probably would be defeated by the Soviet Navy in a major conflict. 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. The Iowa-class battleships Iowa, New Jersey, Missouri, and Wisconsin 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.
Post–Cold War (1991–present)When a crisis confronts the nation, the first question often asked by policymakers is: 'What naval forces are available and how fast can they be on station?'—Admiral Carlisle A. H. Trost
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. US naval forces did undergo a decline in absolute terms but relative to the rest of the world, however, United States dwarfs other nations naval power as evinced by its 11 aircraft supercarriers and their supporting battle groups. 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 ships of the Navy participated in a number of conflicts after the end of the Cold War. After diplomatic efforts failed, the Navy was instrumental in the opening phases of the 1991 Gulf War with Iraq; the ships of the navy launched hundreds of Tomahawk II cruise missiles and naval aircraft flew sorties from six carriers in the Persian Gulf and Red Sea. The battleships USS Missouri and USS Wisconsin fired their 16-inch guns for the first time since the Korean war on several targets in Kuwait in early February. In 1999, hundreds of Navy and Marine Corps aircraft flew thousands of sorties from bases in Italy and carriers in the Adriatic against targets in Serbia and Kosovo to try to stop the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. After a 78 day campaign Serbia capitulated to NATO's demands.
As of 2011, the Navy is the smallest numerically, with less than 300 ships, since World War I. However, the comparison is misleading since modern ships are larger and carry more firepower than those of 100 years ago. Since the end of the Cold War, the Navy has shifted its focus from preparations for large-scale war with the Soviet Union to special operations and strike missions in regional conflicts. The Navy participated in Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and is a major participant in the ongoing War on Terror, largely in this capacity. Development continues on new ships and weapons, including the Gerald R. Ford-class aircraft carrier and the Littoral combat ship. Because of its size, weapons technology, and ability to project force far from American shores, the current US Navy remains a potent asset for the United States Commander-in-Chief (the President of the United States).
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