The Royal Navy during the American Revolution
At the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1775, the British navy was the largest and most experienced navy in the world, and it was essential to the survival of the British empire. At the start of the American Revolution, the Royal Navy numbered over 250 vessels of all sizes. These ranged from massive ships-of-the-line to tiny sloops and coastal vessels. By the end of the war that number would nearly double as the navy expanded to meet the threat posed by other European powers fighting alongside the Americans. The navy served as Britain’s “wooden walls,” protecting the home islands from invasion by much larger continental powers. Britain also relied on her navy to defend trade flowing in from her far-flung colonies. During the American Revolution, the navy played a critical role in supporting the Army’s attempts to crush the American rebellion, allowing the army to strike anywhere along the coast. In the later years of the war, the navy would be crucial in holding off the French, Spanish, and Dutch as the war spread across the globe.
Navy vessels were organized along a rating system that broadly defined their size and their use. At the top of the system were the first-rate ships, which featured over 100 guns arranged on three gun decks, manned by over 800 officers and men. Together with second-rate (80-98 guns) and third-rate (64-80 guns), these vessels were known as ships-of-the-line, which referred to their role in battle. These large battleships were deployed in line formations with the intention of battering enemy vessels with crashing broadsides in direct combat. Third-rate ships, typically carrying 74 guns, were by far the most common ships-of-the-line in the late 18th century. Prior to the Revolution fourth-rate vessels (50-60 guns) were considered ships-of-the-line, but by the 1770s they were considered too small to be effective in a general battle. They were often relegated to convoy escorts or colonial service where the threat of enemy battleships was more limited. Fifth and sixth-rate ships, known as frigates would see extensive service during the Revolutionary War. Smaller and more maneuverable than ships-of-the-line, frigates were used for convoy escorts, reconnaissance, and commerce raiding. Any vessel carrying less than 20 guns was unrated, and this class included a variety of sloops, brigs, gunboats, cutters, and other vessels. Like frigates, they often played a variety of roles because of their speed and size and were widely used on the many rivers, lakes, and estuaries of North America.
Every rated vessel was commanded by a captain, who had a number of commissioned officers who served under him. Unlike officers in the army, naval officers did not purchase their commissions, and instead gained their commissions through a mix of experience, networking, and luck. The vast majority entered the service in their teens, serving as midshipmen. During this time they learned the fundamentals of navigation, seamanship, and leadership as they assisted the officers of the ship. After several years midshipmen could take the lieutenant's exam and receive a commission if they passed. Promotion to captain was more difficult and often came after displaying gallantry in battle or through political or social connections. Because of this process, most officers in the Royal Navy were generally well experienced and capable by the time they reached positions of command. Beneath the commissioned officers were a wide range of warrant and petty officers who saw to the day-to-day running of the ship. These included the ship’s master, surgeon, carpenter, gunner, and others. Every naval vessel also carried a complement of marines who helped keep order aboard ship and provided troops for amphibious landings.
The majority of any ship’s crew consisted of the seamen who sailed and fought the vessel. In the late 18th century a large part of the crew were volunteers, but as the navy expanded in wartime the need for men increased. As a result, the Royal Navy often resorted to impressment to fill out a ship’s crew. A press gang, commanded by an officer bearing a royal warrant, would comb the streets and taverns of a port city with the authority to take up any man with sailing experience between the ages of 15 and 55. Sailors could also be impressed at sea, and naval vessels would often board merchant ships and removed crewmen if they were short-handed. Few sailors were exempt from the law, and it was widely unpopular throughout the British Empire as naval pay was less than a merchant sailor could make. In many port cities impressment led to riots, and it was given as one of the grievances against Britain in the Declaration of Independence.
At the start of the American Revolution, the Royal Navy faced little opposition from the fledgling American Navy. Several colonies maintained small state navies, and in 1775 Congress authorized the creation of a Continental Navy. These forces amounted to several dozen small vessels and a handful of frigates. Unable to face the Royal Navy in open combat, the Americans preyed upon British merchant shipping. They were soon joined by over 1,000 privateers - private vessels authorized to attack enemy shipping. Over the course of the war over 2,000 British merchant ships were captured, a factor that helped to turn British public opinion against the war.
The Royal Navy also spent much of the early war years supporting the army. The superiority of the navy meant that the British could strike anywhere along the coast of the colonies. In the summer of 1776, this was illustrated by the British attack on New York. Under the cover of artillery fire from Royal Navy Warships over 20,000 troops were landed by a fleet of over 130 ships, prompting one American soldier to remark that “I thought all London was afloat.” The army and navy would cooperate on inland waters as well, notably at the Battle of Valcour Island in 1776. There a ragtag collection of small American vessels under the command of Benedict Arnold was defeated by a similar fleet manned by Royal Navy sailors, giving the British command of Lake Champlain and opening the way for the advance on Albany the following year.
The naval war changed drastically in 1778 when the French joined the war on the side of the Americans. Faced with a foe with a comparably large navy, the British now had to prepare for large-scale fleet actions. Even worse was the threat of invasion and the loss of colonies in the West Indies and Asia, which were far more profitable to Britain than the 13 colonies in North America. British fears increased in 1779, when the Spanish joined the war, and the threat of a combined Franco-Spanish invasion of Britain became a very real possibility. The commitment to supporting the army, protecting trade, and defending the home islands and colonies spread the Royal Navy thin by 1780, allowing the French to send increasing numbers of arms and men to America.
The most well-known naval action of the war came on September 5, 1781, off the mouth of Chesapeake Bay. A British fleet of 19 ships-of-the-line under the command of Admiral Thomas Graves engaged a 24 ship French fleet commanded by the Comte De Grasse. For two hours the battlelines were locked in battle. Although no ships were lost in the battle, Graves broke off and returned his fleet to New York, leaving the French in control of Chesapeake Bay. The defeat of the Royal Navy at the Virginia Capes sealed the fate of Cornwallis’s army, trapping it at Yorktown with no hope of rescue.
Although the surrender at Yorktown meant the end of major hostilities by land, the naval war continued with even greater ferocity over the next two years. In April 1782 the Royal Navy would get their revenge against De Grasse at the Battle of the Saintes, off the coast of the Caribbean island of Dominica. During the battle the British fleet broke De Grasse’s formation, sinking one French ship and capturing four others - and taking De Grasse prisoner. The victory reasserted British naval dominance and helped to strengthen the British position at the ongoing peace negotiations. The naval war spread into the Indian Ocean as well, where the Royal Navy fought a series of battles against the French in an attempt to defend British trade and colonies in India. The last major naval action of the war was fought on June 20, 1783, when a British fleet engaged a smaller French force off the coast of Cuddalore. It was not until after the battle concluded that both sides discovered that a preliminary peace treaty had been signed. Two months later the signing of the Treaty of Paris brought the war to an official end.