The sea service created by the American Continental Congress in October 1775 in furtherance of the American War of Independence (1775–83) against the British. A squadron of eight converted merchantmen, none mounting more than 24 guns, became operational the following December. That same month, the Congress authorized an ambitious building programme of thirteen frigates of from 24 to 32 guns. Most of these never reached service. During the winter of 1776, the entire squadron, under the command of Commodore Esek Hopkins, successfully raided Nassau in the Bahamas, carrying away more than 80 cannon and mortars and a quantity of powder, important gains for the struggling Continental Army fighting the British. Thereafter, the service largely pursued a guerre de course, individual units having varying successes in capturing British supply ships whose cargoes also went to the support of the army. While the exploits of the self-promoting John Paul Jones have been widely published, captains like Gustavus Conyngham and Lambert Wickes were equally adept at wreaking havoc on British commerce in northern European waters.
During the course of the war, the Continental Navy acquired nearly 60 ships, but there were fewer than 40 owned in any one year and many fewer actually in service. The navy was in steady numerical decline after 1777 as the far superior British Navy gradually ran its ships down, and it went out of existence in August 1785 with the auction sale of its last unit into merchant service.
Tyrone G. Martin