What is the Continental Navy?

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  • Written By: Christine Hudson
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 10 September 2019
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The United States Navy during the American Revolution was called the Continental Navy. Formed on 13 October 1775, the main purpose of the Navy was to intercept British shipments and disrupt any British commercial operations at sea. Later, under plans drafted by Silas Dean, John Adams and John Langdon, the Navy grew stronger and began to seize British warships and carry needed supplies to army divisions.

While colonists and the Continental Army were battling the British, the second Continental Congress met to discuss creating the Continental Navy in May 1775. It was not created then, however, and by October 1775, the British were dominant at sea and held the upper hand in the war. With some states already hiring small fleets to protect their area, it was apparent that a navy was needed, and Congress finally agreed to form one. The first naval ships were constructed, and the Continental Navy was born.

Throughout the 10-year lifespan of the Continental Navy, 65 vessels served. Of those, only 11 were not sunk or captured. During its time, however, the Continental Navy captured or destroyed nearly 200 British vessels, which greatly hindered British commerce and dwindled supplies. While the naval forces may not have done much to win the war in battle, they did help to create low morale in the British forces. Many believe this low morale was a large contributing factor to Britain's defeat.


The Revolutionary War finally ended in October of 1781, and a new federal government was formed in the US. During this time, the 11 surviving ships of the Continental Navy were reduced to five. An infant nation with diplomatic relations to establish, the US had little use or funds for a navy. All of the ships were finally sold in 1785, and the Navy was disbanded. It was not until 1794 that it would be re-established.

Building the Navy again was a slow process, with only three ships authorized to be built and manned. The first ships of the official US Navy were the USS Constellation, USS Constitution and the USS United States. It was not until the War of 1812 that the Navy saw rapid growth and practical use.

Although this original navy was disbanded and lost for close to a decade, the US Navy still traces its roots back to 1775. Many ships in the Continental Navy were converted merchant ships, but they are memorialized typically as grand and brave fleets. After proving its necessity in the wars to follow 1785, the Navy grew to become an indispensable part of the US military.


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