A Brief History of the U.S. Navy

History of the US Navy

The United States Navy hasn’t always been the military superpower it is today. The earliest version of the Navy dates back to the nation’s colonial days.

Let’s look at the humble beginnings of the U.S. Navy and how it grew to become the elite fighting force it is today.

The U.S. Navy During the Colonial Era 

The roots of the U.S. Navy can be traced back to October 13, 1775. On that date, the Second Continental Congress passed a resolution to create the Continental Navy in order to fight the British in the Revolutionary War.

The small Navy, with the help of French fleets, was able to win several decisive battles that ultimately led to the surrender of British forces.

However, the Continental Navy was disbanded shortly after the war ended. The prevailing thought at the time was that the nation’s limited resources should be invested into a standing army rather than a navy.

That thinking changed when American merchant ships were being regularly attacked by Barbary pirates launching from the north coast of Africa. In order to defend American shipping, Congress passed the Naval Act of 1794 which established a permanent standing U.S. Navy of six frigates.

It was Thomas Jefferson who used the Navy to defend American merchant ships, which led to the minor Barbary Wars. After two years of skirmishes, the U.S. won its first decisive victory over an enemy at sea, and the pirates stopped their attacks.

The U.S. Navy During the War of 1812

History of the US Navy

During the War of 1812, the British Navy blocked all major U.S. ports, disrupting commerce. The British Navy also played a key role in capturing and burning Washington, D.C.—a major blow to the U.S. forces.

Despite major defeats, the fledgling U.S. Navy managed a few key victories over the British, which boosted the nation’s morale and the overall prestige of the Navy.

One of most important engagements of the war was Isaac Hull’s victory over the British in August of 1812. Hull was Captain of the U.S.S. Constitution, which earned the nickname “Old Ironsides” due its ability to withstand much punishment from the British. However, the actual use of iron in warships was decades away.  

At the conclusion of the war the U.S. had established itself as a truly independent nation able to come out victorious over a bigger, stronger enemy once again. 

From 1815 through 1860 the U.S. Navy expanded its role beyond wartime duties. The Navy explored unfamiliar territories, conducted scientific experiments at sea, and continued to defend American merchant ships.

In 1845, The Naval Academy was established in Annapolis, Maryland by the Secretary of the Navy, George Bancroft.

The U.S. Navy During the Civil War

History of the US Navy

At the start of the Civil War in America, the U.S. Navy had 90 ships and approximately 10,000 enlisted men, including officers.

On April 19, 1861, President Lincoln ordered the U.S. Navy to block all seaports along the southern coastline. The small Union-controlled Navy was highly successful. After a year of activity, it captured 150 confederate ships and greatly diminished the Confederacy’s ability to receive ammunition and supplies over the water.

The Confederacy responded to the blockade by commissioning British-built war ships, which caused a diplomatic crisis between the Lincoln administration and the British government at the time.

Other than the blockades, there were no significant battles at sea. The Navy’s most significant actions took place on the Mississippi River. From there, the Navy was able to capture New Orleans and eventually Vicksburg, Mississippi which cut the Confederate Army’s access to grain, cotton, corn, and other agricultural supplies from Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana.

The Civil War also saw several important naval advancements. For example, iron was used in the construction of warships for the first time. And February of 1864 marked the first time a submarine (the Confederate H.L. Hunley) sank a ship (the Union Housatonic).

U.S. Navy During the Post Civil War Era

History of the US Navy

After the Civil War, the Navy was reduced and investment in warships and supplies waned. In spite of this, there were important advancements taking place that established a modern U.S. Navy.

For example, The U.S. Naval Institute was established in 1873 to advance strategic and scientific knowledge in the Navy. Congress provided the funds for four new warships in 1883. These warships were required to be made of domestically manufactured steel, which in turn, spurred new advancements in steel production in the United States.

In 1884, the Naval War College was established in Rhode Island by Commodore Stephen Luce. Captain Alfred Mahan, who was on staff at the War College published his highly influential text, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783.

His theories on naval power and war at sea were revolutionary. The writings won him acclaim in the United States and Europe. In fact, historians now trace a straight line between Mahan’s writings and the naval arms race that took place before the outbreak of the first world war. 

In 1916, the United States began one of the most important shipbuilding programs in the country’s history.

U.S. Navy During World War I 

During World War I, the United States Navy did not participate in any combat missions. However, the size of the Navy grew exponentially and played an important role in strategic and defensive missions.

First of all, the Navy delivered the 2 million ground troops to France upon the United States’ entrance in the War. In addition, the Navy deployed a minefield in the North Sea to stop German submarines and delivered a bomb squad and heavy artillery to France.

The U.S. Navy During World War II

History of the US Navy 

Once war broke out in Europe in 1939, the Navy ramped up production of warships, merchant vessels, planes, amphibious craft, and anti-submarine vessels. The number of enlisted seamen went from 300,000 in 1941 to 3,000,000 in just four years later.

After the Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States entered World War II, the U.S. Navy played a major role in victories and decisive military actions. It was the U.S. Navy that enabled the capture of Sicily and movements into southern France.

Most famously, in June of 1944 the Navy supplied the combat ships, landing craft, and firepower from the sea to support the Normandy landings.

The U.S. Navy During the Cold War

The Navy proved to be impactful during World War II, but the War also make it clear that air power was the most important element in modern warfare. The days of the battleship were over.

The prevailing theory at the time was that naval fleets must be able to keep control of the oceans while also being able to deploy atomic weapons from great distances. This proved to be an expensive and challenging undertaking for the U.S. Navy, so progress was slow.

Rather than building up Naval forces, emphasis was placed on experiments to prove that cruisers were the ideal launching pad for atomic missiles.

More importantly, the first nuclear-powered submarine, the USS Nautilus was launched under naval engineer Hyman Rickover. In 1960, the USS Triton, another nuclear-powered submarine, traveled around the world completely submerged.

By 1970, the Navy had an entire fleet of nuclear-powered submarines able to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles forever changing modern warfare.

The U.S. Navy During the Vietnam War

History of the US Navy

During the Vietnam War, the U.S. Naval forces were divided into two commands: brown water and blue water commands.

The brown water fleet controlled the waterways and rivers of inland Vietnam. The goal of brown water fleets was to disrupt enemy supply lines and troop movements. The success of these fleets influenced future operations where stealth and agility were paramount.

The blue water fleet remained on open seas and provided aircraft carriers as launching points for bombing campaigns, artillery support, and overall support for military operations throughout the conflict.

The U.S. Navy During the Late 20th and 21st Centuries 

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, the U.S. moved away from preparing for major confrontations and nuclear attacks. The Navy understood that it had to adapt to engaging in smaller conflicts where they could strike quickly and decisively against enemies.

In 1991, the U.S. Navy played a major role in the Persian Gulf war to defend Kuwait against Iraq. The Navy maneuvered quickly to bring 130 warships into the region, launch carrier-based campaigns, and defeat the enemy quickly.

The Navy provided a similar basis for air strikes carried out against Iraq and Afghanistan in the War Against Terror that was fought over the first two decades of the 21st century 

Perhaps the most well-known and celebrated mission of the Navy’s modern era occurred on land, hundreds of kilometers from the nearest ocean or sea.

In 2011, the elite SEAL Team 6 entered northeastern Pakistan and killed Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda leader and mastermind behind the September 11th attacks. Being able to carry out a land-based attack on an exact target was a perfect demonstration of how far the U.S. Navy had come from its days of large battleships and extensive bombing campaigns.

The Modern-Day U.S. Navy

History of the US Navy

Today, the U.S. Navy has over 300,000 active-duty members including officers and over 100,000 Navy reservists. The Navy operates 3,700 aircraft and 300 battleships, and has 6 fleets distributed around the globe:

  • The Third Pacific Fleet
  • The Fourth Southern Command
  • The Fifth Central Command
  • The Sixth U.S. Naval Forces Europe-Africa
  • The Seventh Cyber Command
  • The Tenth Cyber Command

In addition, to these fleets the Navy’s Military Sealift Command provides transportation across the seas for members of the Department of Defense and other federal agencies. The Sealift Command also provides logistical and navigational support to all of the U.S. armed forces, and conducts scientific and research projects for federal agencies.

Transitioning from the U.S. Navy to a Civilian Career

History of the US Navy

Transitioning from the U.S. Navy, or any branch of the military, to a civilian career comes with many challenges.

At Empire Resume, we’re experts in helping veterans achieve career success! We specialize in writing military resumes and are experts at helping servicemembers make the civilian transition.

Additionally, our constantly updated military-to-civilian blog offers the most useful and effective ways to help you with your job search.

Dr. Phillip Gold is President/CEO of Empire Resume and has vast experience writing resumes for both professionals and servicemembers transitioning from the military into civilian roles. He served as a Captain in the U.S. Air Force and was responsible for leading nuclear missile security. Phillip is a Certified Professional Resume Writer and holds a BA in Communications from The Ohio State University, an MS in Instructional Technology, an MBA in Finance, and a PhD in Finance.

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