A history of U.S. military ships, from the Revolutionary War to today
If a sailor in 1530 magically teleported through the future to the dawn of the American Revolution in 1775, he likely would have been able to get a job aboard a ship in the Continental Navy. He of course would have encountered new technologies, new instruments, and new terminology, but the vessel’s riggings, sails, components, cannons, and functionality would have been mostly familiar. But if a sailor in the Continental Navy teleported the exact same 245 years through the future to 2020 and landed on a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier or nuclear submarine, he might as well have landed on a spaceship.
The nearly two-and-a-half centuries from when the original colonies first began organizing for maritime battle against their British oppressors to today have witnessed the greatest evolution of naval warfare in human history. The United States and its Navy have fought 12 major wars in those 245 years. That’s an average of a major war every 20 years—not to mention countless actions, security missions, skirmishes, and standoffs.
Each war introduced new naval technology, new tactics, new weaponry, and most importantly, new ships. What started as a single vessel commissioned by frustrated colonists has grown into roughly 300 ships and more than 300,000 personnel in a fighting organization that has dominated the world’s oceans unchallenged for three-quarters of a century.
Using government sources like the U.S. Navy’s own archives, as well as historical accounts, news reports, museum databases, and official records of individual ships, Stacker profiled 50 of the most important and consequential warships in American history. Some vessels on this list stand out for their incredible records in battle. Others are noteworthy for the new technologies they introduced. All, however, have earned a place as floating tributes to America’s military preoccupations, technological ingenuity, and ability to project power and enforce its will in the farthest reaches of the world.
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As tensions rose in the run-up to the Revolutionary War, the British launched a campaign to harass, stop, board, search, and seize American merchant ships, nowhere more aggressively than off the shores of Rhode Island. In June 1775, the tiny colony’s legislature authorized the conversion of the Katy—a former whaling, merchant, and privateer ship—to be armed, outfitted, and transformed from a sloop to a sloop-of-war. The ship that would go on to become the U.S.S. Providence was charged with the modest task of single-handedly defending Rhode Island against the British Empire, whose invincible navy had ruled the world’s seas since defeating the Spanish Armada at the end of the 16th century.
Realizing that the Katy wouldn’t be able to fend off the British empire on its own, George Washington began personally procuring more capable ships. The first among them was the schooner Hannah, which Washington bought on Aug. 24, 1775—it captured its first Royal Navy sloops just a few weeks later in early September. The first armed naval vessel to fight in the Revolution and the first to sail under Continental control, the Hannah is considered the founding vessel of the U.S. Navy.
The Andrew Doria
The United States Navy recognizes its birthday as Oct. 13, 1775, the day that the Continental Congress authorized the creation of a single, unified navy instead of a patchwork of fleets controlled by individual colonies. It authorized the purchase of two ships to conduct raids on the British, the first of which was the converted merchant brig Andrew Doria, which would soon fight in the Battle of Nassau, the first major maritime combat of the Revolution. The Continental Navy was born.
The second of those first two ships was the Cabot. After sailing out of Boston it soon ran into the HMS Milford, a far more capable British vessel. After being forced aground in Nova Scotia, it became the first American ship ever to fall into enemy hands when the British captured it and refitted it for service in the Royal Navy.
The era of the Continental Navy came to an end when the expensive fleet was disbanded after the Revolutionary War. The last of the commissioned Continental warships was the frigate Alliance, which fired the last shots of the American Revolution.
The ‘Original Six’
More than a decade into America’s infancy as a country, it became clear that the pirates known as the Barbary corsairs, who terrorized merchant ships from their North African strongholds, understood only the language of force. No longer under the protection of Great Britain, American vessels were fair game to the relentless pirates, whose campaign of terror, kidnapping, and extortion compelled the U.S. Congress to pass the Naval Act of 1794. The act authorized the construction of what are now known as the ‘Original Six’ frigates of the United States Navy, which would sail under the title United States Ship (USS): USS President, USS Constellation, USS Chesapeake, USS United States, USS Congress, and the most storied ship in American naval history, the USS Constitution.
First launched in 1797, the USS Constitution remains the world’s oldest commissioned ship still afloat and is the official Ship of State of the United States of America. The timbers of the three-masted heavy frigate’s hull were so thick that cannonballs frequently bounced off of them, giving the Constitution its famous nickname “Old Ironsides.” With an other-worldly battle record in the Barbary Wars, the Quasi-War with France and, most notably, the War of 1812, the Constitution represents America’s earliest ability to project force in distant lands—the undefeated ship was never boarded or beaten in battle.
The USS Essex was another prime example of excellence in the early “Old Navy”—as America’s pre-1882 fleet is now called—tallying significant battle success in the Quasi-War with France, the First Barbary War, and the War of 1812. The frigate was the first American ship to sail around the notoriously perilous Cape Horn to the open Pacific Ocean, where it terrorized Great Britain’s whaling fleet. Its success became a burden, however, when the British finally dedicated two of its best ships to hunting down the Essex, which they eventually captured and pressed into the service of the Crown.
The USS Independence was the U.S. Navy’s first ship of the line, the biggest, most powerful warships of the day. The Independence was part of a large and heavily armed squadron that the Navy sent to North Africa to end the reign of the Barbary Coast Pirates once and for all. When the squadron arrived in Algiers after taking several Algerian ships on the way, the intimidation factor alone was enough to force the enemy to accept a peace agreement, guarantee U.S. trade rights in the region, and return the men and ships they had captured.
Built in the closing days of the War of 1812, the Demologos was a wooden floating battery designed to defend New York Harbor from the British Navy. An otherwise unremarkable vessel, it represents a before-and-after moment in the history of naval warfare as it was the first warship ever to be propelled by a steam-powered engine.2018 All rights reserved.