Last Wednesday, I celebrated the 235th birthday of the U.S. Navy at the USS Constitution Museum at the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston. It was a fun event full of hometown pride and spirited debate. I brought with me Senior Archivist Trevor Plante and original records from the National Archives to discuss the Revolutionary origins of the U.S. Navy. The crowd, mostly from Beverly and Marblehead, Massachusetts, had a great time discussing and debating their hometown claims to being the “birthplace” of the U.S. Navy.
On October 13, 1775, the Continental Congress authorized the outfitting of two ships for “intercepting such transports as may be laden with warlike stores and other supplies for our enemies, and for such other purposes as the Congress shall direct.” This date marks the first Congressional action and, therefore, is celebrated as the “birthday” of the U.S. Navy.
Although the birth date is clear, there is still much debate and hometown rivalry surrounding the “birthplace” of the U.S. Navy. The claims are numerous: Philadelphia, where the Continental Congress passed the Act of October 13, 1775; Machias, Maine, where two small ships armed with woodsmen capture the British schooner Margaretta in June 1775; Providence, Rhode Island, because their delegates to the Continental Congress were the first to propose a resolution to build and equip an American fleet in October 1775; and Whitehall, New York, where ships were built in the summer of 1776 that were used by Benedict Arnold.
The Schooner “Hannah” Running the Gauntlet of Two British Ships-of-War
off Cape Ann, September 5, 1775
(Image from the Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships)
As a native of Beverly, Massachusetts, I am well aware of the competing “birthplace of the Navy” claims of Beverly and Marblehead. Their stories center on the Hannah, a ship that George Washington authorized to harass British supply ships in September 1775. Jonathan Glover, a descendant of the Hannah’s captain, John Glover, was even in my class at Beverly High School. I remember a sign that declared Beverly as the “Birthplace of the American Navy,” but at some point, Beverly seemed to concede the birthplace to Marblehead and changed the sign to “Washington’s Naval Base 1775-1776.”
At the National Archives in Washington, DC, there are many records that document the story of the Hannah and the role of Beverly and Marblehead. One document is General George Washington’s instructions to Nicholson Broughton on September 2, 1775 in which he says,
“You being appointed a Captain in the Army of the United Colonies of North America, are hereby directed to take Command of a Detachment of said Army and proceed on Board the Schooner Hannah, at Beverly lately fitted out & equipp’d with Arms, Ammunition, and Provisions at the Continental Expense.”
The Hannah was outfitted at Glover’s Warf in Beverly and sailed out of Beverly Harbor on September 5, 1775. It was the first ship of what would become a small fleet of schooners authorized by General George Washington prior to the creation of the Continental Navy. Marblehead residents, on the other hand, claim the U.S. Navy birthplace because the owner, captain, and crew, all hailed from Marblehead.
At the National Archives, researchers can also see the Compiled Service Records for the captain and crew of the Hannah, including Col. John Glover, Nicholson Broughton, and John Glover, Jr.
The residents of both Marblehead and Beverly bravely supported an American naval presence at the very beginning of the war, at a time when Americans were still debating whether it made sense to even engage the superior British fleet. Their courage facing the enemy – as Underdogs! – is one of the reasons that both towns are proud of their connection to the Hannah and its role in the Revolutionary War.
Almost a month after the British surrender at Yorktown, General George Washington wrote to Lafayette and said,
“It follows then as certain as that night succeeds the day, that without decisive naval force we can do nothing definitive, and with it, everything honourable and glorious.”
Naval power and strategy had played a crucial role in the decisive victory at Yorktown. The importance of a naval force was clearer than ever.
As Archivist of the United States, I encourage you to explore the records of your government in archives, libraries, and other repositories, that can help you tell the stories that are important to your community.
What records have you discovered that help tell the story of your hometown?
For further information:
- Learn more about the USS Constitution Museum at http://www.ussconstitutionmuseum.org
- Citation: Papers of the Continental Congress Item #2, Transcript Journals of the Continental Congress, Record Group 360.
- Learn more about the Navy during the Revolutionary War at http://www.history.navy.mil/history/history2.htm