This Day in History: The first ships in “Washington’s Navy”
On this day in 1775, George Washington directs Nicolson Broughton to take command of the first ship in Washington’s Navy.
The war had just started, and the colonies were figuring out how to work together. Washington was not sure how his army would be supplied, so he tried a few different solutions. One of these was to build a small fleet of ships that could raid British supply vessels. These ships came to be known as Washington’s “Cruisers” or his “Navy.”
The first ship in Washington’s Navy was not so impressive.
It was an armed fishing schooner owned by John Glover, one of Washington’s colonels. The ship was named Hannah, for Glover’s wife. Washington appointed Broughton as captain, and he gave orders that Hannah was to take “such Vessels as may be found on the High Seas or elsewhere bound inwards or outwards to or from Boston in the Service of the ministerial Army.” Hannah sailed on September 5.
Let’s just say that Hannah was less than successful. In one encounter, it seized a ship called Unity—but Unity turned out to be an American ship! Obviously, the incident was a bit of a disaster. The ship had to be returned, of course, but some of the crew resisted and were court-martialed. They wanted prizes from the capture that they’d thought they made.
Another encounter was against the 16-gun ship HMS Nautilus. In good news, Nautilus was not an American ship. But in bad news, Hannah was outmatched—it quickly fled the scene. The schooner was run aground and would have been destroyed but for the staunch resistance of Americans on land.
Perhaps you won’t be surprised to hear that Hannah was soon decommissioned.
After Hannah, Washington commissioned other, new ships, which also sailed under the Pine Tree flag (pictured). Altogether, Washington’s Navy captured 55 prizes in about 6 months. They provided valuable supplies to the American troops, who were then maintaining a siege of Boston.
Washington’s Navy was separate from the first congressional action on this point, which would occur more than a month after Washington’s initial action. The Continental Congress’s first ship was Alfred. Historians disagree on whether Alfred or Hannah was the first U.S. navy vessel.
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Craig L. Symonds, The Naval Institute Historical Atlas of the U. S. Navy (1995)
George Washington, Instructions to Captain Nicholson Broughton (Sept. 2, 1775)
Hannah (Schooner) (Naval History and Heritage Command website)
Journals of the Continental Congress, 1774-1789 (Oct. 13, 1775)
Lincoln P. Paine, Warships Of The World To 1900 (2000)
Paul H. Silverstone, The Sailing Navy, 1775-1854 (2006)
Tim McGrath, Give Me a Fast Ship: The Continental Navy and America’s Revolution at Sea (2014)
Terry M. Mays, Historical Dictionary of the American Revolution (2d ed. 2009)