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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.

Washington’s action was separate from the first congressional action on this point, which would occur more than a month later. The war had just started! 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 solution was to send Henry Knox to Fort Ticonderoga to retrieve the cannons located there. (See March 17 history post.) But a second solution 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 was not so impressive! It was an armed fishing schooner owned by John Glover, one of Washington’s colonels. The ship was named the Hannah, for Glover’s wife. Washington appointed Broughton as captain, and he gave orders that the 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.” The Hannah sailed on September 5.

Let’s just say that the Hannah was less than successful. In one encounter, it seized a ship called the Unity. But the 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 the HMS Nautilus. In good news, the Nautilus was not an American ship. But in bad news, the 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 the Hannah was soon decommissioned.

After the 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.

The Continental Congress later acquired its first ship, the Alfred. Historians disagree on whether the Alfred or the Hannah was the first U.S. navy vessel.