Member Stories: Naval Lessons From The American Revolution


The Grampaw Pettibone Squadron and the Two Block Fox Squadron joined forces to offer a Zoom meeting presentation.  At their first meeting, on August 19, 2020, they invited Marc Liebman, Captain USN (retired).  Marc retired as a Captain after twenty-six years in the U.S. Navy.  He is a combat veteran of Vietnam, the Tanker Wars of the 1980s and Desert Shield/Storm.  He is a Naval Aviator with just under 5,000 of flight time in helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.  In addition to his aviation career he is an award-winning novelist.

Marc presented a detailed account of the birth and early development of the U.S. Navy starting in 1775.  Beginning with some history, he pointed out that from 1066 – 1775, England and France were at war a total of 116 years.   Each country considered the other its competitor for economic, military, colonies and control of natural resources.

The Seven Years War (1756-1763), fought on and in the waters of five continents: Europe, North and South America, Indian sub-continent, Africa and Asia.  It was the first truly global war and one in which Britain was the clear winner.  The combatants were the English, 5 German nation states, Portugal, Iroquois Confederacy vs, the French/Spanish/Holy Roman Empire, Russia, Mughal Empire, Sweden and Abenaki Indians. Total casualties were over 850,000, the majority by disease.

Five treaties were required to end the war, with France losing the most territory.   Territory in North America east of the Mississippi River and portions of Canada as well as islands in the Caribbean went from France to England.  Additional land included Louisiana and territory west of the Mississippi River went to Spain.   Other land in India were given to England and Spain ceded Florida back to Great Britain.   During the American Revolution, Florida remained loyal to Great Britain.

Marc noted that North America was just a theater in a larger global war at the time of the American Revolution.  North American territory was not as important to Britain as the islands in the Caribbean, which provided raw materials such as sugar, rum and spices.  North America provided rice, indigo and wood, a critically needed material for the Royal Navy and the English merchant fleet.  Major fighting during this period took place in North, South and Central America as well as Europe, India, the Caribbean and Africa.  Fighting in Africa was mainly around the Cape of Good Hope.  The Dutch wanted South Africa back; Spain wanted Gibraltar back and Ireland wanted independence from Britain.

In 1776, the declared U.S. population was estimated at 2.5 million and Britain had a population between 13-14 million.   American deaths during the war years was between 1-3%.  These losses were a combination of battle field injuries and disease.  In naval terms, losses were heavy.  The Royal Navy lost 20 ships of the line, 70 frigates, 2,200 merchant ships and 70 privateers.  The French lost 19 ships-of-the-line and 30 frigates.  The Spanish lost 8 ships-of-the-line and 11 frigates.  The United States lost 43, not including privateers.

The loss of American forces was pretty significant.  One must consider the circumstances surrounding the war.   The Americans with a mixed collection of converted merchantmen and purpose-built warships but had very limited financial resources, were about to take on the richest country in Europe, perhaps in the world at that time

At the start of the American Revolution, the Royal Navy had 350 “rated” ships.   Add in non-rated ships and the Royal Navy faced American forces with approximately 500 ships.   At the beginning of the fighting, there was no Continental Navy.  The Continental Navy came into being when the Second Continental Congress authorized acquiring, equipping and manning ships on October 13th, 1775.  First use of the term “United States of America” was in the Articles of Confederation which was ratified on March 1st, 1781.  The Continental Navy went out of business in 1783, when the last ship, the ‘Alliance’ was sold.  The Continental Navy was dissolved in 1785.  There were no formal American military from 1783-1794.  The modern United States Navy was born via the Navy Act of March 27th, 1794.  Additionally, until March 1, 1781, an American naval vessel could not officially be referred to as a U.S.S. (United States Ship).

From the early beginnings of the U.S. Navy there had been no standard method of referring to U.S. Navy ships until January 8, 1907 when President Theodore Roosevelt issued Executive Order 549,  which made “United States Ship” (U.S.S.) the standard signifier for U.S. Navy  ships on active commissioned service.

During the Revolution, American ships were identified in documents by the type of construction.  Either as a Frigate, Sloop or the ship type, plus its name.  Initial naval development began by converting large merchant ships into frigates.  The first squadron consisted of the frigates

During the Revolution, American ships were identified in documents by the type of construction.  Either as a Frigate, Sloop or the ship type, plus its name.  Initial naval development began by converting large merchant ships into frigates.  The first squadron consisted of the frigates Alfred and Columbus, the brigs Andrea Doria and Cabot and the sloop Providence.

The Continental Congress authorized immediate construction of 13 frigates.  While based on British design, the ships were built in local shipyards and utilized material available locally.  British ship construction at the same time was impacted, due to the loss of wood from North America.  Subsequent British construction was made from wood from Scandinavia and what is now Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. The quality was not as good because many of the region’s forests had already been picked over for ships and the price of wood was higher. All but one ship of the original 13 of the new American frigates were either sunk or burned to avoid capture.  One new frigate, the Alliance, survived the war and was sold in 1783 when the Continental Navy was dissolved.

Marc indicated that early American ship building was enhanced by the skill of Joshua Humphreys, a shipbuilder who was known for his innovative designs.  The ships Alfred and Columbus were converted under the control of Joshua Humphreys.   John Hackett, another American ship builder led construction of the Ranger, which was John Paul Jones’ first major command.   Humphreys and Hackett designed the U.S.S. Constitution, Constellation, Chesapeake, United States, President and Congress.

While 43 of 63 frigates of the Continental Navy’s ships were sunk, captured or scuttled, British forces did not escape unscathed.  Between the Continental Navy and privateers, 12-15% of the British merchant fleet were captured totaling 3,087 ships and included 15,000 prisoners.  The merchant ship and transport losses impacted Britain’s ability to provide supplies to the British Army in North America, the Caribbean and India.

A privateer is a ship that engages in maritime warfare under a commission of war from a government entity.  Both the Continental Congress and colonial legislatures issued letters of marque that authorizes private parties to capture enemy ships and sell the ship and its contents for profit.  Typically, the issuing governments collect a 10% fee on any prize money.  Those issued by the Continental Congress helped finance the American Revolution.

Captain Liebman summarized his research and consolidated his findings into four lessons we learned during the American Revolution that are still valid today. The first is that the United States is a maritime nation.  In the east, our coast line then went from Maine, down to Savannah, Georgia.  The Treaty of Paris, which ended the war, granted to the United States all British territory east of the Mississippi to the Atlantic, with the exception of Florida.  We are dependent on the sea lanes and must protect them to maintain our ability to trade with other nations.  With the exception of Canada and Mexico, over 90% of all goods come to the U.S. by ship.

Lesson two, since we are a maritime nation, maintaining a strong Navy that can defend sea lanes and project power is critical to our national defense.  When the Continental Navy was dissolved in 1784, our commercial fleet had no protection.  Independence cost us the protection of the Royal Navy and now that the war was over, the French were no longer obligated to assist the U.S.  Without a Navy from 1784-1794, our ships were being seized by pirates and other nations without fear of retaliation.

In 1795, the Jay Treaty negotiated by John Adams with Great Britain was signed.  It gave the United States most favored trading status with Great Britain and within five years, our trade tripled.  Additionally, U.S. commercial ships could join British convoys and receive the protection of the Royal Navy.  It also reaffirmed fishing rights for the U.S. off the Grand Banks and mouth of the St Lawrence, granted in perpetuity.  The British were granted life time access to the Mississippi River for trading.  The treaty also finalized national boundaries of the U.S., particularly that of northern Florida.

Lesson three is leadership is the key to an effective Navy.  The U.S. Navy needs to be led by warriors not shoe clerks.  Among the members on the Maritime Committee were John Hewes and John Adams.  Hewes believed performance and merit should determine who is selected as an officer.  Adams based leadership selection on who he or his associates knew and where you are from.  Hewes selection criteria established what became known as the meritocracy of the U.S. Navy.  John Paul Jones observed that successful Naval officers are outstanding leaders, expert seamen, excellent strategists and tacticians and have the courage to make difficult, sometimes unpopular decisions. “Everything else is bloody claptrap.” His observations from the American Revolution were true then and are true today.

Lesson four is that technology has value, but we cannot become slaves to it.  The U.S. Navy has always been a technology leader and found ways to leverage it to make our ships and airplanes more effective.  However, technology cannot be the be-all, end all.  It must be affordable, effective and deployed in quantity.

The U.S. Navy of today has come a long way since these early days.  In spite of the fact that we have learned much from the Royal Navy, we cannot follow their current path.   They have seen their funding reduced from 4.6% to 2.1% of the national defense budget.  The Royal Navy can no longer project power.  The Fleet Air Arm only flies helicopters and depends on the RAF for its carrier airwing.  They’ve bought only enough F-35Bs to equip about 2/3rds of a 50-plane air wing for their two new carriers. Now, less than 90 ships, mostly coastal patrol vessels make up the Royal Navy fleet.  The Royal Navy withdrew from the counter piracy, counter terrorism task forces in 2010 and no longer deploys ships outside the home waters and Western Med.

In closing, Marc described his latest challenge, that of writing an Age of Sail novel.  He noted that in the past writing the first complete draft of a 120,000-word novel could take up to 90 days.  His latest venture, titled Raiders of the Scottish Coast, took almost one year to create the first draft.   In spite of his sailing knowledge of racing a sloop or cruising in a ketch, this did not prepare him for the details in describing square-rigged ships.

The novel traces the careers of two midshipmen, one Royal Navy and one Continental Navy during the first three years of the American Revolution.  They start as mortal enemies, meet and become friends. Later, they again face each other in battle as enemies.  Raider of the Scottish Coast is what Marc hopes will be a series of novels that follow the careers of the two main characters from the American Revolution through the War of 1812.

To find out more about Marc’s books, visit his web site at:   You can buy them on Amazon at by CLICKING HERE.

Grampaw Pettibone Squadron and Two Block Fox wish to thank Marc for his presentation and past stories.  Tune in to his upcoming zoom presentation on the Gulf War and Helicopters in Desert Warfare on Wednesday, August 19th at 11:45AM PDT. Here is the link to the Zoom that will be live on August 19th at 11:45am: ZOOM LINK



About Author'

Marc Liebman retired as a Captain after twenty-four years in the U.S. Navy. He is a combat veteran of Vietnam, the Tanker Wars of the 1980s and Desert Shield/Storm. He is a Naval Aviator with just under 5,000 hours of flight time in helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft. Award winning novelist

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