War of Independence (detail of Boston massacre print)

War at Sea

The Continental Navy fielded a tiny fleet and a corps of marines. Private vessels hired by Congress to harass enemy troop ships and disrupt commercial shipping, provided the bulk of America’s force at sea. With the navy, they sank or captured hundreds of enemy ships and took thousands of prisoners. But only after the alliance—when French and Spanish warships joined the fight—did the tide turn in favor of the Americans. The British suffered losses in the Atlantic, the Gulf of Mexico, and the Mediterranean, and even in their own coastal waters.


On September 23, 1779, John Paul Jones, commander of the Continental Navy’s Bon Homme Richard, defeated the royal warship Serapis. The Richard was badly crippled in the initial close-range exchange of cannon fire, but when the British commander asked if Jones was ready to surrender, Jones cried: “I have not yet begun to fight!”

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