Chapter 2 – To Build Ships for American Navies



This chapter continues the account of the growth of Philadelphia shipbuilding into the tempestuous years of the American Revolution. In doing so it emphasizes continuity and change. For a century before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War, Philadelphia shipbuilding had grown in incremental steps. As the demands of the Philadelphia mercantile community for more seaborn transportation had increased, the number of shipcarpenters and shipyards proliferated in tandem. Not only had the number of ships constructed, outfitted, and eventually repaired expanded, but the size of the ships had ballooned. As the farmers and foresters of Philadelphia’s hinterland gathered greater quantities of bulkier cargoes, Philadelphia export merchants demanded ships with more capacious holds to carry more barrels of flour and beef and pork and loads of timber.[1]

The necessities of war abruptly altered this mercantile exclusivity. Philadelphia shipbuilders turned to the construction of warships instead of commercial vessels. Yet for these maritime artisans, this hardly represented an essential transformation. Long before the Revolution, Philadelphia shipbuilders had constructed ships for the ubiquitous privateers and serviced warships for the British Navy. To build ships for the Pennsylvania Navy and the Continental Navy, the shipbuilders and shipyards along the Delaware River waterfront by and large carried long-held skills into meeting the demands for military ships. This chapter describes the valiant effort of Philadelphia shipcarpenters and their attendant cohorts to build those warships under the looming threat of British invasion.


The American Navies of the Revolutionary War

            As the tumult of the Battle of Lexington reverberated across the colonies, Americans began to organize the defense of their rights from British tyranny. First, came the army and then, almost as an afterthought, some rebels turned to the defense of American rights on the high seas and the protection of American shipping. American naval response evolved on four different levels: the tiny fleet created by General George Washington, the host of privateers dispatched to prey on British shipping, the navies of the individual states, and, lastly, the American navy created by the Continental Congress.

George Washington’s navy had no connection with Philadelphia shipbuilding, but its story serves as an example of the limits of the American naval response to the might of the British Royal Navy. The battle of Bunker Hill resulted in the confinement of the British army within Boston. Yet, for the British, it was a siege without immediate peril. The hastily assembling American force encircled the British from the land, but British command of the seas guaranteed a continual flow of supplies and reinforcements to General William Howe’s army and its loyalist allies.

Washington, newly appointed as commander of the infant (and almost helpless) Continental Army, conceived of a fleet of ships intended to harass and, if possible, cut the British supply line to Boston. Mostly, the success of this little fleet came through the effort of two men: the resourceful John Glover and the intrepid John Manly. By September 1775, Glover had outfitted one of his own ships, the Hannah, as the beginning of Washington’s navy. This outfitting required no new construction. Glover’s shipcarpenters simply mounted whatever armament that Glover could beg, borrow or steal on the ship’s deck, which they reinforced as best as they could to support the weight of the added four to six cannons. In the following month, October, another New Englander, John Manly joined the fleet as the commander of the seventh ship, the Lee. Over the next two months Manly captured or recaptured a succession of British ships bound for Boston. On November 28, 1775, Manly captured his biggest prize, the brig Nancy. The Nancy had sailed from the island of St. Helens loaded with a valuable military cargo: 2,000 muskets, 100,000 flints, and 31 tons of musket shot. The value of the captured cargo came to £ 30,000 and included equipment desperately need by Washington’s bedraggled army, tents, kettles and frying pans.[2]

But the success of Washington’s fleet was limited and short-lived. By the autumn of 1776, the little navy had vanished. The story of its demise reflected the tribulations of the American naval effort in the Revolutionary War in microcosm. Manly transferred to the Continental Navy and continued his exploits until his capture in June 1777. The cargoes from the “prizes” fell into the grasping hands of a political agent, John Bradford. Bradford, a protégé of John Hancock, described as “an agent who could not detach himself from the flunky system,” used his position as prize agent to enrich himself and his cronies. Bradford systematically drove captains who resisted his deprivations from the service. Besides Bradford, the fleet suffered from un-Manlylike officers who sailed from port by day, seized illegal prizes, only to scurry back to the comforts of harbor and hearth each night. The end came in August 1778 when Charles Skimmer, the commander of the last remaining ship, died while battling with two superior British warships.[3]

Washington’s little navy had existed for three years. In that time it had captured twenty-two prizes. Those captured ships represented an annoyance but not a serious threat to the might of British seapower and its commercial shipping. Additionally, since John Glover hastily assembled mostly converted merchant ships for the fleet, it hardly represented an innovative step in American shipbuilding. Privateering was another story.[4]

Privateering, using, in wartime, privately owned ships to attack an enemies’ vessels, began in the Middle Ages. Lacking the power and fiscal resources of modern nation states, medieval rulers granted legal documents, letters of marque, to individual shipowners to carry warfare to increasingly busy sea lanes. From the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, English monarchs had refined the practice of using privateers, especially the famed Sea Dogs. In the imperial wars of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the great European powers, the English, the Dutch, the Spanish, and the French had all empowered privateers to seize opponent’s ships and their rich cargoes. As part of the British Empire, Americans enthusiastically joined privateering ventures.[5]

American privateering reached a pre-Revolutionary War crescendo during the French and Indian War (1756-1763), with the greatest number sailing from New England ports, particularly Salem, Massachusetts. Plundering richly laden papist ships added religious fervor to godly aggrandizement for rapacious Puritans. In Philadelphia the story ran differently. Beginning with Quaker opposition to warship construction, Jeffrey Dorwart lists five reasons for the reluctance of Philadelphia ship-owners to enter the privateering sweepstakes. Reluctant though Quakers may have been, other Philadelphia merchants with eyes on the profit column of ledger books outfitted privateers. During both the French and Indian War and the Revolutionary War, Delaware River shipyards hummed with activity. The records of James Penrose’s Southwark shipyard provided one of the best examples of pre-Revolutionary privateer construction. In 1762, Penrose constructed a 24 gun warship with a 96.5 foot keel, a beam of 32.6 foot, a hold of 10.6 feet. The ship was christened the Hero. Penrose’s records do not identify the owner. It may have been his own brother, who was also a ship-owning merchant, or a surreptitious Quaker who wished to hide his connection with a warship. Other less detailed records hinted at other warship construction, such as William Till’s 10 or 12 gun ship cited in the previous chapter. The names of other ships, the Rattlesnake, the Intrepid, and the Speedwell, suggest aggressive intent. Undoubtedly, the British imperial wars of the early and mid-eighteenth century provided Philadelphia shipbuilders with experience in the construction and repair of eighteenth century warships. The 1500 letters of marque issued by the Pennsylvania Assembly during the Revolutionary War and the ships that they demanded, only enhanced this already established expertise.[6]

The third stage of naval reaction to the outbreak of the conflict with England came at the level of the individual states. Including Pennsylvania, eleven of the thirteen states created their own navy. In June 1775, the Pennsylvania Assembly created a twenty-five member Committee of Safety and Defense. The committee included stalwarts such Benjamin Franklin, Robert Morris, Thomas Willing, and Thomas Wharton, Jr. Fearing an assault on the vulnerable port of Philadelphia and its shipping by a British fleet ascending the Delaware River, the committee surveyed the river and decided on a defensive strategy. They planned a combination of galleys (rowed ships) and gunboats (mastless batteries) anchored to land-based fortifications and supported by sunken, hidden obstacles, chevaux-de-frise, to defend the port.

A subcommittee, for “Construction of Boats and Machines,” with shipbuilders Emmanuel Eyre and Joseph Marsh and wharfbuilder Thomas Davis as members, organized Philadelphia shipbuilders and shipcarpenters, who responded with patriotic alacrity. Almost every identifiable Delaware River shipwright joined the flurry of ship construction. The list included young Joshua Humphreys, Emmanuel Eyre, the dean of Philadelphia shipyard owners, Thomas Casdorf, Joseph Marsh, Simon Sherlock, Warwick Coates, Bower Brooks, Michael Huling, Richard Dennis, Thomas Penrose, and virtually every other shipbuilding firm along the Philadelphia waterfront. Within 16 days the feverous construction began to produce the galleys: stubby, 50 feet long and 13 feet wide, shallow-draft barges. The vessels were armed with a single cannon and propelled by double banks of twenty oars. By September 1775, an armed schooner, the Delaware and a brig, the Convention joined the 13 row galleys of the small but pugnacious Pennsylvania Navy. For the next two years, supported by land based fortification, this collection of galleys, mastless gunboats and fire rafts stymied attempts by Captain Andrew Hammond and his frigate, H.M.S. Roebuck to navigate the Delaware River. Philadelphia shipbuilders had responded to the partisan call and within four months had built a small but effective flotilla.[7]

Finally, after making provisions for the creation of the new Continental Army, some members of the Continental Congress turned their attention to the problem of the defense of American rights on the high seas and the protection of American shipping. In July, Samuel Ward had introduced a resolution calling for the creation of a navy. Congress ignored the proposal. On August 26, 1775 Ward again proposed the creation of an American fleet. Again, Congress rejeted the proposal. For most of the next forty years, well beyond the Revolution, the same pattern repeated. Supporters of naval power, the “Navalists,” worked for the creation of an American navy, while anti-navalists opposed it. Opposition to a powerful navy, or any navy at all, operated on the levels of economy and philosophy. Some politicians, especially those who represented interior agricultural regions, saw the navy as an agent of eastern commercial and shipping powers, which they already resented. They pointed to the great taxes required to construct and maintain a great fleet. Others, Whigs who knew their Sidney and Harrington, opposed the navy as a repository of patronage and placemen and as a source of corruption.[8]

The supporters of a navy persisted. In October 1775 Congress created a Naval Committee consisting of John Adams, Stephen Hopkins, Silas Deane, John Langdon, Christopher Gadsden, Richard Henry Lee, and Joseph Hewes. Congress also approved a second resolution to obtain two ships (later increased to four) and to arm and equip them to attack ships bringing supplies to the British forces in North America. On Nov. 2, 1775 Congress took another step and appropriated $100,000 for ship construction. Since the estimated cost for constructing one warship was nearly $67,000, the amount proved woefully inadequate, a symptom of the chronically impoverished Congress’ attempt to create a navy. Rather than build any new warships, the Naval Committee decided to purchase four merchantmen and refit them as warships.[9]

To do so, the Naval Committee took advantage of resources at hand. All four were to be refitted at shipyards along the Delaware River. By 1775, Philadelphia had a long history of highly-reputed ship construction. During the first six decades of the eighteenth century, but especially during the 1750s and 1760s, the shipbuilding industry in Philadelphia had flourished. In 1775, even before Congress began its naval program, Philadelphia shipbuilders had already constructed 25 vessels. One historian counts that between 1722 and 1776 Philadelphians owned or had owned 3,241 ships, although it is uncertain how many of those were Philadelphia-built.[10]

One of Congress’ new ships, The Black Prince, soon renamed The Alfred had belonged to the Philadelphia merchant firm of Willing and Morris. This ship serves as an excellent example of the work of Philadelphia shipbuilding, or, to be more accurate, ship conversion during the Revolutionary War. To refit the ship the Naval Committee chose the shipyard of John Wharton and Joshua Humphreys, site of The Black Prince’s original construction. Shipbuilder Joshua Humphreys was born in 1751. He was the grandson of Daniel Humphreys who had emigrated from Wales in 1682 and who had the good sense or good fortune to marry Hannah Wynne, the daughter of Thomas Wynne, speaker of the Pennsylvania Assembly. By the time of the younger Joshua’s birth (his father was also named Joshua), the family had become major landowners in Haverford to the west of Philadelphia. For some unknown reason Joshua’s father, who was also a Philadelphia timber merchant as well as a farmer, decided to apprentice his son in the shipyard begun by Bartholomew Penrose and then in 1763 owned by Charles Penrose. Humphreys never completed his apprenticeship. Upon Charles Penrose’s sudden death in 1771, his widow, Ann Penrose, struck an agreement with Joshua Humphreys to release him from his contract upon completion of a ship then under construction. Humphreys’ later detractors held the fact that he had not completed his formal training against him. Three years later, in 1774, Humphreys entered into partnership with his cousin John Wharton, a close friend of the merchant and revolutionary leader Robert Morris.[11]

American shipbuilder had built many privateers but not a warship. However, they had seen many of them and had refitted and repaired British warships on the North American station. Now they carried that set of collective experiences, warship repair and privateer construction, into the Revolutionary War. During November and December 1776 and under the direction of Joshua Humphreys and Captain John Barry, the Black Prince’s merchant captain, thirty-four shipwrights, shipcarpenters, caulkers, joiners, sawyers, painters and other workers labored 617 hours on The Alfred. Mostly, they added gunports and reinforced the interior timbering, decks and knees to support the added weight of armament. By spring of 1776 the new American warship was ready for sea. In addition to The Alfred, three other refitted warships, The Columbus, The Cabot, and The Andrea Doria, all came from Wharton and Humphreys’ Yard, now identified as “the Continental Yard.” The Andrea (or Andrew) Doria was to be captained by Nicholas Biddle, for whom Humphreys had already built other merchant ships. Before the end of 1775 four smaller ships, Hornet, Providence, Fly, and Wasp joined the growing Continental Fleet. The Providence had also come from Wharton and Humphreys’ Yard.[12]

Encouraged by its early success and prompted by the deteriorating relationship with Great Britain, Congress enlarged its naval program. In December 1775, Congress decided to create a permanent thirteen-member Marine Committee and to build thirteen new frigates, one for each state. At this point American shipbuilders entered a new realm. No American shipbuilder had ever designed or constructed a frigate, but their long experience at the construction of other warships smoothed their transition to frigate construction. These ships were to be laid down in private yards with construction supervised by a resident agent who, in turn, would be responsible to a regional marine committee. Later, in 1776, Congress became even more ambitious and authorized construction of eight ships-of-the-line, the largest warships afloat. Symptomatic of the difficulties faced by Congress and the American Navy during the Revolutionary War, problems with construction of the frigates began immediately. Congress expected funds from captured British prizes to find their way, by a method never defined, into the hands of the resident agent to finance construction of the frigates. Absence of any method to account for funds disbursed, rapid turnover in the membership of the Marine Committee, and the complications inherent in rule by committee plagued the construction program. John Wharton, the Philadelphia agent and cousin and partner with Joshua Humphreys, was particularly negligent in accounting for money spent. Since Congress was overwhelmed with its duties and inexperienced in supervision of ship construction, it solicited no specific estimates of cost. The Marine Committee merely spread the responsibility in promiscuous fashion, assigning construction to well-known shipbuilders or family or business acquaintances. Not surprisingly, political considerations ruled the choice of sites for construction of the frigates. John Langdon, no longer a member of Congress, supervised the construction of The Raleigh in Portsmouth, in his home state of New Hampshire, while the construction in Rhode Island and Connecticut fell into the hands of their representatives, Stephen Hopkins and Silas Deane, respectively. Yet despite these and other drawbacks an American navy began to rise.[13]

Within thirty-one days of Congress’ decision to construct warships, Joshua Humphreys submitted plans for the design of the frigates. Those built in or near Philadelphia followed the designs rather closely, but the size of his sketches, more than 5 feet by 2 feet, made them difficult to transport. In New Hampshire, John Langdon and the experienced shipbuilder, William Hackett, built without them. In Philadelphia construction started in four different shipyards, three other than Humphreys’ own yard. In Southwark on the southern edge of the city, Warwick Coates worked near Wharton and Humphreys’ yard. To the north along the Kensington waterfront, Manuel, Jehu, and Benjamin Eyre built next to Joseph Grice & Company. Shipbuilding represented the most capital- and labor-intensive industry in eighteenth century America. It required enormous amounts of material and the labor of a large force of differently skilled artisans. These workers used tools, methods, techniques, terminology, and rules that had accumulated over more than two thousand years. One ship alone required more than a thousand tons of timber, including white oak planks four inches thick, four inches wide, and  between twenty and forty feet long. In New England timber cutters had little difficulty harvesting from the forests of New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine, but in Pennsylvania the timber crews ranged so far west that they needed armed guards to protect them from hostile Indians. As construction progressed, ship carpenters drove treenails (trunnels), wooden spikes more than two feet long, through hand-drilled holes to fasten planks to the ribbing of the ship. Some ships required forty thousand trunnels.

Construction progressed as the ship rose around the molds about which laborers constructed the frame. Caulkers drove oakum, a sealant made from resin and cotton fiber into the space between planks to make them watertight. (See: Figure 5.) Within the framework carpenters and joiners began planking the decks, lowermost first. As carpenters completed one deck, knees — curved timbers specially cut from the trunk of the tree as it met the roots, measuring ten to twelve feet along their inner curve and two feet in thickness — were bolted to the vertical curving ribs to support the weight of the decks to be built above. Since frigates carried more than a hundred tons of armament, not to mention the weight of the cannon balls, this part of the construction was particularly critical as well as novel to American shipwrights. When workmen had completed the hull, the ship was ready for launch.

But launching did not end the labor. Wharfmen tied the ship to a dock where the next steps: masting, rigging, and arming took place. The “sticks,” masts and spars, usually of pine, often measuring a hundred feet or more, were solid pieces of timber to hold the sails against the force of the wind and resistance of the sea. To insert or “step” the mast into the keel of the ship, workers erected a heavy derrick on the end of the dock to swing them into place. Each frigate required miles of rope for the rigging, including a cable fifteen inches thick and six hundred feet long just for the anchor. It also required sails of various sizes cut and stitched by hand by sailmakers such the African-American James Forten. Finally, the ship had to be armed, and here the Marine Committee’s inexperience and political machinations proved costly. The first frigate launched, The Raleigh, built by John Langdon in Portsmouth, lay at the dock unarmed for a year. The Marine Committee had constructed a warship hundreds of miles from the nearest foundry. Even where cannons were available, iron founders were reluctant to sell them to the navy for almost worthless paper money when privateers paid in coin. Despite such formidable obstacles, the Herculean labors succeeded, and between May and November 1776 the first three of thirteen planned frigates slipped into the sea.[14]

On November 20, 1776, flushed with early optimism and success, Congress passed another resolution authorizing the construction of ten additional ships, including three seventy-four gun ships-of-the-line, the battleships of the eighteenth century. Here Congress and its Marine Committee exceeded the bounds of the possible. The construction of a ship-of-the-line magnified the demands of frigate construction, in money, men, and material, by tenfold. The construction and the fate of the only American ship-of-the-line, The Alliance, symbolized the failure of Congress’ attempt to build ships equal to the greatest afloat. Work on The Alliance began in May 1777, again in Portsmouth, New Hampshire under the supervision of naval agent John Langdon and shipbuilder William Hackett, but within a year construction ground to a halt. The Marine Committee, as its parent Congress, wallowed in red ink. In February 1781, in desperation and hoping for a miracle, Congress dissolved the Marine Committee, always an unwieldy body, and replaced it with a naval board of five men with the reluctant but redoubtable Robert Morris as Superintendent of Marine. Congress offered the half-finished hull of The Alliance to the French who politely declined. Congress finally gave an almost-completed and scaled-down version to the French as a gift. In December 1781 The Alliance sailed to France with the Marquis de Lafayette as a passenger.

But the infant America navy lacked a George Washington or a Nathaniel Greene or a George Rogers Clark. Instead the Marine Committee, dominated by New Englanders, imposed the “mediocre” Esek Hopkins. An able merchant captain, Hopkins proved clueless and inept at the task of organizing a squadron of ships in concerted naval action. By 1779 the British had swept most of the infant American Navy from the seas. The British captured one of the frigates, The Delaware, almost immediately after its launch. The Raleigh finally put to sea on September 26, 1778 under the command of Captain John Barry, who immediately grounded it on the coast of Massachusetts to prevent capture by the British. Having thrown his cannon overboard, Barry abandoned the ship. The ungainly Alfred spent the entire summer of 1776 in port awaiting repairs and then was captured off Barbados by three British frigates on a return voyage from France in the fall of 1776. The fate of the ships being constructed in Philadelphia was even more ignominious. In September 1777, as the British Army marched upon the abandoned capital, Congress ordered two partially completed ships, The Effingham and The Washington, towed up the Delaware River towards Trenton to be scuttled, sunk, and hidden to prevent capture. Given the alacrity with which New Jersey loyalists scurried to the British with any item of information, an attempt to hide two rather large warships proved impossible. Both of these ships were later burned. In February 1777, the Randolph, launched on July 13, 1776 and the only American frigate to see action, exploded in battle with H.M.S.Yarmouth. The British captured six of the thirteen planned frigates. The others were destroyed, sunk or burned, either by the British or by American to prevent them from falling into British hands.[15]

The Pennsylvania Navy suffered a similar fate. For a year, the collection of gunboats and galleys had successfully prevented a small British squadron, headed by the frigate, H.M.S. Roebuck, from ascending the Delaware River. But when a powerful British fleet of 228 ships arrived in Delaware Bay at the end of August 1777, American resistance proved valiant but futile. By November 1777 the British army had captured Philadelphia, and the combined British army and navy had pierced the last Rebel defenses below the city. The shattered remnants of the Pennsylvania Navy shared nearly the same fate as the Continental warships, scuttled upriver near Bristol And to add insult to injury, when the British army retreated from their futile occupation of Philadelphia in the spring of 1778, they looted the shipyard of Emmanuel Eyre and destroyed the boatyard of Joseph Marsh and the property of Francis Grice.[16]

By 1785 the Confederation Congress sold the remaining ships out of service. Captains, such as John Barry and Thomas Truxtun, returned to commercial pursuits. And the shipyards along the Delaware River fell on hard times, hoping for better days. The performance of the American Navy during the Revolutionary War and the results of American warship construction were less than auspicious, but American shipbuilders, such as Joshua Humphreys, had added additional experience to their already considerable store of knowledge in the construction of major warships that would be put to use in the not too distant future.[17]


            In company with other Americans, Philadelphia shipbuilders reacted with patriotic alacrity to armed British threat to American rights, lives, livelihood, and property. Perhaps, spurred by their special hatred of the Royal Navy’s press gangs, the shipyards along the Delaware River turned their experience and their skills, initially, to the conversion of merchant ships to warships and, then, to the construction of new warships for Congress and the Pennsylvania Navy. The speed with which Joshua Humphreys’ shipyard converted the commercial Black Prince into the warship Alfred and built the experimental, stubby row galleys and gunboats attested to the accumulated skills of his and their brethren of local shipcarpenters. Next, they extended these ancient and proven skills to the construction of the new frigates for the newborn American Navy.

Some historians of early American ship construction either state outright or imply that the Revolutionary War represented a critical period for Philadelphia shipbuilders. This assertion begs qualification. It largely ignores the long history of those craftsmen, including their experience in the construction and maintenance of warships. This experience, under the urgency of war and the threat of imminent British invasion, allowed Philadelphia to turn, with relative ease, to warship construction. If there was any degree of criticality, it was in the organization and financing of ship construction, not in the craft of ship building. Congress began the war with its ungainly, inefficient, and ineffective Marine Committee. By the end of the war, after the mighty British Navy drove the fledgling American Navy from the sea, Congress transformed its impotent Marine Committee into a more effective bureaucratic format and appointed the indefatigable Robert Morris as the Superintendent of Marine. In this sense the evolution of that organization to build, command, and maintain a powerful deep-water navy served as a critical prelude to the future of American maritime might. Both the American Navy and Philadelphia shipbuilders emerged from the Revolutionary War as bloodied but unbowed. The two decades following the Revolution (1781-1801) proved to be a time of intense growth for Philadelphia shipbuilders and a period exhilarating gestation for the United States Navy.

Notes on Chapter 2

            [1]John J. McCukser, “The Pennsylvania Shipping Industry in The Eighteenth Century,” 1973, an unpublished manuscript in the collection of HSP, 145. McCusker found a 238.2% increase in the tonnage of ships built along the Delaware River in the years between 1726 and 1775, For an extended discussion of the tonnage of ships built in colonial American see: Joseph A. Goldenberg, Shipbuilding in Colonial America (Charlottsville: University of Virginia Press, 1976),1-5.

            [2] Chester G. Hearn, George Washington’s Schooners: The First American Navy (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1995), 10-13 and 88-94.

            [3] Ibid., pp.206-208.

            [4] Ibid., 206.

            [5] Surprisingly, considering their role in the American Revolution as well as previous imperial wars, little scholarly work has been done on the history of American privateers. Among the best sources are: Edgar Stanton Maclay, A History of American Privateers  (New York: D. Appleton and Co., 1899), John A. McManemin, Captains of the Privateers during the Revolutionary War ( Spring Lake, New Jersey: Ho-Ho-Kus Publishing Co., 1985),Ralph Mason Eastman, Some Famous Privateers of New England  (Boston: privately by the State Street Trust Co., 1928), and Donald Barr Chidsey, The American Privateer  (New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1962). All these works emphasize the battles and the captains rather than the owners and the builders.

            [6] Jeffrey M. Dorwart, The Philadelphia Navy Yard: From the Birth of the U.S. Navy to the Nuclear Age Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001), 9, and John W. Jackson, The Pennsylvania Navy, 1775-1781: The Defense of the Delaware (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1974), 14. For the dimensions of the Hero see: “Shipbuilding Establishment Book of James Penrose,” circa, 1760, PMA and “Vessels in Humphreys Ms.,” a typewritten list of ships built by Joshua Humphreys, folder, IV Humphreys’ Shipyard, ISM. The size of the hold of the Hero indicates the space needed for a crew of a privateer, up to 200 men. These were needed to fight the ship and man any captured vessels. It was not unusual for a privateer to return for a successful voyage with only 10% of its crew.

            [7] Jackson, Pennsylvania, 9-23; Dowart, Philadelphia, 14-16, and George C. Daughan, If By Sea: The Forging of the American Navy—From the American Revolution to the War of 1812 (New York: Basic Books, 2008), 85-90 and 148-152.

Daughan’s work is informative and readable but deeply flawed. It is a kind of “should have – could have” history. The main theme of the work is the contention that Congress wasted precious resources trying to build a navy that consisted of powerful ocean-going warships and should have funneled their effort into less expensive small gunboats. He cites several examples of the success of these smaller defensive crafts. One of his strongest examples is the success of the Pennsylvania Navy against the powerful British frigate, H.M.S.Roebuck’s attempt to enter the upper Delaware River. Daughan argues that Congress should have constructed and manned hundreds of these vessels instead of thirteen. Daughan ignores several facts. The Pennsylvania Assembly was barely able to construct the few ships that it did. Scouring the crews for the few gunboats was nearly impossible, especially when privateering was more alluring. Finding crews for hundreds of such ships is beyond reason. The captains of the gunboats and the Committee of Safety and Defense were constantly and odds and crews went unpaid. And how effective were they anyway. True they stymied the Roebuck for two years, but when the British assembled a fleet of 228 ships, supported by the British army, they smashed the puny Pennsylvania Navy within a matter of months. Futhermore, David Syrett, Admiral Lord Howe(Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2006),69-72 argues that the wind, weather, and the natural obstacles to navigation of the Delaware River were more formidable deterrents than the Pennsylvania Navy.

            [8] For the use of the term “Navalists” and a definition see: Craig L. Symonds, Navalists and Anti-navalists: The Naval Policy Debate in the United States, 1785-1827 (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1980), 11. For a discussion of the political divisions between agricultural and shipping interest see: Manning J. Dauer, The Adams Federalists (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1953), 148.

            [9] Fowler, Rebels, 48-57 and O’Connor, Origins, 15-16.

            [10]Marion V. Brewington, “Maritime Philadelphia, 1609-1837,” PMHB, Vol. LXIII (April 1939), 93-117. In a recent article, “Sylvan Enterprise and the Philadelphia Hinterland, 1790-1860, Pennsylvania History (67, No.2), 194-217, Donna Rilling emphasizes the economic relationship between Philadelphia and its hinterland, especially via the Delaware River. According to John Murrin, Brewington’s numbers equal one ship for each household in Philadelphia in 1776. If these numbers are accurate (Brewington cites no sources), we need to rethink the degree to which the economy of early Philadelphia was tied not only to the Atlantic World but also its regional and intercoastal world.

            [11]Hampton L. Carson, The Humphrey Family of Haverford and Philadelphia (Lancaster: Wickersham Press, 1922), 3-11; William B. Clark, “Gallant” John Barry, 1745-1803: The Story of A Naval Hero of Two Wars (New York: Macmillan Co., 1938), 36 and 64-66, Fowler, Rebels, 58 and 220, and John McCusker, Alfred: The First Continental Flagship, 1775-1778 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1973), 1-3.

            [12]Clark, Gallant, 66-67, and Fowler, Rebels, 58-60.

            [13]Fowler, Rebels, 63-82; O’Connor, Origins, 17-18, and Clark, Gallant, 67-71. A frigate is a three masted, square-rigged sailing ship. The three masts from stem to stern, fore to abaft (front to rear) are the foremast, mainmast, and the mizzenmast. The term “square rigged” refers to the square cut sails. Each mast carried several courses of sails. For example, on the main mast, from top to bottom, is the main sail, the maintop sail, the main topgallant, and the main royal topgallant. Among the large variety of other sails that a ship might carry, depending on weather and other sailing conditions are staysails, triangular sails before or after each mast. A frigate, a middle sized warship, usually carried between 24 and 32 guns, all on one deck. By comparison a larger ship-of-the-line carried 74 guns or more on two or three gun decks. Some of the greatest ships-of-the-line, such as Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson’s Victory, carried more than 100 guns.

The author is particularly grateful to William Fowler for his especially lucid description of the materials and methods of construction of the frigates. See: Fowler, Rebels, 215-246.

            [14]Julie Winch, A Gentleman of Color: The Life of James Forten (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 51-91.Among historians of naval architecture, thre is considerable heated controversy over the design of the frigates, Fowler, Rebels, 217 and Brewington, “Maritime”, 105 credit Joshua Humphreys with the design of the frigates. Fowler argues that they may have been modeled on the privateer frigate, Hero, built by Humphreys in Penrose’s yard in 1763. On the other hand, Howard Chapelle, perhaps the foremost historian of naval warships, disputes that Humphreys was “the designer of all of the frigates.” See: Howard I. Chapelle, The History of American Sailing Ships (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1935), 85. Unfortunately, there is no bibliography in Chapelle’s work, and he neither cites sources nor gives a reason for dismissing Humphreys’ claim.

            [15]McCusker, Alfred, 2-14; Fowler, Rebels, 246-251; O’Connor, Origins, 36-42, and Clark, Gallant, 125-244.

            [16]Jackson, Pennsylvania, 124-145 and Dorwart, Philadelphia, 28.

            [17]Eugene S. Furguson, Truxtun of the Constellation: The Life of Commodore Thomas Truxtun, U.S. Navy, 1755-1822 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1956), 48-62.


One thought on “Chapter 2 – To Build Ships for American Navies

  1. Dave Sclley

    Correction: The 74 built in Portsmouth by James Hackett (cousin of William) was named America, not Alliance. Alliance was a 38 gun frigate built at Salisbury Point MA by William and his cousin (James brother) John Hackett. Alliance was built as part of Congress’ authorization in early 1777.

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