A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Is the birthplace of the U.S. Navy in upstate New York?

September 6, 2005

Dear Straight Dope:

For many a year now, since I've been living in the great green mountains of Vermont, the voyage home to (or up from, for my parents) upstate New York always took us through Whitehall, NY. Whitehall, it seems, has a small billboard and museum dedicated to the fact that it was "the birthplace of the U.S. Navy" It seems odd, I admit, that the U.S. Navy would be born in a narrow portion of the Hudson River--or perhaps Lake George--some 200 miles from the coast, but if the Navy were "born" during the American Revolution this does make some sense. However, my dear mother, who hails from Marblehead, MA, vehemently and at times almost violently claims, with "official backing" (and perhaps a hint of bias), that her home town is, in fact, the birthplace of the U.S. Navy. Rather than continue to put up with these competing claims, I put it to you: Where was the U.S. Navy born and why do Whitehall, NY and Marblehead, MA both make a claim to this event?

Isn't it wonderful when chambers of commerce set out to establish the historical primacy of their towns? Let's review the claims.

Whitehall (then known as Skenesborough), lies in a valley along the East Bay of Lake Champlain where it flows into Lake Champlain's South Bay. From there Lake Champlain flows north to Canada. As that part of Lake Champlain is a short portage from the upper Hudson River, this was the standard route for travel (and invasion) between New York and Lower Canada (now Quebec) for many decades.

In 1775, General Benedict Arnold led a small army to Lower Canada where he attempted to evict the British forces and persuade the French-speaking inhabitants to join with the rebellious colonies. During that invasion, he captured two British schooners (two-masted sailing vessels) and a British sloop (a single-masted vessel), but was then forced out of Canada by British reinforcements. During his retreat he took his captured ships up the Richelieu River to Lake Champlain. In the summer of 1776, General George Washington authorized Arnold to assemble a flotilla to take control of Lake Champlain so that it could deny the British access to the lake and prevent invasion from the north. While a third schooner was built at Fort Ticonderoga, General Arnold had two galleys (80-man rowing vessels with a single mast for cruising) and eight gondolas (45-man rowing vessels, also with a sailing mast) built at Skenesborough, later to become Whitehall.

In September, Arnold headed north to intercept a rumored British invasion. On October 11, the two forces met at Valcour Island. Arnold had planned well for the battle, but he was overmatched in ships and firepower. Over the next two days in a running battle down the lake, he took heavy casualties and lost most of his fleet.

However, he had achieved his objective, inflicting enough damage and casualties on the British that they postponed their invasion for a year, by which time a larger and better-trained Yankee army was able to defeat them at Saratoga, leading to the recognition by France of U.S. independence.

So Whitehall gets to claim a significant role in providing ships for a crucial battle early in the war, including the first "fleet," or at least flotilla.

Unfortunately, Whitehall's specific claim is the "birthplace" of the Navy. While its importance cannot be diminished, if we compare dates with events in Marblehead, Whitehall has a problem.

You see, while Whitehall (Skenesborough) was active in the summer of 1776, back in September, 1775, Marblehead had celebrated the commissioning of the first vessel outfitted with funds from the Continental Congress. John Glover's Hannah was commissioned to capture British supply ships and, on September 6, captured the British provisions sloop Unity. In two days in November, also sailing from Marblehead, the Lee first captured the provisions sloop Polly, then captured the British brig Nancy, carrying gunpowder and other munitions.

Aha! Marblehead wins!

Well, not quite. Unfortunately for Marblehead, there are some conditions attached. For one thing, several of the ships associated with Marblehead actually sailed from neighboring Beverly and nearly all the prizes captured by ships from both towns were sent to Beverly, not Marblehead, for sale and distribution to the troops of the rebellion. Beverly also likes to proclaim itself the "birthplace of the Navy."

Well, if the first ship was commissioned out of Marblehead, we can thank the folks of Beverly very kindly and still bestow the laurels on Marblehead, right?

Not yet. You see, the claim was bragging rights for the "birthplace of the U.S. Navy." Every ship that sailed from Marblehead and Beverly was outfitted by and reported to General Washington of the U.S. Army. At least one of the ships was actually captained by an Army captain. (A serious improvement in rank for him.) In fact, between the raiders operating out of Marblehead and Beverly and the flotilla on Lake Champlain, the Army had a much larger fleet than the Navy, mainly because the Navy did not yet exist. (That odd case was repeated toward the end of WWII when the number of troop transports and coastal supply ships operated by the U.S. Army exceeded the number of ships in the U.S. Navy at the time.)

So what town does get to proclaim itself the birthplace of the U.S. Navy?

Providence, Rhode Island likes to make the claim because it was from there that the first calls to establish a Navy were made to the Continental Congress.

Machias, Maine puts in a claim based on the fact that a small sloop manned by woodsmen captured a British warship in June, 1775.

The Navy, however, points out that the act authorizing an official U.S. Navy was approved in Philadelphia on October 13, 1775 and that the first four ships commissioned under that act were outfitted in Philadelphia. In its official history, it notes October 13 as its birthday but diplomatically declines to designate any particular town or city as its birthplace, noting merely that many communities contributed to U.S. naval tradition and deserve recognition for their efforts.

Tracking down the details involved multiple visits to multiple sites (along with a quick re-reading of the early chapters of Richard Ketchum's Saratoga: Turning Point of America's Revolutionary War), but the site that provided the most detail (and confirmed or refuted claims made on other sites) was the Navy's own Naval Historical Center at http://www.history.navy.mil/. This is a Staff Report, not a monograph, so there are apparent inconsistencies in the record, and I haven't tracked through every dusty library in the world to resolve them. For example, the Hannah is credited with taking the Unity on September 6, but then the Lee is credited with taking a vessel named Unity in December. Were there two small British vessels named Unity, or are the histories confused? Only original sources could resolve that problem, and I don't have those resources.  But details be damned. In the Straight Dope tradition of calling a spade a spade, I believe I've discovered enough to declare that the birthplace of the U.S. Navy wasn't Whitehall, Marblehead, or any other such modest locality but rather the great metropolis of North America in the 18th century (and not a bad little town now), Philadelphia, PA. Have a cheesesteak sandwich next time you pass through and toast the U.S. Navy for me.

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