Birth of the US Navy

This past Wednesday was the 235th anniversary of the birth of the US Navy. That fact is not in dispute but the identity of the birthplace of the US Navy is a controversial topic. Five communities claim the honor. Philadelphia maintains that on October 13, 1775, the Continental Congress voted to outfit two ships for battle and since the vote occurred in Philly, that city should claim the honor. Providence, Rhode Island counters that the motion to build the ships was made by representatives from that community and so Providence is the rightful birthplace.

Two Massachusetts towns, Beverly and Marblehead, also claim the honor. Before Congress even began to debate the question of whether there should be a US Navy, General George Washington after taking command of the colonial militia gathered around Boston after Lexington and Concord and Bunker Hill, ordered in September 1775 that a ship be outfitted for battle and sail out to harass the British Navy. That ship was the Hannah and it was modified for war at Beverly but it was owned and manned by residents of Marblehead.

Whitehall, New York also lays claim to the honor even though it lies far inland. Originally called Skenesboro (after a British officer), Whitehall is at the southern tip of Lake Champlain, only 5 miles west of the Vermont border. In the summer of 1776, General Phillip Schuyler ordered the construction of several warships to be used to fight the British on the strategically-vital Champlain. These ships were put under the command of Benedict Arnold and were used at the Battle of Valcour Island. In that engagement, most of the American vessels were sunk or captured, but they halted the British advance down the lake which kept the colonies from being split in two.

For one reason or another, I’ve visited all five of these communities. Despite my Massachusetts heritage, I like Whitehall which is pronounced by its residents as “Whitehaw”. I visited that community one summer day spent exploring the region involved in the Battle of Saratoga (which was more of a multiple month campaign than a single battle). I got to their small museum just as it was closing but the janitor happily let me in and escorted me around with a personalized tour. He was very friendly and the museum was great. So I can’t say I’d pick Whitehall as the birthplace as the US Navy, but I would urge anyone with an interest in the Revolutionary War to consider a visit.