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Exploring History: The Pennsylvania State Navy

| Wednesday, May 1, 2013, 9:02 p.m.

The Pennsylvania State Navy

With the commencement of the American Revolutionary War, in April 1775, the Pennsylvania General Assembly, mobilized its respective county militia for active duty.

Furthermore, several volunteer Pennsylvania regiments prepared to join the burgeoning Continental Army, commanded by George Washington, which was besieging the British forces within Boston, Massachusetts. But few people recall that Pennsylvania officials decided to create a state navy as well.

Amid the initial months of open warfare 11 of the 13 American states formed their own navies.

The Continental Congress in Philadelphia actually had urged the state governments to undertake that action. They knew that the formation of a viable national navy would not be forthcoming for a couple of years.

The general assumption was that those fleets would be operating under state control. No plans were formulated, though, to have the 11 state fleets cooperate in any joint naval activities. Interestingly, neither New Jersey nor Delaware chose to organize their own navies.

In any case, these state fleets consisted of vessels that were smaller and less heavily armed than the warships designed for open sea warfare.

The main purpose of those fleets was to protect the various states' seaports, as well as coastal waters. Furthermore, they were expected to protect local commercial shipping from British attack.

None of them were meant to be “blue water” navies. No state naval vessel ever attempted to challenge an enemy warship far out in the open ocean.

The most common craft they utilized were row galleys. The other type of boats in service included floating batteries, barges, and fire ships.

Not surprisingly, Massachusetts was the only state to possess a sizeable number of seagoing ships.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania developed a naval fleet designed primarily for local defensive actions. The Pennsylvanians used galleys, armed whaleboats, floating batteries, and fire rafts. State officials also procured periodically both large barges and schooners.

In essence, this fleet had the primary duty of preventing British naval incursions into the Delaware River. At least two schooners were known periodically to perform patrol duty within Delaware Bay.

The Pennsylvania State Navy's structural backbone proved to be the 13 row galleys in service. Each of these vessels were 40 feet in length and possessed a couple 20-pound cannons.

Most of the smaller boats usually featured a four-pound gun. When a fire raft was set afloat it contained hogsheads full of explosives. For good measure they also were dusted heavily with resin powder.

By August 1776, two floating batteries, the Arnold and Putnam, had been added to the fleet. Both were square ended scows equipped with medium range cannon.

On May 6, 1778, the fleet gathered at the Delaware River's mouth when two British frigates, the Roebuck and Liverpool, attempted to enter that waterway on a punitive raid. The ensuing battle evidently concluded in a draw.

But the enemy vessels sustained enough damage that both withdrew to New Castle, Delaware. Consequently, in the instance the Pennsylvania State Navy successfully maintained control over their coastal waters.

A formidable British armada possessing considerable firepower, commanded by Admiral (Lord) Richard Howe, in August 1778, sailed into Delaware Bay, where they intended to clear away all enemy naval craft.

An expeditionary force under Major General William Howe, the admiral's brother, was planning to invade Pennsylvania. General Howe also was determined to occupy Philadelphia, the national capital.

Subsequently, most of the Pennsylvania Navy's boats were destroyed by the invaders. Several of the vessels, including three galleys, managed to escape up the Delaware River to landings safely beyond British reach.

In April 1778, General George Washington ordered that most of the surviving Pennsylvania Navy boats be scuttled. Those remaining vessels and their crews were to be assimilated into the Continental Navy.

All sailors not being transferred into national service were discharged from active duty. Similar measures also were undertaken with the other state navies.

Nevertheless, Pennsylvania officials had retained ownership of one schooner, the General Greene. And the state legislature, in February 1779, apparently commissioned Captain Eli Bagley to command the General Greene as a privateer.

Upon being issued letters of marque and reprisal, the schooner operated generally within the vicinity of Delaware Bay. During the next 13 months, therefore, the General Greene successfully captured at least five British merchant ships.

Accordingly, Bagley and the crew were able to claim monies from five prizes. By June 1780, the General Greene was no longer a privateer and had been docked at a Philadelphia pier.

Lt. Col. Tench Tilghman purchased the schooner, on Feb. 13, 1781, for use as a merchant vessel. Tilghman evidently was a partner in an overseas trading company with Robert Morris, the powerful American financier.

The General Greene subsequently spent the next decade ranging the West Indies on assorted trading junkets. Reports later circulated that the schooner eventually was sold to a sea captain in Savannah, Georgia.

Meanwhile, anyone watching the General Greene sailing into the open Atlantic Ocean were observing the last tangible vestige of the old Pennsylvania State Navy.

Exploring History appears in The Independent-Observer periodically. The authors holds a doctorate in history from the University of South Carolina.

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