The Merchant Marine and America’s Founding

July 03, 2020
The Merchant Marine and America’s Founding
Robert Dodd courtesty Beverley Robison Collection, US Naval Academy
The Merchant Marine and America’s Founding
Robert Dodd courtesty Beverley Robison Collection, US Naval Academy
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Even before there was the American Navy we know today, another maritime force helped America defeat King George III’s navy and give birth to a new nation.

That force was what we now call the U.S. Merchant Marine.

History has overlooked the role of civilian mariners in our nation's many wars. Still, as we celebrate America's 244th birthday, it is worth remembering that we might well have lost our fight for independence without these brave men who stared down the world’s most dominant navy.

In the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, America’s 13 Colonies maintained a small flotilla of 31 ships, known as the Continental Navy. Lacking a true naval force, military leaders issued Letters of Marque to fully armed, privately-owned commercial vessels to authorize them to serve as warships to attack British naval and maritime assets. Long-experienced in fighting off pirates, these mariners were battle-tested.

In what might be called a public-private partnership today, these “privateers” brought a fleet of nearly 1,700 ships to the fight for independence. Underscoring the immense danger of maritime battles, 78 percent of the privateer ships were captured or sunk by the Royal Navy.

Over the course of the War for Independence, more than 55,000 Colonialists joined the fight at sea. Many were captured by the British and endured horrific treatment while housed in the hulls of dank prison ships where nearly 11,000 died.

The first test of America’s fledgling sea power would come in June 1775 when Colonial civilian mariners captured a British merchant ship in Maine’s Machias Bay. The Americans used the commandeered vessel to attack and capture the HMS Margarette, a state-of-the-art British schooner. According to, the victors claimed “four double fortified three pounders and fourteen swivels and some smaller guns.” Although the bounty was limited, this action represented the “first sea engagement of the Revolution and the start of the merchant marine’s war role.”

As the war raged, the number of merchant mariners in combat was nearly equal to the ground fighting force assembled by Gen. George Washington. The mariners took the fight to the British wherever possible, intercepting naval and merchant vessels in the Atlantic, Caribbean, and even off the English coast.

All in, the Continental Navy and privateers captured 16,000 British prisoners, which exceeded the 15,000 captured by the entire Continental Army before the surrender at Yorktown.

The contributions of civilian mariners were not limited to battles at sea. Early in the conflict, Colonial ground forces were desperately low on gunpowder – with only enough for nine rounds per musket. By 1777, merchant mariners had delivered over two million pounds of gunpowder to the army.

Though merchant mariners have played a role in every war since the Revolution, it wasn’t until 1943 that Congress established the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy (USMMA), thus creating the fourth of what are now five federal service academies.

While lesser known than its counterparts at West Point and Annapolis, the USMMA shares a common mission: to train elite young men and women who have committed to serving our nation's defense readiness needs.

Today, USMMA graduates are the backbone of our nation’s maritime security. They make up 80 percent of the U.S. Navy Strategic Sealift Officer (SSO) force, meaning that each is federally obligated to serve when needed. In times of crisis, SSOs will command and crew commercial and government ships that will take the fight to the enemy by delivering tanks, troops, equipment, fuel, and every piece of materiel needed to fight a modern war.

America can’t win a war without the United States Navy and the Merchant Marine. This unique partnership worked in the Revolution and still works today.

Captain Jim Tobin is President of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy Alumni Association and Foundation.

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