P E N N S Y L V A N I A 
S T A T E    N A V Y

A      B   R   I   E   F      H   I   S   T   O   R   Y

The Pennsylvania State Navy was formed on July 6, 1775 by the Pennsylvania Committee of Safety for the defense and safety of Philadelphia's waterborne approach - the Delaware.  Thirteen row galley's were ordered built, each to be armed with a single large cannon in the bow.  Amazingly, the first of these was launched on July 19th, and by August there were six.  Completed and commissioned, they were named:

EXPERIMENT BULLDOG   FRANKLIN   CONGRESS EFFINGHAM
RANGER BURKE CHATHAM  DICKINSON   HANCOCK
GEN. WASHINGTON   WARREN CAMDEN

The armament ranged from 18-pounders up to 32-pounders.  By the close of 1775, ten fire rafts were built.  In 1776 two floating batteries, the  ARNOLD  and  PUTNAM,  were commissioned and crewed by Pennsylvania State Marines.  By August of 1776, the Pennsylvania State Navy totaled twenty-seven vessels crewed by 768 men.Toward the end of 1776, twenty-one smaller vessels were ordered built.  They were called "armed boats" or "guard boats", and each were armed with a 4-pounder cannon in the bow.  They were named:

ARGUS BASILISK    BRIMSTONE DRAGON    EAGLE FAME
FIREBRAND HAWK HORNET LION PORCUPINE RACE HORSE
RESOLUTION    REPULSE  SALAMANDER    TERROR THUNDERER    TORMENTOR
VIPER VULTURE  WASP

The Navy saw action for the first time on May 6, 1776 when it engaged the British ships ROEBUCK 44 and LIVERPOOL 28.  After a brief engagement, both enemy ships were forced to withdraw south past Newcastle, Delaware.

HMS ROEBUCK being chased by boats and ships from the Pennsylvania State Navy.  Painting by Charles Turner Warren.

Another depiction of the action with HMS ROEBUCK.  From the Wilmington Trust Delaware Bicentenial Art Collection.

On September 26, 1777, British General Sir William Howe took possession of Philadelphia.  Keeping him from receiving the needed supplies were the Pennsylvania State Navy, Fort Mifflin, Fort Mercer and other fortified posts along the Delaware River south of the city.  The Royal Navy was intent on forcing its way north up the Delaware to relieve the troops in Philadelphia, and to do so meant fighting their way clear of river obstructions and the State Navy.

On October 23, 1777, the British ship AUGUSTA 64 ran aground midchannel off Fort Mifflin.  Concentrated fire from the State Navy boats and from Fort Mifflin set fire to the ship, and the Augusta exploded.  The British ship MERLIN 18 also ran aground and was set on fire by its crew to avoid capture.

HMS AUGUSTA under fire from Pennsylvania State Navy boats and Fort Mifflin.  Painting by Geoff Hunt.

After the fall of both Forts Mifflin and Mercer, some of the State Navy boats made their way north past Philadelphia where they were scuttled to avoid capture.   Larger State ships, such as the ANDREA DORIA, were set on fire by their crew to keep them from falling into British hands.

 PSN brig Andrea Doria being burned to avoid capture following the fall of Forts Mifflin and Mercer.  Painting by Nowland Van Powell.

Detailed accounts can be found in the following text:

(1) "Ships and Seamen of the American Revolution" by Jack Coggins, Promontory Press, 1969.

"The Pennsylvania State Navy, 1775-1781.  The Defense of the Delaware" by John W. Jackson, Rutgers University Press, 1974.

Although both are out of print, they can regularly be found at www.abebooks.com.

 

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