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

On June 30th, 1775 the Pennsylvania Assembly voted to form the Committee of Safety to deal with preparations for the impending conflict with England.  The resolution stated: "That this House approves the Association entered into by the Good People of this Colony for the Defense of their Lives, Liberty and Property."  Benjamin Franklin was chosen President of the Committee and quickly set about creating a State naval force.   On July 6, 1775 the Pennsylvania State Navy was formed for the defense and safety of Philadelphia's waterborne approach - the Delaware River. 

Thirteen row galley's were ordered built, each to be armed with a single large cannon in the bow.  The first of these was launched on July 19th, just thirteen days after the Navy was formed.  By August there were six.  When all thirteen were completed and commissioned they were:


Their 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.(1)  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 2-pounder, 3-pounder or 4-pounder cannon in the bow.  They were named:


By 1777 the Pennsylvania State Navy had grown even larger and included the fire brigantine BLAST, the four fire brigs COMET, HELL CAT, VESUVIUS and VULCANO and the two fire ships HECLA and STUMBELLO.   For a detailed description of the arming of 18th century fireships, click HERE for an excerpt from John Muller's "Treatise of Artillery" on fireships and how to prepare them.

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.

On September 26, 1777 British General Sir William Howe took possession of Philadelphia.  Keeping the British Army from receiving necessary 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 vessels.

On October 23, 1777 the British flagship AUGUSTA 64 ran aground mid-channel off Fort Mifflin.  While under constant fire from Navy gunboats and Fort Mifflin a fire broke out on board 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.

The Pennsylvania State Navy saw action during the Hessian attack on Fort Mercer and the destruction of Billingsport, and played a vital role in maintaining the Cheveau de Frise river obstructions and the State's fleet of fireships.

After the fall of Fort Mifflin and Fort Mercer several State Navy vessels made their way north past Philadelphia where they were scuttled to avoid capture.   The larger State ships were set on fire by their crew to keep them from falling into British hands.

The delaying actions fought along the Delaware River prevented the British from launching a well-supported attack on Washington's army at Valley Forge prior to winter setting in.  The following summer the British left Philadelphia, never to return.

~ Bibliography ~

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

"The Delaware Bay and River Defenses of Philadelphia 1775-1777" by John W. Jackson, Philadelphia Maritime Museum, 1977.

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

"Fort Mifflin of Philadelphia; An Illustrated History" by Jeffery M. Dorwart, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.

~ Genealogy Resource ~

The Pennsylvania Archives, Third Series, Volume XVII published in 1897 gives an amazing look into the structure and makeup of the Officers and Men of the Pennsylvania State Navy.  The text of the Archives has been transcribed and re-edited for publication on this website.  The file is over 355K of HTML text, and is available for perusal HERE.  

~ Technology Resource ~

John Muller's "Treatise of Artillery" contains a section on preparing Fireships.  The text is available HERE.