The Navy was born over 200 years ago, on Oct. 13, 1775, and we’ve been celebrating its birthday ever since…
Well, since 1972.
Truth is, other than John Paul Jones, there was very little to brag about the performance of the Continental Navy. And though every Sailor knows who John Paul Jones is today, after the Revolution he faded from public memory.
And when the Continental Congress finally got around to building a decent warship, they promptly gave it to France and disbanded the Continental Navy. It wasn’t a good beginning.
In 1798, Congress got around to establishing a Department of the Navy, which is funny because they put in an order for six frigates (including the USS Constitution) four years before this. And then the Navy pretty much didn’t do anything especially spectacular for about a hundred years.
That’s not to say that important events didn’t happen or that brave men didn’t do daring things. But with few exceptions, most of the war heroes of America in the 19th Century were victors of land battles fought in North America. They were the ones who dominated the popular imagination.
Then, in 1884, a relatively unknown sea captain named Alfred Mahan was appointed to the newly created Naval War College. He spent a year preparing his lectures on sea power, and when they were eventually published as “The Influence of Sea Power Upon History,” they informed naval strategies around the world. Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany even had a translation handed out to every sailor in the German navy, and it still influences policy makers today.
Mahan believed it was only through an overwhelmingly powerful navy that a nation could hope for security. This was the birth of the “New Steel Navy”. Steam-powered battleships, ever more powerfully armed and armored, would patrol the oceans.
Instrumental in promoting this old “New Navy” was Theodore Roosevelt, who as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and later as President, actively promoted not only a more prominent role for the Navy, but also greater recognition by the public.
In addition, the performance of the American Navy in the Spanish-American War inspired an interest in its history. It was in the aftermath of that war that the first biography of Esek Hopkins, first commander in chief of the Continental Navy, was written. This was also the beginning of the campaign to bring the remains of John Paul Jones from Paris to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md.
Even then, it wasn’t until after World War I that the Navy had its own day. The Navy League began celebrating Navy Day in 1922, and it would be celebrated every Oct. 27. Why that day? It was Theodore Roosevelt’s birthday, of course.
Meanwhile, the Marine Corps had decided it was time for a birthday. In 1921, by order of the Marine Corps commandant, Nov. 10, 1775 was designated the Marine Corps Birthday.
At this time, the dates most commonly cited as founding dates for the Navy were the legislation of 1794 authorizing the six frigates for the War Department, and the April 30, 1798 establishment of the Department of the Navy.
Fifty years later, the Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, declared in 1972 that the Navy’s birthday was indeed Oct. 13, 1775. The Navy finally knew how old it was.
Despite giving a clear origin story for the service, the establishment had come too late in one respect: Though the Marine Corps birthday is technically almost a month after the Navy’s, the Navy is still considered the younger service, because the Marine Corps birth date was established earlier.
But the birthday of an organization isn’t the same as the birthday of a person. The Continental Navy didn’t exist after 1785 when its last ship was sold. It has no real continuity with the Navy established later, which itself went through at least three or four separate restructurings over the centuries.
It’s mythology in a good way; it’s a story about who we are. Sometimes the details change a little bit, but it’s still recognizably a story about Sailors.
So the Navy’s birthday is more like a comic book origin story. How did Peter Parker become Spiderman? Was it the genetically altered spider? Or was it the radioactive one? Either way, he’s still Spiderman. And no matter how many times it’s retold, Superman is always the last son of a dying planet.
The birthday might not be the most consistent of dates, but the Navy will always be the Navy. Uniforms will change, wood-hulled sailing ships give way to steel-armored steam battleships, and then the battleships give way to the aircraft carrier.
The Navy is the inheritor of a couple hundred years of heroism and victory, triumph and tradition. Ships and Sailors will come and go, but the Navy will always be.