The US Navy’s First Warship, and 33 Other Historic American Vessels

The legacy of U.S. Navy warships dates back to the early days of American independence. In the times of the Revolution, the Continental Navy had some 27 warships compared to the Royal Navy, which had about ten-times as many warships. Despite these odds, the U.S. Continental Navy had early successes in the war, which contributed to the ultimate success and foundation of the United States.

To determine America’s first military warship and other significant warships of the time, 24/7 Wall St. reviewed former U.S. Navy warships from Military Factory. We ordered these warships based on when they entered U.S. military service from the earliest until the end of the Civil War. We included supplemental information regarding the type of warship, maximum speed, and crew size, all from Military Factory.

The USS Hannah holds the distinction of being the first armed vessel to sail under the Continental Navy. This ship marked the beginning of a modest fleet organized by George Washington in the fall of 1775. However, the USS Hannah’s service would be short-lived as the ship was run ashore by the British vessel Nautilus only two months after its commissioning.

One of the other earliest warships to serve in the U.S. Navy, during the American Revolution, was the USS Bonhomme Richard, named after Benjamin Franklin’s pseudonym. Commanded by John Paul Jones, who would go on to be known as “The Father of the American Navy,” this converted merchant vessel achieved fame during its battle against the British warship HMS Serapis in 1779 in what became known as the Battle of Flamborough Head. 

An example of a warship from the Civil War era is the USS Keokuk, which saw perhaps the shortest service life of any U.S. naval vessel. Commissioned in 1862, it was part of the South Atlantic Blockading Squadron and operated off the coast of South Carolina. During the Union’s attack on Fort Sumter in April 1863, the USS Keokuk came under heavy Confederate fire, reportedly sustaining severe damage in the form of 90 cannonballs. As a result, the vessel met its untimely end off the coast of Charleston.

The vessels on this list go through a huge technological evolution over the years. The first Navy warships were typically wooden sailboats or converted merchant vessels. However, by the time the Civil War ended, these ships were practically all ironclad and operating with steam-powered motors. (Decades later, there were the biggest U.S. naval battles of WWII.)

Today, the U.S. Navy stands as one of the most formidable maritime forces in the world, equipped with state-of-the-art aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, and advanced warships. Still, these older warships provide a glimpse into the evolution of naval technology and strategy over the decades. (Here are the 17 most expensive U.S. Navy warships and submarines.)

Here is a look at the oldest American warships.

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