Massachusetts Naval Militia

The Massachusetts Naval Militia (at first called the Massachusetts Colonial Navy and later the Massachusetts State Navy), was a naval militia active during the American Revolutionary War was founded December 29, 1775, to defend the interests of Massachusetts from British forces.

The flotilla utilized 25 vessels over the course of the war, acting in various roles such as prison ships, dispatch vessels, and combat cruisers. Its most infamous engagement was the 1779 Penobscot Expedition, in which not only all of its vessels were destroyed, but also those of privateers hired to assist in the expedition.

It was later activated for the War of 1812 and the Spanish–American War.

As under 10 U.S. Code §7851[1] naval militias form part of the United States organized militia and therefore are considered as such, any action to reactivate one of the nation's historic naval militia forces falls either on the Governor of Massachusetts or by legislative action of the Massachusetts General Court.


Following the outbreak of the American Revolutionary War with the Battles of Lexington and Concord in April 1775, the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, which effectively controlled the Province of Massachusetts Bay, began discussing the need for naval defenses against raids and punitive actions by the British Royal Navy against coastal communities in the province.[2] A committee set up for the purpose on June 7 submitted a report on June 12 recommending the outfitting of at least six vessels, mounting up to fourteen guns, that would be managed by the province's Committee of Safety. Further discussion was apparently delayed by the Battle of Bunker Hill on June 17, and was not taken up again until August. In the interim, the Provincial Congress was replaced by the Massachusetts Great and General Court as the province's legislative body, with a council acting as the executive.[3] It received a petition in August from the town of Machias in the District of Maine (now the state of Maine) for protection and relief following the June Battle of Machias, in which a British sloop-of-war was seized, and the capture in July of two more British ships. The legislature responded by officially adopting Machias Liberty and Diligence, appointing Jeremiah O'Brien their commander, with authorization to hire up to thirty seamen. These two ships served the state until October 1776.[4]

On November 1, the Massachusetts legislature enacted a law authorizing the issuance of letters of marque, as well as the creation of admiralty courts for judging naval disputes and the disposition of captured prize ships and cargo.[5] On February 7, 1776, it enacted a law authorizing the construction of ten sloops, to carry fourteen to sixteen guns each, and approved £10,000 for their construction.[6]

Ships, 1776 to 1779

Naval and maritime flag of Massachusetts

The first ships constructed were the sloop Tyrannicide and the brigantines Rising Empire and Independence, which were ready to sail in June 1776. These were followed by the sloops Republic, Freedom, and Massachusetts in September. While they were being built, additional legislation was enacted, establishing pay scales and rules for prize distribution, and in October a Board of War was created to oversee naval activities (military as well as economic) of the state.[6]

Over the course of the war, several additional ships were either purchased or constructed by the state. In 1777, the brigantine Hazard was built, and in 1778 a plan to construct two larger ships was entertained and eventually abandoned due to the cost. The brigantine Active, a prize taken by Hazard, was purchased in 1779.[7] In April 1778, construction was authorized on the largest ship in the state navy. Protector, a 28-gun frigate and a crew complement of 200, was launched in the fall of 1779. Unfortunately, due to the disaster of the Penobscot Expedition, it was then the only ship in the state navy.

New Constitution

Administration of the navy was changed with the adoption in 1780 of a new state constitution. The governor was responsible for issuing commissions and orders, and the Agent of the Commonwealth was responsible for outfitting the state's ships, and the Board of War ceased to exist.[8]

Ships, 1780 to 1783

The state continued to authorize new ships for the navy. In the spring of 1780 the Mars was purchased, and the Defence was purchased in 1781. During the following winter and spring, the Tartar and Winthrop, the last ship commissioned into the navy, were constructed for the state.[9]

Privateering and prizes

The state issued nearly 1,000 letters of marque authorizing privateering activities.[10] The Massachusetts prize courts were busiest in 1779, when more than 180 prizes were adjudicated. This activity resulted in a demand for prison capacity for the captured crews, and the competition between the state navy and the privateers resulted in increased costs to the state to man its ships.

Naval activities

While the state's ships were most often patrolling in nearby waters, they ranged as far as the European coast, where prizes were sometimes taken (although those were also often recovered by the British). Its ships sometimes worked in concert with privateers, Continental Navy vessels, and French vessels.[11]

On 25 November 1776, HMS Hope, a 14-gun brig with a crew of 70 men under the command of Lieutenant George (or James) Dawson, captured Independence, Captain Simeon Sampson, after a hard fight during which Dawson out sailed Sampson. As Independence had a larger crew and outgunned Hope she should have prevailed, but superior sailing, tactics, and a better crew delivered the victory to Hope.[12] Hope escorted Independence to Fort Cumberland, where 14 of her guns were transferred to the fort's defenses.

On 5 May 1781 HMS Roebuck and HMS Medea captured Protector. The British Royal Navy took her into service as HMS Hussar, and then sold her in 1783. The Danish East India Company purchased her and she continued to sail at least through 1785 as Hussar.

Still, most of the Massachusetts navy's engagements were minor, involving only a small number of ships, and little or no combat. The most notable exception was the Penobscot Expedition, organized by the state in response to a British expedition that established a fortified base on the eastern shore of Penobscot Bay.[13] The naval component of the state's response included three ships of the state navy, one from the New Hampshire State Navy, three Continental Navy vessels, and numerous private vessels, including transports for the 1,000 militia that were sent to dislodge the British. The operation was a fiasco. The Continental Navy's Commodore Dudley Saltonstall, who commanded the fleet, disagreed with Solomon Lovell, the militia commander, over the overall command of the expedition. When a British fleet arrived, Saltonstall's fleet disintegrated. Ships surrendered, grounded and burned, or were abandoned after fleeing up the Penobscot River. The expedition has been called the worst United States naval defeat prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in World War II. Inquiries into the matter faulted Saltonstall for his actions; he was dismissed from the navy. In late 1782 Captain George Little sailed Winthrop to the British site, and captured three ships, including a 16-gun privateer that was within range of the guns of Fort George.

The navy continued in operations until June 4, 1783, when the Winthrop, the last ship owned by the state, was sold.[14]


The list of names is from Paullin[15] unless otherwise cited; other fields are from other sources.

Captain Years of service Ships
Jeremiah O'Brien Machias Liberty, Diligence
John Lambert
John Fisk Tyrannicide, Massachusetts[16]
John Foster Williams Massachusetts, Republic, Hazard, Protector[17]
John Clouston
Jonathan Haraden Tyrannicide[16]
Daniel Souther
Simeon Samson Independence, Hazard, and Mars
Richard Welden
Allen Hallet Tyrannicide, Republic, Active, Tartar[18]
James Nevens
John Cathcart Tyrannicide[16]
George Little Winthrop


The list of names, ship type, and years of service are from Paullin[15] unless otherwise cited; other fields are from other sources.

Ship Type (guns) Years of service Captains
Machias Liberty sloop (10–20) 1775–1776 O'Brien
Diligent schooner (10–20) 1775–1776 O'Brien
Tyrannicide brigantine (at first a sloop) (14) 1776–1779 Fisk, Haraden, Hallet, Cathcart[16]
Rising Empire brigantine (10–20) 1776–1777
Independence brigantine (14 x 6-pounder guns, 10 x 4-pounder guns, 10 swivel guns, + 2 x coehorns)[12] 1776 Simeon Sampson,[19] or Samson
Republic sloop (10–20) 1776–1777 Williams,[17] Hallet[18]
Freedom sloop (10–20) 1776–1777
Massachusetts brigantine (10–20) 1776–1778 Williams[17]
Hazard brigantine (10–20) 1777–1779 Williams[17]
Active brigantine (10–20) 1779 Hallet[18]
Lincoln galley 1779–1781
Protector frigate (26) 1779–1781 Williams[17]
Mars ship (10–20) 1780–1781
Defence sloop (10–20) 1781
Tartar ship (10–20) 1782–1783 Hallet[18]
Winthrop sloop (10–20) 1782–1783 Little


  1. "10 U.S. CODE § 7851 - COMPOSITION". Retrieved 3 September 2015. External link in |website= (help)
  2. Paullin, p. 318
  3. Paullin, p. 319
  4. Paullin, p. 320
  5. Paullin, pp. 321–322
  6. 1 2 Paullin, p. 325
  7. Paullin, p. 335
  8. Paullin, pp. 337-8
  9. Paullin, pp. 338–39
  10. Paullin, p. 340
  11. Paullin, p. 344
  12. 1 2 Clarke (1999), pp. 175-8.
  13. For a detailed exposition of this expedition, see Buker.
  14. Paullin, pp. 353
  15. 1 2 Paullin, p. 342
  16. 1 2 3 4 Gardner, Frank A. The Massachusetts Magazine, Department of the American Revolution volume 1 pp.103-107
  17. 1 2 3 4 5 Waters, p. 169
  18. 1 2 3 4 Waters, p. 170
  19. Allen (1913), p.113.


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