Naval Warfare in the American Revolution 

                                                                               Lesson Plan #5

TOPIC: Naval Battles in the Age of Sail

 OBJECTIVES: Students will be able to:

1. Compare and contrast British and American/Allied naval  

    losses during the American Revolution

                                    2. Recognize factors affecting the outcome of a naval battle

                                    3. Describe a naval battle from the age of sail


I. Wooden Ships and Iron Men

Question: What made ships move during the American Revolution?

            Answer: Wind and currents

            Question: So a ship’s speed in any particular direction depended on what?

            Answer: Wind and currents, as well as the design of the ship

            Question: Who on the ship operated the guns in battle?

            Answer: Just about everyone except certain officers and those with other specific

jobs to do.

            Question: Where else in battle would you find men besides at the guns?

            Answer: Marines were stationed in the tops to fire muskets and hurl grenades onto

the decks of enemy ships, and boarding parties often formed on the main deck

when it looked like there would be an opportunity to grapple the enemy ship.

II. Battles

     A. Because the Empire spanned the globe, battles during the Revolution did also (See

          Map 5 for more information).

     B. Naval battles were very tricky because

            1. the movement of the ships depended on the wind and the currents.

            2. ships naturally moved at different speeds due to their designs.

            3. a ship’s firepower depended on its crew’s performance under fire.

            4. once battle commenced, smoke quickly obscured the vision of the gunners and

    those manoeuvring the ship.

     C. In spite of this, a number of ships met their fate in battle during the Revolution (See

          Tables 5a, 5b, 5c, and 5d for more information – compare this information to 

          Tables 1a and 1c).

            1. Hulls were prone to leak even without battle damage.

            2. Cannon were intentionally trained (aimed) to fire at the waterline or rigging.

                 a. A hole in the hull could result in serious flooding over the course of a fight.

                 b. A ship could not manoeuvre as well or as quickly if its sails, rigging or masts

         were damaged.

3. If an enemy appeared to have superior firepower, the smaller and weaker of the 

    two would often run or attempt to board and fight hand to hand for the ship.

     D. Typically, when two opposing fleets spotted each other

            1. They would manoeuvre into line ahead, or column, formation, meaning every

    ship lined up behind the leader.

2. They would manoeuvre to get to the weather gauge, meaning to be to windward

    of their opponent.  

     a. In other words, they would try to get the wind blowing from whichever side 

         was opposite their enemy, and usually from their own aft quarter.

     b. In this way, they could manoeuvre better than their enemy, who would then

         have to manoeuvre their lee, or wind shadow.

            3. Once the two sides were lined up, they would pass parallel to each other firing

                broadsides as they went.

4. The loser was generally the side that tried to disengage first.

5. Very rarely was an opponent totally defeated with all ships lost or taken.

     E. A typical battle might look like that fought between the British Captain Sir William

         Cornwallis and the French Commodore, Chevalier de Ternay on June 20th, 1780

         (see Plates 5a and 5b).

            1. In the morning of June 20th, the British, with two 74s, two 64s, and one 50,

    spotted a fleet northeast of their own position and went to investigate.  The

    wind was blowing from south-southeast towards north-northwest (Plate 5a,

    Position 1).

2. The seven French ships, one 80, two 74s, and four 64s, formed into line ahead

    and turned towards the British (Plate 5a, Position 2).

3. Endeavouring to separate a British straggler, the French continued on as the

    British turned about to threaten the French (Plate 5b, Position 3).

4. At 5:30 p.m., the British turned about again, followed by the French.  Once in

    line, the French hoisted their colours and opened fire.  The two sides, in parallel

    lines, exchanged long range shots for some time, until the two mutually broke

    off the engagement with little damage done to either side (Plate 5b, Position 4).

     F. Other types of battles

            1. Not all battles were naval engagements.

            2. Some were amphibious landings.

     a. The American invasion of New Providence (Nassau), Bahamas, and the

         British invasions of Rhode Island, for example.

     b. Here, troops were landed to attack land targets, then taken off by sea again.

     c. This gave the armies able to capitalize on maritime movement a benefit of

         being able to move farther more quickly than those relying on marching for


     d. At Charleston in 1780, the Royal Navy and Army made a series of closely

         coordinated attacks all around the harbour in order to isolate the city and

         conquer its intricate defences.  H.M.S. Richmond participated in this battle. 

3. Some ships participated in sieges and other land battles.

     a. British ships fired on American positions at Bunker Hill in support of their

         troops, for example.

     b. River defences were also attacked such as the British drive up the Hudson

         and Delaware Rivers in order to attack American positions and make it

         easier to supply their own troops.

     G. Smaller actions

            1. As well as fleet and squadron actions, battles between 2-5 ships were also


2. In addition to this, naval ships and privateers both attacked defenceless

    merchants hoping to make money on them by having them libelled and

    condemned, that is declared property of the enemy in a court and then

    auctioned off.

III. With Worksheet 5, students can recreate the most famous naval engagement of the

      Revolution from the writings of the two captains involved: the American John Paul

      Jones, in Bonhomme Richard (pronounced BUN-ome REE-shar), and the British

      Richard Pearson, in Serapis (pronounced suh-RAY-pus).


     One copy of Map 5 for each student or on a transparency, one copy of Tables 5a-d for each student or on a transparency, one copy each of Plate 5a and Plate 5b on transparency, one copy of Worksheet 5 for each student, and one copy of Worksheet 5 Key on transparency.


     Student assessment will take place through interaction with students in discussion, by the quality of work on Worksheet 5, and by their responses in being quizzed.

Repair to the Lesson Plan Page