A history of US military ships—from the Revolutionary War to today
Published 9:45 pm Friday, June 10, 2022
A history of US military ships—from the Revolutionary War to today
If a sailor in 1530 magically teleported through the future to the dawn of the American Revolution in 1775, he likely would have been able to get a job aboard a ship in the Continental Navy. Of course, he would have encountered new technologies, new instruments, and new terminology, but the vessel’s riggings, sails, components, cannons, and functionality would have been most familiar. But if a sailor in the Continental Navy teleported the exact same 245 years through the future to 2022 and landed on a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier or a nuclear submarine, he might as well have landed on a spaceship.
The nearly 2 1/2 centuries from when the original colonies first began organizing for maritime battle against their British oppressors to today have witnessed the greatest evolution of naval warfare in human history. The United States and its Navy have fought 12 major wars in those 245 years. That’s an average of a major war every 20 years—not to mention countless actions, security missions, skirmishes, and standoffs.
Each war introduced new naval technology, new tactics, new weaponry, and most importantly, new ships. What started as a single vessel commissioned by frustrated colonists has grown into roughly 300 ships and more than 300,000 personnel in a fighting organization that has dominated the world’s oceans unchallenged for 75 years.
Using government sources like the U.S. Navy’s own archives, as well as historical accounts, news reports, museum databases, and official records of individual ships, Stacker profiled 50 of the most important and consequential warships in American history. Some vessels on this list stand out for their incredible records in battle. Others are noteworthy for the new technologies they introduced. All, however, have earned a place as floating tributes to America’s military preoccupations, technological ingenuity, and ability to project power and enforce its will in the farthest reaches of the world.
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U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph // Wikimedia Commons
As tensions rose in the run-up to the Revolutionary War, the British launched a campaign to harass, stop, board, search, and seize American merchant ships, nowhere more aggressively than off the shores of Rhode Island. In June 1775, the tiny colony’s legislature authorized the conversion of the Katy—a former whaling, merchant, and privateer ship—to be armed, outfitted, and transformed from a sloop to a sloop-of-war. The ship that would go on to become the U.S.S. Providence was charged with the modest task of single-handedly defending Rhode Island against the British Empire, whose invincible navy had ruled the world’s seas since defeating the Spanish Armada at the end of the 16th century.
Realizing that the Katy wouldn’t be able to fend off the British empire on its own, George Washington began personally procuring more capable ships. The first among them was the schooner Hannah, which Washington bought on Aug. 24, 1775—it captured its first Royal Navy sloops just a few weeks later in early September. The first armed naval vessel to fight in the Revolution and the first to sail under Continental control, the Hannah is considered the founding vessel of the U.S. Navy.
Naval History and Heritage Command // Wikimedia Commons
The Andrew Doria
The United States Navy recognizes its birthday as Oct. 13, 1775, the day that the Continental Congress authorized the creation of a single, unified navy instead of a patchwork of fleets controlled by individual colonies. It authorized the purchase of two ships to conduct raids on the British, the first of which was the converted merchant brig Andrew Doria, which would soon fight in the Battle of Nassau, the first major maritime combat of the Revolution. The Continental Navy was born.
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The second of those first two ships was the Cabot. After sailing out of Boston it soon ran into the HMS Milford, a far more capable British vessel. After being forced aground in Nova Scotia, it became the first American ship ever to fall into enemy hands when the British captured it and refitted it for service in the Royal Navy.
Captain Matthew Parke USMC // Wikimedia Commons
The era of the Continental Navy came to an end when the expensive fleet was disbanded after the Revolutionary War. The last of the commissioned Continental warships was the frigate Alliance, which fired the last shots of the American Revolution.
The ‘Original Six’
More than a decade into America’s infancy as a country, it became clear that the pirates known as the Barbary corsairs, who terrorized merchant ships from their North African strongholds, understood only the language of force. No longer under the protection of Great Britain, American vessels were fair game to the relentless pirates, whose campaign of terror, kidnapping, and extortion compelled the U.S. Congress to pass the Naval Act of 1794. The act authorized the construction of what are now known as the ‘Original Six’ frigates of the United States Navy, which would sail under the title United States Ship (USS): USS President, USS Constellation, USS Chesapeake, USS United States, USS Congress, and the most storied ship in American naval history, the USS Constitution.
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First launched in 1797, the USS Constitution remains the world’s oldest commissioned ship still afloat and is the official Ship of State of the United States of America. The timbers of the three-masted heavy frigate’s hull were so thick that cannonballs frequently bounced off of them, giving the Constitution its famous nickname “Old Ironsides.” With an other-worldly battle record in the Barbary Wars, the Quasi-War with France and, most notably, the War of 1812, the Constitution represents America’s earliest ability to project force in distant lands—the undefeated ship was never boarded or beaten in battle.
The USS Essex was another prime example of excellence in the early “Old Navy”—as America’s pre-1882 fleet is now called—tallying significant battle success in the Quasi-War with France, the First Barbary War, and the War of 1812. The frigate was the first American ship to sail around the notoriously perilous Cape Horn to the open Pacific Ocean, where it terrorized Great Britain’s whaling fleet. Its success became a burden, however, when the British finally dedicated two of its best ships to hunting down the Essex, which they eventually captured and pressed into the service of the Crown.
The USS Independence was the U.S. Navy’s first ship of the line, the biggest, most powerful warships of the day. The Independence was part of a large and heavily armed squadron that the Navy sent to North Africa to end the reign of the Barbary Coast Pirates once and for all. When the squadron arrived in Algiers after taking several Algerian ships on the way, the intimidation factor alone was enough to force the enemy to accept a peace agreement, guarantee U.S. trade rights in the region, and return the men and ships they had captured.
U.S. Navy // Wikimedia Commons
Built in the closing days of the War of 1812, the Demologos was a wooden floating battery designed to defend New York Harbor from the British Navy. An otherwise unremarkable vessel, it represents a before-and-after moment in the history of naval warfare as it was the first warship ever to be propelled by a steam-powered engine.
The War of 1812 came to a close when the sloop-of-war USS Peacock captured East India Company brig Nautilus in the last naval action of the conflict. The U.S. Navy wouldn’t capture another enemy ship until World War II. The Peacock also holds the distinction of being the first ship the United States ever outfitted for scientific exploration when it was sent to explore and survey the farthest reaches of the mighty Pacific Ocean.
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USS Sea Gull
The USS Sea Gull holds the distinction of being the first steam-powered U.S. fighting vessel to see active combat. It spent much of its time in the 1820s fighting pirates that had spent years robbing, sinking, and capturing ships and terrorizing, enslaving, and killing American crews. These maritime ruffians, however, were not the Barbary corsairs of the previous generation—the Sea Gull played a prominent role in the Navy’s campaign to eliminate the dreaded pirates of the Caribbean.
By the 1840s, the United States had dedicated part of its naval fleet to disrupting the illegal Atlantic slave trade decades after America banned the importation of African captives in 1807. The USS Jamestown was one of the most prominent ships in the Navy’s newly formed Africa Squadron. The sloop-of-war captured two slave ships during its time on the mission, which was hampered by the fact that the Navy’s top commander was an ardent pro-slavery Southerner.
Commodore Matthew Perry’s flagship of the West Indies Squadron, the Navy steamer USS Mississippi was one of the most significant vessels of the Mexican-American War in the late 1840s. It took part in several key battles, particularly the decisive Battle of Veracruz, which enabled the Americans to march on Mexico city—Veracruz stands as the Navy’s first major amphibious assault. It later sailed to Japan as part of a mission to convince the secluded nation to normalize relations with the West after three centuries of isolation, which Japan agreed to do after witnessing Perry’s awesome fleet of powerful, modern ships.
USS Merrimack/CSS Virginia
In 1861, the Civil War was raging when the Confederacy captured the USS Merrimack—the former flagship of the Navy’s Pacific Fleet—which was undergoing repairs in Virginia when the war broke out. A year later, the rebels rechristened it the Confederate States Ship (CSS) Virginia and outfitted it with powerful guns and heavy armor plating above the waterline. It would soon square off with a Yankee ship in a battle on the Chesapeake that would change naval warfare forever.
Just three days after setting sail from Brooklyn, New York, in 1862, the iron-clad, steam-powered USS Monitor stormed into the Chesapeake Bay to protect the Navy’s wooden fleet from the approaching CSS Virginia, which had already sunk several ships en route. They engaged each other at the Battle of Hampton Roads, with both ships bouncing cannonballs off the armored hulls of the other until they both ran out of shells and withdrew in a stalemate. Although the first battle of the ironclads was not consequential, the moment in history was—the confrontation signaled the end of the era of wooden warships as both North and South raced to build newer, better armored vessels.
The H.L. Hunley
The arrival of the Monitor and the Merrimack/Virginia changed the face of naval warfare on the water, but the H.L. Hunley revolutionized maritime combat beneath it. Embodying both the potential and the risks of underwater warfare, the experimental Confederate ship Hunley was the first successful combat submarine in history. On February 17, 1864, the cramped and hand-crank-propelled vessel made history when it sank the Navy sloop-of-war USS Housatonic—and itself—with a primitive torpedo.
Just a few short months after it was commissioned in 1864, a monitor-class armored warship called the USS Tecumseh was sunk by the enemy, like so many other vessels during the Civil War. What makes the event historically important is why it sank—the Tecumseh had the misfortune of running into a terrifying new weapon: a naval mine. Cheap, simple, and devastating, sea mines remain the #1 threat to U.S. Navy vessels to this day.
The CSS David was a partially submersible Confederate vessel that was technically a surface ship but that functioned as a submarine. It used spar torpedos—long poles with bombs on the end, essentially—to silently affix explosives to the hulls of wooden ships, which it did with the Navy vessel USS New Ironsides. The attack didn’t do any real damage to New Ironsides, and the David rendered itself useless in the process, but the moment gave birth to naval torpedo warfare.
The CSS Shenandoah was still terrorizing Yankee whaling ships in the Pacific Ocean several months after the Confederacy surrendered before its captain was informed that the Civil War had ended—the Shenandoah fired the last shots of America’s bloodiest conflict in the summer of 1865. The moment signaled not only the end of the Civil War but the end of the “Old Navy” era of American military history. Between 1865-1882, the Navy went into a long period of decline from being the second-largest seaborne force in the world behind only the British Empire to an impotent organization in charge of only a few dozen vessels in 1880.
The 1882 launch of the USS Puritan represented an American awakening to the sorry state of its naval forces and the beginning of a mad scramble to catch up before the world passed it by. The rebirth of the U.S. Navy was spurred by the 1873 Virginius Affair, a tense diplomatic standoff that occurred after the Spanish captured the American ship Virginius in Cuba and executed some of its crew. Although the Spanish Navy was a shell of its former self, it became clear to the American military that the hollowed-out U.S. Navy couldn’t answer the Spanish threat or effectively project power overseas.
Arkivi // Getty Images
The “New Navy” era, which would culminate with the U.S. Navy emerging in 1945 as the world’s largest and most potent maritime force, began in 1885 with the launch of the USS Chicago. The largest of the original three protected cruisers authorized by Congress at the start of the “New Navy” initiative, its commission represented a sea change in sea warfare. Signaling the end of the iron age of naval combat, the USS Chicago was one of the Navy’s first four steel ships.
In 1892, the United States Navy commissioned the first modern battleship in American history—the USS Texas. Although it took so long to build it was already outdated by the time it was finished, it—along with the armored cruiser USS Maine, commissioned just one month later—represented a great leap forward in naval engineering and capability.
The simmering tensions between the United States and Spain came to a boil on February 15, 1898, when the USS Maine exploded and sank in Havana Harbor. Although it’s now known that the sinking was almost certainly the result of an internal explosion, it was presumed at the time that Spain was the culprit and the moment served as the catalyst for the Spanish-American War.
The rise of America’s modern Navy can largely be credited to the obsessive efforts of Spanish-American War icon President Theodore Roosevelt, who famously summarized his diplomatic philosophy as “walk softly, carry a big stick.” The Navy, which expanded under Roosevelt to become the second-largest in the world behind only the British Empire, was a big part of that stick thanks to ships like the USS Nashville. The gunboat was critical in enforcing Roosevelt’s will in his successful attempt to secure control of the Panama Canal for the United States.
Commissioned in 1902, the USS Bainbridge was the first vessel to be classified as a destroyer by the U.S. Navy. The bodyguards of the fleet, destroyers are quick, nimble, distance-capable ships that escort larger, slower ships and defend them from short-range attacks. They were originally called “torpedo boat destroyers.”
Public Domain // Wikimedia Commons
USS San Diego
Only one major warship was lost during World War I, the USS San Diego, and it sank after striking a German mine laid by a U-boat in U.S. waters off of Long Island, New York. In 1914, America was still mostly only a regional naval power, but after a series of escalations with Germany in the run-up to World War I that culminated in the sinking of the Lusitania, President Woodrow Wilson invested heavily into making America’s navy the most dominant in the world and reshuffling the balance of power on the seas. The Naval Act of 1916 ordered the construction of “10 battleships, six battle cruisers, 10 scout cruisers, 50 destroyers, 15 fleet submarines, 85 coast submarines, four gunboats, one hospital ship, two ammunition ships, two fuel oil ships, and one repair ship” in just five years, according to GlobalSecurity.org.
USS North Carolina
Commissioned in 1908, the USS North Carolina became an early adopter of what would become standard naval technology in the decades and wars to come: catapult aviation. Unlike modern carriers that have flight decks and launch systems, armored cruisers did not have enough deck room for a plane to get up to flying speed on a moving ship, a terribly dangerous endeavor that had never before been attempted. In 1915, naval aviator Henry C. Mustin attempted to use an experimental catapult to launch his plane off the deck of the USS North Carolina and into the sky—and it worked, marking one of the most significant milestones in the history of naval warfare.
Silent, invisible, deadly, and impossible to engage in battle, sea mines had struck terror into the hearts of sailors since at least the Civil War. In 1918, the U.S. commissioned the USS Lapwing, the Navy’s first minesweeper, which is a small, fast, and specialized warship that can detect, remove, or safely detonate sea mines to clear lanes for shipping, transport, and military operations. Representing one of the Navy’s great defensive leaps forward, minesweepers now play a critical role in both military and commercial operations around the world.
In 1920, the Navy converted the fuel ship USS Jupiter into what would become the USS Langley. The conversion was based on large ships with flat decks designed for fixed-wing aircraft to land on and take off from, which both sides had experimented with during World War I. When the conversion was complete, the Jupiter was the Langley, and the United States Navy had its first aircraft carrier.
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There have been eight ships named Enterprise dating back to 1775 and the Continental Navy with a ninth currently under construction, but none are more famous (barring the fictional starship of “Star Trek”) or more accomplished than the aircraft carrier that launched in 1936. The Navy’s sixth carrier, the USS Enterprise was one of only three that would survive World War II, from which it emerged as the deadliest and most decorated ship of the entire conflict. A first responder at Pearl Harbor, it saw action in the Leyte Gulf, Guadalcanal, Midway, the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo, and the list goes on.
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USS North Carolina
The first battleship commissioned since 1921, the USS North Carolina was authorized for construction in 1936 as the government began a massive naval expansion as Germany once again dragged Europe and the world toward global war. By the time it entered service in 1941, few seaborne crafts were more feared thanks to its powerful and highly advanced weapons systems, which could annihilate other vessels, targets on land, or incoming planes with precision and ferocity. The most decorated battleship of World War II, the North Carolina took part in every major campaign in the Pacific Theater.
Completed in 1940, the USS Drum was the first of the Gato-class submarines which, along with the similar Balao- and Tench-class subs, were America’s first modern, mass-production submarines. The Drum and the rest of the Gatos earned the lion’s share of the kills in the Pacific during World War II. They represented the bulk of America’s submarine fleet during the war and were the primary drivers of the destruction of the Imperial Japanese Navy and merchant marine.
The USS Niblack is credited with launching the first hostile engagement between the U.S. and Germany during World War II. In April 1941—eight months before Pearl Harbor—the Gleaves-class destroyer was rescuing survivors of an international merchant ship that had been torpedoed. It detected a German U-boat below and attacked it with depth charges, driving the submarine off.
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Like so many of the great American naval warships, the USS Arizona currently serves as an educational museum, but it does so from its watery grave under the Pacific Ocean in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. The last of the Pennsylvania-class super-dreadnought battleships, the Arizona was a World War I-era vessel that was transferred to Pearl Harbor as part of a move to deter Japanese aggression—it didn’t work. On Dec. 7, 1941—one of the most consequential dates in the history of the Navy and the country—Japanese torpedo bombers destroyed and sank the Arizona, killing 1,177 crewmen and officers.
Unknown // Wikimedia Commons
Commissioned in 1942, the light cruiser Juneau was sunk during the Battle of Guadalcanal that same year, killing 687 men, among them five siblings known as the Sullivan brothers. The brothers—George, Francis, Joseph, Madison, and Albert—enlisted on the condition that they’d be allowed to serve together, which the Navy agreed to despite a loosely enforced policy of separating siblings. After the incident, the military enacted policies to prevent more than one person from the same family from being killed in action and eventually named two destroyers USS The Sullivans in the brothers’ honor.
Unknown // Wikimedia Commons
USS St. Lo
Commissioned in 1943, the USS St. Lo holds a grim place in the history of American naval warfare. On Oct. 25, 1944, during the battle of Leyte Gulf, the escort carrier became the first major warship to be sunk by one of the most terrifying weapons ever unleashed on World War II sailors. During a fierce engagement with the Shikishima Special Attack Unit, Japan unleashed its first kamikaze suicide squads, whose pilots intentionally crashed their explosives-laden planes into the St. Lo, killing nearly 800 men.
U.S. Navy photo // Wikimedia Commons
Seventy-five years after it sank to the bottom of the Philippine Sea, the USS Indianapolis still embodies the potential horrors that human beings face when they take to the sea in floating vessels. On its way back from delivering the uranium core of the Hiroshima bomb to an island base, it was attacked by Japanese torpedoes. The Indianapolis sank in 12 minutes, taking 300 men down with it and casting nearly 900 more into the sea, many of them badly injured. The mission was so secret that the Navy didn’t even know the ship had sank for four days, when 316 survivors were rescued—the rest were lost to the torments of exposure, dehydration, saltwater poisoning, psychological breakdown, and most infamously, being eaten alive by the sharks that terrorized and slaughtered them throughout their ordeal. It remains the worst sea disaster in the history of the U.S. Navy.
MPI // Getty Images
In the early morning of Sunday, Sept. 2, 1945, the Japanese surrendered to the United States and its allies, finally bringing an end to World War II, the deadliest conflict in the history of human civilization. The moment took place on the deck of the USS Missouri, the last battleship ever commissioned by the United States and one of the longest-serving ships in Navy history. It remained active for nearly half a century, providing fire support during Operation Desert Storm before being decommissioned in 1992.
Bettmann // Getty Images
Although it was built in record time, the USS Midway—named after the famous 1942 battle—missed action in World War II by a single week. After entering service in 1945, it remained the biggest ship in the world for a decade and endures as the longest-active aircraft carrier in history—like the Missouri, it saw action in the Gulf War and wasn’t decommissioned until 1992. It was the only ship ever to launch a German V-2 rocket, a moment that is remembered as the start of the era of naval missile warfare.
Bettmann // Getty Images
Just six years after the U.S. unleashed the first atomic bomb on Hiroshima—thanks in part to a crucial delivery by the USS Indianapolis—Congress authorized the construction of the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine. Christened by first lady Mamie Eisenhower in 1954, the USS Nautilus was enormous compared to the submarines that came before, it could remain submerged almost indefinitely, it was silent, incredibly fast, and had the most modern weapons systems of any attack submarine in the ocean.
H. Armstrong Roberts // Getty Images
USS George Washington
The modern “secure submarine” nuclear deterrent relies on a fleet of subs that can strike at least a dozen cities a continent away with nuclear warheads if any nuclear-armed nation were to launch its own missiles first. That nuclear security blanket—which guaranteed mutual destruction—began in 1960 with the Skipjack-class nuclear attack submarine USS George Washington, America’s first ballistic missile submarine. With room for 16 Polaris ballistic missiles, the sub—and all those in its class—could deliver nuclear warheads to any target within 1,000 miles at a moment’s notice.
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The eighth Navy vessel bearing the name USS Enterprise entered service in 1961 at the height of the Cold War arms race. The world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, it completed 25 deployments during 51 years of service before being decommissioned in 2012. It remains the longest naval vessel ever built.
U.S. Navy // Wikimedia Commons
USS Iwo Jima
1961 also saw the commission of the Navy’s first amphibious assault ship, the USS Iwo Jima. Unlike aircraft carriers, which support fixed-wing strike aircraft, amphibious assault ships are designed to disembark ground forces—particularly Marines—for amphibious assaults and support them via the helicopters they host. This strategic concept would come to define the Vietnam War.
Universal History Archive // Getty Images
Commissioned in 1975, the USS Nimitz is the flagship in its class of supercarriers, which is not an official Navy designation, but a popular term for the largest aircraft carriers that serve as seagoing airbases. The Nimitz, which was quarantined due to an outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States in 2020, is the oldest aircraft carrier in service and will soon be replaced by the USS Gerald R. Ford.
U.S. Navy // Wikimedia Commons
USS Los Angeles
“The Hunt for Red October” is a work of fiction, but the Los Angeles-class submarines made famous by author Tom Clancy are very real—and their flagship is the USS Los Angeles. First commissioned in 1976, these nuclear-powered, fast-attack submarines proved useful long after the end of the Cold War for which they were designed. Los Angeles-class subs “are the backbone of the U.S. Navy’s submarine force,” according to Military.com, and more of them are active today than any other class of nuclear-powered submarines on Earth.
U.S. Navy // Getty Images
Although the terrorist group had launched several high-profile attacks during the 1990s, the October 2000 suicide bombing of the USS Cole was the first time many Americans had ever heard of al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden. Terrorists rammed a small, explosives-laden boat into the guided-missile destroyer while it was refueling in Yemen, killing 17 American sailors. Al-Qaida launched a series of worldwide terrorist attacks over the course of the preceding decade, growing more sophisticated, more emboldened, and deadlier each time, finally culminating in the September 11 attacks less than one year after the bombing of the Cole.
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Commissioned in 2005 and still in service today, the guided-missile destroyer USS Bainbridge is most famous for fighting something that would have been all too familiar to the War of 1812 Navy hero after which it’s named: pirates. In 2009, a small crew of Somali pirates hijacked the U.S.-flagged freighter MV Maersk Alabama and kidnapped its captain, Richard Phillips, who was portrayed by Tom Hanks in the 2013 action-thriller “Captain Phillips.” It was the Bainbridge that tracked the pirates and deployed the Navy SEALs who eventually resolved the situation with rifles.
U.S. Navy/General Dynamics Bath Iron Works // Getty Images
Commissioned in 2016, the USS Zumwalt is the flagship of the Zumwalt class of guided missile destroyers that are known for their futuristic look and sharply angled profiles—but that’s not just for aesthetics. Its unique shape is at the heart of its stealth capabilities—despite their enormous size, Zumwalts have the profile of a fishing boat on radar. A remarkably steady ship, both its hull and bow are designed to pierce water and slice through waves.
U.S. Navy // Getty Images
USS Gerald Ford
Launched in 2013 to replace the legendary Enterprise nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford is not only the largest aircraft carrier on Earth, but in terms of displacement, it’s the largest warship ever built in the history of the world. It is currently undergoing testing and inspection and its first deployment is planned for 2022.
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