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Born Again Sailors

2009 December 7
There's a small tavern near Penn's Landing in Philadelphia, down by the museum's vintage World War II submarine and aging battleships, where the wall memorabilia makes it clear that this city is the birthplace of the United States Navy.

Hard by the waterfront in Beverly, Massachusetts, there's a sign that proclaims this small New England city north of Boston as the birthplace of the American Navy. A few miles farther south along the coast, in the seafaring town of Marblehead, Massachusetts, an altogether different sign serves up an identical message, Yes, indeed, Marblehead prides itself as-you guessed it-birthplace of the U.S. Navy.

And let us not ignore tiny Whitehall, New York., originally known as Skenesborough and sited at the bottom of Lake Champlain, which also describes itself as birthplace of the U.S. Navy, not to mention Providence, Rhode Island, or Machias, Maine, two other locations on the list of contenders.

Call me madcap, but it seems plausible that a person or thing can have only one place of birth. So which of these cradles should truly hold the title? Well, it all depends on where you go for the answer.

According to Charles Brodine, a historian with the Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington, D.C., it's important to trace the roots of the Continental Navy back to 11 critical days in October 1775, when the Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia authorized the construction of two sailing vessels, each armed with 10 carriage guns, a few swivel guns, and manned by crews of 80.

It was this historic decision on Oct. 13, 1775, made with the intent of battling the all-powerful Royal Navy at sea, that gives Philadelphia claim as the Navy's birthplace. As Brodine put it in an article entitled A Look at the Birth of the Continental Navy, before the year was out, lawmakers had authorized the purchase of six additional ships and 13 frigates, selected Esek Hopkins as fleet commander, commissioned 18 naval officers, created two Marine battalions, and adopted a code of discipline along with a slew of other rules and regulations.

When the American Revolutionary War was over, money-poor Congress sold the ships and disbanded the Continental Navy. It was a premature decision because six new frigates -- including the USS Constitution -- were built shortly after in 1794 by order of the fledgling War Department, which administered naval affairs until April 30, 1798 when Congress established the Department of the Navy.

Despite the events of 1798, the Navy's birthday remains Oct. 13, 1775, at least in the opinion of Admiral Elm R. Zumwalt, chief of naval operations, who in 1972 authorized its recognition.

Now all of this is fine and dandy if you're from Philadelphia, but it doesn't sit so well for the folks in Whitehall, New York, who contend that the Continental Army's fleet on Lake Champlain under the command of Benedict Arnold marked the nation's first naval action. In Machias, Maine, residents cite the seizing of the Royal Navy schooner Margaretta by a small sloop armed with woodsmen on June 12, 1775-a whopping four months before Congress gathered in Philadelphia to vote on a defense budget.

And then there's Marblehead and Beverly, port towns in the late 1700s known for fitting out and manning ships, including the small fleet of schooners that George Washington used in the fall and winter of 1775 to prey on British troop transports.

Marbleheaders are apt to note that in September 1775 they celebrated the commissioning of John Glover's Hannah, the first vessel outfitted with funds from the Continental Congress and commissioned to capture British supply ships, which the armed schooner did before the month was out. Once again, the launch of Hannah predates the historic meeting in Philadelphia.

To the chagrin of Marbleheaders, some of these early warships-including Hanna-actually sailed from Beverly, where their captured prizes were returned for sale and distributed to those in support of the rebellion. Such status has helped push Beverly toward the head of the line. After all, Hannah was the first ship commissioned by the fledgling military, outfitted at Glover's Wharf in Beverly, and first sailed from Beverly Harbor on Sept. 5, 1775.

For these reasons, Beverly calls itself the Birthplace of America's Navy. A drawing of the Hannah appears on the shoulder patch worn by the city's police department. And somewhere in all this mix is the claim by Providence, Rhode Island, that it, too, is the Navy's birthplace. The reasoning goes like this: Providence was home to the first cry to establish a navy. Rhode Island's delegates laid before the Continental Congress on October 3, 1775 a bold resolution to build and equip an American fleet with great haste-a full 10 days before Congress voted for the idea.

Any way you look at the birthright situation, it's a tough call. But if it comes down to visiting these places to gather information first hand, I'd suggest starting in Philadelphia. The cheesesteak subs are delicious.