Archaeologists and historians will say that maritime history dates back “thousands” of years, citing evidence of sea trade between ancient civilizations and the discovery of pre-historic boats, such as dugout canoes developed somewhat independently by various stone age populations. Of course, fashioning out a handmade canoe and using it to cross a river may not exactly qualify as “maritime.” Nor should we conclude that Austronesian explorers qualified as a naval force, per se, but it was a start.
Egyptians had well-developed trade routes over the Red Sea to Arabia. Navigation was known to the Sumerians between 4,000-3,000 B.C., and it was the search for trade routes that led the world into the Age of Exploration and Discovery.
Minoan traders from Crete were active in the Mediterranean by 2,000 B.C., and the Phoenicians (ancient Lebanese) became a somewhat substantial maritime culture from around 2,500 to 64 B.C. What the ancient Syrians, Greeks, and Romans knew of sailing vessels, they learned from the Phoenicians. At least, that’s what we believe.
The Romans were an agricultural/land-based culture. There is evidence of a “warship” that carried a Roman ambassador to Delphi in 394 BC, but history’s first mention of a Roman navy didn’t occur until 311 B.C. In that year, citizens of Rome elected two men to serve as “naval officers,” charging them with creating and maintaining a fleet of ships. They were called Duumviri Navales (literally, “two men for dealing with naval matters). Each officer controlled twenty ships. There is some confusion, however, whether these officers exercised command over Roman ships or those of Roman allies. The ships were very likely triremes — a type of galley with three banks of oars (one man per oar).
Because Rome was a land-based culture, its primary defense and expansionist element was its land army. Maritime trade did become an important element of the Roman economy, but this trade involved privately owned ships who assumed the risk of losses at sea due to storms and pirates rather than “Roman flagged” vessels. When Rome did incorporate naval warships, they always served in a support role and as part of the Roman Army. Any career soldier today will tell you that’s the way it should be — but then this would be the same kind of soldier who thought it would be a good idea to use camels in the U.S. Cavalry.
Ships capable of survival at sea were always an expensive proposition, and comparatively speaking, there were never large numbers of people standing in line to go to sea. Men of the ancient world were always fearful of the sea (as they should be even now). To avoid the expense of building and maintaining ships, a Roman legate generally called upon Greeks to provide ships and crews whenever necessary to impose blockades.
It wasn’t until the Romans set their sights on Sicily in 265 BC that they realized that their land-based army needed the support of a fleet of ships to maintain a flow of supplies and communicate with the Roman Senate. This realization prompted the senate to approve the construction of 100 quinqueremes and 20 triremes in 261 B.C.  Note also that quinqueremes were referred to as “the fives” because the rowers were arranged in groups of five. The Romans arranged their ships’ company as centuries (100 men per ship). Contrary to Hollywood films, Roman crews, particularly the rowers, were seldom slaves. Roman crewmen were free-born citizens or provincials who signed on as rowers, artisans, riggers, or Marinus (Marines).
To the Marines (naval infantry) fell the task of defending their ship or assaulting an enemy vessel. This was accomplished by archers, followed by boarders armed with the Roman gladii (short sword). Thus, the primary tactical objective at sea was to board and seize enemy ships. What a fantastic experience that must have been. Boarding activities remained prevalent long after the advent of sailing ships, gunpowder, and massive cannon.
Naval Forces in the Middle Ages
Beginning sometime after 1300 rowed A.D. galleys were replaced by sailing ships armed with broadside-mounted cannons. It is impossible to over-emphasize the importance of this innovation because combining the striking power of massed artillery with shipboard Marines firing from the topsail rigging was an enormous leap forward in naval warfare. Equally significant, naval power became the means by which Europeans created and maintained their overseas empires.
However, early in the Elizabethan era, ships were thought of as little more than transport vehicles for troops. The goal then was to corral an enemy ship, storm it, and capture it. There was no value to sinking an enemy ship. A sea captain could sell a captured ship, its cargo, and occasionally, he could ransom passengers and crew or sell them into slavery.
Beginning in medieval times, the design of ships emphasized resistance to boarders. A ship’s aft and forecastle, for example, closely resembled towering fortresses bristling with archery and gun slits. Necessity being the mother of invention, maritime tactics evolved further when it became apparent that defeating the enemy would require “other means.”
The Royal Navy’s Articles of War
What the United States Navy knew about operations at sea it learned from the British Royal Navy, and if we are to understand how the Royal Navy became the world’s most formidable sea power, then we must look to the British Navy’s Articles of War. The Articles of War governed how men in uniform conducted themselves under almost every set of circumstances, including during combat.
To begin with, a British navy commander’s defeat at sea was never acceptable to either the sovereign, the admiralty, or to the Parliament. The commanding officer of a British warship must engage the enemy and defeat him, or he must die in the attempt — even if the British ship was “outclassed.” The standard applied to naval warfare in the 1700s and 1800s was that a British naval commander entrusted with the control of a warship should defeat an enemy ship twice as large as his own. Fighting the vessel was the British commander’s first critical mission; winning the fight was the second.
Article XII, Articles of War, 1749:
“ Every person in the Fleet, who through cowardice, negligence, or disaffection, shall in time of action withdraw or keep, or not come into the fight or engagement, or shall not to do his utmost to take or destroy every ship which it shall be his duty to engage, and to assist and relieve all and every of His Majesty’s Ships, or those of his allies, which it shall be his duty to assist and relieve, every such person so offending, and being convicted thereof the sentence of a court-martial, shall suffer death.”
Before 1749, British naval officers had demonstrated a tendency to refuse to engage the enemy if there was any possibility that the British ship would be lost. This behavior was, perhaps, caused in part by common sense and the fact that naval courts refused to inflict severe punishments on such officers. The Articles of War of 1661 allowed that losses at sea could result from the ill fortunes of nature, but Article XII ruled out all such excuses.
Nor was there, after 1749, a great deal of “special trust and confidence” in the fidelity and ability of British naval commanders. We know this because it was the duty of the ship’s First Lieutenant to maintain a log of his captain’s actions — he was the ship’s watchdog. If the First Lieutenant had formed a too-personal relationship with his captain, other lieutenants were encouraged to watch and record the actions of the First Lieutenant. The ship’s master also maintained a journal. The Royal Navy’s intent was clear: there would be no lying or “fudging” journals in His or Her Majesty’s navy.
Nothing was more motivational, however than case law.
The island of Minorca had been a British possession since 1708, captured during the War of Spanish Succession. In 1748, government cost-cutting measures reduced the Royal Navy to three ships of the line in the Mediterranean Sea. As the British sought to expand their territory in North America in 1754, hostilities broke out between the British and French (and their Indian allies), quickly spreading to British and French allies in Europe.
In 1755, France began the process of constructing twelve new warships. British diplomats warned the Home Office that France would soon be in a position to attack Minorca. Lord High Admiral George Anson, out of his concern of a possible French invasion of England, recalled the Mediterranean squadron and assigned them to patrol duties along England’s long coastline. The Royal Navy could not afford to lose three ships of the line.
On 11 March 1756, the British Admiralty ordered Admiral John Byng to raise a fleet of ten ships, proceed to Toulon to protect the British garrison at Port Mahon. However, only six ships were present in Portsmouth, and all of them were in a state of disrepair (not ready for sea). Moreover, none of those ships were fully manned. Admiral Byng, realizing that there was no money to repair the vessels or construct four additional ships and because no one in England was willing to enlist in the Royal Navy, struggled to find a solution to the problem. There were no solutions. Admiral Byng promptly protested his orders. What the Admiralty demanded of him was impossible to achieve.
The Admiralty eventually provided funds for ship repairs and instructed Byng to carry out his orders. When shipwrights informed Byng that repairs would take longer than expected, the Admiralty ordered Byng to outfit channel ships and proceed to Port Mahon in advance of his somewhat diminished fleet.
On 6 April, still short of men, the British army loaned the navy Colonel Robert Bertie’s fusilier regiment, enabling Admiral Byng to set sail from Portsmouth. While Byng was en route to Toulon, a fleet of French naval vessels escorted 1,000 tartanes and other transports carrying 15,000 French troops to the far western side of Minorca.
Upon his arrival at Gibraltar, Admiral Byng reported to the senior officer, Lieutenant General Thomas Fowke. In their meeting, Byng presented Fowke with a letter from the British Home Office instructing him to provide Admiral Byng with such troops as he may require toward completing his mission.
When Byng realized that the French had landed a large force of soldiers at Minorca, he requested a regiment of Royal Marines to bolster his forces. General Fowke refused. His refusal may have had some justification if, for example, providing the Marines would have reduced Fowke’s ability to defend the British garrison as Gibraltar. In any case, Admiral Byng’s problem was further complicated because the ship repair facility at Gibraltar was inadequate to the task of repairing his ships. Frustrated, Byng dispatched a terse note to the Admiralty explaining his situation and then, despite his dire circumstances, sailed toward Minorca to assess the situation first hand.
The Battle of Minorca was fought on 20 May 1756. Byng had gained the weather gauge and ordered a lasking maneuver but his lead ship, HMS Defiance, rather than steering directly toward the enemy’s front, took a course parallel to that of the French fleet — with HMS Portland, Buckingham, and Lancaster, following in trace. The delay in getting his ships back into the proper formation allowed the French to make the rest of the battle a running fight.
After a battle of around four hours in duration, the French successfully withdrew from Minorca with 38 dead seamen and 168 wounded. Admiral Byng suffered extensive damage to one ship and the loss of 43 sailors killed and 173 wounded. Still, Byng took up station near Minorca for four days. After holding a council of war with his captains, Admiral Byng decided to return to Gibraltar for repairs, arriving on 19 June.
Before Byng could return to sea, a ship arrived from England with dispatches. The Admiralty relieved Byng of his command, the Home Office relieved General Fowke of his command, and both men were ordered back to England to face court-martial charges.
Upon arrival in England, authorities took Byng and Fowke into custody; both men received courts-martial. The Home Office charged General Fowke with disobeying an order to support Byng with troops. The Admiralty charged Byng with violating Article XII, failing to do his duty against the enemy.
Admiral Byng’s court-martial resulted in an acquittal on the charge of cowardice, but he was found guilty of failing to exercise command of his fleet and failing to engage the enemy. He was sentenced to death by firing squad.
Admiral of the Fleet John Forbes, Lord Commissioner of the Admiralty, was the officer who defeated the French at the Battle of Toulon in 1744. It fell upon Forbes to sign Byng’s death warrant. Forbes refused to sign the warrant because he believed Byng’s sentence was excessive and illegal. King George II refused to grant clemency to Byng and further declined to approve Prime Minister William Pitt’s recommendation for commutation. Thus, on 14 March 1757, Admiral Byng was escorted to the quarterdeck of HMS Monarch and shot dead by a squad of Royal Marines.
Article XII established the standard for command responsibility, but Byng’s court-martial set the legal precedent: a commanding officer is responsible for the actions of his subordinates. If a junior officer runs the ship aground, the captain is responsible. If a ship’s commander fails to maneuver his vessel properly, his senior officer is responsible. If a captain fails to fight his ship, his admiral is responsible.
The American Navy
The power of Congress to regulate the Army and Navy was first established during the Second Continental Congress, which on 30 June 1775, legislated 69 Articles of War to govern the conduct of the Continental Army (which, at the time, also included the Navy). The Articles of War, 1775, were not identical to the Articles of War promulgated by Great Britain but quite similar. Congress retained this power in the U.S. Constitution, promulgated within Article I, section 8, stating, “It shall be the power of the Congress to make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces.”
On 10 April 1806, Congress enacted 101 Articles of War. These were not significantly revised until 1912 and remained in effect until 31 May 1951, when Congress developed and implemented the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ).
Notably, Article 52 of the Articles of War (1806) stated:
“Any officer or soldier, who shall misbehave himself before the enemy, run away, or shamefully abandon any fort, post, or guard, which he or they may be commanded to defend, or speak words inducing others to do the like, or shall cast away his arms and ammunition, or who shall quit his post or colours [sic] to plunder and pillage, every such offender, being duly convicted thereof, shall suffer death, or such other punishment as shall be ordered by the sentence of a general court-martial.”
About navy fighting formations
There were only a few fighting formations of a naval fleet under sail. Responsibility for selecting which formation (or variation) employed during a sea battle fell to the fleet admiral (or commodore): line ahead, line abreast, and line of bearing. The admiral also determined sailing order — first ship in line, second, and so forth. In establishing his combat formation, the fleet admiral would attempt to gain the weather gauge and signal his intent to subordinate commanders through signal flags.
The line ahead formation did not allow for concentration of fire because, for naval guns to be effective on a rolling platform, combatants had to close to 300 — 500 yards of the enemy. The most devastating assault came from raking fire, initiated either from the bow or stern where cannon shot would do the most damage by traveling the length of the enemy ship.
Admiral Horatio Nelson was the first British officer to break the line in 1797 and again in 1805. His instruction to his captains was, “No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of his enemy.” Breaking the enemy’s line disrupted the enemy’s cohesion and made it possible to overwhelm individual ships and seize them. Again, the primary aim of the battle formation was to board and capture the enemy’s ships.
Boarding Operations may be the world’s oldest example of naval warfare. The boarding of an enemy vessel, or a friendly one to capture it from pirates and other low vermin, is an example of up close and personal extremism — which more or less defines all close combat. To achieve cross-ship boarding, the offending vessel needed to sail alongside the enemy vessel and direct an assault onto the enemy vessel. The individuals performing this operation were sailors and Marines who were (and are) trained for such missions. In the days of sail, sailors performed the task when the attacking ship was too small for a detachment of Marines.
Armed with swords, cutlasses, pistols, muskets, boarding axes, pikes, and grenades, the boarding party attacked the enemy crew, beginning with the helmsman and officer of the watch, or the ship’s captain if present on the bridge, all gun crews, and any other crewman left alive. Again, the purpose of boarding operations was to seize the ship, which was always the intent of privateers and pirates — even today.
Captain John Paul Jones conducted a classic example of boarding operations during the American Revolution. Jones’ Marines assaulted HMS Serapis from the sinking USS Bonhomme Richard in 1779. Captain Jones’s boarding operation is exemplary because it was the only known fight during the Age of Sail when a ship’s captain captured an enemy ship while losing his own. In 1813, the British returned the compliment by boarding and seizing USS Chesapeake from HMS Shannon.
Boarding enemy ships was also the purpose of the “cutting out” operations during the Age of Sail. To “cut out” is to seize and carry off an enemy vessel while at anchor in a harbor or at sea. The operation would typically target a small warship (a brig, sloop, or a two-masted ship of fewer than 20 guns). Cutting out operations avoided larger ships because of the crew size (300 or so men).
A cutting-out party would generally include sailors and Marines who began the assault in the dark of night. For an example of a cutting-out operation, see also At the Heart of the Corps and the capture of the Sandwich during the Quasi-War with France.
Boarding operations are rare in modern times. U. S. Marines conducted their last boarding operation during the Mayaguez Incident in 1975, which involved a vertical assault from helicopters. Current operations may also involve small submarines and inflatable boats. The U.S. Coast Guard routinely incorporates boarding operations as part of its maritime drug interdiction operations.
A Final Note
While the Uniform Code of Military Justice is a massive improvement over the articles of war, severe penalties are still prescribed for certain crimes. The Manual for Courts-martial, Article 99 (Misbehavior Before the Enemy) includes, as offenses: (a) running away from a fight, (b) shamefully abandoning, surrendering, or delivering up any command, unit, place, or military property, which it is a duty to defend, (c) through disobedience, neglect, or intentional misconduct, endanger the safety of any command, unit, place, or military property, (d) casting away arms (weapons) or ammunition, (e) displaying cowardly conduct, (f) quitting one’s place of duty to plunder or pillage, (g) causing false alarms, (h) willfully failing to do one’s utmost to encounter, engage, capture, or destroy enemy troops, combatants, vessels, aircraft, or any other thing, which it is a serviceman’s duty to do, and/or (i) failing to afford all practicable relief and assistance to troops, combatants, vessels, or aircraft of the armed forces of the United States or their allies when engaged in battle. Any person found guilty of these offenses shall face a maximum punishment of death.
- Abbot, W. J. The Naval History of the United States. Collier Press, 1896.
- Bradford, J. C. Quarterdeck and Bridge: Two centuries of American Naval Leaders. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1955.
- McKee, C. A Gentlemanly and Honorable Profession: The Creation of the U. S. Naval Officer Corps, 1794-1815. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1991
- Rak, M. J., Captain, USN. The Quasi-War and the Origins of the Modern Navy and Marine Corps. Newport: U.S. Naval War College, 2020
- The Library of Congress, Military Legal Resources, online.
- Warming, R. An Introduction to Hand-to-Hand Combat at Sea: General Characteristics and Shipborne Tactics from 1210 BCE to 1600 CE. Academia College, 2019.
- Winthorpe, W. Military Law and Precedents. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1920.
- United States Constitution, Article I, section 8.
 The quinquereme was the more common Hellenistic-era warship, and the heaviest at that particular time. The Romans seized a Carthaginian ship, took it back to Rome, reverse-engineered it, and used it as a blueprint for Roman-made ships. The quinquereme had three to five banks of oars. The trireme had only three banks of oars but was much lighter and faster.
 Roman commanders of these ships were “Magistrates,” who knew nothing of sailing ships, but they were supported by lower-ranking officers who were seasoned sailors (most likely Greek seamen).
 Sinking ships as a naval strategy didn’t evolve until the mid-1800s when nations began building ironclad ships.
 In time, a ship’s captain would share the prize money with his crew as a reward for their victory at sea.
 The term “ship’s captain” is the traditional title of the person who serves in overall command of a ship. The naval rank of that person could be Lieutenant, Commander, or Captain — but no matter what his rank, he is called “Captain.” A ship’s master is the person who runs the ship (rather than commanding it). He is the most experienced seaman, and what he doesn’t know about running a ship isn’t worth knowing.
 One could understand this mindset in the British Army, where aristocrats bought and sold commissions. Under those conditions, there was never a guarantee that a colonel knew what the hell he was doing. The Royal Navy never sold commissions. All navy officers were promoted on merit.
 Channel ships (or Packet Ships) were medium-sized vessels designed to carry mail, passengers, and cargo. They were not suitable for sea battles with regular ships of the line.
 A fusil is a flintlock musket; a fusilier is someone who shoots a fusil. Also, musketeer or in modern parlance, a rifleman.
 A tartane was a small coastal trader/fishing vessel.
 Position of advantage in sea battles.
 A maneuver in which all ships turn into the enemy at once.
 King George II dismissed Fowke from the Army. King George III later reinstated him.
 Line-ahead battle formation (also, Ship of the line warfare) was a columnar formation developed in the mid-17th Century whereby each ship followed in the wake of the ship ahead at regular intervals. This formation maximized the firing power of the broadside and allowed for rapid “melee formation” or, if necessary, disengagement. Note that a ship of the line was of the largest (most formidable) fighting ship used in the line of battle (formation).