The History of the United States Navy

The History of the United States Navy


From its inception, the United States has been a maritime nation. Ever since the first use of sea power during the American Revolution, the growth, the trajectory, and the international standing of the United States has been deeply tied to its maritime role and its naval forces.

The United States Navy has played a vital role both in resolving conflicts and in peacekeeping, spanning the entire history of the United States—from subduing piracy in the 18th century to action in the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, the Spanish-American War, two World Wars, and the Vietnam War, as well as more recent international crises, and its longstanding work in ensuring maritime freedom across the globe.

Today, the US Navy, the world’s most powerful naval force, remains a critical tool of American foreign policy, and a key player in preserving geopolitical stability throughout the world, as well as maintaining the security of the United States and its allies.

For these reasons and more, the story of the United States Navy offers essential perspectives on how the United States came to be, the unfolding of its history, the experiment of American democracy, and the nation’s transformation into a global superpower. Beyond all of this, the history of the US Navy is a spellbinding and deeply poignant human story—a chronicle of extraordinary commitment, ingenuity, valor, sacrifice, and patriotism, spanning the 250 years of its existence.

In The History of the United States Navy, you’ll relive the extraordinary saga of America’s naval forces, from the first naval shipbuilding on Lake Champlain in 1775 to the present age of nuclear-armed submarines. These 24 lectures unfurl a huge and multifaceted historical narrative, following the emergence of the US Navy from a fledgling naval force to the greatest maritime power in world history, unfolding over four centuries and mirroring the rise and development of the United States. Your guide is Professor Craig L. Symonds of the US Naval Academy, a celebrated maritime historian and favorite Great Courses lecturer, who brings to the table an astonishingly detailed and far-reaching knowledge of US naval history, coupled with a flair for engrossing storytelling.

An Epic Story of Enterprise and Endurance

Among many noteworthy features of US naval history, you’ll discover that:

  • By the 1830s, the US Navy had forged a global presence, through standing naval squadrons in the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, the coasts of Africa and Brazil, and the East Indies;
  • In its first decades, the US Navy endured tremendous controversy over its very existence, by “navalist” versus “anti-navalist” factions within the United States;
  • The submarine, now a core element of naval forces worldwide, was developed by the Confederate states during the Civil War;
  • A US naval fleet commanded by Commodore Matthew C. Perry opened Japan to trade with the West in 1853, ending centuries of Japanese isolationism; and
  • In the Second World War, the US Navy grew to the almost unimaginable size of 6,000+ warships, mounting massive naval campaigns simultaneously on opposite sides of the world, and playing a vital role in the Allied victory.

Across the course, you’ll follow the evolution of naval technology, from the Age of Sail to the nuclear era. You’ll observe how naval warfare changed with the technology and the times. And you’ll witness how pivotal US naval engagements were fought, in moments such as the battle of Manila Bay in the Spanish-American War, the monumental World War II battle of Saipan, and the game-changing assault on Incheon in the Korean War.

Professor Symonds brings memorable depth and perspective to the story through compelling commentary on the Navy’s tragedies, as well as its triumphs; key naval reforms; and blemishes on the Navy’s record, such as racial and gender discrimination. The result is a rich and multidimensional panorama of naval history, profiling the US Navy’s integral role in the nation’s unfolding.

Landmarks of Naval Technology, Strategy, and Engagement

Ranging across the centuries, the lectures present an in-depth view of the operations of the Navy, encompassing subject matter such as:

  • American Sea Power and Firepower. As a key feature of the story, track the unfolding development of the warships and armaments which defined naval warfare in each era, from the 18th century “ships of the line” and frigates and the 19th century’s ironclads, steam warships, and battleships to the destroyers, aircraft carriers, submarines, and nuclear-powered vessels of modern times.
  • A New Nation on the High Seas. Early in the course, visualize the colorful and dramatic exploits of the young US Navy as it established global reach; study the events of the Navy’s actions against piracy in Algiers and Tripoli and the “Quasi war” against France in the Caribbean; and chart the Navy’s great expedition circumnavigating the globe from 1838 to 1842, in search of new land masses, fauna, and flora.
  • Naval Conquests of the Civil War. Delve into significant naval advances and engagements during this historic conflict, including the advent of ironclad and steam-powered warships, as well as major new weaponry; study the famous battle of the USS Monitor and the USS Merrimack, the first ironclads; US naval action against Confederate river defenses; and major naval campaigns at Charleston, South Carolina, and other strategic Confederate forts.
  • The 19th Century: On the World Stage. Witness the transformation of the US Navy in the late 19th century—its modernization and major expansion as a crisis-ready standing fleet. See how the US Navy emerged as a global naval power during the Spanish-American War; mark the age of the battleship as the premier naval warship; and gauge the Navy’s role in American diplomacy in the midst of a worldwide naval arms race.
  • The US Navy in World War II. Across four lectures, survey the massive role of the US Navy in the Second World War. Take the measure of aircraft carrier warfare, which dominated the Navy’s wartime operations; study the major Allied effort to safeguard Britain’s maritime supply lines, and the Navy’s large-scale amphibious operations in Europe and Asia; and along the way, envision the events of the legendary battles of Midway, Guadalcanal, and D-Day.
  • The Cold War and Vietnam. With the advent of the Cold War, take account of sweeping changes in the Navy’s work, reflecting a new geopolitical climate. Chart the Navy’s integral work in nuclear deterrence, through its submarine forces. Study the role of the Navy and Marines in the Korean conflict. Study the Navy’s response to political crises in the Mediterranean, Asia, and Cuba, and its critical operations throughout the Vietnam War.
  • The Navy in Today’s World. Over recent decades, study the Navy’s spectrum of operations within a precarious political environment. Delve into key naval incidents in the Middle East and the Navy’s actions in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Learn about its core peacetime work in combatting piracy and the drug trade, providing humanitarian aid, safeguarding endangered ships, and more.

A Force to Reckon With

The course concludes with a penetrating look at China’s current naval buildup and the issues and frictions that characterize China’s territorial claims to Taiwan and other islands within Asian waters. Professor Symonds incisively highlights the perils the US Navy faces in its current roles and the challenges of administering great naval power in the contemporary world.

You’ll also keep track of the extraordinary technology that undergirds the Navy’s work in the modern era, such as highly sophisticated “smart bombs” and missiles; the “C-wiz,” a shipboard missile defense system; and the nuclear-powered USS Gerald R. Ford, the largest warship ever built.

Brimming with historical detail and compelling insights, the 24 lectures of The History of the United States Navy offer you an unforgettable view into a core element of American history and experience.

Released 8/2023

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