“The maintenance of a merchant marine is of the utmost importance for national defense and the service of our commerce.” President Calvin Coolidge
“In peacetime, the U.S. Merchant Marine includes all of the privately owned and operated vessels flying the American flag – passenger ships, freighters, tankers, tugs, and a wide miscellany of other craft. Merchant Marine vessels ply the high seas, the Great Lakes, and the inland waters, such as the Chesapeake Bay and navigable rivers.” Heroes in Dungarees by John Bunker
During the colonial period, businessmen and legislators realized that prosperity was connected to trade. The more shipment of imports and exports through colonial ports the more money there was to be made. Carrying American produced goods to market in American made and managed ships kept the money in American pockets. Formation of the United States Merchant Marine is dated to 1775 when citizens at Machias, Massachusetts (now Maine) seized the British schooner HMS Margaretta in response to receiving word of the Battles of Lexington and Concord.
After the Revolutionary War American ships were no longer under the protection of the British empire. The new nation offered incentives for goods to be moved on American ships. Wars on the European continent turned attention away from American activity as U.S. ships opened up new trade routes in the early Federal period. The Empress of China reached China in 1784, the first U.S. registered ship to do so. American shipping and shipbuilding flourished in the early 1800s.
The years between the War of 1812 and the Civil War saw the development of canal systems connect the western interior with seaport markets. “Those years saw the merchant marine rise to its zenith in terms of the percentage of American trade carried. Only in the aftermaths of World Wars I and II would its percentage of world tonnage stand as high.” America's Maritime Legacy by Robert A. Kilmarx
Sail powered packet ships, carrying passengers, pushed their crews hard. There was money to be made in quick passages across to Europe and back. Clipper ships also relied on speed as they carried high value cargoes of silk, spices and tea across the Pacific and the slave trade across the Atlantic.
The hybrid sailing ship/sidewheeler steamer Savannah’s 1819 Atlantic crossing, the first with a steam powered engine, signaled the start of the transition from sail to steam. The May 22 date for National Maritime Day commemorates the day Savannah set sail from Savannah, Georgia to England. The Savannah transported both passengers and cargo. More information about the SS Savannah is here:
Restoration of the merchant marine after the disruption of the Civil War was a national political issue in 1872. The Republican party advocated adopting measures to restore American commerce and shipbuilding. Mail packets, carrying mail around the world were active in this period. Financial scandals were associated with mail packet contracts. Training sailors in an academic setting began in the last quarter of the 1800s, predecessors of the present day Maritime Academies. The period between the end of the Civil War in 1865 and the European outbreak of World War I was a dynamic time for shipping. American raw materials and agricultural products were shipped to world markets and products from those markets received and used by American industries.
John Bunker writes: “When we entered the war, the Merchant Marine, although still privately owned, came under government control. The men who sailed the ships were civilians, but they also were under government control and subject to disciplinary action by the U.S. Coast Guard and, when overseas, by local U.S. military authorities. Compared with soldiers and sailors, merchant seaman had much more freedom of movement. After completing a voyage, they could usually leave a ship but had to join another vessel within a reasonable period of time or be drafted into the U.S. Armed Forces. There was no uniform required for merchant seamen. Some officers wore uniforms; many did not. During the war, merchant ships were operated by some forty steamship companies, and the War Shipping Administration assigned new ships to them as they were completed. A total of 733 U.S.-flag merchant ships were lost during World War II. More than 6,000 merchant seamen died as the result of enemy action.”p12
U.S. Maritime Service personnel operated the 2,700 Liberty ships during World War II. The U.S. Maritime Service was the only service at the time with African American crew members serving in every capacity aboard ship. Seventeen Liberty Ships were named for African-Americans. Approximately 10%, 24,000, African Americans served in the Merchant Marine during World War II.
During World War II the U.S. Merchant Marines moved war personnel and material under conditions shown above.
The American Merchant Mariner’s memorial in Battery Park, New York City reads: "This memorial serves as a marker for America’s merchant mariners resting in the unmarked ocean depths." Poignantly the sailor in the water is covered twice a day at high tide. Installed in 1991 by sculptor Marisol Escobar designed based on a photo of the sinking of the SS Muskogee by German U-boat 123 on March 22nd, 1942. The photo was taken by the U-boat captain. The American crew all died at sea.
Merchant mariners who served in World War II were denied veterans recognition and benefits including the GI Bill. This despite having suffered a per capita casualty rate greater then those of the U.S. Armed Forces. In 1988 a federal court order granted veteran status to merchant mariners who participated in World War II.
On May 31, 1993, the Hudson River Maritime Museum received a brass plaque reading: “The United States Merchant Marine. This plaque is dedicated in memory of those who served in the U.S. Merchant Marine during W.W. II and in particular to those who did not survive “The Battle of the Atlantic”. Their dedication, deeds and sacrifices while transporting war material to the war shared their sacrifices and final victory, we, their surviving shipmates dedicate this memorial with the promise that they shall not be forgotten. Died 6,834. Wounded 11,000. Ship Sunk 833. P.O.W. 604. Died in Prisoner of War Camps 61. American Merchant Marine Veterans – May 31, 1993.”
Today, the Maritime Administration (MARAD) is the Department of Transportation agency responsible for the U.S. waterborne transportation system. Founded in 1950 the mission of MARAD is to foster, promote and develop the maritime industry of the United States to meet the nation’s economic and security needs. MARAD maintains the Ready Reserve Fleet, a fleet of cargo ships in reserve to provide surge sea-lift during war and national emergencies. A predecessor of the RRF, the Hudson River Reserve Fleet of World War II ships, popularly referred to as the Ghost Fleet, was in the Jones Point area from 1946 to 1971. More about the Maritime Administration including a Vessel History Database can be found here: https://www.maritime.dot.gov/
United States Merchant Marine Training
Modern day training of merchant marines is held at seven academies, two of which U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and SUNY Maritime College, are in New York State.
The U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, Kings Point, NY (USMMA) is one of the five United States service academies. When the academy was dedicated on 30 September 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, noted "the Academy serves the Merchant Marine as West Point serves the Army and Annapolis the Navy."
USMMA graduates earn:
USMMA graduates fulfill their service obligations on their own, providing annual proof of employment in a wide variety of MARAD approved occupations. Either as active duty officers in any branch of the military or uniformed services, including the Public Health Service and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration or entering the civilian work force in the maritime industry.
State-supported maritime colleges:
There are six state-supported maritime colleges. These graduates earn appropriate licenses from the U.S. Coast Guard and/or U.S. Merchant Marine. They have the opportunity to participate in a commissioning program, but do not receive an immediate commission as an Officer within a service.
More information about the U.S. Merchant Marines can be found here:
Thank you to John Phelan, HRMM Wooden Boat School Coordinator and Dock Master for suggesting this blog post topic. John graduated from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and held the title of Chief Mate working on product tankers for a major oil corporation during his years at sea.
Carla Lesh, Ph.D. is Collections Manager and Digital Archivist at Hudson River Maritime Museum.
If you enjoyed this post and would like to support more history blog content, please make a donation to the Hudson River Maritime Museum or become a member today!
This blog is written by Hudson River Maritime Museum staff, volunteers and guest contributors.
Hudson River Maritime Museum
50 Rondout Landing
Kingston, NY 12401
The Hudson River Maritime Museum is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation and interpretation of the maritime history of the Hudson River, its tributaries, and related industries.
Become a member and receive benefits like unlimited free museum admission, discounts on classes, programs, and in the museum store, plus invitations to members-only events.
The Hudson River Maritime Museum receives no federal, state, or municipal funding except through competitive, project-based grants. Your donation helps support our mission of education and preservation.