Naval Documents of the American Revolution, Vol. 13

On a scale of 1 (fie!) to 10 (huzza!)


Naval Documents of the American Revolution, Volume 13, edited by Michael J. Crawford. (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office (GPO), 2019. A pdf copy is available for free from the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC) website,

Naval Documents of the American Revolution is a thirteen-volume (and counting) anthology of extracts from American, British, French, and Spanish diaries, letters, petitions, and ships’ logs, as well as muster rolls, orders, official reports, and newspaper accounts relating to naval warfare in the American Revolution. Each volume has more than one thousand document transcripts with annotations and source notes that indicate where the original documents are held.

Volume 13 is the first to appear since 2013 and follows the same style and editing principles as previous volumes. This volume adds American Theater documents, June 1, 1778 to August 15, 1778; and European Theater documents for the same timeframe, to the published record. The material is presented chronologically. When I first started researching the American Revolution in the late 1990s only nine volumes were in print with coverage through September 1777. Thirty years and four volumes later the time horizon has been extended approximately eleven months to August 15, 1778. Complete coverage for the war through the definitive treaty of peace in 1783 won’t happen in my lifetime but the Naval History and Heritage Command seems determined to complete it.

While focused on things naval it goes beyond naval matters in its coverage. I keep unearthing things I never expected to find. Any event that involved watercraft in any way is liable to be mentioned, as is any person who set foot on a ship or had a say in the financing, outfitting or operation of a vessel. There’s no telling what you might find in these volumes until you look, and look carefully.

The period covered in volume 13 is dominated by the imminent arrival of a French fleet under Admiral D’Estaing on the east coast that affected both American and British planners and logisticians. The British withdrew out of Philadelphia andconcentrated in New York, a logical destination for the French fleet. Problems with the large French vessels operating in shallow New York harbor led to a change of venue to Rhode Island. The chess game between admirals Lord Howe and Comte D’Estaing and their fleets plus the vagaries of the weather and its effects on both fleets make interesting reading. Elsewhere the Continental advance into East Florida grinds to a halt before our eyes.

Since everything in Volume 13 is tied to the date that it was written, the time lag between generation and receipt is absent. We many times forget that the recipient didn’t know a document’s contents until days or weeks later and couldn’t act on it immediately, or the content was no longer relevant due to the passage of time. We nonetheless see events unfold as writers experienced them, whether in the form of entries in logbooks, receipts and records of political bodies, letters and diaries of participants, or what have you.

Who should buy this volume? Nobody! The free pdf editions available at the link above provide a much better research tool. They are computer searchable and allow the researcher to take notes, highlight, etc. right on the pdf. With the proper programs you can copy text to your word processor or database tool. The Naval Historical Foundation, in collaboration with others, has a website ( with a search engine that allows searching the full set of volumes (although at this writing, volume 13 is not yet included). The ten print volumes I own, on the other hand, take up thirty inches of bookshelf and weigh close to forty pounds in aggregate. Volume 13 adds over four more pounds.

Who should use this volume? Everyone! Researchers new to the Revolution will find it an excellent way to get an overview of what exists at libraries and historical societies. Experienced researchers will find that the breadth of coverage will bring to light things on the periphery of their research. As an American researcher without strong grounding in foreign languages I have found it useful for exploring French and Spanish materials. Both the original and a translation are provided. Writers looking for a story to tell will find innumerable events and incidents that they hadn’t been aware of, often with enough primary sources in these volumes alone.

I heartily recommend Volume 13 and the rest of Naval Documents of the American Revolution as a source.

More from John K. Robertson

The Organization of the Rhode Island Militia 1774–1783

The organization of the Militia in colonial Rhode Island[1] was established by...
Read More


  • I find this series frustrating. The first volume was published 55 years ago and it is still not halfway through the Revolution. In my humble opinion it would be better to get this finished by the 250th anniversary – which is coming up very fast – even if it means skimming some obscure documents. At the rate it is being produced, the editor of the final volume has not been born yet.

  • Thank you for y our review and I think you are right to advise not to purchase this in book form. I have 10 of the volumes of this series and I expect that I will not be above ground by the time it is finished. But I do like the book series it is a wealth of information. I remember in the early 90’s I bought up to then the complete series from the US Government Printing Office and they came freight to my business. When I started opening them my dad stopped by and asked what they were and sat down and started reading them. He found an entry of an incident that happened right off the caps outside the very harbor we lived near in Long Island Sound. He and I sat there for the rest of the day reading them. In fact my dad read all of them cover to cover I think there were 8 volumes. I know they were not meant to be read like that and I bet he was the only one to do it.
    As an aside, the GPO did a series on the Naval Documents of the Quasi War with France and the Naval Documents of the Barbary Wars both series were published in the late 20’s though the 30’s. I have both complete series in my library but I doubt I will live to see this series complete.

  • While I can understand the advice not to purchase the hardcover volumes of this wonderful series, given that the content is available on line for free and in many ways is easier to use in that form, I’m very happy to have all thirteen volumes gracing my bookshelves (and have, in fact, read them cover to cover). They’re big, thick and heavy, and have the heft that one wants in an authoritative source. They look and feel impressive. True, the time between release of each volume is quite long, but when one imagines the effort in locating, transcribing, annotating and collating this quantity of material, and that it’s all being done by a government office entirely for our benefit – well, we can’t expect it to happen fast. It’s remarkable that it’s happening at all.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *