At the end of 2017, the American aircraft carrier Ranger (CV-61) was finally scrapped, having been out of commission for over twenty years. She was one of the first of the post-war super carriers built for the US Navy, and served throughout the Vietnam War as well as the first Gulf War. She also featured in a number of films, including Top Gun. But this elderly flat top was just the latest of a number of American ships to carry the Ranger name, a tradition which began with an altogether more diminutive vessel.
The first Ranger was launched in 1777, at the very birth of the United States, and was an 18 gun sloop of war. She may have had a displacement that was about a 250th of that of CV-61, but she proved that size need be no bar to being effective. At the time the Royal Navy was comfortably the most powerful in the world, and was far too large to be challenged by the few small ships available to the American rebels. Rather than challenge the might of their opponent’s fleet directly, the Ranger, under her resourceful Captain John Paul Jones, embarked on a two year campaign of commerce raiding.
The newly built Ranger left on a diplomatic mission to France in November 1777, when she was sent to bring the news of the rebel victory at Saratoga. This would prove very helpful to Benjamin Franklin in his mission to persuade the French to enter the war on the rebel side. During the crossing two British merchantmen were captured, and sold as prizes in France. Having delivered her dispatches and resupplied, the sloop left France in the spring, heading for British coastal waters. Two more British prizes were taken before the Ranger appeared off the small Cumbrian trading port of Whitehaven.
It was an area that Captain Jones knew well. He was originally from South West Scotland, and he had started his maritime career as a thirteen year old on ships based in Whitehaven that traded with the ports of the Americas. Approaching the port in the dead of night, he succeeded in landing his men unobserved, and first spiked the cannon in the batteries that protected the port. Then he and his men advanced stealthily to set fire to the two hundred ships and boats in the harbour. Several fires were also started in the town, and these alerted the population to what was afoot. The raiders were driven off before all of the ships in Whitehaven could be destroyed, and took to their ship’s boats to escape. But before the impudent crew of the Ranger could get clear, the harbour guns were manned. It was at this point that the spiking of the cannon was discovered, and thanks to Captain Jones’s foresight, his crew escaped unharmed.
Next the Ranger raided St. Mary's Isle, across the bay from Whitehaven in Scotland, in the hope of kidnapping the Earl of Selkirk. Regrettably the Scottish nobleman was absent at the time, but in a bizarre example of 18th century courtesy, Captain Jones and his men were entertained to dinner by the Earl’s wife and young son. Leaving Scotland, the sloop crossed the Irish sea to Carrickfergus, where Jones had learnt that the 14 gun British armed brig, the Drake lay at anchor. In a battle of about an hour, the Ranger defeated her smaller Royal Navy opponent. The capture of the Drake was one of the American Navy's few significant military victories during the War of Independence, and had great significance in helping sustain the revolution.
By now the hunt was on for the Ranger, with Royal Navy cruisers closing in on the illusive little ship, and after being repaired at the French port of Brest, she returned across the Atlantic for home. This was no simple flight from danger, however. She still contrived to take a further three merchant vessels in the Atlantic. In 1778, under a new commander, her former Lieutenant Simpson, she joined a squadron of American raiders based in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, who were attacking British commerce in the North Atlantic. In a period of six months the three ships sent eight prizes into US ports with a total value of over a million dollars.
In 1780 the Ranger was despatched to Charleston to help the defenders who were under siege. It was here that the career of the little sloop finally came to an end. When the city fell to the British in May, the Ranger was trapped and forced to surrender. But the heroics of the first USS Ranger was to live on, in the seven subsequent American warships to bear her name, ending, for now, with the aircraft carrier scrapped last year.