Although the Revolutionary War had virtually eliminated the merchant fleet of the 13 colonies, the new country started life with a very important maritime asset -- a shipbuilding industry that consisted of hundreds of small yards dotting the coast from Maine to Georgia, manned by skilled craftsmen and backed up by the most abundant and easily accessible supplies of shipbuilding timber in the world. Colonial shipbuilders had been furnishing not only colonial-owned tonnage but also English tonnage. Out of a total of 600,000 gross tons of British-owned tonnage in the 1770's, 210,000 tons had been constructed in the colonies, most of it in North America.
Soon after the war was over, an American merchant fleet was again at sea. The years from 1800 to 1840 have been called the "most glorious period in American maritime history." Throughout these four decades, American ships carried 90 percent or more of the country's imports and exports. During the next two decades, American-owned bottoms carried a decreasing proportion of the nation's trade, but in 1860, only two countries, Great Britain and the United States, owned large merchant marines. Britain's fleet of 5.7 million gross tons was slightly larger than the American fleet of 5.3 million tons, but the greater speed and carrying capacity of American ships more than compensated for the difference in tonnage.