John Manley (c.1733–1793) was an officer in the Continental Navy and the United States Navy.
Tradition holds that John Manley was born in 1733 near Torquay, Devonshire, in south west England. As a young man, he settled in Marblehead, Massachusetts, eventually becoming the captain of a merchant vessel there. For reasons apparently lost to history, Manley went by the name of John Russell during his time spent in Marblehead, where he married Martha Russell (née Hickman) on September 27, 1764, and by whom he had at least two sons and three daughters. According to his descendants, the reason for two different last names is because he was the illegitimate child of his mother Elizabeth Manley and the Duke of Bedford whose last name was Russell. Outside of Marblehead, John continued to use the surname Manley. Modern fiction writer James L. Nelson acknowledges the above accounts, but suggests that they were “made up”, and that in actuality Manley was likely born and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, where he later became a merchant sea captain and married Hannah Cheevers in 1763, by which he had one surviving son John. All of the sources place Manley in Boston by 1775 after his services were enlisted for the nascent Continental Navy.
Manley was appointed captain of the schooner Lee by George Washington on 17 October 1775. He assumed command on 24 October 1775 with a crew of 50 men from John Glover’s Marblehead Regiment, and on 9 November, Manley sailed from Marblehead flying the new pine tree flag from the main truck. Sources differ as to Manley’s first prize, either recapturing a small Continental schooner or capturing the British sloop Polly, but on 28 November, he captured one of the most valuable prizes of the American Revolutionary War — the British brigantine Nancy carrying much ordnance and military stores for British troops in Boston that proved invaluable to George Washington’s army. While not the first British vessel to surrender to the continental fleet, the Nancy was perhaps the first capture of significant consequence, leading John Adams to later remark “I assert that the first American flag was hoisted by John Manley, and the first British flag was struck to him”. Through the end of 1775, Manley captured several additional prizes carrying cargos of food, rum, coal, dry goods, all badly needed by the Continental forces.
In January 1776, for his “great vigilance and industry,” Manley was appointed commodore of “George Washington’s fleet”, a group of small armed ships fitted out by him to harass the British and to seize supply vessels, and transferred to the faster sailing vessel Hancock. He sailed in the sloop Hancock and her replacement the frigate Hancock until the latter and her prize, HMS frigate Fox, were taken in July 1777. Imprisoned in New York until March 1778, he then entered privateer service to command Marlborough, Cumberland, and a prize, Jason, until 1782, except for two more periods of imprisonment, one for two years in Mill Prison, England. His privateer ship Jason was a small ship of 18 guns owned by Mungo Mackay and others.
On 11 September 1782, he returned to the Navy with command of frigate Hague. On a West Indies voyage, he made a spectacular escape from a superior naval force and, in January 1783, took the last significant prize of the war, Baille. Regarded as one of the outstanding captains of the young Navy, he had captured 10 prizes singlehandedly and participated in the seizure of five others.
Captain Manley died in Boston, Massachusetts in 1793.
Three ships have been named USS Manley for him.