Naval Conditions of the Revolution | Naval History


    About the author

    Gardner W. Allen
    Gardner W. Allen

    Gardner W. Allen (1856–1944) was an American naval historian known for his detailed studies of naval operations and ship histories. Allen’s most significant contribution is his work on American naval history, particularly during the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. His notable publications include “Our Navy and the Barbary Corsairs,” “Our Naval War with France,” and “The Naval History of the American Revolution.”



      In the study of so closely contested a struggle as the American Revolution, where even a comparatively trivial circumstance might have turned the scale, it is interesting to examine the factors which may have affected the result. In the events that took place on the sea perhaps many such factors will be found. Such conclusions regarding them as may be drawn from the preceding chapters, will be more clearly brought out if presented in the condensed form of a summary.

      Both the Americans and the British, while favored in some ways, were burdened with encumbrances of various sorts. The preponderance of the British naval forces in American waters during the early years of the war was so great that for the colonists in rebellion to overcome it was out of the question; annoyance only was possible. Their control of the sea was complete until challenged by the French in 1778. The British had much larger ships than the Americans, which meant that they not only carried more guns, but far heavier ones; the thirty-two-gun frigate was the largest we had in commission. Ship for ship also we were overmatched by the British with their ships more fully manned and their officers and men thoroughly trained. The raw material for their crews was certainly no better and probably not as good as that furnished by the fishermen and seafaring population of New England and other colonies, but the immense advantage of organization, of centuries of military discipline, of naval tradition and esprit de corps, was theirs.

      The British, however, were embarrassed with difficulties which in large degree offset their superiority in force. Operating in a hostile country, their naval stations, even those most securely and permanently held, as New York, were unable to furnish sufficient stores and supplies; and these necessities had to be brought from England, subject to capture by American cruisers and privateers and requiring the diversion of a considerable part of their armed force for convoy. Owing to the incompetency or indolence of some of the British fleet commanders, their available offensive force was used with less effect than might have been the case. Jealousy and quarrels among the admirals also contributed to this result. Official corruption in British dockyards and naval stations, defective organization, and the waste of money and supplies interfered seriously with efficient naval administration. The navy lost large numbers of men through desertion and death from disease. It will thus be seen that the circumstances surrounding the British navy during that period were sufficiently complicated. The entry of other powers into the conflict naturally increased very much the perplexities of England’s situation (See Channing, iii, 279-283, 340-342.)

      Turning to our own side, there was little to help out the slender resources of the Americans beyond the advantage of operating in home waters and along shores inhabited by a friendly people and of a general aptitude for the sea, no greater, however, than that of their adversaries. The poverty of the Continental government, if not of the country, precluded anything like a strong naval organization, and the weakness of Congress, together with lack of experience, made efficient administration practically impossible. For want of money and of available workmen the construction and repair of ships was painfully slow. On this account they were frequently kept idle in port months at a time, nearly a whole season, perhaps, while cruises planned for them were prevented, postponed, or only partially carried out. The obstacles encountered in manning the Continental ships were equal to those which hindered their fitting out. The needs of the army and the attractions of privateering, especially the latter, drew so heavily on the seafaring population that capable men for the regular naval service were scarce. The result was that after almost interminable delay a ship would be obliged to go to sea with a crew deficient both in numbers and in quality, made up of material in large part not only inferior, but sometimes dangerous, if, as was often the case, it included British prisoners who were willing to enlist. In such ships’ companies a mutinous spirit prevailed, with occasional serious effects. Furthermore the officers of the navy, while generally good seamen and not lacking in courage, were without military training, and thus apt to be deficient in martial qualities and incapable of rising to the occasion at critical moments. The responsibility of an independent command, even of a single vessel on an important service, was often too much for such men. It is hardly necessary to add, however, that there were some notable exceptions.

      As a consequence of these impediments the Americans never possessed a regular naval force capable of acting offensively against the enemy in any effective way. The Continental navy, therefore, naturally resorted to the readiest means of injuring the enemy, that is, by preying upon his commerce. The state navies and privateers were of course engaged in the same pursuit; and this, with convoy duty upon occasion, formed the chief occupation of the entire sea force, public and private, of the country. Engagements with regular British men-of-war were exceptional and commonly accidental.

      The futility of commerce destroying as a military measure of flrst importance has been pointed out by naval authorities. “It is doubtless a most important secondary operation of naval war, and is not likely to be abandoned till war itself shall cease; but regarded as a primary and fundamental measure, sufficient in itself to crush an enemy, it is probably a delusion.” (Mahan, 539. See also Proc. U. S. Naval Inst., xxiii (1897), 472.) The injury inflicted upon England, though large in the aggregate, was not disabling. Part of this predatory warfare consisted in the interception of the enemy’s transports, conveying troops and warlike supplies, which were a godsend to our army and the loss of which was severely felt by the British; this perhaps was of too nearly a military nature to be classed as ordinary commerce destroying. During the early years of the war especially, such captures were of the utmost value to the American cause.

      There were probably more than two thousand American vessels employed in privateering during the Revolution. Privateers accomplished much independently in scouring the sea, but were ill adapted for cruising in squadrons and failed in nearly all attempts at cooperation with regular ships or with each other. One half the men, money, and energy absorbed in privateering, if it could have been put into a strong, well-organized Continental navy, would have provided a force able to act offensively against the British navy to some purpose. The other half, devoted to privateering, would have been able to accomplish more in destroying commerce than all the privateers actually did, and would have suffered fewer losses, because of the protection afforded by a strong, regular navy against British cruisers. Speculating as to what might have been has a practical interest and value when a choice of alternatives depends upon an accident or train of circumstances which might have happened otherwise. In the case under discussion, however, the fundamental conditions were such as to put any such rearrangement of naval power as that suggested so entirely out of the question that there remains no room for regret on the score of mistakes which could have been rectified. It is necessary to look at the events of the past from the point of view of the time and the persons concerned. In this case the temperament of the people, private interests, the sentiment of local independence and fear of centralized military power, the lack of authority on the part of Congress, the hopelessness of raising the necessary money, are at once evident to the student of this period of our history. Privateering, moreover, was thoroughly believed in as a means of striking at the enemy’s vitals. Under the circumstances, therefore, it is obvious that a small, weak navy was one of the necessary conditions of the war and that a vigorous offense upon the sea was not in the nature of things.

      When it is once admitted that an aggressive policy, aimed at the British fleets in American waters with any reasonable chance of gaining naval supremacy, was not to be expected, we are better prepared to understand and to accept philosophically the gradual dwindling of the Continental navy, always in the presence of a superior force, the loss of ship after ship, the almost inevitable recurrence of disaster; a dismal record, to be sure, but not discreditable, and relieved by a few successes and brilliant episodes. At the same time we can better appreciate what was actually accomplished by the American marine as a whole, how much it really contributed to the cause of independence. The injury to British commerce was sufficiently serious to aid materially in rendering the war unpopular in England; insurance rates rose to an unprecedented figure, and the available sources from which revenue might be derived by taxation were nearly exhausted. The shores of the British Isles were harassed as never before or since by the repeated visits of American naval cruisers and privateers, and the seacoast population alarmed. An active and regular commerce was carried on between the United States and continental Europe, providing the latter with American products and furnishing the new nation with much-needed money and supplies. Communication was kept open with France, diplomatic correspondence maintained, and public men of both countries crossed and recrossed the ocean repeatedly, Henry Laurens being the only one of prominence to be captured. All this intercourse, moreover, prevented the isolation of America, and kept alive the interest and sympathy of Europe. Continental ships aided this traffic by furnishing convoy through the danger zone off the American coast and also by taking an active part in it. Many a cargo of tobacco from America and of military stores from France, and many ministers and diplomatic agents, were conveyed in Continental frigates.

      A rigorous blockade of the American coast from the beginning of the war, as was recommended by Lord Barrington, might have suppressed this commerce, and would probably have strangled the rebellion of the colonists in its infancy, without the help of the army. If at any time during the early years the English had been alert, enterprising, and aggressive in the use of their great naval resources, they should have been able to crush or at least greatly to cripple this traffic. Presumably the main reason for its comparative immunity is to be sought in the supineness of British admirals and in administrative vices of the Admiralty.

      Although the fortunes of our American marine chiefly concern us, a glance at the general naval war of 1778 is essential to the completeness of the subject. With her control of the sea threatened, the policy for England to adopt was a matter of vast importance. A foremost naval authority has said: “The key of the situation was in Europe, and in Europe in the hostile dockyards.” England’s “one hope was to find and strike down the enemy’s navy. Nowhere was it so certainly to be found as in its home ports; nowhere so easily met as immediately after leaving them.” (Mahan, 525. For discussion of this subject, see lbid., 416-418, 527-535.) But the opportunity was lost, and it was necessary for England to pursue her enemy to distant seas, leaving an inadequate force in home waters. Luckily for England, the European allies failed to take advantage of her mistakes. Instead of using their superior force for a vigorous offense, they seemed ever bent on a defensive attitude; justified, perhaps, and certainly so from their point of view, by ulterior strategic considerations. However that may be, the French and Spanish, through lack of cooperation, through dilatory tactics, and for various reasons, either avoided their enemy or failed to seize opportunities as they occurred. Their plans for the invasion of England came to nothing, and their operations in America and the West Indies were generally disappointing and abortive, because of their failure to seek out and strike the enemy (Ibid., 535-539; Proc. U. S. Naval Inst., xxii (1896), 578; Channing, iii, 297.) Their naval supremacy, therefore, was most of the time potential only, although by no means for that reason without effect. It finally became actual and decisive at one critical juncture, when a fortunate train of circumstances secured the control of Chesapeake Bay. Fortunate, indeed, was this event for the American cause, for whose success the temporary possession of sea power was indispensable.

      To revert, in conclusion, to the maritime achievements of the Revolutionists, it would appear that keeping open the intercourse with Continental Europe, especially France, and the diversion of supplies from the British to the American army, were the most valuable services performed by the American armed forces afloat, public and private, during the war; the injury done to the British navy being almost negligible, and to British commerce far from disabling, to say the least, although not without effect in the general result. It is certain that the Revolution would have failed without its sailors. In spite of its shortcomings, the record of the American marine daring this critical period was an honorable one. Many officers, through the experience of naval warfare acquired on board regular cruisers and privateers, were qualified to enter the national service a few years later, upon the reestablishment of the Navy.

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