Was George Washington the first Chief of Naval Operations? Was the Revolutionary War the first world war? Did the colonial navy provide the decisive power that achieved America's independence?
Author Sam Willis brings an objective international perspective to these questions in "The Struggle for Sea Power: A Naval History of the American Revolution" (W.W. Norton & Company, 2016). Willis shows how and where privateers and sailors fought up and down the East Coast, across the Atlantic, and in Canada and the Caribbean.
The book opens with how to burn a wooden war ship in the age of sail. Not as easy as it sounds. A group of Americans – angry about authoritarian British customs rules – set fire to a grounded British schooner, HMS Gaspee, in June 1772.
There were other incidents leading up to the war, too, along with the burning of Gaspee and the first shots fired at Lexington.
Rebels launched whaleboat attacks against the mighty Royal Navy and burned another armed schooner, HMS Diana, in Boston Harbor in 1775. It was "a hostile act in the lion's den itself that displayed both American courage and resourcefulness and convinced many of the direction that the revolution was taking," Willis writes. The act planted the idea to create an American navy.
"The man with the idea was George Washington: by profession a surveyor and farmer from Virginia, by limited experience a frontier soldier, by political demand the new commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. In 1775 Washington knew more about farming than anything else."Washington had fought with the British in the Seven Years' War, but his experience with sea power was nearly nonexistent. But, Willis writes:
"Washington may have lacked experience in sea power, but it is too easy to overlook his knowledge of waterways and skill in boatmanship. He may well have been a 'farmer' – a traditional seaman's insult – but he was a farmer in Virginia, and in the 1770s all farmers in Virginia had a keen nose for matters maritime. Virginia was a colony that constantly looked to the sea. The most significant aspect of the Virginian economy was the exportation of tobacco, and vast fleets, well over 100 ships strong, made an annual migration to Virginia to move the tobacco crop from its magnificent natural harbour at Hampton Roads back to Europe."We're reminded of Washington's crossings of the Delaware (three crossings and returns) and of his profound faith in the Navy. He told Count Rochambeau: "In any operation, and under all circumstances, a decisive naval superiority is to be considered as a fundamental principle, and the basis upon which every hope of success must ultimately depend."
Faith and hope was embodied in the innovation and industriousness of American shipbuilders from Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, Rhode Island, North Carolina and other colonies.
Building the Navy for national defense required a centralized government – a fiscal-military nation state to provide oversight. "This is why the birth of the American navy reflects the birth of America itself."
In fact, the Navy directly contributes to the spread of liberty and broadcasting of the Declaration of Independence worldwide. In the week after July 4, 1776 American ships carried printed copies of the Declaration to the rebels' potential allies including to France and to the Dutch island of St. Eustatius. From there, news of the document and copies of its text quickly traveled to Scotland, Ireland, Holland, Germany and Scandinavia.
Willis calls Part 3 of his four-part book "World War, 1778-1780."
He shows how France and Spain became committed allies. French help was invaluable to America's maritime war effort, despite "a fascinating and paradoxical mixture of distrust and exceptional high levels of expectation."
Like the British, the French suffered from overconfidence in their own maritime prowess.
And on several occasions major strategic mistakes were made when control over the navy was given to army leaders who tried to apply land tactics to the maritime domain.
Both the British and French underestimated the problem of providing adequate logistics, "finding the realities of prosecuting an aggressive naval strategy 3,000 miles from home extremely difficult."
Lessons apply today in the exercise of forward presence, the need for strong allies, and the importance of protecting sea lanes to ensure the free flow of trade.
In the 18th century, from Europe and the New World to Asia and the Silk Road, "trade ran from Britain and America to Newfoundland, Africa, South America, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, the Baltic, the Indian Ocean and beyond, and where trade went, navies followed."
The 13 colonies had strong affinity for India, which was also under the shadow of the British Empire. A warship in the Pennsylvania State Navy was named Hyder Ali, after an Indian warlord.
|The British Navy in Quebec.|
The rise and fall of empires is a theme in "The Struggle for Sea Power." So is the nature of naval warfare, which included littoral combat. Rivers and lakes presented deadly challenges to mariners. Contemporaries did not see distinction between the importance of command of the seas and control of inland navies, considering both "command of the water."
"If you are struggling to see a lake in the same terms as an ocean, I urge you to stand on the shores of Lake Michigan in a storm. You will not want to go out in a boat. Shallow it may be, but that shallowness and the relatively short fetch of the shores make for particularly brutal conditions on the water. And what about rivers? Rivers were to an eighteenth-century army as railways were to armies of the nineteenth century, but these were no passive, gently bubbling streams but evil and treacherous tongues of brown water whose currents could create whirlpools big enough to suck down a fully manned cutter. Figures do not survive, but it is safe to assume that during this war hundreds, perhaps thousands of sailors drowned in rivers or otherwise died fighting on, in or near them. Most of the riverine warfare I describe in this book, moreover, happened on the lower reaches, where powerful ocean-bound currents met relentless land-bound tides. Operating vessels in such conditions was the ultimate test of seamanship.""Struggle" offers more than a dozen pages of cool contour maps and charts, beautiful photos, and strange political cartoons of the time. Willis provides extensive notes, bibliography and even a glossary of nautical terms.
The author credits today's U.S. Navy, especially the Naval History and Heritage Command, along with other entities, with providing the background and information necessary to bring his book to print.
"These focused studies are supported by an ongoing project of astonishing scale to publish significant documents pertaining to the war at sea. Under the aegis of the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command, the 'Naval Documents of the American Revolution' series has been running since the mid 1960s and has become an important historical document in its own right. It now stands at twelve volumes, each over 1,000 pages long, with forewords from several generations of American presidents: from Kennedy through Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Clinton and Bush to Obama."Willis offers a compelling perspective, and it's obvious he achieves the goal he set in writing this important history. The book's opening epigraph is by Herman Melville: "To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme."