Oct 7

American Independence and the Naval Factor

Friday, October 7, 2016 4:08 PM

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A Royal Navy fleet bombards Fort Sullivan, near Charleston, South Carolina, on 28 June 1776. (Alamy)

A Royal Navy fleet bombards Fort Sullivan, near Charleston, South Carolina, on 28 June 1776. (Alamy)

It is now no longer necessary to bemoan a lack of maritime perspective on the American Revolution, and yet the naval war still does not receive the recognition that is its due. It is, without question, the largest and most significant naval war of the 18th century; a war that is crucial in helping us to understand the path of the 18th century and the nature of revolutions; and a war that enables us to question—and in many cases answer in some detail—the very nature of sea power and its relationship with history. Indeed, no other war in the entire Age of Sail provides more clues as to the influence of sea power upon history. This is a war at sea that has so many lessons to teach us that, ultimately, it helps us understand what a war at sea actually is.

Also, of course, it is a war that presents one of the most glaring conundrums in all of military history: How did 13 colonies that, at the start of the war had no navy or army, win their independence from the greatest naval power on earth? And then (now this is the really strange bit) how did they win that independence in 1782 when the Royal Navy was stronger, even, than it had been at the very start of the war? That is the question that, five years ago, first set me off on this path of research that has culminated in my latest work, The Struggle for Sea Power: A Naval History of the American Revolution. As an idea it seemed perfectly incongruous. Nothing motivates me more as an historian than such a mystery, and I believe it is that mystery that makes this the most exciting and fascinating story in all of naval history.

From first gasp to last whimper the war lasted a decade; it was the longest war in American history until Vietnam two centuries later; it involved no fewer than 22—yes! 22—different navies and thousands of privateers from tens of different nations; and was fought on five different oceans as well as on landlocked lakes and majestic rivers and ankle-deep swamps. It involved more large-scale fleet battles than any other naval war of the century, one of which was the most strategically significant naval battle in all of British, American, or French history. This was the Battle of the Chesapeake of 1781—sometimes known as the Battle of the Virginia Capes—in which a British fleet intent on rescuing British General Charles Cornwallis, who was stranded at Yorktown, failed to withstand a French attack and was forced to retreat. Without naval support, Cornwallis had no choice but to surrender, thus altering the political landscape in Britain, directly leading to the appointment of a government committed to ending the war and granting the rebellious colonies their independence.

Many fine historians have studied numerous maritime and naval themes of the war, and numerous excellent histories are now available on such various factors as the role of the French, Spanish, American, and British navies; the maritime economy; privateers; fishermen; shipping; and logistics. Added to these valuable books are many hundreds of scholarly articles that touch on unique aspects of the war, and there is a bustling scene of international scholarship. All of these activities draw on an ongoing project of astonishing scale run by the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command to publish significant documents pertaining to the war at sea. This, the Naval Documents of the American Revolution series, has been running since the mid-1940s, represents knowledge accumulated over several lifetimes, and has become an interesting historical document in its own right. It now stands at 11 volumes, each well over 1,000 pages, and the works include forewords from several generations of U.S. Presidents, from Kennedy to Obama.

And yet it is not until all of these themes and primary sources are brought together, and a few more are carefully added, that one can sense just how significant this war at sea actually was and begin to see answers to some of those crucial historical questions.

To read the rest of this article from the October issue of Naval History, click here.