Naval Operations, Strategic Overview

views updated

Naval Operations, Strategic Overview

NAVAL OPERATIONS, STRATEGIC OVERVIEW. In theory, Britain's Royal Navy should have been the key to crushing the American Revolution. It was the most powerful navy in the history of the world; the American colonies were so disposed along the coast and so divided by estuaries and navigable rivers as to make all regions accessible to sea power; and the rebelling colonies lacked the resources necessary for constructing a navy capable of contending with that of the mother county. Yet the Royal Navy did not win the war, and even before 1778, when France sent ships to support the colonies, the British failed to exploit an advantage that should have been decisive. As a result, the naval battles of the Revolution were secondary in strategic importance to the land operations, which British strategists expected to produce a quick victory early in the war. Meanwhile, privateering was exploited by the colonists, to their great advantage.

In 1775 Britain's Royal Navy had 131 ships of the line and 139 craft of other classes. By 1783 this total of 270 had been swelled to 468, of which about 100—mainly frigates and lighter vessels—were committed in America. In quality, however, the British navy was in an incredibly bad state. Many of the ships had been reduced by neglect to virtual wrecks, many of its officers and men were substandard, and debts incurred while fighting the French and Indian War had led to cuts in government spending, which left the Royal Navy the without a supply of seasoned timber for ship construction.

Those ships which the navy could send to North American waters in 1775 and 1776 were employed mostly in rendering assistance to Royal governors and supporting army operations, rather than in blockading the American coast. During the summer of 1776, Royal Navy vessels were involved in evacuating army troops from Boston and supporting expeditions against Quebec, New York City, and the Carolinas. The next year they supported the campaign against Philadelphia. This left colonial ports open to receive assistance from other European nations (particularly France) and to export commodities to pay for munitions and interest on loans. That the Royal navy could have blockaded the American coast to economically strangle the rebellion is demonstrated the success of its blockade of the coast between Cape Cod and Delaware Bay during the winter of 1776–1777, a time when it was not needed to support the army.


An action off Machias, in Maine, in May 1775, has been called the first naval engagement of the war, although this is stretching the point somewhat. A few months later, during the Boston Siege, General George Washington organized a flotilla of six schooners and a brigantine to prey on enemy supply ships. He had the double purpose of depriving the enemy of cargoes and of getting critically needed supplies for his own forces.

On 2 September 1775 he commissioned the Hannah, which has been called America's first war vessel. (The Machias Liberty, rechristened after the action of May 1775, could probably be called the first war vessel in the service of an American state.) Washington's little navy took thirty-five prizes, with cargoes valued at over $600,000, before it was absorbed into the Continental navy. Captain John Manley made the most important capture when he took the Nancy, on about 27 August 1775.


"What think you of an American Fleet?" asked John Adams in a letter of 19 Oct. 1775 to James Warren. "I don't mean 100 ships of the Line," he went on to say, but suggested instead that the colonists should be able to create a small force that could do something. The idea was popular with the New England delegates and opposed by others, but by the end of the month Congress had authorized four armed vessels and, on 30 October, it appointed John Adams and six others to constitute a Naval Committee. On 10 November the Marines were born, and on 23 November Congress considered John Adams's draft of "rules for the government of the American navy," based on those of the British. On 25 November Congress passed the resolutions that established the American navy.

Naval affairs were controlled thereafter by various bodies designated by Congress. Until December 1779 a Marine Committee of thirteen members, one from each colony, was responsible. The Board of Admiralty was then established. to comprise three private citizens and two members of Congress. After 1781 the administration was handled by Robert Morris, Director of Finance, as an addition to his normal duties. Subordinate boards in Boston and Philadelphia were also established.

Esek Hopkins was appointed commander in chief of this fleet of eight vessels purchased and assembled at Philadelphia by the end of the year. The largest were the merchant vessels Alfred and Columbus, which had been converted into frigates of 24 and 20 guns. Others were the brigs Andrea Doria and Cabot with fourteen six-pound guns apiece, and the Providence (twelve guns), Hornet (ten guns), and the Wasp and Fly, each with eight guns. The captains, in order of seniority, were Dudley Saltonstall, Abraham Whipple, Nicholas Biddle, and John B. Hopkins. Heading the list of lieutenants was John Paul Jones.

Ice-bound in the Delaware for several weeks after all other preparations were completed, the American navy put to sea on 17 February 1776. Congress had given Esek Hopkins orders to clear the Chesapeake Bay of Lord Dunmore's fleet, drive the British from the Carolina coasts, and then run the Royal Navy away from Rhode Island—obviously an overly ambitious set of orders for a force of only eight ships mounting 110 guns. At the time, the British had seventy-eight ships with over 2,000 guns in American waters. But Hopkins took advantage of a discretionary clause in his orders that authorized him to use his judgment in adopting whatever other course of action appeared to be more promising.

Hopkins sailed directly to the Bahamas, where he captured Nassau on 3-4 March. Returning to the American coast, he took a British armed schooner and a brig before the unfortunate encounter occurred between his flagship, the Alfred, and the British vessel, the Glasgow, which occurred on 6 April. The American ships put into New London and then went to Providence, Rhode Island. As a result of the 6 April action, Esek Hopkins was through as commander in chief of the Continental navy. A court-martial convicted Captain John Hazard of cowardice, and John Paul Jones succeeded him as commander of Hazard's ship, the Providence. Although he was placed behind seventeen other captains on the seniority list established by Congress in October 1776, Jones promptly established himself as the top American naval commander. During the last six months of 1776 he captured or destroyed five transports, two ships, six schooners, seven brigantines, a sloop, and a sixteen-gun privateer. Most valuable of these prizes was the armed transport Mellish, which carried a cargo of winter uniforms and other supplies intended for Quebec, on 12 November 1776. Further naval operations occurring during the first two years of the war occurred on Lake Champlain, including the action at Valcour Island in October 1776.

Naval supremacy was the cornerstone of British strategy in America during the years 1776–1777. It enabled them to evacuate Boston in March 1776, and to mass a large army on Staten Island for the New York campaign after dispatching Henry Clinton's expedition to Charleston. This superiority made the Hudson River a line of operations, while confronting Washington with the problems of defending against an amphibious attack toward Philadelphia and such southern ports as Charleston, South Carolina, and Savannah, Georgia.


The Franco-American alliance, negotiated in February 1778 was scheduled to take effect should war break out between France and Britain, which it did in June of that year. This event significantly altered the strategic situation by shifting the balance of naval forces in the war. In 1778 France had seventy-nine ships of the line in service compared to the Royal navy's seventy-three. This gap widened further after Spain, which had forty-nine ships of the line, entered the war as an ally of France (although not of the United States) on 21 June 1779. With the widening of the war, operations could be anticipated on a worldwide basis, much like those of the Seven Years' War, which had recently concluded.

Prior to this time, naval operations had been limited almost exclusively to American waters, although a few American warships had appeared in the Atlantic off Europe. Continental ships were tasked with conveying American diplomats to Europe, and, during the first of such voyage, Captain Lambert Wickes took as prizes two British merchantmen while delivering Benjamin Franklin to France (26 October-4 December 1776). After landing Franklin at Auray, Wickes cruised the English Channel. taking five more prizes. Joined by ships commanded by Captains Henry Johnson and Samuel Nicholson, Wickes, aboard the Reprisal, circumnavigated Ireland clockwise and, in the Irish Sea, took captive eight merchantmen and destroyed another ten. Six months later Gustavus Conyngham, in command of the lugger Surprise (owned in part by the American government), carried two British ships into Dunkirk. He returned to sea with a commission in the Continental navy and, in a two-month cruise, took additional prizes before shifting shifted his base of operations to Spain. He then crossed the Atlantic to the Caribbean in 1778. Meanwhile, John Paul Jones had arrived in France in command of the Ranger.

Open war between Britain and France was precipitated by the clash off Ushant, an island off Brittany, on 27 July 1778. French Admiral Louis Guillouet, comte d'Orvilliers, put to sea on 8 July with plans to intercept homebound British convoys. British Admiral Augustus Viscount Keppel weighed anchor the next day with orders to protect the convoys. The fleets sighted one another on 23 July and, after extended maneuvering, passed on opposite tacks and exchanged broadsides before the French eluded the British and returned to port. For the next year France sent fleets to America while working to lure Spain into active involvement in the war.

When Britain rejected Spain's 3 April 1779 ultimatum that it cede Gibraltar in return for Spanish neutrality in the war, Spain began conducting joint naval operations with the French in May, and, a month later, formally entered the war. Mustering a superior number of warships in the eastern Atlantic, the French and Spanish laid siege to Gibraltar from 21 June 1779 to 6 February 1783, and planned a joint invasion of the Isle of Wight. The invasion was so ill-managed that it disintegrated before a single soldier reached English soil. The Royal Navy was able to slip enough supply vessels through the Franco-Spanish blockade of Gibraltar to keep its defenders provisioned. On 16 January 1780, Admiral George B. Rodney, in command of a convoy en route to Gibraltar, defeated a squadron under the command of Spanish Admiral Juan Langara, sinking one ship, driving two to destruction on shoals, and capturing four before resupplying Gibraltar. After capturing Minorca in the Mediterranean (5 February 1782), the allies launched an assault on Gibraltar on 13-14 September 1782, but were rebuffed. The British garrison held out until it was reinforced and resupplied by a fleet commanded by Admiral Richard Howe.

During 1780 Britain's naval position eroded further when Russia formed the League of Armed Neutrality, and war broke out with the Netherlands on 20 December 1780. The following spring, Admiral Pierre André de Suffren, in command of a French fleet en route to reinforce the Dutch colony at the Cape of Good Hope, sailed into Porto Praya in the Cape Verde Islands. There, on 16 April 1781, he found a British squadron commanded by Commodore George Johnston at anchor, and, disregarding Portuguese neutrality, attacked and crippled the British expedition which was also bound for the Cape.

The British naval position remained precarious in American waters during 1781, but it improved in Europe during the summer. On 5 August 1781, Admiral Sir Hyde Parker defeated a Dutch squadron commanded by Admiral Johann A. Zoutman in the battle of Dogger Bank, off the Northumberland coast. Four months later Admiral Richard Kempenfelt defeated a French squadron commanded by Admiral Luc Urbain Bouëxic, comte de Guichen, at the second battle of Ushant (12 December 1781), capturing fifteen of the twenty merchantmen de Guichen was attempting to convoy to the West Indies. From that point forward, British leaders could feel confident of their position in European waters and direct the majority of their naval resources to American waters, where they regained control of the Caribbean in the battle of the Saints, 9-12 April 1782.


French naval operations were no more conclusive off North America until 1781. Even before a formal declaration of war between England, France dispatched Admiral Charles, comte d'Estaing and a large French fleet to America with orders to support Continental army operations. The result was a heart-breaking series of failures. After taking eighty-seven days to cross the Atlantic, d'Estaing arrived too late to bottle up the British fleet in the Chesapeake, was too timid to attack Admiral Richard Howe's fleet at New York, 11-22 July, failed at Newport on 29 July-31 August, and abandoned a proposed attack on Newfoundland, before sailing for the West Indies in November. There he did some damage to the British, but failed to gain any real advantage. In September and October 1779, he returned to North America, but refused to remain off Savannah long enough to force the surrender of the British garrison that had captured the city on 29 December 1778. In 1780 France shifted its primary naval attention to the West Indies. Without a French fleet on the American coast, Henry Clinton was free to launch his expedition against Charleston, which resulted in the scuttling of the Queen of France and the capture of the Ranger, Providence, and Boston, all of which were taken into the Royal Navy.

Alarmed by the French capture of St. Vincent and Grenada in June and July, Britain dispatched a fleet to the Caribbean under the command of Admiral Sir George Rodney in late 1779. His fleet duelled indecisively with that of comte de Guichen in 1780 and 1781 and sought to counter the capture of Mobile and Pensacola by Spanish forces led by Benardo de Gálvez. Though inconclusive in the Caribbean, naval operations set the stage for the decisive American victory in the war, when the French fleet of Admiral François Joseph, comte de Grasse, sailed north from the West Indies to participate in the Yorktown campaign of 1781.


After attacking the British at Praya, Suffren continued on to Ile de France in the Indian Ocean, arriving in October 1781. On 7 December he weighed anchor for India and captured the HMS Hannibal (18 Jan 1782), which was also en route to India. When Commodore Thomas, comte d'Orves died, Suffren succeeded him as commander of all eighteen French warships in the Indian Ocean.

Learning of the Dutch entry into the war, Admiral Sir Edward Hughes seized the Dutch port of Trincomalee to prevent its use by the French fleet (5-11 January 1782). Determined to seize a base for his fleet that was nearer to India than Ile de France, Suffren sought battle with Hughes, who had eleven warships. Over the next eighteen months, Suffren and Hughes fought a series of engagements, off Sadras (17 February), Provedien (12 April), Negapatam (6 July), and Trincomalee (3 September). No ships were lost by either side, but Suffren kept the British on the defensive. This allowed Suffren to land troops and support France's ally, Hyder Ali, who had captured the British-held Cuddalore (4 April 1782). Suffren also was able to seize the anchorage at Trincomalee on 30 August 1782. Its position in India threatened, Britain sent reinforcements to Hughes, including five ships of the line, bringing his forces to eighteen by the spring of 1783. Suffren received three additional ships of the line by March. The fleets fought another inconclusive battle off Cuddalore on 23 April 1783 before news arrived of the war's end.


While Britain and France focused on European waters during 1779, on the West Indies between 1780 and 1782, and the Indian Ocean during 1782 and 1783, the five remaining Continental navy vessels, Trumbull, Deane, Alliance, Confederacy, and Saratoga, were able to get to sea. Captain James Nicholson took command of the Trumbull in September 1779, and fit the frigate out for sea over the winter. In the spring he cruised the American coast from Boston to New York to drive off British privateers. On 2 June 1780, he engaged the British ship, the Watt, in a battle that was second in severity only to that between the Bonhomme Richard and Serapis of the previous fall. The following summer, Nicholson was forced to strike his colors in the engagement with the Iris on 8 August 1781.

During the same period the Deane, Confederacy, and Saratoga cruised the Caribbean before taking on military stores and escorting a convoy carrying additional stores for the Continental army. On 18 March 1781 the Saratoga sank when caught in a sudden gale three days out of Cape Français, Hispaniola. A month later two British warships captured the Confederacy off the Virginia Capes. Only the Deane reached port safely, arriving in Boston. In late 1782 the Deane sailed to the West Indies, were it eluded capture by at least four British warships which thought that they had cornered John Manley and the Deane off Martinique in January 1783.

Among Continental Navy vessels, only the Alliance and Deane enjoyed significant success during the closing years of the war. When Silas Deane's loyalty came under suspicion, the Deane was renamed the Hague, set sail for the West Indies under the command John Manley, and captured the Baille in January 1783. More illustrious was the career of the Alliance. On 29 May 1781, it forced the British brigs Trepassy and Atalanta to strike their colors. It also fought the war's final naval engagement (excepting some privateering exploits) when, under the command of John Barry, it fought the Sybille off the coast of Florida in March 1783.

Meanwhile, state navy vessels scored their two greatest oceanic victories. A frigate from the Massachusetts navy won a memorable victory in the Protector-Duff engagement of 9 June 1780. Two years later the Pennsylvania navy sloop-of-war, Hyder Ally, captured the British brig General Monk after a fierce half hour battle off Delaware Bay on 8 April 1782.

In summary, the raid on Nassau on March 1776, was virtually the only planned major operation of the Continental navy. A total of fifty-three ships served in the Continental fleet. Of the 13 original frigates, only four were at sea by 1777, and only two (Barry's Alliance and Manley's Hague) were in action in 1783. Lack of resources kept the rebels from getting to sea anything larger than a frigate, and privateering proved to be a more formidable enemy than the British navy.

Whereas the Continental and state navies did not commission more than a hundred ships during the war, the British increased their navy from 270 to 468 ships, 174 of which carried sixty or more guns. The American frigates nevertheless sank or captured almost 200 British vessels. Privateers cost the British another 600 ships. The Royal Navy performed miserably under a succession of incompetent admirals and an inept ministry. In 1783, however, the British navy rebounded from adversity, and its successes in the West Indies, European waters, and India enabled Britain to stiffen its terms of peace with America and to convince France and Spain that the war should end.

SEE ALSO Alfred-Glasgow Encounter; Armed Neutrality; Bonhomme Richard-Serapis Engagement; Hopkins, Esek; Howe, Richard; Jones, John Paul; Machias, Maine; Manley, John; Marines; Nassau; Naval Committee; Rodney, George Bridges; Trumbull-Iris Engagement; Trumbull-Watt Engagement; Virginia, Military Operations in; West Indies in the Revolution; Wickes, Lambert.


Bradford, James C., ed. Command Under Sail: Makers of the American Naval Tradition, 1775–1850. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1985.

Clark, William B. George Washington's Navy; Being an Account of His Excellency's Fleet in New England Waters. Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 1960.

―――――――. The First Saratoga; Being the Saga of John Young and his Sloop-of-War. Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 1953.

Cogliano, Francis D. American Maritime Prisoners in the Revolutionary War: The Captivity of William Russell. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2001.

Dull, Jonathan. The French Navy and American Independence: A Study in Arms and Diplomacy, 1774–1783. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975.

Dupuy, R. Ernest, Gay Hammerman, and Grace P. Hayes. The American Revolution: A Global War. New York: David McKay, 1977.

Eller, Ernest McNeill, ed. Chesapeake Bay in the American Revolution. Centreville, Md.: Tidewater Publishers, 1981.

Fowler, William M., Jr. Rebels Under Sail: The American Navy during the Revolution. New York: Scribner's, 1976.

Jackson, John W. The Pennsylvania Navy, 1775–1781: The Defense of the Delaware. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1974.

Lewis, James A. Neptune's Militia: The Frigate South Carolina during the American Revolution. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1999.

McCusker, John J. Alfred: The First Continental Flagship. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1973.

McGuffie, T. H. The Siege of Gibraltar, 1779–1783. London: B. T. Batsford, 1965.

Miller, Nathan. Sea of Glory: The Continental Navy Fights for Independence, 1775–1783. New York: D. McKay and Company, 1974.

Morgan, William James. Captains to the Northward: The New England Captains in the Continental Navy. Barre, Vt.: Barre Press, 1959.

Rider, Hope S. Valour Fore & Aft: Being the Adventures of the Continental Ship Providence, 1775–1779, Formerly Flagship Katy of Rhode Island's Navy. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1977.

Rodger, N. A. M. The Insatiable Earl: A Life of John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993.

Smith, Myron J., Jr. Navies in the American Revolution: A Bibliography. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1973.

Syrett, David. The Royal Navy in European Waters during the American Revolutionary War, 1775–1783. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1998.

Tilly, John A. The British Navy and the American Revolution. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 1987.

Tuchman, Barbara W. The First Salute: A Naval View of the Revolution. New York: Knopf, 1988.