Revolution: Naval War

views updated

Revolution: Naval War

In 1775 Britain had the largest navy in the world and as recently as the Seven Years' War (1756–1763) had defeated both the French and Spanish navies. The Americans had no navy. Thus the Royal Navy could sweep American merchant ships from the oceans, bringing economic pressure to bear on the rebellious colonies. The British could also transport military supplies and troops to North America, move them at will along the coast, and extract these forces if necessary.

At the beginning of the war Continental leaders were divided about the wisdom of sending out ships against the British, but in October 1775 they voted to outfit two vessels to intercept transports carrying British troops and military supplies. Congress also established a Naval Committee to oversee this activity. It purchased merchantmen for conversion to warships and in December 1775 authorized construction of thirteen frigates (five of thirty-two guns, five of twenty-eight, and three of twenty-four), to be built by March 1776 as commerce raiders. Progress was slow and only the Randolph, Raleigh, Hancock, and Boston and a few smaller warships were able to get to sea in 1777.

In February 1776 the commander of the fledgling Continental Navy, Commodore Esek Hopkins, set sail with a motley collection of small warships. On 3 to 4 March, in the only successful large American fleet operation of the war, Hopkins captured Nassau in the Bahamas, securing guns and supplies. During their return voyage, on 6 April the Americans fell in with the British frigate Glasgow and its tender but took only the tender.

For the first two years of the war the British were able to move by sea at will. In March 1776 they evacuated Boston, which the Continental militias had blockaded from the land. In July 1776 Admiral Lord Richard Howe's fleet landed 32,000 British troops on Staten Island to begin the New York campaign. British naval control of the Hudson River brought the surrender of Fort Washington in November 1776, with 3,000 prisoners, 100 cannon, and a large quantity of munitions. The British again used their navy to land troops to capture Fort Lee, New Jersey. Continental commander General George Washington then withdrew what remained of his army across the Delaware.

The British had planned a secondary offensive from Canada to isolate New England. To meet this threat, Brigadier General Benedict Arnold supervised construction of a force of gondolas and galleys on Lake Champlain. Although the Continentals were defeated in two naval battles on the lake on 11 and 13 October, Arnold delayed the British sufficiently that they postponed their offensive.

The British also conducted naval operations in the American South. In June 1776 Admiral Sir Peter Parker sailed to Charleston, South Carolina, with an expeditionary force under Major General Sir Henry Clinton. Poor British planning and a stout Patriot defense from Fort Sullivan repelled them. Several British ships grounded, and accurate American fire led to destruction of the new frigate Actaeon.

Some American captains, notably John Paul Jones and Lambert Wickes, also carried the war to the British Isles and attacked British merchant shipping. Jones also won the most spectacular engagement of the war, the sanguinary 23 September 1779 contest between his converted French East Indiaman Bonhomme Richard and the British frigate Serapis. But for the most part the Continental Navy accomplished little. The navy continually suffered from a lack of experienced captains, inadequate funding, and the attractiveness of privateer service.

Eleven of the thirteen colonies also raised navies. These were limited to very small craft, many of them barges, employed primarily in coastal defense and along rivers. The state navies had little impact on the war.

The Americans did experiment with new types of weapons. On the night of 6 to 7 September 1776 they employed inventor David Bushnell's primitive one-man submarine, the Turtle, in an unsuccessful attempt to attach a mine to Admiral Howe's flagship, the Eagle, in New York harbor. The Americans also sent floating mines against British ships but with little effectiveness.

American privateers were, however, highly successful. This type of combat fit well with the decentralized

and individualized character of the colonial military effort. During the years 1776 to 1783 Congress authorized 1,697 privateers with 55,000 crewmen and mounting 15,000 guns. State-sanctioned privateers added another 1,000 ships.

For the first two years of the war, the Royal Navy had the resources to combat most privateers, but after 1778 colonial privateers took advantage of the reduced British naval presence off the American coast and their ability to use French bases. During the war, colonial privateers took some 2,200 British ships valued at £66 million. Insurance rates for British shipping increased 30 to 50 percent, adding to pressure on the British government.

British naval weaknesses, including numerous ships in poor repair, were not apparent as long as the nation was fighting a weak naval power, but the entrance of France into the war on the side of the colonies in 1778 dramatically changed the situation. The French had spent a decade rebuilding their naval strength and their fleet approached that of the British in size. This forced the British to defend both their home islands and empire, and they did not have the resources to do both. In 1778 France had some sixty ships of the line, a number of which were better ships than those of the British. The Royal Navy had seventy-three ships of the line at sea or in good repair. When Spain entered the war in alliance with France in 1779, it added another forty-nine ships of the line. The Dutch were drawn in a year later. What had been a localized struggle now became a world war with the North American theater only a secondary one for the British navy. Worse, Britain had no continental allies, and the French could focus on the war at sea. The British were forced to fight in the Channel, in the Caribbean, off North America, and in the Mediterranean, and they lacked the resources to be everywhere successful.

It could have been worse for the British. French and Spanish attacks on the British Isles and on Gibraltar foundered on a combination of inept admirals, intra-allied squabbles, and effective actions by outnumbered British forces. In the Western Hemisphere the French first concentrated in the Caribbean, where they seized a number of British-held islands and even threatened Jamaica.

French expeditions to North America were at first hesitant and unsuccessful. Vice Admiral Charles Hector Comte d'Estaing demonstrated a lack of aggressiveness off Delaware, New York, and Rhode Island in the summer of 1778. D'Estaing allowed British Admiral Howe with numerically inferior forces to drive him off. Still, the French managed to land ground troops in America under General Jean-Baptiste-Donatien de Vimeur, Comte de Rochambeau.

In July 1779 Commodore Dudley Saltonstall led an attack by Massachusetts on a British fort at Bagaduce (Castine) on the Penobscot River in Maine. With seventeen warships and twenty-four supply vessels, it was the largest colonial naval expedition in the war and the largest American amphibious assault until the Mexican-American War. A British squadron from New York arrived on 13 August; all the American ships were destroyed, and five hundred men were killed or taken prisoner.

In 1778 the British had shifted their military operations to the American South. In December 1778 they took Savannah and by early 1779 had secured Georgia. In 1780 General Clinton took advantage of the departure of the principal French fleet for France and assembled 14,000 troops for the largest British offensive force since 1777, landing it south of Charleston that February. Charleston capitulated on 12 May with the loss of 5,466 officers and men, 400 cannon, and half a dozen small warships. It was the greatest military disaster to befall the Patriots during the war.

The French naval presence was decisive in 1781. Admiral François Joseph Paul, Comte de Grasse, sailed north from the West Indies and blockaded what remained of Clinton's Charleston force that had moved to Yorktown, Virginia, on the Chesapeake Bay. Washington and Rochambeau, meanwhile, brought troops down from New York to contain the British on land, while de Grasse blockaded the bay. Although the Second Battle of the Chesapeake of 5 September 1781, fought between twenty-eight French ships of the line and nineteen British ships of the line under Admiral Thomas Graves, was tactically indecisive, de Grasse achieved a strategic victory in that he was able to continue the blockade of Yorktown. At the same time d'Estaing arrived with additional ships and heavy siege guns, whereupon Graves returned with his ships to New York. Blockaded by French and Continental Army forces by land and sea, more than eight thousand men at Yorktown surrendered on 19 October. This British defeat brought the fall of the government in London and a decision to seek peace. The British had lost naval control of the coast for a brief period at this decisive moment. In the Battle of the Saints in the West Indies on 12 April 1782, Admiral Sir George Brydges Rodney's British fleet defeated de Grasse and the French fleet, but it came too late to affect the war's outcome.

Meanwhile, the Continental Navy had all but ceased to exist. Of fifty-three ships in the navy during the war, only two frigates—the Alliance and Hague—were in service at war's end. Despite its failings, the navy had captured or sunk almost two hundred British ships, carried dispatches to and from Europe, transported funds to help finance the Revolution, forced the British to divert naval assets for the protection of commerce, and helped to provoke the diplomatic confrontation that brought France into the war. Nonetheless it was the French naval intervention that had made possible the conclusion of peace in 1783.

See alsoNaval Technology .


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

Gardiner, Robert, ed. Navies and the American Revolution, 1775–1783. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1996.

Hearn, Chester G. George Washington's Schooners: The First American Navy. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1995.

Mahan, Alfred Thayer. The Major Operations of the Navies in the War of American Independence. 1913. New York: Greenwood Press, 1969.

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

Syrett, David. The Royal Navy in American Waters, 1775–1783. Brookfield, Vt.: Gower Publishing, 1989.

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

Spencer C. Tucker

About this article

Revolution: Naval War

Updated About content Print Article


Revolution: Naval War