American Revolutionary Naval History I


A French ship of the line.

During the eighteenth century, the great powers maintained navies of wooden vessels powered by wind caught in canvas sails. The mainstay of a fleet was the “ship-of-the-line,” a massive battleship of two or three decks. Each vessel mounted at least sixty-four cannons, but seventy-four was more common, and a few behemoths had more than one hundred. A battleship required a crew of at least 500 men, who were expensive to feed and water especially on longer voyages. Organized into fleets, battleships fought in a line against those of the enemy, exchanging close-range broadsides meant to splinter vessels and decimate crews. A commanding admiral tried to coordinate his vessels by means of signal flags from his “flagship,” but the signals often produced confusion during battle and recriminations afterward. Eighteenth-century naval battles tended to be bloody but indecisive as both sides withdrew to their home ports to repair battered ships. Occasionally an unusually aggressive British admiral broke through the enemy’s line to destroy and capture several battleships. French and Spanish admirals fought more cautiously rather than gamble their precious fleets.

Navies also employed lighter and faster ships known as frigates, which had one or two gun decks, twenty-eight to thirty-eight cannon, and a crew of about 300 men. Avoiding combat with ships-of-the-line, frigates instead conducted long-distance scouting and convoying duties. Still smaller vessels—brigs, sloops, and schooners—provided lesser firepower but greater economy to operate.

In eighteenth-century wars, the British sustained the largest fleet with the most experienced and able sailors and officers. Such a fleet was costly to maintain, so the empire discharged most of the sailors and idled or broke up most of the ships during interludes of peace. At the start of the War of the American Revolution, the Royal Navy struggled to recover from budget and manpower cuts imposed after the Seven Years War by the empire. Even as Parliament adopted the confrontational Coercive Acts in 1774, the economy-minded prime minister, Lord North, had mandated a further reduction in sailors and the shipwrights needed to repair and build warships. In 1775, the navy employed only 18,000 sailors: too few to sustain the global reach of the empire. The head of the Admiralty, the Earl of Sandwich (who gets credit for inventing the sandwich), found “the ships decaying and unfit for service, the storehouses empty, and a general despondency running through the whole naval department.”

In 1775 and 1776, the Royal Navy was stretched thin by its vast and conflicting duties. In addition to ferrying troops and supplies across the Atlantic, the navy tried to enforce a blockade on American ports to hurt the Patriots’ economy and deprive them of imported munitions. Struggling with those assignments, the navy also failed to protect British merchant ships from Patriot privateers—fast-sailing and lightly armed warships financed by private interests. A frustrated admiral described his command in American waters as a “choice of difficulties and scarcity of means.”

The Royal Navy faced a small but annoying adversary in the Continental Navy created by Congress in 1775. Unable to afford ships-of-the-line, Patriots instead relied on frigates and smaller vessels. In March 1776, the little navy surprised, captured, and plundered a minor British naval base at New Providence in the Bahamas. Thereafter, the Continental vessels dispersed to prey on merchant ships.

The most celebrated Patriot commander was John Paul Jones. Slight and short, he compensated with a fiery temper to intimidate the tough men who worked as sailors. Born in Scotland and initially named John Paul, he had captained British ships in the slave trade. After killing a defiant sailor, Paul fled from prosecution, enhanced his name by adding Jones, and escaped to America. He obtained a commission from Congress in 1776 and raided the Scottish port of Whitehaven in April 1778. A year-and-a-half later on the Yorkshire coast, Jones won the Continental Navy’s greatest sea victory by capturing a superior British frigate after a bloody, three-hour battle that wrecked his ship and killed nearly half of his crew. Although much celebrated by Patriots, Jones’s victory was a last hurrah for the Continental Navy, which shrank into insignificance through budget woes and the capture or destruction of most of its remaining ships by the enemy.

While the Continental Navy faded away, the Royal Navy steadily grew under the leadership of Lord Sandwich, who by the end of 1779, more than doubled the fleet to 314 warships manned by 70,000 sailors and marines. Two years later, that complement grew to 105,000 men: an unprecedented number in that service.

That expansion came in the nick of time, for the French entered the war in early 1778. British leaders feared that the enemy fleet would seize control of the English Channel and ferry across an army to invade England. Preoccupied with that threat, Sandwich concentrated the Royal Navy at the western approach to the Channel, stinting naval forces elsewhere on the world’s oceans. Opposing that concentration, Lord Germain predicted, “Lord Sandwich will not risk the country upon any account, so that I apprehend we shall have some misfortunes abroad.”

In 1778, the French massed troops along the English Channel but did so only as a diversion, for they instead planned to exploit their naval initiative to dispatch a fleet with troops to make trouble elsewhere in the world. The Comte d’Estaing led France’s Mediterranean fleet of twelve battleships and five frigates westward across the Atlantic to help the Patriots attack the British garrisons and ships at New York and Newport. But the attacks failed and d’Estaing sailed away to the West Indies, which were more important to the French.

West Indies

The French and British valued their West Indian colonies more than anything on the North American continent. Sugar cane raised by slave labor enriched planters and the merchants who transported sugar and rum to Europe. Taxes on slave imports and sugar exports generated greater revenue for the rival empires than any other colonial trade. By capturing sugar-rich islands, each belligerent hoped to enhance its financial and naval strength while weakening the enemy.

To guard a dozen islands scattered across 500 miles and interspersed with French possessions, the British had only 1,060 regulars fit for duty in 1778. Nor could the British West Indies rally a significant militia, for free whites comprised less than a tenth of the population and were busy guarding the enslaved majority. In the event of invasion, many planters preferred to surrender quickly, before prolonged resistance provoked the enemy to burn houses, mills, and workshops or take away slaves.

Only naval supremacy could protect island colonies and capture those of the enemy. Raising more cane than food, the islanders would starve if cut off from imported provisions by an enemy with a dominant fleet. The planters also risked bankruptcy if they could not export their annual produce to satisfy creditors in Great Britain. But maintaining a fleet in the Caribbean was dangerous, difficult, and expensive, for wooden ships, canvas sails, and hemp ropes rotted more quickly in the hot and humid conditions. And mosquito-borne tropical diseases depleted military garrisons and naval crews.

With 8,000 troops already in the West Indies, the French had a great initial advantage over the 1,000 scattered redcoats in 1778. Striking first, 2,000 French troops easily captured Dominica, defended by a mere 41 redcoats. That defeat alarmed Britain’s powerful West Indian lobby of merchants and planters, who demanded more troops and warships, even at the cost of weakening the Channel fleet. The king agreed, “If we lose our sugar islands, it will be impossible to raise money to continue the war.”

Thereafter, the British subordinated their war effort in North America to the defense of the West Indies. An imperial official declared, “The war has and ever must be determined in the West Indies.” For the rest of the conflict, the empire sent more reinforcements to the Caribbean than to North America. Indeed, imperial officials drew on the New York garrison as a reserve to bolster West Indian defenses at moments of crisis. New York’s commander, Sir Henry Clinton, complained “of expeditions sent out everywhere, reinforcements to every place but this. Is it because America is become no object? If so, withdraw before you are disgraced!”

In late 1778, orders from London compelled Clinton to send 5,000 men from New York to the West Indies under the command of General James Grant. That expedition attacked St. Lucia, a French-held island with a good harbor and strategic location near the main French naval base in the Caribbean: Martinique. Grant’s men repelled a powerful French counterattack by d’Estaing, who launched ill-conceived frontal assaults that killed or wounded nearly a third of his soldiers. D’Estaing withdrew to Martinique in defeat, obliging the French governor of St. Lucia to surrender. Consolidating their victory, the British constructed substantial new fortifications to render St. Lucia their premier naval station in the eastern Caribbean and a looming menace to Martinique.

In April 1779, Spain entered the war, compounding Britain’s problems. As the world’s second- and third-largest naval powers, the French and Spanish could combine to outnumber the Royal Navy’s warships by 44 percent. During the summer, the allies threatened to seize control of the English Channel and then ferry 31,000 French troops across to invade England. “Everything is now at stake,” Sandwich worried. George III agreed that Britain confronted “the most serious crisis this nation ever knew.” But coordinating and supplying two massive fleets from different nations delayed the allied combination until early August, when sixty-six battleships belatedly entered the Channel. They outnumbered the British warships, but the allied fleet’s crews and officers were demoralized by hunger, depleted by disease, and buffeted by adverse winds. Losing their nerve, the French and Spanish commanders withdrew without a fight, canceling the invasion threat for the rest of the war.

In the West Indies, during the summer of 1779, d’Estaing won his first victories by capturing the islands of St. Vincent and Grenada. The British feared that the French would next attack Jamaica, the most precious of their colonies. In September, British leaders ordered 4,000 redcoats to hasten from New York to reinforce Jamaica. Their arrival dissuaded d’ Estaing from assaulting the island. Instead, he sailed north to attack the smaller British garrison at Savannah, Georgia, where he suffered another defeat. Returning to France, he left operations in the West Indies to a new French commander, the Comte de Guichen, who arrived with a fresh squadron in early 1780.

French and American privateers took a toll on merchant ships trading with the British West Indies. The smaller, eastern Caribbean islands especially suffered from the interruption of their food imports. The price of scarce provisions also soared because of increased demand from thousands of sailors and soldiers sent to the West Indies in wartime. Kept at the end of the food chain, slaves suffered famine conditions. Between 1778 and 1781, at least 2,000 starved to death on the islands of Barbados, Montserrat, Nevis, and St. Kitts. Another 7,000 died on Antigua, where a severe drought and an outbreak of dysentery compounded their miseries.

Planters worried that famine would provoke a bloody rebellion by the enslaved. In fact, the influx of soldiers depressed rebellions in wartime, but the turmoil did invite many slaves to run away. Some enlisted for one side or the other in the conflict. Given the desperate shortage of men for warships and regiments, some officers accepted black recruits although that angered planters and their legislators. Other runaways became maroons by stealing arms and making refuges in the mountainous recesses of some islands, principally St. Vincent, Tobago, and Jamaica.

While bearing soaring costs for imported lumber and food, planters also suffered from diminished harvests and exports. Malnourished slaves lagged in cutting and processing sugarcane. When war interrupted the slave trade, planters could not replace their losses from disease, hunger, and escape. Predation by enemy warships pushed up the planters’ insurance premiums on cargoes from a prewar 2 percent of value to 28 percent. Freight charges also tripled as merchant ships became harder to come by, and sailors got higher wages as naval demand increased their scarcity. Sometimes planters could not export their produce because the Royal Navy had impressed all available merchant ships for use as troop transports. In 1781, British West Indian sugar exports fell to half of their prewar level. Pinched between soaring costs and diminished production, planters’ profits dwindled, as bankruptcies and foreclosures soared.


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