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The Struggle for Sea Power (1773-1789) by Sam Willis

We lost the American colonies to the treasonous rebels when Admiral Graves failed to break through the French fleet and relieve the besieged Cornwallis at Yorktown. Sam Willis’ meticulously researched narrative tells us how, after eight years of struggle, we lost this, our first American (but not our first World) maritime war to what was originally a rag tag and bobtail minority of rebels and wannabe tax-dodgers, given to promoting their cause with arson, terrorism, and mendacious propaganda.

The book is excellently and profusely and very interestingly illustrated throughout, with good maps. There is an extensive bibliography to which I would add ‘A Naval Career in the Old War’ by Admiral Markham, and AT Mahan‘s ‘The Influence of Sea Power upon History’, which this book will put me to re-read (but maybe its content is scoped in the Mahan reference that is given). The text is well indexed and sources are exhaustively noted. As a slight negative, the sometimes demotic language makes for easy reading, but (for instance) the ‘material awaiting the scholar’ (p.270) is very real, not ‘fabulous’. I find Willis’ television programmes somewhat spoiled by a ‘look at me’ approach which detracts from the serious history he is trying to narrate, and was disappointed to find this carried over into the foreword and the preface (why both?). His intimate knowledge of seamanship so shines through the text that it needs no separate advertisement. He has published and presented extensively on sea warfare in the age of sail. Homing in on this relatively short period has given him the opportunity to explain this campaign in maritime terms, including its extensive lake and riverine operations. It has also provided an opportunity to make some original points and deliver some fascinating detail, some of which demonstrates how reality has been displaced by myth in what passes nowadays for American history. The narrative is also one of the inventiveness and resourcefulness of Britain’s actually British opponents. The descriptions of actual operations come across as a first class adventure story; there are many other threads, for instance prodigious feats of extempore ship- and boat- building, and there is the interest of watching the essentially amateur Americans solving their maritime problems from first principles.

We see how the financing and organising of a Continental navy necessarily required a unitary state and in this way was the catalyst for full independence. The birth pangs of the USN are well documented, as is its original coexistence with privateering (particularly in the Caribbean, that theatre perhaps more the key to the conflict than America itself) - which also required the pretence of an independent State. On the British side we see how want of resources, want of understanding in London, and sometimes unfortunate politically-driven senior appointments combined with very poor communications (both strategic and tactical), fog of war - often unusually thick; strategic, tactical and operational blunders - failure to follow through or to follow up - and the greater share of bad luck cost us a piece of our Empire which was destined for unimaginable wealth, and from 1942 the greatest sea power the world has even seen. By 1776 already the cost of suppression must vastly have exceeded the cost what would have been lost by a graceful concession on taxation. On all sides we see how operations were effected by human and natural factors, jeopardised by clash of personalities and by the weather - particularly the hurricane of November 1780. As Willis takes us deeper and deeper into the detail we see how this war, like others, was won by the side which made fewer mistakes, and we see all participants making very many of these; time after time, as victory or defeat see-sawed back and forth, we so very nearly won; indeed if North had not been superseded by Fox after Yorktown one wonders if that might not have become the case.

Various important individuals take their bow - both Cornwallises, both Howes, Kempenfelt, Keppel vs.Palliser, even the then junior Nelson and the still more junior Pellew, and Gilbert Blane whose work on sailors’ health gave us a huge advantage over our European enemies, and ashore Clinton, and Burgoyne stumbling to defeat at Saratoga. Fire-eaters like Rodney (he anticipating Fisher’s later dictum that ‘Moderation in War is Imbecility!’) and Collier are contrasted with Graves, Gambier, Arbuthnot, Johnstone at Porto Praya and others; so also for the French, Suffren and de Grasse against d’Estaing.

Willis points up how our offer of freedom to slaves who could escape and come and fight for us (at risk of smallpox) was not well received by the slave-owning Founding Fathers, and gives a worked example of the abominable cruelty that could be visited on slaves who were of course less equal than other men in the Americans’ New Jerusalem. However where he also points out that our war was funded by the sugar islands, which means that British slaves in the Caribbean were actually paying for the war, and we read that many suffered starvation in the process. Our Native American allies were also among the losers.

As the war progresses, the French - who have been as usual undermining Britain all along - duplicitously contrive a casus belli and pitch their navy into the war, which is what gives the conflict worldwide reach as far as India, which cost them their foothold there, and by the spread of democratical ideas ultimately cost Louis XVI his head. Spain is dragged in to save France’s bacon, with some success in Alabama and Florida but disastrously elsewhere at sea. The Dutch also join in, to the eventual betterment of their navy but calamitously to the country as a whole. Denmark, Sweden and Russia become embroiled via Catherine the Great’s somewhat ineffective ‘Armed Neutrality’. As usual in Europe all countries want to bring Britain down a peg but some are more forward about that than others.

It is all (rather obviously) a VERY important story and well deserves the thorough and insightful treatment it here receives. The importance of excellence in seamanship and gunnery is deservedly stressed and well illustrated. Willis well brings out the subtlety of events and particularly their timing and delivers many very plausible analyses of cause and effect. There are some ironies exposed which would be delicious were their consequences not so disastrous in human terms. The immediate outcome and the later consequences to the various parties were not at all what one might expect. The central thesis regarding the silent pressure of sea power is excellently proven. The American Revolutionary War was primarily a NAVAL war and Willis conclusively demonstrates this, in what should become a standard work on the subject.
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