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Navies in American Revolution

For hundreds of years, maritime expansion represented the only way to reach distant shores, to attack enemies across channels of water, to explore uncharted territories, to make trade with regional neighbors and to connect the comprised empires. Leading directly into the 20th century, this was the chief mode of making war, maintaining occupations, colonizing lands and conducting the transport of goods acquired by trade or force. Peter Padfield theorized that ultimately, British maritime power was decisive in creating breathing space for liberal democracy in the world, as opposed to the autocratic states of continental Europe like Spain, France, Prussia and Russia. The Hapsburgs, the Bourbons, Hitler and Stalin all failed to find a strategy that would defeat the maritime empires, which controlled the world's trade routes and raw materials. Successful maritime powers like Britain and, in the 20th Century, the United States, required coastlines with deep harbors and security from aggressive neighbors that Germany, France and Russia lacked. This allowed them to concentrate on trade and commerce, and to develop powerful mercantile classes that won a share of power in government.[footnoteRef:1] Britain and Holland were the "first supreme maritime powers of the modern age," succeeded by the United States after the world wars of 1914-18 and 1939-45, and the fact that democratic institutions developed first in relatively open societies like these was not coincidental.[footnoteRef:2] Of course, the United States was a very weak maritime power in the 18th Century and its navy hardly existed, yet the Battle of Chesapeake Bay in 1781 was the key event that enabled it to win its independence. It depended on French and Spanish sea power to divert the British Navy to other theaters of the war, such as India, the Caribbean, Gibraltar or the defense of the home islands and in the end this strategy was successful enough so that at a crucial moment of the war, Britain temporarily lost its maritime supremacy in North American waters. [1: Peter Padfield, Maritime Supremacy and the Opening of the Western Mind: Naval Campaigns that Shaped the Modern World (London: Pimlico, 1999), p. 5. ] [2: Padfield, p. 6. ]

When France formally joined the Revolutionary War as an ally of the United States in 1778, it initial strategy was to deliver a knockout blow by blockading New York and forcing the British forces there to surrender. Admiral d'Estaing was not successful in this effort, however, or in his attempt to blockade the British base at Newport, and retreated to the West Indies in November 1778, "having failed to capture or destroy a single British ship of the line."[footnoteRef:3] France realized that it would lose a prolonged war against Britain since it had only 64 major warships compared to 90 for the British Navy and its financial condition was precarious as well. For this reason, it immediately sought to make an alliance with Spain, by offering assistance in Spanish plans to capture Minorca, Florida, Gibraltar and Jamaica, as well as driving the British out of the Atlantic Coast of Central America. [3: Jonathan R. Dull, A Diplomatic History of the American Revolution (Yale University Press, 1985), p. 107.]

Spain and France had no natural interest in assisting colonial revolts or in helping to establish a new republic, but they were very much interested in weakening and humiliating the British Empire. British diplomacy with Spain in 1778-79 was arrogant and inept, offering no concessions, even though the Spanish waited for the annual treasure fleet to arrive from Mexico and Peru before declaring war. Britain had no desire to hand over Gibraltar to Spain to keep it out of the war, and also seemed oddly confident about its ability to defeat France, Spain and the United States combined.[footnoteRef:4] France on the other hand agreed to all of Spain's demands, including the return of Jamaica, Gibraltar, Florida and Minorca as well as an attempt to invade Britain, and the alliance was signed on April 12, 1779. At no time was Spain allied with the United States, though, and sent no money, troops or supplies to aid the war effort there, but both Spain and France agreed that the war would not end until American independence had been secured and Spain had captured Gibraltar. For its efforts, France was to receive Senegal, Dominica, the Newfoundland fisheries and more territory in India. Obviously the U.S. was in no position to assist with any of these overseas imperial plans given its almost total lack of a navy, nor was any such help expected.[footnoteRef:5] [4: Dull, p. 108.] [5: Dull, p. 109.]

France and Spain combined were formidable naval powers in 1779, on paper at least roughly equal to Great Britain, with over 100 major warships. By 1782, the French, Dutch and Spanish navies combined had the Royal Navy outnumbered, with 146 ships of the line to 94.[footnoteRef:6] Britain also had to spread its naval resources around the world, not only to defend the home islands but also Canada and the West Indies, as well its interests in the Far East. It also had to protect its convoys and trade routes, maintain garrisons to defend port cities in North America, since most of the supplies and munitions for its army there came by sea.[footnoteRef:7] Such a multiplicity of complex tasks was "arguably beyond the capability of any eighteenth-century navy," even one with ideal planning, leadership and organization -- which the British Navy most definitely did not have in the war of 1775-83.[footnoteRef:8] Overall, the British Navy was badly prepared for the war and greatly overextended, lacked a coherent strategy and often failed to coordinate its activities with the army.[footnoteRef:9] With France, Spain and Holland openly allied with the United States and all the other continental European powers eagerly anticipating a British defeat, the country actually survived the war in better condition than its leaders expected. [6: Dull, p. 110.] [7: Jeremy Black, European Warfare in a Global Context, 1660-1815 (Routledge, 2007), p. 107.] [8: Jeremy Black, "Naval Power, Strategy and Foreign Policy, 1775-1791" in Michael Duffy (ed). Parameters of British Naval Power, 1650-1850 (University of Exeter Press, 1992), p. 105.] [9: David Syrett, The Royal Navy in American Waters, 1775-1783 (Scolar Press, 1989), p. 109.]

France and the United States alone would not have been able to defeat Britain without the assistance of Spain and, after 1780, Holland. If the French navy had been totally defeated, Britain would have been able to blockade the entire coast of North America and cut off French supplies, money and troops. With the assistance of the Spanish and Dutch navies, Britain was sufficiently preoccupied in other areas of the world that it was never able to achieve this concentration of naval forces in North American waters. In the southwest, the Spanish distracted and diverted the British with attacks on Florida, the Gulf Coast and Mississippi Valley, and Britain was never willing to buy Spain out of the war by offering it Gibraltar, even though the Americans and French did not particularly trust their Spanish all.[footnoteRef:10] Overall, British diplomacy during the war was fumbling and inept in that it obtained no new European allies while at the same time added Holland to its list of enemies. In addition, Russia, Austria, Prussia and the most of the German states were also hostile. Nor did it make serious attempts to negotiate with France and the U.S. until its position in North America had clearly become hopeless in 1781. By that time, the financial situation in both France and America was desperate and they were prepared to end the war once their minimal goals had been satisfied.[footnoteRef:11] [10: Dull, p. 109.] [11: Dull, p. 121.]

In North America, Britain commanded the oceans throughout the war, except for a short but very decisive period at Chesapeake Bay in 1781. Given that the fledgling United States hardly had a navy at all, the British could land troops wherever they chose and raid coastal towns with impunity, as they did in New Bedford in 1778 or New Haven, Norwalk and Fairfield the next year. French entry into the war in 1778 raised the prospect "of a loss of maritime superiority" and Britain was unsuccessful at keeping the French and (after 1779) Spanish fleets out of American waters.[footnoteRef:12] John Adams and other American leaders had long regarded the British Navigation Acts as oppressive to mercantile interests in the colonies, and realized that sea power would be decisive in the defeat of Great Britain. For this reason, they "urged the French to gain command of the sea" and continued the champion "the cause of American seaborne independence" long after the American Revolution had been won.[footnoteRef:13] Admiral d'Estaing had no more luck with his southern expedition in 1779, though, and was wounded in the attempt to recapture Savannah, Georgia. Yet this attack unnerved the British and caused them to abandon their base at Newport.[footnoteRef:14] [12: Black, 1992, p. 103.] [13: J.K. Kelly, "The Struggle for American Seaborne Independence as Viewed by John Adams" (PhD…[continue]

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