The Royal Navy’s American disaster

Britain was the world’s greatest naval power, so why did its ships fail to prevent the American revolutionaries securing independence? Sam Willis explores…

This article was first published in the November 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

HMS Ramillies founders in a storm off the coast of Newfoundland in 1782. Bad weather was one of many factors 
that led to Britain’s unexpected defeat in America’s fight for independence. (Bridgman Art Library)

 

Here is a historical conundrum that has fascinated me since the day, as a student, I opened a slim book in my university library that briefly discussed the role of sea power in the American Revolution. The book described how, between 1775 and 1782, a loose collection of colonies, without any standing army or navy, won its independence from Great Britain, the most powerful country in the world, a country 3,000 miles away, which could wield such sea power that it could block out the sun with its sails and hide the surface of the sea with its ships; a country that had so dominated its rivals at sea in a previous conflict, the Seven Years’ War, that it now commanded a maritime empire of unprecedented geographical scale and financial resources.

The bare facts are compelling. At the start of the war, the Americans had no navy of any sort and no allies at all, and Great Britain committed nearly half of its navy, the largest in the world, to America. They also successfully transported nearly 50,000 troops across the Atlantic and maintained those men with clothes, weapons and food via a maritime umbilical cord that ran all the way back to Britain – an unprecedented logistical feat. So how could it be that they then went on to lose the war?

An aspect of this historical conundrum that particularly charmed me was that there was a clear bridge between past and present. As I dug further, it soon became apparent that contemporaries also boggled at the idea and struggled to come to terms with how, as one observer put it, “such an army [as the British], so well appointed, served by so large a train of artillery, and attended by so numerous a fleet, could fail of success against a divided people, destitute of officers, soldiers, magazines, fortified town, ships of war, or any apparent resources”.

George Washington himself, commander-in-chief of the American rebels, believed that, in future, the story would be considered as nothing less than fiction: “For it will not be believed that such a force as Great Britain has employed for eight years in this country could be baffled in their plan for subjugating it by numbers infinitely less, composed of men oftentimes half starved; always in rags, without pay, and experiencing, at times, every species of distress which human nature is capable of undergoing.”

In our collective national consciousness we are so often reminded of the strength and resilience of British sea power – a narrative dominated in the age of sail by men such as Drake, Cook and Nelson, who wielded colossal power with ingenuity and courage and in doing so were supported by a host of brave tars, their hearts of oak beating out of their chests behind the beloved wooden walls of their
indefatigable navy.

A Franco-American force captures HMS Serapis following a four-hour battle off the coast of Flamborough Head, Yorkshire  in September 1779. Victory in the clash helped secure further European support for the colonies’ cause. (Topfoto)

 

The idea that this might not, actually, be the case, and in particular that the great cleaving of the British empire and the independence of America, one of the clearest foundation blocks in the formation of our modern world, might have been the result of naval weakness – dare I even think it, incompetence – sparked a fascination with this period for me that has lasted nearly 20 years. It was also clear that these bald facts were largely responsible for a subsequent tendency for many Americans to believe that their independence was somehow pre-ordained. This is one of the most powerful inspirations for any historian, for such a tendency towards disbelief draws us to research like moths to a flame.

In my work since then I have set out to explain that conundrum and I have discovered that the explanation lies not in black and white – in large or small numbers of ships and men, in experience and innocence, in skill and incompetence – but in the most complex quilt of influence and effect that rests likes a blanket over the entire period. To study it helps us to understand this key moment in the shaping of the modern world, as well as broader questions of the influence of sea power upon history – for this, ultimately, is a war at sea that encourages you to think about what a war at sea actually is.

Histories of the American War of Independence no longer treat the naval battle as the merest of afterthoughts. One can easily discover how sea power affected the revolution, though it is usually restricted to a single example: the battle of the Chesapeake of 1781, when a French naval fleet defeated a British fleet leading to the isolation and subsequent surrender of the British general Charles Cornwallis and his entire army at Yorktown. Cornwallis’s surrender directly led to the fall of the British government and its replacement with one committed to ending the war. Thus the link between sea power and American independence is traditionally made manifest.

But to understand how sea power actually affected the war in its myriad ways, one must consider together a vast number of themes which include – but are by no means restricted to – the role of the French navy, the Spanish navy, the ‘Continental Navy’ (the American navy representing the rebellious colonies acting together), 12 of the 13 rebellious colonies who formed their own navies, the Royal Navy, the Dutch navy, the Russian navy, the Indian navy, the role of native Americans in fleets of canoes, the maritime economy, shipping, logistics, hurricanes and tidal waves, shipbuilding, invasion, slavery, fashion, evacuation, law, politics and economics.

And all of these themes must be applied to a conflict that was, unquestionably, the greatest naval war of the age of sail. From first gasp to last whimper it lasted a decade; it was the longest war in American history until Vietnam two centuries later; it involved 22 (yes, 22!) different navies and thousands of privateers from tens of different nations; it was fought in five different oceans as well as on land-locked lakes and majestic rivers; it included the most strategically significant naval battle in all of British, American or French history and one of the most one-sided and tactically decisive naval battles in history; it involved more fleet battles than any other naval war in history; it included some of the largest fleets of sailing warships ever gathered together and some of the strangest and most eclectic fleets ever to sail to war, including a fleet that was taken to pieces, dragged through a forest and then re-built on an inland lake. The amphibious operations – and particularly the role of sailors fighting on land – are especially important and interesting: on more than one occasion ‘land’ battles were contested entirely by sailors firing naval guns.

This was also a war in which sea power affected the lives of non-combatants in profound ways. The American Revolution meant that the lives of many more people were touched by the sea than before it. Many Europeans – soldiers, sailors and civilians – took to the sea in the military operations or the many forced evacuations that so characterised the war. Thousands crossed the Atlantic and visited America, the Caribbean, Central America, Canada and Newfoundland for the first time. Others voyaged into the North Sea and Baltic, to the Mediterranean, and around Good Hope to India.

The result is a gold mine of historical sources unique to the period: diaries filled with awe at the majesty of nature – narwhals and flying fish, icebergs and islands covered in thousands of sea birds – and fascination and astonishment when the populations of different nations collided. Before he saw his first real Frenchman, one American believed them to be “pale, ugly specimens who lived exclusively on frogs and snails”. There is also tangible shock at the unique life of the sailor – the smell, the cramped conditions, the heat, the cold, the damp, the noise, the seasickness – and horror at the experience of naval battle.

Admiral Augustus Keppel’s 30-strong British fleet clashes with 29 French ships in the battle of Ushant on 27 July 1778. This was the first major engagement between the two nations since France entered the war earlier that year, and neither side was able to claim victory. (Bridgeman Art Library)
 

All of these people were, essentially, baptised in the maritime world, and in the peculiarities of sea power, during this war. For them, the scale and potential of the world had expanded, their horizons had broadened. This war was nothing less than a key moment in the western human race reconnecting with each other and painting the Atlantic world and beyond in a new colour.

When we come to analyse the reasons for Britain’s failure, one can explore innumerable themes and campaigns which all influenced the war’s outcome.

But what we can say is that the initial rebellion was in part provoked and then inflamed by both perceptions of British sea power and the methods of its implementation. The subsequent war, of necessity played out in part at sea, led to the Americans forming their own navies and allying themselves with Britain’s two traditional naval enemies, France and Spain. The war thus spilled out from the American seaboard and became a global struggle with far more than just the future of the American colonies at stake.

Both before and after this key moment, the British failed to use their naval advantages at the appropriate times and in the appropriate ways. In particular, with insufficient ships at the start of the war, they were unable to adequately police the growth of American sea power or blockade the coast effectively.

Furthermore, when the war spread, they chose not to contain French and Spanish fleets in European waters and struggled with the challenge of wielding sea power in numerous theatres, all distant from the logistical infrastructure of the home dockyards. On numerous occasions the very survival of the British empire hung on a spider’s silk. Smelling British blood, Britain’s traditional allies, the Dutch, then also turned against them. Weighed down on all sides, the British war effort creaked and groaned until, entirely unexpectedly, by applying exactly the right amount of pressure in exactly the right place at exactly the right time, the Americans and their allies made it break at the battle of Yorktown, where British hopes of victory were dashed for good.

One abiding theme in this narrative concerns just how extraordinarily difficult it was for any nation to wage naval war of any type in this period and the different ways in which it was possible to experience that difficulty. Naval warfare, for example, raised unique problems at the level of strategy and inter-theatre operations simply because of the slowness of communication. It would usually take at least a month for a message to travel across the Atlantic, and obviously at least twice as long to receive a reply – and this was not just about communication but propaganda. Often, after crucial engagements, the British and Americans found themselves in a race to get news across the Atlantic and any advantage that could be manufactured in this race was crucial.

American soldiers haul cannons from Lake Champlain, scene of one of the first naval battles of the Revolutionary War. (Topfoto)

 

The idea of a naval ‘strategy’ as we know it was also non-existent. The phrase did not even exist. This was not an era of men leaning over huge chart tables, moving little model ships around: so many here to meet this threat; so many there to put pressure on that government; so many here to defend trade. Quite to the contrary: war planners had only a loose understanding of exactly how each theatre of war would affect the other, and capability was so limited and unpredictable that, when combined with the slowness of communication, any real planning was far more likely to fail than succeed. Indeed, if there is one prominent theme from the numerous operations I’ve studied it is that, with only a handful of exceptions, none of them work out as planned.

The weather played an immense part. Naval warfare in the age of sail was always influenced by the weather, but it seems to have been particularly so, and particularly severe, for this war. All of this meant that sea power was hardly a surgical instrument of war – more of a heavy blunt club wielded by a blind and drunk weakling.

At the level of tactics, naval operations were confounded by limitations in signalling and by the fact that there was no shared inter-service doctrine. In essence, this meant that a fleet under one commander in one part of the world would operate with different signals, tactics and a different understanding of expected behaviour to another fleet elsewhere in the world. It is in fact more helpful to think of it like this: a ‘navy’ was not a ‘navy’ but consisted of numerous different ‘navies’ that worked in different ways. This did not make for reliable performance. Fleets working in international alliances suffered particularly severely from this type of problem. It was almost impossible to get different fleets within a single navy to co-operate with each other, let alone different fleets from different navies.

Economically and administratively, navies presented enormous difficulties too. They were both immensely expensive to run and also very difficult to maintain at any level of strength. Men had to be found to man the ships, and those men had to be fed, clothed and kept healthy. In some theatres, such as the Caribbean, this was an insurmountable problem at which every administration failed, even in the comfort of home waters. In the early years of the war, the British repeatedly sent ‘fresh’ fleets to America, where their weight was expected to shift the balance of the war – but, with inadequate infrastructure in home waters, they often sailed from British shores sick as dogs. The French and Spanish were simply unable to keep their men healthy for any significant period of time.

Old established navies like the British and French faced the same problems as one another, but at a different scale from new ones such as the Continental Navy or the various state navies. However every navy also faced its own unique challenges. While the British, for example, were struggling with the problem of protecting their supply lines to America, and the French with how to source sufficient nails to secure sheets of copper to their ships’ hulls, the Americans struggled with problems specific to fledgling navies: what rules and regulations should the men abide by at sea? How were prizes to be distributed and administered without prize courts? Even the most basic questions took up time: who was going to design the uniform?

The Royal Navy defeats a French fleet in the West Indies in April 1782. For Britain, losing the American colonies would, paradoxically, usher in a period of utter domination of the seas. (Historical Museum of Vevey, Switzerland)

 

This is one of the most important themes of this war. More than anything else, the story of the conflict is a story of the struggle for sea power and of how the difficulty of wielding it shaped the modern world. It remained the case in every country that, in spite of staggering naval expenditure, politicians who made policy had no detailed knowledge of naval affairs and few expert advisers. Chance and the weather could ruin everything as easily as bad planning. For the historian, the idea of a ‘chain’ of events is therefore almost completely unhelpful. Events in this war were not strong and joined to each other by iron links but were flimsy, like a house of cards.

The result was an almost constant sense of apprehension and drama from 1774 right up until the Peace of Paris, which ended the war in 1783. All of which makes this one of the most fascinating conflicts in history to study, and also one of the most exciting to discover.
And there’s a twist in the tale… for the Americans won their independence after eight long years of war at exactly the moment that Britain’s superior naval, logistical and financial infrastructure achieved an unassailable position of strength at sea. This was a position that, after the war was over, would herald the Royal Navy’s greatest period of imperial reach and power.

Sam Willis is an author and historian who has written several books on the Royal Navy.

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