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A Maritime History of the American Revolutionary War: An Atlantic-Wide Conflict over Independence and Empire

02 Feb 24

224 pages

Capt. M. K. Barritt

Theodore Corbett opens his book with an assertion that there is “little written about the Revolutionary War from a maritime standpoint”, much of it focussed on personalities, and that therefore it should be no surprise that his account overturns “several traditional interpretations”. These words are principally targeted at fellow historians in the USA. This is clear from the masterly summary with which he concludes the book. He has exposed late 19th century myth-making and reduced John Paul Jones to plausible stature within a stringent examination of the whole guerre de course of the Continental Navy and American privateers. Looking at the broader picture, he has acknowledged that the British government was handling “an Atlantic war”, with a nod to the Hispano-French invasion campaign in the English Channel, and a more substantial if standard account of the siege and defence of Gibraltar. The ‘world war’ of the Royal Navy, with the campaign in the Indian Ocean, does not feature. As the title declares, his focus is on the conflict in the narrow North American theatre bounded by the Great Lakes and a seaboard penetrated by large bays and estuaries. The American narrative of this conflict, he infers, can often be predominantly an account of the clashes on land.

Nonetheless, as RN readers, we would also do well to hear his words. How often does our attention to that North American theatre peter out after the Battle of the Capes and the capitulation at Yorktown, our eyes turning promptly to the Caribbean and the campaign leading to the Battle of the Saintes, ‘the Glorious 12th of April’? Theodore Corbett declares that “the Royal Navy salvaged victory from admitted defeat on land”. Not only was the Atlantic war sustained, Britain preserved from invasion, and Gibraltar saved. In North America Britain retained 13 of the 26 colonies. An effective blockade, in which sea control of Lake Champlain and Chesapeake Bay extended long after Yorktown, brought a worn-out and anxious United States to the negotiating table.

This is a very dense and detailed account comprising over 30 chapters brigaded in triplets covering particular theatres or aspects of the conflict. Working with a pdf version, which seems to be becoming a standard offering for reviewers, it was not an easy read. Indeed, the best approach to the book for a general reader, rather than attempting to tackle it from cover to cover, will be to start by selecting chapters dealing with places with which one is familiar or topics of personal interest, and then turn to look for new knowledge. This will bring undoubted interest and reward.

Two particularly valuable themes are worth close attention. The first is the compelling depiction of a conflict which was not between two clear-cut parties, imperial government and independence-seeking colonies. This was a typically messy civil war, with a mish-mash of intertwining and complicating interests and motives, not least commerce. Merchants and shipowners in some states were anxious to sustain what was now illicit trade with the British Isles. Even an American Privateer Captain might elect to sell a cargo in New York, where it would benefit the British garrison and not Washington’s starving army. Old RN colleagues of the Seven Years War could now find themselves on opposing sides. In the south, and especially in the Chesapeake Tidewater, the revolutionary fervour of the planter class was not shared by other segments of society. The central Chesapeake was a “virtual British lake”. The permanent instruments of control, backed up by descents of RN squadrons, were the local craft of loyalist watermen of the eastern shore and islands. When the Royal Navy returned to the bay in the war of 1812, re-establishing a base on Tangier Island, it was perhaps memories of these earlier times that prompted assertions that renewed British sea control was enabled by treacherous pilots rather than the skill of Royal Naval hydrographic pathfinders.

The second theme is the clear indication of the limited resources of the British government, revealed in the pre-war struggle to police the colonies and now confirmed by inability to sustain and press home naval supremacy. On Lake Champlain the Royal Navy defeated the only attempted invasion of Canada that the Continental Army was able to launch. Shortage of assets and competing requirements almost certainly curtailed amphibious operations in the Hudson River Valley that might have cut General Washington off from New England. Overall, however, the sea control that the Royal Navy sustained was impressive. In the meantime, both the Continental and the State navies were feeling even greater resource constraints. Financial resources were depleted and the reservoir of mariners was drying up, not least as crews of privateers ended up in prisoner of war camps in England.

There is much else to find in this rich product of impressive research. It is perhaps too easy to forget that the emerging nation was an amalgam of proud and very different individual states, several of whom tackled the challenge of putting their own navies in the field. The Penobscot battle is probably the only example of their part in the conflict which is better known. The challenges of creating and maintaining these navies is well covered here. Although the author has cautioned against an over-emphasis on personalities, he has drawn up a cast of most interesting and largely unknown American figures. He also explains the great importance of some better known men, namely the American Commissioners in France. On the opposing side, perhaps a little more could have been said about the Royal Naval officers who had a deeper personal stake in the conflict, being married to ladies from the North American colonies. There are, however, many appearances of Royal Naval officers whose experience in this war brought them to attention and gave them skills for the wars of coming years. The future Lord Keith excelled in inshore and amphibious operations and was noted for his diplomacy, not least in good relations with army counterparts. Hyde Parker appears here as a most effective commander of squadrons playing a key part in the capture of New York and Savannah, both of which were retained until the end of the war. In conclusion, this is certainly a volume that should be placed on the shelves of the staff colleges.