"Aimez la mer pour vous; aimez la mer pour votre pays."
America has been peculiarly a country of the sea from that magic day when Columbus sighted San Salvador. It was by the sea that men came to her. It was in terms of its hazards that they thought of her. It was the sea’s highways and its depths that were to a large extent the source of existence upon which American colonists depended up to and after their war for freedom. Its great waters even more than the frontier shaped American character across these early years. In struggle against the sea, these settlers of a new, wave-washed world grew strong. On its unfettered distances their love of liberty expanded beyond any man-made restrictions. Out of it for seven heartbreaking years of struggle they derived constant aid and at last, from borrowed strength upon it, the independence they so long had sought.
In order to understand the sea’s effect upon the American Revolution we must glance briefly at the conditions within the nation-to-be at the outbreak of war. By 177 all the colonies were politically well ad need toward self-sufficiency. Economically they were not. They obtained the majority of their manufactured articles from England and were similarly dependent upon over-seas commerce for disposal of their own surplus products. Their wellbeing was tied up with the laws and sea power of England, as many wise men who were ultimately called Tories and traitors realized. Nevertheless, America’s destiny of freedom was before her, blowing in on the west wind. Although dependent on England economically, she had already developed into a powerful shipping rival of the mother nation. Stimulated by the Navigation Laws, the English had become traders for the world. Yet a growing share of the rich profits was being captured by the Britons of the New World. Where they could not contest openly, they smuggled or evaded restrictions, so that a large and profitable illicit commerce was carried on with the West Indies. When George III set about enforcement of laws that would hinder this trade, merchants and shippers became alarmed. New England, for example, whose existence depended directly upon ships and their cargoes, gained large annual profits through illegal importation of molasses from the non- English West Indies. Out of molasses, paid for in fish and lumber, was distilled rum, a lucrative medium of exchange for slaves and other foreign products. John Adams said with truth, “Rum was an essential ingredient in the American Revolution.” Yet traffic in this potent liquor was only one phase of the silent, unseen, tremendous struggle going on throughout the trade roads of the Atlantic. Attempts at enforcement of the Navigation Laws and the Stamp and Tea Acts were merely culminating steps in the great sea drama that had been moving toward open conflict from the day in 1607 when the first small vessel was launched by the colonists of the New World.
Commercial competition was of course not the only pecuniary cause for the American Revolution, for those ashore had their debts and taxes. Nor were materialistic motives, though outstanding, the sole ones causing the break. Through all classes, from the cultured east to the Alleghenies where men wore the bucktail of liberty under Boone, ran a thread of sincerity of principle. Liberty of action, but controlled liberty based upon a fixed constitution and natural laws, had gro into an urge of their lives beside the restless waves. We are “with one mind resolved to die free men rather than live slaves,” sincerely stated the Congress of 1775. Significantly, those eager for freedom were strongest in the three oldest colonies, where sea and wilderness had long been shaping American character.
Fortunately, the sea-nurtured ideal of freedom had grown deep and powerful enough to sustain America against herself in the long war, for it was within her own borders that she met her worst enemies: greed, jealousy, disinterest, and disunity. These undermining forces were by no means limited to the Tories, who were at least sincere. Those exhibiting them most powerfully were from the revolutionary ranks themselves. Only a few, comparatively, were willing to make sacrifices on land or sea of money, time, or life. Graft and politics prevented the colonies from having relatively a powerful navy. From a population of over 2,000,000 people, Washington was often unable to get more than 5,000 men together. Yorktown, the culminating battle of the war, was not only a French victory at sea but, considering only numbers, a French victory on land, there being about 8,000 French soldiers in the allied force, whereas Cornwallis’ whole army did not reach that number.
Lack of patriotic volunteers was only part of the colonies’ internal difficulties. There was no strong central government, no consistent policy of carrying on the war, no means of obtaining sufficient money, only a disorganized and inadequate system of supply for army and navy. Afloat, men preferred to follow the gainful promise of privateering to contact with an inefficient and politics-ridden government. Ashore, those who might otherwise have been more patriotic than anxious for their own pockets did not see reason in starving and freezing at Valley Forge when there was comparative plenty in the country at large. They were disgusted by the cheap politics, intrigue, and thieving that the disorganization of the weak government fostered in military and civil affairs. Even Washington, as he labored in the autumn of 1775 at the discouraging task of re-enlisting troops to replace those constantly going home, was driven to write,
Such a dearth of public spirit, and such want of virtue, such stock-jobbing and fertility in all the low arts to obtain advantages of one kind or another ... I never saw before, and pray God’s mercy that I may never be witness to again. . . . Could I have foreseen what I have experienced, and am likely to experience, no consideration upon Earth should have induced me to accept this command.
Fortunately, even his presentiments did not warn of the worst that was to happen to him, for political intrigue had not yet struck its stride. This great man, the epitome of the finest in sincerity, courage, self-sacrifice, and idealism in American character, was to endure before the war was ended “a degree of neglect, disobedience, and even disloyalty, which would have induced almost any other general in history to resign his sword and give up the cause.”
In the confusing welter of forces good and bad, Washington was able to maintain his equilibrium. Through the sordidness surrounding him, he perceived the ideal for which some men at least were willing to die, and knew it to be worth his own great talents. He saw, too, that the colonies and their ideal could be saved only by sea. Control of it, despite disorganized conditions ashore, would have enabled him to end the war almost immediately, for America was a country of the sea. Most of her population was still close to the tides or navigable rivers. Interstate transportation was still carried on principally in coasting vessels. New England’s prosperity depended directly upon her carrying trade; that of the remainder of the country was tied up in the exchange of surplus products with other nations.
Not only were the sea roads vital to America economically, but she was extremely vulnerable to invasion by them because of her large number of waterways and harbors. To be true, in attacking, the English would be hindered by having to transport men and supplies across the Atlantic; but unless America had control of the sea it was a problem that could be adequately solved. Moreover, once their army was landed they would have manifold advantages. If defeated ashore, even with a small fleet, they would be able to protect or withdraw their forces. If they should wish to carry the war to another part of the colonies, it would be an easy matter to sail there, whereas America’s defending army would have to march laboriously by land.
To win, the colonies needed the sea. Fighting the enemy ashore was merely striking at the effect. A large enough fleet would prevent his ever reaching their coasts. Even a small, ably handled one could seriously retard his military operations. America had many of the elements necessary for such a powerful navy: a large sea-borne commerce, thousands of hardy mariners, unlimited materials for ship construction. She lacked, however, the vital necessities of leaders and the efficient well-knit naval organization that can be developed only by long and arduous training. Even could she have had these, the disunity ashore made it impossible for her to develop a competent navy out of her vast resources.
Although Washington could not gain the control of the sea so essential for immediate victory, he did turn to it for aid that sustained him until sea power in the guise of France’s fleet saved America. During the autumn of 1775, when in extreme need of equipment and ammunition which could be manufactured in only small quantities in this agricultural country, he fitted out a number of small vessels to capture supply ships intended for the besieged British in Boston. American militia had flocked to the army at first and had caught England so unready that most of her available forces on the Continent were bottled up here. Could they have been cut off by sea, they must quickly have surrendered, perhaps ending the war at very outset. Lacking the fleet for such decisive operations, Washington saw that he could make some use of the sea by harassing the British line of supply. Moreover, anything captured would be of valuable importance to his army. From first taking command he had been endangered by “the extreme shortage of indispensable ammunition.” Great men succeed not from the abundance of their means but from effective use of whatever ones they have. Very soon he had promoted an expedition to seek powder in Bermuda, where the inhabitants were “well disposed.” Meanwhile, despite lack of authority from Congress, he began to fit out small ships “to pick up some of their storeships and transports.” The first cruiser got to sea on September 5 and returned with a prize on the 7th. By November, his “navy” had grown to six ships.
They captured a total of 35 prizes. Besides damaging the enemy, the little fleet probably saved Washington’s army by providing munitions indispensable and otherwise unobtainable. One of the most valuable prizes was the Nancy, “an ordnance ship,” carrying several brass cannon, 2,000 muskets, 31 tons of musket shot, 3,000 round shot, together with powder and other equipment. It was estimated the colonies would have needed 18 months to manufacture these supplies. Indeed, they were never able to produce more than a portion of their needs, various captures sustaining them until French aid was obtained.
The success of Washington’s fleet, along with his tireless insistence on America’s need of a navy, was instrumental in causing Congress to purchase vessels to be fitted out as warships, to provide for construction of a number of small frigates, and to appoint a Marine Committee to direct naval affairs. This quasi-navy department, however, was consistently hampered by jealousy between colonies, political interference, lack of authority, insufficient funds, and dishonest contractors. As a consequence, it was unable to utilize more than a fragment of the colonies’ vast sea resources, and its few ships achieved little except in capturing enemy supplies and in raising the country’s morale by occasional deeds of valor.
Outstanding in both the above fields of service was John Paul Jones, whose achievements typify the best that was accomplished by the little navy. After serving under the incompetent political commodore, Hopkins, he was given a small sloop of his own and late in the summer of 1776 went cruising for enemy vessels in Canadian waters. In a short while he severely damaged the British fisheries and captured or destroyed 16 prizes besides small craft. As reward, he was given command of the small frigate Alfred and on November 1, with the Providence in company, headed for the stormy winter seas off Nova Scotia. The personnel of the latter vessel so little enjoyed the quest that on a particularly rough night they fled homeward with their ship.
Being thus deserted the Epedemical discontent became General on Board the Alfred; the season was indeed Severe and everyone was for returning immediately to port, but I was determined at all hazard, while my provision lasted, to persevere in my first plan.
And persevere he did. He had already captured a few enemy craft, including the large armed ship Mellish.
This prize is, I believe, the most valuable that has been taken by the American arms. She made some defense, but it was trifling. The loss will distress the enemy more than can be easily imagined, as the clothing on her is the last intended to be sent out for Canada this season and all that has preceded it is already taken. The situation of Burgoyne’s army must soon become insupportable. I shall not lose sight of a prize of such importance, but will sink her rather than suffer her to fall again into their hands.
Neither storm, nor cold, nor general discontent swerved Jones from his purpose. While others rested in port, he continued for another month taking prizes and destroying valuable stores ashore.
On the 24th off Louisburg, it being thick weather, in the Afternoon I found myself surrounded by three Ships. Everyone assured me that they were English Men of War and indeed I was of that opinion myself. . . . Resolving to sell my liberty as dear as possible, I stood for and . . . Took the nearest; I took also the other two.
Courage to test fear for what it is worth had again shown the flimsy substance of mankind’s greatest enemy. The three were transports in convoy of a frigate, which would have been in sight had the weather been dear. By the middle of December, Jones was safely in port with all but one small prize, returning with news of his own daring exploits at a time when the discouraged country sorely needed cheering up from a series of defeats ashore.
Jones grew as a leader during the war. Yet at the outset he evidenced clear strategical perception. Since America’s navy was forced to resort to the weak weapon of commerce destruction, from the first he advocated that this inferior means of warfare at least be utilized in the most effective manner. To destroy the enemy’s commerce, he urged, do not waste effort seeking isolated units on the broad seas, but send squadrons to where the ocean roads converge: off Africa, in Canadian waters, to England herself. Better yet, attack undefended ports, destroying merchantmen, shipping facilities, valuable supplies. By these methods can a weaker fleet inflict maximum hurt on the foe. Such plans the Marine Committee tried to follow but, because of conditions ashore and lack of trained personnel, they failed except with Jones and two or three other officers who were great enough of soul to overcome tremendous obstacles.
It was well for America, then, that her individual citizens made some use of their country’s sea resources. History shows convincingly that a people who control the sea control their own destiny, if not that of the world. This common highroad of all nations is controlled only by a strong navy, acting aggressively in time of war. It would seem useless to state a truth so self-evident were it not that time after time through history great peoples have staked their existence on weaker means— and have lost. A navy is the instrument for governing the sea, and it does so by defeating or containing an opposing fleet. This is the first method of victory; there is no second.
There are, however, weaker efforts to which maritime resources can be directed to inflict some injury upon the enemy. One of these is commerce destruction. The American people did not meekly quit the tides that had nurtured them but thronged to sea against England. During the war over 2,000 vessels, carrying 70,000 men, engaged in privateering. Some took no prizes, others many, so that the average was between one and two apiece. Damage to England’s shipping, while not vital, was enormous. Nowhere in the Atlantic were her ships safe. From capturing towns on the coast of Canada, to sweeping the English Channel, daring private vessels ranged the waves seeking profit and some glory. In the crisis year of 1781 when Britain’s naval power was challenged by the fleets of Europe, privateering reached its highwater mark, Congress issuing 550 letters of marque in this one twelvemonth period. But for that matter, as wrote John Pickering in 1783, so continuously was there chance for successful commerce raiding that “there were many persons in Salem [as elsewhere] dejected on the return of peace.”
Naval crews were often difficult to get because of the eagerness of sailors to serve on privateers. But this was a lesser evil than if most of the men had not got to sea at all, as in those chaotic times they would not have. In no other way could they have made the mother country writhe in the knowledge that “times are so troublesome and our seas so full of American privateers . . . nothing can be trusted upon this defenceless coast.” The damage they caused was a powerful factor in causing dissatisfaction with the war in England. Trade routes even around the British Isles became unsafe. Insurance rates mounted. Supply of English forces in America was made more difficult. Among the most beneficial results were direct ones upon America herself. Trading and capturing, the privateers maintained a part of the colonies’ commerce with France, Spain, and the West Indies. Consequently the economic balance within the country was not wholly upset and much needed supplies were obtained for people and army. Finally, in this one group desirous of continuing the war there was a measure of unity, even if based upon profit, that helped hold the colonies together and supplied strong sentiment in the darkest years for continuation of the war.
As stated before, raiding commerce is not the way to win wars. The heart of the enemy’s resistance is his fleet. If one can destroy or contain it, he imperils the coasts, commerce, and very existence of his opponent. But if the best means are not available, lesser ones need not be scorned. America could not build a navy. Consequently, it was a fortunate thing for the weak, disunited colonies, struggling for existence without a fleet, that drawn by the lure of gold her seafaring population should not have quit the ocean roads but instead pricked England with a thousand darts. They made the best use possible of an imperfect weapon. It was a weapon, however, that with all her other minor ones would in the end have failed without the French fleet.
At three times sea power operated directly to save America. The first, as we have seen, was spread over the entire period of the war. It was this use of the sea, inadequate though it was, through the small navy and privateering, that made possible Washington’s long resistance. Even with them probably any other leader in the colonies would have failed; without them, even Washington would have.
In the first year of the war, the harassing effect of America’s weak sea forces, added to Washington’s splendid use of his evanescent army, forced the enemy out of Boston. The country was free of invaders! Superficially the cause of the revolutionists looked favorable. In May, 1775, by brilliant, impetuous activity Arnold had won Lake Champlain, in those days of roadless wildernesses the major line of attack from Canada into the colonies. That winter he had led a handful of men in a remarkable march against Quebec. Although the epic attempt had failed with wounds for himself and death for Montgomery who was co-operating with him, he was still clinging tenaciously to his position before the Canadian city. Both his and Washington’s success had been such that France and Spain were secretly planning to enter the war. But a crisis in the struggle was approaching . . . and for the second time sea power was to play a decisive r61e.
To clear-sighted men such as Washington, the advantageous appearance of affairs was not deceiving. The British army in Boston, profiting by the mobility given by their navy, had merely retired to Nova Scotia to await powerful naval and military re-enforcements. The small American detachment in Canada would soon be driven back. Simultaneously, a superior force, made overwhelming by the aid of a fleet, would probably attack New York, where Washington had taken his army, because of the strategical importance of the city both as a centrally located base and as a vital point for severing the colonies. Such setbacks would be sufficient to prevent European nations from rallying with America; and greater disaster was possible. With the northern British army sweeping down the Lake Champlain- Hudson River highway, not only would Washington have to retire to the south to preserve his communications, but the colonies would be pinched in two. Had the enemy pushed the capture of New York, this important section would probably have gone loyalist and failed to sign the Declaration of Independence. Had they succeeded in severing the colonies, the war would have been swiftly ended.
When the British fleet appeared off Quebec in May, 1776, Arnold retreated to the head of Lake Champlain. The major obstacle to the British in the north, considering the small American army to be of secondary importance, was Lake Champlain. Not that the lake itself delayed them; it was the one highway through the forest. But on it floated a few flimsy vessels, mostly those Arnold had captured or built. Had he not acted so energetically in the summer of 1775, the British might still have been in control of the lake and on the way to New York. Even now the problem of overcoming those insignificant ships that blocked the whole British army was not insuperable, despite General Schuyler’s opinion. The latter, Commander of the Northern Department, rather inanely wrote, “We have happily such a naval superiority on Lake Champlain, that I have a confident hope the enemy will not appear upon it this campaign. . . .” “Happily” and “hope” are feeble supports upon which to build any enterprise. “Happily” there were ships at all, and the British were not controlling the lake, because of Arnold’s foresight and decisive operations. “Hope” was such a flimsy fabric that Arnold was saying at the same moment, “To augment our navy on the lake appears to me of the utmost importance.” And he set about augmenting it as best he, a subordinate, could. He hurried the construction of additional craft, but was delayed by intrigue and lack of shipbuilders. The British, with better facilities, were at the same time assembling a fleet superior to Arnold’s. Yet had he not labored so energetically they could have captured the lake early in the summer. As it was, the days of summer sped away. The winter period, when operations could not be pressed, was approaching. Despite the energy of their competent naval commander, Douglas, the British were compelled to use up the most vital element in offensive operations—time, swiftness of attack.
At last they were ready to crush Arnold. Although he had failed to obtain the vessels his broad vision had shown to be necessary, he did not hesitate to put what he had to the test. He well knew that man fails not so much from inferior force as from inferior daring. Carefully making plans, sounding around Valcour Island and choosing it as the most favorable location for battle, inspiring his “wretched motley crew” with something of his own courage, he was ready to make the best use possible of his force of 16 small craft and 700 men.
When finally the British had overcome delays imposed by the existence of Arnold’s little fleet, the victory was already with the Americans, whatever the outcome of the actual battle. The summer was gone; the Canadian Army would not unite with Howe at Albany this autumn; the colonies would not be split this year when such disaster might have been final. It was October 11, 1776, before the English, skimming along under a fair wind, suddenly discovered they had passed Arnold’s skillfully disposed fleet. Forced to beat back against the wind, in the beginning they were able to bring only part of their ships into action, so that when they drew off for the night most of the American ships, though much damaged, were still defiantly lined up in their crescent formation.
By judicious planning Arnold had won first honors. The morrow, however, would surely complete the destruction of his ships. So during the night he slipped away, and was not caught until far up the lake. For “five glasses” he maintained a running engagement with his galley, the Congress, in the rear near the wounded Washington. The latter ultimately surrendered. Now that capture faced him, too, he ran the Congress and four gondolas ashore, “pulling to windward, with the cool judgment that had marked all his conduct, so that the enemy could not follow him.” When the vessels were beached he set them on fire with flags flying, and calmly remained until certain of their destruction.
His fleet was virtually destroyed. But it was now October 13. As he retreated through the forest with his hungry, unkempt crews, snow gleamed on the Green Mountains. The most favorable season for military operations had passed. The British still had a slender chance of getting through to New York before winter, but not if the rest of the Americans fought like those under Arnold. For Carlton, who had already demonstrated lack of the energetic audacity necessary in a great commander, Arnold’s stubborn struggle was a final deciding factor. He would give up the project until the following summer. This delay of a year probably saved the colonies. With fleet and army the English had just driven Washington from New York; whereupon France had at once lost interest in entering the war. Washington’s army was melting away. Charles Lee, given by Congress what amounted to an independent command and refusing to co-operate with Washington whose position he coveted, was only one of numerous incompetent military and naval appointees endangering the colonies. The country was on the verge of despair and disaster. Had to all else been added the capture of reputedly strong Ticonderoga and the severing of the colonies, the war might readily have ended this autumn of 1776.
A year later Burgoyne marched through to the Hudson, easily capturing Ticonderoga that was defended by incapable leaders instead of Arnold. But in the months of grace America had been able in a measure to get ready for him. Equally important, Howe, instead of co-operating, sailed with his army to the Chesapeake to march on Philadelphia, thereby committing one of the worst blunders of military history. Washington at once detached part of his force and sent it north. Thousands of militia turned out. Burgoyne, dilatory and blind to the need of swift attack, delayed until finally surrounded and captured. His fall at Saratoga set war fires aflame in Europe. France determined to enter the war immediately lest her ancient enemy come to a compromise with the colonies. It was her money, supplies, and most of all her navy that made possible America’s independence. The remarkable energy of one man instilled into what normally would have been an insignificant lake squadron very possibly had not only saved the colonies directly but had also set under way the chain of events that led to ultimate victory.
Throughout the war, except for brief periods, England’s navy controlled American waters, and hence she reaped countless benefits denied the colonists. At will she captured their ports, except for one early failure at Charleston. In the operations that drove Washington out of New York, her fleet was of invaluable service. Indeed, without it he probably could not have been budged; with more effective use of it and the invading army his whole force could have been captured, causing the collapse of military opposition. After winning New York, to protect the line of communications the fleet also took Newport.
On the other hand, at the end of this year of 1776 during which her Navy had featured so successfully in operations from Quebec to New York, England suffered the first of the number of military reverses that culminating in Saratoga had the decisive influence of bringing France into the war. In a series of swift thrusts, beginning on Christmas night at Trenton, Washington executed his masterful campaign that forced contraction of the enemy lines and brought his own army back into contact with the strategically important Hudson. Although such enemy generals as Howe and Burgoyne were slow, blundering, and inactive, it is significant that as long as they were near their navy they were saved from their errors; whereas, once they moved inland away from its untiring protection, they met disaster. And so it was throughout the conflict. England’s navy was not merely the provider of supplies and a ready means of conquering seaports, it was continually the protector and sustainer of her Army. Without it the war could not have been effectively begun; could America ever get a navy to compete with it, the war would swiftly end.
It was at the nadir of American fortunes in 1776, before Trenton and later American successes, that Jones returned from his daring expedition off Nova Scotia. Everywhere American arms were in retreat. Even the true victory contained in Arnold’s defeat was obscured for most people in what appeared to be immediate disaster. Not only had Washington given up New York, but with his dwindling army he had abandoned both New York State and New Jersey. Congress itself, though composed largely of able men, was demonstrating the tragic ineptness of a government without unity. Success at sea was a light amidst despair, especially since Jones had won his achievement in face of the British navy, the fundamental factor in the colonies’ misfortunes.
Because of this brilliant service, the Marine Committee tried to elevate Jones to virtual command of the fleet, but were blocked by political interference. They were able, however, to give him the Ranger which was to carry him to Europe to take command of a large frigate of unusual force. Were they sending someone who by brilliant daring in continental waters would so inflame France with ardor for the American cause that she would be unable longer to stay out of the war with the fleet America so urgently needed? If they were, they could not have selected a more suitable man. He was so delayed, however, by conditions in the colonies that Saratoga had been won before he could get away, and when he arrived in France it was apparent she was ready then to enter the war. Characteristically developing with opportunity, he presented broad, strategical plans for use of the fleet at last available. To weaken England’s morale by attacking her seaports was one of his proposals. A greater one, that might quickly have closed the war, was to send a French squadron at once to America. Used aggressively, it would have been able to destroy the small and divided British fleet. With the enemy’s army thus cut off, Washington could have quickly and effectively settled “the account current.”
While the French were dallying with these plans that needed only swiftness in execution to insure success, Jones was winning fame. The frigate promised him was not forthcoming. Nevertheless, eager for action, he put to sea in the small Ranger. Raiding up the Irish Sea, descending on the shipping at Whitehaven, landing on St. Mary’s Isle in search of a British nobleman, capturing the Drake of equal force in the mouth of a British harbor—with his one tiny vessel he threw all England in turmoil. He had made the cruise with definite military ends in mind: to harass the British coast so as to make the war less popular in England; to strike at the enemy’s commerce where it was most concentrated; to capture seamen in order to force the exchange of American prisoners; lastly, and for him most important, to deliver a blow at England’s naval power, a blow, small though it may have seemed to her great fleet, that was vital in its pricking of the myth of her invulnerability. He had succeeded in all his aims.
After long delays and discouragements that would have broken a lesser man, Jones was at last able to make his second and more famous cruise into British waters, where he proved eternally that it is the soul of man and not his weapon that brings him greatness. This expedition, as that of the Ranger, was of direct and immediate benefit to the American cause. The war was brought home to England with dramatic force: insurance rates rose; the countryside was alarmed to the point of exaggeration, many Englishmen being in actual terror, and the impression being so lasting that for years mothers are said to have frightened their children into obedience with the threat of Jones’s name; the party opposing war was strengthened. It was Jones himself of whom the English were afraid, but back of this apparently unreasoning fear was sound understanding of the slender margin upon which England’s security depended.
The drama and almost superhuman resolution evidenced in the capture of the Serapis caused the name of Paul Jones, and therefore of Americans, to become a symbol for bravery throughout Europe. Holland, drawn to Jones directly by his entrance into Texel, was not disappointed when England declared war upon her. Russia and Prussia in helping to form the Armed Neutrality must have been influenced to a certain extent by the enhanced American prestige resulting from Jones’s achievements. For once in her long wars with France, England was dangerously alone and unable by coalitions to divide her enemy’s strength.
In America, where despite Washington the war seemed to be favoring the English because of their control of the sea, the successes of Paul Jones were a distinct encouragement. Moreover, as men read and talked of the incredible victory, they were drawn closer towards unity by exultation over American valor. What men admire unites them; again, it shapes them. As Jones, whom Franklin called not a man but a “nor’wester,” traced his brilliant, meteorlike career across America’s history, he left her a sea heritage of priceless worth. Resolution, it says clearly, combined with aggressive preparation and bold enterprise is unconquerable. It was largely due to him that as the United States’ little Navy ventured for the first time upon the great deeps, despite insufficient means, it followed a bold offensive. With such a policy England had won domain of the sea; with the opposite one of a cautious defensive, France had lost not only the sea but much of the world.
Although Jones was never given the fleet with which he could have made America’s independence possible, a fleet did save her. As we have noted, from the outset Washington suffered losses and saw opportunities slip by because the enemy controlled the sea. They went freely where they willed. If trapped ashore, they were easily succored by the fleet. If they desired to capture any port in the colonies, the fleet assured success. Supplies and men were moved as freely as the same task was difficult for Washington. Except for Saratoga, the English had suffered no major reverse. Checked, outmaneuvered, out- thought and outfought by Washington, their armies were never in serious danger as long as they remained near the coast. Since that was about all there was of America, had not sea aid come to her the discouraging war might have gone on until the disunited colonies had eventually split up, and those still willing to fight might have been conquered in detail.
Even after France’s entrance into the war—when for an instant Washington’s hopes were lifted high—the heartbreaking struggle against the sea continued, for the French fleet was neither wisely nor aggressively handled. Money and munitions secretly provided from Louis’ royal coffers had enabled Washington to continue the war until France entered it. Now in 1778 her fleet should have decided it at once. It was in some respects superior to that of England, for the latter had been drowsing while a revolution was taking place in naval science. By means of new ships, superior signals, good tactics, and a carefully developed warfare against rigging, for the only period in her long struggles with England, France was able to defeat her enemy with some consistency at sea. Unfortunately for her, these victories were governed by the defensive policy of merely damaging the opposing fleet so that her own might proceed on its mission or run away without risk. Had she adopted a vigorous offensive instead of her weak traditional policy at sea, Britain might have paid an empire instead of thirteen colonies for her negligence.
As it was, for a long time it was not clear that even the thirteen colonies would win to freedom. With keen comprehension Jones had shown that early in 1778 the American situation was ideal for a decisive blow against England. Her fleet in the western Atlantic was small and scattered. General Howe had dangerously weakened himself by division of his army between New York and Philadelphia. “There never had been ... so wonderful an opportunity of striking an overwhelming blow at the English Navy,” reads Jones’s journal. “If the plan of the expedition had been adopted without delay . . . Lord Howe would have been surprised and captured in the Delaware; . . . the naval forces of England would have been completely destroyed before the arrival of Admiral Byron.” The remaining English land forces would have quickly succumbed.
Two months after Jones’s proposal, his plan was adopted. But d’Estaing was another three months in reaching America. The invaluable delay saved the British. Under orders from England, the Philadelphia army retreated to New York, its artillery and baggage clearing the Delaware Capes on June 28. Ten days later, having lost a supreme opportunity, d’Estaing arrived in the same locality.
Although his tardiness had increased the difficulties, d’Estaing might still have captured New York and the large army now there. It was only necessary to enter the harbor and destroy the much inferior British fleet that its much superior commander, Admiral Howe, had skillfully arranged in expectation of attack. But the French admiral was defeated by timidity. The problem of getting over the bar appeared too difficult. Hence he turned to Newport. Co-operating with an American army, by August 8, 1778, he had hemmed in the British force of about 6,000 men. The next day, however, Admiral Howe, with his fleet re-enforced but still inferior, arrived off the bay. Hastily giving up the siege, d’Estaing went out to meet him. After two days of maneuvering, both fleets were damaged and scattered by a storm. Whereupon d’Estaing quit the Newport venture and retired to Boston, leaving to Howe the credit of having with inferior force saved his fleet and two British armies dependent upon it, “an achievement,” according to Mahan, “unsurpassed in the annals of naval defensive warfare.”
Soon afterward the French admiral sailed to the West Indies. Because of their sugar production, these islands at the time constituted one of the most important trade areas of the world. For the next three years France wasted her American naval activities in attempts to add to her holdings there, apparently never comprehending that had she seized her numerous opportunities to destroy England’s fleets, all the islands must have fallen to her. Meanwhile the British initiated their policy of rolling the rebellion up from the south by capturing Savannah in 1778, Charleston in 1780, and much of western North Carolina in 1781, before Cornwallis was forced to regain necessary contact with the sea at Wilmington, N. C., and later on Chesapeake Bay in late spring, 1781.
Three years had passed since France had entered the war with her large fleet, and those of other nations had since been added. Yet America had derived no apparent benefit from them. English military operations still drew their strength and sustenance from the sea. Washington was still checkmated by it. The war was still unfavorable for the colonies except that the British had withdrawn from Newport and Rochambeau had occupied it when he arrived with 6,700 troops in 1780. Quickly Washington had written him suggesting combined operations. The futility and weariness of five years of striking at an adversary who could never be cornered are summed up in the first words of the memorandum as he cries for ships: “In any operation, and under all circumstances, a decisive naval superiority is . . . the basis upon which every hope of success must ultimately depend.”
Unceasingly he implored France to send another fleet strong enough to control the sea just once off America’s coast. Still none came. By 1781 it seemed as if it might not arrive in time to save the struggling nation. Arnold had joined the British. Some of Washington’s small body of troops were in mutiny for lack of pay and clothing. Continental currency had sunk so low in value that it was a byword for worthlessness. Individual states were refusing to honor requisitions for supplies. Even Washington’s great heart was beginning to falter. Understanding through bitter frustration the meaning of sea power in its broadest implications, fearing that he would never be able to exercise it, and in despair of winning without it, he who had lived through Valley Forge tragically exclaimed, “We are at the end of our tether. . .
Yet at this darkest moment his long prayers were answered, and for the third and conclusive time sea power played its great part in winning the American Revolution: De Grasse was coming with a French fleet that had orders to act in concert with Washington and Rochambeau. At last supremacy at sea was passing to one who knew how to use it. For six years British generals had usually misdirected it in division of their strength. Now Washington, with the genius that lifts him above all other leaders of the war, swiftly prepared the decisive blow.
Co-operating perfectly with Washington’s plans, bringing nearly 4,000 additional troops, and moving with unusual celerity, De Grasse departed for the Chesapeake. About the same time a small British squadron under Hood sailed from the West Indies in search of him. So rapid were Hood’s movements that he unknowingly passed the French flotilla on the way. Finding Chesapeake Bay empty, he hurried to New York to place his ships under Admiral Graves. With dispatch the combined English fleet sailed for the Virginia Capes, seeking not only De Grasse but the French Newport squadron bearing Washington’s indispensable artillery.
Meanwhile, De Grasse had arrived unheralded in Lynnhaven Bay on August 30, 1781. Only six days earlier Washington and Rochambeau, forced to move laboriously by land, had crossed the Hudson with 2,000 American and 4,000 French troops. Rochambeau’s siege artillery at Newport was sent by ship. From all directions forces released or produced by French sea power were converging for the master stroke that was to hem in Cornwallis.
When Graves arrived at his destination on September 5, he was disappointed to find the large French fleet of 24 ships of the line drawn up inside the Capes, where they had been for a week. He had only 19 such vessels. Nevertheless, with traditional British courage he stood in to the Capes. His initiative, however, did not equal his daring. The French fleet straggled out in poor order on the noon ebb tide. Aggressive attack at this moment should have brought Graves victory. Instead, bound by formal rules of fleet warfare, he came about parallel to the French, stopped to let their center come abreast his own, and bore down to engage on a converging course. This choice of attack destroyed any remaining chance of success. His van received the concentrated fire of the enemy. As the remainder of his fleet continued to close, a number became bunched, blanking each other’s fire, and the rear 7 ships of his initially inferior fleet did not get into action at all. Several vessels on both sides were damaged, the British more than the French. Yet De Grasse did not make the most of his advantages and bring about decisive victory. The battle proper ceased about sunset on the 5th. Until the night of the 9th, the antagonists maneuvered, proceeding away from the Capes, but De Grasse would not renew the action. Indeed, he gravely imperiled Washington’s plans: had Graves cut back inside the Capes he could have taken up such a strong position as to force cautious De Grasse to return to the West Indies. Realizing the danger at last, the latter put on a press of sail in the night and arrived in the Bay on the 11th, having won what was seemingly an indecisive victory.
Yet this undramatic, inglorious battle, carried out with bungling on one side and lack of aggressiveness on the other, had results seldom equaled in history. On the 10th, the Newport squadron had slipped through the Capes with artillery for reduction of Cornwallis’ entrenchments; on the 13th, Graves returned to New York settling definitely the doom of the British army cut off from the sea.
For a brief period the English had lost control of American waters. For once the French fleet had rendered effective aid. Washington had waited long and knew too well its importance not to make the fullest use of opportunity. Energetically, before De Grasse should decide to leave, he pressed the siege to a conclusion. With the capitulation of Cornwallis the war was over. On the French fleet at the Virginia Capes had depended the United States’s existence as a nation. As Washington wrote to De Grasse,
With your Excellency I need not insist . . . upon the indispensable necessity of a maritime force capable of giving you an absolute ascendency in these seas. . . . You will have observed that, whatever efforts are made by land armies, the navy must have the casting vote in the present contest.
Out of the waves America had emerged, reborn. The struggling colonies had been repeatedly aided and saved by the sea. The privateers with their captured supplies and annoyance to British shipping; the midget squadron on Lake Champlain and its Saratoga; the infant Continental Navy epitomized in the giant figure of Jones frightening England, raising American morale, bringing America prestige throughout Europe; the French fleet and Yorktown—these were the United States’s gifts at its birth from the life-giving sea. The youthful nation might well have engraved in its heart the beautiful words of a Frenchman to his people at the close of his book on Trafalgar—beautiful, yet filled with the pathos of long frustration for a people who have heard the words but never made them their own:
“Aimez la mer pour vous; aimez la mer pour votre pays” and, we might add, love the sea for your descendants that they may grow strong in its power.
Ford, The Writings of Washington, iii, 178, 179.
Sands, Life and Correspondence of John Paul Jones.
Mahan, The American Revolution.
Ford, vii, 509.
Love the sea for yourself; love the sea for your nation.—Captain Thomazi.