Naval operations in the American Revolutionary War
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The naval operations of the American Revolutionary War (also, mostly in British usage, American War of Independence), were divided into two periods. The first was from 1771 through the winter of 1779, when the Royal Navy fought with troops employed against the American revolutionaries, on the coasts, rivers and lakes of North America, or in endeavouring to protect British commerce against the enterprise of American privateers. During the second period, the successive interventions of France, Spain, and the Netherlands extended the naval war until it ranged from the West Indies to the Bay of Bengal. This second period lasted from the summer of 1778 to the middle of 1783, and it included operations already been in progress in America or for the protection of commerce, and naval campaigns on a great scale carried out by the fleets of the maritime powers.
American war, 1775–1778
When the war began, the British had 131 ships of the line, but the Royal Navy was in neglect from rapid and poor quality ship construction during the Seven Years' War. They made the mistake of using a North American oak (Quercus alba) that resembled English oak (Quercus robur), not realizing that it was a different species, and that they were harvesting it green. When the ships constructed from the American oak became about 20 years old, they would break apart in a moderate storm.   It was estimated that only 39 ships of the line could be battle ready in the first year of a conflict. The administration of Lord Sandwich, the First Lord of the Admiralty, had ambitious plans to upgrade the fleet, but this had not been completed when the war began. The naval force at the disposal of the American admirals commanding on the North American station was insufficient to patrol mid atlantic. During the first three years of the war, therefore, the Royal Navy was primarily used in support of operations on land, aiding General Thomas Gage and General Sir William Howe during the siege of Boston by seeking stores for the army and in supplying naval brigades. In one of these operations, the first naval engagement of the war, colonists in Machias, then part of Massachusetts (now in eastern Maine), seized a British schooner in the Battle of Machias on June 12, 1775.
At other points on the coast, the British navy was employed in punitive expeditions against coastal towns—such as the burning of Falmouth (now Portland, Maine) in October 1775—which served to exasperate rather than to weaken the enemy, or the unsuccessful attack on Charleston, South Carolina, in June 1776. It was wholly unequal to the task of blockading the many towns from which privateers could operate. British commerce and the movement of military supplies therefore suffered severely, even as far off as the Irish coasts, where it was necessary to supply convoys to protect the Belfast linen trade.
In June 1776 the largest expeditionary force ever launched to date began to arrive in New York Harbor under Britain's Admiral Richard Howe. Eyewitnesses reported that it appeared "all of London was afloat" and the masts of so many ships appeared as a "forest." The fleet set sail from Halifax carrying approximately 23,000 British soldiers and 9,000 German auxiliaries—32,000 troops in all—which engaged the Continental Army in the largest battle of the war, the Battle of Long Island that August. Howe failed to secure the East River at the Continental Army's rear, which Washington exploited after his defeat to perform a tactical retreat to Manhattan over the course of a single night, with all of his remaining troops and supplies intact."
In contrast to the British, the American colonists had no navy whatsoever. The lack of armed vessels to dispute British naval activities in coastal waters and to facilitate the seizure of commercial and military prizes prompted individual colonies to commission armed vessels, and eventually led the Continental Congress to authorize the creation of a small Continental Navy on October 13, 1775. The Continental Navy never launched any ships of the line, so the small vessels were primarily used for commerce raiding. On December 22, 1775, Esek Hopkins was appointed the naval commander-in-chief. With his small fleet, Hopkins led the first major naval action of the Continental Navy, in early March 1776, against Nassau, Bahamas, where stores of much-needed gunpowder were seized for the use of the Continental Army. On April 6, 1776, the squadron unsuccessfully encountered the 20-gun HMS Glasgow in the first major sea battle of the Continental Navy.
The Americans also relied heavily on pirateering to harass British shipping, with some colonial assemblies taking the lead pirate in authorizing such activity. On March 23, 1776, several months before the Declaration of Independence, Congress authorized the issuance of letters of marque and reprisal. American privateers took about 600 British vessels during the war. These privateers were not always working directly for the American cause, since prizes were often sold to the highest bidder, and the British sometimes bought back their own captured cargoes. On the other hand, although the British did not recognize the legality of American letters of marque they could not make good on threats to execute captured privateers for piracy without inviting reprisals against British prisoners of war.
Captain John Paul Jones soon emerged as the first well-known American naval hero, capturing the HMS Drake on April 24, 1778, the first victory for any American military vessel in British waters. He also captured the HMS Serapis on September 23, 1779, while in command of the USS Bonhomme Richard. In 1778, an American naval squadron led by Jones raided the Cumbrian port of Whitehaven. The landing was a surprise attack, taken as an action of revenge by Jones, and was never intended as an invasion. Nevertheless, it caused hysteria in England, with the attack showing a weakness that could be exploited by more powerful states such as France or Spain. One consequence of the raid was an intense period of fortification in British ports.
In America, the British navy covered the retreat of the British Army from Boston to Halifax in March 1776, and then conveyed it to New York City in June. It assisted in the expedition to Philadelphia in July 1777. On the St Lawrence and the Great Lakes, it was able to play a more aggressive part. The relief of Quebec by British Captain Charles Douglas in May 1776 forced the Continental Army to retreat. The destruction of Benedict Arnold's squadron on Lake Champlain in the October Battle of Valcour Island secured the frontier of Quebec and supplied a basis for the advance of British General John Burgoyne in 1777, which ended, however, in his surrender at Saratoga.
France enters the war, 1778
Benjamin Franklin had been in France for over a year asking for assistance before France decided to join the war. The surrender at Saratoga prompted the French, who had already given much covert help to the Americans, to openly enter the war as an American ally. The rupture came in March when British ambassador Lord Stormont was recalled from Paris, but since neither fleet was ready for service, actual hostilities did not begin until July.
The French government was somewhat more ready than the British. On April 13, it dispatched a squadron of twelve ships of the line and four frigates from Toulon to America under the command of the Comte d'Estaing. No attempt was made to stop him in the Straits of Gibraltar, he passed them on May 16, and, because of the inexperience of his crews and his own error in wasting time in pursuit of prizes delayed his passage, he reached the mouth of the Delaware River on July 8 without opposition.
The French government had three goals in view: to help the Americans win their independence; to expel the British from the West Indies; and to force the British to concentrate the majority of their naval strength in the English Channel. To convince the British they were seriously planning an invasion of England, the French fitted out a second, and more powerful fleet, at Brest under the command of Louis Guillouet, comte d'Orvilliers.
The British government, having neglected to occupy the Straits of Gibraltar in time, sent Admiral John Byron from Plymouth on June 9, with thirteen ships of the line to join Admiral Lord Howe, Sir William's brother, in America. He collected a strong force at home, called the Western Squadron, under Augustus Keppel.
Keppel, after a preliminary cruise in June, brought d'Orvilliers to action off Brest on July 27, 1778, in the Battle of Ushant. The fleets were equal but the action was indecisive, as the two forces merely passed one another, cannonading. A violent quarrel, made worse by political differences, broke out among the British commanders, which led to two courts-martial and the resignation of Keppel, and which did great injury to naval discipline. No further event of note occurred in European waters.
On the coast of America, the news of the approach of d'Estaing compelled the British commanders to evacuate Philadelphia on June 18, 1778. Howe then concentrated his force of nine small line-of-battle ships at Sandy Hook on June 29, and on July 11, he learned that d'Estaing was approaching. The French admiral did not venture to make an attack, and on July 22, he sailed to cooperate with the Americans in an effort to expel the British garrison from Rhode Island. Howe, who had received a small reinforcement, followed. The French admiral, who had anchored above Newport, came to sea to meet him, but both fleets were scattered by storms, suffering some damage. D'Estaing sailed to Boston on August 21 to effect repairs.
Howe received no help from Byron, whose badly equipped fleet was damaged and scattered by a gale on July 3 in the mid-Atlantic. His ships slowly arrived during September. Howe resigned on July 25 and was succeeded by Byron.
West Indies, 1778–1779
The approach of winter made a naval campaign on the coast of North America dangerous. June to October are the hurricane months in the West Indies, while October to June includes the stormy winter of the northern coast. This largely dictated the movements and actions of naval forces during the war.
On November 4, 1778, d'Estaing sailed for the West Indies, to the surprise and consternation of the Americans, who hoped to launch operations against Halifax and Newfoundland. On the same day, Commodore William Hotham was dispatched from New York to reinforce the British fleet in the West Indies. On September 7, the French governor of Martinique, the Marquis de Bouille, had surprised the British island of Dominica. Admiral Samuel Barrington, the British admiral in the Leeward Islands, had retaliated by seizing Saint Lucia on December 13–14, after the arrival of Hotham from North America. D'Estaing, who followed Hotham closely, was beaten off in two feeble attacks on Barrington at the Cul-de-Sac of Santa Lucia on December 15.
On January 6, 1779, Admiral Byron reached the West Indies. During the early part of this year the naval forces in the West Indies were mainly employed in watching one another. But in June, while Byron had gone to Antigua to guard the trade convoy on its way home, d'Estaing first captured St Vincent, and then Grenada. Admiral Byron, who had returned, sailed in hopes of saving the island but arrived too late. An indecisive action was fought off Grenada on July 6, 1779. The war died down in the West Indies. Byron returned home in August. D'Estaing, after co-operating unsuccessfully with the Americans in an attack on Savannah, Georgia in September, also returned to Europe.
Spain enters the war, 1779–1780
In European waters, the English Channel had been invaded by a combined French and Spanish fleet of 66 sail of the line, Spain having now joined the coalition against Britain. Only 35 sail of the line could be collected against them under the command of Sir Charles Hardy. But they sailed late, had difficulties with disease and contrary winds, and ultimately withdrew. The allies retired early in September and were not even able to do significant harm to the British trade convoys. In the meantime, the Spaniards had also begun to besiege Gibraltar.
The operations of 1780 continued without decisive battles. The British government, not feeling strong enough to blockade Brest and the Spanish ports, was compelled to regulate its movements by those of its opponents. In the Channel, it was saved from disaster by the ineptitude of the French and Spanish fleets. The only real success achieved by this numerically imposing French-Spanish force was the capture on August 9 of a large British convoy of ships bound for the East and West Indies carrying troops.
Early in 1780, Admiral Mariot Arbuthnot was sent to take command in North America. On the French side, the Comte de Guichen was sent with reinforcements to the West Indies to take command of the ships left in the previous year by d'Estaing. He arrived in March and was able to confine the small British force under Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, 5th Baronet at Gros Islet Bay in Santa Lucia.
After Spain entered the war, Major General John Dalling, the British governor and commander-in-chief of Jamaica, proposed in 1780 an expedition to the Spanish province of Nicaragua. The goal was to sail up the San Juan River to Lake Nicaragua and capture the town of Granada, which would effectively cut Spanish America in half as well as provide potential access to the Pacific Ocean. Because of disease and logistical problems, the expedition proved to be a costly debacle.
In May 1780, d'Arzac de Ternay was sent from Brest with seven line-of-battle ships and a convoy carrying 6,000 French troops to act with the Americans. He had a brush with a small British force under William Cornwallis near Bermuda on June 20 and reached Rhode Island on July 11.
During the rest of the year and part of the next, the British and French naval forces in North American waters remained at their respective headquarters of New York and Newport, watching one another. The West Indies was again the scene of the most important operations of the year. In February and March, a Spanish force from New Orleans, under Bernardo de Gálvez, invaded West Florida with success, and eventually captured Pensacola in a combined Franco-Spanish siege effort. In 1782, de Galvez's forces captured the British naval base at New Providence in the Bahamas.
At the close of 1779, Sir George Rodney had been appointed to command a large naval force which was to relieve Gibraltar and send stores to Minorca. Rodney was to go on to the West Indies with part of the fleet. He sailed on December 29, 1779, with the trade for the West Indies under his protection. He captured a Spanish convoy on his way off Finisterre on January 8, defeated a smaller Spanish force at Cape St Vincent on January 16, relieved Gibraltar on January 19, and left for the West Indies on February 13.
On March 27, he joined Sir Hyde Parker at Santa Lucia, and Guichen retired to Fort Royal in Martinique. Until July, the fleets of Rodney and Guichen, of equal strength, were engaged in operations around the island of Martinique. The British admiral endeavoured to force on a close engagement. But in the first encounter on April 17 to leeward of the island, Rodney's orders were not executed by his captains, and the action was indecisive. He wished to concentrate on the rear of the enemy's line, but his captains scattered themselves along the French formation. In two subsequent actions, on May 15 and May 19, to windward of Martinique, the French admiral could not be brought to close action.
The arrival of a Spanish squadron of twelve ships of the line in June gave a great numerical superiority to the allies, and Rodney retired to Gros Islet Bay in Santa Lucia. But nothing decisive occurred. The Spanish fleet was in poor shape, and the French were in need of rest. The Spanish went on to Havana and the French to San Domingo. In July, on the approach of the 1780 hurricane season, Rodney sailed for North America, reaching New York on September 14. Guichen returned home with the most worn-out of his ships. On December 6, Rodney was back at Barbados from the North American station, where he was not able to effect anything against the French in Narragansett Bay.
Final New World operations, 1781–1782
The rambling operations of the naval war until the close of 1780 began to assume a degree of coherence in 1781. The allies directed forces to such objectives as the capture of West Indian islands and of Minorca and Gibraltar; Britain resorted to defensive movements. The Dutch Republic was formally brought into the war, and the British government was compelled to withdraw part of its fleet from other purposes to protect the North Sea trade. A desperate battle was fought on the Dogger Bank on August 5 between Admiral Parker and Dutch Admiral Johan Zoutman, both being engaged in protecting trade; but the poor state of the Dutch military meant it did not affect the general course of the war. The allies again failed to make a vigorous attack on the British forces in the Channel. They could not prevent Admiral George Darby from relieving Gibraltar and Minorca in April. Minorca was closely invested later and was compelled to surrender on February 5, 1782.
In the West Indies, Rodney, having received news of the breach with the Netherlands early in the year, took the island of Sint Eustatius, which had been a great depot of contraband of war, on February 3, 1781. He also authorized privateering against other Dutch targets, which resulted in the capture of three Dutch colonial outposts in South America. Rodney was accused of applying himself so entirely to seizing and selling the booty taken at Sint Eustatius that he would not allow his second in command, Sir Samuel Hood, who had recently joined him, to take proper measures to impede the arrival of French forces known to be on their way to Martinique. The French admiral, the count de Grasse, reached the island with reinforcements in April, driving Hood away in the process. De Grasse then embarked on a diversionary attack on St. Lucia that masked the detachment of some of his fleet to capture Tobago. De Grasse and Rodney then engaged in a series of skilful but ultimately fruitless operations in which the former sought advantage to attack British holdings and otherwise avoid battle.
In one of the most significant miscalculations of the war, Admiral Rodney, in ill health, decided to return half his fleet to Europe at the start of 1781 hurricane season, leaving Admiral Hood with the other half to follow de Grasse. De Grasse, however, decided to undertake the risky proposition of taking almost all of his fleet to North America, leaving the French merchant fleet with only minimal Spanish protection. When de Grasse sailed north in August, this resulted in a significant imbalance of naval power in favor of the French in North American waters.
On the coast of North America, the war came to its climax. In the earlier part of the year the British at New York and the French at Newport continued to watch one another, but the British fleet suffered damage during a storm in February. Despite this, British Admiral Arbuthnot did indeed succeed in stopping an attempt by French Admiral Destouches to carry reinforcements to the American cause in Virginia, where Benedict Arnold was engaged in raids against poorly-defended military and economic targets. The action he fought off the capes of Virginia on March 16 was poorly fought, but the French were unable to land any troops.
When Hood arrived off Chesapeake Bay in late August, de Grasse had not yet arrived, since he had deliberately taken a longer route to avoid notice. Hood proceeded on to New York, bringing news of de Grasse's approach (although ignorant of his strength) to Arbuthnot's successor, Admiral Thomas Graves. Word that de Barras had sailed from Newport with the entire French fleet led Graves to lead the combined fleet south to the Chesapeake, where de Grasse had in the meantime arrived. In the pivotal Battle of the Chesapeake on September 5, de Grasse got the better of the British, who ended up retreating back to New York while de Barras slipped into the Chesapeake carrying the French siege train. The naval blockade completed the encirclement of the British army of Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown, Virginia, where he was compelled to surrender on October 19. Cornwallis' surrender spelled the end of significant military operations in North America, and led to the start of peace negotiations. While they went on, the war continued in other theaters.
De Grasse returned to the West Indies in November 1781, where he was followed by Hood, and resumed attacks on the British islands. In January and February 1782, he conquered St. Christopher, while a smaller French fleet under Kersaint retook the Dutch South American colonies, and de Barras took Sint Eustatius from Britain. De Grasse's action at St. Christopher was vigorously opposed by Hood, who with a much inferior force first drove de Grasse from his anchorage at Basseterre and then repulsed his repeated attacks. The next objective of the French was to join with a Spanish fleet for an attack on Jamaica. Admiral Rodney, having returned to his command with reinforcements, baffled this plan with a series of operations which culminated in the Battle of the Saintes on April 12, 1782, in which de Grasse's flagship was captured. No further operations of note occurred in the West Indies. In August, La Pérouse's squadron raided the Hudson Bay, capturing and sacking a number of British posts. At home, Howe relieved Gibraltar for the last time in September and October 1782.
East Indies campaign, 1778–1783
The war in the East Indies formed a separate series of episodes. In 1778, the British used combined land and naval forces to capture the French port of Pondicherry after two months of siege, and to later capture French holdings on the west coast of India, including the key port of Mahé. A naval engagement of a very feeble kind took place on August 10 of that year in the Bay of Bengal, between Admirals Edward Vernon and M. de Tronjoly. But the French were too weak in these seas for offensive movements and remained quiescent at Bourbon and Île de France until the beginning of 1782. The port of Mahé had been the principal port through which Hyder Ali the ruler of the Kingdom of Mysore did significant trade, and the British capture sparked him to begin a war with the British East India Company.
In the spring of 1781, French Admiral Pierre André de Suffren de Saint Tropez, also known as the Bailli de Suffren, was sent to the East with a small squadron. On his way, he fell upon the British fleet of Admiral George Johnstone which had been sent to take the Cape of Good Hope from the Dutch, and which he found in the Portuguese anchorage of Porto Praya, on April 16. The attack, while inconclusive in its outcome, enabled Suffren to reach the Cape before Johnstone, preventing the British attack. Having provided for the security of the Cape, Suffren went on to Île de France, where he picked up additional ships and troops. Johnstone, on seeing the Cape strongly defended, contented himself with capturing some merchant ships in a nearby bay, and returned to Europe.
Suffren sailed from Île de France for India early in 1782, where he and British Admiral Sir Edward Hughes fought a series of five actions between February 17, 1782 and June 20, 1783. These battles were noted for the balance in the opposing forces and the largely inconclusive outcomes, and Suffren's ability to maintain his fleet without any reliably safe port facilities. Though he had no port in which to refit and no ally save Hyder Ali, Suffren kept to the sea and did not even return to Île de France during the north-easterly monsoon, instead going to the Dutch port of Aceh to refit. Suffren captured Trincomalee from the British in July 1782, in spite of Hughes, and in what was apparently the last military engagement of the entire war, battled Hughes off Cuddalore, where the British were besieging the French and Mysoreans. While Hughes had a superior fleet, Suffren was able to prevent him from landing reinforcements. News of a preliminary peace agreement ended the siege and the ongoing battles between Hughes and Suffren.
- Naval tactics in the Age of Sail
- Bibliography of early American naval history
- Caribbean theater of the American Revolutionary War
- Mark M. Boatner, Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, p. 769.
- The New Cambridge Modern History, Vol. VIII, Edited by A. Goodwin, Cambridge, 1968
- Quercus alba is the White oak of the Northeastern US, and quercus robur is the English oak. They are both genus Quercus, but different species.
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- This account follows John Sugden, Nelson: A Dream of Glory, 1758–1797, ch. VII.
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- "West Indies Score Card during the American War for Independence", details the changes in possession of various islands during the war; includes maps.