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Military History Book Review: If by Sea

By Dennis Conrad
5/29/2018 • Military History Magazine

If by Sea: The Forging of the American Navy—from the Revolution to the War of 1812

by George Daughan, Basic Books, New York, 2008, $30.

One does not usually associate joint operations with the American Revolution. After reading George Daughan’s book, you will. He demonstrates conclusively that British army operations were tightly tied to their navy or, if they were not, should have been. He also contends that the Continental Navy should have been used in joint defensive operations under George Washington’s direction. Such an arrangement, he argues, would have made both services more effective.

Even more controversially, Daughan contends that the Americans could have and should have held their own in the naval war with Britain. By using unorthodox, low-cost, guerilla-style tactics employing fleets of whaleboats and galleys, the Americans could have overwhelmed larger British warships and then turned them on their former owners. To support this view, he highlights the few occasions when Patriots did just that. Instead, suffering a severe lack of imagination, American leaders tried to replicate the British navy in miniature by building frigates and even a ship of the line and then used that Navy in a wasteful manner or in such superfluous tasks as transporting American diplomats abroad.

Despite his criticism of the composition and use of the Continental Navy, Daughan believes it did achieve something notable and should not be ignored. That achievement was to make a beginning: During the Revolution, America began developing a trained officer corps and a body of enlisted men that would allow the Federal Navy to succeed. Indeed, the second half of the book is a study in how the Federal Navy did succeed often despite wrongheaded direction from civilian leadership, most notably in Daughan’s view, the Jeffersonians. Interestingly, given what he argued about the Continental Navy, Daughan is most critical of Jefferson’s attempt to create a gunboat fleet, arguing that by the time Jefferson and Madison served as presidents, the United States could and should have focused on producing a blue-water Navy that could project force abroad.

Daughan did little original research, so his book is largely a recasting of existing scholarship in a readable style. His best chapters deal with the early years of the Revolution, and Daughan might have been better off confining himself to a study of the Continental Navy. Once he gets to 1779, his treatment of the naval war becomes cursory and spotty. He omits any mention of Alexander Gillon, the frigate South Carolina and the capture of the Bahamas by an American flotilla commanded by Gillon. Nor is the Federal Navy treated in any more depth. Daughan spends so many pages discussing world or national events that relate only tangentially to the U.S. Navy, it often seems a book more about American foreign policy and domestic politics.

 

Originally published in the October 2008 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here

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