The Struggle for Sea Power: A Naval History of the American Revolution, by Sam Willis, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 2016, $35
Historians risk conceptualizing naval power in the American Revolution as a sort of deus ex machina, with fleets appearing at the right side of the map and then disappearing just as mysteriously until the next round. Sam Willis capably fills this gap with a history that both expands to a global scale and zooms to a “barnacular” level of detail.
Willis notes that while historians have catalogued many individual elements of naval combat during the conflict, “no attempt has yet been made to unite or combine these many themes into a comprehensive naval history of the war.” He starts by emphasizing the ways in which naval conflict in North America was interlocked with combat—or the mere specter of it—in such distant theaters as the English Channel, the Straits of Gibraltar, the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean. He stresses the consequentiality of naval operations within the North American theater in occasionally revelatory ways, with ample attention to combat on rivers and lakes. To give two examples, it was the seemingly puny Pennsylvania Navy’s control of the Delaware that enabled success at Trenton and Princeton, while General John Burgoyne’s turn away from his formidable naval forces on Lake George doomed the British at Saratoga.
Among Willis’ emphases is the particular difficulty of maintaining and operating fleets anywhere, given the attendant risks of tides, storms and pestilence, but especially at the month’s remove from home North American operations entailed. Multiple conflicts turned on simple discrepancies of knowledge of local tides and sandbars—more often, though not always, to the benefit of Americans. Their misplaced faith in the Charleston Harbor sandbar, for instance, proved no protection from a British fleet well aware of how to sail over it.
The largest U.S. naval effort during the war, the perhaps deliberately forgotten Penobscot Expedition of 1779, was an utter disaster, but individual American ships soon showed great promise. Even the most famous naval engagement of the war is often misunderstood, Willis stresses. French strategic efforts to bring naval and land strength to bear in one theater while British fleets were occupied elsewhere finally succeeded at Yorktown, and yet this was not the ironclad trap of popular imagination. Lt. Gen. Charles Cornwallis had strong prospects for escape and a substantial fleet still at anchor; he chose not to try.