Monday, February 18, 2013

If By Sea

Birth of the US Navy

George Daughan's book If By Sea: the Forging of the American Navy from the Revolution to the War of 1812 (2008, Basic Books, tells the history of the troubled birth of the US Navy.  During the revolution, the American rebels has to contend with the Royal Navy -- the greatest navy in the world.  The thirteen American colonies faced the greatest Empire in world history which boasted overwhelming numerical superiority, strong leadership and secure naval bases around the globe. They did so largely with a mass of privateers -- merchant vessels that acted as for-profit commerce raiders against British shipping.

John Paul Jones, by Houdon
 Metropolitian Museum, NYC
John Paul Jones, born in Kirkcudbrightshire, Scotland, was the greatest naval hero of the American Revolution.  He brought the American revolution home to British shores by raiding the town of Whitehaven where he stole the local Lord's silverware and burnt a coal ship.  This attack on the English coastline was loudly denounced as terrorism by the contemporary British press.  On September 23, 1779, as captain of the Bonhomme Richard Jones fought and captured the Royal Navy Serapis.  Harvard historian Daughen comments, "This battle had no strategic effect on the outcome of the war, but it had a huge political impact in France, America and England.  The Admiralty revived more hysterical letters over its inability to deal with Jones than it had for any other matter in British history."  If By Sea: the Forging of the American Navy from the Revolution to the War of 1812 (2008, Basic Books,

It was French naval power that helped tip the scales in the American Revolution.  The British surrender at Yorktown would not have been possible without a French navy, led by the Comte de Grasse, cutting off the seaborne escape rout of Lord Cornwallis' troops.

After the war, the vessels for the Continental navy were sold.  Only gradually did the Washington and Adams administration succeed in authorizing the development of a small but effective US Navy.  In May box 1794 War Secretary Knox appointed Philadelphian Joshua Humphreys "Constructor of the Navy off the United States."  Humphreys was a gifted naval architect who designed the 44-gun (which could in fact carry over 50 guns) frigates such as the USS Constitution ( that were faster and more powerful than their European counterparts -- a typical British frigate had 32 to 36 guns.

British Canon, Nelson's Dockyard, Antigua
Daugahn points out that American sailors were far better treated tan their Royal Navy counterparts.  First off American sailors were volunteers and not "impressed" sailors who had been forcibly conscripted.  The American sailors were better fed and housed than the British tars.  In spite of the fact that the Royal Navy outnumbered the US Navy by a fact of about 1,000 ships versus twenty at the start of the conflict, the fledgling US Navy responded surprisingly well to the challenge of facing the Royal Navy superpower in the War of 1812 (see earlier post .

USS Constitution vs. Guerriere
On August 2nd, 1812 Captain Isaac Hull led the USS Constitution  against the British frigate Guerriere about 700 miles east of Boston.  In hist report Hull wrote, "In less that thirty minutes from the time we got alongside the enemy (on e of their finest frigates) she was left without a spar standing , and the hull cut to pieces, in such a manner as to make it difficult to keep her above water."    The Guerriere was the first British frigate to strike her colds to and American ship.  Daughan writes, The Guerrriere was such a ruin that after Hull had removed her men and everything of use to him, he set her on fire."  If By Sea: the Forging of the American Navy from the Revolution to the War of 1812 (2008, Basic Books,

Napoleon's disastrous campaign in Russia was bad news for the Americans in the war of 1812 (see earlier post James Madison's USA and Hideki Tojo's Japan, 7/9/12).  The British could now afford to turn their battle-hardened veteran troops from the Peninsular war and their dominate navy against Madison's America.  Critical American naval victories by Oliver Hazard Perry at Lake Erie and Macdonough at Plattsburg helped to secure the United States from a possible invasion by British veterans from Canada.  Andrew Jackson led the Americans to victory in the Battle of New Orleans that was fought after the peace of Ghent had already been signed.

President John Adams was a strong supporter of an American blue water navy.  Daughan writes, "Adams was a firm believer in Edmund Burke's dictum, 'A great be secure...must be respected.'"  It was evident to Federalists like Washington and Adams that a nation that lacks a navy cannot be respected.

English Harbor, Antigua
The Royal Navy had secure bases throughout the world 
Thomas Jefferson and the Republicans, on the other hand, were opposed funding a blue water navy.  Instead, Jefferson advocated the production of gunboats which could only be used for coastal defence;  these later proved almost entirely useless during the War of 1812.  One, or even several, slow under-armed gunboats were no match for even a 20-gun sloop of war; this was the naval equivalent of bring a knife to a gun fight.  Jefferson hoped to buy defence on the cheap.

Prior to the War of 1812, President Madison, a protege of Jefferson, believed in strictly limited spending on the military.  These policies meant that The Unites States, was, in fact, hopelessly unprepared for the War of 1812.  Repeated American invasions of Canada (New York state militiamen refused to even cross the border into Canada) faltered and the White House and the Capitol in Washington DC were burnt to the ground by the marauding British.  At the war's conclusion, a chastened President Madison, in recommending Congressional approval of the treaty of Ghent that would end the War of 1812 spoke as follows...

James Madison, POTUS IV
"The demands of a peace establishment will doubtless engage the immediate attention of Congress.  There are, however, important considerations which forbid a  sudden and general revocation of the measures that have been produced by the war.  Experience has taught us that neither the pacific dispositions of the American people nor the pacific character of their political institutions can altogether exempt them from the strife which appears beyond the ordinary lot of nations to be incident to the actual period of the world, and the same faithful monitor denominates  that a certain degree of preparation for war is not only indispensable to avert disasters at the onset, but affords also the best security for the continuance of peace.  The wisdom of Congress will therefore, I am confident, provide for the maintenance of an adequate regular force; for the gradual advancement of the naval establishment; for improving all the means of harbor defence; for adding discipline to the distinguished bravery of the militia, and for captivating the military art in its essential branch, under the liberal patronage of the government."  If By Sea: the Forging of the American Navy from the Revolution to the War of 1812 (2008, Basic Books,

That was nearly 200 years ago.  How is the US Navy faring now in the age of Obama?  Has Madison's hard-fought wisdom been remembered today by our President or the current crop of Solons in our Congress?

After Seal Team 6 did its job in getting Osama Bin Laden in 2011, one might suppose that the US Navy would be the Obama administration's favorite branch of the military.  The heroics of ST6 have been celebrated in films such as Act of Valor (see earlier post Act of Valor, 6/17/12) and Zero Dark Thirty.  According to a recent Esquire interview with the man who allegedly got Osama Bin Laden, however,  "the shooter" is 'screwed' -- receiving no pension, no protection and minimal health care benefits for his family  (

USS Abraham Lincoln

Spielberg's Lincoln (See earlier post Spielberg's Lincoln, 2/6/13) was recently screened in the White House by President Obama and his guests.  The film is said to have influenced the content of Obama's second inaugural address.  One might presume that anything associated with Lincoln, another lawyer from Illinois who was elected Senator and then President, might have a special cachet with this administration; one would be sadly mistaken.  

Consider the sad fate of the USS Abraham Lincoln.  The Washington Post writes, "The Navy said Friday that it is postponing the overhaul of one of its nuclear-powered aircraft carriers because of budget concerns.  I happened to see this proud ship in May of 2011 in Pearl Harbor where she was about to leave for a "tiger cruise" to San Diego with crew family members invited.  Today, due to the governments inability to function properly, the ship lies languishing without the necessary funding to get it refurbished and modernised.
Representative Bobby Scott, VA
Representative Bobby Scott (, A Democrat from Virginia's 3rd district who opposed the Iraq war, said, "Even weeks before it is to take effect, we are already seeing the harm sequestration will have on the Hampton Roads economy and the readiness of our Navy with the delay of the overhaul of the USS Abraham Lincoln. It is beyond absurd that we were able to find $3.9 trillion to permanently extend most of the Bush-era tax cuts in the fiscal cliff deal without also finding $1 trillion to turn off the sequester. The men and women who serve our nation in uniform deserve better than this. The men and women at Newport News Shipbuilding who build, repair, and maintain the most advanced naval fleet in the world deserve better than this." (

From the same article, "Frank Kendall, deputy undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, called the across-the-board defense spending cuts set to kick in March 1 and the possibility of the government operating under a continuing resolution instead of a budget for the rest of the year a "nightmare scenario" for the Defense Department.
"It's people not flying. It's ships not steaming. It's maintenance not being done. ... It's units not being trained to go to war," Kendall said.
"I think it's utterly unconscionable to put our people who are so dedicated out there into that kind of position," he said during a speech Friday in the Cowen Aerospace and Defense Conference in Washington, DC."

In order to meet our nation's security needs, basic work such as the reconditioning of aircraft carriers must take place.  Let's not forget that it was President Obama who introduced the idea of sequestration in 2011.  "Woodward’s reporting shows clearly that defense sequestration was an idea that came out of Obama’s White House."  ( It is President Obama and his allies in Congress (including strange bedfellows such as Republican Rand Paul, KY) who would, like Jefferson, rather try to purchase peace on the cheap.  (

Commander K. at Nelson's Dockyard, Antigua
Commander Kelly says, "Remember the timeless words of President Madison -- preparation for war is not only indispensable to avert disasters at the onset, but affords also the best security for the continuance of peace.  Obama's idea of 'sequestration' amounts to Sea-Castration for the US Navy."

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