Book Review

Tracking a sea change in a nascent nation and its navy

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July 1, 2008

If by Sea: The Forging of the American Navy - From the Revolution to the War of 1812, By George C. Daughan,
Basic Books, 536 pp., illustrated, maps, $30

Addressing the somewhat cryptic title of "If by Sea," George C. Daughan's provocative account of the "forging of the American Navy," it is helpful to precede it with the word "what," and turn it into a "what if" question.

"What if," for instance, the watermen who had ferried Paul Revere across the Charles to sound his "British are coming!" alarm had gathered up some of their compatriots and, on the way back from Charlestown, boarded and captured the British man-of-war Somerset. As it was, their skiff passed close by the Somerset, going and coming, without alerting its none-too-vigilant crew.

The British routs at Lexington and Concord, later that day, writes Daughan, "would have been far worse had the patriots been as organized on the water as they were on land" and captured the Somerset or some of the other men-of-war "dozing in the harbor that night."

In the following months, whaleboat crews seized livestock and military supplies from the islands in Boston Harbor and in the offshore waters a "makeshift fleet" of converted schooners and merchant ships captured 38 ships headed for Boston with supplies for the beleaguered British Army.

But, Daughan writes, introducing an argument that will shape his account of the Continental Navy, "none of the patriot leaders in Massachusetts had given any thought to creating a navy." And when they did, after the fighting began, "they failed to realize where their real strength lay."

For as Daughan, an independent historian who lives in Portland, Maine, writes, that "real strength" lay not in a "big navy," but in a "guerrilla navy" of whaleboats and coastal schooners. "But, for whatever reason," Daughan writes, "when thinking about a Continental Navy," the patriot leaders "always turned to the frigates and 74s of the British fleet."

As early as the fall of 1775, the Continental Congress authorized the conversion of merchantmen into warships, and by year's end had ordered the building of 13 small frigates.

The results were not auspicious. In April 1776, the entire Continental fleet encountered but failed to defeat a small British frigate off Montauk Point. "A humiliation," comments Daughan.

John Paul Jones, who had been the flagship's first lieutenant on that occasion - and would win an improbable victory in Bonhomme Richard while commerce-raiding off the British coasts in 1779 - commented near the end of the war that "upon the whole" the Continental Navy "[had] done nothing for the cause and less for the flag."

The problem, writes Daughan, "was not that the patriots could not produce an effective navy, but that they had created the wrong kind . . . [squandering] their limited resources building a fleet that was of little use and bound to fail." And at war's end in 1783, what little was left of the Continental Navy was sold off.

But within 10 years, with Barbary pirates seizing American merchantmen in the Mediterranean, and Britain blocking them from trading with France, the need for a federal navy became clear.

Ironically, it was George Washington, who in 1776 had failed to appreciate the value of a guerrilla fleet in the defense of New York, who would as president authorize a real "big navy." Pushed through by John Adams, it became the legendary six frigates of the War of 1812, including Boston's own USS Constitution.

Daughan provides serviceable accounts of the political infighting between the pro-navy Federalists and the anti-navy Republicans, Jefferson and Madison. And gives brief, but spirited accounts of the 1812 war at sea, and in the Great Lakes.

But as Daughan notes in a commentary, "it takes a long time to build a navy," not just its ships, but its seamen. And it is in telling the story of its beginnings in the "guerrilla navy" of the Revolution that "If by Sea" will have enduring interest to naval history buffs.

Michael Kenney is a freelance writer who lives in Cambridge.

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