Ambitious, painstakingly detailed account of how the fledgling American fleet grew into a permanent navy.
Despite calls by George Washington and John Adams to raise a naval power, there was no muscular attempt to organize patriot sea militias at the outbreak of the Revolution, largely because the Royal Navy appeared so dominant. The rebels didn’t realize, writes Daughan, former director of the Air Force Academy’s MA program in international affairs, that their strength lay in their humble whaleboats. This is evident in the author’s blow-by-blow re-creation of such early sea skirmishes as the overtaking of the British Margaretta by rebels off the coast of Machias, Maine, on May 24, 1775, a battle that James Fenimore Cooper later called “the Lexington of the sea.” The Continental Congress could not adequately direct naval strategy, while the heroic efforts of patriot seamen like John Paul Jones, John Barry, Lambert Wickes and Nicholas Biddle were squandered on insignificant missions. The French alliance helped turn the tide, but what remained of the Continental Navy played little part in the momentous victories, and the new republic was too broke to fund a navy. Goaded by high-seas piracy and impressments and seizure by the English, Congress eventually passed the Naval Act of 1794, which authorized the construction of a half-dozen frigates—“a pathetically small force,” notes Daughan. President Adams was determined to bolster defense measures, but his successor was unwilling to expend public funds for defense; Jefferson preferred to use the power of commerce as a foreign-relations weapon. The issues of impressments and trade grew increasingly contentious between America and Britain, culminating in the declaration of war by President Madison in 1812. The author demonstrates how American privateers effected some surprising victories, contributing to the growing consensus that the navy was indeed critical to the nation’s defense.
Not just a rigorous, steady-going chronological history, but also a cogent analysis of the genesis of a defense strategy.