How a Rogue Navy of Private Ships Helped Win the American Revolution

How a Rogue Navy of Private Ships Helped Win the American Revolution

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When it came to waging war at sea during the American Revolution, the mighty British Navy had a vast advantage over its small and inexperienced colonial counterpart. But while the Continental fleet had little impact on the outcome of the war, tens of thousands of citizen sailors seeking both freedom and fortune played a critical, yet underappreciated, role in the quest for independence. An armada of more than 2,000 so-called privateers commissioned by both the Continental Congress and individual states preyed on enemy shipping on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, severely disrupting the British economy and turning British public opinion against the war.

In a tradition dating back to the Middle Ages, international law permitted countries at war to license private seamen to seize and plunder enemy vessels. While privateers differed from pirates in that they received legal authorization to operate through an official “letter of marque and reprisal,” the distinction meant little to those who encountered the marauders on the high seas.

Colonial Privateers Were Driven by Both Patriotism and Capitalism

Although the cash-strapped American colonies would never be able to challenge Britannia’s rule over the seas, they did have one advantage over their motherland. “[The British] have much more property to lose than we have,” quipped Declaration of Independence signer Robert Morris. Facing the impossibility of constructing a fleet to rival the world’s most powerful navy, the Continental Congress decided to authorize privateers as guerrilla-style disrupters.

During the siege of Boston at the onset of the American Revolution, George Washington had leased private ships and manned them with uniformed personnel. The Continental Congress went further in March 1776 by permitting private citizens “to fit out armed vessels to cruise on the Enemies of these United Colonies.” Privateers seeking commissions were required to post bonds of up to 5,000 pounds as collateral to ensure captives would not be mistreated and that they would not knowingly raid American or neutral ships.

READ MORE: 7 Things You May Not Know About the US Navy

While Washington offered the crews of his makeshift navy a one-third share of any goods they captured and sold, the Continental Congress appealed to the financial self-interest of the citizen seafarers by decreeing that privateer crews could keep all of their plunder. “That seed of financial incentive mixed with patriotic obligations awakened the independent spirit of capitalism,” says Robert H. Patton, author of Patriot Pirates: The Privateer War for Freedom and Fortune in the American Revolution.

The measure proved instantly popular as merchants, whalers and fishermen converted their vessels into makeshift warships. By May 1776, at least 100 New England privateers were plying the waters of the Caribbean. “Thousands of schemes for privateering are afloat in American imaginations,” wrote John Adams. According to the National Park Service, the Continental Congress issued approximately 1,700 letters of marque over the course of the war, and various American states issued hundreds more. Privateering proved so popular that the Continental Congress distributed preprinted, preauthorized commission forms with blank spaces for the entry of the names of ships, captains and owners.

The proliferation of privateers, however, infuriated Continental Navy commanders such as John Paul Jones. Not only did the reluctance of privateers to take enemy prisoners make it more difficult to negotiate swaps for the return of American sailors, but privateers lured many seamen away from the navy with the prospects of better pay, shorter enlistment periods and engagements with unarmed merchant ships instead of the fearsome warships of the Royal Navy.

READ MORE: John Paul Jones

Much like investors in the stock market, speculators made vast fortunes by buying shares in and bankrolling privateering enterprises. Ship owners and investors usually received half the value of seized goods, with the other half divided among privateering crews. “Fellows who would have cleaned my shoes five years ago have amassed fortunes and are riding in chariots,” noted New England aristocrat James Warren of those involved in privateering. Morris saw privateering as a numbers game that relied on volume. “One arrival will pay for two, three or four losses,” he wrote. “Therefore it’s best to keep doing something constantly.”

Dispatched in 1776 to French-owned Martinique, a hub of international commerce, to secure weapons for the Continental army, the future Continental Congress delegate and U.S. Senator William Bingham also solicited “private adventurers” of any nationality to raid British shipping. Privateering became so prevalent in the Caribbean that, at one point, 82 English ships were anchored at Saint-Pierre awaiting the sale of their pilfered goods—in some cases back to their original owners. Bingham’s cut on a single shipload of coffee and sugar exceed a quarter-million dollars in today’s terms, according to Patton, who writes that “Bingham’s privateering activities vaulted him into the financial stratosphere.”

READ MORE: 6 Unsung Heroes of the American Revolution

Privateers Damaged the British Economically and Politically

Not only did American privateers’ hit-and-run attacks severely disrupt British commerce from the Gulf of St. Lawrence to the Caribbean Sea; they also operated close to British shores, even ambushing merchant ships in the English Channel. The result: Maritime insurance rates and the prices of imported goods in Britain began to soar.

Privateers’ success in looting and hijacking ships angered Britain’s wealthy merchants, as well as consumers facing higher costs. Denying the legitimacy of the Continental Congress or its right to license privateers under international law, many British lawmakers viewed the American commerce raiders no differently than pirates. Parliament passed the Pirate Act of 1777 that allowed American privateers to be held without trial and denied them the rights of prisoners of war, including the possibility of exchange. The measures spurred an anti-war movement among the segment of the British public that saw the country compromising its moral values in its treatment of enemy combatants and its decision to license its own privateers and revive the forced conscription of British citizens into the navy.

In the wake of the Pirate Act, the Royal Navy captured or destroyed hundreds of American privateers. Most of the 12,000 seamen who died in British prison ships during the war were privateers, and the losses left behind a generation of widows and orphans in some New England seaports. In Massachusetts, according to Patton, Newburyport lost 1,000 men in the destruction of 22 privateering vessels, while Gloucester lost all 24 of its registered privateers, cutting the population of adult males in half over the course of the war.

READ MORE: The Appalling Way the British Tried to Recruit Americans Away from Revolt

Still, despite the British crackdown, there were more than 100 privateer strikes in British waters in 1778 and more than 200 in 1779, according to James M. Volo’s Blue Water Patriots. This delighted Benjamin Franklin, who from his diplomatic post in Paris issued letters of marque to Irishmen sailing around the British Isles and encouraged American privateers to sell captured goods in French ports to create a diplomatic crisis between the British and the French. “Franklin used privateers to drive a rift between France and Britain, who had an uneasy peace,” says Patton. “The war was not really decided until France came into it, and Franklin’s manipulation of privateers was a huge element of that.”

While the Continental Navy captured almost 200 ships as prizes over the course of the war, Patton reports that privateers brought in 2,300, according to conservative estimates. “Privateers not only had an economic impact upon the enemy, but in the political sense they turned the tide of the civilian population in Britain against the war effort,” says Patton.

Off the shore of Staten Island is PC 1264’s grave

Posted On March 29, 2021 05:22:29

Just off the western shoreline of Staten Island – on a body of water called the Arthur Kill – is the graveyard for a ship that deserved much better. The vessel received no name other than the PC 1264 even though it remains a part of U.S. Naval history. She only served for 22 months in combat, with her keel laid in October 1943 and her decommissioning in February 1946.

The ship served as a submarine chaser in the North Atlantic hunting for the Nazi wolf pack. Some believe that PC 1264 wounded a German U-Boat, U-866, after a chase near Buoy Able in February of 1945. German submarines would hide out under Buoys as sonar was being developed by the Allies.

The ship had come far from when President Franklin Roosevelt had written his memo to the Navy Department that led to the manning of PC 1264. FDR concluded, despite the anticipated backlash, that African Americans could man duty in the Navy other than messmen. He suggested that the Navy Department allow African Americans to serve on the line and ordered such on April 7, 1942.

PC 1264 was initially manned with 53 African Americans and its commander was a white officer, Lieutenant Eric Purdon. Several incidents, both good and bad, followed the ship early on. After traveling up the Hudson to load ammunition at Iona Island, Lt. Purdon had trouble getting permission to dock with the ship’s load. In a last shot, they requested permission from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Not only were they allowed to dock, West Point opened its doors to the crew, providing buses and even tours to the sailors.

The ship sailed south to Miami to the then Submarine Chaser Training Center. There, the harassment included long inspections of the returning sailors’ identification cards when coming back on base (by white civilian guards). It was rumored that there was a plan to shoot up the ship. Another chaser crew (of whites) overheard the threat, armed themselves and stood at the gate backing off the white civilian guards.

PC 1264 began serving escort duty in 1944 and provided escorts to shipping, to include protecting the French submarine Argo to avoid it being confused with a German U Boat. A spy revealed the Germans planned to use its U Boat fleet to launch V-1 and V-2 rockets at the ports of the United States in January 1945. PC 1264 ran patrols from New York to Virginia, protecting these ports and the American shipping.

It was in February 1945, while making an “anti-submarine” run against a North Atlantic buoy, that a submarine was believed to have been spotted when a conning tower rose briefly. The U Boat was believed to have been wounded by PC 1264. U Boat 866 was later confirmed sunk by another anti-submarine attack force.

In May 1945, a new officer reported aboard the ship to serve as second in command. Ensign Samuel Gravely, an African American from Richmond, Virginia, would eventually become the Commanding Officer of the vessel. While in Miami, the Shore Patrol detained Ensign Gravely, believing he was impersonating an officer. His crew came to his defense in a heated confrontation. Once it was clear that he was, in fact, a United States Naval Officer, the Shore Patrol backed down. However, the base Admiral demanded then white Commanding Officer Purdon to court martial the black enlisted sailors that had come to Gravely’s defense. Lieutenant Purdon, citing his authority as a Commanding Officer of a ship of line, refused to do so. PC 1264 left for sea shortly thereafter.

Ensign Gravely had the final task of commanding the ship, then with its full complement of African American sailors, to its decommissioning and transfer to the Arthur Kill graveyard on Staten Island. Gravely went on to a successful Navy career, retiring as a Vice Admiral.

PC 1264 sits, today, in the mud until the wind, rain and rust cause her to disappear below the water line.


Preliminary articles of peace were signed on November 30, 1782, and the Peace of Paris (September 3, 1783) ended the U.S. War of Independence. Great Britain recognized the independence of the United States (with western boundaries to the Mississippi River) and ceded Florida to Spain. Other provisions called for payment of U.S. private debts to British citizens, American use of the Newfoundland fisheries, and fair treatment for American colonials loyal to Britain.

In explaining the outcome of the war, scholars have pointed out that the British never contrived an overall general strategy for winning it. Also, even if the war could have been terminated by British power in the early stages, the generals during that period, notably Howe, declined to make a prompt, vigorous, intelligent application of that power. They acted, to be sure, within the conventions of their age, but in choosing to take minimal risks (for example, Carleton at Ticonderoga and Howe at Brooklyn Heights and later in New Jersey and Pennsylvania) they lost the opportunity to deal potentially mortal blows to the rebellion. There was also a grave lack of understanding and cooperation at crucial moments (as with Burgoyne and Howe in 1777). Finally, the British counted too strongly on loyalist support they did not receive.

But British mistakes alone could not account for the success of the United States. Feeble as their war effort occasionally became, the Americans were able generally to take advantage of their enemies’ mistakes. The Continental Army, moreover, was by no means an inept force even before Steuben’s reforms. The militias, while usually unreliable, could perform admirably under the leadership of men who understood them, like Arnold, Greene, and Morgan, and often reinforced the Continentals in crises. Furthermore, Washington, a rock in adversity, learned slowly but reasonably well the art of generalship. The supplies and funds furnished by France from 1776 to 1778 were invaluable, while French military and naval support after 1778 was essential. The outcome, therefore, resulted from a combination of British blunders, American efforts, and French assistance.

34b. Wartime Diplomacy

A Northern commentary on foreign relations, this political cartoon shows England (John Bull) forsaking its stand against slavery when tempted by Southern cotton.

Rebellions rarely succeed without foreign support. The North and South both sought British and French support. Jefferson Davis was determined to secure such an alliance with Britain or France for the Confederacy. Abraham Lincoln knew this could not be permitted. A great chess match was about to begin.

Cotton was a formidable weapon in Southern diplomacy. Europe was reliant on cotton grown in the South for their textile industry. Over 75% of the cotton used by British came from states within the Confederacy.

By 1863, the Union blockade reduced British cotton imports to 3% of their pre-war levels. Throughout Europe there was a " cotton famine ." There was also a great deal of money being made by British shipbuilders. The South needed fast ships to run the blockade, which British shipbuilders were more than happy to furnish.

The Emily St. Pierre a blockade runner operated by a firm specializing in importing supplies to the Confederacy, was the one of the first ships to fly a Confederate flag in Liverpool, England. It also flew the Confederate flag while docked in Calcutta, India.

France had reasons to support the South. Napoleon III saw an opportunity to get cotton and to restore a French presence in America, especially in Mexico, by forging an alliance.

But the North also had cards to play. Crop failures in Europe in the early years of the war increased British dependency on Union wheat. In 1862, over one-half of British grain imports came from the Union. The growth of other British industries such as the iron and shipbuilding offset the decline in the textile industry. British merchant vessels were also carrying much of the trade between the Union and Great Britain, providing another source of income.

The capture of Confederate diplomats aboard the British ship, the Trent by the U.S.S. Jacinto was at first celebrated by Congress. When it became evident that the action nearly caused an international incident, the prisoners were released.

The greatest problem for the South lay in its embrace of slavery, as the British took pride in their leadership of ending the trans-Atlantic slave trade. To support a nation that had openly embraced slavery now seemed unthinkable. After the Emancipation Proclamation, Britain was much less prepared to intervene on behalf of the South.

The key for each side was to convince Europe that victory for its side was inevitable. Early Southern victories convinced Britain that the North couldn't triumph against a foe so large and so opposed to domination. This was a lesson reminiscent of the one learned by the British themselves in the Revolutionary War. Yet, despite all its victories, the South never struck a decisive blow to the North. The British felt they must know that the South's independence was certain before recognizing the Confederacy. The Southern loss at Antietam loomed large in the minds of European diplomats.

Yet efforts did not stop. Lincoln, his Secretary of State William Seward , and Ambassador Charles Francis Adams labored tirelessly to maintain British neutrality. As late as 1864, Jefferson Davis proposed to release slaves in the South if Britain would recognize the Confederacy.

​A friend of the American Revolution is reborn

"Freedom's Frigate" is the nickname of a sailing ship now on its way to America. It's a replica of the French vessel that helped our country win the war of independence. Before its departure, Mark Phillips went aboard:

As memorials to American wars go, this one goes right back to the first one -- the Revolutionary War. And it is certainly among the most handsome and most intricate history lessons ever built.

The replica of the Hermione set sail from Rochefort, France (where the original ship was built), on April 19, destination America. CBS News

A newly-launched replica of the French frigate, Hermione, is now in mid-Atlantic, ploughing her way westward toward the U.S. East Coast. She's retracing the voyage of the original Hermione, whose mission was so crucial in the American War of Independence that she may be one of the most important warships in U.S. naval history, and the most forgotten.

The original was built for speed, and so, according to her crew, is the copy.

"Lafayette said she sails like a bird, and that's true," said Marc Jensen.

Lafayette is the point of this story. The French aristocrat and great friend of George Washington's, the Marquis de Lafayette, was returning to the revolutionary battle aboard Hermione on that 1780 voyage, and he was bringing good news -- that French troops and more fighting ships were also coming to America to support the cause.

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They would prove decisive.

French ground troops played a major role in the final defeat of the British at Yorktown, Virginia, in 1781. That victory would not have happened if French warships hadn't beaten off a British fleet in the Battle of the Virginia Capes.

The replica of the 216-foot French frigate Hermione, built using the same materials and many of the samemethods as the original, requires 16,000sq. feet of sail. CBS News

A lot of that has been forgotten as water has passed under the keel of history. The new Hermione was built to refresh peoples' memories.

And stepping aboard is like stepping back 250 years -- pretty fab!

Marc Jensen, a 57-year-old medical publisher from New York and one of several Americans on the mostly French crew, thinks it's pretty fabulous, too. Jensen was smitten by the ship and the history the first time he saw her.

"As an American I knew about Lafayette," he told Phillips, "but I knew nothing about how he got to the States and what age he was, and I found the human part of the story really fascinating."

What started as a love of history has become a love of this re-creation of it.

"I think on some levels we forget and we look at it as an old ship," Jensen said. "We think of her as very slow and ploddish. In fact, at the time she was a racecar, she was a Formula One at the time, and it impressed the other sailors to no end."

The crew - many volunteers - of the Hermione. CBS News

And she's still impressing sailors, including her captain, Yann Cariou. He expected to be handed a lumbering antique, or the reproduction of one. But he found something else.

Phillips asked, "As a man of the 21st century, and a man of the sea of the 21st century, are you impressed with what 18th century sail and 18th century marine technology accomplished?"

"Yes, very impressed," Cariou said. "Because when we sail the first time and we discovered immediately how the ship was a fast and seaworthy ship and we said, 'How?'"

"How" has become the operative word on Hermione. How to sail her? A lot of the skills of managing a square rigger had to be re-learned.

And how to build her. Almost all the skills that builders had in the days of great wooden sailing ships had disappeared, and the whole industry that supported shipbuilding had vanished centuries ago. Materials had to be sourced. A new generation of shipwrights had to re-learn long-lost skills.

Fifteen hundred French oak trees were used in the construction of the new Hermione. Hermione 2015

Luckily they had time. It took 17 years to build the new Hermione as funds had to be raised, mostly from public contributions and by selling tickets to the historic shipyard where the construction slowly took place.

In the end, she cost about $30 million, and nobody's regretted a penny, least of all Bruno Grevallier, who was one of the people who had had the idea after a few too many glasses of wine one night.

Phillips noted, "It's almost more difficult to build -- or is more difficult -- to build a ship like this now than it would have been 250 years ago."

"Sure, and this is one of the reasons it lasted so long," said Grevallier. "The other one is getting the money to do it!"

Drawings of the French frigate Concorde, captured by the British Navy in 1783. National Maritime Museum

There is a delicious irony to the story. The reason the Hermione could be rebuilt so accurately is because a sister ship, the Concorde, was captured by the British in 1783.

And the British were so impressed they brought the Concorde to England, where the Royal Navy made line drawings of her to find out what made her so good.

Those drawings are now in the British National Maritime Museum, where Jeremy Mitchell is their custodian.

There was a fundamental British curiosity, if not admiration, for the kind of ships the French were building in that era. Mitchell said the French ships "had a reputation for being faster, for being a more nimble ship. And it was always kudos for a French ship to be captured and then given to a British officer because of that reputation."

The drawings became the new ship. And the Hermione is set on a course to impress America again.

Adam Hodge-LeClair is a 22-year-old history student from Lincoln, Massachusetts. "When the ship arrived in Boston, there was a newspaper article in one of the Massachusetts papers of the period, that describes this arrival, and is talking about this incredibly new modern French frigate that's been copper-bottomed and carries Lafayette, this rock star," said Hodge-LeClair.

He said the Hermione represented the state of the art: "It was like looking at the equivalent of a modern destroyer, top of the line."

The original Hermione was nicknamed "Freedom's Frigate." She was wrecked in a storm in 1793. But now Hermione, and her story, live again.


First skirmishes Edit

The Battle of Lexington and Concord on 19 April 1775 drew thousands of militia forces from throughout New England to the towns surrounding Boston. These men remained in the area and their numbers grew, placing the British forces in Boston under siege when they blocked all land access to the peninsula. The British were still able to sail in supplies from Nova Scotia, Providence, and other places because the harbour remained under British naval control. [5] Colonial forces could do nothing to stop these shipments due to the naval supremacy of the British fleet and the complete absence of any sort of rebel armed vessels in the spring of 1775. [A] Nevertheless, while the British were able to resupply the city by sea, the inhabitants and the British forces were on short rations, and prices rose quickly [6] Vice-Admiral Samuel Graves commanded the Royal Navy around occupied Boston under overall leadership of Governor General Thomas Gage. [7] Graves had hired storage on Noddle's Island for a variety of important naval supplies, hay and livestock, which he felt were important to preserve, owing to the "almost impossibility of replacing them at this Juncture". [8]

During the siege, with the supplies in the city running shorter by the day, British troops were sent to the Boston Harbour to raid farms for supplies. Graves, apparently acting on intelligence that the Colonials might make attempts on the islands, posted guard boats near Noddle's Island. These were longboats that included detachments of Marines. [8] Sources disagree as to whether or not any regulars or marines were stationed on Noddle's Island to protect the naval supplies. [B] In response, the Colonials began clearing Noddle's Island and Hog Island of anything useful to the British. [C] Graves on his flagship HMS Preston, taking notice of this, signalled for the guard marines to land on Noddle's island and ordered the armed schooner Diana, under the command of his nephew Lieutenant Thomas Graves, to sail up Chelsea Creek to cut off the colonists' route. [8] This contested action resulted in the loss of two British soldiers and the capture and burning of Diana. [9] This setback prompted Graves to move HMS Somerset, which had been stationed in the shallow waters between Boston and Charlestown, into deeper waters to the east of Boston, where it would have improved manoeuvrability if fired upon from land. [10] He also belatedly sent a detachment of regulars to secure Noddle's Island the colonists had long before removed or destroyed anything of value on the island. [11]

The need for building materials and other supplies led Admiral Graves to authorise a loyalist merchant to send his two ships Unity and Polly from Boston to Machias in the District of Maine, escorted by the armed schooner Margaretta under the command of James Moore, a midshipman from Graves' flagship Preston. [12] Moore also carried orders to recover what he could from the wreck of HMS Halifax, which had apparently been run aground in Machias Bay by a patriot pilot in February 1775. [13] After a heated negotiation, the Machias townspeople seized the merchant vessels and the schooner after a short battle in which Moore was killed. Jeremiah O'Brien immediately outfitted one of the three captured vessels [D] with breastwork, [E] armed her with the guns and swivels taken from Margaretta and changed her name to Machias Liberty. [14] In July 1775, Jeremiah O'Brien and Benjamin Foster captured two more British armed schooners, Diligent and Tatamagouche, whose officers had been captured when they came ashore near Bucks Harbour. [15] In August 1775, the Provincial Congress formally recognised their efforts, commissioning both Machias Liberty and Diligent into the Massachusetts Navy, with Jeremiah O'Brien as their commander. [16] The community would be a base for privateering until the war's end. [17]

Their resistance, and that of other coastal communities, led Graves to authorise a reprisal expedition in October whose sole significant act was the Burning of Falmouth. [18] On 30 August, Royal Naval Captain James Wallace, commanding Rose fired into the town of Stonington, after the townspeople there prevented Rose ' s tender from capturing a vessel it had chased into the harbour. [19] Wallace also fired on the town of Bristol, in October, after its townspeople refused to deliver livestock to him. [20] The outrage in the colonies over these action contributed to the passing of legislation by the Second Continental Congress that established the Continental Navy. [16] The US Navy recognises 13 October 1775, as the date of its official establishment — [21] the Second Continental Congress had established the Continental Navy in late 1775. [22] On this day, Congress authorised the purchase of two armed vessels for a cruise against British merchant ships these ships became Andrew Doria and Cabot. [21] The first ship in commission was Alfred purchased on 4 November and commissioned on 3 December by Captain Dudley Saltonstall. [23] John Adams drafted its first governing regulations, adopted by Congress on 28 November 1775, which remained in effect throughout the Revolution. The Rhode Island resolution, reconsidered by the Continental Congress, passed on 13 December 1775, authorising the building of thirteen frigates within the next three months, five ships of 32 guns, five with 28 guns and three with 24 guns. [24]

Foundation of the Continental Navy Edit

The desperate shortage of gunpowder available to the Continental Army had led the Congress to organise a naval expedition, one of whose goals was the seizure of the military supplies at Nassau. [25] While the orders issued by the Congress to Esek Hopkins, the fleet captain selected to lead the expedition, included only instructions for patrolling and raiding British naval targets on the Virginia and Carolina coastline, additional instructions may have been given to Hopkins in secret meetings of the Congress' Naval Committee. [26] The instructions that Hopkins issued to his fleet's captains before it sailed from Cape Henlopen, Delaware on February 17, 1776, included instructions to rendezvous at Great Abaco Island in the Bahamas. [27] The fleet that Hopkins launched consisted of: Alfred, Hornet, Wasp, Fly, Andrew Doria, Cabot, Providence, and Columbus. In addition to ships' crews, it carried 200 marines under the command of Samuel Nicholas. [28] In early March, the fleet (reduced by one due to tangled rigging en route) landed marines on the island of New Providence and captured the town of Nassau in the Bahamas. [29] After loading the fleet's ships, (enlarged to include two captured prize ships), with military stores, the fleet sailed north on 17 March, with one ship dispatched to Philadelphia, while the rest of the fleet sailed for the Block Island channel, with Governor Browne and other officials as prisoners. [30] Outbreaks of a variety of diseases, including fevers and smallpox, resulting in significant reductions in crew effectiveness, marked the fleet's cruise. [31]

The return voyage was uneventful until the fleet reached the waters off Long Island. On 4 April, the fleet encountered and captured a prize, Hawk, which was laden with supplies. The next day brought a second prize Bolton, which was also laden with stores that included more armaments and powder. [32] Hoping to catch more easy prizes, Hopkins continued to cruise off Block Island that night, forming the fleet into a scouting formation of two columns. [33] The need to man the prizes further reduced the fighting effectiveness of the fleet's ships. [31] The fleet finally met resistance on April 6, when it encountered the Glasgow, a heavily armed sixth-rate ship. In the ensuing action, the outnumbered Glasgow managed to escape capture, severely damaging the Cabot in the process, wounding her captain, Hopkins' son John Burroughs Hopkins, and killing or wounding eleven others. [34] Andrew Doria's Captain Nicholas Biddle described the battle as "helter-skelter". [33] They reached New London on 8 April. [35]

Although Continental Congress President John Hancock praised Hopkins for the fleet's performance, its failure to capture Glasgow gave opponents of the Navy in and out of Congress opportunities for criticism. Nicholas Biddle wrote of the action, "A more imprudent, ill-conducted affair never happened". [36] Abraham Whipple, captain of Columbus, endured rumours and accusations of cowardice for a time, but eventually asked for a court-martial to clear his name. Held on 6 May by a panel consisting of officers who had been on the cruise, he was cleared of cowardice, although he was criticised for errors of judgment. [37] John Hazard, captain of Providence, was not so fortunate. Charged by his subordinate officers with a variety of offences, including neglect of duty during the Glasgow action, he was convicted by court-martial and forced to surrender his commission. [38]

Commodore Hopkins came under scrutiny from Congress over matters unrelated to this action. He had violated his written orders by sailing to Nassau instead of Virginia and the Carolinas, and he had distributed the goods taken during the cruise to Connecticut and Rhode Island without consulting Congress. [39] He was censured for these transgressions, and dismissed from the Navy in January 1778 after further controversies, including the fleet's failure to sail again (a number of its ships suffered from crew shortages, and also became trapped at Providence by the British occupation of Newport late in 1776). [40] American forces were not strong enough to dislodge the British garrison there, which was also supported by British ships using Newport as a base. [41]

On Lake Champlain, Benedict Arnold supervised the construction of 12 vessels to protect access into Hudson River's uppermost navigable reaches from advancing British forces. A British fleet destroyed Arnold's in the Battle of Valcour Island, but the fleet's presence on the lake managed to slow down the British progression enough until winter came before they were able capture Fort Ticonderoga. [42] By mid-1776, a number of ships, ranging up to and including the thirteen frigates approved by Congress, were under construction, but their effectiveness was limited they were completely outmatched by the mighty Royal Navy, and nearly all were captured or sunk by 1781. [43]

Privateers had some success with 1,697 letters of marque being issued by Congress. Individual states and American agents in Europe and in the Caribbean also issued commissions. Taking duplications into account, various authorities issued more than 2,000 commissions. Lloyd's of London estimated that Yankee privateers captured 2,208 British ships, amounting to almost $66 million, a significant sum at the time. [44]

French movements Edit

For its first major attempt at co-operation with the Americans, France sent Vice-Admiral Comte Charles Henri Hector d'Estaing, with a fleet of 12 ships of the line and some French Army troops to North America in April 1778, with orders to blockade the British North American fleet in the Delaware River. [45] Although British leaders had early intelligence that d'Estaing was likely headed for North America, political and military differences within the government and navy delayed the British response, allowing him to sail unopposed through the Straits of Gibraltar. It was not until early June that a fleet of 13 ships of the line under the command of Vice-Admiral John Byron left European waters in pursuit. [46] D'Estaing's Atlantic crossing took three months, but Byron (who was called "Foul-weather Jack" due to his repeated bad luck with the weather) was also delayed by bad weather and did not reach New York until mid-August. [45] [47]

The British evacuated Philadelphia to New York City before d'Estaing's arrival, and their North American fleet was no longer in the river when his fleet arrived at Delaware Bay in early July. [45] D'Estaing decided to sail for New York, but its well-defended harbour presented a daunting challenge to the French fleet. [48] Since the French and their American pilots believed his largest ships were unable to cross the sandbar into New York harbour, their leaders decided to deploy their forces against British-occupied Newport, Rhode Island. [49] While d'Estaing was outside the harbour, British Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Clinton and Vice-Admiral Lord Richard Howe dispatched a fleet of transports carrying 2,000 troops to reinforce Newport via Long Island Sound these reached their destination on 15 July, raising the size of Major General Sir Robert Pigot's garrison to over 6,700 men. [50]

French arrival at Newport Edit

On 22 July, when the British judged the tide high enough for the French ships to cross the sandbar, d'Estaing sailed instead from his position outside New York harbour. [49] He sailed south initially before turning northeast toward Newport. [51] The British fleet in New York, eight ships of the line under the command of Lord Richard Howe, sailed out after him once they discovered his destination was Newport. [52] D'Estaing arrived off Point Judith on 29 July, and immediately met with Major Generals Nathanael Greene and Gilbert du Motier, marquis de Lafayette, to develop a plan of attack. [53] Major General John Sullivan's proposal was that the Americans would cross over to Aquidneck Island's (Rhode Island) eastern shore from Tiverton, while French troops using Conanicut Island as a staging ground, would cross from the west, cutting off a detachment of British soldiers at Butts Hill on the northern part of the island. [54] The next day, d'Estaing sent frigates into the Sakonnet River (the channel to the east of Aquidneck) and into the main channel leading to Newport. [53]

As allied intentions became clear, General Pigot decided to redeploy his forces in a defensive posture, withdrawing troops from Conanicut Island and from Butts Hill. He also decided to move nearly all livestock into the city, ordered the levelling of orchards to provide a clear line of fire, and destroyed carriages and wagons. [55] The arriving French ships drove several of his supporting ships aground, which were then burned to prevent their capture. As the French worked their way up the channel toward Newport, Pigot ordered the remaining ships scuttled to hamper French access to Newport's harbour. On 8 August d'Estaing moved the bulk of his fleet into Newport Harbour. [52]

On 9 August d'Estaing began disembarking some of his 4,000 troops onto nearby Conanicut Island. The same day, General Sullivan learned that Pigot had abandoned Butts Hill. Contrary to the agreement with d'Estaing, Sullivan then crossed troops over to seize that high ground, concerned that the British might reoccupy it in strength. Although d'Estaing later approved of the action, his initial reaction, and that of some of his officers, was one of disapproval. John Laurens wrote that the action "gave much umbrage to the French officers". [56] Sullivan was en route to a meeting with d'Estaing when the latter learned that Admiral Howe's fleet had arrived. [57]

Storm damage Edit

Lord Howe's fleet was delayed departing New York by contrary winds, and he arrived off Point Judith on 9 August. [58] Since d'Estaing's fleet outnumbered Howe's, the French admiral, fearful that Howe would be further reinforced and eventually gain a numerical advantage, reboarded the French troops, and sailed out to do battle with Howe on 10 August. [52] As the two fleets prepared to battle and manoeuvreered for position, the weather deteriorated, and a major storm broke out. Raging for two days, the storm scattered both fleets, severely damaging the French flagship. [59] It also frustrated plans by Sullivan to attack Newport without French support on 11 August. [60] While Sullivan awaited the return of the French fleet, he began siege operations, moving closer to the British lines on 15 August and opening trenches to the northeast of the fortified British line north of Newport the next day. [61]

As the two fleets sought to regroup, individual ships encountered enemy ships, and there were several minor naval skirmishes two French ships (including d'Estaing's flagship), already suffering storm damage, were badly mauled in these encounters. [59] The French fleet regrouped off Delaware, and returned to Newport on 20 August, while the British fleet regrouped at New York. [62]

Despite pressure from his captains to sail immediately for Boston to make repairs, Admiral d'Estaing instead sailed for Newport to inform the Americans he would be unable to assist them. Upon his arrival on 20 August he informed Sullivan, and rejected entreaties that the British could be compelled to surrender in just one or two days with their help. Of the decision, d'Estaing wrote: "It was [. ] difficult to persuade oneself that about six thousand men well entrenched and with a fort before which they had dug trenches could be taken either in twenty-four hours or in two days". [63] Any thought of the French fleet remaining at Newport was also opposed by d'Estaing's captains, with whom he had a difficult relationship because of his arrival in the navy at a high rank after service in the French army. [63] D'Estaing sailed for Boston on 22 August. [64]

D'Estaing reach Boston Edit

The French decision brought on a wave of anger in the American ranks and its commanders. Although General Greene penned a complaint that John Laurens termed "sensible and spirited", General Sullivan was less diplomatic. [64] In a missive containing much inflammatory language, he called d'Estaing's decision "derogatory to the honor of France", and included further complaints in orders of the day that were later suppressed when cooler heads prevailed. [65] American writers from the ranks called the French decision a "desertion", and noted that they "left us in a most Rascally manner". [66]

The French departure prompted a mass exodus of the American militia, significantly shrinking the American force. [67] On 24 August, Sullivan was alerted by General George Washington that Clinton was assembling a relief force in New York. That evening his council made the decision to withdraw to positions on the northern part of the island. [68] Sullivan continued to seek French assistance, dispatching Lafayette to Boston to negotiate further with d'Estaing. [69]

In the meantime, the British in New York had not been idle. Lord Howe, concerned about the French fleet and further reinforced by the arrival of ships from Byron's storm-tossed squadron, sailed out to catch d'Estaing before he reached Boston. General Clinton organised a force of 4,000 men under Major General Charles Grey, and sailed with it on 26 August, destined for Newport. [70]

The inflammatory writings of General Sullivan arrived before the French fleet reached Boston Admiral d'Estaing's initial reaction was reported to be a dignified silence. Under pressure from Washington and the Continental Congress, politicians worked to smooth over the incident while d'Estaing was in good spirits when Lafayette arrived in Boston. D'Estaing even offered to march troops overland to support the Americans: "I offered to become a colonel of infantry, under the command of one who three years ago was a lawyer, and who certainly must have been an uncomfortable man for his clients". [71]

General Pigot was harshly criticise by Clinton for failing to await the relief force, which might have successfully entrapped the Americans on the island. [72] He left Newport for England not long after. Newport was abandoned by the British in October 1779 with economy ruined by the war. [73]

Other actions Edit

The relief force of Clinton and Grey arrived at Newport on 1 September. [74] Given that the threat was over, Clinton instead ordered Grey to raid several communities on the Massachusetts coast. [75] Admiral Howe was unsuccessful in his bid to catch up with d'Estaing, who held a strong position at the Nantasket Roads when Howe arrived there on 30 August. [76] Admiral Byron, who succeeded Howe as head of the New York station in September, was also unsuccessful in blockading d'Estaing: his fleet was scattered by a storm when it arrived off Boston, while d'Estaing sailed away, bound for the West Indies. [77] [78]

The British Navy in New York had not been inactive. Vice-Admiral Sir George Collier engaged in a number of amphibious raids against coastal communities from Chesapeake Bay to Connecticut, and probed at American defences in the Hudson River valley. [79] Coming up the river in force, he supported the key outpost capture of Stony Point, but advanced no further. When Clinton weakened the garrison there to provide men for raiding expeditions, Washington organised a counterstrike. Brigadier General Anthony Wayne led a force that, solely using the bayonet, recaptured Stony Point. [80] The Americans chose not to hold the post, but their morale was dealt a blow later in the year, when their failure to co-operate with the French led to an unsuccessful attempt to dislodge the British from Savannah. [81] Control of Georgia was formally returned to its royal governor, James Wright, in July 1779, but the backcountry would not come under British control until after the 1780 Siege of Charleston. [82] Patriot forces recovered Augusta by siege in 1781, but Savannah remained in British hands until 1782. [83] The damage sustained at Savannah forced Marseillois, Zélé, Sagittaire, Protecteur and Experiment to return to Toulon for repairs. [84]

John Paul Jones in April 1778 led a raid on the western English town of Whitehaven, representing the first engagement by American forces outside of North America.

French and American planning for 1781 Edit

French military planners had to balance competing demands for the 1781 campaign. After the unsuccessful American attempts of co-operation leading to failed assaults at Rhode Island and Savannah, they realised more active participation in North America was needed. [85] However, they also needed to co-ordinate their actions with Spain, where there was potential interest in making an assault on the British stronghold of Jamaica. It turned out that the Spanish were not interested in operations against Jamaica until after they had dealt with an expected British attempt to reinforce besieged Gibraltar, and merely wanted to be informed of the movements of the West Indies fleet. [86]

As the French fleet was preparing to depart Brest, France in March 1781, several important decisions were made. The West Indies fleet, led by the Rear-Admiral Comte François Joseph Paul de Grasse, after operations in the Windward Islands, was directed to go to Cap-Français (present-day Cap-Haïtien, Haiti) to determine what resources would be required to assist Spanish operations. Because of a lack of transports, France also promised six million livres to support the American war effort instead of providing additional troops. [87] The French fleet at Newport was given a new commander, the Comte Jacques-Melchior de Barras Saint-Laurent. He was ordered to take the Newport fleet to harass British shipping off Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, and the French army at Newport was ordered to combine with Washington's army outside New York. [88] In orders that were deliberately not fully shared with General Washington, De Grasse was instructed to assist in North American operations after his stop at Cap-Français. The French Lieutenant-General Comte Jean-Baptiste de Rochambeau, was instructed to tell Washington that de Grasse might be able to assist, without making any commitment (Washington learned from John Laurens, stationed in Paris, that de Grasse had discretion to come north). [89] [90]

Opening moves Edit

In December 1780, General Clinton sent Brigadier General Benedict Arnold (who had changed sides the previous September) with about 1,700 troops to Virginia to carry out raiding and to fortify Portsmouth. [91] Washington responded by sending the Marquis de Lafayette south with a small army to oppose Arnold. [92] Seeking to trap Arnold between Lafayette's army and a French naval detachment, Washington sought the Admiral Chevalier Destouches, the commander of the French fleet at Newport for help. Destouches was restrained by the larger British North American fleet anchored at Gardiner's Bay off the eastern end of Long Island, and was unable to help. [93]

In early February, after receiving reports of British ships damaged by a storm, Destouches decided to send a naval expedition from his base in Newport. [94] On 9 February, Captain Arnaud de Gardeur de Tilley sailed from Newport with three ships (ship of the line Eveille and frigates Surveillante and Gentile). [95] [96] When de Tilley arrived off Portsmouth four days later, Arnold retreated his ships, which had shallower drafts, up the Elizabeth River, where the larger French ships could not follow. [94] [97] Unable to attack Arnold's position, de Tilley could only return to Newport. [98] On the way back, the French captured HMS Romulus, a 44-gun frigate sent to investigate their movements. [97] This success and the pleas of General Washington, permitted Destouches to launch a full-scale operation. On 8 March, Washington was in Newport when Destouches sailed with his entire fleet, carrying 1,200 troops for use in land operations when they arrived in the Chesapeake. [92] [93]

Vice-Admiral Mariot Arbuthnot, the British fleet commander in North America, was aware that Destouches was planning something, but did not learn of Destouches' sailing until 10 March, and immediately led his fleet out of Gardiner Bay in pursuit. He had the advantage of favourable winds, and reached Cape Henry on 16 March, slightly ahead of Destouches. [93] Although suffering a tactical defeat, Arbuthnot was able to pull into Chesapeake Bay, thus frustrating the original intent of Destouches' mission, forcing the French fleet to return to Newport. [99] After transports delivered 2,000 men to reinforce Arnold, Arbuthnot returned to New York. He resigned his post as station chief in July and left for England, ending a stormy, difficult, and unproductive relationship with General Clinton. [100] [92]

Arrival of the fleets Edit

The French fleet sailed from Brest on 22 March. The British fleet was busy with preparations to resupply Gibraltar, and did not attempt to oppose the departure. [101] After the French fleet sailed, the packet ship Concorde sailed for Newport, carrying the comte de Barras, Rochambeau's orders, and credits for the six million livres. [87] In a separate dispatch sent later, Admiral de Grasse also made two important requests. The first was that he be notified at Cap-Français of the situation in North America so that he could decide how he might be able to assist in operations there, [90] and the second was that he be supplied with 30 pilots familiar with North American waters. [101]

On 21 May Generals George Washington and the comte de Rochambeau, respectively the commanders of the American and French armies in North America, met to discuss potential operations against the British. They considered either an assault or siege on the principal British base at New York City, or operations against the British forces in Virginia. Since either of these options would require the assistance of the French fleet then in the West Indies, a ship was dispatched to meet with de Grasse who was expected at Cap-Français, outlining the possibilities and requesting his assistance. [102] Rochambeau, in a private note to de Grasse, indicated that his preference was for an operation against Virginia. The two generals then moved their forces to White Plains, New York to study New York's defences and await news from de Grasse. [103]

De Grasse arrived at Cap-Français on 15 August. He immediately dispatched his response, which was that he would make for the Chesapeake. Taking on 3,200 troops, he sailed from Cap-Français with his entire fleet, 28 ships of the line. Sailing outside the normal shipping lanes to avoid notice, he arrived at the mouth of Chesapeake Bay on 30 August [103] and disembarked the troops to assist in the land blockade of Cornwallis. [104] Two British frigates that were supposed to be on patrol outside the bay were trapped inside the bay by de Grasse's arrival this prevented the British in New York from learning the full strength of de Grasse's fleet until it was too late. [105]

British Vice-Admiral Sir George Brydges Rodney had been warned that de Grasse was planning to take at least part of his fleet north. [106] Although he had some clues that he might take his whole fleet (he was aware of the number of pilots de Grasse had requested, for example), he assumed that de Grasse would not leave the French convoy at Cap-Français, and that part of his fleet would escort it to France. [107] So Rodney accordingly divided his fleet, sending Rear-Admiral Sir Samuel Hood north with 15 ships of the line and orders to find de Grasse's destination in North America and report to New York. [108] Rodney, who was ill, took the rest of the fleet back to Britain in order to recover, refit his fleet, and to avoid the Atlantic hurricane season. Hood sailed from Antigua on 10 August, five days after de Grasse. [109] During the voyage, one of his ships became separated and was captured by a privateer. [110]

Sailing more directly than de Grasse, Hood's fleet arrived off the entrance to the Chesapeake on 25 August. [3] Finding no French ships there, he then sailed on to New York to meet with Rear-Admiral Sir Thomas Graves, in command of the North American station following Arbuthnot's departure, [111] whom had spent several weeks trying to intercept a convoy organised by John Laurens to bring much-needed supplies and hard currency from France to Boston. [112] When Hood arrived at New York, he found that Graves was in port (having failed to intercept the convoy), but had only five ships of the line that were ready for battle. [3]

De Grasse had notified his counterpart in Newport, the comte de Barras Saint-Laurent, of his intentions and his planned arrival date. De Barras sailed from Newport on 27 August with 8 ships of the line, 4 frigates, and 18 transports carrying French armaments and siege equipment. He deliberately sailed via a circuitous route to minimise the possibility of an encounter with the British, should they sail from New York in pursuit. Washington and Rochambeau, in the meantime, had crossed the Hudson on 24 August, leaving some troops behind as a ruse to delay any potential move on the part of General Clinton to mobilise assistance for Cornwallis. [3]

News of de Barras' departure led the British to realise that the Chesapeake was the probable target of the French fleets. By 31 August Graves had moved his ships over the bar at New York harbour. Taking command of the combined fleet, now 19 ships, Graves sailed south, and arrived at the mouth of the Chesapeake on 5 September. [3] His progress was slow the poor condition of some of the West Indies ships (contrary to claims by Admiral Hood that his fleet was fit for a month of service) necessitated repairs en route. Graves was also concerned about some ships in his own fleet Europe in particular had difficulty manoeuvring. [113] The squadrons' clash started with Marseillois exchanging shots with the 64-gun HMS Intrepid, under Captain Anthony Molloy. [114]

The British retreat in disarray set off a flurry of panic among the Loyalist population. [115] The news of the defeat was also not received well in London. King George III wrote (well before learning of Cornwallis's surrender) that "after the knowledge of the defeat of our fleet [. ] I nearly think the empire ruined". [116]

The French success at completely encircling Cornwallis left them firmly in control of Chesapeake Bay. [117] In addition to capturing a number of smaller British vessels, de Grasse and de Barras assigned their smaller vessels to assist in the transport of Washington's and Rochambeau's forces from Head of Elk, Maryland to Yorktown. [118]

It was not until 23 September that Graves and Clinton learned that the French fleet in the Chesapeake numbered 36 ships. This news came from a dispatch sneaked out by Cornwallis on the 17th, accompanied by a plea for help: "If you cannot relieve me very soon, you must be prepared to hear the worst". [119] After effecting repairs in New York, Admiral Graves sailed from New York on 19 October with 25 ships of the line and transports carrying 7,000 troops to relieve Cornwallis. [120] It was two days after Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown. [121] General Washington acknowledge to de Grasse the importance of his role in the victory: "You will have observed that, whatever efforts are made by the land armies, the navy must have the casting vote in the present contest". [122] The eventual surrender of Cornwallis led to peace two years later and British recognition of the independent United States of America. [121]

Admiral de Grasse returned with his fleet to the West Indies. In a major engagement that suspended Franco-Spanish plans for the capture of Jamaica in 1782, he was defeated and taken prisoner by Rodney in the Battle of the Saintes. [123] His flagship Ville de Paris was lost at sea in a storm while being conducted back to England as part of a fleet commanded by Admiral Graves. Despite the controversy over his conduct in this battle, Graves continued to serve, rising to full admiral and receiving an Irish peerage. [124]

British Tactics and Conflicting Strategies in Executing the American Revolution

If we are to discuss the tactics used by the British government and its forces during the American Revolution, we must be aware of the various circumstances at play. Often, we tend to settle on a single element and use it to explain more than we should. By breaking down what factors went into decision-making, we can then begin to understand why events played out the way they did, and why British soldiers were often at a disadvantage during the war despite having the clear advantage of being the superior military power. We will discuss both tactics used by the army and navy while also showing how strategy played a major role in undermining how effective those tactics were.

When the war initially broke out in the spring of 1775, the area surrounding Boston was the epicenter of the rebellion. This was not unknown to the British government, whom had closed the port of Boston following several riots, the assault on the schooner Gaspee (moored near inland Rhode Island) and the infamous Tea Party of December 1773. Plans were to isolate the rebellion to the New England colonies, but how to achieve this was met with confusion and incoherence on the part of the King’s ministers. Lord North, the King’s chief minister to Parliament and disciple of British governance, was not a wartime leader, and often struggled to provide a clear and concise blueprint for action. On the other side of planning was George Germain, Secretary of State for the American Department. Germain, an overly confident former military officer, was less a military strategist as he was a personality to dislike. Germain did not take criticism lightly and found himself at odds with other MPs who questioned his planning. Nevertheless, King George III held his confidence in these men.

King George III

One of the main blunders the British government made was its inability to create a coherent plan for eliminating the rebellion before its provocations spread throughout the other colonies. This may have been a futile endeavor in hindsight for the colonies, though clearly different in many regards, did share similar feelings regarding their loyalty as British subjects. Where they differed was with a desire to be recognized as autonomous participants within the British Empire. This perspective was lost on many of Parliament’s members, and especially on the King. Had a plan been implemented to settle initial hostilities in Massachusetts prior to April 1775, perhaps the colonies would have remained committed British subjects. But it seems both an indifferent – and at times snobbish view – of Americans by mainland Britons, and an uncorked sense of continental liberalism by Patriots, were increasingly at odds with how British North America had been managed and allowed to exist in the prior decades. The seemingly passive nature of Parliament’s interest in governing its North American colonies prior to 1763 created that autonomous spirit within the colonists. Only after the King came to power in 1760, and the immense debt accumulated from the Seven Years War with France, did foreign policy prioritize how to manage and ultimately tax North American interests.

What complicated matters further would play out in real-time once the British army was in North America. Command of the army was complex and divided in a way that made communicating orders difficult to the point of detrimental to achieving set-forth objectives. Sir William Howe took command in the fall of 1775 and was given his orders. But Howe, like most military officers of the time, exhibited a sense of leeway when making decisions in the field that were often counterproductive to the overall objectives of the British war machine. He was not alone. His successor, Sir Henry Clinton, did the same, as well as Gen. John Burgoyne. And we are assuming, incorrectly, that these commanders got along with one other. While they may have tolerated each other because of their duty, it’s evident that many of the leading commanders did not hold a very high opinion of the other. Appointments and elevated egos that challenged rivals within the army did lead to instances where orders were either changed, disobeyed or flatly ignored. And to complicate matters further, the British navy, perhaps more important to the war’s outcome than the army, reported and received orders from the Board of Trade, not from Germain. The army and navy might have received initial orders that paralleled each other, but if a commanding officer or admiral abruptly changed course, the other would often find himself waiting to receive orders from London to verify this change. And London had not made this decision it was done by the commander in North America on his own. At a time where communication was only as fast as the wind could carry a ship, we can see how maddening this could be for trying to achieve a military objective.

British General William Howe.

We must also recall how at the outset of the war, British officers in North America were tasked with issuing pardons to colonists who swore allegiance to the King. Some, like Sir William Howe, were even allowed to initiate diplomatic talks with American representatives. But these were clearly one-sided Howe had no real authority in brokering a peace treaty and was mainly there to show the American emissaries that London was not going to stand down. Short of them renouncing the rebellion and the Declaration of Independence, the Americans would not be afforded a meeting to negotiate terms for separation. However, the threat of branding colonists’ traitors did have the desired effect of seeing thousands of colonists declare their loyalties to the King. In other instances, colonists would swear allegiance to whoever’s army was present at the time. Another tactic used by British officials was to purposely stoke the fears of slave insurrections throughout the colonies. The best example of this was Lord Dunmore’s proclamation in 1775, declaring that any enslaved person who escaped and joined the British army would earn their freedom. It is not known how many former slaves left their plantations and came across British lines, but we do know that many were not allowed to fight (and were given manual labor jobs instead), and several thousand settled in Nova Scotia and in western Africa following the end of the war. On the western outskirts of the colonies, British detachments were put there to gain the trust of Native American groups – many of whom looked upon the English favorably and viewed the Americans as hostile invaders.

Let us acknowledge that British advantages in having the best trained and equipped military in the world were no match for realities on the ground. Weather played a huge factor in eighteenth-century military operations. It was unduly to expect a major engagement in the winter months because of the risk of exposure and the conditions of roads, which often were impassible with snow. Torrential thunderstorms and downpours could wreak havoc on flintlock muskets and powder stores. And the humid, intense summer heat could be more devastating to an army than a bayonet charge. The wool-coated, sixty-pound backpack wearing, ten-pound musket carrying soldier, on the march for miles before an engagement, was often the victim of the elements rather than enemy fire.

Other conditions required immediate attention. Firewood was often needed to keep soldiers warm in the winter months and to cook food daily. Both armies were guilty of clearing out thousands of trees over the duration of the war. In more desperate instances, fences, barns, and houses were torn down to retrieve whatever wood they could get. Disease, particularly smallpox, was rampant in both army camps. Inoculation provided some protection, but poor health and sanitation conditions were a common feature of encampments. Supply routes were the arterial veins of the army’s sustainability. Both sides tried through the course of the war to disrupt and destroy these precious cargo roads. For the British Army, however, the disruption came at an even greater cost. The sheer size of the Atlantic Ocean created a logistical nightmare for resupplying the troops. It could take months for a fully-loaded ship to arrive off the American coast, and several more for its contents to reach a British encampment embedded in the hostile countryside. The amount of food required to feed an army is staggering. Also note that armies had several hundreds, if not thousands, of horses and cattle at any given time for personnel and pulling supply wagons. These animals required hay, oats, and feed too. As a result, the British army turned to foraging, or seizing livestock and homespun supplies from the local citizenry. In some cases, this proved to be a useful commodity as loyalist Americans were grateful for the King’s army’s presence. But cases of vandalism and rape by British soldiers often undid these moments of charity. To complicate matters further, the Continental army foraged too. Citizens were being asked to contribute what they could to whoever the occupying force knocked on their door. As the economy worsened in the ensuing years before the war’s end, resentment between citizen and soldier, no matter the color of their standard, made matters worse. In the end, the British army had the disadvantage of being a foreign occupier. The loyalism that remained in the American country was too few and far between of what British expectations had been, and foraging only exacerbated their ability to rely on American support.

Lord Charles Cornwallis

As for field tactics used during battles, British commanders relied on what they were taught and what they knew of eighteenth-century combat. The traditional mode of battle called for a large body of troops to assemble into columns on a field and march, perhaps three to four soldiers deep, forward. The reason for this mainly had to do with the technology of the musket. For one, the musket could only fire one ball shot at a time. Then a soldier had to reload it with powder, ball, a paper wad, and pack it down in the barrel before being able to deliver a discharge. An expert could possibly pull off three shots inside a minute, but under duress of immediate combat conditions, this was likely not the case. To compensate, commanders created columns of troops in order for a soldier standing behind one who had just fired his weapon to now take his place. This effectively allowed for rapid-fire onto the enemy’s forces. The other reason to consider is accuracy. Muskets were highly inaccurate, particularly the Brown Bess that many British regulars carried. Standing at a close distance from the opposing force and having multiple rows of soldiers firing while the others reloaded was the best way to engage with maximum firepower. In response, because the muskets were inaccurate when aimed, most soldiers simply pointed in the direction of the opposing column of troops. Because of the close-proximity of men, this was how many were struck with musket balls. Other modes of offensive tactics were the use of cavalry to overrun a folding or routed column of soldiers, and a bombardment of shelling from the artillery, which would have been positioned in the rear of each army’s place on the battlefield. Artillery was usually meant to keep the position of the opposing army’s bulk of soldiers from advancing. Without it, an army was at risk of relying entirely on its infantry and cavalry to disrupt and repel the other’s advancements. Lastly, the main thrust of the British army’s ground tactics was the infamous bayonet charge. Following the forward progress of a column, and usually after having fired multiple musket shots equipped with an iron dirk some 18 inches long, the bayonet charge is often what won battles in the eighteenth-century. For the British, it was a tried and trusted remedy for lingering opponents on the field. At the start of the war, the Continental Army virtually had no bayonets in its possession. Neither did American militia. As a result, they often fled the field when staring down a British charge. It wasn’t until 1778 that most Americans were finally equipped with them and trained how to use them to defend and attack the enemy.

The Royal Navy had to fight a different war too. Even before the arrival of the French Navy in 1779, the British warships blockading the American coastline were doing battle with various American privateers and pirates, some hired by Benjamin Franklin to plunder British merchant ships. Largely, the naval fleet were used to transport troops to various points across the continent. In other instances, detachments of the Navy were sent to the Caribbean. This increased after French naval forces began attacking British posts there. Parliament valued its economic holdings in the Caribbean more than it did suppressing a rebellion in British America. With focus redirected there, the Navy was not in a position of dominance along the east coast of America as it had been. This proved problematic when trying to reinforce the army, at times with disastrous consequences.

We must remember that often a strategy is what dictates what tactics are used to achieve its objectives. Though strategy was to isolate New England from the remainder of the colonies by way of seizing the Hudson River valley, perhaps the greatest tactical mistake of the war was made by Sir William Howe’s decision to not aggressively pursue General Washington after his defeats in the New York region during the late summer and fall of 1776. It wouldn’t be his last, nor of his successors fatally undermining the resilience of Washington’s army. The expectations of meeting him in a general engagement as the times called for (though this did happen), often left British commanders seeking ways of fanning their free time instead of trying to destroy the Continental forces. Their overconfidence in relying on what had won them battles in the past were not effectively winning them the current war. Despite calls for the two armies to meet in columns on an open field, conditions and circumstances often prevented this from happening. And as a result, the British military was regularly placed at a disadvantage, even if they maintained superior numbers and training because it refused to adapt to the conditions present.

Sir Henry Clinton

In some capacities, the American Revolution was a guerilla war, unlike anything the British Empire had faced up until that point. We must remember that the American forces had the tactical advantage of knowing the country better than their British counterparts. The Fabian strategy of deception and poking and prodding the enemy was accepted by Washington, and guerilla tactics were used to harass British posts and baggage trains wherever possible. An overwhelming majority of the British forces during the war had no prior experience in North America. We can begin to see how this put them at a disadvantage of not knowing the country and having to rely on others sometimes, local citizens or Native American parties would assist, while other times reports were made from defectors and deserters. Regardless, the British had limited means of accessing the country. Despite seizing much of the existing surveys and maps of the continent, they found themselves having to create many more as they discovered the terrain in real time. This uncertainty also helps explain how tactics used to turn civilians into steadfast loyalists most likely undermined their cause. Because of a combination of hostile conditions, and being viewed as an occupying force, we often overlook the anxiety many within the British ranks felt as they resented the reception they received by portions of the American population.

We must then conclude that both strategy and the tactics used to enforce it were at odds with the realities on the ground. However, we choose to judge the events in the modern-day, these actions did little to convince colonists that the Declaration of Independence was treason or that the British government cared one bit for restoring their liberties. They most certainly did not destroy Washington’s army and win the war.

Why the Siege of Bastogne was the defining moment for the 101st Airborne

Posted On February 08, 2021 15:45:00

One battle truly showed the world the fire that burns in the hearts of these soldiers. Put up against unfathomable odds and pushed to their absolute limit, the 101st stood their ground and turned the tides of war. This was the Siege of Bastogne.

There’s no unit in the United States Army that can boast an impressive relationship with destiny like the Screaming Eagles of the 101st Airborne Division. The invasion of Normandy, the Battle of Hamburger Hill, the left-hook of the Persian Gulf War, and Operation Dragon Strike in Afghanistan would each make for a pretty feather in the cap of any unit — but it’s the 101st who heroically fought at all of them.

It had been six months since the invasion of Normandy. U.S. troops had mostly pushed the Germans out of France and back to the Ardennes Forest. The same soldiers who landed on D-Day found themselves still fighting, day-in and day-out. The tempo of war had pushed them much further than originally anticipated and supplies were running low.

It wasn’t a secret that the only hope for the Allies was the tiny shipping village of Antwerp, Belgium. Without it, any continued assault against the Germans would end immediately. Knowing this, the Germans devised a plan that would effectively cut the Allies off from Antwerp in one massive blitzkrieg through the Ardennes. If they could cut the Americans off from each other and their supplies, they’d be forced into a peace treaty in favor of the Axis. And the only thing stopping them was the collection of battle-weary soldiers sparsely populating the forest.

On December 16, 1944, after two hours of constantly artillery bombardment, the Germans sent in 200,000 fresh troops. So far, everything was going in the Axis’ favor, from the weather to the landscape to the element of surprise. The only thing the Americans could do was to hold up in Bastogne and St. Vith.

Since Bastogne had large open farmlands around it, this wasn’t much… But it was something.
(U.S. Army)

Two days later, on December 18, the soldiers of the 101st were completely surrounded in the town of Bastogne. They had little ammunition, barely any food, and most soldiers didn’t even have cold-weather gear. Reinforcements were inbound, but it would take a week for Patton to arrive. Most of the senior leadership was elsewhere, leaving the task of holding ground entirely on the shoulders of the troops.

A night-time raid by the Germans on the Division Service Area took out almost the entirety of the 101st medical company. By the time of the morning of December 19, Americans were outnumbered five to one — and so the Germans moved in.

On paper, this was a completely uphill battle. The only thing Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe could do was have his men form a 360-degree perimeter around the 333rd Artillery Battalion’s guns. Ultimately, this tightly controlled circle was the advantage they needed.

The funniest part of this battle was that the Germans spent hours trying to decipher the hidden meaning behind McAuliffe’s message. It was just a politely worded, “f*ck you.”
(U.S. Army)

As the Germans prodded, trying to find a hole in Allied defenses, troops were be able to communicate with each other and quickly adjust, fortifying areas to meet their attackers. When the Germans pivoted and believed they’d found a new approach, the protected artillery guns opened fire. They’d regroup and try another approach, only to be met by American troops once again. This pattern continued on through the battle.

The fighting was intense but McAuliffe’s defense held like a charm. On December 22, General von Lüttwitz, the German commander, gave the Americans their demands:

“There is only one possibility to save the encircled U.S.A. troops from total annihilation: that is the honorable surrender of the encircled town. In order to think it over a term of two hours will be granted beginning with the presentation of this note.”

McAuliffe’s response, in its entirety, was as follows:

To the German Commander. NUTS! The American Commander.

“This is undoubtedly the greatest American battle of the war and will, I believe, be regarded as an ever-famous American victory.” – Churchill

This riled the Germans up even more. The Germans put all of their efforts into trying to wrest Bastogne from the 101st Airborne — at the expense of securing Antwerp. The American line was broken several times by panzers, but artillery shells would effectively pluck German armor out long enough for Allied infantrymen to retake their position.

On December 23, the skies finally opened up and the 101st started to bring in reinforcements and supplies via airdrop. It’s not an understatement to say that they were only holding on by the skin of their teeth. American P-47 Thunderbolts came to the rescue, relieving artillery who’d almost entirely run out of ammo. The panzers, which had been painted green and brown for summertime, stuck out like a sore thumb against the snow. The narrow passageways the tanks had to travel meant the tanks couldn’t escape the wrath of the Thunderbolts.

Throughout it all, the Battered Bastards of Bastogne endued. Patton arrived on December 26th, finally evening the odds and breaking off the Ardennes Offensive. But all of that couldn’t have been done without the ferocity of the Screaming Eagles holding down Bastogne.

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Early engagements and privateers

The first significant blow by the navy was struck by Commodore Esek Hopkins, who captured New Providence (Nassau) in the Bahamas in 1776. Other captains, such as Lambert Wickes, Gustavus Conyngham, and John Barry, also enjoyed successes, but the Scottish-born John Paul Jones was especially notable. As captain of the Ranger, Jones scourged the British coasts in 1778, capturing the man-of-war Drake. As captain of the Bonhomme Richard in 1779, he intercepted a timber convoy and captured the British frigate Serapis.

More injurious to the British were the raids by American privateers on their shipping. During peace, colonial ships had traditionally traveled the seas armed as a protection against pirates, so, with the outbreak of war, it was natural that considerable numbers of colonial merchant vessels should turn to privateering. That practice was continued on a large scale until the close of the war under legal authorization of individual colonies and of the Continental Congress. Records are incomplete but indicate that well over 2,000 private armed vessels were so employed during the course of the war, carrying more than 18,000 guns and some 70,000 men. In addition, several of the colonies organized state navies which also preyed upon hostile commerce. Those operations were of such a scale that they must be regarded as one of the significant American military efforts of the war. Together with the operations of a few Continental vessels, they constituted the only sustained offensive pressure brought to bear by the Americans, which materially affected the attitude of the British people toward peace. By the end of 1777 American ships had taken 560 British vessels, and by the end of the war they had probably seized 1,500. More than 12,000 British sailors also were captured. Such injury was done to British commerce that insurance rates increased to unprecedented figures, available sources of revenue were seriously reduced, and British coastal populations became alarmed at the prospect of Yankee incursions. By 1781 British merchants were clamouring for an end to hostilities.

Most of the naval action occurred at sea. The significant exceptions were Arnold’s battles against Carleton’s fleet on Lake Champlain at Valcour Island on October 11 and off Split Rock on October 13, 1776. Arnold lost both battles, but his construction of a fleet of tiny vessels, mostly gondolas (gundalows) and galleys, had forced the British to build a larger fleet and hence delayed their attack on Fort Ticonderoga until the following spring. That delay contributed significantly to Burgoyne’s capitulation at Saratoga in October 1777.


A privateer is a private person or ship that engages in maritime warfare under a commission of war. [1] Since robbery under arms was a common aspect of seaborne trade, until the early 19th century all merchant ships carried arms. A sovereign or delegated authority issued commissions, also referred to as a letter of marque, during wartime. The commission empowered the holder to carry on all forms of hostility permissible at sea by the usages of war. This included attacking foreign vessels and taking them as prizes, and taking prize crews as prisoners for exchange. Captured ships were subject to condemnation and sale under prize law, with the proceeds divided by percentage between the privateer's sponsors, shipowners, captains and crew. A percentage share usually went to the issuer of the commission (i.e. the sovereign).

Privateering allowed sovereigns to raise revenue for war by mobilizing privately owned armed ships and sailors to supplement state power. For participants, privateering provided the potential for a greater income and profit than obtainable as a merchant seafarer or fisher. However, this incentive increased the risk of privateers turning to piracy when war ended.

The commission usually protected privateers from accusations of piracy, but in practice the historical legality and status of privateers could be vague. Depending on the specific sovereign and the time period, commissions might be issued hastily privateers might take actions beyond what was authorized in the commission, including after its expiry. A privateer who continued raiding after the expiration of a commission or the signing of a peace treaty could face accusations of piracy. The risk of piracy and the emergence of the modern state system of centralised military control caused the decline of privateering by the end of the 19th century.

Watch the video: The Birth of the United States Navy - 1775 to 1799