Review: All at Sea: Naval Support for the British Army During the American Revolution


January 20, 2021
by Timothy Symington Also by this Author


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All At Sea: Naval Support for the British Army During the American Revolutionary War by John Dillon. (Warwick, England: Helion & Company Limited, 2019)

The rebels in the American colonies were nervous about facing the might of the British Empire when the war began in 1775. The British army was disciplined and well-supplied with war materiel. More important was the strength of the British Navy, which controlled the seas. The British, on the other hand, were trepidatious about fighting a war across the Atlantic Ocean. They were confident in the abilities of the armies stationed in North America but using the Navy to supply those forces was a problem. Could it be done successfully? World War I historian and former Royal Air Force flyer John Dillon’s latest book, All At Sea: Naval Support for the British Army During the American Revolutionary War, focuses on the logistical problems the Royal Navy encountered in trying to fight the war. The Navy did not succeed in many cases, but without it, the British would have been unable to fight the war at all.

Dillon’s detailed study of the Navy’s involvement in the American Revolution provides a valuable British perspective about fighting in the colonies. After the French and Indian War, the British Navy was essentially docked. There was no need to prepare for another war. When war did start in Massachusetts, the British were aware that their naval forces were not ready for a major conflict. Added to that problem was a presumption that the British held about the colonists’ supposed inability to organize. The Battle of Bunker Hill changed that quickly. It was then imperative immediately that the British control certain seaports (Boston, New York, Newport, Philadelphia, and Charleston) to make sure that supplies could get to the troops in combat in the interior. The concern for the British was not so much losing control of the colonies, but instead avoiding a situation that would involve France as a belligerent. Once that happened, the priorities of the British changed significantly.

The first five chapters of the book provide fascinating details about the Royal Navy and what went into its preparation for war. The second chapter, “Blows must decide,” described the types of vessels the Navy needed for transporting both reinforcements and food. Feeding the soldiers and sailors was a monumental task that the Navy constantly had to figure out how to do. Dillon writes about the types of food and provisions that were shipped to the colonies in the next chapter, “Good, wholesome, and sound.” Several tables are provided which break down what was carried, for whom, etc. The supply situation worsened by 1778. American privateers were successfully taking British ships by then, and so convoys had to be arranged for protection, including the process of making contracts with vendors in London. The fifth chapter, “Hell is in the forecastle, the devil at the helm,” is a description of what life was like on board the ships for sailors, soldiers, and horses: how they spent their time, what they ate, and the many hardships they all encountered on the several weeks-long journey.

Dillon then proceeds to give a narrative of the American Revolutionary War using the Navy as the focal point. He starts with the “fiasco” of Gen. Thomas Gage’s situation in Boston and the difficulties of imposing a blockade of New England. Plans to invade New York and secure that location were interrupted by the colonists’ attack on Quebec. Once Boston was evacuated and New York was invaded, the British continued to hope for a quick and final victorious outcome of the war because their eyes were always on the French. By the tenth chapter, “The Expectation of war increases here Every Hour,” the consequences of Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga are made very clear. France entered the conflict on the side of the Americans, a disaster for the British because they were now fighting a global war. They faced threats from the French in the Caribbean, the English Channel, and Gibraltar. As Dillon tells the familiar story of the events of the war, he continues to provide details about the logistics of naval warfare, including how to get the needed supplies to the armies fighting in the new United States. The reader comes away with an appreciation of what efforts the British expended to maintain a strong fighting force. Logistically, it seems too overwhelming.

The book relies on surprisingly few sources. The major source that Dillon used is Naval Documents of the American Revolution. He also extensively combed through The Private Papers of John, Earl of Sandwich and several articles and books written by the late David Syrett. Familiar titles are included in the bibliography.

As mentioned previously, All At Sea is about the British perspective of the Revolutionary War. It is a viewpoint that must be included in any history of the Revolution. Dillon deserves many accolades for reminding readers that the Navy was absolutely crucial to the British war effort. Had it not been for the Royal Navy, the colonists could have easily declared independence without any consequences. The details about provisions, contracts, ship conditions and movements were sometimes tedious, but they are needed to complement the full story. The tables that Dillon includes are valuable. Illustrations of the ships would have been an appreciated addition.

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