A Maritime History of the American Revolution


April 1, 2024
by William H. J. Manthorpe, Jr. Also by this Author


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BOOK REVIEW: A Maritime History of the American Revolutionary War: An Atlantic-Wide Conflict Over Independence and Empire by Theodore Corbett (Pen and Sword Maritime, 2023)

Theodore Corbett is scholar and university professor who has written a number of local area Revolutionary War histories: on the Hudson River Valley and Saratoga; New Castle, Delaware; Chestertown, Maryland; and St. Augustine, Florida. He has recently taught maritime history at Salisbury University, Maryland. This is his first specific maritime history. It has benefited from the research conducted during his earlier efforts.

This is an unusual book, and that is just what the author intends. In this preface he points out that little has been written about the Revolutionary War from a maritime standpoint. What has been by written by American historians focuses on the Continental navy, the gallantry of American naval officers, and privateers. It treats the British navy as on the inevitable losing side. On the other hand, British historians focus on more glorious episodes that fit more easily into the role of maritime power in the rise of the British Empire. “Rarely do these perspectives meet.” In this work he avoids both those perspectives and offers an alternative.

To do so, he equates the “American Revolutionary War” to the wider Anglo-French maritime “Bourbon War” (1778-1783), part of the intermittent, continuing Anglo-French wars for empire and commerce. Using the Bourbon War as context, he describes a number of Royal Navy operations that had a direct impact on the American Revolution. He also discusses several that had peripheral impact and two that had no direct bearing on the revolution. He doesn’t mention a couple of Royal Navy failures that might have changed the trajectory of the war for independence. On the American side, he describes the one diplomatic effort and the related Continental Navy operations that affected the Revolution. Otherwise, he discusses several other American maritime efforts that had a less direct influence on achieving independence and more effect on threatening the empire and commerce.

A reader looking for a straightforward chronological account of naval battles, heroes and other maritime operations during the American Revolution will not find it here. On the other hand, scholars, historians, and others interested in the American Revolution will be challenged to expand their perspective and reconsider the context of the war. As they do so, and whether or not they accept the author’s perspective, they will find an immense amount of detail about British and American maritime infrastructure, operations and personalities not found in most standard accounts.

The book is divided into ten parts of several chapters each, for a total of thirty-four. The titles of the parts and chapters convey the broad content of the book. Within each chapter is an eclectic selection of short, interesting topics or episodes.

“Part 1: The Established Royal Navy” is an enticing start for those with a broad naval interest. It includes chapters describing a Royal Dockyard, the process of constructing, manning and supporting a Royal Navy ship; an overview of the political and bureaucratic problems faced by the Royal Navy; and the Royal Navy’s operations in the early days of the Revolution. “Part 2: Forming a New Navy,” emphasizes the commercial and maritime culture of British America, then delves into the challenges of establishing and building a Continental navy, including the difficulty of building and manning naval ships and privateers. It includes biographies of a few less well-known Continental captains, but there is no mention of the early naval engagements of the war.

“Part 3: Canada Preserved by the Royal Navy” highlights how the Royal Navy brought reinforcements just in time to break the siege of Quebec, then moves on to operations on Lake Champlain including the British squadron’s defeat of Benedict Arnold’s navy and its role in the supply chain supporting the British advance in 1777. There is no mention of how it didn’t help the army avoid defeat at Saratoga, but there is a chapter devoted to subsequent British control of Lake Champlain, where Continental plans to move north on Canada were futile due to the continual British presence on and around the lake.

“Part 4: Blockading the Coast and Enveloping New York” describes the blockade activities on Delaware and Chesapeake Bays and the later actions against the defense of Philadelphia to open a supply line to the British army there. It also covers the Royal navy’s contributions to driving Washington into Jersey and into retreat southward. “Part 6: The Royal Navy Succeeds in the South” also deals with operations in North American waters, describing how the weaker Royal navy “foiled” the arriving French fleet in 1778 and “protected New York and Newport from a more powerful enemy fleet,” and British naval operations in support of the 1780 siege of Charleston and wartime British activities in the Chesapeake. The Royal navy’s 1776 failure at Charleston is not mentioned, nor is its role in the surrender of a British army at Yorktown in 1781.

Parts 5 and 8, “Raiding the British Isles” and “The Siege of Gibraltar,” look at naval operations in European waters. The activities of John Paul Jones and others are elevated to a central, prominent and important place in the maritime history of the wider war. The Siege of Gibraltar doesn’t usually get connected to the American Revolution, but that the defense of Gibraltar kept the Royal Navy heavily committed there “while at the same time maintaining commitments elsewhere.”

“Part 7: New England and Nova Scotia in Conflict” describes colonial planned operations to end British influence in Maine, looks at a vital component of British maritime infrastructure, the careening yard in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and concludes by recounting several American attacks on Nova Scotia and Loyalist migration to that province. “Part 9: The Continental Navy in Trouble” covers Loyalist privateers, the destruction of the Continental Navy, and the assistance provided by France. These chapters illustrate how the maritime history of the American Revolution became less about the Continental Navy than about other maritime activities. The continuing operations of John Barry are not mentioned.

The last part, “The Final Confrontations,” has a chapter on Admiral George Brydges Rodney’s final defeat and capture of a French fleet, a feat that proved to both sides the Royal navy’s superiority at sea. Also included in a chapter describing the little-known and successful operations of Loyalist privateers on the Chesapeake throughout the war.

Having considered those selected maritime aspects of the “American Revolutionary War” from his own perspective, the author states an interesting conclusion, followed by a summary of his supporting evidence. He concludes:

At the end of the war, Britain was saved from invasion; thirteen of its twenty-six British American colonies remained; it retained control of Chesapeake Bay and Lake Champlain; Gibraltar was saved. How had the Royal Navy salvaged victory from an admitted defeat on land? Our maritime perspective has uncovered the reasons, which are usually neglected in accounts of the war.

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