Review of George C.
Daughan, If By Sea: The Forging of the American Navy from
the Revolution to the War of 1812. New York: Basic Books,
2008. Pp. x, 536. ISBN 978-0-465-01607-5.
In the early years of this republic, most Americans resisted allocating scarce resources to create a navy. Navies cost a great
deal--and evoked the abuses of the hated British Empire. Since most
Americans lived in rural areas or small towns, protection of the
frontiers loomed as the largest defense problem, but concern about
costs and centralized governmental power kept even land forces tiny.
Militias could always be called out in an emergency. Thus, at the
outbreak of the Civil War, in a now vastly richer United States,
overall Army strength stood at just over sixteen thousand,
while the navy operated fewer than forty ships. Only twelve were
available to begin a blockade of the Confederacy.
George Daughan describes the trials of the naval forces from 1775 to
1815. His book consists primarily of well-written combat
narratives, mostly ship-on-ship actions—but, in an effort to
"integrate" naval and military actions, there are long sections on
land combat in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812. In fact,
If By Sea closes with Andrew Jackson's successful defense of
New Orleans, an operation with little naval involvement. Since
Daughan is more interested in the story than systematic analysis,
there is no summary/conclusion. However, the book does include good
maps and a useful glossary of now obscure nautical terms for
warships under sail.
Most accounts of the war for independence say little about American
naval operations—and little of that is kind. In brief discussions,
Howard Peckam has argued that the navy was no more than an "extreme
annoyance" to Great Britain,
and Robert Middlekauff that it was a "failure."
focus on a single engagement: John Paul Jones's victory over HMS
Serapis, off the east coast of Great Britain in 1779. Daughan
largely agrees with their assessment: the Continental Navy was
"utterly unable" to contribute as much to the war effort as its
founders had hoped (2). However, by devoting half his substantial
volume to the Revolutionary War and bringing to light many little
known engagements and leaders, he makes a plausible case that the
Revolution brought the "true beginning" of the United States Navy
(2), mostly in the sense of creating traditions, such as the
determination of John Paul Jones. Some famous ship names of
revolutionary origins persist into the present: Wasp,
Hornet, Saratoga, and, of course, Enterprise. But
incompetence and futility figure in Daughan's story, too: the
Continental Navy was plagued by poor leadership, the inability of
the young country to support the service logistically or with new
vessels and, more than anything else, poor strategy. Congress, which oversaw the Navy, sent ships on pointless missions.
Many problems grew from a thoughtless fixation on duplicating
British weapons and strategies and the lure of fleet actions in open
water. This made naval and political leaders unwilling to cooperate
with the Continental Army in combined operations, for instance, in
the defense of New York or Philadelphia. But the problem was
larger—and rooted in the landsman's culture of the colonies. In 1775,
Massachusetts mobilized its militia, but not its sailors, in the
defense of liberty. If only, Daughan laments, the navy had thrown
its energies into small boats operating in rivers and bays, rather
than ships, and into guerrilla tactics rather than conventional
ones, which, he points out, the Royal Navy itself most feared. In
any case, by 1783 the Navy barely breathed. After Congress sold the
last ship the following year, the United States possessed no naval
force for a decade.
Daughan spends the second half of his book tracing the sporadic
revival of U.S. naval power as a result of renewed war in Europe,
intensified dangers of piracy in the Mediterranean, and new and more
financially sound government under the Constitution. But the new
Navy was not universally welcomed. Jeffersonians bitterly opposed
its creation, fearing the expense and the potential for misuse of
all military power. In 1794, Congress approved just six frigates;
these distinctive and powerful ships, designed by Joshua Humphreys
and built in six separate cities, formed the backbone of American
naval power for the next twenty years. Their names, chosen by George
Washington, are justly famous: United States, Constitution,
President, Congress, Constellation, and the Chesapeake.
Characteristically, the legislation authorizing them required that
construction cease if the threat of war disappeared—thus, only three
were built. The Quasi-War with France (1798-1800) and the actions
against the Barbary Pirates added significantly to the reputation of
the Navy, but not to its political support. Following the XYZ
affair, the Adams administration won the right to complete the
frigates and increased the Navy to fifty vessels. But even
after notable success against French warships in the Caribbean, a
new administration (in 1801) once again reduced the Navy. Then,
early in his presidency, Jefferson decided to confront the Barbary
Pirates; after a modest buildup and much brave action, the Navy
succeeded. Again, it was reduced.
James Madison's War, the War of 1812, guaranteed the permanence of a
modest American navy. Humphreys' ships, still in service and again
the core of the American fleet, continued to dominate similar-sized
British vessels. Though the Navy received exemplary leadership from
its captains, as early as 1813 the massive size of the Royal Navy
forced U.S. ships into harbors and restricted them to occasional
sorties. But then action shifted to fresh water, Lakes Erie and
Champlain, where resourceful leaders, Oliver Hazard Perry and Thomas
Mcdonough, backed by effective and firm administration in
Washington, achieved critical victories.
Macdonough would need all his experience and learning to fight
[British Commodore George] Downie. The navy had given Macdonough
command of Lake Champlain in 1812, and had required him to build his
fleet from scratch, just as Oliver Hazard Perry had been ordered to
do. But Perry had the cooperation of his superior; Macdonough, who
had an independent command, did not…. While Downie was struggling to
get into position, Macdonough fired the first shot himself, crying
out to his crew, “Impressed seamen call on every man to do his
duty.” And with that, he put a smoldering slow-match to a
24-pounder, igniting a bloody, two-hour-and-twenty-minute fight.
“The firing was terrific,” an eyewitness reported, “fairly shaking
the ground, and so rapid that it seemed to be one continuous roar,
intermingled with spiteful flashing from the mouths of guns….” That
night, the deeply religious Macdonough wrote to Secretary Jones,
“The Almighty has been pleased to grant us a signal victory on Lake
Champlain in the capture of one frigate, one brig, and two sloops of
war of the enemy” (458, 460–61).
In Daughan's words, the War
of 1812 "ended the argument" over the need for a navy. Perhaps. The
situation in 1861 makes this claim seem excessive: Congressional and
public acceptance of a large, expensive navy awaited advocates like
Alfred Thayer Mahan and Teddy Roosevelt--and a very different
tells his story well, but many readers will want more: for instance,
some discussion of republican ideology and how it shaped both strategy
and shipboard life. Others will want to learn about shipboard
living conditions and the relations of sailors with officers on American
warships. Daughan makes clear the key role of privateers in each of
the era's conflicts, but did they "throttle" the navy, as Peckham
contends? The same question arises concerning the state navies:
was their influence "ruinous"?
Subordinate commanders so often disobeyed orders and thereby
imperiled victories--a situation confronted by both Jones in 1779 and
Perry in 1813--as to impugn the professional values of officers. Readers will also want more on the logistics and basing of
the navy. Where did cannon come from? And powder? One-third of the
British Empire's ships were made in America;
the Navy take advantage of this capacity? And how did the navy
support squadrons or even individual ships in the Mediterranean or
the Pacific? These are questions If By Sea does not answer.
So I hereby submit a summer reading plan, a short course in American
naval history, using readily available books. Begin with Daughan's
overview. Then, move on to Evan Thomas's thoughtful biography,
John Paul Jones,
a book rich in detail on matters ranging from republican values aboard
ships to technology in the revolutionary era (it also shows that
sailors were not paid for years at a time). Complete the syllabus
with Ian W. Toll's fascinating and well-written Six Frigates,
which concentrates on leaders and combat operations of the blue water navy
after 1794, but finds room for intriguing asides on
everything from the logistics to politics. (Contact me for course writing assignments....)
Greenhills School and
 Russell F. Weigley, History of the United
States Army (Bloomington: Indiana U Pr, 1984) 598.
 Craig Symonds, Lincoln and His Admirals
(NY: Oxford U Pr, 2008) 49.
 The War for Independence: A Military
History (Chicago: U Chicago Pr, 1958) 127.
 The Glorious Cause: The American
Revolution, 1763-1789 (NY: Oxford U Pr, 1982) 528.
 Evan Thomas explores this later world in his
recent book, The War Lovers: Roosevelt, Lodge, Hearst, and
the Rush to Empire, 1898 (NY: Little, Brown, 2010).
 Note 3 above, 117-18.
 See Middlekauff (note 4 above) 526.
 Subtitle: Sailor, Hero, Father of the
American Navy (NY: Simon & Shuster, 2003).
 Subtitle: The Epic History of the Founding
of the U.S. Navy (NY: Norton,