BOOK REVIEW – How the Navy Won the War: The Real Instrument of Victory 1914-1918

Jim Ring, How the Navy Won the War: The Real Instrument of Victory 1914-1918. Barnsley: Seaforth Publishing, 2018. 232 pp. 

Review by Dr. Joseph Moretz, PhD, FRHistS
Adjunct Professor of history, United States Naval Academy

 Unsurprisingly, the centenary of the First World War witnessed an outpouring of commemoration to a conflict whose legacy shaped the contours of modern life with veneration reaching its apogee in 2018, as nations noted the stark sacrifices made by an earlier generation. Giving thanks to a peace at last secured, many could pray such a profound test not be faced again. A natural enough response by the heirs of the defeated, it is a stance even later generations of the victorious have embraced. Living with weapons even more ghastly than those found in the World War may offer one explanation for such revision while a sense the victory won came at an altogether too high a price must stand as another. That the quality of generalship proved unequal to the challenge of modern, industrial war has become received wisdom in contemporary Britain and doubtless, elsewhere, too. 

Jim Ring is aware of this context in How the Navy Won the War, but has his eyes set on two problems of a different sort. To wit, Britain followed a flawed military strategy in the war to the detriment of her greater interests, and the subsequent historiography of the war, centered on the actions of the Western Front, overlooks the font of the conflict’s decisiveness: the sea. This rebuttal is not aimed at academic historians of the war, though some academics might agree. Nor is it directed at those schooled in the conflict’s finer details. Rather, Ring seeks to reach a public knowing of the war but faintly and then badly at that. Fed on a continuous diet of works from two competing heresies, that public must conclude British soldiers were indeed “lions led by donkeys” or that Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig was not so bad after all—certainly, he remained the best type of officer the Army could produce under the circumstances. Accordingly, at no point has the public been allowed to appreciate the maritime dimension of the World War and how it ruled all else.

The argument is not without appeal to those born to a maritime tradition and cannot be dismissed out of hand given that it is the crux of those who posit a “British Way in Warfare,” such as the late author and defense critic, Sir Basil Liddell Hart. Unsurprisingly, How the Navy Won the War draws freely and favorably from that writer as well as Winston Churchill, Admiral Sir John Fisher and the noted Oxford historian Alan Taylor in making its case. Collectively, a body of no mean intellect, ironically, all bear a responsibility for the very received wisdom that Ring laments. That this so may be attributed to a reason that they feature so prominently in How the Navy Won the War—all wrote fluently with veer, passion and, at times, a degree of venom. Certainly, none stands accused of boring their readers in the turgid style of the official histories penned by Julian Corbett, Henry Newbolt, and Ernest Fayle which the author fails to cite.

Central, though, to the author’s argument is the mistake Britain made by sending its army to the continent in August 1914 to act as an appendage of the French Army. From that decision flowed the destruction of the original British Expeditionary Force on the Marne and the subsequent disasters of the Somme and Third Ypres which decimated the “New Armies” which had replaced the “Old Contemptibles.”  Instead, better would it have been for Britain to limits its role to the traditional maritime strategy which had served it so well previously. Here, the influence of General Sir Henry Wilson, late Director of Military Operations, and Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, is castigated. The former by tying British military strategy so closely to France, while the latter, in raising an army of continental proportions, fed the beast that Wilson had ordained.

That proposition fails to persuade not least because Henry Wilson did not operate as a loose cannon. Francophile that he assuredly was, that officer remained subject to the guidance and oversight of the War Office and Richard Haldane, its Secretary of State during the key period before the war. It fails because sending the BEF to the continent in 1914 did not irretrievably commit Britain to a war of mass attrition. After all, Britain simultaneously initiated a series of peripheral operations against German colonies and would soon initiate another in Mesopotamia when the Ottoman Empire opted for belligerency in association with Germany and Austria-Hungary. More than anything else what committed Britain to a continental war was the fresh facts that Germany had created on the ground. With large portions of France and Belgium occupied and Russia suffering a heavy defeat at Tannenberg, the limits of naval power were all to painfully exposed when the German High Sea Fleet elected not to sally forth. In short, Britain could not leave France in the lurch unless it was willing to accept a very less than splendid isolation in a Europe now transformed to its detriment.  

This does not mean that what followed passes without criticism, but coalition warfare for a coalition lacking a unifying strategy, possessing diverse political aims, and retaining fragmented operational control of its military forces posits mistakes—many mistakes—will be likely until success or failure beckons. The tale of the succeeding four years is of a coalition struggling to master such shortfalls. The sea made the war a World War, but it did not make it any easier to wage. Britain and the Allies, however, were fortunate that they faced a Germany having an uncanny ability to make its own share of grievous errors, especially at the nexus of strategy and policy, while never grasping the essence of maritime war.

In the end, what transformed matters were the defeat of Russia and the entry of the United States into the war. The first sowed the seeds of discord which eventually rebounded on a Germany which had abetted the return of Lenin to Russia. The second allowed economic warfare to be prosecuted in a rigor heretofore not possible owing to earlier American neutrality. The Royal Navy played its part in that prosecution but so too the Allied armies fighting at the front which forced the enemy to consume that which could not be replaced—be it food, be it armaments, or be it manpower. How the Navy Won the War attempts too much, but it does remind us that the war was more than the Western Front and the clash of armies. It was a clash of economies too and not by accident did the side mastering sea power ultimately prevail. The specialist attuned to the First World War may safely forego the work. Others, less steeped in the war, are invited to consider the corrective presented. 

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BOOK REVIEW – The Atlantic War Remembered: An Oral History Collection

John T. Mason, Jr., The Atlantic War Remembered: An Oral History Collection. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2020. 512 pp. 

Review by Dr. Corbin Williamson, PhD
Deputy Chair, Department of Strategy, Air War College

The Atlantic War Remembered is a collection of 37 excerpts from oral histories that illuminate various aspects of the U.S. Navy’s role in the Atlantic and European theaters in World War II. Columbia University’s oral history program began conducting interviews with U.S. Navy veterans of World War II in 1960 and in 1969 the U.S. Naval Institute took over management of this oral history program. The resulting collection of oral histories is one of the largest collections focused on the U.S. Navy and this volume is drawn from this collection. Researchers can find physical copies at the Naval Institute library in Annapolis while the library at Columbia University holds the original transcripts for those interviews conducted under its auspices. Mr. John T. Mason, Jr., the editor of this volume, participated in this oral history program at both Columbia and the Institute. Originally published in 1990, the Naval Institute reissued this book in 2020.

The 37 excerpts in this edited volume are each short selections from much longer oral histories which can run to hundreds of pages each. Each excerpt begins with a photograph of the individual in question as well as a summary of the individual’s life and career. After the excerpt, Mason provides a brief editor’s note providing additional personal details or other summary information. Mason organized the 37 excerpts around themes including the role of women in the service, amphibious operations, and relations with the Soviets. Mason introduces each of these thematic sections which helps provide context and highlight how the excerpts fit into the larger story of World War II.

The first three excerpts are from the first directors of the Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard women’s programs during the war. A common theme in all three of these excerpts is the adjustments required of the women who managed these programs. Typically, executives or senior officials at universities before the war who were used to giving directions, these directors found that they had to employ persuasion and an indirect approach to accomplish their objectives inside the service. The next two excerpts focus on mine warfare and in particular how the U.S. Navy benefited from British expertise and reports when establishing its own mine and bomb disposal organizations.

The following section covers antisubmarine warfare and includes the famous story of the capture of the German submarine U-505 by a task group built around the escort carrier USS Guadalcanal in June 1944. Daniel Gallery, the Guadalcanal’s captain, recalled that he later became friends with the captain of U-505:

That’s a funny way to make friends with a guy – you shoot his leg off and take his ship away from him, but we got to be good friends. (136)

Relations with allies are a common theme in a number of the oral histories. The excerpts on the November 1942 Operation Torch landings in northwest Africa emphasize the diversity of relations with French officers. Some French officials cooperated closely with the U.S. Navy while others were angry about the invasion and the arrival of Free French officials in North Africa. Other excerpts illuminate relations with the Russians, including an excerpt from an oral history with Averell Harriman, one of the U.S. ambassadors to the Soviet Union during the war. While individual Soviet officials at times worked closely with their American counterparts, the theme of the Soviet relations excerpts is frustration with the Soviet state’s bureaucracy.

Roughly half of the excerpts in the volume relate to amphibious warfare. The landings in North Africa, Sicily, Italy, Normandy, and southern France all involved large numbers of U.S. Navy personnel. Some officers such as Jerauld Wright and Alan Kirk were involved in multiple landings and have multiple excerpts in the volume. Relations with the Royal Navy are a common theme in these amphibious excerpts as the two services worked through differences in planning styles to project military power ashore in the face of Axis opposition.

Oral histories give personality and character to historical actors and highlight the human dimension of history. This dimension can sometimes be submerged in official, written records which makes oral history collections such as these a valuable asset to scholars and interested readers. The Atlantic War Remembered nicely complements its companion volume, The Pacific War Remembered which is also available from the Naval Institute. Both works highlight the valuable oral histories available through the Institute.

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BOOK REVIEW – Abandon Ship: The Real Story of the Sinkings in the Falklands War

Paul Brown, Abandon Ship: The Real Story of the Sinkings in the Falklands War. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2021. 320 pp.

Review by Dr. Chuck Steele, PhD
International Journal of Naval History

In Abandon Ship: The Real Story of the Sinkings in the Falklands War, maritime historian Paul Brown offers detailed accounts of the destruction of six British ships and the Argentine cruiser General Belgrano. Whether one is a serious student of naval affairs, or someone with a general interest in the Falklands War, reading this book will be time well spent. It is meticulous in its treatment of technologies and personalities, generally informative about the course and conduct of the war, and thoroughly engaging as a study of naval warfare at the tactical level. In a campaign that marked the terminus for naval combat involving the limited use of precision-guided munitions (PGMS), Brown illuminates the emerging complexities and dangers attendant upon operating naval forces amid a paradigm shift. Relying extensively upon reports from boards of inquiry, Brown provides a wealth of information that is technologically specific and unsparing in its criticism of the conflict’s key players. 

Using Freedom of Information Act requests to create the most complete accounts of the sinking of the six British ships publicly available, Brown’s contribution to understanding the Royal Navy’s worst moments in the 1982 conflict is without equal. However, Abandon Ship is not only worth reading for its insights but also for the author’s willingness to make strong arguments about the decisions that put each of the ships examined in peril. Indeed, Brown promises critical analysis and strong conclusions, and he delivers. 

The book is sensibly divided into nine chapters, of which seven treat the loss of each ship with individual attention. The first chapter provides a concise overview of the Falklands War and is followed by seven chapters discussing the sinkings—progressing in chronological order—from the Argentinian cruiser Belgrano to Her Majesty’s ships Sheffield, Ardent, Antelope, and Coventry, with chapters seven and eight concentrating on the losses of the non- warships; SS Atlantic Conveyor and Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship Sir Galahad. The book’s final chapter offers a summation of “lessons learned” and does not lack sharpness in dealing with tactical and operational level decision-makers. 

One target of Brown’s criticism is senior task group commander Rear Admiral John “Sandy” Woodward. While blame is attached to several officers in nearly every chapter, Woodward’s place as the senior naval officer in the theatre makes him the recurring focus of Brown’s most severe attention. Repeatedly, Brown takes notice of Woodward’s shortcomings as perceived by veterans such as Commander Nigel “Sharkey” Ward (perhaps the best-known naval aviator of the campaign). Indeed, Brown uses Ward as a vehicle to question the suitability of Woodward, a submariner, for command in a crisis that was dominated by aerial threats. At times this criticism seems a bit excessive, as there is not a corresponding effort to explain how Woodward came to gain the trust of the Royal Navy to warrant his post. 

If the criticism seems harsh at times, it should not be mistaken as gratuitous. Abandon Ship is, at its core, a book of reckoning. One of its greatest services is to be direct in questioning the actions of those involved in the worst event that can befall a ship in a warzone. In this regard, the book is an excellent resource for anyone wanting to gain a greater appreciation for the tactical level of the Falklands War. Each sinking is treated as a unique engagement that involved peculiar circumstances and reactions. The chapters could be seen as stand-alone case studies, but combined as they are, Abandon Ship becomes a highly focused history of how these singular events fit together to comprise an entire naval campaign.

In this book, Brown demonstrates that he is both an excellent maritime historian and a more than capable writer. Although the book is repetitive in places, this is far from being a significant fault. At times, the redundancies are even useful. Seeing names and ranks repeated in full helps to maintain some order when several characters are caught up in chaotic events. The same holds true for Brown’s descriptions of technologies. The more frequently systems are discussed/explained only enhances the book’s potential to serve as a series of case studies for anyone wanting to exploit any single chapter for use in a broader course discussing this moment in naval history. In this regard, each and all of the chapters involving sinkings could serve well in a course on technology and warfare. 

Considering that roughly as many years have passed since the Falklands War and the present, as passed between that war and the Second World War, a study of this sort was long overdue. As Brown makes clear, the Falklands War entailed a naval campaign at a crossroads in the history of naval warfare. This book brings the unique challenges faced by British and Argentinian sailors and airmen into greater focus than anything yet in print. Abandon Ship offers solid analysis that is well organized and clearly communicated. It is a book worth owning.

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BOOK REVIEW – British Naval Intelligence through the Twentieth Century

Andrew Boyd, British Naval Intelligence through the Twentieth Century. Foreword by Andrew Lambert. Barnsley: Seaforth Publishing / Annapolis:  Naval Institute Press, 2020, 776 pp.

Review by CAPT Steven E. Maffeo, USN, Ret., MSSI
Formerly director of part-time programs, U. S. National Defense Intelligence College

Professor Andrew Boyd (CMG, OBE, FRHistS, DPhil) initially served in the Royal Navy as a submarine officer and subsequently had a 25-year career in the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office. There he specialized in defense and security issues and undertook diplomatic postings in Ghana, Mexico, and Pakistan. In the latter part of his FCO career, and later while working for the defense contractor QinetiQ, he was closely focused on the application of technology and academic research to meet modern national-security challenges.

He is now a senior research fellow at the University of Buckingham, and he established solid credentials in 2017 with his book The Royal Navy in Eastern Waters:  Linchpin of Victory, 1935-1942. In that superb tome he described how early-on the Royal Navy secured the strategic space from Egypt in the west to Australasia in the east and he clearly explained why this effort was incredibly critical (and was critically made while the Soviet Union’s fate was still uncertain and before American economic power had fully taken effect).

In his second superb and monumental book, British Naval Intelligence through the Twentieth Century, Professor Boyd considerably advances his reputation as a rare talent and an extraordinary historian. The book is monumental in its scope, depth, and sophistication of content, making significant revisionist theses. But it is also colossal in its physical form; it is published in hardcover with an impressive 673 pages of text, 64 pages of end notes, 23 pages of bibliography, 34 black-and-white photographs (on high-quality paper), and 4 maps and diagrams. Despite this remarkable presentation the two publishers have mercifully kept the purchase prices fairly reasonable, £35 and $53 respectively; they are no doubt hoping for wider sales and a broader readership than if they had asked for higher expenditures—which only large libraries and government agencies likely could afford. And, while it is said that it’s a pleasure to read good, short books, it can also be a pleasure to read good, long books, and this is certainly one of those. Professor Boyd is an engaging writer, making the almost 700 pages flow smoothly and effortlessly.

Boyd has organized British Naval Intelligence into five major parts: [I] The Foundation of Modern Naval Intelligence; [II] The First World War: Enduring Lessons; [III] Interwar: Lean Times and New Enemies; [IV] The Second World War: The Height of the Intelligence Art?; and [V] The Cold War: Leveraging Strategic Advantage.  

In his foreword to this “landmark” text, Andrew Lambert, the Laughton Professor of Naval History at King’s College, London wrote that “despite the occasional spectacular failure, British naval intelligence consistently outperformed rivals, enemies and allies, finding the human resources and innovative solutions to address new problems, taking on board new technologies, and welcoming allied input….If there is a British way of acquiring and assessing intelligence, one that is strikingly outward-facing, with a distinctly naval character, then Andrew Boyd has written its history.”

From the get-go, Boyd tells us that “the study of British intelligence history has been transformed by the steady release of official British and American intelligence records over the last twenty-five years, yielding superb primary-source material of which earlier historians could only dream.” 

So, what does Professor Boyd give us with such new resources and fresh research? He does start us in the “long lee of Trafalgar,” and of particular interest to this reviewer highlights the effective emergence of twentieth-century naval intelligence to three early developments: the creation of the Royal Navy’s Hydrographic Office in 1795; the implementation of undersea telegraphic cables in the 1840s; and the introduction, in the mid-1850s, of the naval attaché system at foreign embassies. Building on these and other achievements, certainly including the establishment of the permanent Naval Intelligence Department in the late 1880s, Boyd then sails boldly into the twentieth-century, bringing fresh insights into the broad spectrum of Royal Navy history, highlights and even rebalances intelligence issues in multiple forms, and adroitly displays new dimensions within a panoply of operations.

Professor Boyd appears remarkably skillful in understanding and exploiting primary-source material—new as well as long-standing—and will earn great kudos from professionals in emphasizing integrated and fused analysis. Indeed, as an aside, the Admiralty’s operational intelligence center, under the blockhouse next to the Admiralty building in Whitehall, by 1945 became the finest strategic assessment facility in the world.

To offer a few specifics in limited space is to perhaps over-emphasize them and degrade the others. Indeed, there is so much important content in this book that in a brief review such as this it’s frustratingly difficult to provide detailed commentary that does it justice.

However, it can definitely be said that it truly is an original and masterful history of British naval intelligence. It is a remarkably valuable, and in many ways definitive, addition to the serious study of naval history as well as naval intelligence history. Boyd’s work fills a long-standing gap in the literature; this volume will become the standard reference for information in this subject. In the opinion of this reviewer (who once upon a time taught graduate-level history of intelligence courses and thus wishes this book had appeared earlier) it is an essential and invaluable work. 

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Inside the Archives: The Merchant Marines in Maritime History

Renae Rapp
SUNY Maritime College

The role of merchant marines can easily be eclipsed in naval history studies. Fortunately for cadets and students at SUNY Maritime College, this history is celebrated and integral in the College’s atmosphere and in our history and our mission. Merchant marines primarily transport cargo and passengers during peacetime. In times of war, merchant marines serve as auxiliary to the U.S. Navy. During World War II, merchant mariners had the highest causality rate of any military branch, yet they the U.S. government only granted them veteran status equal to the U.S Navy, Marines or Coast Guard until 1988 after a prolonged political and legal battle. The Stephen B. Luce Library and Archives plays a key role in the College’s culture and houses the College Archives, Alumni and Faculty papers, and archival Special Collections focused on maritime history and the history of merchant marine training and education in the U.S.

Stephen B. Luce Library and Archives Reading Room

Admiral Stephen B. Luce is credited as the father of modern merchant marine training in the United States. His dedication to naval training began long before his tenure at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island (1884-1886) when Luce led efforts for Congress to pass the Act of 1874 allowing states to acquire and outfit retired naval vessels for nautical training and education. Luce received his own introduction to the sea through a training ship apprentice program at the Boston Navy Yard a generation earlier. Pushed by Admiral Luce, New York became the first state to take advantage of this law, purchasing a retired sloop-of-war USS St. Mary’s they the state loaded with 26 students as the first class of New York Nautical School in 1875 (now SUNY Maritime College). This new two-year training program took place entirely aboard the St. Mary’s where students lived and learned, aboard fulltime.  

“St. Mary’s Schoolship” (Maritime College Digital Collection)

“Cadets Climbing Rigging” (Maritime College Digital Collections)

Maritime College administration continued Admiral Luce’s tradition, purchasing retired ships from the federal government and transforming them into training ships for cadets, for decades. By 1938, the College acquired land and Fort Schuyler in Throggs Neck, NY in New York’s East River as a permanent home and joined the SUNY system. Maritime cadets continue to live aboard training ships in the summer and spend the rest of the academic year at the Fort. 

The College Archives houses records from the first training ship, St. Mary’s, to its current training ship, Empire State VI. The current training ship, Empire State IV is nearly at the end of its time and the College, and our students, look forward to a custom-built training ship as the first vessel in the National Security Multi-Mission Vessel class. 

The College Archives’ collections captures the student experience beyond seaboard training. The Archives includes materials that show student and faculty life through documents, photographs, yearbooks, and administration records. One collection available in our Digital Collections, is the Porthole Student Newspapers. This student run newspaper was a primary forum for campus dissent. Beginning in the 1950s, the published complaints were almost always minor in nature with complaints of room décor, television privileges, and bad food. By 1963, with administration permission, the student newspaper circulated a questionnaire asking for opinions about the school and its curriculum. This opened the flood gates of student and faculty opinion and several sharp editorials were published that described the disconnect between the faculty and students. The Archives digitized a selection of  Porthole issues 1954 to 1959, with generous support from an alumnus who served as student editor during that time. Two of my favorite sections found in the student newspaper are the “Scuttlebutt” and “Drag of the Week” that show how “serious” students thought about their futures. To access or read earlier and later issues, see the SUNY Maritime Library and Archives contact information below. 

Page 3 of Porthole January 14, 1955 (SUNY Maritime)

Page 4 Porthole January 14, 1955 (SUNY Maritime)

Alumni of SUNY Maritime brim with pride of their alma mater and support the archives by donating their records and sharing their memories. In 2012, the Library held an event during Homecoming, the Maritime Memory Oral History Project by library staff and volunteers. You can find and listen to the oral histories through our Digital Collection or SUNY Maritime’s collections on the Internet Archive. One active alumnus, Phillip Dilloway, donated a diary he kept as a cadet on Empire State I (also known as American Pilot) and his book titled “Class of October 1946” that preserved the voices of his fellow Silent Generation merchant marines. 

Self-portrait of Dilloway aboard USS American Pilot (also known as Empire State I) in the summer of 1945, from Maritime College Digital Collections.

The Sailor’s Snug Harbor collection is the largest special collection in our archives, consisting of 267 standard document boxes, 89 half sized document boxes, 127 flat boxes, and 150 volumes. We house almost all of the Snug Harbor in New York’s records, contributing to one third of the space and majority of our Digital Collections. A “Snug Harbor,” for those unfamiliar with the term, is not a geographic location, it is a retirement home and social community for seamen. SUNY Maritime’s Snug Harbor collection provides students, faculty, and researchers with a window into how many merchant mariners and seamen ended their careers and spent their retirements. This Snug Harbor collection highlights the importance of New York in 19th and 20th century maritime culture.

The Sailor’s Snug Harbor collection was deposited at SUNY Maritime in 1976 as the Harbor was preparing to relocate to North Carolina. Originally established in 1801 from the will of Robert Richard Randall, Snug Harbor was built on 140 acres on Staten Island overlooking the Kill Van Kull in 1833 by the Board of Trustees after 30 years of legal battles. The Sailor’s Snug Harbor is one of the country’s oldest and first secular philanthropic institutions opening its doors to “aged, decrepit, and worn out” mariners. There are other Snug Harbors in the U.S. including Boston, MA.  The Luce Library and Archives collection is the largest and most extensive Snug Harbor collection available to the public in the U.S. and is rich with detail and points of interest about maritime history and a sailor’s lifetime.

Title page of the last will and testament of Robert R. Randall, Maritime College Digital Collection.

The Snug Harbor Trustees hired renowned architect Minard Lafever in the late 1830s to design the main houses on the property. Over time, Snug Harbor developed its own mini-township which included a working farm with livestock, a church, a hospital, a power plant, and a graveyard. Residents of Snug Harbor were called “inmates” and strict admission requirements. Run by a Board of Trustees, the head administrator, “Governor”, oversaw daily operations. The most famous Governor, Thomas Melville, youngest brother of Herman Melville, modernized recordkeeping and expanded the population doubling the size of the community during his tenure. The Melville family spent many holidays at Snug Harbor during Thomas Melville’s tenure from 1867-1884 and the archives holds some Melville family memorabilia. You can read more about Herman Melville signed book in our collection. 

Herman Melville, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing left, circa 1944. (Library of Congress)

Snug Harbor remained in Staten Island until the population began to decline when Snug Harbor relocated to Sea Level, North Carolina in 1976. 

In 2015 and 2016, archivists and librarians digitized letters by residentsadministrative records, meeting minutes, account books, “inmate” records and “inmate” photographs from the Snug Harbor collection. These records are widely used by current Maritime College students and faculty as part of the Maritime and Naval Studies graduate program. The inmate records and photographs have proven to be of great interest widely used by genealogists. Knowing the Melville’s family importance to American Literature and how many Americans gained the knowledge they have of 19th century maritime life through Herman’s writings, we digitized most of Governor Melville’s correspondence. Researchers will find information about life and management of Snug Harbor and Governor Melville’s relationship to his family.

Beyond the collections mentioned, the Stephen B. Luce Library and Archives holds a treasure trove of maritime history including pilot association records, charts, blueprints, yearbooks, college catalogs, scrapbooks, and sextons. The Stephen B. Luce Library and Archives are open to the public and appointments to visit the archives can be made via email ( or call (718) 409-7231. I’d be delighted to speak to any IJNH readers interested in our holdings. To view other collections, please visit our Finding Aids page.

Special thanks to Professor John Rocco for his research into Snug Harbor’s history: “Wearily, we seek a haven” A Brief History of Sailor’s Snug Harbor. 

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Admiral David Beatty: The Royal Navy Incarnate

Chuck Steele
United States Air Force Academy

Abstract: This paper addresses the connections between David Beatty and ethos in the Royal Navy during World War I. The issue considered herein is the degree to which Beatty conflated his fortunes with those of the organization he served and how this blurring of identities played an outsized role in coloring expectations for the Navy in war and peace. This brief study illuminates both the performance of Beatty in battle and the struggle to protect his reputation. Ultimately, Beatty’s career as an admiral is instructive as a warning to those in military/naval circles who would sacrifice competence in core proficiencies and technical expertise for the sake of servicing a peculiar sense of fighting spirit. 1 

Admiral David Beatty, Britain’s First Sea Lord at the time of the Washington Naval Conference, is one of the most controversial figures in naval history. Serving at a time of rapidly evolving technologies, Beatty epitomized the daring sort of naval officer associated with the likes of Drake and Nelson. He exuded aggressiveness, earning one biographer’s laudatory claim to be history’s “last naval hero.” 2  In appearance and demeanor, he was seemingly the quintessential British admiral. However, Beatty did not serve in the Age of Sail, and despite his appeal to those longing for continuity with the iconic figures of the past, Beatty was a man out of his depth at the dawning of the Age of Dreadnoughts. In the defining moment of his career, the opening stages of the battle of Jutland, Beatty acted rashly. His impetuosity was calamitous for thousands of British sailors and nearly delivered the most important victory of the Great War to the Imperial German Navy. Yet, despite his lackluster performance at Jutland, Beatty’s reputation was burnished after the fighting by a multitude of influential political and naval figures who enabled him to become the driving force in charting the Royal Navy’s course in the interwar years. 

Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty (Creative Commons)

An undoubtedly brave officer, Beatty was a throwback to the Royal Navy’s most glorious age—the Age of Nelson. Like the hero of the battles of Cape St. Vincent, Aboukir Bay, and Trafalgar, Beatty made his reputation by demonstrating calmness and resolve under fire. Unlike Nelson, Beatty’s greatest achievements in combat occurred far from the line of battle. The events propelling Beatty to rapid promotion and star status in the world’s most respected navy had little, if anything, to do with seamanship or even the sea. 

Beatty’s first brush with greatness occurred while serving as second in command to Stanley Colville, who was leading the flotilla of gunboats accompanying General Herbert Kitchener during his expedition in Sudan. 3  In that campaign, Beatty took over for a wounded Colville and quickly demonstrated his courage in the fighting at Dongola, winning the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) and the admiration of Kitchener. In addition to his DSO, Beatty was promoted to commander (this was remarkable in that it happened in about half the time as the other officers of his commissioning year group). 4  

Beatty’s next heroic exploit, and one that would have been familiar to anyone more accustomed to bayonets than broadsides, occurred during the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. Having followed Colville to the China station, Beatty was once again at the right place at the right time to distinguish himself while under fire. Serving as executive officer to Colville, then commanding HMS Barfleur, Beatty led a contingent of that ship’s sailors in combat at Tientsin. As in the fighting four years earlier, Beatty won praise and promotion for his courage and composure. Leading by example, Beatty was out front with his men when he was wounded in the left arm and wrist. As a result of his heroism in China, Beatty was promoted to Captain at the age of twenty-nine. 5  

While Beatty’s rapid promotion reflected the value put on courage by the Royal Navy, it also illuminated a lack of comprehension for the changing character of war at sea. As he would demonstrate clearly in the First World War, his weakness as an admiral was not lacking enthusiasm for the fight; it was his inability to understand the range of his responsibilities to prepare and lead a fleet in battle. In this regard, the most unsalutary consequence of Beatty’s being recognized for his bravery during land campaigns in Sudan and China was his being excused from developing the skills attendant upon gaining promotion for excellence while serving at sea. 

Exacerbating the problems associated with Beatty’s lack of experience in command at sea was his marriage to Ethel Tree. Beatty’s bride was the heir to the fortune of Chicago department store mogul Marshall Field. Her wealth put Beatty in the enviable position of not having to rely upon the Navy for his financial wellbeing. Tree’s wealth insulated Beatty from the concerns of other officers. Specifically, Beatty was able to put his own desires above the needs of the Navy. At the beginning of 1910, Beatty attained the rank of rear admiral, becoming the youngest officer to be so promoted in over a century. 6  When offered the position as second-in-command of the Atlantic Fleet, Beatty declined. His refusal to serve directly beneath John Jellicoe, the fleet’s commander, not only prevented him from gaining valuable time at sea but also deprived him of the opportunity to gain insights into the methods of the man he would serve under during the battle of Jutland. 

Beatty’s arrogance did not ruin his career; if anything, it won him admirers in high places—most notably Winston Churchill, who became First Lord of the Admiralty in October 1911. Churchill was thoroughly impressed by Beatty’s unconventional record, deciding to make him his naval secretary at the start of 1912. 7  According to Churchill, “It became increasingly clear to me that he [Beatty] viewed questions of naval strategy and tactics in a different light from the average naval officer: he approached them, as it seemed to me, much more as a soldier would. His war experiences on land illuminated the facts he had acquired in his naval training. He was no mere instrumentalist.” 8  

Unfortunately for thousands of British sailors, Churchill could not have been more wrong in discounting the importance of technical acumen at the dawning of the 20th century. The Royal Navy of Beatty’s time was on the bow wave of a paradigm shift. In a few short years, the battle fleets of the world were transformed. At the Battle of Tsushima in 1905, Admiral Togo Heihachiro flew his flag from the British-built battleship, Mikasa. The Japanese flagship was armed with four 12-inch guns, displaced more than 15,000 tons, generated 15,000 horsepower, and could reach a speed of 18 knots. 9  Mikasa represented the height of modern battleship design when it was launched in 1900. However, by the time of the Battle of Jutland, Beatty had available to him four Queen Elizabeth class battleships—with main armament consisting of eight 15-inch guns and displacing 33,000 tons fully loaded. The Queen Elizabeth class could deliver 75,000 horsepower, and they could steam at 24 knots. 10  

Battle of Jutland Map (United States Military Academy Department of History)

More germane to this story, Beatty’s command at Jutland was built around battle cruisers. These ships packed the punch of battleships but had even greater speed. As Churchill remarked, the battle cruisers were “the strategic cavalry of the Royal Navy, that supreme combination of speed and power to which the Admiralty were continuously directed.” 11  In May of 1916, Beatty flew his flag from HMS Lion, the lead ship in a class of battle cruisers that included Princess Royal and the Queen Mary. The new ships displaced 29,700 tons fully loaded, mounted eight 13.5-inch guns, their engines could generate 70,000 horsepower, and they could steam at a remarkable 26.5 knots. 12  

In less than ten years, advances in naval architecture and armament recast the face of naval battle. According to Norman Friedman, Admiral John “Jacky” Fisher, the mastermind behind the Dreadnought and battle cruiser revolution, was fascinated by the need for attaining simultaneous increases in gunnery ranges and speed. “Only higher speed would enable a British fleet to choose its battle range so as to force an enemy to submit to a pounding he could not effectively return.” 13  Fisher’s new ships were capable of the dramatic increases he desired—but David Beatty would prove incapable of coordinating the new weapons to meet their full potential in battle. 

One important factor in retarding Beatty’s development as a professional was his status as a fighting man. It has been argued that the Royal Navy’s greatest problem in 1916 was not neglect for the demands of integrating new technologies into the Grand Fleet, but more a matter of having lost touch with the service’s heritage. According to U.S. Naval War College Professor James Holmes, “by 1916 the Royal Navy had in effect forgotten about the rigors of war against a peer competitor.” 14  Of course, by May of 1916, the Royal Navy had engaged in four substantial actions against the Imperial German Navy (the battles of Coronel and the Falklands fought in the South Pacific and South Atlantic Oceans in November and December of 1914 and the battles of Heligoland Bight and Dogger Bank fought in the North Sea in August 1914 and January 1915). The problem confronting the Royal Navy, and David Beatty, in May 1916 was not that they had forgotten how to fight; it was that they proved incapable of learning appropriate lessons from their own recent experiences. If anything, Beatty, the most heralded combatant of his generation, remembered too much about how battles were fought on land or in an era far removed from that requiring his services as a fleet commander. He was the embodiment of an ethos that valued courage above competence.

While Beatty and his battle cruisers had seen action in the first clash in the North Sea, the Battle of Heligoland Bight, it was his performance nearly half a year later at the Battle of Dogger Bank that should have been cause for concern in his superiors. At Dogger Bank (24 January 1915), poor communications and inefficient shooting plagued the Royal Navy. Relying on superior signals intelligence from the Admiralty in London, Beatty took two squadrons of battle cruisers out from the Firth of Forth to meet with additional lighter British naval forces to intercept Franz Hipper’s First Scouting Group. The British had a five to three advantage in battle cruisers (Lion, Tiger, Princess Royal, Indomitable, and New Zealand against Seydlitz, Moltke, and Derfflinger). Hipper, who had put to sea in anticipation of intercepting inferior British forces, let discretion serve as the better part of valor, recoiling into headlong retreat once the disparity in forces became apparent. Meanwhile, Beatty’s battle cruisers spared no effort in trying to close the distance with the fleeing Germans. Owing to their superior speed and the Herculean efforts of British stokers, Beatty’s squadrons steamed ever closer to the Germans. Once Lion (Beatty’s flagship) was within 22,000 yards of the armored cruiser Blücher (the last and slowest ship in Hipper’s line), the British opened fire. 15  

However, as the British pressed on, problems in communications and fire control became manifest. Tiger failed to target the appropriate ship (Moltke) and instead directed its fire on the Seydlitz, which was already being targeted by Lion. 16  Compounding problems for the British was the fire being poured onto Lion. The flagship was hit several times and suffered significant damage. As Lion slowed, Beatty was quickly out of position to lead, resorting solely to signal flags to direct his squadrons. The situation was made worse because the signals being issued were not clear in establishing the admiral’s intent. Beatty’s signals resulted in the remaining fully serviceable British battle cruisers concentrating their fire on the badly damaged Blücher. As the commander of the Second Battle Cruiser Squadron, Rear Admiral Archibald Moore, attested, “the Vice-Admiral [Beatty] made a general signal: ‘Attack the rear of enemy bearing NE’; this was apparently the Blücher (she bore approximately NE from New Zealand at the time).” 17  At the end of the battle, the unfortunate armored cruiser had drawn the overwhelming attention of Beatty’s battle cruisers and was the only one of Hipper’s ships sunk. 

In addition to poor communications, British gunnery was abysmal, with only one percent of rounds hitting home at ranges between 16,000 and 18,000 yards. 18  Beatty had not done well in preparing or controlling his forces. The battle was a lost opportunity for the British that highlighted poor communications and ineffective standard operating procedures. Nevertheless, in its aftermath, Beatty was honored for having routed the Germans. 11  Obviously, Britain thirsted for a hero of Nelsonic proportions, but unlike Nelson, Beatty failed to achieve decisive results, even with numerical advantages Nelson would have envied. The Great War at sea was not simply a struggle between a sea power and a land power; this was a contest between Europe’s most industrialized nations—with fleets that were technological marvels representing the full measure of both belligerents’ mechanical prowess. 

Admiral of the Fleet John Jellicoe, 1st Earl Jellicoe (Library of Congress)

Furthermore, Beatty had not cultivated a group of competent and audacious subordinates, similar to Nelson’s famous band of brothers. Beatty was brave and ambitious, but neither of those things obviated the need for him to develop a team that shared an understanding of how a modern sea battle should be fought. A case in point being Moore, who, for his efforts to point out the confusion caused by Beatty’s poor communications, was reassigned by Churchill and replaced by Rear Admiral William Pakenham, an ardent supporter of Beatty. The Royal Navy had spent centuries developing a unique warrior ethos, and Beatty seemed to be its arch exemplar in 1915. Rather than scrutinize his failure to prepare for the chaos of battle and produce a victory worthy of the assets under his command, the Admiralty sang the praises of its anointed hero and left the weight of his mistakes to be borne by Moore. As Beatty confided to Jellicoe not long after the battle, “. . . 1st Lord [Churchill] was in a disturbed frame of mind and wanted to have the blood of somebody. I gather this is the First Sea Lord’s [Fisher] idea also; they settled on Moore.” Adding his condemnation to that of the Admiralty, Beatty wrote, “[w]ell frankly between you and I he is not of the right sort of temperament for a BCS [battle cruiser squadron].” 20 

Perhaps fearing that Beatty was feeling too much pressure to be a modern-day Nelson or that he might not be the most assiduous student of naval affairs, Jellicoe wrote the following to him in March 1915:

I am starting to write a difficult letter. I should imagine that the Germans will sooner or later try and entrap you by using their battle cruisers as a decoy. They must know that I am—where I am—and you are where you are, and they may well argue that the position is one which lends itself to a trap to bring you into the High Seas Fleet, with the battle cruisers as bait. They know that if they can get you in chase, the odds are that you will be 100 miles away from me, and they can under such conditions draw you well down to the Heligoland Bight without my being in effective support. It is quite all right if you keep your speed, of course, but it is the reverse if you have some ships with their speed badly reduced in the fight with the battle cruisers, or by submarines. In that case the loss of such ships seems inevitable if you are drawn into the vicinity of the High Seas Fleet with me still too far off to get to your help or to their help, so as to extricate before dark. 21 

Jellicoe’s note was prophetic. Reinhard Scheer, the Commander in Chief of Germany’s High Seas Fleet, set the very trap Jellicoe feared at the end of May 1916. At the Battle of Jutland (31 May – 1 June 1916), Beatty played directly to German expectations. However, with the Grand Fleet anticipating Scheer’s course of action, Beatty was not merely the victim of well-reasoned German planning but also the bait in a far more extensive engagement that would feature the full might of the Grand Fleet. 

Sortieing once again upon receiving signals intelligence from London, indicating Hipper’s Scouting Group was putting to sea, Beatty led the Battle Cruiser Fleet to search for Hipper’s forces. Once outlying elements of the two fleets came into contact with each other, the larger ships of the battle cruiser forces were drawn together. In short order, a heated moving battle took shape between the opposing battle cruisers. The fighting was intense and extremely costly for the British. Beyond getting the better of Beatty in combat, Hipper was playing his part in leading Beatty on a chase toward Scheer in what is known as the “Run to the South.” 

Beatty’s force consisted of six battle cruisers (Lion, Queen Mary, Princess Royal, Tiger, New Zealand, and Indefatigable) and Rear Admiral Hugh Evan-Thomas’s Fifth Battle Squadron (Barham, Valiant, Warspite, and Malaya). Beatty’s fleet ordinarily did not include Evan-Thomas’s battle squadron, but Horace Hood’s Third Battle Cruiser Squadron (Invincible, Inflexible, and Indomitable) was temporarily attached to the Battle Fleet, and the Queen Elizabeths were sent south in their stead. 22  Not surprisingly, in the short time that Evan-Thomas had traded places with Hood, communications between Beatty and the Fifth Battle Squadron commander were poor at best, and there was a lack of understanding over Beatty’s operating procedures. 23  These discrepancies could not be cleared up under fire and at full speed. 

In his rush to come to grips with his old adversary, Beatty not only outstripped the support of Evan-Thomas’s immensely powerful battleships, but in driving on so quickly, he also surrendered the advantages of superior gun range that his battle cruisers held over their five German counterparts (Lützow, Derfflinger, Moltke, Seydlitz, and Von der Tann). Instead of engaging at more than 20,000 yards, it was estimated that Beatty opened fire at a range inside 18,000 yards—possibly as low as 16,000 yards. Seemingly, the British solution to the problem of ineffective gun ranging was not to be found in firing more rounds from longer ranges but firing more rounds from shorter ranges. Rather than meet the intent of the battle cruiser’s design, to combine greater speed with the ability to engage at a relatively safe distance, Beatty’s ships were well within the range of Hipper’s battle cruisers when the fighting began at approximately 3:45. 24  The British were in a dire predicament concerning their vulnerability to German fire that was exacerbated by being silhouetted against the western sky—thus allowing for easier target acquisition by their foes. 25 

Additionally, as the distance between the disparate parts of Beatty’s command grew, it became more difficult to maintain communications between the battle cruisers and the battleships. While Moore had been replaced after voicing his concerns over the confusing signals at Dogger Bank, Beatty had nonetheless retained his signals lieutenant, Ralph Seymour. Despite more than a year intervening between the battles, matters were unimproved in terms of the clarity of communications between Lion and the other ships under Beatty’s command. Indeed, as the battle cruisers formed into line, they once again failed to target all of Hipper’s battle cruisers. Having a one-ship advantage over Hipper, Beatty had called on Princess Royal (the ship immediately behind his own) to concentrate fire on Hipper’s flagship, the Lützow. Regrettably for the British, the next ship in the German line, Derfflinger, was initially left unmolested by the third ship in Beatty’s formation (Queen Mary).  25 

The consequences of Beatty’s haste were disastrous. At 4:02, the British lost the battle cruiser Indefatigable, and at 4:26, they lost Queen Mary. 27  In the span of less than half an hour, Hipper had sunk a third of Beatty’s battle cruisers, and the Germans had taken the lives of more than 2,000 British sailors. Making matters worse, following Hipper’s First Scouting Group was the main force of Scheer’s High Seas Fleet. Beatty’s battle cruisers and Evan-Thomas’s battleships were thoroughly drawn into the trap Jellicoe had foreseen. Like sharks drawn to blood, Scheer’s battleships pressed on to complete the destruction begun by Hipper. Knowing that Jellicoe and salvation were behind him, Beatty turned his forces north to lead the Germans into a broader clash with the entire Grand Fleet. 

Again, distance and communication proved difficult, and Evan-Thomas’s battleships passed Beatty and his remaining battle cruisers before making their turn to the north under very heavy fire from the High Seas Fleet. According to naval historian Eric Grove, the effective defeat of the Battle Cruiser Fleet in the “Run to the South” was caused not just by poor shooting but flawed tactics that did not take advantage of his gunnery superiority and by an unwillingness to concentrate with the Fifth Battle Squadron. 28  

It is somewhat ironic that regardless of the misfortunes that had befallen Beatty’s fleet, the German hunters were on a course to become the hunted. At least one historian (Andrew Gordon) has posited that Beatty’s escape to the protection of Jellicoe’s guns was “a tribute to his [Beatty] leadership, single-mindedness, and stamina,” yet even in this, Beatty was not beyond reproach. 29  Again, poor communications from Beatty, or rather non-existent communications, left Jellicoe without proper situational awareness. Earlier in the day, the Commander in Chief of the Grand Fleet was aware that battle had been joined between the battle cruiser forces of the two fleets and then that the High Seas Fleet had entered the fray. However, while Jellicoe knew that Scheer and his fleet were in pursuit of Beatty and the Battle Cruiser Fleet, the senior British commander was aware of little else until the two parts of the British fleet made visual contact shortly before 6:00. When Beatty finally was in sight of Jellicoe, the latter pressed Beatty for the course and bearing of the Germans—he received the bearing, but not the course. 30  

Still, Jellicoe’s battleships maneuvered expertly to steam into line, firing full broadsides into the bows of the German High Seas Fleet when contact was made at approximately 6:30. As evening turned to night, the Grand Fleet’s twice crossing of the German T placed Scheer in an untenable position, making retreat his most attractive option. Scheer would succeed in his efforts to escape, aided by night and more communications problems—this time throughout the Grand Fleet. The battle ended in the early hours of 1 June, but the controversy was just beginning.

Remarkably, Beatty’s reputation as an admiral was not ruined by the response his fleet made to the German challenge. Almost immediately after the battle, Beatty and his supporters sought to cast the fight in a new light. To Beatty and his partisans, the battle was not a failure because of the losses to the Battle Cruiser Fleet, but because Jellicoe failed to annihilate the German Fleet. In the words of Beatty’s adoring subordinate Pakenham, “To us it looked as though all was over with the Germans but the killing, . . . Of one thing I am confident. If there had been a David in the battlefleet, we should have had a different tale to tell.” 31 

Though Jellicoe received the lion’s share of criticism for failing to deliver an industrial age Battle of Trafalgar, it was the losses to Beatty’s battle cruisers that gave Germany its greatest claim to success at Jutland. Despite his earlier exposure to battle in the North Sea, Beatty failed to capitalize on his experiences and neither improved procedures for clearer communications nor engaged in practices facilitating more effective gunnery. Indeed, British efforts to increase their rates of fire led to dangerous practices for the stowing and handling of ammunition throughout the Grand Fleet. Nonetheless, the problems associated with those practices were most acute in the battle cruisers, owing to their diminished ability to sustain a pounding from heavy caliber guns. The advantages of the battle cruiser’s superior speed and gun range, as envisioned by Fisher, were lost on Beatty at Jutland. Perhaps a mere instrumentalist would have fared better. After all, it was the battle cruisers, the weapons platform Churchill thought ideally suited to the command of Beatty that were at the heart of the cataclysmic losses among the British at Jutland. As naval historian John Brooks points out, Beatty committed a catalog of errors showing an uncharacteristic lack of composure that was compounded by an effort to distort the record of the fighting in his favor. According to Brooks, “. . . there was little that was truly heroic in Beatty’s leadership at Jutland.” 32  

As they had been after Dogger Bank, Beatty’s shortcomings were overlooked and blame was assigned to Jellicoe for delivering an incomplete victory, or worse. Far from being held accountable for any of his failings at Jutland, Beatty was rewarded for his service—replacing Jellicoe as the Commander of the Grand Fleet once the latter was made First Sea Lord to deal with the U-boat menace. At war’s end, Beatty took the greatest of laurels retaining command of the Grand Fleet during the surrender of the High Seas Fleet. In November 1919, Beatty became First Sea Lord—a position he would hold for eight years. His performance as First Sea Lord during the 1920s was far more laudable than his efforts as a fleet commander. Beatty proved to be an adroit advocate for the Royal Navy, maintaining its standing at the fore of world navies regardless of the austerity brought on by the end of the Great War. According to Andrew Lambert, it was Beatty’s time as First Sea Lord that showed his “true greatness as an admiral.” 33  

However, after the war, Beatty’s efforts to achieve a favorable interpretation of his role at the battle of Jutland put him at odds with many who fought at Jutland and several notable historians, not the least being Julian Corbett, the author of Some Principles of Maritime Strategy and the History of the Great War Naval Operations, Based on Official Documents. When Corbett’s official history was published, the Admiralty, firmly under Beatty’s influence as First Sea Lord, saw fit to distance themselves from criticism and issue a disclaimer stating, “Their Lordships find that some of the principles advocated in this book, especially the tendency to minimize the importance of seeking battle and of forcing it to a conclusion, are directly in conflict with their views.” 34  Furthermore, in the years after the battle, other accounts of the fighting were written by partisans of both Beatty and Jellicoe. Beatty, for his part, actively sought to change the historical record concerning his actions, despite many of the battle’s participants and chroniclers being aware of the disingenuous nature of Beatty’s editorial efforts. The inevitable verdict of the attempts to rewrite history being that Beatty knew how poorly he performed in command. 

In Britain, the nation that sets the standard for professionalism by which modern navies are often judged, it is not surprising that a chasm developed between the emphasis placed on the preservation of ethos as opposed to proficiency in mastering new habiliments of war. Specifically, in the case of David Beatty, the Royal Navy chose to honor his most daring deeds for the sake of reaffirming its ethos, as opposed to insisting upon a more thorough understanding of the possibilities and limitations of Dreadnoughts and battle cruisers. Unfortunately, ethos is often more a product of mythology than a thoughtful understanding of the past, and Beatty as an exemplar of a particular ethos was almost too much for the Royal Navy to bear as it struggled to maintain command of the seas in the Great War.        

(Return to December 2021 Table of Contents) 


  1. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the US Government. PA# USAFA-DF-2021-308. This paper is drawn largely from a chapter in a soon-to-be-published book: History’s Worst Military Leaders co-edited by this paper’s author and Prof. John Jennings also of USAFA. The book will be published by Reaktion Books in the UK and the University of Chicago Press in the US. The publication is scheduled for March of 2022.
  2. Stephen Roskill, Admiral of the Fleet Earl Beatty: The Last Naval Hero (Barnsley: Seaforth Publishing, 2018).
  3. Andrew Lambert, Admirals: The Naval Commanders Who Made Britain Great (London: Faber and Faber, 2009). p. 339.
  4. Robert Massie, Castles of Steel (New York: Random House, 2003). p. 86.
  5. Roskill, pp. 32-33.
  6. Roskill, p. 42.
  7. Winston Churchill, The World Crisis 6 vols. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons,1923–31), vol. 1, p. 88.
  8. Churchill, vol. 1, p. 88.
  9. Bernard Ireland, Jane’s Battleships of the 20th Century (New York: Harper Collins, 1996). p. 68.
  10. Ireland, p. 115.
  11. Churchill, vol. 1, p. 89.
  12. Ireland, p. 109.
  13. Norman Friedman, The British Battleship 1906-1945 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2015). p. 62.
  14. James Holmes, ‘The U.S. Navy Has Forgotten How to Fight,’ Foreign Policy November 13, 2018 (
  15. James Goldrick, Before Jutland: The Naval War in Northern European Waters, August 1914-February 1915 (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2015). pp. 265-266.
  16. Goldrick, p. 268.
  17. Archibald Moore After Action Report dated 25 January 1915, B. McL. Ranft ed. The Beatty Papers: Selections from the Private and Official Correspondence of Admiral of the Fleet Earl Beatty two volumes (London: Navy Records society, 1989). p.207.
  18. Sweetman, p. 354.
  19. Churchill, vol. 1, p. 89.
  20. Beatty letter to John Jellicoe, dated 8 February 1915, Temple Patterson ed. The Jellicoe Papers: Selections from the private and official correspondence of Admiral of the Fleet Earl Jellicoe of Scapa two volumes (London: Navy Records Society, 1966). Vol. 1, p. 144.
  21. John Jellicoe letter to Beatty, dated 23 March 1915, Temple Patterson ed. The Jellicoe Papers Vol. 1, p. 152.
  22. Julian Corbett, History of the Great War Naval Operations, Based on Official Documents (London:  Longmans, Green and Co., 1923), vol 3, p. 318.
  23. Andrew Gordon, The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2012). pp. 54-58.
  24. Corbett, pp. 333-334.
  25. Corbett, p. 334.
  26. Corbett, p. 334.
  27. Gordon, p. 613.
  28. Eric Grove, New Introduction to Roskill.
  29. Gordon, p. 2.
  30. Corbett, pp. 355-356.
  31. Rear Admiral Pakenham to Margaret Strickland-Constable, 9 June 1916, East Riding Archives and Records Service: DDST/1/8/1/17. Quoted in David Stevens, In All Respects Ready: Australia’s Navy in World War One (South Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2014). p. 215.
  32. John Brooks, The Battle of Jutland (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2016). p. 543.
  33. Lambert, p. 366.
  34. Corbett, introduction.

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The Purchase of the Virgin Islands in 1917: Mahan and the American Strategy in the Caribbean Sea

Hans Christian Bjerg
Independent Historian, Author, and Lecturer

Readers of American and Danish history have considered the American purchase of the former Danish West Indies, The Virgin Islands, in 1916-17, as an isolated political event with a short previous history. Danish historians usually explain the sale to the US as mostly due to financial reasons. Denmark acquired, as colonies, the islands, St. Thomas, St. Croix and St. John in 1671, 1718 and 1733 respectively. From the late nineteenth century, Denmark considered maintaining the colonies a losing proposition. The disadvantages of possessing the islands were, before the 1860s, discussed occasionally in Danish political circles without any declared solution.

In 2017 Danish media marked the centenary of the sale. In this connection it was remarkable that two facts about the sale didn’t seem to be generally known. Firstly, that the process of the sale actually was going on for fifty years before the sale in 1917. Secondly, that the US naval strategy concerning the Caribbean Sea played a substantial role in the American interest in the islands. The purpose of this paper is to draw attention on both sides of the Atlantic to these facts.

In fact, the American interests in the islands, especially St. Thomas with its splendid harbor, began near the end of the 1860s. 1  After the Civil War it was time to consider the strategic conditions of the US. Secretary of State W. H. Seward focused both on annexing Mexico and on a possible American expansion into the Caribbean. Seward received a message from the American minister in Copenhagen expressing concern about the possibility the Danish West Indies would be included in the negotiations between Prussia and Austria after the defeat of Denmark in the war 1864. A Prussian or an Austrian possession of the Danish islands could be problematic from an American point of view. 2 

U.S. Secretary of State William Henry Seward (1801-1872) (LOC Image)

In January 1865, Seward contacted the Danish Minister to the US, General W. R. Raasløff, who wrote to the Danish government about an American acquisition of the Danish islands. The Danish government was at first surprised by the enquiry, but eventually became willing to discuss it.  The Danes stipulated the clear precondition that the two great European powers, Great Britain and France, would accept the sale 3.

From the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Danes were dissatisfied with their West Indies colonies. The three islands had become an economic burden instead of a profitable possession. As early as 1846, politicians discussed the possibility of selling the islands. The emancipation of the slaves on the islands in 1848 made the possibility of a sale even more appealing.

In a report dated 1865, Seward’s thoughts about the Caribbean found support from the US Navy. 4  One of the lessons of the Civil War at sea was the necessity of having bases to secure the supplies of coal. The report mentioned that the Danish islands with the excellent harbor of St. Thomas would be that kind of base covering the Caribbean Sea. Vice Admiral David Dixon Porter procured charts and hydrographic descriptions of the islands to use in further planning.

David Dixon Porter (Matthew Brady/Library of Congress)

Talks between the US and Denmark went on for half a year. With the fall of the French-backed Second Mexican Empire and the restored Mexican Republic Seward took up the case again in 1866.  Raasløff supported Seward’s initiative. Therefore, he went to Denmark to promote the idea among Danish politicians.

Historians differ as to who first advocated US possession of the Danish West Indies, but it is without question that Seward was the prime mover and that US efforts to acquire the islands were based on naval strategic interests. Figure 1 shows the strategic importance of the harbor of St. Thomas. Raasløf’s mission in Denmark succeeded. From November 1865, the Danish cabinet was ready to negotiate the sale of the islands. For the Danes, the decision primarily was an economic one.

The negotiations resulted in a treaty between the US and Denmark dated October, 24, 1867. In compliance with the treaty, the US purchased the three isles of the Danish West Indies for $7,500,000 in gold. The condition from the Danish side was that a majority of the inhabitants, by a referendum, accepted the purchase. The referendum was carried out in January 1868. At that time only around 1000 islanders had the right to vote, and they supported the sale nearly unanimously. The Danish Parliament, the Folketinget, ratified the treaty on January 28, 1868.

But the expected American ratification never took place. In 1867 the US purchased Alaska from Russia. The purchase caused some political problems and the situation was apparently one of the reasons why the political support for purchasing the Danish isles disappeared. It became hard work for Seward and Raasløff to maintain public and political interest in the purchase.

Hoping to sway public opinion, Seward and Raasløff asked Admiral David Porter to write a memorandum describing the strategic advantages of the purchase. In a memorandum dated November 6, 1867 Admiral Porter wrote the following about the island of St. Thomas:

[It}… could be defended easily as it was a small Gibraltar in itself……in the event of war with an European power, the United States would be at a disadvantage without a naval depot.” [St. Thomas]…is the most prominent position in the West Indies as a naval and commercial station. … It is situated … right in the track of all vessels coming from Europe  .. and the Pacific Ocean, bound to the West India Islands or to the United States….It is a central point from which any or all of the West India islands can be assailed while it is impervious to attack from landing parties, and can be fortified to any extent…[It] ”…has the best harbor in the West Indies and no other harbor is better fitted than St. Thomas for a naval station  .. In fine, I think St. Thomas is the keystone to the arch of the West Indies: It commands them all. 5 

Figure 1- The Caribbean Sea and the position of St. Thomas

On the other hand, according to the opponents of the treaty, a naval station on St. Thomas would be the target for the first attack from an enemy in Europe. 6 

In connection with the discussions about the purchase, a Congressional delegation visited St. Thomas in November 1867.  On October, 29 in the same year, a destructive hurricane had hit the area. Therefore, when the delegation arrived at St. Thomas, the harbor was in a very bad condition. Furthermore, during the visit, the isles were hit by a tsunami that caused further destruction.  Without any doubt, these events had a negative effect on the politicians in their attitude toward the purchase.

In September 1867 Admiral David Farragut, commanding an American fleet, visited Copenhagen, where he received a warm welcome. The visit apparently fulfilled a request from Raasløff who at that time was Minister of War in, Denmark. Again, Raasløff was promoting the sale of the Danish West Indies. 7 

Congress postponed ratification of the treaty and dropped the matter in 1870. Raasløff tried in vain to the very last, along with those American politicians who were in favor of the treaty, to garner political support for ratification. Raasløf hired an author named James Parton to disseminate arguments for an American agreement. 8  The pamphlet made the point that the United States was “bound in honor” to enter the treaty. Furthermore Raasløf and his supporters also asked Captain Gustavus U. Fox, former Assistant Secretary of the Navy Department, to formulate a memorandum on the importance of a US naval station on St. Thomas.  On February, 27, 1869 Fox sent a long memorandum in which he reviewed every advantage the US could derive from the treaty. 9  He wrote, in part:

The harbor of St. Thomas is…one of the best in the West Indies, admirable for naval purposes, and fully equal to all the requirements of commerce of those seas…In future wars steam power can only be used successfully in the enemy’s commerce. Therefore it is patent that the nations having naval depots and surplus coal will occupy a commanding [role] in a maritime struggle.

However, all such lobbying in the United States was in vain.

In Denmark the US Congress’ decision to forego the treaty caused a political crisis. The expectations of an American ratification were high. As a consequence of the US decision, the Danish Cabinet was dismissed. Many people in Demark and the West Indies were disappointed.

Figure 2- The harbor of St. Thomas in the 1860s

During the 1870s, several rumors emerged that the new German Empire was interested in an exchange of Schleswig for the Danish West Indies. The Danish Government strongly denied that these negotiations between Copenhagen and Berlin were going on. Nevertheless, the possibility of a German naval base in the Caribbean concerned both the US and the European powers as well.

In fact, the offer to the Americans was still discussed in Denmark through the 1870s. An uprising in 1878 among the black inhabitants of the Danish West Indies strongly stoked the desire of many Danes to quit the islands in one way or another.

However, we now know that around 1885 the German Naval Command considered the possibility of acquiring a naval base in the Caribbean. Among other locations, the Germans were focused on St. Thomas. In fact, several German ships enroute to South America were ordered to pass St. Thomas in order to investigate the harbor and its surroundings. However, the Germans seemed to give up the idea in 1890. 10 

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 stimulated US plans to construct a canal through the isthmus of Panama to connect the Pacific with the Atlantic. From 1890 onward, the US took serious steps to realize this project. Therefore, a new look at the American strategy in the Caribbean became necessary. For the same reason, the German Naval Command again began to make plans for a naval base in the area.

In 1891, the Danish government suggested to President Harrison’s Secretary of State, James G. Blaine of selling the islands to the United States. But Blaine considered the islands too small to be of strategic or commercial interest. He did state the Danish isles were “destined to become ours but among the last of the West Indies should be taken.” However, Blaines successor as Secretary of State, John W. Foster, was more favorably disposed to the idea of acquiring the islands. 11  

The next step was to send a new enquiry to Copenhagen about an acquisition of the isles. At first there was no political reaction to the enquiry, but after 1892, Denmark began to show renewed interest in the case.

As a consequence, prominent American publicists began to discuss the strategic challenges to the US and its position in the Caribbean Sea, especially if a canal across the Isthmus of Panama became a reality. The most distinguished of these publicists was Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, USN, who, after the 1890 publication of his book about the influence of sea power upon history, became a well-known naval analyst. In an article entitled, “The Isthmus and Sea Power” in 1893, he discussed the many dangers that would threaten an American-built isthmus canal. 12   He underscored, in this connection, the many strategic positions in the area which belonged to others, especially European powers, and as a consequence, could present a problem for the US in the future.

Mahan argued in 1897 13  that Samana Bay, the Mona Passage between Santo Domingo and Puerto Rico, and St. Thomas by the Anegada Passage were positions with high strategic priority. Both passages represented principal routes into the Caribbean Sea. ”St. Thomas”, wrote Mahan, “better than any other, represents the course from Europe to the Isthmus.” 14   Mahan’s articles about these strategic problems were published in his book, The Interest of America in Sea Power, in 1898.

It is well known that a close relationship existed between the then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt and Mahan from the beginning of the 1890s. In fact, the acquisition of the Danish West Indies was a subject in their correspondence and talks.  About this matter, Roosevelt wrote to Mahan in 1897 that, “The expulsion of Spain [from Cuba], accompanied by the purchase of the Danish Islands, would serve notice of the real position of the United States in Caribbean affairs.” 15 

In connection with renewed American interest to enter into a treaty with Denmark, Roosevelt called upon Mahan to provide expert testimony pertaining to the strategic value of St. Thomas. Mahan stated that St. Thomas was “one of the greatest strategic points in the West Indies.” 16 

The strategic considerations that motivated the US to enter the Spanish-American War in 1898 were the same ones that drove the effort to purchase the Danish isles;  namely to secure the eastern entrance to the Panama Canal. The War in 1898 temporarily blocked the American efforts concerning Danish West Indies. But after the war the case was in focus again.

Before the peace treaty with Spain was settled, Mahan wrote to the Senator Henry Cabot Lodge about matters in the Caribbean” 17 

Assuming, as seems pretty certain, that the United States is to acquire Puerto Rico, may I suggest the advisability as a corollary to this step, after the peace is signed, the purchase of St. Thomas. Puerto Rico and these small Danish islands form a compact strategic entity, yielding mutual support. St. Cruz is immaterial…the harbor of St. Maria is very fine … the port of St. Thomas, reasonably fortified, would be a distinct addition to the military strength of Puerto Rico, considered as a naval base.

In 1900, negotiations between Denmark and the US began anew. This time the US was very keen on the cession. The two nations signed a treaty on January, 24, 1902, and Congress ratified it afterwards.  However, the efforts and discussions in Denmark during the 1890s against a cession did have some impact, and it was very clear that the attitude in favor of the sale had decreased generally among the Danes. Now, many Danes wanted to give the isles a better future as part of Denmark. The discussion between the two Danish factions grew intense and heated. Therefore, in Denmark, the treaty was ratified by the Folketinget but not by the Landstinget, the second chamber of Danish government. Thus, the treaty was stalled again.

In 1905, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge tried to draw attention to another purchase. This time the proposal included the acquisition of Greenland. Lodge’s efforts were in vain. Apparently, in the following decades, the proposal drew no political attention interest.

Figure 3- Strategic features of the Caribbean Sea after the inauguration of the Panama Canal

The Panama Canal opened on August 15, 1914. The War in Europe broke out shortly before this important event, and the US worried that Germany might occupy Denmark and would take the Danish West Indies in possession and place a naval base in the harbor of St. Thomas. The US government entreated the Danes to seriously ratify the treaty.

This time the treaty was settled. The Danish government accepted, and the Folketinget and Landstinget did the same. The decision was confirmed by a referendum in Denmark afterwards. The convention was signed August, 4, 1916 and was proclaimed in January, 25, 1917. The price was $25,000,000 in gold. Additionally, the US signed a declaration to Denmark that the:

Secretary of State of the United States of America, duly authorized by his Government, has the honor to declare that the Government of the United States of America will not object to the Danish Government extending their political and economic interests to the whole of Greenland.

In view of the Monroe Doctrine, this statement was a remarkable concession, still of importance today. The acquisition of the Danish West Indies (now the Virgin Islands) in 1917 completed, at last, negotiations that had taken fifty years to give the US Navy a strategic foothold in the Caribbean.

Figure 4 – The payment on 25 million dollars in gold from the United States of America to Denmark 1917

(Return to December 2021 Table of Contents) 


  1. The main source for the history of the American purchase of the islands is Charles C. Tansill: The Purchase of the Danish West Indies (Cloucester, Mass: 1932, reprinted 1966). The Danish sale is described in two chapters: Friedlev Skrubbeltrang: Dansk Vestindien 1848-1880, pp.353-468, and Georg Nørregaard: Dansk Vestindien 1880-1917, pp. 469-542; Johannes Brøndsted (ed.) Vore Gamle Tropekolonier, Vol. II, 1953; A new but shorter description was published in Danmark og kolonierne, Vol. 2. (Vestindien, København, 2018). A recent survey is by Hans Christian Bjerg: ”Salget af de vestindiske øer. En langstrakt flådepoltisk affære”, in Tidsskrift for Søvæsen,  2017, pp. 158-163.
  2. See Halfdan Koht, “The Origin of Seward’s Plan to Purchase the Danish West Indies,” in American Historical Review, Vol. 50, No.4 (October, 1944), pp. 762-67.
  3. General Raasløff’s influential role in the 1860s on the question of the Danish West Indies is treated in Erik Overgaard Petersen, The Attempted Sale of the Danish West Indies to the United States of America, 1865-70 (Frankfurt : 1997).
  4.   Tansill p. 5.
  5.   Tansill p. 81. The memorandum was published as an article in the New York Times 14, December 1867.
  6. An article in Merchant’s Magazine and Commercial Review, Vol. 58, 1868, pp.17-19.
  7. James Eglinton Montgomery, Our Admiral’s Flag Aboard: The Cruise of Admiral D.G. Farragut commanding the European squadron in 1867-68 (New York: 1869), pp. 115-134; Tansill, pp.67-68.
  8. James Parton, The Danish Islands, 1869.
  9. Tansill, p. 120.
  10. Göran Henriksen: “Denne tyska Marinen och Danska Västindien 1885-1890,” in Krigshistorisk Tidsskrift (Journal of Military History), 1976, pp. 3-25. (An article in Swedish language published in a Danish journal).
  11. William E. Livezey, Mahan on Sea Power, Second Edition (University of Oklahoma Press: 1981), pp. 107-108.
  12. Published in Atlantic Monthly, September 1893, and later published in Mahan, The Interest of America in Sea Power, Present and Future, (1898); See also Tansill, p. 199. and Livezey, p. 106f.
  13. Mahan, “Strategic Features of the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, October 1897.
  14. Mahan, ”The Interest of America in Seapower,” pp.260-61; Tansill, p. 210.
  15. Livezey, p.120f.
  16. Livezey, p. 153.
  17. Livezey, p. 150ff.

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The ‘Public Mind’ of British Imperialism: The Seizure of Weihaiwei and the Populist Revolt against Official Far Eastern Policy in 1898

Viktor M. Stoll
University of Cambridge

“They always want everything for themselves…whenever anyone takes anything, the English want to take much more,” foreshadowed Czar Nicholas II to German Chancellor Chlodwig zu Hohenlohe during their discussion on Russo-German Far Eastern territorial ambitions at Peterhof, Russia in 1896. 1   Indeed, the Czar’s observation correctly anticipated the British reaction to Germany’s seizure of Kiaochow Bay, China in January 1898 and Russia’s occupation of Port Arthur, two months later. 2   

The British response, the occupation of Weihaiwei in July 1898 – China’s principle northern naval port and home of its premier Beiyang Fleet – cannot only be described as reactionary, but as a passé protectionist approach to stave off Continental competition in Far Eastern commerce and strategic projection.  Why did Britain, so long the proponent of the “Open Door” policy of free trade and guarantor of Chinese territorial integrity, adopt such an expansionist attitude toward the “Far Eastern Question” in response to Russo-German territorial expansion in the region?  And why, of all the possible acquisitions, did British policy makers seize the poorest concession of all the European powers during the Scramble for China in 1898?

The occupation of the Chinese port at Weihaiwei by Lord Salisbury’s Government (1895-1902), an ostensibly illogical move which disregarded nearly sixty years of British foreign policy in East Asia, dissents sharply with orthodox views on the prime motivations of Britain’s “New Imperialism” in the latter nineteenth century.  The myriad modern theses on the causation of Britain’s formal expansion are inadequate for understanding the rationale for this abrupt nullification of Britain’s informal imperial policy in the Far East.  These theories, though varied, share common intellectual traditions that may be used to divide the debate into five general thematic approaches: economic, strategic, settler, culture and societal psychology.

Map of Weihaiwai 1910 in Reginald Fleming Johnston, The Lion and the Dragon in Northern China (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1910).

Given the substantial, and formerly uncontested, capital investments within China by British economic interests following the Opium Wars (1839-1842, 1856-1860), the many variations of “accumulation theory” seem to superficially justify the annexation of Weihaiwei.  According to this theory, the accumulation of surplus capital in Britain following the Industrial Revolution restricted investment within the core and encouraged the pursuit of more profitable investments in the non-European periphery.  Lower labour costs, cheaper land and exploitable raw materials provided tempting return-on-investment opportunities for the “Gentlemanly Capitalists”, the united socioeconomic front consisting of Britain’s landed gentry and the financial elite within the City of London. 3  

Within accumulation theory, the idea of “underconsumption”, the consequence of this accumulating surplus capital within the core, was first proposed by Karl Marx in Das Kapital (1867) as a prime motive for imperial expansion overseas. 4   Marx believed that the underconsumption of goods within domestic economies was a necessary precursor to the eventual redistribution of wealth via communist revolution, as Western bourgeoisie interests would be unable to adequately redistribute their surplus capital to spur domestic consumption.  However, Marx’s liberal detractors demonstrated that foreign markets and overseas expansion could quell social discontent within the core, at least temporarily, and provide ample avenues for surplus capital investment in the colonial periphery.  

The liberal re-interpretation of accumulation theory, postulated by J. A. Hobson in Imperialism: A Study (1902) extols the effectiveness of overseas expansion in diffusing social tensions at home by distributing wealth through investment in the periphery. 5   Though Hobson’s theory was subsequently challenged, particularly by Vladimir Lenin in 1916, 6  the effect of economic competition on the spread of Britain’s formal empire during the latter quarter of the nineteenth century provides a compelling approach in which to rationalize the occupation of Weihaiwei. 

Furthermore, given Britain’s unrivalled naval supremacy during the long nineteenth century, Hobson’s theory explains the spread of Britain’s informal-commercial empire, and her ultimate move toward formal annexation to protect her share of the global market.  As the Industrial Revolution began to transform the Continental powers, chiefly Germany, France and Russia, protectionism and territorial expansion provided the tools with which to usurp Britain’s commercial and financial primacy in the colonial world. 7   Bernard Porter has since suggested that the challenge of these “semi-peripheral” powers forced Britain onto the defensive, thus turning Britain toward formal imperialism as a mechanism to retain her relative economic position when challenged by the emerging neo-mercantilist powers of Europe. 8 

Postcard of British Weihaiwei – 1908 in Arnold Wright, Twentieth Century Impressions of Hong-kong, Shanghai, and other Treaty Ports of China (London: Lloyd’s Greater Britain Pub. Co., 1908).

A counter thesis to accumulation theory, first postulated by John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson in Africa and the Victorians (1961), is found in the seemingly “eccentric” development of Britain’s formal empire. 9   Formal imperial expansion was not dictated by the “Gentlemanly Capitalists”, but by diplomats and bureaucrats within the official nodes of imperial power.  Attempts to secure India’s geopolitical defence by this “Official Mind”, particularly her maritime lines of communication with the metropole, drove the British to formally occupy territory from the Transvaal to Egypt to Burma. As Continental imperial powers expanded throughout Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia and Southeast Asia, every non-British acre increased the perceived existential threat to the Raj, the uncontested Crown Jewel of the British Empire.  

Still another theory sees settlers as the main driver of Britain’s New Imperialism.  James Belich proposed that settler actions within the periphery, particularly the boom-bust economic cycles of the frontier, drove Britain’s formal imperial aggrandizement. 10   Territorial expansion, chiefly in the white settler colonies of Canada, Australia and New Zealand, acted as a demographic safety valve for Britain’s surplus population.  However, settler overreach along the ever-expanding colonial frontier often caused the implosion of colonial economic bubbles and dangerous native revolts to White settlement.   As these settler societies became increasingly imperiled, Whitehall was obliged to occupy the frontier with British soldiers and extend formal administration in order to prevent a power vacuum that might embolden Britain’s imperial competitors to challenge British rule in the region.

Advocates for a culture-centric approach to Neoimperial expansionism, led by Edward Said, believe that Britain’s formal imperial enlargement was tied to an increasing Western awareness of “Orientalism”. 11   This provided a philosophical justification for the forced “civilizing” of non-Western “others,” a tradition steeped in Lockean preconceptions of improvement of land and people. 12   Best encapsulated by Providence Theory, and often overly attributed to David Livingstone’s triad of “Christianity, Commerce and Civilization”, 13  this social construction was propagated by bureaucrats, missionaries, academics and the popular imagination and reinforced  a cultural, and indeed racial, view of the supremacy of the Occident over the Orient.  This moral obligation to “improve” non-European “others” drove formal imperial annexations to halt the East African Slave Trade, suppress cannibalism in Papua, and right Qing resistance to British free trade during the Opium Wars.

Lastly, some scholars advocated that formal imperial expansion was an exercise shaped by innate societal psychology.  Joseph Schumpeter theorized in The Sociology of Imperialism (1918), that imperial expansion was a pattern of learned, societal behaviour which evolved over centuries of violent confrontation. 14   Such bellicose interactions created a “warrior class” which eventually manufactured threats to maintain its own position within the nation’s political-social hierarchy – principally represented by the senior ranks of the military officer corps.  This class utilized martial conflict, which accompanied formal expansion, as the means to make itself indispensable within the social order.  Incremental expansion into the periphery, often perpetuated by local “men-on-the-spot” commanders, epitomized by the rolling British penetration of India’s Northwest Frontier during the nineteenth century, provided an enduring rationalization for maintaining the societal position of Britain’s official warrior caste.

However, the rationalization for the British annexation of Weihaiwei falls outside these traditional theoretical approaches which define the historiography of Britain’s New Imperialism.  Undoubtedly, the event demonstrates a substantially empowered press-public nexus that, in the case of the late nineteenth century Far East, supplanted the traditional powerbrokers of British imperial policy.  This “Public Mind”, 15  to coin a neologism to Robinson and Gallagher’s magisterial work, was truly a trans-colonial phenomenon.  A conscience collective, 16  manifested throughout the nodes of the formal British Empire (London, Hong Kong, and Sydney) and became locked in a cycle of self-proliferating hysteria, spiraling towards irrational territorial aggrandizement in Northeast China. 

Naturally, the Public Mind always played a role in the shaping of British foreign policy, however, its aspirations were consistently manipulated by Britain’s traditional imperial powerbrokers.  These decision makers, like the “Gentlemanly Capitalists” and “Official Mind”, cultivated the Public Mind over the preceding decades to possess a deep anxiety of Russian, and to a lesser extent Franco-German, imperial expansion in order to gain the public support necessary to pursue diverse foreign policy initiatives and imperial actions across the globe. 17   Throughout much of the nineteenth century, and particularly from the First Afghan War (1839-1842) onwards, the Public Mind was cultivated to expect a tough government response to any perceived Russian threat to British imperial interests. 18   In Afghanistan, Persia, and the Balkans, the Public Mind was excited to the point of war in order to demonstrate British resolve against Russian territorial expansion.  By the end of the nineteenth century in the Far East, as it did all along the frontier of the Czar’s expanding empire, the Public Mind apprehensively viewed Russia’s opaque encroachment into Manchuria as an existential threat to Britain’s primacy in the region. 

The blatant Russian seizure of Port Arthur in March 1898, as well as the surrounding Kwantung Leased Territory on the southern Liaodong Peninsula, finally compelled a British reciprocal response as press-public agitation reached the boiling point.  In the case of Weihaiwei, the Public Mind thoroughly trampled more pragmatic imperial interests, demonstrating the primacy of domestic politics as a major catalyst in Britain’s fin de siècle formal imperial expansion in the Far East. 

The historiography regarding Britain’s imperial expansion in China mirrors the major theoretical approaches described above and similarly fails to acknowledge the role of the Public Mind in Britain’s New Imperialism.  The most iconic works from William L. Langer, Hosea B. Morse and Philip Joseph support a Hobsonian inspired economic causality, but fail to comment on the position of public opinion in directing imperial annexation. 19    Mary H. Wilgus, drawing on the Robinson and Gallagher thesis of informal empire, attempted to define the extent of British informal domination in Qing China, but did not acknowledge the press-public rationalization of Britain’s shift away from the Open Door policy. 20   

More recent work has sought to justify the episode as a consequence of the “inherent irrationality of empire”, using Schumpeter’s view on the societal psychology of imperialism. 21   Nevertheless, these theoretical approaches fail to acknowledge the collective power of popular opinion on formal imperial expansion which usurped British policymaking in China in 1898.  By examining the case of Weihaiwei, particularly through those media publications and official memoirs which filled the public sphere during the period, it becomes apparent that the Public Mind nearly unilaterally directed Britain’s “New Imperialism” in the Far East.  

The Sino-Japanese War and the Intervention of the Dreibund 

Sino-Japanese competition over the suzerainty of the Korean Peninsula, ongoing since the sixteenth century, peaked in the summer of 1894.  A revolt near Asan brought both Japanese and Chinese armies into the field to support their corresponding Korean factions. The proximity of the two combatants inevitably guaranteed a clash, for which China was ill-prepared.  By March 1895, the modernized Imperial Japanese Army had routed the Chinese and were in full control of Korea, Formosa, the Liaodong Peninsula (including Port Arthur), and the main Chinese naval port at Weihaiwei.  Japanese preparations for an imminent coup de grâce on Peking coerced the Chinese to capitulate, signing the humiliating Treaty of Shimonoseki on 17 April 1895 and ending the First Sino-Japanese War. 22   This “epoch-making event in the history of the Far East”, as historian William Langer described it, shattered European perceptions about the survivability of the Chinese Celestial Empire and would lead to a scramble for Chinese concessions less than two years later. 23 

The terms of the treaty, which included China’s withdrawal from Korea and the ceding of both Formosa and the Liaodong Peninsula, placed a crushing war indemnity of 200,000,000 Kuping taels (£40,000,000) on the Qing Government – an impossible sum to pay without a foreign loan. 24   To ensure payment of the indemnity, the Japanese also insisted on the continued military occupation of Weihaiwei, which dominated the approaches to the strategic Gulf of Chihli (i.e. Bohai Sea) and directly menaced Peking. 25   Russia, France and Germany (known simply as the Dreibund) responded to Japan’s new primacy in Northeast China, and the significant political influence it commanded at Peking, with the belief that the Japanese presence in China would “be a perpetual obstacle to the peace [i.e. the balance of power] of the Far East”. 26  

The Dreibund submitted a joint note of disapproval to Japan, and an implied threat of collective military intervention, in April 1895. 27   Faced with fighting a coalition of European Great Powers in order to maintain its gains in China, Japan ultimately capitulated prior to the official ratification of the Shimonoseki Treaty and withdrew from the Liaodong Peninsula and Weihaiwei.  However, as compensation, the Dreibund guaranteed that Japan would receive Formosa, and more importantly, the indemnity payment.  

Although the Dreibund’s eleventh-hour intervention led to a honeymoon period of amicable affection between the Qing and the Continental European powers, the intervention also created a window of opportunity for the Dreibund to pounce on the hapless Chinese they had so recently safeguarded.  As George Curzon, British Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs (1895-98), cynically put forth, “Russia does not render this assistance from a superfluity of unselfishness.” 28   Russia and France, treaty allies since 1894, saw the indemnity payment as the financial lever with which they could usurp Britain’s political and commercial primacy in China.

Afraid that allowing the indemnity loan to be placed on the open market would guarantee a successful British bid to fund Qing reparation payments for decades, and thus further increase British influence in Peking, Russia and France broke faith with Germany and clandestinely convinced the Chinese to accept a Franco-Russian loan of 400,000,000 francs (£16,000,000) to finance the first instalment of their payment to the Japanese. 29   This loan, guaranteed by the Russian Government and substantially underwritten by French banks, was floated to the Chinese at the then absurdly low rate of 4 percent in July 1895. 30    

This proposal and a suspected Russian bribe to the influential Qing Viceroy Li Hung-Chang, 31  were rewarded by the signing of a Sino-Russian Agreement (also known as the Li-Lobanov Treaty of 1896) which allowed the construction of a Russian-controlled railway across Manchuria to Russia’s principle naval base at Vladivostok.  A separate Russian-controlled spur would lead to Port Arthur, the Chinese port which, thanks to the Russo-Chinese agreement, would now host the Czar’s Pacific Squadron during the winter months when Vladivostok was choked with ice. 32   More importantly, the Franco-Russian alliance gained the power-of-the-purse, and significant political influence, over both the Chinese and Japanese for decades at the expense of their British imperial competitors.

Although much of the Continental press defended Russia’s legitimate right to the “fruits of his political cunning”, specifically when it benefitted other Continental powers, 33  the Sino-Russian Agreement sparked public outrage in London with The Times proclaiming it “would profoundly alter the conditions of our eastern trade.” 34   The conservative Pall Mall Gazette declared, “the treaty means to ruin British trade and lose all money invested in China” and even urged “the immediate occupation of Port Hamilton” in Korea to counter the Russian position. 35   Yet, the Public Mind’s anxiety was not felt by traditional imperial powerbrokers like Thomas Sutherland of the Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Company.  As a “Gentlemanly Capitalist”, Sutherland did maintain “apprehension as to the effects on British trade” but rather demonstrated rationalist restraint by not advocating for any formal imperial expansion. 36 

Russian expansionism in the Far East rightfully engendered public consternation in Britain.  Prior to the Treaty of Shimonoseki, British firms enjoyed an overwhelming preponderance of Chinese trade.  Curzon assessed in 1894 that 60 percent of all Chinese trade was British and 65 percent of all Chinese trade was carried on British bottoms. 37   Langer later put the values even higher, at 65 percent and 85 percent respectively. 38   Furthermore, Britain’s single formal imperial territory in the region, Hong Kong, significantly magnified British informal imperial influence throughout the Far East.

From Hong Kong, Royal Navy vessels could enforce Britain’s Open Door policy in twenty-four Chinese treaty ports, opened to foreign trade after the Opium Wars, which were the key in exploiting China’s interior markets. 39   Moreover, the British maintained the naval capacity to cut off the near entirety of Peking’s grain supplies by blockading the Yangtze River – Grand Canal route.  This capability, successfully tested during the Opium Wars, could starve the Chinese capital at will. 40   Such naval supremacy based on the position at Hong Kong, in addition to the commercial supremacy of the British merchant fleet, provided a powerful bargaining chip in any negotiations with the Qing Government. 

Perhaps more significant were Hong Kong’s substantial shipyards, which all European-Far Eastern shipping required for repairs and safe harbour.  Alfred von Tirpitz, at the time German Naval Secretary, recounted that maintenance queues in Hong Kong regularly exceeded nine months and non-British traders and naval squadrons had to avoid incurring British ill-favour, unless they desired to be marooned in Victoria Harbour. 41   No European maritime presence, either commercial or naval, could survive long in the Far East without the use of Hong Kong’s modern shipyards.

Additionally, British financial interests had issued nearly £10 million in loans to the Chinese Government, with rates as high as 7 percent, on which the Chinese were still paying in 1895. 42  The unique British presence at Hong Kong, combined with deep fiscal penetration of the Qing Government, allowed Lord Palmerston’s “watchful eye and strong arm of England.. [to] protect every Englishman…from injustice and wrong doing” 43  via the prudent use of informal imperial influence.   

Despite preponderant British trade in the Far East and the “furious” reaction by the British press towards perceived Russian attempts to ruin it, was the move by Russia considered a genuine menace by Britain’s imperial powerbrokers? 35   Assuming Russia did maintain considerable influence over Li Hung-Chang, that clout would not have extended far beyond the boundaries of Peking. 45   Li’s power in the rest of China, specifically the treaty-ports, was almost non-existent and perpetually accosted by intriguing court “sensors” and semi-autonomous regional governors.  Even Li’s influence in Peking was rapidly collapsing, as demonstrated by his fall from the Qing Emperor’s grace following his disastrous handling of the war with Japan. 46  

Furthermore, the Dreibund intervention and Franco-Russian break with Germany created a paradigm shift in Great Power relations, which further supported British supremacy in the region.  Dreibund meddling in the Far East, particularly the encroachment of Russia, was already propelling Japan into Britain’s sphere even before the crisis subsided.  As early as June 1895, Count Hayashi, Japanese Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs, proposed an Anglo-Japanese alliance to oppose Russian advances in the Far East. 47   Indeed, the Sino-Russian Agreement provided the initial catalyst for the future Anglo-Japanese Alliance (1902-1922), signed four years after the official Russian occupation of Port Arthur.  This alliance became the cornerstone of British foreign policy in the Far East until the 1920’s and alleviated the need for a large Royal Navy presence on the China Station (i.e. Hong Kong).  In fact, it was Britain’s Japanese allies who spectacularly crushed the Russians in the Far East during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905). This confluence of Anglo-Japanese security interests allowed Britain to safely reinforce the Home Fleet at the expense of its East of Suez force posture as tensions with Germany rose before World War One.

Likewise Germany, furious with being duped by her Dreibund co-conspirators 48 , sought a new strategic understanding with Britain – both in Europe and the Far East.  Russian expansion was such a threat to both parties, that the German and British Governments pursued formal alliance talks for several years afterwards. 49   Although an Anglo-German alliance, and a possible incorporation of Britain into the Triple Alliance, ultimately came to naught, Germany and Britain did form a financial partnership in the Far East, which successfully countered the influence of the Franco-Russian loan.  Britain’s opportunistic coordination with Germany secured a further £32,000,000 in loans for the Chinese indemnity payments to Japan, double that of the Franco-Russian syndicate. 50    As a result of Russia’s formal imperial expansion, Britain was actually in a far stronger position in the Far East, militarily, politically and economically, following the Sino-Russian Agreement.  

Indeed, an informal Open Door faction at Whitehall, which fully understood the nearly unassailable British position in the region, held firm on the continuation of informal imperial influence in the Far East. 51   Pursuing British interests without territorial aggrandizement remained the Government’s official and highly effective strategy, as the Anglo-German loan and Anglo-Japanese strategic convergence demonstrates.  Arthur Balfour, concurrently First Lord of the Treasury and Leader of the House of Commons, stated that the Government “neither feared nor envied the growth of [non-British] industries” in the region and that healthy competition benefited British commerce. 52   However, continued Russian encroachment soon animated the Public Mind to turn against the Government’s cavalier approach to the Far Eastern Question.

Weihaiwei and the Scramble for China in 1898

The potential influence which the Public Mind could bring to bear on British imperial policy in the Far East was identified by astute British policy makers even before word of Chinese concessions began to resonate in Europe’s metropoles.  As early as 1895, Czar Nicholas informed Kaiser Wilhelm that he “would have nothing against [Germany] acquiring” a coaling station in China. 53   Confluent with Nicholas’ demeanour, Count Mikhail Muraviev (alt. Muravyov), the Russian Foreign Minister, gave his tacit approval to Prince von Bülow, German Secretary of State, in August 1897. 54   By November, the Kaiser gained an excuse to realize the Far Eastern territorial ambitions of his Weltpolitik after two German missionaries were murdered in the Shandong Peninsula. 55   

In response, Bülow approached the Russian and British Ambassadors in Berlin for their support of the German seizure of Kiaochow Bay, the catalyst that set off the Scramble for China in early 1898.  While the Russians demanded the formal occupation of Port Arthur as compensation, British Ambassador to Berlin, Frank Lascelles, readily disputed the potency of his government’s cautious Open Door policy.  Lascelles believed that any public perception of a threat to British Far Eastern trade would so agitate the press that the British Government would be forced to seek a port in the Gulf of Chihli to appease public opinion. 56   By January 1898, Germany’s “gepanzerte Faust” had firmly seized hold of Kiaochow 57 , by late March Russian troops had officially taken over Port Arthur, and by early April, the Public Mind believed that Britain’s Open Door policy needed to be sacrificed to maintain her Far Eastern primacy.

Frank Lascelles’ prediction at the cusp of the Scramble for China was veracious. The Public Mind was indignant with the position held by Britain’s traditional imperial policy makers particularly regarding Russia’s acquisition of formal Chinese concessions in early 1898.  Joseph Chamberlin, Secretary of State for the Colonies, predicted “grave trouble impending on the Government” if they did not “adopt a more decided attitude in regards to China.” 58   Chamberlin, no doubt, could smell the blood-in-the-water that would bring the Unionist “imperial-nationalist” backbenchers swarming against the Old Hats of the Salisbury Cabinet. 59  Yet despite the increasing panic at Whitehall, Britain’s imperial powerbrokers still resisted the Public Mind’s calls for knee-jerk territorial aggrandizement. 

A week after Germany’s occupation of Kiaochow, Salisbury’s Government began an aggressive diplomatic campaign to neuter any corresponding British territorial expansion on 10 January 1898.  Balfour, now Acting Foreign Secretary on account of Salisbury’s bout with Bright’s Disease 60 , unequivocally stated that acquisition of any “territory [in China]…is a disadvantage rather than an advantage [for the British]” and that the Government “asked [only] for freedom of trade.” 61   Balfour’s position amounted to the Government’s first attempt to control the narrative of the developing “Far Eastern Crisis” by allaying the Public Mind’s fear that trade might be irrecoverably injured by the formal imperial expansion of Continental competitors.  

Michael Hicks Beach, Chancellor of the Exchequer, went further stating that “at the cost of war…the door [to China] should not be shut against us”. 62   Britain was ready to fight to maintain the Open Door, as it had in the past, but it would not seek territorial aggrandizement at the expense of the hapless Chinese.  This determined Open Door stance of the Salisbury Government galvanized British public opinion and temporarily satiated the expansionist appetite of the Public Mind. It even led to an Anglo-American attempt to codify a “Monroe Doctrine” in China that would guarantee a free-trade “Open Door” for all powers throughout the Qing Empire while prohibiting further formal annexations. 63   

However, as Russian efforts continued unabated and Czarist troops officially took possession of Port Arthur on 27 March 1898, the Public Mind’s agitation for formal expansion to halt the Russian advance became relentless.  Though Lord Selborne, Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies, declared on 01 April 1898 that Britain’s informal imperial policy in China “was still intact” 64 , The Standard reported that nearly all newspapers along the political spectrum and across the empire were united in strong condemnation of the Government’s impotence in the matter. 65   Reuters went so far as to declare that British diplomacy had suffered a “crushing defeat” at the hands of the Russians.  66  But Britain’s imperial powerbrokers were still not convinced by the Public Mind’s conjuring of the Russian bogeyman at Port Arthur.

Concessions in Northeast China (July 1898) – British (red), Russia (green) and Germany (black).

Balfour, considered one of the greatest geopolitical strategists of the day, rightfully believed that any Russian gain in Port Arthur was strategically negligible to Britain’s regional position since “[Russia’s political] influence at Peking depends principally on her land position [in Siberia and the Far East]”. 67   The primacy of the Czar’s Far Eastern land position vis-à-vis its naval posture, was only growing as construction of the Trans-Siberian Railroad progressed. The relatively weak Russian Pacific Squadron, whether in Vladivostok or Port Arthur, presented a negligible naval threat to Britain, while the Empire simply did not have the means to directly counter Russian influence deep within Manchuria.  For the “Official Mind”, the balance of power in the Far East was still intact despite the Russian occupation at Port Arthur.

However, as early as 26 March, some in the Cabinet, fearful of the Public Mind’s rapidly swelling outrage, were already arguing that Britain should move to specifically acquire Weihaiwei to counter the Russian naval position across the Gulf of Chihli, a day before the formal Russian occupation of Port Arthur.  Even Queen Victoria, a unflinching supporter of the Open Door policy for nearly half-a-century, was so unsettled by the assertions of the Public Mind that she chastised the Government’s continuation of the Open Door policy in the face of Russian expansion as full of “very foolish and dangerous lies.” 68   The intensity of the Public Mind’s protest was now overwhelming the rationalist decision making of British imperial policy.

Salisbury’s Government nearly fell in the week after Russia’s formal occupation of Port Arthur, and by 4 April 1898 Whitehall completely kowtowed to the pressure of the Public Mind by entering into preliminary negotiations with the Qing Government for a lease at Weihaiwei. 69     Balfour and the Open Door faction capitulated and the new policy of formal territorial acquisition received approval in the House of Commons a few days later.  

On 1 July 1898, “for the better protection of British commerce”, Weihaiwei was officially leased to Britain for as “long a period as Port Arthur shall remain in the occupation of Russia.” 70   It is important to note the wording of the Weihaiwei convention, which specifically ties the British lease to Russia’s position at Port Arthur.  Neither Germany’s acquisition of Kiaochow, nor the subsequent French concession of Kouang-tcheou-ouan, both of which were arguably just as, if not more, economically and strategically important to British primacy in the Far East, are mentioned in the treaty.  

This lease was specifically meant to counter the publicly perceived Russian naval threat to Britain’s supremacy in the Far East, a threat which the “Official Mind” found negligible compared to the Russian land position in Manchuria.  The specific inclusion of “Russia” in the lease allowed Salisbury’s Government to undeniably counter the Public Mind’s claims that not enough was being done to limit Russian adventurism in the region.  

Ultimately, the Weihaiwei Concession had far more to do with the demands of the Public Mind, than it did with checking Russian influence or maritime power in the region.  Britain’s imperial powerbrokers, assailed by the Public Mind’s territorial expansionist demands, ultimately betrayed the Open Door policy which formed the root of British economic and strategic success in the Far East for over half a century.  But did the capitulation of Salisbury’s Government in the face of the Public Mind at Weihaiwei provide any substantial benefit to Britain’s traditional imperial interests?   

Rationalizing Weihaiwei and the Abandonment of the “Open Door”

While the seizure of Weihaiwei was welcomed by both China and Japan as a reassuring counterbalance to Russian influence, 71  it ultimately did not improve Britain’s commercial, strategic, political or naval stake in the Far East.  Given Russia’s growing assertiveness in Manchuria after the Sino-Russian Agreement, the Chinese had already turned toward Britain as an ally-of-convenience by early 1898.  Indeed, the results of Balfour’s Open Door diplomatic offensive guaranteed far more advantageous economic concessions than the formal occupation of Weihaiwei.  On 11 February 1898, following the granting of the German concession, China formally declared that the entire Yangtze River basin, which was “of the greatest [commercial] importance to China”, would never be alienated to another power.  72    This officially confirmed Britain’s preeminent commercial position in Shanghai and Central China writ large. 

Moreover, on 13 February the Chinese announced that the next Inspector General of Maritime Customs, the office, which controlled Chinese international commerce and was enviously coveted by Russia for decades, would be filled by another Englishman once Sir Robert Hart retired. 73   Only two weeks after the Maritime Customs announcement, the second Anglo-German loan of £16,000,000 to the Qing was finalized, officially doubling the earlier Franco-Russian investments. 74   Thus, nearly a month before Russian troops occupied Port Arthur, Balfour’s diplomatic initiative had substantially increased Britain’s already dominant financial, commercial and, ultimately, political position in the Qing Empire.

In comparison to the significant concessions gained by Balfour’s Open Door diplomatic offensive, the lease at Weihaiwei failed to guarantee the best conditions for commercial exploitation within the Shandong Peninsula.  This would suggest that Britain’s powerful economic and financial lobbies, the “Gentlemanly Capitalists”, were not actively involved or consulted in the hasty drafting of the lease.  Indeed, no commercial concessions were acquired and the British officially abdicated any future commercial claims throughout the Shandong Peninsula, including the critically important railway concessions, to Germany on 20 April. 75  

In comparison, Germany’s ninety-nine year lease of Kiaochow Bay included exclusive mining and manufacturing rights within fifty kilometres of the bay, construction of two major rail lines linking the Shandong Peninsula to Peking, and a ten mile exclusive mining zone on either side of the railways. 76   Furthermore the Russian seizure of Port Arthur, the primary reason for Britain’s occupation of Weihaiwei, was accompanied by exclusive commercial rights to the entire Liaodong Peninsula, closing off the vast territory to all foreign competition. 77   Even the French ninety-nine year lease of Kouang-Tchéou-Wan guaranteed the French exclusive use of the surrounding 1,300 square kilometres of territory. 78, Documents Diplomatiques – Chine, 1898-1899, Ministére des Affaires éntrangéres, No. 1 (Paris: 1900), p. 4.]   

The apathetic abdication of commercial rights on the Shandong Peninsula to Germany, combined with the nearly non-existent concessions obtained from the Chinese within the lease’s narrow limits, plainly negates the influence of British commercial or financial interests in promoting territorial aggrandizement in China.  These interests, long accustomed to dominating Chinese economic transactions, would have certainly extracted far larger concessions if actively involved in the negotiations.  

The attitude of the Government towards Weihaiwei’s economic potential was best summarized by Lord Salisbury who believed, “it is not possible to make Weihaiwei a commercial port…it would never be worthwhile to connect it with the interior.” 79   The official review of the territory by the Foreign Office before the start of negotiations with the Qing confirmed that the trade of Weihaiwei could never “develop to any great extent.” 80   The accuracy of these economic assessments were validated following the acquisition, as the territory ran deficits often exceeding 100 percent of revenue until its ultimate repatriation in 1930, while neither the British government nor any British commercial syndicate pursued any major economic development there. 81    

Surplus capital within the core, the foundation of accumulation theory, also clearly did not spur the seizure of Weihaiwei as an outlet for investment.  Prior to the occupation of Weihaiwei, British financial interests already controlled over 70 percent of China’s sovereign debt while commercial interests controlled up to 65 percent of its foreign trade. 82   Though Continental powers made minor inroads into Far Eastern commerce in the preceding decades, particularly Germany, Cain and Hopkins’ “Gentlemanly Capitalists” continued to dominate the Chinese economy even after 1898.  With the guaranteed succession of a British Inspector-General of Chinese Maritime Customs, and the unrivalled political influence of British financial syndicates like the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, British economic hegemony was assured for decades without Weihaiwei’s occupation.

Moreover, from the perspective of naval projection, contemporary naval experts viewed the port as of little value to Britain’s modern navy despite its location on the Bohai Straits. Only the port and a thin ten-mile buffer zone were ultimately obtained in the lease, offering insufficient defensive depth to counter land-based threats when compared with the German, French and Russian concessions.  Possessing a shallow harbour incapable of sheltering British capital ships, and surrounded by hills that required an extensive re-fortification program to protect the port from direct land-based artillery attack, naval decision makers at the British Admiralty were not thrilled with their new acquisition. 83   

In fact, the Admiralty was not formally consulted at any level during the negotiations for Weihaiwei. 84   In comparison, the expansion of Hong Kong’s boundaries north of Kowloon (i.e. The Northern Territories), Britain’s only other major concession during the Scramble for China, was based primarily on the creation of a new landward defensive perimeter around Victoria Harbour.  British Army and Admiralty officials were front-and-centre during these negotiations. Military surveyors, taking into account recent innovations in siege artillery range and accuracy, carried out on-the-ground assessments to identify the most favourable defensive terrain before the boundaries of the lease were finalized. 85  Given that the negotiations for the New Territories were conducted simultaneously with those of Weihaiwei, the lack of any military participation in the latter clearly negates the influence of this key group of Robinson and Gallagher’s “Official Mind”.  

Although the Admiralty took proactive steps to develop a defence scheme for Weihaiwei after the signing of the lease, particularly to counter a possible Russian cruiser raid, the Royal Navy’s consensus was that only substantial defensive and facility improvement would bring Weihaiwei up to the standard of a serviceable naval port. 86   Assessments on-site and within the Admiralty after the occupation never considered Weihaiwei as a replacement to Hong Kong or a strategic platform with which to project naval power in the region at all.  During the entirety of its occupation, the port acted only as a limited support facility for limited naval operations in the area – like treaty port visits and cruiser patrols. 87    

The policies of both the Admiralty and Foreign Office following annexation undoubtedly contradict the proposed geopolitical usefulness of Weihaiwei.  Despite the importance of a secured telegraph line to the new naval base, cost estimates for its construction were high enough that the Admiralty simply abandoned plans for an “all red” submarine cable from Hong Kong, relying instead on Russian and Chinese controlled land lines for communication needs. 88   Furthermore, the plans to use the territory as a continually occupied naval base were abandoned by 1902 in the immediate aftermath of the Boxer Crisis and Weihaiwei degenerated into a summer port-of-call for the China Squadron based in Hong Kong.  A Royal Navy health spa was established and British personnel frequented the baths beneath the decrepit Qing-era land fortifications during their summer cruises. 89   The “Official Mind” of Britain’s New Imperialism, always cognizant of strategic vulnerabilities, held a complete lack of interest in Weihaiwei. 

British China Squadron at Weihaiwei – 1908 in Arnold Wright, Twentieth Century Impressions of Hong-kong, Shanghai, and other Treaty Ports of China (London: Lloyd’s Greater Britain Pub. Co., 1908).

Traditional commercial and strategic theories on the causation of Britain’s formal imperial expansion are thus completely inadequate in explaining the occupation of Weihaiwei.  Neither does Belich’s thesis on “settlerism”, Said’s critique of Orientalism, nor Schumpeter’s theory on the societal psychology of empire address the reasons for the occupation.  British citizens in the territory never exceeded a few hundred, compared with 150,000 Chinese, and no major settler advocacy lobby ever materialized. 90   Indeed, local administration within the lease remained in the hands of Qing officials and British administrative authority was purposefully relegated to the naval port itself. Furthermore, the “improvement” rationalization did not apply to Weihaiwei because of its time-constrained “lease” status.  This administrative category meant that the territory fell under the Foreign Jurisdiction Act of 1890, restricting British jurisdiction over Chinese subjects and limiting the legality of any “civilizing” mission. 

 Likewise, what Schumpeter would consider Britain’s warrior class found no excuse for the type of warfare in the Far East that defined the more martial atmospheres in Africa or the Northwest Frontier.  The British presence at Weihaiwei was officially sanctioned and respected by the indigenous power, thus removing any pretext for localized military action.  Moreover, Britain’s warrior class perceived any genuine confrontation with a Continental power, Russia or otherwise, as both hazardous and unnecessary to maintain their status within Britain’s domestic social hierarchy.

It seems that the Public Mind enjoyed far greater influence in Britain’s imperial ventures, particularly in the late nineteenth century, than standing hypotheses acknowledge.  As Chamberlin pointed out, a possible fall of Salisbury’s Government was believed inevitable if Whitehall did not act publicly and decisively following the Russian occupation of Port Arthur.  At Weihaiwei, the indomitable anxiety of the Public Mind usurped the rationality of Britain’s traditional imperial powerbrokers.  For these established imperial interests, the seizure of Weihaiwei was, as J.R. Seeley famously declared, simply a “fit of absence of mind”. 91  

As Frank Lascelles predicted, the irrationally Russo-phobic Public Mind, rationally cultivated by Britain’s traditional imperial interests throughout the nineteenth century, proved uncontrollable at Weihaiwei.  From the Balkans to Central Asia to the Far East, Britain’s traditional powerbrokers had, in an effort to legitimize their own particular imperial policies to domestic audiences, trained the Public Mind to battle the Russian menace wherever he surfaced.  Now at Weihaiwei, the tail of British imperialism was wagging the dog.  

Ultimately, the Weihaiwei case offers a cautionary tale of basing-rights “creep” for modern governments seeking to secure regional primacy via the establishment of forward-postured naval forces during a new era of Geopolitical Competition.  The Public Mind’s propensity for self-proliferating hysteria can quickly spin out of control, forcing normally rational decision making into illogical and damaging foreign policy choices.  In an era of 24-hour news cycles and endless reinforcement in the echo chamber of social media, inflated external threats meant to secure press-public support for certain policy objectives can swiftly usurp rational decision-making processes.  As Nietzsche aphorized in Beyond Good and Evil, ironically penned during the height of the Anglo-Russian antagonism, whoever battles monsters should be careful not to create a monster in the process. 92   Indeed, the Public Mind had become a populist monster and the traditional powerbrokers of British imperialism were unable to contain its voracious appetite at Weihaiwei.

(Return to December 2021 Table of Contents) 


  1. “Sie wollen immer…viel mehr nehmen.” Czar Nicholas II to Prince Chlodwig von Hohenlohe, St. Petersburg, 11 September 1896, in Chlodwig Hohenlohe, Denkwürdigkeiten des Fürsten Chlodwig zu Hohenlohe-Schillingfürst, (ed.) Friedrich Curtius, Vol. 2 (Stuttgart: 1907), p. 521.
  2. Germany occupied Kiaochow (Kiautschou) Bay on 04 January 1898, Russia occupied the Liaodong Peninsula (including Port Arthur) on 27 March 1898, France occupied Kouang-Tchéou-Wan (Guangzhou Bay) on 27 May 1898, and Britain officially occupied Weihaiwei on 1 July 1898.
  3. P. J. Cain and A. G. Hopkins, British Imperialism: Innovation and Expansion, 1688-1914 (London: Routledge, 1993).
  4. Karl Marx, Das Kapital: Kritik der politischen Oekonomie (Hamburg: 1867).
  5. J. A. Hobson, Imperialism: A Study (London: 1902, available through Michigan University Press: Ann Arbor Paperbacks, 1964).
  6. Vladimir Lenin, Imperialism, The Highest Stage of Capitalism (Petrograd: 1916, available through Martino Fine Books, Eastford, Connecticut, 2011 reprint).
  7. This thesis on non-British imperial expansion was first postulated by Immanuel Wallerstein as part of his “World-Systems” theory.  Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World System (New York: Academic Press, 1974).
  8. Bernard Porter, The Lion’s Share: A Short History of British Imperialism, 1850-2004 (London: Pearson, 2004).
  9. Ronald Robinson and John Gallagher with Alice Denny, Africa and the Victorians: The Official Mind of Imperialism (London: I.B. Tauris, 1961).
  10. James Belich, Replenishing the Earth: The Settler Revolution and the Rise of the Anglo-World, 1783-1939 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009).
  11. Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1978).
  12. Richard Drayton suggests that the rise of the natural sciences were a direct result of this “improvement” narrative, subordinating science to support formal expansion.  Richard Drayton, Nature’s Government: Science, Imperial Britain, and the “Improvement” of the World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000).
  13. Brian Stanely, “’Commerce and Christianity’: Providence Theory, the Missionary Movement, and the Imperialism of Free Trade, 1842-1860”, The Historical Journal, Vol. 26, No. 1 (March: 1983), pp. 71-94.
  14. Joseph Schumpeter, Imperialism and Social Classes, (trans.) Heinz Norden (New York: 1951, available through Martino Fine Books Eastford, Connecticut, 2014 reprint).
  15. The term “Public Mind” has been used to describe the colonial interests of the Gentlemanly Capitalists of Cain and Hopkins fame.  I believe that the term better fits a public-press nexus, given the elite status of the Gentlemanly Capitalists within British imperial decision making.  Peter Cain and Anthony Hopkins, “Gentlemanly Capitalism and British Expansion Overseas II: New Imperialism, 1850-1945”, The Economic History Review, XL, No. 1 (1987), pp. 1-26; C. M. Andrew, “The French Colonialist Movement during the Third Republic: The Unofficial Mind of Imperialism”, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Fifth Series, XXVI (1976), pp. 143-166.
  16. A concept first developed contemporaneously to the Weihaiwei acquisition. Émile Durkheim, De La Division Du Travail Social (Paris: 1893).
  17. In the Far East, the Russians were widely viewed within the British Foreign Office as the empire’s main antagonist in the region by 1890.  T. G. Otte, The Foreign Office Mind: The Making of British Foreign Policy, 1865-1914 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), pp. 202-209.
  18. For a summary of Anglo-Russian relations during the nineteenth century, see:  A. Lobanov-Rostovsky, “Anglo-Russian Relations through the Centuries”, The Russian Review, VII, No. 2 (Spring 1948), pp. 41-52.   At the turn of the twentieth century, many lay observers believed that a final military confrontation between Britain and Russia throughout Asia was “inevitable”.  Demetrius C. Boulger, “Antagonism of England and Russia”, The North American Review, CLXX, No. 523 (June 1900), pp. 884-896.
  19. William L. Langer, The Diplomacy of Imperialism, 1890-1902, Vol. 1 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1935); Philip Joseph, Foreign Diplomacy in China, 1894-1900, A Study in the Political and Economic Relations with China (London: 1928); Hosea B. Morse, The International Relations of the Chinese Empire (London: 1918, reprint available through Sagwan Press, Glencoe, Illinois, 2015).
  20. Mary H. Wilgus, Sir Claude MacDonald, the Open Door, and British Informal Empire in China, 1895-1900 (London: Routledge, 1987).
  21. Clarence B. Davis and Robert J. Gowen, “The British at Weihaiwei: A Case Study in the Irrationality of Empire”, The Historian, LXIII, Is. 1 (September 2000), pp. 87-104.
  22. Historical Section of the Foreign Office, Peace Handbooks, No. 73 (London: 1920), pp. 68-70.
  23. William L. Langer, The Diplomacy of Imperialism, 1890-1902 (New York: Random House, 1951), p. 175.
  24. Article IV, Traité de paix entre le Japon et la Chine de Shimonoseki, 17 April 1895, in Nagao Ariga, La Guerre Sino-Japonaise: Au Point de vue du droit International (Paris : 1896), p. 291.
  25. Peace Handbooks, No. 73, p. 71.
  26. Tadasu Hayashi, The Secret Memoirs of Count Tadasu Hayashi, (ed.) A. M. Pooley (New York: Eveleigh Nash, 1915), p. 85.
  27. “Buitenland”, Nieuwsblad van het Noorden (Groningen), 24 April 1895.
  28. Earl of Ronaldshay, The Life of Lord Curzon: Being the Authorized Biography of George Nathaniel, Marquess Curzon of Kedleston, K.G. (London: Benn, 1928), p. 276.
  29. North -China Herald (Shanghai), 31 May 1895.
  30. Hosea B. Morse, The International Relations of the Chinese Empire, (London: 1918, reprint available through Sagwan Press, Glencoe, Illinois, 2015), Vol. 3, p. 448.
  31. Langer, The Diplomacy of Imperialism, p. 403.
  32. The Argus (Melbourne), 30 October 1895.
  33. “Tout cela a été … es autres puissances?” Le Temps (Paris), 26 October 1895.
  34. The Times (London), 25 October 1895.
  35. The Mercury (Hobart), 28 October 1895.
  36. The China Mail (Hong Kong), 15 July 1895.
  37.   George N. Curzon, Problems of the Far East: Japan-Korea-China (London: 1894), pp. 302.
  38. Langer, The Diplomacy of Imperialism, p. 167.
  39. Curzon, Problems of the Far East, p. 303.
  40. The British first accomplished this feat of starvation warfare during the Yangtze expedition of the First Opium War (1842). Daniel R. Headrick, “The Tools of Imperialism: Technology and the Expansion of European Colonial Empires in the Nineteenth Century”, The Journal of Modern History, LI, No. 2 (June 1979), pp. 231-263.
  41. Alfred von Tirpitz, My Memoirs (New York: 1919, Vol. II reprint available through Lucknow Books, of Uttar Pradesh, 2013), pp. 95-97.
  42. Morse, The International Relations of the Chinese Empire, p. 448.
  43. Lord Palmerstone House of Commons Debate, 20 June 1850. In The Foreign Policy of Victorian England, 1850-1902, (ed.) Kenneth Bourne (Oxford: Oxford University Press,1970), No. 54, p. 303.
  44. The Mercury (Hobart), 28 October 1895.
  45. J. O. P. Bland, Li Hung-Chang (London: 1917).
  46. Trumbull White, The War in the East: Japan, China and Korea (Philadelphia: 1895), p. 510.
  47. Hayashi, The Secret Memoirs, p. 114.
  48. “Auch über die…unserm Rücken abgeschlossen.” Fürst von Radolin to Hohenlohe, 09 August 1895, Die Grosse Politik der Europäischen Kabinette: 1871-1914, (ed.) Johannes Lepsius, Albrecht Bartholdy, Freidrich Thimme, (Berlin: 1924), Vol. IX, No. 2290, p. 312.
  49. Edgar N. Johnson and John Dean Bickford, “The Contemplated Anglo-German Alliance: 1890-1901”, Political Science Quarterly, XLII, No. 1 (March 1927), pp. 1-57; Paul M. Kennedy, “German World Policy and the Alliance Negotiations with England, 1897-1900”, The Journal of Modern History, XLV, No. 4 (December 1973), pp. 605-625.
  50. Morse, The International Relations of the Chinese Empire, pp. 54.
  51. This unofficial faction included Prime Minister Salisbury (Robert Gascoyne-Cecil), Treasury Lord (and later Foreign Secretary) Arthur Balfour, and Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlin.
  52. The China Mail (Hong Kong), 11 December 1896.
  53. Dann sagte der Kaiser…eine Kohlenstation zu haben.” Nicholas II to Hohenlohe, 11 September 1895, St. Petersburg. Hohenlohe, Denkwürdigkeiten, p. 521.
  54. Bernhard von Bülow, Prince von Bülow Memoirs, 1897-1903, (ed.) Franz von Stockhammern, (trans.) F. A. Voigt, (London: 1931), Vol. 1, p. 89.
  55. Langer, The Diplomacy of Imperialism, p. 451.
  56. Bülow, Memoirs, p. 181.
  57. Bülow, Memoirs, p. 199.
  58. Chamberlin to Balfour, 03 February 1898, in Peter Lowe, Britain in the Far East: A survey from 1819 to the present (London: 1981), p. 64.
  59. For more on the role played by the young and boisterous “imperial-nationalist” backbenchers within the Unionist Government of Salisbury and, ultimately, its Foreign Policy direction, see:  T. G. Otte, The China-Question: Great Power Rivalry and British Isolation, 1894-1905 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007).
  60. Anonymous, “Lord Salisbury’s Illness: British Premier Said to be a Sufferer from Bright’s Disease”, The New York Times (New York), 13 March 1898.
  61. Philip Joseph, Foreign Diplomacy in China, 1894-1900: A Study in Political and Economic Relations with China (London: 1928), p. 235.
  62. Langer, The Diplomacy of Imperialism, p. 465.
  63. Diplomaticus, “A Monroe Doctrine for China”, Fortnightly Review, 01 February 1898.
  64. “The Policy of the Open Door Intact”, The West Australian (Perth), 01 April 1898.
  65. The Standard (London), 30 March 1898.
  66. Reuter’s Telegram (London), 01 April 1898.
  67. Balfour to Victoria, 26 March 1898. Queen Victoria, The Letters of Queen Victoria: A Selection from Her Majesty’s Correspondence and Journal between the Years 1886-1901, (ed.) George Earle Buckle (London: 1932), Vol. III, p. 238.
  68. Victoria to Balfour, 04 April 1898. Ibid, p. 239.
  69. The Times (London), 04 April 1898.
  70. Convention for the lease of Wei-hai-wei, 01 July 1898. Treaties and Agreements with and Concerning China, 1894-1919, (ed.) John V. MacMurray (London: 1921), Vol. I, No. 1898/14, pp. 152-153.
  71. “Engeland en China”, Algemeen Handlesblad (Amsterdam), 04 April 1898.
  72. Tsung-Li Yamen to Sir Claude Macdonald (British Ambassador at Peking), 11 February 1898. MacMurray, Treaties and Agreements, pp. 104-105.
  73. Tsung-Li Yamen to Macdonald Correspondence, 10-13 February 1898. Ibid, pp. 105-106.
  74. Agreement for the Chinese Imperial Government 4.5% Gold Loan of 1898, 01 March 1898.  Ibid, p. 107.
  75. Lascelles to Bulow, 20 April 1898. MacMurray, Treaties and Agreements, p. 152.
  76. Convention respecting the lease of Kiaochow, 06 March 1898. Ibid, pp. 115-116.
  77. Additional agreement defining the boundaries of the leased and neutralized territory in the Liaotung Peninsula, 07 May 1898. Ibid, pp. 127-128.
  78. “Les naviers…ouverts de Chine”, Article V, Projet de Convention Relative à Kouang-tcheou-ouan,  27 May 1898, Tsong-li-yamen. Bibliothéque du Ministére des Affaires éntrangéres [BMAé
  79. Salisbury to Lascelles, 02 April 1898. Peace Handbooks, No. 71, p. 53
  80. Ibid, p. 54.
  81. In 1911-12, revenue was £7,623 and expenditures £15,679.  Ibid, p. 60.
  82. Hosea B. Morse, The Trade and Administration of China (Shanghai:1921), p. 449.
  83. Anonymous, “Wei-hai-wei: Its Value as a Naval Station”, Blackwood’s Magazine, June 1899. In Langer, The Diplomacy of Imperialism, p. 479.  During the First Sino-Japanese War, Japanese forces captured the majority of the land-based fortifications and quickly turned the guns on the Chinese Beiyang Fleet in the harbour.  Piotr Olender, Sino-Japanese Naval War, 1894-1895 (Petersfield: 2014), pp. 124-125.
  84. Ian Nish argues that Weihaiwei “was taken in disregard of naval views at all levels.”  Ian Nish, “The Royal Navy and the Taking of Weihaiwei, 1898-1905”, The Collected Writings of Ian Nish (Tokyo: 2001), Part II, pp. 72-87.
  85. Convention between the United Kingdom and China, Respecting an Extension of Hong Kong Territory, 09 June 1898.
  86. T. G. Otte, “‘Wee-ah-wee’?:  Britain at Weihaiwei, 1898-1930″, British Naval Strategy East of Suez 1900-2000, (ed.) Greg Kennedy (London: 2005), pp. 4-34.
  87. At best, and only after significant investment and infrastructure improvements, Weihaiwei could act as a forward coaling station and logistic point for Royal Navy raids or amphibious landings in and around the Gulf of Tchili.  Ibid, p. 4-34.
  88. Although a line was eventually established following the Boxer Rebellion, this British-controlled line began at the international station in Shanghai, and did not directly run from Hong Kong.  Paul Kennedy, “Imperial Cable Communications and Strategy, 1870-1914”, in The War Plans of the Great Powers, 1880-1914, (ed.) Paul Kennedy, (New York: 2014), pp. 75-98.
  89. Appleton, The Annual Cyclopaedia and Register of Important Events – 1902 (New York: 1903), Vol. 42, p. 325.
  90. Appleton, The Annual Cyclopaedia, p. 325.
  91. John Robert Seeley, The Expansion of England: Two Course of Lectures (London: 1883), p. 8.
  92. “Wer mit Ungeheuern kämpft …zum Ungeheuer wird.” Friedrich Nietzsche, Jenseits von Gut und Böse (Leipzig: 1886), No. 146.

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Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr., and Changing OPNAV

Thomas C. Hone
Professor of Operations Planning, Ret., US Naval War College


Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr., was Chief of Naval Operations from 1 July 1970 to 1 July 1974. In his 1997 oral history, Admiral Harry D. Train II, who served as Executive Assistant and Senior Aide to Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, Admiral Zumwalts predecessor, described Elmo Zumwalt as one of the most creative people I have ever known in my life. Above all, he is, hands down, the best manager Ive ever known, bar none.” 1  Not every senior officer shared that view. Admiral Harold E. Shear, in 1969, a Vice Admiral and Director of Submarine Warfare in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV), told historian Paul Stillwell in 1997 that probably the most important thing I did in 42 years of active duty was to get the Navy pulled together and back to battery after Zumwalt.” 2   

Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr. (DoD Photo)

Why these very different assessments of Admiral Zumwalts performance as Chief of Naval Operations? The answer is that Admiral Zumwalt was an aggressive, reformist CNO, and he took decisive action in a variety of areas simultaneously—and not all those actions were successful. For example, Admiral Train felt that some of the social things” that Zumwalt did were terrible,” especially the change to Navy uniforms, which Train regarded as an absolute disaster.” 3  Admiral Shear observed that he worked closely with Zumwalt, liked his chief, and supported him. But as Vice Chief of Naval Operations under Zumwalts successor, Admiral James L. Holloway III, Shear dropped the uniform and personal grooming changes instituted by Zumwalt. 4   

Why did CNO Zumwalt try to make so many changes to the Navy in general and to OPNAV in particular? The answer is that Zumwalt felt he had to alter the Navys organizational culture because it badly needed immediate and drastic transformation.” 5  As he put it in his memoir, On Watch, Where I was virtually alone, among those being considered [as CNO], was in viewing existing policies and practices in the field of personnel administration as an even greater danger to the Navys capability… than its obsolescing physical plant,” much of which consisted of ships and weapons that had been built during World War II. 6  

There was widespread agreement among senior Navy officers that the older ships needed to be retired and newer ones built to replace them. However, there was much less agreement that Navy personnel policies—particularly regarding promotion, training, and the status of women and African-Americans—needed to be thoroughly overhauled. Indeed, as Zumwalt noted in On Watch, bringing Navy norms and practices into closer conformity with those of the rest of American society” was one thing. Of a far higher order of difficulty and importance was bringing the Navys treatment of… blacks into conformity with stated national policy and the law of the land, not to say common fairness and decency.” 7  


Two experiences were critical to Zumwalts approach to his responsibilities as Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV). The first was his experience as the executive assistant and senior aide to then-Secretary of the Navy Paul H. Nitze in 1963-64. As Zumwalt recalled in On Watch: 

 …under the tutelage of Paul Nitze I earned what I think of as a Ph.D. in political-military affairs. When I first worked for him I was one of a number of efficient and rising young officers with a keen interest in the worlds power relationships and a bent for strategic analysis. When I left him I had firsthand experience of how political-military affairs were managed, conceptually and tactically, at the top level of government. 8  

Under Nitze, Zumwalt had also acquired an insatiable appetite for work,” which served him well when he became CNO. Indeed, Nitze was so impressed with Zumwalt that he persuaded the Navy flag selection board to promote Zumwalt to rear admiral in 1965—two years before Zumwalt was technically eligible for promotion to flag rank.” 9  Then, in the summer of 1966, Nitze and CNO David L. McDonald called Zumwalt back from command of a cruiser-destroyer flotilla to head the new Systems Analysis Division in OPNAV. 10  As systems analysis became the intellectual backbone of the new Planning, Programming, and Budgeting System (PPBS), Zumwalt was well prepared to use it.

The second experience that shaped Zumwalts thinking about the role of the CNO was his tour as commander of naval forces in Vietnam and head of the Naval Advisory Group, Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), from September 1968 to May 1970. Under the overall command of General Creighton Abrams, Zumwalt—promoted to Vice Admiral in October 1968—led Navy and joint task forces that patrolled the coastal waters and rivers of South Vietnam and fought a long string of sharp engagements with Viet Cong forces. 11  

Captain Howard J. Kerr, Jr., who served as Zumwalts flag secretary and aide, recalled in 1982 that the impact that the Admiral had on the Saigon staff was not too unlike the impact that he had on the Navy when he became CNO. He literally shook it right to its marrow and did it in a very short period of time.” 12  As Kerr noted, Zumwalts bias was always to go with the people that would get the job done, whom he could relate to and [who] understood what he wanted to do, supported what he wanted to do. Supported in the sense of not just genuflecting to everything he said, but argued with him, gave him their thoughts, their objections, et. cetera.” 13  According to Kerr, Zumwalts more creative subordinates responded magnificently” to Zumwalts leadership. Zumwalt also soon became a very trusted and essential advisor to General Abrams and also a component commander whom the general looked to, not only for help in executing the admirals mission, but also in supporting the general in executing his mission.” 14   

In his memoir, Zumwalt noted that his Vietnam service enabled him:

…to become personally acquainted with hundreds, if not thousands, of fighting sailors… The profound and indelible feelings of fellowship, admiration, and respect the performance and sacrifices of those men inspired in me had much to do with the Mod NavyI strove for as CNO. I often thought of my efforts to improve the Navys relationship with its people as a testimonial to these courageous men and women.  15 

Captain Kerr agreed: 

[W]hen he became CNO, he basically saw [the younger officers and sailors] as his constituency, as his natural constituency, and that the future of the Navy rested more with these young people, what they had learned and brought with them out of that Vietnam experience than with a lot of traditions and regulations that long since should have been removed from the system.” 16      

Reorganizing OPNAV

When Zumwalt was promoted to admiral and confirmed as CNO at the beginning of July 1970, he inherited a staff that had been modified piecemeal by his predecessors as they acted to deal with major Cold War issues. For example, there were assistant chiefs of naval operations for intelligence (OP-092) and communications and cryptology (OP-094), plus directors of anti-submarine warfare programs (OP-095) and Navy strategic systems (OP-097). These offices were directly under the control of the CNO and the Vice CNO. There were also deputy CNOs for manpower and reserve affairs (OP-01), fleet operations and readiness (OP-03), logistics (OP-04), aviation (OP-05), plans and policy (OP-06), and development (OP-07). The Navys system analysts and long-range planners worked directly for the Director of Navy program planning (OP-090). 

Zumwalts task was to mold this organization into a staff that could help him achieve his two major goals: first, to make the Navy truly modern in terms of the way it recruited, trained, and then developed its personnel, and second, to allow him to have a significant influence on national strategic decision-making. According to Admiral Worth H. Bagley, whom Zumwalt appointed as Director of OP-090, he and Zumwalt had the same intellectual approach and the same thoughts” about the Navys future and the nations overall strategy. 17  In changing the structure and processes within OPNAV, according to Bagley, Zumwalt wanted to create the mental atmosphere, the social atmosphere, and the professional atmosphere that would enhance motivation to get the professional job done in the most effective way.” 18  At the same time, both admirals understood that the OPNAV bureaucracy” was large, strangely immutable, and no single and repeated order would assure that a rudder change would be made.” 19  

The details of OPNAVs restructuring can be found in the Navy History and Heritage Commands History of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, 1915-2015 and in the organization charts in the Center for Naval Analyses Organizing OPNAV (1970-2009).   20  By 1973, Zumwalt had created two new deputy chiefs of naval operations: OP-02, the DCNO for submarines, and OP-03, the DCNO for surface ships. These two joined four DCNOs that already existed—OP-01 (manpower), OP-04 (logistics), OP-05 (aviation), and OP-06 (plans and policy). 21  There were also directors for tactical electronic programs, research, development, test, and evaluation (RDT&E), anti-submarine warfare, and education and training. However, Zumwalts key deputy was OP-090, the Director of Navy Program Planning. The divisions of OP-090 were the homes of Navy program planners, budget specialists, systems analysts, long-range planners, and officers who conducted net assessments.” 

U.S. Secretary of Defense and South Vietnamese President Thieu exchange greeting in Saigon, 11 January 1971. (DoD Photo #71-0029)

In November 1971, President Richard M. Nixon had authorized the creation of a net assessment office within the National Security Council staff. A month later, Defense Secretary Melvin R. Laird, Jr., established the position of director of net assessment” in the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) in order to prevent Dr. Henry Kissinger, President Nixons national security advisor, from monopolizing the net assessment function—the systematic and comparative evaluation of the actual strategic capabilities of the armed forces of the United States and the Soviet Union. 22  This office was small but very important, and Zumwalt created a version of it inside OPNAV to work in parallel with the office in OSD.

This was part of Zumwalts establishment of a staff within a staff,” the creation of a set of offices containing very bright officers and civilians who could steer the rest of OPNAV and the whole Navy in the direction Zumwalt wanted the Navy to go. As Admiral Bagley noted, There wasnt one single policy paper” that he could remember, in the three and a half years he was OP-090, which didnt support Zumwalts policy and strategic goals. 23  But there was more to the staff within a staff” than OP-090 and OP-06. Zumwalt also created the CNO Executive Panel (CEP), a small group of experts from outside and inside the Navy” to develop supporters in a wide variety of ever-changing government and non-government” positions who could be conversant with naval issues” and who might hold key positions long after” Zumwalt himself had retired. 24  

Why had Zumwalt embarked on his effort to restructure OPNAV in the first place? In September 1970, a memo from OP-03G (Fleet Operations) to OP-090 noted that practically the entire OPNAV organization is tuned, like a tuning fork, to the vibrations of the budgetary process.” The memo went on to say that there was a vast preoccupation with budgetary matters at the expense of considering planning, or readiness or requirements, or operational characteristics or any of the other elements contributing to the ability of the Fleets to fight.” 25  This memo expressed Zumwalts own thinking—that OPNAV was too preoccupied with the need to develop and review Navys the annual program budget at the expense of the Navys contribution to national strategy.  

CNO Zumwalt faced a problem that had dogged all reformers. What happens after the reformer leaves? The next CNO—or the CNO after next—could change OPNAVs structure or set aside the goals that Zumwalt had set for the Navy. Zumwalt tackled this problem in several ways. First, he embedded a strong analytical capability in OPNAV—in OP-090. He hoped that making programmatic analysis routine and useful would convince his successors to sustain that capability. Second, he attracted talent to the two OPNAV offices that were most important to his reforms—OP-090 and OP-06. If OP-090 could be linked to OP-06, then the program analysts would work in tandem with the strategic analysts and the Navy could defend its programs at the OSD level by showing how they supported the nations overall strategy. All he could do was attract the smartest officers to his reorganized OPNAV and hope his successors would continue that the practice of staffing OP-090 and OP-06 with such outstanding individuals.


Was CNO Zumwalt successful in his effort to change OPNAV and thereby also change the Navy and perhaps even national security policy? If you read Zumwalts memoir, youll see how he hoped his successes in adapting the Navy to social and strategic changes would give him leverage with the White House. Unfortunately for the Admiral, his efforts to combat race prejudice in the Navy, his advocacy of a stronger role for women in the Navy, and the way he bypassed the chain of command with his Z-grams” cost him influence in both Congress and the White House. 26  Making matters worse for Zumwalt was his growing antipathy for the methods of Henry Kissinger. The CNO admitted as much in Part IV of his autobiography. Did that mean Zumwalts effort to strengthen OPNAV was not a success?

Here is where scholarship and personal experience come together. In 1981-82, I was a consultant to OP-965, the office charged with assessing alternative naval force structures. I met then-commanders and later admirals Dennis C. Blair and Donald L. Pilling. I also began a lasting correspondence with Captain Wayne P. Hughes, who had served in OP-96 in the Zumwalt years and who was teaching at the Naval Postgraduate School. In 1986, the US Naval Institute published Hughess seminal Fleet Tactics: Theory and Practice. During 1981-82, I also met officers in OP-603 who were instrumental in developing what came to be known as The Maritime Strategy”: Captain Roger W. Barnett, Commander (later Admiral) James R. Stark, Captain Elizabeth G. Wylie, Captain Peter M. Swartz, and Lieutenant Commander (and PhD) Stanley B. Weeks. At the time, I didnt know what I later learned—that the presence of these individuals was at least partly due to Zumwalt.  

ATLANTIC OCEAN (Dec. 7, 2015) The future USS Zumwalt (DDG 1000) is underway for the first time conducting at-sea tests and trials in the Atlantic Ocean Dec. 7, 2015. The multimission ship will provide independent forward presence and deterrence, support special operations forces, and operate as an integral part of joint and combined expeditionary forces. (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of General Dynamics Bath Iron Works/Released)

In 1986, I worked for retired Navy Captain George E. Thibault at Booz-Allen and Hamilton, and Captain Thibault introduced me to Admiral Stansfield Turner, who had retired as CIA director in 1981. 27  Admiral Turner, who, as a newly promoted rear admiral had first briefed the Navy flag officers in Washington on CNO Zumwalts Project 60” in 1970, had a sparkling inquisitive mind. He had much in common with Admiral Zumwalt—an understanding of the role of systems analysis in the Planning, Programming, and Budgeting System, for example, and an eagerness to take on causes. 28  In my talks with him, I could see why he respected Admiral Zumwalt, and I could also see how he could inspire loyalty from subordinates in much the same way as Zumwalt had done. 

CNO Zumwalt changed OPNAVs structure, and he attracted talent to OPNAV. The most important part of the changed structure that lasted was the place of systems analysis in the programming process. I can testify to that from personal experience. The talent that flowed into OP-090 (especially OP-965) and OP-06 (especially OP-603) showed that younger officers could make a difference in the large OPNAV staff, and that sense of making a contribution lasted into the 1980s. My personal opinion is that this aggregation of talent contributed significantly to the development and promulgation of The Maritime Strategy.            


(Return to December 2021 Table of Contents) 


  1. Paul Stillwell, Reminiscences of Admiral Harry D. Train II, USN (Retired) (Annapolis, MD: US Naval Institute, 1997), p. 145.
  2. Paul Stillwell, Reminiscences of Admiral Harold Edson Shear, USN (Retired) (Annapolis, MD: US Naval Institute, 1997), p. 312.
  3. Paul Stillwell, Reminiscences of Admiral Harry D. Train II, USN (Retired) (Annapolis, MD: US Naval Institute, 1997), pp. 169-170.
  4. Paul Stillwell, Reminiscences of Admiral Harold Edson Shear, USN (Retired) (Annapolis, MD: US Naval Institute, 1997), p. 315.
  5. Thomas C. Hone and Curtis A. Utz, History of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, 1915-2015 (Washington, DC: Navy History and Heritage Command, 2020), p. 286.
  6. Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr. On Watch: A Memoir (Arlington, VA: Admiral Zumwalt & Associates, 1976), p. 167.
  7. Zumwalt, On Watch, p. 197.
  8. Zumwalt, On Watch, p. 29. Zumwalt first worked for Nitze in 1962, when Nitze was Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs. When Nitze was confirmed as Secretary of the Navy at the end of November 1963, he selected Zumwalt to serve as his assistant and senior aide.
  9. Zumwalt, On Watch, p. 34. Secretary Nitze’s final fitness report on Zumwalt “persuaded” (according to Zumwalt) the selection board to give him a promotion to flag. The same was done for two other officers. 
  10. Zumwalt, On Watch, pp. 33-34. Also see Norman Friedman, “Elmo Russell Zumwalt, Jr.,” in Robert William Love, Jr. (ed), The Chiefs of Naval Operations (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1980).
  11. President Richard M. Nixon’s Secretary of Defense, Melvin R. Laird, Jr., had visited VADM Zumwalt in South Vietnam and was impressed with him and with Zumwalt’s plans for “Vietnamization.” See Dale Van Atta, With Honor: Melvin Laird in War, Peace, and Politics (Madison, WI: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 2008).
  12. Howard J. Kerr, Jr., Reminiscences by Staff Officers of Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr., USN, Vol. I, Interview Number 1, 22 September 1982, by Paul Stillwell (U.S. Naval Institute Oral History, 1989), pp. 38-39.
  13. Kerr, Reminiscences, p. 40.
  14. Kerr, Reminiscences p. 87.
  15. Zumwalt, On Watch, p. 34.
  16. Kerr, Reminiscences, p. 123.
  17. Kerr, Reminiscences, p. 239.
  18. Kerr, Reminiscences, p. 238.
  19. Kerr, Reminiscences, p. 258.
  20. Thomas C. Hone and Curtis A. Utz, History of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, 1915-2015 (Washington, DC: Navy History and Heritage Command website, 2020); and Peter M. Swartz with Michael C. Markowitz, Organizing OPNAV (1970-2009) (Arlington, VA: Center for Naval Analyses, 2010).
  21. At that time, Congress limited the CNO to six deputy chiefs of naval operations.
  22. See Andrew Krepinevich and Barry Watts, The Last Warrior, Andrew Marshall and the Shaping of Modern American Defense Strategy (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2015), pp. 86-87.
  23. Kerr, Reminiscences, p. 241.
  24. Jeffrey L. Sands, CRM 93-22, On His Watch: Admiral Zumwalt’s Efforts to Institutionalize Strategic Change (Alexandria, VA: Center for Naval Analyses, 1993).
  25. Thomas C. Hone, Power and Change, The Administrative History of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, 1946-1986 (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1989), p. 86.
  26. See Larry Berman, Zumwalt, The Life and Times of Admiral Elmo Russell “Bud” Zumwalt, Jr. (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2012). See also Edward J. Marolda, Admirals Under Fire, The U.S. Navy and the Vietnam War (Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech University Press, 2021), esp. pages 282-304.
  27. LCDR Thomas J. Cutler, USN (Ret.) wrote a tribute to CAPT Thibault in the “Lest We Forget” section of the US Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol. 138/11/1317 (November 2012). CAPT Thibault was an extraordinarily erudite officer—artist, musician, linguist, intellectual, and teacher. He and Turner were a natural “fit.”
  28. John T. Mason, Jr., The Reminiscences of Admiral Stansfield Turner, USN (Ret.) (Annapolis, MD: US Naval Institute, 2011), p. 371.

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Napoleon and New Orleans: the Emperor’s First Surrender and its Impact on Britain in the Last Major Battle of the War of 1812

Samantha A. Cavell
Southeastern Louisiana University

The first two weeks of April 1814 brought about three important events in the global conflict that played out on both sides of the Atlantic, as the Napoleonic Wars in Europe and the War of 1812 in North America. The first occurred on April 1 when Vice-Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane assumed command of the Royal Navy’s North America Station with every intention of escalating the war with the United States and bringing the conflict to a rapid end in Britain’s favor. The second, which took place on April 6, was the abdication of Napoleon Bonaparte after his defeat in the Battle of Paris. Five days later, he signed the Treaty of Fontainebleau and agreed to the terms offered by Prussia, Austria, and Russia to give up control of his empire and accept exile to Elba. An end to the war on the Continent theoretically enabled Britain to focus on North America and siphon off ships and troops that would allow Cochrane to broaden aggressive action on the eastern seaboard. The third event, on April 14, was U.S. President James Madison’s repeal of the trade embargo that had been in place, in various forms, since 1807. 1  In an effort to stave off U.S. bankruptcy and brewing rebellion in the Federalist northeast, Madison sought ways to boost revenue to meet the increased threat from Britain. 2  

James Madison by Chester Harding

Together, these events address the world-wide scope of war in 1814, and the interconnectedness of political, economic, and naval/military factors involving three nations engaged in two nominally-separate conflicts. The degree of reciprocity suggests, however, that these were two theaters in the same struggle, hinged on Great Britain, whose position as an imperial and commercial hegemon faced a dual challenge, albeit from vastly asymmetrical threats. That the United States understood its relative weakness in military and naval matters was evident in the opportunism with which Madison’s government declared war while Britain was focused on the existential threat posed by the Napoleonic juggernaut. The relationship between the two wars was indeed foundational. The predations of Britain and France on neutral American shipping provided Madison with a justification for war against both. Yet the lure of Canada and the emotional appeal of impressment raised public support for a war with Britain, an action that would never have been considered without the all-consuming distraction provided by France. In April 1814, however, the relationship between the three nations was at a turning point. 

Madison’s ambition to “emancipate” Canada 3  may have faded, but he could now adopt new strategies to break Britain’s slow strangulation of the U.S. economy. 4  Conversely, Prime Minister Lord Liverpool’s government was now free to craft an endgame for America and his war cabinet got to work on the primary goal of securing Canada while a series of diversions on the U.S. coast, culminating in an attack on New Orleans, would prevent the Americans from amassing forces in the north. Britain’s uncertainty over the terms and conditions of Napoleon’s capitulation, however, caused problems for planners in London. Elba was too close to France, both in its proximity and its imperial loyalties and the threat of Bonaparte’s return loomed large. The rapidly-changing political, diplomatic, and naval/military circumstances on the Continent throughout 1814 also confused objectives in North America. Although Britain sought the immediate submission of Madison’s administration and a quick end to the war, Liverpool was less willing to negotiate moderate terms now that greater military and naval effort could be directed towards a crushing and punitive American defeat. The means by which this victory would be achieved vacillated, between small-scale coastal raids and full-blown military engagements, depending on the threat level of a Napoleonic restoration. Moreover, action in North America had to be considered in relation to talks with European heads of state who sought to remake the Continent in Napoleon’s wake. Actions that would bolster the crown’s bargaining position in these negotiations, which began formally in Vienna on October 1, also had to be considered. With so many factors in play, confused and sometimes contradictory plans resulted in Whitehall, and devolved onto commanders like Cochrane who made dubious or ill-informed decisions in the field as a result. Nowhere was this more evident than in the humiliating defeat of Britain’s combined forces at New Orleans. The process by which British plans in North America were influenced and ultimately derailed by events in Europe, is visible in the rapidly changing climate of global politics between April 1814 and the aftermath of the Battle of New Orleans in February 1815. 

Field, Robert; Admiral Sir Alexander Inglis Cochrane (1758-1832), Governor of Guadeloupe (National Galleries of Scotland)

Cochrane’s assumption of command of the North America Station was an ordeal of patience, more than two months in the making. 5  His predecessor, Admiral John Borlase Warren, refused to relinquish control of his flagship, HMS Tonnant, or of his command, which included ships stationed from Halifax to Bahama. 6  An unexpected benefit of the delay was that by April 1 Cochrane was fully briefed on the disposition of the roughly forty-five ships and vessels on station and ready to roll out aggressive new policies designed to make life so unbearable for the coastal populations of the United States that they would pressure their government into quickly ending the war. Cochrane’s plans for destructive, flying attacks on east coast towns and cities, combined with a continuation of Warren’s blockade of the Chesapeake and New York, represented the diversionary half of Whitehall’s strategy to, once and for all, eliminate the threat to Canada. This would be achieved by reinforcing General George Prevost’s army in Quebec with 30,000 troops to push the American invaders back to a safe distance and protect the border. Only a fraction of these men would, however, come from the Duke of Wellington’s Peninsula army. Wellington and Lord Bathurst, the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, shared a deep skepticism about the security of Napoleon’s island prison and refused to release troops who might be needed in Europe at a moment’s notice. Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh, who had been on the Continent since January 1814 as Britain’s representative in the treaty negotiations, refused to sign at Fontainebleau in protest of the feeble measures taken for dealing with the deposed emperor. 7  He was also in a position to know just how fragile the situation was in France. Although instrumental in the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy, Castlereagh was well aware of Louis XVIII’s weaknesses and his illegitimacy in the eyes of the French people. He was also aware of the unpopularity of the Bourbons among members of the Whig opposition at home who levelled heavy criticism at his apparent support for ancien regime despots. Several prominent Whigs, supported by Lords Holland and Brougham, began making pilgrimages to Elba for audiences with Bonaparte. The stream of high-ranking Britons flocking to Bonaparte’s court was a deep embarrassment to Liverpool’s government, both at home and in Europe. 8  In all, the circumstances did not bode well for Napoleon staying put and unified fears at the highest levels ensured the maintenance of an army ready to deal with all possibilities.  

At the Admiralty, Lord Melville was hamstrung by the situation. Like his colleagues, the First Lord understood the need to maintain the strength of the Mediterranean and Channel fleets. After April 14, however, Cochrane’s demands for more ships in North America took on new urgency to answer Madison’s lifting of the embargo. Melville, like Liverpool, recognized the need for a rapid end to the American war which had become deeply unpopular at home. 9  The financial burden it placed on a tax and war-weary population, who now saw light at the end of a twenty-year-long tunnel, was a leading cause for complaint. The government understood that America’s move to raise revenue through the resumption of trade was a symptom of their own fiscal desperation and that Melville’s proposal to send more ships and allow Cochrane to expand the blockade was a necessary measure, even if it bled naval power from European waters. 10  By the end of July, Cochrane’s demands were answered. He now commanded more than seventy ships which formed a continuous blockade of ports as far north as Maine and as far south as the Mississippi delta. 11  

Pressure to bring about a quick, decisive end to the war in North America also forced Bathurst and Wellington to relax their grip on army resources. In addition to the 30,000 troops sent to Prevost in Canada, they also agreed to augment raiding forces in the U.S., with 2,100 men to Maine, an additional 1,200 to the Chesapeake, and 6,000 to Bermuda as active reserves to be used as needed. Finally, 7,500 regulars would be sent to take New Orleans, the largest city west of the Appalachians and a vital entrepôt for trade to and from the center of the country. 12 

For Cochrane, New Orleans had always been a target. He spent his early career cruising the American coast, and in a memo to the Admiralty sent before the war began, he named the Chesapeake and New Orleans as the most strategically important and militarily vulnerable places in the U.S. 13  With the Chesapeake already bowing under the weight of Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn and Major General Robert Ross’s combined force, New Orleans became a priority. Under Warren, plans for Louisiana had been shelved due to the shortage of men and resources. Now circumstances were different. On April 27 Bathurst wrote to Wellington confirming plans to send 7,500 men to Louisiana under the command of Lieutenant General Rowland Hill. Assignment of Wellington’s most trusted general in the Peninsula War spoke to the importance of the mission. Lord Hill accepted the appointment and began assembling his team of senior officers, most of whom had distinguished themselves in battles from Salamanca to Vitoria. Such a line-up also suggested that this campaign would be more than a hit-and-run attack or coastal raid. New Orleans was planned as a massed military operation of overwhelming force. To ensure its success, Cochrane also devised diversionary attacks on the coast of Georgia and the Gulf Coast of Florida to prevent American reinforcements from coming to the city’s defense.

There is little in the correspondence to suggest that Britain planned a permanent occupation or annexation of New Orleans or Louisiana territory. Its capture reflected broader strategic goals designed to hold the city long enough to strike a death blow to American trade and commerce. It would also be useful as a “hostage” in negotiations with the Americans, which aimed to protect Canada. Bathurst addressed these objectives in his instructions to Ross during the planning stages of the campaign:

First, to obtain command of the embouchure of the Mississippi, so as to deprive the back settlements of America their communication with the sea; and, secondly, to occupy some important and valuable possession, by the restoration of which the conditions of peace might be improved, or which we might be entitled to exact the cession of, as the price of peace. 14  

This last point spoke to the general British, and wider European, belief in the illegality of the Louisiana Purchase. Raising a rebellion among the French and Spanish populations in the southern sector would be the first step in challenging American claims to the region. 15  Ross was to encourage Louisianans to either assert their territorial independence or return to “the dominion of the Spanish Crown.” Bathurst also directed that, “You will discountenance any proposition . . . to place themselves under the dominion of Great Britain.” 16  While permanent acquisition of New Orleans was not Britain’s goal, its motives in returning Louisiana to Spain were hardly altruistic. For a start, Liverpool’s government was well aware that Spain, in 1814, was incapable of asserting geopolitical power on any level. Louisianans’ acceptance of such an offer would, however, help delegitimize Napoleon’s sale of the territory, foment civil strife, humiliate the Madison administration, present options for the creation of an independent territory for Britain’s Native American allies, and at least temporarily, disrupt U.S. expansion. It would also upset trade, reducing the threat posed by American commerce to British mercantile interests in the West Indies and beyond. The appearance of support for Spain could also provide Britain leverage in the talks in Vienna which would decide the future of European alliances and international commercial agreements. 

With the navy and army working in concert, Melville wrote to Cochrane on July 29 authorizing him to proceed with plans for the attack on New Orleans. By then Cochrane had already begun his advance work and sent Commander Hugh Pigot to scout the area between Apalachicola and Pensacola and assess the level of support that could be counted on from local Native Americans. In June he reported Pigot’s findings to First Secretary Croker at the Admiralty; “I have no doubt that 3000 troops landed at Mobile where they would be joined by all the Indians, with the disaffected French and Spaniards would drive the Americans entirely out of Louisiana and the Floridas . . . .” 17  He also sent 4,000 muskets, with powder and ammunition, to arm the new allies and intended to send 2,000 more. 18  A month later, Cochrane expressed even greater confidence in the Native American contribution and wrote to Bathurst that just “Two thousand men [regulars] would give to Gt. Britain the command of that Country and New Orleans.” 19  

Cochrane’s enthusiasm for the campaign was such that he committed to “attend the expedition myself.” 20  Melville too, began logistical preparations and wrote to Admiral Dommet in Cork asking his opinion on the best time for the troops to set sail for Louisiana to ensure they would not arrive before December 1, as the risk of tropical disease was too great before that time. 21  

By August 10, however, the situation in London had changed. Whether circumstances were altered by Castlereagh’s spies on Elba who conveyed Napoleon’s growing interest in returning to France, or the appearance of newspaper stories that reported his escape as a fait accompli, is unknown. 22  The result was that Croker wrote to Cochrane announcing that circumstances no longer permitted a force of 7,500 troops being shipped to New Orleans. Instead, he could count on 2,200 men under Major General John Lambert to augment Ross’ force, bringing their total number to 6,000. 23  It was a far cry from the brigades of fresh troops under Lord Hill and meant that, when the time came, Ross’ men would have to be pulled from operations in the Chesapeake, and would not be available to augment the diversions in Georgia and Florida. Cochrane, nonetheless, remained sanguine. Pigot and Marine Major Edward Nicolls, stationed on the Gulf Coast, assured him that at least 3000 Native Americans were ready to march as part of a “Colonial Marine” guard. 24  

For the time being, operations under Cockburn and Ross in Maryland proceeded well and on August 24 victory at Bladensburg led to the burning of the American capital and the capitulation of Alexandria. News of the destruction of the Presidential Palace and other official buildings was not well received by European heads of state or by British opponents to the war who saw such brutality as akin to “the Bonapartian style” of war. 25  Wellington had to calm tempers in Paris and assure the French government that British intentions did not include the elimination of the government of the United States. 26  For the peace negotiations that had begun in Ghent in mid-August, these events tilted talks decidedly in Britain’s favor. 

September, however, brought nothing but bad news in North America. Prevost’s attempt to capture U.S. territory in the northeast and create a more advantageous and secure border for Canada did not go as planned. His invasion force descended on Lake Champlain and was defeated at Plattsburgh, New York on September 11. A day later, the opening salvos in the combined operation against Baltimore saw General Ross killed by a sniper. The resistance offered by local regulars and militia was surprisingly strong compared to their experiences in Bladensburg, Washington, and Alexandria, and Ross’ men were vastly outnumbered in the land attack. Cochrane had soured on the idea of attacking Baltimore weeks before the campaign began, citing concerns about the warmness of the climate and the shallowness of the harbor, which limited his ability to offer the army and marines close support from his ships. Persuaded by Ross’ enthusiasm and the ease of earlier conquests, Cochrane reluctantly agreed. His fears about Baltimore Harbor were well founded, as evidenced by the failure of his long-range naval bombardment on the night of September 13-14 to reduce Fort McHenry. Although Melville considered the attempt as a continuation of the harassment strategy, Cochrane saw Baltimore as a failure, one which fueled his desire for retribution and a redeeming success. Aware that peace talks had begun in Ghent, he wrote to Melville expressing his anxiety that the war might be over before he’d given the Americans their due; “if the Peace makers will only stay their proceedings until Jonathan is brought to the heels of Gt. Britain, future Wars will be prevented.” He was also keen to point out the need for harsh punishments to school Americans, and the American negotiators, out of their belligerence; “like Spaniels they must be treated with great severity before you can ever make them tractable.” 27  The dual specters of vengeance and pride informed his desire to move forward with the campaign for New Orleans with all speed. 

Troubles in the south dogged Cochrane throughout September. His initial plan for New Orleans involved landing the troops and supplies at Mobile and marching them overland to Baton Rouge. From there they would follow the Mississippi River south to New Orleans. His diversion at Pensacola was designed to draw American attention towards Florida; a plan which, to a large extent, succeeded. The next step was to secure access to Mobile by subduing Fort Bowyer, a palmetto log and sand battery, at the mouth of the bay. The September 14-15 attack, which was intended as a simultaneous pincer movement of Colonial Marines on land and a naval bombardment from four Royal Navy brigs, was an uncoordinated failure. Attempts to lure the assistance of the privateer, pirate, and smuggler Jean Laffite to open a back door to New Orleans via Bayou Lafourche were equally unsuccessful. The only remaining avenue to reach the city was through Lakes Borgne and Pontchartrain, bodies of water that were notoriously shallow and only navigable by shallow-draft boats. Dozens would be needed to land the materiel, supplies, and troops in sufficient numbers to be effective.

September and October in Ghent brought both sides no closer to resolution. American intransigence was seen as folly and Liverpool expressed his confusion as to their motives; “I confess I cannot believe that with the prospect of bankruptcy before them, the American government would not wish to make peace, if they can make it upon terms that would not give a triumph to their enemies [the Federalists].” 28  Liverpool was aware of his own enemies within and that the tangle of negotiations at Ghent and Vienna had mutual repercussions. 29  One example was the new threat to a European balance of power that arose from Russia, and the potential for a destabilizing Russian-Prussian axis. This danger echoed in Anglo-American negotiations as Russia offered her services as mediator. British rejection of the proposal was greeted by mixed reviews at home, as liberal papers cast doubt on Liverpool’s true desire for peace, calling for “moderation” and warning of the consequences of proffering “degrading terms” in the negotiations. 30  American delegates pushed for a status quo antebellum agreement to protect their borders against what may come. They were aware of British intentions to hold American territory in the north after Plattsburgh and such fears were underlined by the crown’s demand for terms uti possidetis. Negotiators like Henry Goulburn, Bathurst’s deputy, felt confident that the capture of New Orleans would make up for Prevost’s failure in the north and that a hostage New Orleans would constitute a means to drive a hard bargain. 31  Trading New Orleans for a new northern border or neutral buffer zone to protect Canada from future invasion, and a guarantee of land for Britain’s Indian allies, was seen as the last best option to guard against the rapaciousness of American expansionism. 32  

November 20 saw the rendezvous of the first reinforcements for New Orleans at Point Negril, Jamaica. Cochrane’s outlook was grim as he assembled his forces from the Chesapeake, Bermuda, and the new arrivals from Britain. First and foremost, he was seriously short of men. Nicolls was unable to raise more than 500 Colonial Marines, and Whitehall’s alternative to sending more troops from Wellington’s stock was for Cochrane to take them from Canada. His pleas to Prevost to release one battalion for southern operations, in a season when no campaigning could take place in the north, fell on deaf ears. 33  Furthermore, his request to the Admiralty for “25 or 30 . . .  flat bottomed Vessels,” 27  essential as troop transports for the lakes, was ignored despite the plethora of “Dutch schuyts and doggers in England.” 35  Cochrane’s Captain of the Fleet, Commodore Sir Edward Codrington, addressed the absence of artillery noting that, “our battering train, with the proper means of transporting guns . . .” was nowhere to be seen. 36  Worse, Cochrane learned that his secret requests to the navy’s Agent for Transports in Jamaica, to gather flat-bottomed boats for New Orleans, had been widely advertised. Cochrane also learned the consequences of this publicity. Mr. Hudson, a New Orleans merchant visiting Jamaica, had rushed details of the campaign to General Andrew Jackson in Pensacola where he remained after capturing the town on November 7. 37  Whether it was Hudson’s news of an impending attack on New Orleans that caused Jackson to act, or the barrage of letters he received from Secretary of War, James Monroe, begging him to go immediately to the defense of the city, Jackson moved quickly, arriving in the French Quarter on December 1.

Battle of New Orleans (Library of Congress)

Cochrane too, rushed to action. His only chance was to strike New Orleans swiftly before the Americans could assemble a defense of any size. He began the campaign with a force of roughly 4,000 regulars and West India regiments and 1,000 marines, nine line of battle ships plus dozens of frigates, brigs, and transports 38  — but with no flat-bottomed boats for use as landing craft, no mobile artillery or artillery transports, insufficient provisions, and without the senior army commander for the campaign. 39  Major General Sir Edward Pakenham would not arrive in Louisiana until December 25. 

It is difficult to overstate the exertions required to transport a force of 5,000 men, naval guns, ammunition, powder, and supplies across seventy miles of shallow lakes and bayous in ships’ boats and small tenders powered only by oars. The weather offered little help as one of the coldest, wettest winters on record blanketed the Louisiana coast in sleet and ice. The die, however, was cast and Cochrane would exert every energy to achieve his goals of seizing New Orleans, taking retribution on the Americans, and redeeming his professional reputation after Baltimore. 

December saw other battles afoot in Vienna, and much infighting among the delegates over issues ranging from the sovereignty of states to minor commercial agreements. The ongoing failure of talks in Ghent became a source of embarrassment for Britain in the European discussions. It was difficult for Castlereagh to assert the merits of liberty and moderation, and the value of British arbitration in Continental affairs when its own “colonial” matters were in such disarray. The neutrality of European states in the Anglo-American war meant that most harbored a natural sympathy for U.S. claims to neutral trading rights. Some, like Russia, were prepared to use neutrality as a weapon against British attempts to block alliances that advantaged Tsar Alexander’s interests. 40  Unpopular involvement in foreign policy-making fed domestic political unrest, and a deepening hatred for the American war among Britons. Although Liverpool acknowledged that continuing the war for another year would certainly yield a better outcome for Britain, the weight of domestic and Continental factors necessitated an immediate settlement at Ghent, which was signed on December 24. The war, however, would not be over until both parties ratified the treaty. 41  The news was received well at Vienna by Britain’s allies in negotiations, particularly France and Austria, but less so by Russia who saw the advantages to be gleaned from an ongoing Anglo-American war. 42  Circling over all the negotiations, however, were growing concerns about the insecurity of Elba as a prison, the consequences of Napoleon’s escape, and the necessity of a more distant exile to St. Helena. This news, along with reports from France of Louis XVIII’s ineptitude and unpopularity, spurred Bonaparte to action. It is debatable whether he had ever intended to remain as the “King of Elba”, but the threat of being sent to the ends of the earth, and the certainty of a warm welcome in France made his return essential. 43  

The Death of Pakenham at the Battle of New Orleans by F. O. C. Darley (Creative Commons)

The battle on the Plain of Chalmette, six miles south of New Orleans, on January 8, 1815 was an unmitigated disaster for the British Army. Pakenham was killed in the opening barrage of grape and cannister along with many of his senior officers. Yet, on the West Bank of the Mississippi a force of 600 soldiers, sailors, and marines under the command of Colonel William Thornton, a veteran of Ross’ campaigns in the Chesapeake, eliminated every obstacle in their path. From atop the levee just across the river from the city, they realized the objective. Half a dozen guns on the Algiers embankment, where none of Jackson’s forces remained, reduced the French Quarter to rubble, and at this moment the British had their victory. The last army commander left standing on the East Bank at Chalmette was Major General Lambert who commanded more than 2000 men in reserve and the necessary guns. Lambert though, was frozen with shock by the carnage before him. Even the news from Thornton could not break his belief in total defeat. He ordered Thornton’s men to fall back across the river and sent a messenger under a flag of truce to Jackson, handing triumph to his enemy.

Cochrane had little to say, even privately, on his disappointment at New Orleans. His official dispatches lamented the fallen and praised the worthy, entrusting their Lordships with a duty to reward the deserving with promotion. On December 30, a week before the battle took place, the Prince Regent had signed the treaty and Croker wrote to Cochrane recalling him to England, contingent upon an American ratification. 44  The recall did not reach Cochrane until mid-February 1815, by which time the fleet had returned to Mobile Bay and captured Fort Bowyer in a half-hearted bid to take Mobile in preparation for an attack on Georgia’s southern flank. Cochrane determined that such a demonstration, combined with Cockburn’s force on the Atlantic coast of Georgia, would be sufficient to keep the Americans from turning their attentions back to Canada. 45  This was in accordance with strict orders from Bathurst that hostilities must continue, even if rumors of peace circulated, until official word arrived that ratification was complete. Madison’s was the last signature added to the document on February 17, by which time Cochrane was in route to Halifax, via Havana and Bermuda, in preparation for his journey home. As Codrington noted, the defeat at New Orleans made “a very sad story to relate in return for all our laborious exertions.” As for the outcome of the treaty he lamented, “I cannot help viewing the terms of this peace as discreditable to the country, and I feel it the more since our failure at New Orleans.” 46  Within a week, the disasters of North America would be overshadowed by events in Europe.

Cochrane’s defeat at New Orleans ended his career at sea. The magnitude of the shame demanded that it be shouldered by someone in high authority: Pakenham was dead and better yet, the brother-in-law of Wellington, whose star rose even higher in the summer of 1815. Absolution by association rendered his friends unassailable in both public and professional spheres. Cochrane, up to this point, had a solid professional resume, but he could be difficult, whiny, and insecure to the point of paranoia about enemies real and imagined. His family too, did him no credit. While one brother had been indicted for stock exchange fraud, his famous nephew, Captain Thomas Cochrane, was implicated in the same scheme and forced to flee to South America where he continued his exploits with the Chilean and Brazilian navies. Alexander himself had fallen foul of the abolitionist William Wilberforce who remained a powerful figure in government and kept a close eye on Cochrane after his shady dealings with African recaptives on Tortola in 1808. 47  In short, Cochrane was an obvious and easy target to shoulder the blame for the unsatisfying end to the American war. He was the architect and, until Pakenham’s arrival, the overall commander of the complicated and physically grueling campaign for New Orleans. Even so, there should have been plenty of blame to go around. 

Failure at New Orleans was the product of many factors, only some of which had to do with Cochrane. First, Bathurst, Wellington, and Melville constantly altered the nature and size the Louisiana campaign, which began as a full-scale military operation. Weeks later it was slashed to an outsized raid before finally being resurrected as a half-baked invasion force, minus elements essential to its success. These fluctuations in grand strategy were partly dictated by speculation as to Napoleon’s willingness to cooperate in his own exile, partly in answer to criticism from the Whig opposition at home, and partly in accordance with pressure from European negotiators in Vienna. Among Britons, public support for the government foundered as demands grew for tax reform, an end to British involvement in Continental policy, and cessation of the war against an enemy whom many now embraced as their “American cousins”. 

Napoleon at Fontainebleau (

The second factor affecting New Orleans was the way in which British war aims in North America seesawed, between the conquest of territory for punitive purposes and the desire for a quick, conciliatory end to the war. Both were, in many ways, driven by the push and pull of Continental politics after Fontainebleau and domestic unrest. Territorial conquest in the north sought a more defendable border for Canada but Prevost’s military failures necessarily shifted the focus south. Now all hopes for a better solution in Canada rested on the acquisition of New Orleans, a prospect that raised so many possibilities that British goals were muddied to the point of obscurity. The capture of New Orleans would have provided a powerful bargaining chip in negotiations with the Americans, and likely altered the terms of the signed treaty. Possession of Louisiana was a hammer to hold over the heads of the U.S. Congress, to nail home claims of the illegality of the Louisiana Purchase and in doing so, threaten American expansion and stymie challenges to Anglo commercial dominance in the Western hemisphere. In this vein, New Orleans might have been ma for a new northern border or neutral zone. 48  It might also have been ceded in exchange for special trading and commercial privileges that would bear fruit for decades to come and satisfy the demands of British mercantilists in the West Indies. 

Simultaneously, such claims would add weight to British demands in Vienna. As the apparent defender of Spanish interests, Britain could, in return, demand Spain’s acquiescence on anti-slave trading policies which Liverpool, under pressure from Wilberforce, emphasized as a critical part of negotiations. 49  All possibilities, however, guttered in the aftermath of the January 8 battle.

Just as the campaign for New Orleans formed in the confluence of three simultaneous events in April 1814, it ended in a series of three related actions in the last two weeks of February 1815. First, Cochrane left the Gulf Coast in defeat and disgrace despite having no part in the events that handed a British victory over to Jackson. Second, Madison ratified the peace, leaving his nation bankrupt but whole. Threats of Federalist secession faded with the end of the war as blue-water commerce resumed. Jackson’s success against the might of Great Britain provided the foundation for claims of an American victory in the war itself which ignored years of crushing defeat and focused on the frigates, the fort, and New Orleans to frame a new, nationalist narrative. Success at New Orleans also secured a status quo antebellum peace, guaranteeing the security of Louisiana as U.S. territory and paving the way for rapid expansion. The removal of Native Americans was an immediate consequence of the peace as Britain’s ability to support her allies or press for an independent Indian territory sank in the mud of the Chalmette battlefield. Finally, on February 26, Napoleon made his break from Elba, triggering a new war for Britain and her Continental allies. In contrast to the factionalism and infighting at Vienna, Bonaparte’s Hundred Days galvanized a new coalition which came together in a true Concert of Europe to defeat a common foe. 

The sorrows of Boney, or meditations in the island of Elba!!! (LOC Image #PC 1 – 12223)

The entanglement of international politics and diplomacy that played out on the world stage in the months between Napoleon’s first abdication and his ill-fated return to power provided both the motivation and the means by which naval and military events unfolded in North America. Connectivity between world powers and its effect on both foreign policy and domestic affairs in Britain directly influenced wartime decision making which, in the case of New Orleans, yielded decisive results. 

Ironically, the Anglo-American war appeared anything but decisive in its outcome, with both sides presenting implausible arguments for victory. Britain claimed success in what it had fought as an economic war, although the distraction provided by Napoleon’s return provided cover for the unfulfilled political and military ambitions that had taken shape in the last year of the conflict. America claimed victory for repelling an invader, despite having lost most of the battles and failing to achieve any of its war aims. Merchant shipping was devastated and the massive debt incurred by Madison’s wartime policies helped destabilized the economy for the next two decades. 50  

The end of the War of 1812 ultimately enabled Britain to reassert its dominance in Continental affairs from a military, diplomatic, and economic standpoint. The final defeat of Napoleon allowed Britain to maintain its leading role in European reconstruction and laid the foundations of the Pax Britannica. In the process, the links between Britain, France, and the United States were reestablished, this time creating a path to peace that endured through the nineteenth century and beyond. 

(Return to December 2021 Table of Contents) 


  1. The Embargo Act, 1807; Non-Importation Acts, 1806 and 1811; Non-Intercourse Act, 1809; 2nd Embargo Act, 1813. The last, along with the 1811 Non-Importation Act, was repealed on April 14, 1814.
  2. Brian Arthur, How Britain Won the War of 1812: The Royal Navy’s Blockades of the United States, 1812-1815 (Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 2011), 165.
  3. William Hull’s proclamation upon invading Canada in 1812 quoted in Alan Taylor, The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels and Indian Allies (New York: Vintage, 2011), 414.
  4. Arthur, How Britain Won, 97, 101-106.
  5. Cochrane to Warren, correspondence covering Feb. and Mar. 1814, National Library of Scotland (NLS) 2326, ff. 11-55.
  6. For most of the war, the North America Station under Admiral Warren included the eastern seaboard of Canada and the United States, Bermuda, Bahama, Jamaica and the Leeward Islands stations. Such a massive area of authority was deemed unwieldy. When Cochrane took over in 1814, the North America Station was reduced to the American coast, Bermuda and Bahama, essentially everything north of the Tropic of Cancer.
  7. Castlereagh would sign the subsequent Treaty of Chaumont, March 1, 1814. John Bew, Castlereagh: A Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 345.
  8. Katharine MacDonogh, “A Sympathetic Ear: Napoleon, Elba, and the British,” History Today, 44, no. 2 (Feb. 1994): 29-35. MacDonogh notes that there were at least sixty Whig visitors, of various social ranks, who gained audiences with Napoleon on Elba. Among them Lord Ebrington; later Earl Fortescue, the Viceroy to Ireland, was the most illustrious. John G. Alger, Napoleon’s British Visitors and Captives, 1801-1815 (London: A. Constable & Co., 1904), 297.
  9. Troy Bickham, The Weight of Vengeance: The United States, the British Empire, and the War of 1812 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 206-07, 220-28.
  10. Kevin McCranie, Utmost Gallantry: The U.S. and Royal Navies at Sea in the War of 1812 (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2011), 254.
  11. By Dec. 1814 the number of vessels on station was between 80 (Arthur, How Britain Won, 225-26) and 106 (McCranie, Utmost Gallantry, 250-51).
  12. Donald Graves, “The Redcoats are Coming! British Troop Movements to North America in 1814,” Journal of the War of 1812, 6, no. 3 (2001): 12-18.
  13. Cochrane to Melville (draft) April 1812, NLS, 2574, ff. 3-6.
  14. Bathurst to Ross, Sept. 6 1814, The National Archives (TNA), ADM 1/4360, ff. 58-65.
  15. Robin Reilly, The British at the Gates: The New Orleans Campaign in the War of 1812 (New York: Putnam, 1974), 164.
  16. Bathurst to Ross, Sept. 6, 1814, ADM 1/4360, ff. 58-65. Bathurst’s suggestion came with no promises that Britain could deliver on either of these options.
  17. Cochrane to Croker, June 20, 1814, ADM 1/506, ff. 390-93.
  18. Cochrane to Melville, September 3, 1814, NLS 2345, ff. 11-12,
  19. Cochrane to Bathurst, July 3, 1814, TNA, WO 1/141, f. 3.
  20. Cochrane to Croker, June 20, 1814, ADM 1/506, ff. 775-76.
  21. Melville to Dommett, July 23, 1814, WO 1/142, f. 519.
  22. Norman Mackenzie, The Escape from Elba: The Fall and Flight of Napoleon, 1814-1815 (Barnsley, UK: Pen & Sword, 1982), 161-62.
  23. Croker to Cochrane, Aug. 10, 1814, WO 1/141, ff. 7-9. Not all these reinforcements would arrive for the start of the New Orleans campaign.
  24. Pigot to Cochrane, June 8, 1814, ADM 1/506, f. 738. Pigot’s report included an accounting of Creeks friendly to the English totaling 3255 men.
  25. The Leeds Mercury, October 1, 1814 quoted in Bickham, Vengeance, 221.
  26. Wellington to Castlereagh, October 4, 1814, Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, Supplementary Dispatches, Correspondence and Memoranda (WSD), 9 (London: 1858-1872), 314-15.
  27. Cochrane to Melville, September 3, 1814, NLS 2345, ff. 11-12.
  28. Liverpool to Bathurst, September 11, 1814, quoted in WSD 9, 240.
  29. Bickham, Vengeance, 252.
  30. Edinburgh Star, June 7, 1814 in Bickham, Vengeance, 253.
  31. Bickham, Vengeance, 236.
  32. Bickham, Vengeance, 258-59. Goulburn was the voice of conscience when it came to providing for Native American allies at Ghent. He was disgusted with Liverpool’s willingness to cave to the Americans. For territorial gain as a means of securing a better border for Canada see, Liverpool to Canning, December 28, 1814, in WSD 9, 513-15.
  33. Cochrane to Prevost, October 5, 1814, ADM 1/508, ff. 131-135.
  34. Cochrane to Melville, September 3, 1814, NLS 2345, ff. 11-12.
  35. Codrington to his wife, January 18, 1815, in Lady Bourchier, ed., Memoir of the Life of Admiral Sir Edward Codrington, 1 (London: Longmars, Green & Co. 1873), 338.
  36. Codrington to his wife, January 18, 1815, in Bourchier, Memoir, 338. Codrington only wrote about the artillery problem after the fact and noted in the same letter that both the artillery and its transportation arrived in the Gulf Coast on January 18, ten days after the Battle of New Orleans. The only guns used at New Orleans were naval guns on truck carriages which “cost us so much toil” and required “Herculean labor” to transport and move through the muddy swamps.
  37. Cochrane to Melville, December 7, 1814, ADM 1/508, ff. 395-97.
  38. National Maritime Museum (NMM), Greenwich, UK, MAL/104, ff. 23-25, 50-51.
  39. All the guns used at Chalmette were naval guns on truck carriages, ill-suited to moving across swampy ground. Most would be lost during the campaign. Codrington to his wife, January 18, 1815 in Bourchier, Memoir, 338.
  40. William Anthony Hay, Lord Liverpool: A Political Life (Woodbridge, UK: Boydell, 2018), 161-63.
  41. This was Liverpool’s stipulation, Liverpool to Castlereagh, December 23, 1814, in WSD 9, 495.
  42. Hay, Liverpool, 163.
  43. “But if France had been well governed, if the French had been content, my influence would have been at an end, I was history, and no one in Vienna would have dreamed of moving me on.” Napoleon quoted by Le Comte de Las Cases, in Peter Hicks, “Napoleon On Elba – An Exile Of Consent,” Napoleonica, La Revue, 1, No. 19 (2014): 53-67.
  44. Croker to Cochrane, December 30, 1814, TNA, ADM 2/1381, ff. 92-95.
  45. Cochrane to Lambert, February 17, 1815, ADM 1/508, ff. 561-63.
  46. Codrington to his wife, February 13, 1815 in Bourchier, Memoir, 340.
  47. S.A. Cavell, “Abolition, the West India Colonies and the Troubling Case of Vice-Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, 1807-1823,” The Mariner’s Mirror, 107, 1 (Feb. 2021): 23-39.
  48. Bickham, Vengeance, 244.
  49. Hay, Liverpool, 158.
  50. Arthur, How Britain Won, 205-08.

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View from the Quarterdeck: December 2021

chadbournWith the coming of 2022, the International Journal of Naval History begins its third decade of publication. Dr. Gary Weir, the Founding Editor Emeritus, recognized the importance of digital scholarship in the historical profession ahead of many contemporaries. The IJNH remains as he originally conceived it: a digital journal intended to be a naval history forum designed to stimulate naval historical research and foster communication among historians. To that end, contributions to this issue come from scholars in the United States, Denmark, and the United Kingdom.

A significant announcement of interest is that I am pleased to welcome two distinguished Naval Historians to the IJNH Editorial Board. Dr. Samantha A. Cavell comes to us from the University of Southeastern Louisiana, where she is Assistant Professor in Military History after completing her doctorate at the University of Exeter Center for Naval and Maritime Studies. She offers a fascinating insight into the interweaving of events in Europe and America as a context for understanding the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812. She is currently working on a book project about the Royal Navy’s role in the final year of the War of 1812. 

Rear Admiral James Goldrick is a sailor-scholar who has served worldwide in the Royal Australian Navy. He has commanded afloat at all levels and twice at the Australian Defence Force College and the Australian Defence College. Admiral Goldrich has published widely in many academic and professional journals and contributed chapters to more than 40 books. His Before Jutland: The Naval War in Northern European Water, August 1914-February 1915, won the Anderson Medal of the Navy Records Society for 2015. More extensive bios on both Admiral Goldrich and Professor Cavell appear elsewhere in this issue of the journal.

In 1959 Billboard ranked Johnny Horton’s viral rendition of the Jimmy Driftwood tune, “The Battle of New Orleans,” as the year’s top song. However, reading Professor Samantha Cavell’s authoritative account, one quickly discerns this battle was about much more than just a catchy tune highly popular with American teenagers and country music fans. In her article on the Battle of New Orleans, Professor Cavell examines the English campaign to take the city during the War of 1812, mainly from the British perspective. With a concise, precise analysis, she effectively shows how events in Europe and America came together and how severe the threat of the English invasion was to the new American nation. The naval implications become clear. She also offers an interpretation of the actual broad intent of the raid on the southern coast, which she describes ultimately as being little more than a “half-baked invasion force” doomed to failure. Readers will no doubt enjoy the freshness of the author’s writing and her interpretation of the meaning of the Battle of Orleans for the conclusion of the War of 1812.

In “Admiral Zumwalt and changing OPNAV,” former U.S. Naval War College Professor Tom Hone describes succinctly in refreshingly crisp language the dramatic changes Admiral Elmo Zumwalt brought to the Navy during his time as Chief of Naval Operations from 1970 to 1974. These reforms would shake the Navy to its very core. During those years, anyone who served in the Navy remembers the famous Z-Grams, popular among sailors in the fleet. But not everyone is quite so widely aware of the extent to which reforms within the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV) and at the Naval War College guided by legendary Admiral Stansfield Turner proved equally profound in some cases, as instruments of long-lasting change. Hone is a master at telling this story.

Dr. Chuck Steele, a Naval Historian at the U.S. Air Force Academy, in “Admiral David Beatty: The Royal Navy Incarnate,” addresses the connections between the admiral and ethos in the Royal Navy during World War I. The issue considered is the degree to which Beatty conflated his fortunes with those of the organization he served and how this blurring of identities played an outsized role in coloring expectations for the Royal Navy in war and peace. Steele convincingly demonstrates that Beatty’s career in the Royal Navy is an instructive warning to those in naval service who would sacrifice competence in core proficiencies for the sake of a peculiar sense of fighting spirit. Viktor Stoll of the University of Cambridge writes about British imperialism in China in the late 19th century. Stoll explains the vagaries of British strategy in the period. His article offers a fascinating picture of policy complexity during European powers’ struggle for concessions in China in 1898.

Eminent Danish Historian Hans Christian Bjerg effectively provides context to the purchase of the Virgin Islands by the United States from Denmark in 1917. Many have forgotten that American Secretary of State W. H. Seward initiated an attempt to purchase the islands in 1865 as part of the United States’ examination of possible strategic expansion in the Caribbean following the American Civil War. The sale languished at the time, but concerns over the implications of German navalism for the Western Hemisphere by the early 20th century reawakened interest in the acquisition. Using Danish sources with which many Americans would be unfamiliar, Bjerg shows how events in Europe more so than in America influenced the purchase. 

As part of our ongoing series “Inside the Archives,” Renae Rapp, Archivist at the SUNY Maritime College in New York, shares her knowledge of the richness of the collections at her institution. We also learn something about its history too. Naval historians may be surprised at the vital role played by RADM Stephen B. Luce, often described as the father of the Naval War College. In contrast, maritime historians can find a treasure of holdings about the merchant marine. And the excellent news is that many of these items are now available online. Rapp provides hyperlinks for direct access to many things in the SUNY Maritime College Archives. As a digital journal, where possible, we directly offer hyperlinks so interested scholars can access any items they might be interested in viewing. This approach is just one additional way to share our scholarship and knowledge in this virtual age. We encourage our contributors to follow this practice in future submissions where possible.

In closing, I especially want to thank the contributors who have shared their findings with us in this issue of IJNH or written book reviews. That is, after all, what historians and those interested in naval and maritime matters do. I invite all of you to contribute to that process. Our next issue is due out in the spring. And once again, Bravo Zulu to our splendid sponsors at the Naval Historical Foundation, especially RADM Sonny Masso and Dr. Dave Winkler.

Charles C. Chadbourn, III, PhD, CAPT, USN, Ret.
Editor-in-Chief, International Journal of Naval History
Professor of Strategy & Policy, U.S. Naval War College

(Return to December 2021 Table of Contents) 

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Volume 16, No. 2: About the Authors

Samantha A. Cavell Napoleon and New Orleans: The Emperor’s First Surrender and its Impact on Britain in the Last Major Battle of the War of 1812

Dr. Sam Cavell is Assistant Professor in Military History at Southeastern Louisiana University. She received her PhD in Naval and Maritime History from the University of Exeter and writes extensively on the Royal Navy of the early nineteenth century. Sam is also the director of an online, oral history archive, “The Veterans of Recent Wars Project.” This regional effort to record and transcribe the stories of veterans, primarily from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, gives voice to those who served and provides a platform for both academic research and community outreach.

Thomas C. Hone Admiral Elmo R. Zumwalt, Jr. and Changing OPNAV

Dr. Hone (PhD, University of Wisconsin-Madison) is a former Principal Deputy Director of OSD (PA&E) and a former Assistant Director of the Office of Force Transformation in OSD. He is a co-author of the Navy’s centennial history of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, which is posted on the website of the Navy History and Heritage Command. He has also served on the faculty of the Naval War College.

Viktor M. Stoll The ‘Public Mind’ of British Imperialism: The Seizure of Weihaiwei and the Populist Revolt against Official Far Eastern Policy in 1898

Viktor Stoll is a PhD candidate in History at the University of Cambridge where he examines the nexus of Great Power imperial competition, the professionalization of the social sciences, and comparative colonial administration. He previously served in a variety of planner and strategist positions with the US Army. He received his MA in Modern History from King’s College London and his BA from the University of Missouri.

Hans Christian Bjerg The Purchase of the Virgin Islands in 1917: Mahan and the American Naval Strategy in the Caribbean Sea

Hans Christian Bjerg is a well-known Danish Archivist and Naval Historian. He is a former Chief Archivist at the Danish National Archives with particular interest in Danish naval and maritime history. In addition to teaching at the University of Copenhagen, he has also served as Danish Navy Historical Consultant.  Hans Christian is a charter member of the Editorial Board of the International Journal of Naval History.


Chuck Steele Admiral David Beatty: The Royal Navy Incarnate

Dr. Chuck Steele is Associate Professor of History at the U. S. Air Force Academy serving as course chair for offerings in naval history, military thought, technology and warfare, the core and scholar’s courses in modern military history, and history of the First World War. He is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley (BA, History 1987), King’s College, the University of London (MA, War Studies 1990), and West Virginia University (PhD, History 2000). Chuck was the first Defense Editor of Rotor and Ring Magazine. He taught as Assistant Professor of History at M. United States Military Academy (2002-2006) and is Book Review Editor for the International Journal of Naval History. He has written on naval affairs for Naval History, the Journal of the Australian Naval Institute, and the UK’s Naval Review. Chuck is a PADI certified Divemaster with elementary training in Nautical Archeology from Britain’s Nautical Archaeology Society.

Renae Rapp Inside the Archives: The Merchant Marines in Maritime History

Renae Rapp is the Archivist and Scholarly Communications Librarian at SUNY Maritime College in Throggs Neck, New York. She holds a Master of Information Science in 2017 and a Master of Arts in Public History in 2019 from University at Albany, SUNY. Renae began working in archives in 2015 and has been an active member in regional and national archives associations.

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BOOK REVIEW – Painting War: George Plante’s Combat Art in World War II

Williams, Kathleen Broome, Painting War: George Plante’s Combat Art in World War II. Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2019. 312 pp.

Review by Lt Col Nicolas Smith
Instructor, Department of History, USAF Academy 

“[George] Plante…was looking at his watch when the torpedo hit…the force of the explosion threw him across the cabin…although very shaken he was not injured.  He managed to send out SOS calls before grabbing a photograph of his wife and trying to leave.”

When artist George Plante volunteered for service in the British Merchant Navy during World War II as a radio operator, he was aware of the danger to which he was exposing himself. Plante, a trained artist from the Edinburgh College of Art and the Contempora School of Applied Arts in Berlin, was working at an advertising agency in London when the war broke out. Eager to do his part, Plante, who was Scottish, sought to join the war effort. However, upon attempting to volunteer for service, he was turned down by not only the Royal Air Force, but also the Army and the Royal Navy. One of the naval recruiters recommended that Plante look into being a radio operator aboard merchant ships in the Atlantic, as there was now a desperate need for them.

This was how Plante found himself aboard the merchant vessel Southern Princess in March 1943 when she was torpedoed by a German U-boat, whilst en route to England. Plante and his crewmates were forced to abandon ship in the icy waters of the North Atlantic in the middle of the night. While on shore leave after being rescued from the wreckage of the Southern Princess, Plante was recruited by Ian Fleming to become a war propagandist. He then spent the latter part of the war in Egypt and Italy creating leaflets and newsletters to be air dropped around the Mediterranean to aid in the Allied propaganda effort.

In Painting War: George Plante’s Combat Art in World War II, historian Kathleen Broome Williams, who is also Plante’s stepdaughter, takes the reader through Plante’s early military career as well as his work for the Political Warfare Executive. Cognizant of her shortcomings as an art critic, Williams instead focuses on her skills as a historian to tell Plante’s story, keeping any critique of his artwork to relatively aesthetic descriptions. She describes some of his more rushed sketches as “cartoonish” and the paintings he produced depicting the Battle of the Atlantic as “bold [and] somber,” leaning her narrative more toward art appreciation rather than analysis.

As a writer, Williams is able to seamlessly intertwine Plante’s story with the overarching narrative of World War II in such a way that his contributions to the war effort are clear. While drawing for a propaganda campaign in Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia, “Plante’s black and white sketches…showed a vast armada of U.S. and British bombers flying overhead. The symbolism was not subtle and…was used to bolster the morale of all who resisted the Nazis.” Even into the post-war period, his work supported the Allies. Plante penned booklets depicting German signs with Norwegian translations, to help Norwegian citizens “accurately answer questions about German war crimes they had witnessed.” The information would prove vital when the Allied Nations went on to bring war criminals to trial.

Throughout the book, Williams expertly draws from interviews, art and museum exhibitions, personal correspondences, and an abundance of secondary sources (including books, periodicals and a dissertation), to tell Plante’s story. William’s book is laid out across ten chapters, including a helpful list of abbreviations, endnotes broken up by chapter, an index, bibliography, eight glossy pages of well-reproduced art and photos from Plante’s life and career, as well as a forward by British Naval Historian W.J.R. Gardener.

While Painting War adds to the already dense literature of life and war in the 1940s, George Plante’s story is certainly one worth telling. True, some readers may find it lacking in serious artistic and stylistic criticism of Plante’s work, but this should not deter a student of art history. With this book, Williams has masterfully crafted a work that will not only appeal to a very specific type of naval or military historian, but also to a more general audience looking for an exciting memoire covering a topic that has been relatively overlooked thus far.

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BOOK REVIEW – Engines of Rebellion: Confederate Ironclads and Steam Engineering in the American Civil War

Bisbee, Saxon T., Engines of Rebellion: Confederate Ironclads and Steam Engineering in the American Civil War. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 2018. 264 pp.

Review by Dr Howard J. Fuller, PhD
University of Wolverhampton (UK)

It’s good news to see that scholarship like Saxon T. Bisbee’s Engines of Rebellion continues on the Confederate Navy’s ironclad program. Contemporary naval histories of the American Civil War like Admiral David Dixon Porter’s (1886) rather downplayed the South’s effort to maximise the latest technological advances in the naval state-of-the-art—in an asymmetric war effort against the North’s overwhelming maritime, industrial and financial resources. But as later research by William N. Still, Jr. in the late 1960s and early 1970s revealed, for as limited as the Confederate ironclad program proved to be, with most of its metal monsters left incomplete for lack of labor and iron, and then destroyed on the stocks to prevent capture, twenty-three casemated ironclad-rams were completed—and ‘Ram Fever’ in the North gave these naval units a strategic value as floating batteries or a ‘fleet in being’ far beyond their actual powers as conventional warships.

For as starved for proper (centralised) government support as the Confederate Navy was, which might have officially diverted manpower for coal to get the Tredegar Ironworks in Virginia working at full capacity for once, and railroads carefully husbanded rather than stripped for armor-plating given the lack of 2-inch plates from Southern rolling mills, one wonders how the Civil War might have stretched longer had the South fashioned no ironclads at all? Would Charleston have held out if the CSS Chicora and Palmetto State were not lurking in the inner harbor, protecting the line of obstructions between Forts Sumter and Moultrie from any demolition attempts by the Union blockading squadron? Would Farragut have stormed into Mobile Bay sooner if not for the CSS Tennessee, requiring not just one but four Union monitors to be gathered as a sufficient ‘margin of safety’ before the attempt was finally made in August 1864? Despite the repulse of the powerful James River Squadron of ironclads Virginia II, Fredericksburg and Richmond at Trent’s Reach (23 January 1865), notably by the 15-inch guns of the double-turreted monitor USS Onondaga, all three vessels were able to retreat in good order back up to the Confederate capital. Here, their new commander, Rear Admiral Raphael Semmes, languished for the next six weeks—until ordered to scuttle his ships with the evacuation of Richmond. “The movements of the ships being confined to the head-waters of a narrow river,” he recounted in his Memoirs, “they were but little better than prison-ships.” Nevertheless, Semmes believed that even as floating batteries his damaged ironclads, “moored across the stream, in the only available channel, with obstructions below me, which would hold [any ‘fleet of the enemy’] under my fire, and that of the naval batteries on shore by which I was flanked,” still insured the defence of Richmond by water.

As Bisbee’s new study charts, ironclad by ironclad, the most technically demanding aspect of their construction was their steam machinery. And whereas by the beginning of the conflict in 1861 there was no factory in the South which could produce a reliable marine engine, the situation had radically improved by the spring of 1865. Readers might be surprised to learn that the Confederacy produced its own horizontal direct-acting steam plant—small and light enough for shallow-draft vessels with limited hull space. Not every rebel ram was powered from the converted guts of a tugboat. Even then, the ability to ram was highly over-rated—the original CSS Virginia on the first day of the Battle of Hampton Roads was only able to strike a mortal blow against the USS Cumberland because the hapless Union sailing frigate was immobile. Psychologically, the ability of Confederate ironclads (with even their sloping 4-inch thick iron shielding) to shrug off anything the Union Navy could fire at them short of a monitor-mounted 15-inch gun was more the point. So was the fact that all of the Confederate Navy’s ironclads—unlike those of the U.S., Britain, France or Russia—were mastless and with few exceptions, screw-propelled. Miserable to serve on, unseaworthy, and short-lived with their green wood hulls, they were still fairly well-armed and tough nuts to crack. The saga of ‘makeshift’ men-of-war like the CSS Arkansas in 1862 and the CSS Albemarle in 1864 was proof of that.

This was therefore the essence of the “Ironclad Revolution” underway in America and Europe by the 1860s, forcing modern navies into a “guns vs. armor” race which carried over well into the twentieth century. Large standing navies, dominated by their wooden hulls and sails, were suddenly liabilities in combat. Had the (shallow-draft, mastless, screw-propelled, and heavily-armored) USS Monitor not shown up on the second day of the Battle of Hampton Roads, the Virginia would have carried on violently stripping away every wooden vessel from the Union blockade she could reach. As Bisbee rightly concludes, the Confederate Navy’s ironclad program “allowed for the creation of what may tentatively be labelled the first all-modern navy.”

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BOOK REVIEW – To My Dearest Wife, Lide: Letters from George Gideon Jr. during Commodore Perry’s Expedition to Japan, 1853-1855

M. Patrick Sauer and David A. Ranzan, eds., To My Dearest Wife, Lide: Letters from George Gideon Jr. during Commodore Perry’s Expedition to Japan, 1853-1855. Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press, 2019. 255 pp.

Review by John M. Jennings
Professor, United States Air Force Academy

In 1852, the US Navy’s East India Squadron, under the command of Commodore Matthew C. Perry, was dispatched on a voyage to Asia that would last for three eventful years. The voyage of Perry’s squadron of steam-driven warships was the first significant manifestation of US military power in the Pacific, to which the US had gained access four years earlier with acquisition of California. Moreover, the main task of Perry’s mission, namely to sail to Japan in order to open trade and diplomatic relations, resulted in the end of nearly two hundred years of isolation from most of the Western world and played a major role in galvanizing the Japanese drive for rapid modernizing reforms, which culminated in the emergence of the island empire as a major power in the Pacific in its own right by the turn of the twentieth century. Consequently, Perry’s watershed voyage has been the subject of numerous scholarly works and accounts by participants, including Perry himself, William Heine, Dr. James Morrow, Edward Yorke McCauley, and William Speiden, Jr. A recent addition to the latter category is To My Dearest Wife, Lide: Letters from George Gideon Jr. during Commodore Perry’s Expedition to Japan, 1853-1855, edited by M. Patrick Sauer, a descendant by marriage of Gideon, and David A. Ranzan, who also co-edited Speiden’s papers.

Pennsylvania-born George Gideon (1827-1863) joined the US Navy in 1848 after a brief career with a private company and was commissioned as a third assistant engineer. In 1852, Gideon, who had been promoted to second assistant engineer, was posted to the steam warship Powhatan. The Powhatan was then dispatched in February 1853 to join Perry’s flotilla, which would return to Japan in 1854 for an answer from the Japanese authorities regarding the US demand for trade and diplomatic relations delivered by Perry in the summer of 1853. Consequently, the Powhatan, with Gideon aboard, was present when Perry signed the historic Treaty of Kanagawa with the Japanese on 31 March 1854. After spending almost two more years sailing between China and Japan, the Powhatan was recalled to the US, and in February 1856, almost three years to the day since he set off, Gideon was detached from the Powhatan and granted three months’ leave, thus ending his voyage. The present volume consists of letters that the then recently-married Gideon wrote to his wife Eliza (Lide) during the long voyage.   

The historical nature of the Powhatan’s cruise seems to have left Gideon singularly unimpressed. His letters home instead are full of increasingly bitter descriptions of the boredom and isolation of the long voyage, manifested by numerous instances of indiscipline on the part of the officers and crew, petty squabbles among the shipmates that frequently escalated into brawls, frequent bouts of minor but nagging illnesses, rampant drunkenness and sexual excesses during shore leaves (the latter leading to a variety of venereal diseases), and mounting frustration as the squadron’s deployment in Asia was extended seemingly indefinitely. Anxious to finish the cruise and return home as quickly as possible, Gideon was dismissive of Perry’s mission to Japan, referring to it and the resulting treaty as “humbug.” Nor was Gideon impressed by Perry himself, of whom he writes: “He is a mighty big humbug and we are all sick of him.” (p. 88) Indeed, as the Powhatan’s cruise extended into 1855, Gideon had become so disgusted by the whole experience that he contemplated resigning his commission and returning home via passage to California.

The present volume of Gideon’s letters is a handsome production from the University of Alabama Press as part of its Maritime Currents: History and Archaeology series. The editors have effectively transcribed the letters, with a minimum of revisions in order to preserve their original flavor. The notes are impressively-researched, and frequently quite helpful, especially in identifying shipboard personnel mentioned by Gideon. In addition, there are a number of illustrations, including examples of Gideon’s closely-written original letters. The volume, however, would have benefited from the inclusion of a map depicting the voyage of the Powhatan. 

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