BOOK REVIEW – American Naval History, 1607-1865: Overcoming the Colonial Legacy

Jonathan R. Dull, American Naval History, 1607-1865: Overcoming the Colonial Legacy. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2012. 194 pp.

Review by Howard J. Fuller, PhD
University of Wolverhampton

This is one of the newest works from historian Johnathan R. Dull, carrying on from The Age of the Ship of the Line: The British and French Navies, 1650-1815 (2011) and The French Navy and the Seven Years’ War (2007), also with University of Nebraska Press.  Now his narrative-analysis focuses squarely on the rise of the U.S. Navy and well into the nineteenth-century, ending with the American Civil War (1861-1865).  This work counts as an important contribution to the literature, and indeed the ‘Notes and Suggested Further Reading’-section here is one of the best in recent years, underscoring just how comprehensive Dull’s scholarship and command of the existing literature is.

The subtitle is the main argument here; that European colonial traditions had to be overwritten.  Once the protective umbrella of British imperial naval power became the enemy during the Revolutionary War, Congress soon found itself locked into a debate over how to free the new nation from overseas threats, both in American waters and abroad wherever merchant vessels sailed—without becoming a maritime tyrant as well.  A republican navy also had to defend the unique interests of the people without taxing them to distraction.

Dull points out in successive chapters that conflicts such as the War of 1812 saw the United States totally mismatched against the premier power at sea, the Royal Navy, mostly because the economic and bureaucratic infrastructure was not yet in place to create and sustain a comparable force afloat.  Britain’s leadership during the Napoleonic Wars was fighting what it considered a life-and-death struggle against a mortal threat right on its doorstep.  Hence the ‘110 ships-of-the-line’ the Royal Navy commanded at its peak strength.  But American citizens did not feel the same fear, and therefore need, and even if they did the British had been building up their power-base for at least one hundred years; from dockyards to officer training to governmental oversight which helped controlled spending but also assured Parliament the money was more or less well spent.  American Naval History believes the war at least helped give the U.S. Navy permanent life, but one thing he ignores is the primacy given to coastal defence fortifications as well.  It was not just about the USS Constitution’s well-publicised victories on the high seas or the Battle of Lake Erie but the ability of Fort McHenry to defend Baltimore in September 1814 from the same fate which befell Washington, D.C. weeks earlier.  As most of the Third System of American continental fortifications stemmed from engineers like Joseph Totten, who turn in stressed the need for closely linked support from an economised navy as well as army, this work might have devoted some discussion of this strategic choice.

The Monroe Doctrine of 1823 likewise receives scant attention, though Dull notes “it was of great importance…in America’s overcoming its colonial legacy” (69).  But scarcely a month after President Monroe declared the firmly-worded doctrine of the United States in relation to foreign powers, he also addressed Congress on a “plan of the peace establishment of the Navy”.  Here the “great object in the event of war is stop the enemy at the coast.”  And for this he stressed “our fortifications must be principally relied on”:

By placing strong works near the mouths of our great inlets in such positions as to command the entrances into them…it will be difficult, if not impossible, for ships to pass them, especially if other precautions, and particularly that of steam batteries, are resorted to in their aid.

…nor can it be doubted that the knowledge that such works existed would form a strong motive with any power not to invade our [neutral] rights, and thereby constitute essentially to prevent war.

Monroe’s eight annual message to Congress, on December 7th, 1824, also concluded that the last war with Great Britain “admonished us to make our maritime frontier impregnable by a well-digested chain of fortifications, and to give protection to our commerce by augmenting our Navy to a certain extent.”

The supreme irony of course, as reflected in Dull’s penultimate and largest chapter, are the events of the Civil War which pitted the American republic’s navy against its own fortifications with varying degrees of success.  So even if the U.S. Navy had its own proud, blue-water battlefleet in place by 1861 it would have counted for very little against the host of coastal defence innovations the South deployed, from ironclad-rams to minefields, let alone assist the Union army with littoral operations.  This needs to be repeated: only America’s lack of ‘proper’ naval power by the mid-nineteenth century enabled it to survive the greatest ordeal it has ever faced.

For one thing, it forced the new, war-time administration of President Abraham Lincoln to consider radical innovations of its own as well as a general mobilisation of national resources (economic, industrial, maritime) to build a steam-powered Brown- as well as Blue-Water naval force.  Chief among these ‘inventions’ was the Union Navy’s reliance upon shallow-draft, iron-hulled monitor-type ironclads.  Dull considers them “only a limited success” but no single ironclad design of the era could offer any more in a conflict of this scope and complexity. The author’s endnote number 26 for the Civil War chapter (p. 172) notes how U.S. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles rejected calls for more broadside-ironclads like the USS New Ironsides, citing Edward Sloan’s 1965 biography of Chief Engineer Benjamin Isherwood.

But in that work Sloan made sure to observe that Isherwood and [Chief Constructor John] Lenthall’s memorandum of March 17, 1862 (i.e., just over a week after the epic duel between the Monitor and the Virginia/‘Merrimac’) was too ambitious—and unrealistic—for its own good.  Isherwood and Lenthall were suspicious and not a little envious of civilian engineer John Ericsson’s stunning success and rising political clout with the Navy Department’s key decision-makers like Welles and especially Assistant Secretary Gustavus Fox.  Rather than build new and improved monitors with an overriding emphasis upon concentrated armour protection and ability to (turret) mount the heaviest guns conceivable for blasting any known armour protection built in the South or in Europe, even if meant sacrificing strategic range, the memo argued for a conventional fleet of ocean-going broadside-ironclads every bit as fast, well-armed, ‘invincible’ and wide-ranging as Britain’s HMS Warrior or the French Gloire; only the U.S. should build even more and thereby secure “the supremacy of the ocean”.

Thus, the chief engineer and constructor wanted not only what wasn’t possible before the Civil War, given the lack of strategic need compared with, say, Britain’s global maritime and colonial interests, while the urgent demands of mortal conflict against the Confederacy hardly justified a bid for pre-eminence for its own sake.  Now was the time for practicality not pride; victory not dominance.  At any rate, “Isherwood and Lenthall, in calling for the fastest, biggest, and most heavily armed and armored ships,” wrote Sloan, “were doubtless asking for too much, since the qualities they specified could never all be combined in a single ship”.  Even the Warrior had forfeited full armour protection for speed—making her that much bigger and therefore also less manoeuvrable—and a white elephant for Britain’s existing imperial dockyards to cope with.  Gloire was smaller and slower, but better shielded with iron plating extending all around the vessel.  But here too broadside armour never surpassed 4.5-inches in thickness and this was easy prey for the 15-inch guns of Union coastal (and ocean-going) and monitors.

That’s why broadside-ironclads proved to be the real dinosaur dead-ends in naval architecture while European navies struggled to increase armour thickness by concentrating their shielding to a central ‘box’ or casemate, with fewer, heavier guns inside.  In the end, turrets were the future.  That’s also why Welles approved Ericsson’s huge Dictator and Puritan, with 1,000-tons of coal-carrying range, rather than more broadside-ironclads, heavily-reliant upon sail and therefore that much vulnerable in combat scenarios, and the casemate hybrid USS Dunderberg (originally conceived with two rotating turrets as well as broadside gun-mounts.)

It was safer and smarter to edge the theoretical ‘command of the sea’ from the American ports and coastline outward in strategic increments directly based on the latest technological advances and upgrades, than to invest wholesale in ‘seapower’ with a civil war raging.  Even against Great Britain and/or France the open ocean was worth a cold, salty zero next to the shore where people lived.  And the technological and strategic edge belonged to warships that could kill within range of their own bases those enemy vessels which had to travel overseas in an attempt to ‘project power’.  The only thing that mattered in maritime or naval wars was victory or defeat, and every European broadside-ironclad sunk off the American coast was victory enough for the Union Navy.

This was the great temptation which America faced during the timeframe covered in American Naval History; not becoming ‘too European’ at the first opportunity.  And it was successfully mastered, ultimately, by a sober consideration of ends and means.

(Return to April 2016 Table of Contents)

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