BOOK REVIEW – From Across the Sea: North Americans in Nelson’s Navy

From Across the Sea: North Americans in Nelson’s Navy. Edited by Sean M. Heuvel and John A. Rodgaard. Warwick, UK: Helion & Company Limited, 2020.

Review by Stanley D.M. Carpenter, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus, U.S. Naval War College

From Across the Sea: North Americans in Nelson’s Navy provides a portrait of North American sailors who served in the British Royal Navy during the era of Vice-Admiral Horatio, Viscount Nelson, victor of the October, 1805 Battle of Trafalgar. The monograph, edited by Sean M. Heuvel and John A. Rodgaard with multiple contributors providing case study biographical sketches of several North Americans in Britain’s navy, addresses men from the ranks of ordinary seaman to admiral of the fleet that hailed from the newly independent United States, British Canada, and several West Indies islands, including Jamaica. Many, especially from the United States and Canada, hailed from Loyalist families forced to re-locate following the War of American Independence (1775-83). Some highlighted Americans already served in the king’s ships prior to the rebellion’s outbreak in 1775 and chose to remain loyal and in service. From economic need to patronage to patriotic motivations as well as anti-French sentiment following the Quasi-War with France (1798), these North Americans served in many capacities as Britain confronted first Revolutionary and then Napoleonic France.

The book’s format works well. It is thematically constructed by setting the stage for the dynamics of service in the fleet in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Professor Andrew Lambert, Laughton Professor of Naval History in the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London, addresses Britain’s overall strategy for confronting France, emphasizing that by 1793,“Britain had developed a powerful and coherent doctrine covering the full range of naval operations, from fleet battle and amphibious landings, to oceanic cruiser warfare and convoy defence.” Combined with British domination of world commerce and trade, Britain developed the economic power to simply overwhelm France in a war of attrition. The phenomenal growth in trade allowed Britain to “sustain the enormous economic demands of prolonged high level mobilization, the support of allies, and the expansion of imperial control.” To defeat France, Britain relied on a maritime and military strategy of sea control, economic warfare, and a series of continental coalitions that allowed her to implement the traditional expeditionary strategic culture. The overall British strategy required thousands of skilled and experienced seaman and North Americans in royal service manned the king’s ships in great numbers.

Captain John Rodgaard, a retired U.S. Navy officer and noted naval historian, and the late Adam Charnaud analyzed the relationship between the United States and Britain following the Napoleonic Wars from the ultimate French defeat at Waterloo, Belgium in June, 1815 through the first few decades on the 19th century. They argue that “admiration, contempt, cooperation, hostility, respect and rivalry” all characterized the relationship, but that the foundations of the modern “special relationship” can be traced to the Nelsonian Era. In short, “shared values” characterized the relationship. Thus, North American sailors blended in with their British shipmates quite seamlessly. Given this dynamic, the nascent U.S. Navy essentially reflected the traditions and values of its model, the Royal Navy. For example, Rodgaard and Charnaud point out that officers in the emerging U.S. Navy read, absorbed, and internalized British maritime and naval literature and professional publications. The U.S. Navy of the early 19th century saw its missions the same as their British counterparts such as trade defense, scientific exploration, and concepts of “freedom, neutral rights, and self-determination.”

Doctor Christopher P. Magra, Professor of Early American History at the University of Tennessee, addresses the controversial and often misunderstood issue of impressment. He argues that American resentment at the impressment of U.S. citizens into the Royal Navy represented an economic dynamic. Impressment meant removal from the maritime free market and an assault on one’s freedom and liberty. While impressment in the Napoleonic period sought to return British deserters to duty after they “jumped ship” and signed on to American vessels, the reality in the age before accurate record-keeping meant that a number of actual American citizens were impressed, a major cause of the War of 1812 (1812-15). When impressment occurred, typically where a ship’s company suffered manning problems due to combat, disease, desertion or other causes, experienced merchant sailors represented the ideal target for the press gangs. Landsmen, called “lubbers,” would only be pressed out of desperation. Given this dynamic where a skilled sailor made more income working in the merchant fleets than in warships and where merchant ship owners and captains lost valuable men to the press, one can understand the hatred of the practice. To complicate the matter, the legislation from 1708 known as “The Sixth of Anne” prohibited impressment in the North American colonies; nonetheless, particularly after 1746, impressment in the colonies represented a constant threat. Americans viewed the practice as an assault on their liberty and free labor rights. Thus, impressment, never liked in Britain, was particularly reviled in America.

Captain Peter Hore, RN (Ret.) analyzes the extant records and deduced that 389 Americans and 54 Canadians fought at the Battle of Trafalgar in October, 1815. The Ayshford Trafalgar Role, as complied from ship’s records by Pam and Derek Ayshford, as well as The Complete Navy List of the Napoleonic Wars, 1793-1815 published by Patrick Marioné, Jean-Marie Pāques, and N.A.M. Rodger (2003) provide a fairly precise picture of the number of North Americans in Nelson’s squadron at the battle that finally secured unchallenged British maritime domination for over a century. As to impressment, experienced seamen represented the majority of those sailors and marines with unskilled landsmen only about 10% of the total. Hore calculates that fleet wide, 3,200 Americans and 360 Canadians served at the time with between 20 and 45% as pressed men. Thus, North Americans represented a substantial percentage of the Royal Navy of 1805.

Having established the contextual framework of the maritime and naval picture, the relationship between Britain and America, the nature of impressment, and the relationship between the emerging U.S. Navy and Britain’s Royal Navy, the work turns to a series of biographical sketches as a case study analysis. The personalities range from men of the lower decks such as Ordinary Seaman William Cooper (Matthew Brenckle) to Admiral of the Fleet James, First Baron Gambier, GCB (John Hattendorf). One of the more fascination sketches is provided by Doctor John Hattendorf, Ernest J. King Professor Emeritus of Maritime History at the U.S. Naval War College, who looks at the Brenton family of Newport, Rhode Island. Seven Brentons, a prominent Rhode Island Loyalist family, served in His Majesty’s Navy ranking from Purser to Vice-Admiral. Interestingly, a major figure in the early American naval firmament, Captain Nicholas Biddle of Philadelphia (Chipp Reid), served as a Royal Navy officer prior to the American War, a fact little known to most Americans.

The work is well-crafted, nicely structured, and highly readable. The sketches are based on a wealth of primary sources; however, the book avoids the all too frequent trap of alienating non-academics by over citing. Non-academic readers can grasp the key points without reading footnotes while historians and academics will find a substantial collection of relevant and useful primary sources. Audiences from naval history scholars to students to those just interested in the naval heritage of the United States, Canada, and Great Britain will find the book enjoyable and enlightening. The monograph is a worthy addition to the scholarship and understanding of a critical period in history as the modern era emerged with Britain’s vault to world domination of the maritime commons, the establishment of a maritime empire and her domination of the world’s trade in the post-Napoleonic era. That vault was powered, in great part, by the contributions of seamen from North America.

(Return to December 2020 Table of Contents)

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