BOOK REVIEW – Small Boats and Daring Men Maritime Raiding, Irregular Warfare, and the Early American Navy

Benjamin Armstrong, Small Boats and Daring Men Maritime Raiding, Irregular Warfare, and the Early American Navy. Norman: The University of Oklahoma Press, 2019. 280 pp.

Review by Dr. Justin Simundson, PhD
Assistant Professor, United States Air Force Academy

Benjamin Armstrong’s Small Boats and Daring Men provides a fascinating account of an often-overlooked aspect of naval history. Armstrong, a Navy Commander and Associate Professor at the US Naval Academy, has already written extensively on naval history and that clearly helped lead to this refined book on naval irregular warfare. With eight compelling and well-researched episodes of irregular war in the Age of Sail, this book should be of interest to a range of readers. For the general reader, the lively descriptions of combat and the captivating leadership portraits offers some of the adventure associated with the likes of Hornblower or Aubrey. For practitioners and policymakers involved in naval irregular warfare, or for professional military readers more generally, the book raises key questions about naval strategy as well as lessons on military leadership that transcend eras. Lastly, for scholars, Small Boats and Daring Men advances several important historiographical points and points the way to new avenues of inquiry.

Armstrong’s central premise is that naval historians have had an excessive focus on blue water navies, fixating especially on the dichotomy of guerre de course (attacking enemy commerce at sea) versus guerre d’escadre (naval strategy centered on fleet combat). This focus reflected the scholarly foundations of historians like Mahan, the preferences of navalist politicians like Theodore Roosevelt, and the self-image of naval officers. Armstrong argues persuasively that this focus has led to overlooking other significant aspects of naval operations, particularly what he calls “guerre de razzia, or war by raiding,” borrowing and extending the term from James C. Bradford’s work. Armstrong uses eight separate US naval actions throughout the Age of Sail to point out “the fact that naval irregular warfare is not quite so irregular” and is actually “a fundamental part of the entire operational history of the United States Navy and Marine Corps.”

The first episode Armstrong examines is that of John Paul Jones and his raiding of the British Isles during the Revolutionary War. Although blue-water navalists like Roosevelt later appropriated Paul Jones because of his ship-to-ship actions in the war, Armstrong demonstrates how Paul Jones’ legacy was more complicated and included raiding and irregular operations. In Armstrong’s telling, this does not diminish Paul Jones’ status as father of the US Navy, but instead points to the fact that naval irregular warfare was part of American naval tradition from the beginning. In fact, the cruise of Paul Jones and the Ranger demonstrated some of the “principal elements” of naval irregular warfare, including the complimentary “relationship between irregular operations and conventional naval missions,” the importance of “local knowledge and proper intelligence” in irregular warfare, and the unique qualities of leadership needed in irregular operations. However, while Paul Jones possessed the “strategic and diplomatic understanding” necessary for a senior officer, he lacked the kind of aggressive junior officers beneath him that could have led to more unequivocally successful irregular operations.

Much of the remainder of the book is dedicated to later examples where this balance of senior leaders with strategic vision along with empowered, aggressive junior officers existed. Chapters on the Quasi-War with France, the Barbary Wars, and the War of 1812’s lake-based naval battles show how the early American navy continued to undertake irregular warfare with considerable success. The repeated participation in irregular warfare helped develop the leadership of the early navy in a way that would not have been possible with only conventional operations. In unconventional operations, junior officers gained opportunities for individual command when entrusted with small combatants like gunboats or missions like cutting-out expeditions and expeditionary raids. Despite this developmental value of irregular warfare and its strategic worth, Armstrong shows how the Navy and United States generally neglected the needs of irregular warfare in planning and fleet construction. Instead, the Navy normally focused on building conventional heavy frigates while failing to build or maintain a balanced force that included sufficient small combatants. The final two chapters on anti-piracy actions in Sumatra show how these same patterns “continued into the transition years between the Age of Sail and the steam era,” suggesting the continuing validity of the lessons Armstrong draws from America’s early irregular naval operations.  

Overall, Armstrong’s study of naval irregular warfare is an excellent and important addition to the fields of both naval and military history. It proves that while contemporary debates on warfare often frame things like “hybrid conflict” as new and uniquely modern, naval irregular operations have in fact been a regular part of warfare. Small Boats and Daring Men makes a compelling case for deeper and more widespread examination of naval irregular warfare, but it could be argued that Armstrong perhaps exaggerates slightly when he contends that “naval raiding and irregular warfare represent an essential, if unstudied, theme in the history of American sea power.” In recognition of the fact that there has been both scholarly and popular attention to some topics like brown water navies and piracy, it would be more appropriate to say that naval irregular warfare has been understudied rather than “unstudied.”  Nevertheless, Armstrong has proved that this significant topic deserves greater attention, and he has done an exceptional job in constructing a foundation for other scholars to build upon.  

(Return to December 2022 Table of Contents) 

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