The Influence of Sea Power upon History/Chapter IX

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If England had reason to complain that she had not reaped from the Treaty of Paris all the advantages that her military achievements and position entitled her to expect, France had every cause for discontent at the position in which the war left her. The gain of England was nearly measured by her losses; even the cession of Florida, made to the conqueror by Spain, had been bought by France at the price of Louisiana. Naturally the thoughts of her statesmen and of her people, as they bent under the present necessity to bear the burden of the vanquished, turned to the future with its possibilities of revenge and compensation. The Duc de Choiseul, able though imperious, remained for many years more at the head of affairs, and worked persistently to restore the power of France from the effects of the treaty. The Austrian alliance had been none of his seeking; it was already made and working when he came to office in 1758; but he had even at the first recognized that the chief enemy was England, and tried as far as could be to direct the forces of the nation against her. The defeat of Conflans having thwarted his projects of invasion, he next sought, in entire consistency with his main purpose, to stir up Spain and gain her alliance. The united efforts of the two kingdoms with their fine seaboards could, under good administration and with time for preparation, put afloat a navy that would be a fair counterpoise to that of England. It was also doubtless true that weaker maritime States, if they saw such a combination successfully made and working efficiently, would pluck up heart to declare against a government whose greatness excited envy and fear, and which acted with the disregard to the rights and welfare of others common to all uncontrolled power. Unhappily for both France and Spain, the alliance came too late. The virtual annihilation of the French fleet in 1759 was indeed followed by an outburst of national enthusiasm for the navy, skilfully fostered and guided by Choiseul. "Popular feeling took up the cry, from one end of France to the other, 'The navy must be restored.' Gifts of cities, corporations, and private individuals raised funds. A prodigious activity sprang up in the lately silent ports; everywhere ships were building and repairing." The minister also recognized the need of restoring the discipline and tone, as well as the material of the navy. The hour, however, was too late; the middle of a great and unsuccessful war is no time to begin preparations. "Better late than never" is not so safe a proverb as "In time of peace prepare for war." The condition of Spain was better. When war broke out, the English naval historian estimates that she had one hundred ships of all sizes; of these, probably sixty were of the line. Nevertheless, although the addition of Spain to her numerous enemies might make the position of England seem critical, the combination in her favor of numbers, skill, experience, and prestige, was irresistible. With seventy thousand veteran seamen, she had only to maintain a position already won. The results we know.

After the peace, Choiseul wisely remained faithful to his own first ideas. The restoration of the navy continued, and was accompanied and furthered by a spirit of professional ambition and of desire to excel, among the officers of the navy, which has been before mentioned, and which, in the peculiar condition of the United States navy at the present day, may be commended as a model. The building of ships-of-war continued with great activity and on a large scale. At the end of the war, thanks to the movement begun in 1761, thee were forty ships-of-the-line in good condition. In 1770, when Choiseul was dismissed, the royal navy numbered sixty-four of the line and fifty frigates afloat. The arsenals and storehouses were filled, and a stock of ship-timber laid up. At the same time the minister tried to improve the efficiency of the officers by repressing the arrogant spirit of those of noble birth, which showed itself both toward superiors and toward another order of officers, not of the nobility, whose abilities made them desired on board the fleet. This class-feeling carried with it a curious sentiment of equality among officers of very different grades, which injuriously affected the spirit of subordination. Members, all, of a privileged social order, their equality as such was more clearly recognized than their inequality as junior and senior. The droll story told by Marryatt of the midshipman, who represented to his captain that a certain statement had been made in confidence, seems to have had a realization on the French quarter-deck of that day. "Confidence!" cried the captain; "who ever heard of confidence between a post-captain and a midshipman!" "No sir," replied the youngster, "not between a captain and a midshipman, but between two gentlemen." Disputes, arguments, suggestions, between two gentlemen, forgetful of their relative rank, would break out at critical moments, and the feeling of equality, which wild democratic notions spread throughout the fleets of the republic, was curiously forestalled by that existing among the members of a most haughty aristocracy. "I saw by his face," says one of Marryatt's heroes, "that the first lieutenant did not agree with the captain; but he was too good an officer to say so at such a moment." The phrase expresses one of the deepest-rooted merits of the English system, the want of which is owned by French writers:--

"Under Louis XVI. the intimacy and fellowship existing between the chief and the subordinate led the latter to discuss the orders which were given him... The relaxation of discipline and the spirit of independence were due also to another cause than that pointed out; they can be partly attributed to the regulation of the officers' messes. Admiral, captain, officers, midshipmen, ate together; everything was in common. They thee-and-thou'd each other like chums. In handling the ship, the inferior gave his opinion, argued, and the chief, irritated, often preferred to yield rather than make enemies. Facts of this kind are asserted by witnesses whose truthfulness is above suspicion."[1]

Insubordination of this character, to which weaker men gave way, dashed in vain against the resolute and fiery temper of Suffren; but the spirit of discontent rose almost to the height of mutiny, causing him to say in his despatches to the minister of the navy, after his fourth battle: "My heart is pierced by the most general defection. It is frightful to think that I might four times have destroyed the English fleet, and that it still exists." Choiseul's reforms broke against this rock, which only the uprising of the whole nation finally removed; but in the personnel of the crews a great improvement was made. In 1767 he reorganized the artillery of the fleet, forming a body of ten thousand gunners, who were systematically drilled once a week during the ten years still to intervene before the next war with England.

Losing sight of no part of his plans, Choiseul, while promoting the naval and military power of France, paid special attention to the alliance with Spain and judiciously encouraged and furthered the efforts of that country in the path of progress under Charles III., the best of her kings of the Bourbon line. The Austrian alliance still existing was maintained, but his hopes were chiefly fixed upon Spain. The wisdom and insight which had at once fastened upon England as the centre of enmity to France had been justified and further enlightened by the whole course of the Seven Years' War. In Spain was the surest, and, with good administration, the most powerful ally. The close proximity of the two countries, the relative positions of their ports, made the naval situation particularly strong; and the alliance which was dictated by sound policy, by family ties, and by just fear of England's sea power, was further assured to France by recent and still existing injuries that must continue to rankle with Spain. Gibraltar, Minorca, and Florida were still in the hands of England; no Spaniard could be easy till this reproach was wiped out.

It may be readily believed, as is asserted by French historians, that England viewed with disquietude the growth of the French navy, and would gladly have nipped it betimes; but it is more doubtful whether she would have been willing to force a war for that purpose. During the years succeeding the Peace of Paris a succession of short ministries, turning mainly upon questions of internal policy or unimportant party arrangement, caused her foreign policy to present a marked contrast to the vigorous, overbearing, but straightforward path followed by Pitt. Internal commotions, such as are apt to follow great wars, and above all the controversy with the North American colonies, which began as early as 1765 with the well-known Stamp Act, conspired with other causes to stay the hand of England. Twice at least during the years of Choiseul's ministry there occurred opportunities which a resolute, ready, and not too scrupulous government might easily have converted into a cause of war; the more so as they involved that sea power which is to England above all other nations the object of just and jealous concern. In 1764 the Genoese, weary of their unsuccessful attempts to control Corsica, again asked France to renew the occupation of the ports which had been garrisoned by her in 1756. The Corsicans also sent an ambassador to France in order to solicit recognition of the independence of the island, in consideration of a tribute equivalent to that which they had formerly paid to Genoa. The latter, feeling its inability to reconquer the island, at length decided practically to cede it. The transaction took the shape of a formal permission for the King of France to exercise all the rights of sovereignty over all the places and harbors of Corsica, as security for debts owing to him by the republic. This cession, disguised under the form of a security in order to palliate the aggrandizement of France in the eyes of Austria and England, recalls the conditional and thinly veiled surrender of Cyprus to England nine years ago,--a transfer likely to be as final and far-reaching as that of Corsica. England then remonstrated and talked angrily; but though Burke said, "Corsica as a province of France is terrible to me," only one member of the House of Commons, the veteran admiral Sir Charles Saunders, was found to say "that it would be better to go to war with France than consent to her taking possession of Corsica."[2] Having in view the then well-recognized interests of England in the Mediterranean, it is evident that an island so well situated as Corsica for influencing the shores of Italy and checking the naval station at Minorca, would not have been allowed to go into the hands of a strong master, if the nation had felt ready and willing for war.

Again, in 1770, a dispute arose between England and Spain relative to the possession of the Falkland islands. It is not material to state the nature of either claim to what was then but a collection of barren islands, destitute of military as well as of natural advantages. Both England and Spain had had a settlement, on which the national colors were flying; and at the English station a captain in the navy commanded. Before this settlement, called Port Egmont, there suddenly appeared, in June, 1770, a Spanish expedition, fitted out in Buenos Ayres, of five frigates and sixteen hundred soldiers. To such a force the handful of Englishmen could make no serious resistance; so after a few shots, exchanged for the honor of the flag, they capitulated.

The news of this transaction, which reached England in the following October, showed by its reception how much more serious is an insult than an injury, and how much more bitterly resented. The transfer of Corsica had scarcely occasioned a stir outside the offices of statesmen; the attack on Port Egmont roused the people and Parliament. The minister to Madrid was ordered to demand the immediate restoration of the islands, with a disavowal of the action of the officer who had ordered the attack. Without waiting for a reply, ships were ordered into commission, press-gangs swept the streets, and in a short time a powerful fleet was ready at Spithead to revenge the insult. Spain, relying upon the Bourbon family compact and the support of France, was disposed to stand firm; but the old king, Louis XV., was averse to war, and Choiseul, among whose enemies at court was the last mistress, was dismissed. With his fall disappeared the hopes of Spain, which at once complied with the demands of England, reserving, however, the question as to the rights of sovereignty. This conclusion shows clearly that England, though still wielding an effective sea power able to control Spain, was not eager for a war merely in order to break down the rival navies.

It is not wholly alien to the question of sea power to note, without dwelling upon it, a great event which now happened, seemingly utterly removed from all relation to the sea. The first partition of Poland between Prussia, Russia, and Austria, carried out in 1772, was made easier by the preoccupation of Choiseul with his naval policy and the Spanish alliance. The friendship and support of Poland and Turkey, as checks upon the House of Austria, were part of the tradition received from Henry IV. and Richelieu; the destruction of the former was a direct blow to the pride and interest of France. What Choiseul would have done had he been in office, cannot be known; but if the result of the Seven Years' War had been different, France might have interfered to some purpose.

On the 10th of May, 1774, Louis XV. died, at the time when the troubles in the North American colonies were fast coming to a head. Under his youthful successor, Louis XVI., the policy of peace on the continent, of friendly alliance with Spain, and of building up the navy in numbers and efficiency, was continued. This was the foreign policy of Choiseul, directed against the sea power of England as the chief enemy, and toward the sea power of France as the chief support, of the nation. The instructions which, according to a French naval author, the new king gave to his ministers show the spirit with which his reign up to the Revolution was inspired, whether or not they originated with the king himself:--

"To watch all indications of approaching danger; to observe by cruisers the approaches to our islands and the entrance to the Gulf of Mexico; to keep track of what was passing on the banks of Newfoundland, and to follow the tendencies of English commerce; to observe in England the state of the troops and armaments, the public credit and the ministry; to meddle adroitly in the affairs of the British colonies; to give the insurgent colonists the means of obtaining supplies of war, while maintaining the strictest neutrality; to develop actively, but noiselessly, the navy; to repair our ships of war; to fill our storehouses and to keep on hand the means for rapidly equipping a fleet at Brest and at Toulon, while Spain should be fitting one at Ferrol; finally, at the first serious fear of rupture, to assemble numerous troops upon the shores of Brittany and Normandy, and get everything ready for an invasion of England, so as to force her to concentrate her forces, and thus restrict her means of resistance at the extremities of the empire."[3]

Such instructions, whether given all at once as a symmetrical, well-thought-out plan, or from time to time, as occasion arose, showed that an accurate forecast of the situation had been made, and breathed a conviction which, if earlier felt, would have greatly modified the history of the two countries. The execution was less thorough than the conception.

In the matter of developing the navy, however, fifteen years of peace and steady work showed good results. When war openly broke out in 1778, France had eighty ships-of-the-line in good condition, and sixty-seven thousand seamen were borne on the rolls of the maritime conscription. Spain, when she entered the war in 1779 as the ally of France, had in her ports nearly sixty ships-of-the-line. To this combination England opposed a total number of two hundred and twenty-eight ships of all classes, of which about one hundred and fifty were of the line. The apparent equality in material which would result from these numbers was affected, to the disadvantage of England, by the superior size and artillery of the French and Spaniards; but on the other hand her strength was increased by the unity of aim imparted by belonging to one nation. The allies were destined to feel the proverbial weakness of naval coalitions, as well as the degenerate administration of Spain, and the lack of habit--may it not even be said without injustice, of aptitude for the sea--of both nations. The naval policy with which Louis XVI. began his reign was kept up to the end; in 1791, two years after the assembly of the States-General, the French navy numbered eighty-six ships-of-the-line, generally superior, both in dimensions and model, to English ships of the same class.

We have come, therefore, to the beginning of a truly maritime war; which, as will be granted by those who have followed this narrative, had not been seen since the days of De Ruyter and Tourville. The magnificence of sea power and its value had perhaps been more clearly shown by the uncontrolled sway, and consequent exaltation, of one belligerent; but the lesson thus given, if more striking, is less vividly interesting than the spectacle of that sea power meeting a foe worthy of its steel, and excited to exertion by a strife which endangered, not only its most valuable colonies, but even its own shores. Waged, from the extended character of the British Empire, in all quarters of the world at once, the attention of the student is called now to the East Indies and now to the West; now to the shores of the United States and thence to those of England; from New York and Chesapeake Bay to Gibraltar and Minorca, to the Cape Verde Islands, the Cape of Good Hope, and Ceylon, Fleets now meet fleets of equal size, and the general chase and the melee, which marked the actions of Hawke, Boscawen, and Anson, though they still occur at times, are for the most part succeeded by wary and complicated manoeuvres, too often barren of decisive results as naval battles, which are the prevailing characteristic of this coming war. The superior tactical science of the French succeeded in imparting to this conflict that peculiar feature of their naval policy, which subordinated the control of the sea by the destruction of the enemy's fleets, of his organized naval forces, to the success of particular operations, the retention of particular points, the carrying out of particular ulterior strategic ends. It is not necessary to endeavor to force upon others the conviction of the present writer that such a policy, however applicable as an exception, is faulty as a rule; but it is most desirable that all persons responsible for the conduct of naval affairs should recognize that the two lines of policy, in direct contradiction to each other, do exist. In the one there is a strict analogy to a war of posts; while in the other the objective is that force whose destruction leaves the posts unsupported and therefore sure to fall in due time. These opposing policies being recognized, consideration should also be had of the results of the two as exemplified in the history of England and France.

It was not, however, with such cautious views that the new king at first sought to impress his admirals. In the instructions addressed to the Count d'Orvilliers, commanding the first fleet sent out from Brest, the minister, speaking in the name of the king, says:--

"Your duty now is to restore to the French flag the lustre with which it once shone; past misfortunes and faults must be buried out of sight; only by the most illustrious actions can the navy hope to succeed in doing this. His Majesty has the right to expect the greatest efforts from his officers. Under whatever circumstances the king's fleet may be placed, his Majesty's orders, which he expressly charges me to impress upon you, as well as upon all officers in command, are that his ships attack with the greatest vigor, and defend themselves, on all occasions, to the last extremity."

More follows to the same effect; upon which a French officer, who has not before been quoted in connection with this phase of French naval policy, says:--

"How different this language from that held to our admirals during the last war; for it would be an error to believe that they followed by choice and temper the timid and defensive system which predominated in the tactics of the navy. The government, always finding the expenses exacted by the employment of the navy excessive, too often prescribed to its admirals to keep the sea as long as possible without coming to pitched battles, or even to brushes, generally very expensive, and from which might follow the loss of ships difficult to replace. Often they were enjoined, if driven to accept action, carefully to avoid compromising the fate of their squadron by too decisive encounters. They thought themselves, therefore, obliged to retreat as soon as an engagement took too serious a turn. Thus they acquired the unhappy habit of voluntarily yielding the field of battle as soon as an enemy, even inferior, boldly disputed it with them. Thus to send a fleet to meet the enemy, only to retire shamefully from his presence; to receive action instead of offering it; to begin battles only to end them with the semblance of defeat; to ruin moral force in order to save physical force,--that was the spirit which, as has been very judiciously said by M. Charles Dupin, guided the French ministry of that epoch. The results are known."[4]

The brave words of Louis XVI. were followed almost immediately by others, of different and qualifying tenor, to Admiral d'Orvilliers before he sailed. He was informed that the king, having learned the strength of the English fleet, relied upon his prudence as to the conduct to be followed at a moment when he had under his orders all the naval force of which France could dispose. As a matter of fact the two fleets were nearly equal; it would be impossible to decide which was the stronger, without detailed information as to the armament of every ship. D'Orvilliers found himself, as many a responsible man has before, with two sets of orders, on one or the other of which he was sure to be impaled, if unlucky; while the government, in the same event, was sure of a scape-goat.

The consideration of the relative force of the two navies, material and moral, has necessarily carried us beyond the date of the opening of the American Revolutionary War. Before beginning with that struggle, it may be well to supplement the rough estimate of England's total naval force, given, in lack of more precise information, by the statement of the First Lord of the Admiralty made in the House of Lords in November, 1777, a very few months before the war with France began. Replying to a complaint of the opposition as to the smallness of the Channel fleet, he said:--

"We have now forty-two ships-of-the-line in commission in Great Britain (without counting those on foreign service), thirty-five of which are completely manned, and ready for sea at a moment's warning... I do not believe that either France or Spain entertains any hostile disposition toward us; but from what I have now submitted to you, I am authorized to affirm that our navy is more than a match for that of the whole House of Bourbon."[5]

It must, however, be said that this pleasing prospect was not realized by Admiral Keppel when appointed to command in the following March, and looking at his fleet with (to use his own apt expression) "a seaman's eye;"[6] and in June he went to sea with only twenty ships.

It is plainly undesirable to insert in a narrative of this character any account of the political questions which led to the separation of the United States from the British Empire. It has already been remarked that the separation followed upon a succession of blunders by the English ministry,--not unnatural in view of the ideas generally prevalent at that day as to the relations of colonies to the mother-country. It needed a man of commanding genius to recognize, not only the substantial justice of the American claims,--many did that, --but also the military strength of their situation, as before indicated. This lay in the distance of the colonies from home, their nearness to each other independently of the command of the sea, the character of the colonists,--mainly of English and Dutch stock,--and the probable hostility of France and Spain. Unfortunately for England, the men most able to cope with the situation were in the minority and out of office.

It has been said before that, had the thirteen colonies been islands, the sea power of Great Britain would have so completely isolated them that their fall, one after the other, must have ensued. To this it may be added that the narrowness of the strip then occupied by civilized man, and the manner in which it was intersected by estuaries of the sea and navigable rivers, practically reduced to the condition of islands, so far as mutual support went, great sections of the insurgent country, which were not large enough to stand alone, yet too large for their fall not to have been a fatal blow to the common cause. The most familiar case is that of the line of the Hudson, where the Bay of New York was held from the first by the British, who also took the city in September, 1776, two months after the Declaration of Independence. The difficulties in the way of moving up and down such a stream were doubtless much greater to sailing vessels than they now are to steamers; yet it seems impossible to doubt that active and capable men wielding the great sea power of England could so have held that river and Lake Champlain with ships-of-war at intervals and accompanying galleys as to have supported a sufficient army moving between the head-waters of the Hudson and the lake, while themselves preventing any intercourse by water between New England and the States west of the river. This operation would have closely resembled that by which in the Civil War the United States fleets and armies gradually cut in twain the Southern Confederacy by mastering the course of the Mississippi, and the political results would have been even more important than the military; for at that early stage of the war the spirit of independence was far more general and bitter in the section that would have been cut off,--in New England,--than in New York and New Jersey, perhaps than anywhere except in South Carolina.[7]

In 1777 the British attempted to accomplish this object by sending General Burgoyne from Canada to force his way by Lake Champlain to the Hudson. At the same time Sir Henry Clinton moved north from New York with three thousand men, and reached West Point, whence he sent by shipping a part of his force up the river to within forty miles of Albany. Here the officer in command learned of the surrender of Burgoyne at Saratoga, and returned; but what he did at the head of a detachment from a main body of only three thousand, shows what might have been done under a better system. While this was happening on the Hudson, the English commander-in-chief of the troops acting in America had curiously enough made use of the sea power of his nation to transport the bulk of his army--fourteen thousand men--from New York to the head of Chesapeake Bay, so as to take Philadelphia in the rear. This eccentric movement was successful as regarded its objective, Philadelphia; but it was determined by political considerations, because Philadelphia was the seat of Congress, and was contrary to sound military policy. The conquest therefore was early lost; but it was yet more dearly won, for by this diversion of the British forces the different corps were placed out of mutual support, and the control of the water-line of the Hudson was abandoned. While Burgoyne, with seven thousand regular troops, besides auxiliaries, was moving down to seize the head-waters of the river, fourteen thousand men were removed from its mouth to the Chesapeake. The eight thousand left in or near New York were consequently tied to the city by the presence of the American army in New Jersey. This disastrous step was taken in August; in October Burgoyne, isolated and hemmed in, surrendered. In the following May the English evacuated Philadelphia, and after a painful and perilous march through New Jersey, with Washington's army in close pursuit, regained New York.

This taking of the British fleet to the head of the Chesapeake, coupled with the ascent of the Potomac in 1814 by English sailing-frigates, shows another weak line in the chain of the American colonies; but it was not, like that of the Hudson and Champlain, a line both ends of which rested in the enemy's power,--in Canada on the one hand, on the sea on the other.

As to the sea warfare in general, it is needless to enlarge upon the fact that the colonists could make no head against the fleets of Great Britain, and were consequently forced to abandon the sea to them, resorting only to a cruising warfare, mainly by privateers, for which their seamanship and enterprise well fitted them, and by which they did much injury to English commerce. By the end of 1778 the English naval historian estimates that American privateers had taken nearly a thousand merchant-ships, valued at nearly 2,000,000 pounds; he claims, however, that the losses of the Americans were heavier. They should have been; for the English cruisers were both better supported and individually more powerful, while the extension of American commerce had come to be the wonder of the statesmen of the mother-country. When the war broke out, it was as great as that of England herself at the beginning of the century.

An interesting indication of the number of the seafaring population of North America at that time is given by the statement in Parliament by the First Lord of the Admiralty, "that the navy had lost eighteen thousand of the seamen employed in the last war by not having America,"[8] --no inconsiderable loss to a sea power, particularly if carried over to the ranks of the enemy.

The course of warfare on the sea gave rise, as always, to grievances of neutrals against the English for the seizures of their ships in the American trade. Such provocation, however, was not necessary to excite the enmity and the hopes of France in the harassed state of the British government. The hour of reckoning, of vengeance, at which the policy of Choiseul had aimed, seemed now at hand. The question was early entertained at Paris what attitude should be assumed, what advantage drawn from the revolt of the colonies. It was decided that the latter should receive all possible support short of an actual break with England; and to this end a Frenchman named Beaumarchais was furnished with money to establish a business house which should supply the colonists with warlike stores. France gave a million francs, to which Spain added an equal sum, and Beaumarchais was allowed to buy from government arsenals. Meanwhile agents were received from the United States, and French officers passed into its service with little real hindrance from their government. Beaumarchais' house was started in 1776; in December of that year Benjamin Franklin landed in France, and in May, 1777, Lafayette came to America. Meanwhile the preparations for war, especially for a sea war, were pushed on; the navy was steadily increased, and arrangements were made for threatening an invasion from the Channel, while the real scene of the war was to be in the colonies. There France was in the position of a man who has little to lose. Already despoiled of Canada, she had every reason to believe that a renewal of war, with Europe neutral and the Americans friends instead of enemies, would not rob her of her islands. Recognizing that the Americans, who less than twenty years before had insisted upon the conquest of Canada, would not consent to her regaining it, she expressly stipulated that she would have no such hopes, but exacted that in the coming war she should retain any English West Indian possessions which she could seize. Spain was differently situated. Hating England, wanting to regain Gibraltar, Minorca, and Jamaica,--no mere jewels in her crown, but foundation-stones of her sea power,--she nevertheless saw that the successful rebellion of the English colonists against the hitherto unrivalled sea power of the mother-country would be a dangerous example to her own enormous colonial system, from which she yearly drew so great subsidies. If England with her navy should fail, what could Spain achieve? In the introductory chapter it was pointed out that the income of the Spanish government was drawn, not as a light tax upon a wealthy sea power, built upon the industry and commerce of the kingdom, but from a narrow stream of gold and silver trickling through a few treasure-ships loaded with the spoils of colonies administered upon the narrowest system. Spain had much to lose, as well as to gain. It was true still, as in 1760, that she was the power with which England could war to the greatest advantage. Nevertheless, existing injuries and dynastic sympathy carried the day. Spain entered upon the secretly hostile course pursued by France.

To this explosive condition of things the news of Burgoyne's surrender acted as a spark. The experience of former wars had taught France the worth of the Americans as enemies, and she was expecting to find in them valuable helpers in her schemes of revenge; now it seemed that even alone they might be able to take care of themselves, and reject any alliance. The tidings reached Europe on the 2d of December, 1777; on the 16th the French foreign minister informed the commissioners of Congress that the king was ready to recognize the independence of the United States, and to make with them a commercial treaty and contingent defensive alliance. The speed with which the business was done shows that France had made up her mind; and the treaty, so momentous in its necessary consequences, was signed on the 6th of February, 1778.

It is not necessary to give the detailed terms of the treaty; but it is important to observe, first, that the express renunciation of Canada and Nova Scotia by France foreshadowed that political theory which is now known as the Monroe doctrine, the claims of which can scarcely be made good without an adequate sea-force; and next, that the alliance with France, and subsequently with Spain, brought to the Americans that which they above all needed,--a sea power to counterbalance that of England. Will it be too much for American pride to admit that, had France refused to contest the control of the sea with England, the latter would have been able to reduce the Atlantic seaboard? Let us not kick down the ladder by which we mounted, nor refuse to acknowledge what our fathers felt in their hour of trial.

Before going on with the story of this maritime war, the military situation as it existed in the different parts of the world should be stated.

The three features which cause it to differ markedly from that at the opening of the Seven Years' War, in 1756, are--1. the hostile relation of America to England; 2. the early appearance of Spain as the ally of France; and 3. the neutrality of the other continental States, which left France without preoccupation on the land side.

On the North American continent the Americans had held Boston for two years. Narragansett Bay and Rhode Island were occupied by the English, who also held New York and Philadelphia. Chesapeake Bay and its entrance, being without strong posts, were in the power of any fleet that appeared against them. In the South, since the unsuccessful attack upon Charlestown in 1776, no movement of importance had been made by the English; up to the declaration of war by France the chief events of the war had been north of the Chesapeake (of Baltimore). In Canada, on the other hand, the Americans had failed, and it remained to the end a firm base to the English power.

In Europe the most significant element to be noted is the state of preparedness of the French navy, and to some extent of the Spanish, as compared with previous wars. England stood wholly on the defensive, and without allies; while the Bourbon kings aimed at the conquest of Gibraltar and Port Mahon, and the invasion of England. The first two, however, were the dear objects of Spain, the last of France; and this divergence of aims was fatal to the success of this maritime coalition. In the introductory chapter allusion was made to the strategic question raised by these two policies.

In the West Indies the grip of the two combatants on the land was in fact about equal, though it should not have been so. Both France and England were strongly posted in the Windward Islands,--the one at Martinique, the other at Barbadoes. It must be noted that the position of the latter, to windward of all others of the group, was a decided strategic advantage in the days of sail. As it happened, the fighting was pretty nearly confined to the neighborhood of the Lesser Antilles. Here, at the opening of the struggle, the English island of Dominica lay between the French Martinique and Guadeloupe; it was therefore coveted and seized. Next south of Martinique lay Sta. Lucia, a French colony. Its strong harbor on the lee side, known as Gros Ilot Bay, was a capital place from which to watch the proceedings of the French navy in Fort Royal, Martinique. The English captured the island, and from that safe anchorage Rodney watched and pursued the French fleet before his famous action in 1782. The islands to the southward were of inferior military consequence. In the greater islands, Spain should have outweighed England, holding as she did Cuba, Porto Rico, and, with France, Hayti, as against Jamaica alone. Spain, however, counted here for nothing but a dead-weight; and England had elsewhere too much on her hands to attack her. The only point in America where the Spanish arms made themselves felt was in the great region east of the Mississippi, then known as Florida, which, though at that time an English possession, did not join the revolt of the colonies.

In the East Indies it will be remembered that France had received back her stations at the peace of 1763; but the political predominance of the English in Bengal was not offset by similar control of the French in any part of the peninsula. During the ensuing years the English had extended and strengthened their power, favored in so doing by the character of their chief representatives, Clive and Warren Hastings. Powerful native enemies had, however, risen against them in the south of the peninsula, both on the east and west, affording an excellent opportunity for France to regain her influence when the war broke out; but her government and people remained blind to the possibilities of that vast region. Not so England. The very day the news of the outbreak of war reached Calcutta, July 7, 1778, Hastings sent orders to the governor of Madras to attack Pondicherry, and set the example by seizing Chandernagore. The naval force of each nation was insignificant; but the French commodore, after a brief action, forsook Pondicherry, which surrendered after a siege by land and sea of seventy days. The following March, 1779, Mahe', the last French settlement, fell, and the French flag again disappeared; while at the same time there arrived a strong English squadron of six ships-of-the-line under Admiral Hughes. The absence of any similar French force gave the entire control of the sea to the English until the arrival of Suffren, nearly three years later. In the mean while Holland had been drawn into the war, and her stations, Negapatam on the Coromandel coast, and the very important harbor of Trincomalee in Ceylon, were both captured, the latter in January, 1782, by the joint forces of the army and navy. The successful accomplishment of these two enterprises completed the military situation in Hindostan at the time when the arrival of Suffren, just one month later, turned the nominal war into a desperate and bloody contest. Suffren found himself with a decidedly stronger squadron, but without a port, either French or allied, on which to base his operations against the English.

Of these four chief theatres of the war, two, North America and the West Indies, as might be expected from their nearness, blend and directly affect each other. This is not so obviously the case with the struggles in Europe and India. The narrative therefore naturally falls into three principal divisions, which may to some extent be treated separately. After such separate consideration their mutual influence will be pointed out, together with any useful lessons to be gathered from the goodness or badness, the success or failure, of the grand combinations, and from the part played by sea power.

On the 13th of March, 1778, the French ambassador at London notified the English government that France had acknowledged the independence of the United States, and made with them a treaty of commerce and defensive alliance. England at once recalled her ambassador; but though war was imminent and England at disadvantage, the Spanish king offered mediation, and France wrongly delayed to strike. In June, Admiral Keppel sailed from Portsmouth, with twenty ships, on a cruise. Falling in with two French frigates, his guns, to bring them to, opened the war. Finding from their papers that thirty-two French ships lay in Brest, he at once returned for reinforcements. Sailing again with thirty ships, he fell in with the French fleet under D'Orvilliers to the westward of Ushant, and to windward, with a westerly wind. On the 27th of July was fought the first fleet action of the war, generally known as the battle of Ushant.

This battle, in which thirty ships-of-the-line fought on either side, was wholly indecisive in its results. No ship was taken or sunk; both fleets, after separating, returned to their respective ports. The action nevertheless obtained great celebrity in England from the public indignation at its lack of result, and from the storm of naval and political controversy which followed. The admiral and the officer third in command belonged to different political parties; they made charges, one against the other, and in the following courts-martial all England divided, chiefly on party lines. Public and naval sentiment generally favored the commander-in-chief, Keppel.

Tactically, the battle presents some interesting features, and involves one issue which is still living to-day. Keppel was to leeward and wished to force an action; in order to do this he signalled a general chase to windward, so that his fastest ships might overtake the slower ones of the enemy. Granting equal original fleet-speed, this was quite correct. d'Orvilliers, to windward, had no intention of fighting except on his own terms. As will generally be the case, the fleet acting on the offensive obtained its wish. At daybreak of the 27th both fleets were on the port tack, heading west-northwest, with a steady breeze at southwest. The English rear had fallen to leeward, and Keppel consequently made signal to six of its ships to chase to windward, so as to place them in a better position to support the main body if it could get into action. D'Orvilliers observed this movement, and construed it to show an intention to attack his rear with a superior force. The two fleets being then from six to eight miles apart, he wore his fleet in succession, by which he lost ground to leeward, but approached the enemy, and was able to see them better. At the completion of this evolution the wind hauled to the southward, favoring the English; so Keppel, instead of going about, stood on for half an hour more, and then tacked together in wake of the French. This confirmed d'Orvilliers' suspicions, and as the wind, which certainly favored the English that morning, now hauled back again to the westward, permitting them to lay up for the French rear, he wore his fleet together. Thus bringing the rest to aid the rear, now become the van, and preventing Keppel from concentrating on or penetrating it. The two fleets thus passed on opposite tacks,[9] exchanging ineffective broadsides, the French running free to windward and having the power to attack, but not using it. D'Orvilliers then made the signal for his van, formerly the rear, to wear to leeward of the English rear, which was to leeward of its own main body, intending himself to remain to windward an so attack it on both sides; but the commander of that division, a prince of the blood royal, did not obey, and the possible advantage was lost. On the English side the same manoeuvre was attempted. The admiral of the van and some of his ships tacked, as soon as out of fire, and stood after the French rear; but for the most part the damage to rigging prevented tacking, and wearing was impossible on account of the ships coming up behind. The French now stood to leeward and formed line again, but the English were not in condition to attack. This was the end of the battle.

It has been said that there are some interesting points about this resultless engagement. One is, that Keppel's conduct was approved throughout, on oath before the court-martial, by one of the most distinguished admirals England has brought forth, Sir John Jervis, who commanded a ship in the fleet. It does not indeed appear what he could have done more; but his lack of tactical understanding is shown by a curious remark in his defence. "If the French admiral really meant to come to action," says he, "I apprehend he would never have put his fleet on the contrary tack to that on which the British fleet was approaching." This remark can only proceed from ignorance or thoughtlessness of the danger to which the rear of the French fleet would have been exposed, and is the more curious as he himself had said the English were lying up for it. Keppel's idea seems to have been that the French should have waited for him to come up abreast, and then go at it, ship for ship, in what was to him the good old style; D'Orvilliers was too highly trained to be capable of such action.

The failure of the Duc de Chartres,[10] commanding the French van during the firing, to wear in obedience to orders, whether due to misunderstanding or misconduct, raises the question, which is still debated, as to the proper position for a naval commander-in-chief in action. Had d'Orvilliers been in the van, he could have insured the evolution he wished. From the centre the admiral has the extremities of his fleet equally visible, or invisible, as it may be. At the head he enforces his orders by his example. The French toward the end of this war solved the question by taking him out of the line altogether and putting him on board a frigate, for the avowed reasons that he could thus better see the movements of his fleet and of the enemy without being blinded by smoke or distracted by the occurrences on board his own ship, and that his signals could be better seen.[11] This position, resembling somewhat that of a general on shore, being remote from personal risk, was also assumed by Lord Howe in 1778; but both that officer and the French abandoned the practice later. Nelson at Trafalgar, the end of his career, led his column; but it may be doubted whether he had any other motive than his ardor for battle. The two other great attacks in which he commanded in chief were directed against ships at anchor, and in neither did he take the head of the column; for the good reason that, his knowledge of the ground being imperfect, the leading ship was in most danger of grounding. The common practice in the days of broadside sailing-ships, except when a general chase was ordered, was for the admiral to be in the line, and in the centre of it. The departure from this custom on the part of both Nelson and Collingwood, each of whom led his own columns at Trafalgar, may have had some reason, and an ordinary man rather shrinks from criticising the action of officers of their eminence. The danger to which were exposed the two senior officers of the fleet, upon whom so much depended, is obvious; and had any serious injury befallen their persons, or the head of their columns, the lack of their influence would have been seriously felt. As it was, they were speedily obliterated, as admirals, in the smoke of the battle, leaving to those who came after them no guidance or control except the brilliancy of their courage and example. A French admiral has pointed out that the practical effect of the mode of attack at Trafalgar, two columns bearing down upon a line at right angles to them, was to sacrifice the head of the columns in making two breaches in the enemy's line. So far, very well; the sacrifice was well worth while; and into these breaches came up the rear ships of each column, nearly fresh, forming in fact a reserve which fell upon the shattered ships of the enemy on either side of the breaks. Now this idea of a reserve prompts a thought as to the commander-in-chief. The size of his ship was such as precluded its being out of the order; but would it not have been well had the admiral of each column been with this reserve, keeping in his hands the power of directing it according to the chances of the action, making him a reality as well as a name for some time longer, and to a very useful purpose? The difficulty of arranging any system of signals or light despatch-boats which could take the place of the aids or messengers of a general, coupled with the fact that ships cannot stand still, as divisions of men do, waiting orders, but that they must have steerage-way, precludes the idea of putting an admiral of a fleet under way in a light vessel. By so doing he becomes simply a spectator; whereas by being in the most powerful ship of the fleet he retains the utmost weight possible after action is once engaged, and, if this ship be in the reserve, the admiral keeps to the latest possible moment the power of commander-in-chief in his own hands. "Half a loaf is better than no bread;" if the admiral cannot, from the conditions of sea warfare, occupy the calmly watchful position of his brother on shore, let there be secured for him as much as may be. The practice of Farragut after New Orleans and Vicksburg, that is to say, in the latter part of his career, when it may be believed experience had determined his views, was to lead in person. It is known that he very reluctantly, at the solicitation of various officers, yielded his convictions in this matter at Mobile so far as to take the second place, and afterward freely expressed his regrets for having done so. It may, however, be argued that the character of all the actions in which Farragut commanded had a peculiarity, differentiating them from battles in the strict sense of the word. At New Orleans, at Vicksburg, at Port Hudson, and at Mobile, the task was not to engage, but to pass fortifications which the fleet confessedly could not stand up to; and the passage was to be made under conditions mainly of pilotage upon ground as to which, unlike Nelson, he had good knowledge. There was thus imposed upon the commander-in-chief the duty of leadership in the literal, as well as the military, sense of the term. So leading, he not only pointed out to the fleet the safe road, but, drawing continually ahead of the smoke, was better able to see and judge the path ahead, and to assume the responsibility of a course which he may have prescribed and intended throughout, but from which a subordinate might shrink. It has not perhaps been commonly noted, that at Mobile the leaders, not only of one but of both columns, at the critical point of the road hesitated and doubted as to the admiral's purpose; not that they had not received it clearly, but because circumstances seemed to them to be different from what he had supposed. Not only Alden in the "Brooklyn," but Craven also in the "Tecumseh," departed from the admiral's orders and left the course dictated to them, with disastrous results. There is no necessity to condemn either captain; but the irresistible inference is that Farragut was unqualifiedly right in his opinion that the man who alone has the highest responsibility should, under the conditions of his battles, be in the front. And here it must be remarked that at such critical moments of doubt any but the highest order of mind tends to throw off the responsibility of decision upon the superior, though from the instancy of the case hesitation or delay may be fatal. A man who as the commissioned chief would act intelligently, as the mere subordinate will balk. Nelson's action at St. Vincent will rarely be emulated, a truth which is strongly shown by the fact that Collingwood was immediately in his rear that day, and did not imitate his action till signalled by the commander-in-chief; yet after receiving the authority of the signal, he particularly distinguished himself by his judgment and daring.[12] It will be recalled, also, in connection with this question of pilot-ground battles, that a central position nearly lost the flag-ship at New Orleans, owing to the darkness and to the smoke from the preceding ships; the United States fleet came near finding itself without its leader after the passage of the forts. Now as the mention of a reserve prompted one set of considerations, so the name of pilotage suggests certain ideas, broader than itself, which modify what has been said of keeping the admiral with the reserve. The ease and quickness with which a steam fleet can change its formation make it very probable that a fleet bearing down to attack may find itself, almost at the very moment of collision, threatened with some unlooked-for combination; then where would be the happiest position for an admiral? Doubtless in that part of his own order where he could most readily pilot his ships into the new disposition, or direction, by which he would meet the changed conditions; that is, in the position of leading. It would seem that there are always two moments of greatest importance in a sea-fight; one which determines the method of the main attack, the other the bringing up and directing the effort of the reserve. If the first is more important, the second perhaps requires the higher order of ability; for the former may and should proceed on a before-determined plan, while the latter may, and often must, be shaped to meet unforeseen exigencies. The conditions of sea-battles of the future contain one element that land battles cannot have,--the extreme rapidity with which encounters and changes of order can take place. However troops may be moved by steam to the field of battle, they will there fight on foot or on horse-back, and with a gradual development of their plan, which will allow the commander-in-chief time to make his wishes known (as a rule, of course), in case of a change in the enemy's attack. On the other hand, a fleet, comparatively small in numbers and with its component units clearly defined, may be meditating an important change of which no sign can appear until it begins, and which will occupy but a few minutes. So far as these remarks are sound, they show the need of a second in command thoroughly conversant with not only the plans, but with the leading principles of action of his chief,--a need plain enough from the fact that the two extremities of the order-of-battle may be necessarily remote, and that you want the spirit of the leader at both extremities. As he cannot be there in person, the best thing is to have an efficient second at one end. As regards Nelson's position at Trafalgar, mentioned at the beginning of this discussion, it is to be noted that the "Victory" did nothing that another ship could not have done as well, and that the lightness of the wind forbade the expectation of any sudden change in the enemy's order. The enormous risk run by the person of the admiral, on whose ship was concentrated the fire of the enemy's line, and which led several captains to implore a change, was condemned long before by Nelson himself in one of his letters after the battle of the Nile:--

"I think, if it had pleased God I had not been wounded, not a boat would have escaped to have told the tale; but do not believe that any individual in the fleet is to blame...--I only mean to say that if my experience could in person have directed those individuals, there was every appearance that Almighty God would have continued to bless my endeavors," etc.[13]

Yet, notwithstanding such an expression of opinion based upon experience, he took the most exposed position at Trafalgar, and upon the loss of the leader there followed a curious exemplification of its effects. Collingwood at once, rightly or wrongly, avoidably or unavoidably, reversed Nelson's plans, urged with his last breath. "Anchor! Hardy, do you anchor!" said the dying chief. "Anchor!" said Collingwood. "It is the last thing I should have thought of."

Footnotes[edit]

  1. Troude: Batailles Navales.
  2. Mahon: History of England.
  3. Lapeyrouse-Bonfils, vol. iii. p. 5.
  4. Troude, vol. ii. pp. 3-5. For other quotations from French authors to the same effect, see ante, pages 77, 80, 81.
  5. Mahon: History of England; Gentleman's Magazine, 1777, p. 553.
  6. Keppel's Defence.
  7. "A candid view of our affairs, which I am going to exhibit, will make you a judge of the difficulties under which we labor. Almost all our supplies of flour and no inconsiderable part of our meat are drawn from the States westward of Hudson's River. This renders a secure communication across that river indispensably necessary, both to the support of your squadron and the army. The enemy, being masters of that navigation, would interrupt this essential intercourse between the States. They have been sensible of these advantages... If they could by any demonstration in another part draw our attention and strength from this important point, and by anticipating our return possess themselves of it, the consequences would be fatal. Our dispositions must therefore have equal regard to co-operating with you [at Boston] in a defensive plan, and securing the North River, which the remoteness of the two objects from each other renders peculiarly difficult."--WASHINGTON to D'ESTAING, Sept. 11, 1778.
  8. Annual Register, 1778, p. 201.
  9. The leading ships of the two fleets diverged from each other, which is, by the French, attributed to the English van keeping away; by the English it is said that the French van luffed.
  10. Afterward Duc d'Orleans; the Philippe Egalite of the French Revolution and father of Louis Philippe.
  11. The capture of the French commander-in-chief on board his flag-ship, in the battle of April 12, 1782, was also a motive for this new order.
  12. The following incident, occurring during Rodney's chase of De Grasse, in April, 1782, shows how far subordination may be carried. Hood was one of the finest of the British officers; nor does the author undertake to criticise his action. He was some miles from Rodney at the time. "The separated French ship in the NW., having got the breeze at the same time as our van division, boldly stood for and endeavored to weather the British advanced ships; that being the only way to regain her own fleet, then to windward. To such a length did she carry her audacity that she compelled the Alfred, the head-most ship of Sir Samuel Hood's division, to bear up in order to allow her to pass. Every eye was fixed upon the bold Frenchman, excepting those who were anxiously looking out on the commander-in-chief to make the signal to engage, but who, most likely from not supposing it could be an enemy, did not throw out the ardently looked-for signal, and therefore not a gun was fired. This is mentioned to show the state of discipline on board the ships composing Sir Samuel Hood's division, and that he, though second in command, would not fire a single shot until directed to do so by his commander-in-chief. 'It is more than probable that Sir S. Hood's reason for having waited for the signal to engage from his commander-in-chief, ere he would fire, arose from the supposition that had he been the occasion of prematurely bringing on an action under the above circumstances, he would have been responsible for the results.'" (White's Naval Researches, p 97.) Hood may have been influenced by Rodney's bearing toward inferiors whose initiative displeased him. The relations of the two seem to have been strained.
  13. Sir N. H. Nicholas: Despatches and Letters of Lord Nelson.