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  • If By Sea: The Forging of the American Navy—From the Revolution to the War of 1812, and: Commodore Abraham Whipple of the Continental Navy: Privateer, Patriot, Pioneer
  • David Head (bio)

U.S. Naval history, Revolutionary War Navy, Commodore Abraham Whipple

If By Sea: The Forging of the American Navy—From the Revolution to the War of 1812. By George C. Daughan. (New York: Basic Books, 2008. Pp. 521. Cloth, $30.00.)
Commodore Abraham Whipple of the Continental Navy: Privateer, Patriot, Pioneer. By Sheldon S. Cohen. (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2010. Pp. 232. Cloth, $69.95.)

The military history of the American Revolution has been largely land-based, and for good reason: The Continental Navy underperformed its potential, despite the sacrifices and heroism of individuals. In their very different works, George C. Daughan and Sheldon S. Cohen seek a fresh appraisal of the early American Navy. Daughan has produced a broad, synthetic survey of the attempts to build a navy during the War of Independence as well as the new national government's efforts to create a navy appropriate for the new nation. Cohen, meanwhile, focuses on one captain, Abraham Whipple, and his services at sea in the revolutionary era. Taken together, Daughan and Cohen use naval affairs to offer glimpses of the origins, progress, and effects of the American Revolution.

Daughan organizes his work around the fundamental naval policy debate of the day: Should America build a large, British-style force capable of blue-water cruising and confronting enemies abroad? Or should it build a small navy capable of guerilla-style attacks on a larger force and designed to operate close to home? According to Daughan, the nation's leaders consistently chose the wrong option, giving America a large navy [End Page 318] when it should have had a small one and a small navy when it needed a large one.

When the Continental Congress created a navy, it imitated Britain. The position had its logic. The Royal Navy was the world's most powerful. Thus, the Continental Congress did as the British did: It created separate chains of command for the army and navy; committed to building thirteen frigates and ships of the line; dispatched naval vessels on prestige missions, such as transporting diplomats to Europe; and assigned the navy to raid British commerce.

Each of these choices proved costly. Army and navy commanders failed to coordinate. Building thirteen large new vessels was more expensive than anticipated (of course) and simply added to the competition for scarce war materials. John Adams may have enjoyed the dignity of arriving in France aboard a national vessel, but a merchantman would have delivered him just as well. Privateers could have handled commerce raiding. Worst of all, the most talented commanders and the most powerful vessels were often far from the most critical battles. For example, during the Battle of Yorktown, John Paul Jones was in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, not fighting but waiting. He was sent there to take command of the 74-gun America, a vessel that had been under construction since 1776. Jones never did command the vessel. By the time it was finished, the war was over and the government gave her to France.

Daughan builds a convincing case that a navy of row galleys, whaleboats, and gun boats could have performed much better. In fact, early in the war, before Royal Navy admiration took hold, swarms of small boats made effective raids on British vessels. These boats allowed the colonists to take advantage of their local knowledge: They could hide in creeks, strike at the enemy, and escape into the shallows. This was precisely the strategy British commanders feared most, but the Continental Congress wanted a large navy. Overall, Daughan offers a strong explanation for the poor performance of the Continental Navy and issues an important challenge for policymakers today: Fight the war you are faced with by using the strategy it demands.

Moving into the early republic, Daughan frames the large navy-small navy debate against the formation of parties and the foreign affairs challenges of the Napoleonic Wars. Here he navigates seas well known to early republic scholars. Federalists advocated for a...


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pp. 318-321
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