- Reviewed by
U.S. Naval history, British Royal Navy, War of 1812, U.S. Civil War
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The ideal size of the navy is a perennial debate among naval historians and strategists, and the question even reached into contemporary presidential politics during the third debate of 2012 between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. (Romney’s charge that today’s navy has fewer ships than in 1916 led Obama to his quip about also having fewer horses and bayonets.) Examining the early American navy, Jonathan Dull and Kevin McCranie reenter the debate over naval size, emphasizing the particular conditions of early America that affected naval strategy, the outcomes of battles, and the development of the navy as an institution. It is a refreshing approach that yields strong dividends in understanding the navy’s place in the early years of the United States.
Dull seeks to explain why the rapidly growing United States failed to build a large, strong navy until the Civil War. Dull’s answer: It was a combination of “traditions established in America’s colonial past, such as localism and sectionalism, an obsession with the frontier and territorial expansion, and an aversion to strong central government and taxation” (viii). Only when the Civil War came, according to Dull, was the central government, under Abraham Lincoln’s dexterous leadership, able to break free of these attitudes to build a modern navy, which gave the Union a decisive advantage over a Confederate opponent still tied to the old ways.
Dull locates the origins of U.S. naval weakness in a familiar story of a colonial people living on the fringe of empire, suspicious of one another, and salutarily neglected by their government to form their own, locally minded institutions. Local power, however, did not translate well to naval power, as the colonists had no dockyards for building or repairing naval vessels, no manufacturing or financial sector to carry out or pay for such construction, and (most surprisingly to me) not enough men capable of leading and fighting a warship, since, as Dull argues, merchant and naval service were sufficiently distinct as to minimize the value of the colonies’ merchant marine.
Because of these handicaps, the Continental Navy was little help in the Revolution. To overcome rivalries, the Continental Congress parceled out the construction of ships to different states, which then competed with each other for resources. Administration was weak and prone to micromanagement by the Continental Congress. In a blow to navy pride, the most strategically important naval actions were the work of Continental Army soldiers operating aboard ship, as on Lake Champlain.
The story repeated itself in the early republic. The navy remained [End Page 792] small, with Congress’s periodic interest in a ship-building program hampered by pork-barrel politics. Administration improved, as a Department of the Navy was created in 1798, but its success depended largely on the character of particular secretaries. High points, such as the defeat of Tripoli in 1805, were tinged with failure. As Dull notes, Tripoli possessed only one vessel of more than twenty guns, and it took the U.S. Navy four years to achieve victory.
The War of 1812 produced similarly mixed results. Early on the navy won acclaim for its captures of several British frigates, but as the Royal Navy war machine got going, the U.S. Navy was simply overwhelmed, and many of its ships were blockaded in port. Once more, the most important strategic victories for the United States, such as the Battle of Lake Erie, came on fresh water.
At length the antebellum navy found missions for which it seemed adequate: protecting commerce, chasing pirates, patrolling the slave trade, rescuing shipwrecked sailors, producing charts, and undertaking scientific expeditions. The navy remained small by European standards, but the absence of war gave it time to grow...