Lose the Sea, Lose the Colonies

This is a response to a prompt from my Joint Professional Military Education (JPME). Here I explore reasons why the British Navy was not successful in the American War for Independence

Keegan Leary
Keegan Leary

Why was Britain not able to translate its naval strength into decisive strategic effects during the War for American Independence? What opportunities did they have and why did they not succeed? Do you agree with Mahan’s critique of British naval strategy?

Britain suffered from flawed strategy and ill fortune in the War for American Independence which rendered it unable to translate its naval strength into decisive strategic effects. Britain failed to consolidate its naval forces when France and Spain entered the war which left them vulnerable all over the globe. Additionally, Britain lacked a unified command which contributed to disjointed strategy and poor tactics.

From a numbers perspective, the British Navy was the weakest it had been in recent history for the crucial period from 1778 to 1800. Owing to fallout from the Seven Years War, the British fleet had reduced in size from roughly 100 ships down to 66, only two thirds of which were fully manned and equipped (Carpenter 12, 76). While the fleet could be formidable against a single adversary, it was not big enough for three. It simply wasn’t a big enough Navy to simultaneously handle the onslaught of international threats: homeland invasion by Spain, colonial conquest by France, and raids by American privateers (Mahan 184, 326-327). The British Navy “could no longer guarantee the Atlantic supply-line or the army's lateral communications on the American coast” (Mackesy 541).

The British lacked a singular unity of command from London that contributed to poor communication and absence of joint effects that can emerge from synergistic operations of multiple military branches. Secretary Germain saw his role limited to appointments of commanders and allocations of resources, but not extending to dictation of orders, though that did not keep him from making vague suggestions. The King did not see the American issue as a problem requiring force beyond heavy-handed policing. As a result, commanders were left without a cohesive strategy which even prompted Howe and Burgoyne to request installment of a military “viceroy” (Carpenter 13).

Opportunities to ask “what if…?” abound surrounding British strategy in the American War for Independence. Without getting too lost in hindsight bias, it seems the largest failed opportunity would be that with the largest consequence, which is Cornwallis’s surrender at Yorktown. Here there is value in playing out various scenarios, as both Mahan and Carpenter do, to increase our military knowledge. Ultimately, I would have to agree with Mahan, that Britain failed its opportunity here by not properly concentrating its military might towards a critical event. Britain lost control of the seas at Chesapeake Bay. Washington was able to exploit this, focusing what power he had and communicating his strategic vision to the French Navy, such that he could orchestrate the surrender of Cornwallis.

“In any operation, and under all circumstances, a decisive naval superiority is to be considered as a fundamental principle, and the basis upon which every hope of success must ultimately depend.” (Washington to Count de Rochambeau via The Marquis de Lafayette).


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