Fighting the Revolution at sea

Following the battles of Lexington, Concord and Bunker Hill in the spring of 1775, the American Revolution devolved into a stalemate. The British army withdrew to Boston where they remained for the next year surrounded by a ragtag American army led by George Washington. To keep the British from receiving supplies, General George Washington, somewhat reluctantly at first, and without authorization from Congress, organized a small fleet of schooners to intercept British supply vessels. This was Washington’s secret navy.

The problem General Washington faced as commander of the American forces was that he had been directed by Congress to “defend American liberty.”

 “A navy would be different”, author Nelson tells us. “Sending ships onto the high seas to hunt down and capture British vessels could only be interpreted as an offensive action, which concerned many in Congress who still hoped for reconciliation with England.”

Maine author James Nelson’s account of this early and little known aspect of the American Revolution is a worthwhile read. The book focuses on the first year of the revolution (well before the exploits of John Paul Jones), during which time Washington tried anything to keep the British pinned down in Boston. Throughout the book, we see a growing awareness by Washington of the importance of naval power.

The first sea battle of the war took place in June 1775 in distant Machias, when the British sloop Margaretta was forced to surrender to three sloops manned by local Sons of Liberty. Thus, writes Nelson,  “the first ship-to-ship naval action of the American Revolution which would come to be known as the ‘Lexington and Concord of the Sea’ ended in an American victory”. Of greater significance to the British in Boston were the loss of 20 seamen and two shiploads of firewood.

The significance of this event and subsequent sea actions was not lost on Washington, who came to realize that the “real war in the New England theater during the first year was not for territory but for materiel and that it would be fought at sea.”

Naturally the British responded, the most notable example being their attack on Falmouth, today the city of Portland. In a chapter entitled, “The Empire Strikes Back” Nelson gives us a grim description of the bombardment and subsequent destruction of the town of 2,000 people by a powerful British squadron.

It is difficult to single out a particular American who helped Washington organize his navy, though John Glover of Marblehead would probably be near the top of the list.  Glover, who converted the merchant schooner Hannah in August 1775, was just one of a number of New England ship owners who rearmed their merchant vessels to harass British shipping beginning in the summer of 1775.

This phase of the revolution ended when the British evacuated Boston in March 1776 and sailed off to Halifax and eventually to New York. By then the seas were “bristling with armed American vessels” and Congress had finally authorized the building of a navy. Nelson reminds us that, “Washington’s secret navy had been a success. They captured thirty-eight vessels that were deemed legitimate prizes and hastened British General Howe’s evacuation of Boston by making his supply problems that much more critical.”

James Nelson has done it again. George Washington’s Secret Navy is a worthy successor to the author’s previous book Benedict Arnold’s Navy, also about the naval war during the revolution. In the process he has provided us with an informative, well-documented account of an often overlooked, but nonetheless important, aspect of the Revolutionary War.