[Ed. note: This was originally published on September 27, 2009 at Information Dissemination. The ID archives were down for a while, but are back up now, along with new content (read!). Nevertheless, I wanted to make sure that this was available at LGM…]
I recently finished Donald Shomette’s Flotilla: The Patuxent Naval Campaign in the War of 1812. The United States initiated the War of 1812 in response to the activity of the Royal Navy, including the impressment of US sailors and the restriction of US freedom of trade. Territorial aggrandizement was also a goal; although opinions differ on how serious the US was about the annexation of Canada, the elimination of British influence along the frontier was understood as necessary to further US settlement and expansion. In spite of US growth since the Revolution, Great Britain remained militarily dominant by any metric. It was hoped, however, that the British would be too distracted by the war against Napoleon to devote their full attention to North America. Unfortunately for the Americans, the Royal Navy had largely eliminated the French Navy as a major threat, and was able to devote serious attention to the United States from the beginning of the war. The US coastline was virtually unprotected, leaving American vulnerable to trade blockade and to raids. The Royal Navy decided to concentrate its activity in the Chesapeake Bay area, home of the new US capitol and of the major port of Baltimore.
In response to the overwhelming dominance of the Royal Navy, Revolutionary War veteran Joshua Barney proposed to the Secretary of War a new set of tactics. In order to carry out their raiding operations, large, deep draft Royal Navy vessels had to accept some vulnerability, and had to employ launches in order to deliver and recover troops. Barney reasoned that a flotilla of shallow draft barges could sufficiently harass Royal Navy raiding parties to make the operations too costly and dangerous to carry out. Barney received approval from Washington to build a flotilla and recruit a corps of sailors necessary to carry out this effort; for his pains, he was made Commodore of the flotilla. The organization was distinct from the USN, and was viewed with some hostility by military professionals. Nevertheless, it represented the only chance to break the hold of the Royal Navy over the Chesapeake, a hold that was becoming increasingly intolerable as escaped slaves began to flock to the British flag.
Barney was able to put together his flotilla, but he was unable to stop Royal Navy depredation. The British took the flotilla seriously, and treated it as the major threat in the Chesapeake. They responded by bottling the flotilla up and blockading it on the Patuxent River. This utilized some Royal Navy resources, and the Americans were able to score some minor victories, but no major British vessels were lost, and British raiding activity continued. Local militia had no interest in fighting the British, and typically fled at the first shot. Because of the large number of pro-British slaves (male slaves of age were trained to fight, while the rest were freed and sent either to Canada or British Caribbean possessions), the Royal Marines typically had excellent intelligence as to American capabilities and dispositions.
The Chesapeake campaign resulted in an almost complete victory for the Royal Navy. Atlhough the British were unable to secure and burn the city of Baltimore, they managed to burn and loot much of the rest of the region, including the city of Washington. The British looted an enormous quantity of tobacco, ground regional commerce to a halt, and freed a substantial number of American slaves. Barney’s flotilla was scuttled to prevent capture, although his men served heroically at the Battle of Bladensburg and at Fort McHenry. British victory depended not only on vast material superiority, but also on exceptional skill on sea and on land. American militia and regular Army were simply inadequate to the task of fighting the battle-hardened British on anything approaching equal circumstances. It didn’t help that the very best American forces were deployed to the Canadian border. Moreover, the outcome of the Chesapeake campaign should have been essentially foreseeable to American policymakers. While Americans lacked the capacity to challenge the Royal Navy in anything but single-ship battles, it was obvious that the British would use their superiority at sea to devastate American coastal areas. The presence of the French and Spanish navies had limited the damage during the Revolution, but neither were a factor in the War of 1812. I think it can be plausibly argued that the War of 1812 represents the biggest “mistake war” in American history; regardless of whether sufficient cassus belli existed, the United States was simply not up to the task of launching and winning a war against Great Britain.
The American strategy in the Chesapeake campaign represents the same kind of asymmetric, small boat strategy that gave the USN fits in the first half of this decade. To be sure, the Americans also employed other asymmetric strategies, most notably a commerce raiding campaign that depended both on USN frigates and on privateers. Nevertheless, as the points of comparison between the Royal Navy of 1814 and the USN of 2009 are obvious, it’s not surprising that opponents adopt broadly similar methods. The small boat strategy is not, apparently, dependent upon a particular constellation of technologies. Small boats can always provide some threat to large ships in littoral areas, although I think it could be argued that the development of the torpedo increased small boat lethality. German torpedo boats significantly reduced Allied freedom of action off the French coast in World War II, for example. Indeed, there’s nothing new about the idea of blowing up a small boat next to a big ship, although the suicide element is reasonably novel. Of course, small boats can and have also been utilized as part of a larger symmetrical strategy of warfare; the USN PT-Boat campaign of World War II caused the Japanese no end of difficulty.
The experience of Barney’s flotilla also brings up some interesting issues regarding the behavior of military organizations. Barney was forced to essentially invent the flotilla, without significant support (and indeed against opposition) from the United States Navy. Barney did his own recruiting, designed his own ships, and procured his own artillery, provisions, and ordnance. To be sure, he didn’t do this from his own funds; both the US government and the State of Maryland gave him some support. Also, even a regular naval commander of the Napoleonic Era had to play the role of independent contractor on many occasions, as readers of Patrick ‘Brian will be well aware. Nevertheless, the organizational environment that he created is quite distinct from that which exists in any modern military organization. I suspect that it would be nearly impossible to create such an organization today in a modern state; the institutional and legal barriers would be insurmountable. The exception that proves the rule might be Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, which has managed to create naval forces independent of the main naval organizations of the Islamic Republic. The Revolutionary Guard, however, enjoys a level of political and organizational independence that is extremely rare in a modern state, and that depends on the peculiar institutions of modern Iran.
Barney’s task was undoubtedly made easier by the fact that he could draw upon a population that was familiar with the sea and with boats. This substantially increased the recruiting pool, the interest level (people who depended on the sea were particularly vulnerable to the British), and the skill level of the recruits. I found this interesting in that it supported Mahan’s contention that one of the pillars of naval power is a population that is familiar with and interested in maritime life. I have always had some doubt that this is the case in the industrial era; I don’t, for example, believe that a serving officer born and raised in Nebraska is any less capable than an officer raised in Maryland or Massachusetts. This is because the tasks of modern naval life are sufficiently distant from the tasks of civilian maritime experience to make any initial differences disappear beneath professional military training. I have no doubt, however, that a population oriented around maritime activities was critical to naval power in the Age of Sail and before. I’m also inclined now to think that the success of irregular naval forces (of which Barney’s flotilla is an example) is much more sensitive to the maritime capabilities of a given population than is that of a professional naval organization.
It’s odd that the small boat strategy always seems somewhat surprising to established navies, especially given the recurrence of such strategies over the years. One reason might be that navies are organizationally inclined to think about threats that are symmetrical. A Mahanian naval stance requires modern shipbuilding capabilities and a long organizational tail. A commerce raiding or cruiser strategy requires much the same thing, if on a different scale. A small boat strategy, however, can be conducted by organizations utterly unlike a modern Navy. In its relatively ad hoc approach to construction, procurement, and recruitment, Barney’s flotillas shares some characteristics with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, the pre-independence Israeli naval forces, the Tamil Tigers, and even Al Qaeda. In combination with the above observation regarding the importance of “people of the sea” to irregular naval forces, there’s undoubtedly some interesting work to be done regarding the prospects for Al Qaeda penetration into various maritime-oriented tribal networks in SE Asia. I suspect that there are also some interesting observations to be made regarding population, professionalism, and the effectiveness of small boat strategies.
In any case, Flotilla is valuable both to those interested in naval history, and to those focusing on small boat and irregular warfare strategies. I highly recommend it.