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Book Review: Flotilla


[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.

Archaeologists excavate wreck of sloop USS Scorpion. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kenneth G. Takada/Released)
Archaeologists excavate wreck of sloop USS Scorpion. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kenneth G. Takada/Released)

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.

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  • Joe_JP


    Wikipedia informs me that he served in the French navy too.

  • Woodrowfan

    the harassment of the British fleet as it sailed back down the Potomac is also interesting, and rarely mentioned. You can still find the American rifle trenches and artillery emplacements on the Virginia side south of Mt. Vernon. The deep part of the channel ran very close to the Virginia bank of the river and militia could fire almost straight down into the British ships. Attempts to launch fire ships from DC into the British fleet, however, were not successful.

  • Dennis Orphen

    Thank you for reposting that here. Your recommended readings and analysis are greatly appreciated.

  • LosGatosCA

    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.

    Didn’t one of the war games before the Iraq war show the, at least theoretical, vulnerability of US strategy to this approach?

    People generally go with what they know best which also makes them most comfortable. They only change tactics when either their survival requires it or they are replaced by folks who are more adaptable.

    • Joe_JP

      Let us not forget that great moment in naval war games portrayed in Down Periscope.

  • AMK

    The War of 1812 also disproves the democratic peace theory… “democracies don’t go to war with other democracies” etc. The world’s only two large states that could plausibly be called “democratic” in the context of their times (with the same language and extensive trade ties) in fact chose to go to war.

    • Lurker

      I beg to disagree. The contemporary Sweden was at least as democratic as Great Britain. It had a bicameral parliament with much wider electorate than Great Britain, a functioning system for the parliament to impeach ministers, and the parliament holding the power of the purse, not forgetting an independent judiciary.

  • Richard Hershberger

    I grew up fascinated by military history in general, and naval history in particular. It is fascinating in retrospect to consider how I understood the War of 1812. One would think that it was mainly a series of half a dozen or so single ship actions, plus the bombardment of Fort McHenry. In other words, the bits where the American forces did well (though not including, curiously, the Battle of New Orleans–that seemed to require too much explanation). Now, in my extremely advanced youth, reading more mature, less politically correct books on the subject, I realize just what a cluster fuck the whole thing was.

    The other curious aspect is that I have come around to believe that it, or a war much like it, was probably inevitable, and the actual timing was probably the best we could hope for. The real issue was could the UK treat the US like a banana republic? All sovereign nations are, in theory, equally sovereign. But not really. The underlying American complaint was of being treated as a banana republic, and they were right. Had the war not been fought, there is no reason to believe that the UK wouldn’t have continued the practice as long as they could get away with it, and it isn’t clear what short of a war would have driven home the point that they couldn’t get away with it anymore.

    The irony is that it was the Battle of New Orleans that really mattered. Everyone before that assumed that there would be another go-around once Britain had recovered from the Napoleonic Wars. Little about the American record gave Britain any reason for reluctance about going another round. Then out of nowhere, American troops manhandled British regulars in a stand-up fight. Suddenly the prospect didn’t seem as much fun as it had before. Focusing on the detail that New Orleans occurred after the peace treaty had been signed misses the point.

  • paul.c.klos

    “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. … and to those focusing on small boat and irregular warfare strategies”

    I am not seeing that (above) the small approach was patently absurd and as useless in practice as the USN realized it would be. Seeing as the US strategy advocated by the Navy was already asymmetric and decidedly effective, the small boats were a waste of money and men.

    I have to say Splintering the Wooden wall is probably a better read. The privateer effort certainty cost the UK far more than the small boats. More of the large frigates would have been useful as well given their ability to in ideal circumstance survive brushes with capital ships and with a more forceful direction to run away from naval duels and focus only on raiding and burning merchant tonnage one might have pushed the cost insurance even higher in London

    All in all I can’t help but feel the money and effort and navel stores would have been better used (and per-placed) for fighting on the lakes. Given how close the ship race was there and difficulty in getting men and materiel there to be used.

    • Lurker

      These are two levels of naval war. Commerce and coastal raiding are a good way to wage war on the strategic scale. However, they are invisible for everyone on the coast. Small boats are quite unable to win a war. Their effect is purely tactical or operational, but they have an indirect strategic effect, too: The people on the coast can see you fighting and protecting the coastal areas. In addition, on tactical level they limit the enemy freedom of action quite a bit, which is also worthwhile.

      • paul.c.klos

        I guess my point would be they small boats were more or less protecting nothing and at the sharp end of the stick required only a tiny portion of the overall operational effort of the UK to pay attention. The UK effort was aimed at all US assets – small boats, navy ships and privateers. At best the small boats might have stopped the UK from acting on the one estuary they were blockaded into but not any other they had no freedom of movement and realistically tied down only a few ships. Breaking free they were going to do what? Lead a raid on Halifax. Mine shipping lanes. Sink British commerce on the high sea. Swarm attack a 72 gun ship of the line and sink it?

        Again they remain a completely pointless waste of effort that could have been better spend on the the great lakes.

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