On Reading Naval History

Laid low as I am by this foul sickness, I’ve occupied my bed-ridden time by watching Tudor costume dramas (The Tudors and Elizabeth: The Golden Age; expect a post on both in the next day or three) and reading naval history.

Specifically, the Age of Fighting Sail. So, roughly 1600 to 1850.

I’m not sure what the appeal, for me, in the era of wooden ships, their cannons, and their crews is. A strong wind at the back, nothing about you but the endless vistas of the open ocean, the smell of powder, and the thrill of a close action. Maybe it’s like Jean-Luc Picard said in Star Trek: Generations: “This is freedom, Will.”

I’ve had, for a number of years, a well-worn and waterlogged copy of Alfred Thayer Mahan’s seminal work, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783. Given a title like that, one might be forgiven for thinking that Mahan attempts to do for naval warfare was Sun-Tzu and Clausewitz did for land warfare: present precepts in how to fight a naval battle, illustrated by historical examples.

In reality, Mahan’s book was a call to America, circa 1900, to become a naval power. Mahan argues that the British empire survived as long as it did because it controlled the seas. Mahan’s book would prove influential to Teddy Roosevelt, who built the Great White Fleet during his presidency, and who was himself a naval historian (see The Naval War of 1812).

As a general history of naval warfare in the pre-Napoleonic era, I’ve found much of interest in Mahan’s book, weighted though it is toward fleet actions, rather than single-ship actions. Someone looking for a history of the Age of Fighting Sail who comes from C.S. Forester or Patrick O’Brian would probably not care for Mahan, as Mahan paints the “big” picture, and leaves out the details that make the tales of Hornblower and Aubrey so vibrant and exciting.

Searching through Project Gutenberg a little more than a week ago for something else, I discovered that they had posted another Mahan naval history, The Major Operations of the Navies in the War of American Independence. I downloaded the text file, and I’ve been working through it.

Mahan covers much of what’s in Major Operations in The Influence of Sea Power, though the two books were written some two decades apart. The major addition to Major Operations seems to be a lengthy account of Benedict Arnold’s defense of Lake Champlain. And of course, what Mahan covers in two or three chapters in Influence runs three hundred pages in Major Operations.

The title is exactly what this book is about — “major” operations.

John Paul Jones merits a brief mention. The famous battle between the Bonhomme Richard and Serapis warrants not even a name-check.

One major point of interest is that for the Royal Navy of the Napoleonic Wars, the American Revolution was a major training ground. Nelson, Pellew, Samaurez, and Collingswood all receive major mentions in Naval Operations. Just as the French and Indian War trained the British and American officers of the Revolution, and the Mexican War trained the commanders of the Civil War, the careers of the great captains and admirals of the Napoleonic Era began with the British attempt to quell the rebellion in their American colonies.

It is somewhat odd to read a text written by an American that uses British spelling entirely. “Harbour” instead of “harbor,” for instance. I chalk that up to Mahan’s era.

There are some amazing texts on Project Gutenberg. I’m glad I found Major Operations, as I’m enjoying reading it. At the very least, it’s giving me ideas. 😉

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