The Struggle for Sea Power, Sam Willis

I have said in the past that if I was not studying ancient Greece there is a short list of other subjects that I would study. One of those is 18th and 19th century naval history. I have a print of a watercolor rendition of the USS Constitution on my wall and used to eat up stories about Horatio Nelson, of whom I own a two-volume biography, Stephen Decatur at Tripoli, and many, many more. I did eventually move away from simple fascination with adventure stories and became more interested in the social and economic aspects of naval powers and a personal favorite in my library is the history of the British Navy by N.A.M. Rodgers, volume two, The Command of the Ocean. Two weeks ago I saw that the library received a copy of a brand new history of the American Revolution, The Struggle for Sea Power by Sam Willis.

Willis’ central claim, that the conflict known as the American Revolution was fundamentally determined by and ultimately about maritime power, is aptly shown. Here is a presented a catholic definition of naval power to include the rivers, lakes, and bays of America in addition to the seas from the Caribbean to India and Willis notes that the success of most major land campaigns were determined by the abilities of sailors accompanying the fleet. Similarly, from his perspective, nearly all British campaigns during the war were a projection of naval power from a handful of port cities along the American east coast. But the war in America was just one part of a larger conflict that drew in The Netherlands, Morocco, Spain, France, Russia, and the Indian Sultan Hyder Ali. For Americans, sea power was a means to receive supplies and impede the British ability to persecute the war, but Willis shows that there was a broader concern among the other powers, namely whether it would be possible to wrest control of the seas from Britain for their own use.

Covering such a broad sweep, Willis frequently boils success and failure of operations to clashes of personality. The inability of commanders, whether between political parties, between nations, or between land and sea, to work in concert frequently determines the course of the action, perhaps even to too great an extent. Other than the individual merits of the commanders, Willis is keenly aware of the perils of sailing, including the deterioration of ship, the need for local guides, and dangerous storms, all of which appear. Willis draws together a wide range of specialized studies, on the navies of the different colonies, on the European navies, and more, and is thus able to weave in issues of naval funding, nutrition, and technology. The last is particularly notable in that the ironic twist to this story is that the American Revolution was a defeat for the British, but the innovation and mobilization meant that they emerged from the conflict in an even stronger position on the seas.

Even being predisposed to liking this topic, I enjoyed The Struggle for Sea Power, though its language was at times overly casual for my taste. To give one example, there were several examples of people being “shot in the balls.” I also wanted to know more about some of the more picayune aspects of technological development and the like, but I can’t hold those against Willis since the point of the book is how those played out during the American Revolution, which is adequately discussed.

Next up, I am still reading (and enjoying) Palace Walk, but recent events have caused my reading to slow. I am also irrationally excited for the arrival of my newest book order, which includes an Indonesian novel Man Tiger and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

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