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Crisis at the Chesapeake: The Royal Navy and the Struggle for America 1775-1783

Reviewed by Joseph Moretz, PhD

The story of the American War of Independence has oft been told but rather less has been said of the maritime portion of that story and less still has been told from the perspective of the Royal Navy. It is to this end that Quintin Barry, a retired solicitor and employment judge, offers Crisis at the Chesapeake: The Royal Navy and the Struggle for America 1775-1783 as a rejoinder. In a well-reasoned and highly readable monograph, Barry surveys that war’s broader naval context and the competing challenges faced by Admiralty and flag officers alike as they sought to restore imperial control on the rebellious American colonies.

Hindsight reveals just what a difficult task Britain faced.  Its attention was focused foremost on affairs in Europe and the West Indies, which partly explains the manifest difficulties experienced by the Royal Navy in American waters, but Barry notes that the strategic choices of where and how to counter simultaneous threats were far from the only hindrances preventing British success. Operational shortfalls existed such that executing amphibious raids on the American coast came at the expense of maintaining the blockade which starved the colonists of outside support. In short, the British lacked the necessary ships on station to perform both tasks at the start of the war. This was difficult to achieve in 1775 and even more so in 1780, after France became actively allied with the American cause. Complicating such dilemmas further was the need to find naval escorts to protect the trade that made prosecuting the war possible. 

With a French invasion of England a real possibility in 1779 and outlying holdings, such as Gibraltar, under constant threat of invasion, the wonder is that Britain managed to retain as much of its empire as it did. A strength of Crisis at the Chesapeake is the attention the author pays to Britain’s joint approach to the war. The need to balance risks and opportunities proved just as vexing for the British Army, and harmonizing military and naval strategy was never going to be easy for Britain, especially as flag and general officers rotated between service in America and elsewhere. Even if that bugbear had not been present, ensuring a congruent approach would have remained difficult given the limitations of the era’s communications and the distances to be overcome. With messages taking weeks to pass between London and the New World and the campaigning season constricted by the seasons, the window for achieving operational success remained fleeting indeed.

To be sure, these difficulties were not unique to the British situation in America, but the need to fashion a military response that would move the colonists to desist from their political course surely was. Local maritime supremacy might allow the British to land forces at a time and place of their choosing and gain a lodgment, but the British victory secured at Charles Town (i.e., Charleston) in 1780 showed the limits of such successes absent the defeat of the forces under General Washington and, more importantly, those of his French allies. To his credit, Washington appreciated the same and husbanded his command until local military and naval superiority could be assured.

As a military strategy, Lieutenant General Sir Henry Clinton’s foray into the Carolinas to separate one portion of the rebellion from the other had much merit, but the greater problems remained. With Clinton returning to New York, General Lord Cornwallis continued British operations into Virginia arguing that standing pat in South Carolina put at risk the gains so far made. This is ever a problem for lesser military forces that have seized the initiative, as either troops are siphoned off to ensure the security of one’s line of communications or the risk is accepted that resupply will occur at a later point on the line of advance. Cornwallis implicitly accepted that the Royal Navy could resupply his forces no matter the army’s objective.

The prospect of being supplied from the sea while extending operations into Virginia did not unduly worry Cornwallis, as he had arrived by sea and witnessed Clinton depart by sea. In fact, he believed operations along the Chesapeake with its numerous estuaries remained preferable to sustaining a force from Wilmington. From a purely military point of view this was assuredly so, but from the naval perspective the situation was much more nuanced. Absent the defeat or neutralization of the French fleet supporting the American cause, the Chesapeake represented as much a cul de sac as a point d’appui.  The risk remained that Rear Admiral Thomas Graves might not gain the Chesapeake to succor Cornwallis.

Of course, Vice Admiral Mariot Arbuthnot had demonstrated in March 1781 at Cape Henry the British navy’s ability to secure temporary control of the Chesapeake as an adjunct to supporting an army under duress. Then it had been Brigadier General Benedict Arnold’s force needing help while engaged along the tidewater. Barry’s accounting of these preliminaries is succinct and judicious. The respite, however, proved fleeting as Arbuthnot’s force sailed for New York while further American troops trekked southward to Virginia and Cornwallis’s location. In all this luck had played its part. While Arbuthnot’s superior squadron reached the Chesapeake ahead of a French flotilla, poor signaling on the part of the British hindered the concentration of their forces which ought to have delivered a greater result against the Chevalier des Touches.

September saw Cornwallis facing circumstances not unlike those that had beset Arnold six month previous. This time Rear Admiral Thomas Graves would possess neither an advantageous position nor a superior fleet, to Cornwallis’ lasting detriment. Again, poor communications marred British tactical execution, though it must also be allowed that this time Graves received less support than   was perhaps due from Rear Admiral Sir Samuel Hood. This is a tentative conclusion though, for in truth, Hood and his subordinate flag officers lacked that familiarity which derives from close, constant association, as circumstances had not permitted the standard training beforehand. That personality and pique between the principals exacerbated matters must be recognized as further reason for the defeat suffered.

As a tactical encounter the Battle of the Chesapeake hardly merits remembrance, but strategically its effects were far reaching for from it a nation was ultimately won. In a work finely illustrated, soundly argued, and sympathetically told Quintin Barry recounts these events from a British perspective. It is a perspective all will benefit from reading and this work is warmly recommended.

Dr. Joseph Moretz is a member of the British Commission for Military History.

Crisis at the Chesapeake: The Royal Navy and the Struggle for America 1775-1783 (Quintin Barry, Helion & Company, Warwick, Great Britain, 2021).

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