Splintering the Wooden Wall: The British Blockade of the United States, 1812-1815

Splintering the Wooden Wall: The British Blockade of the United States, 1812-1815

by Wade G. Dudley

Most naval historians take their cue from the work of Alfred Thayer Mahan published a century ago and view the blockade of the United States during the War of 1812 as a highly effective wooden wall. But Wade Dudley challenges that prevailing interpretation and in the pages of this new study provides a bold new assessment. Rather than an impermeable wooden wall, he


Most naval historians take their cue from the work of Alfred Thayer Mahan published a century ago and view the blockade of the United States during the War of 1812 as a highly effective wooden wall. But Wade Dudley challenges that prevailing interpretation and in the pages of this new study provides a bold new assessment. Rather than an impermeable wooden wall, he says the Royal Navy's blockade resembled a light picket fence that was easily splintered by aggressive American public and private navies preying on British merchantmen. The first book-length treatment of the 1812 blockade since Mahan's, his well-reasoned analysis is certain to influence future thinking about the most used tool in a sailing Navy's arsenal.

The work presents a useful overview of the history, theory, and practice of blockades during the age of fighting sail along with an evaluation of the naval capabilities of the belligerents, a comparison of the blockade of the United States to British blockades of Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, and a discussion of the importance of geography in the theater of conflict. Readers will be fascinated by the story that emerges of the modern world's first super power at war with a developing nation and of a conflict between civilized states that threatened to devolve into little more than a campaign of terror.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Accomplished maritime historian Dudley turns his attention to the War of 1812, specifically, the British blockade and previous descriptions of it as tight, unbreakable, or even decisive in a favorable outcome for the British. He begins by discussing the geographical and technical factors of the naval war and proceeds to show the problems those factors presented to the two opposing navies. The British, usually short of ships, men, supplies, and bases, partially succeeded in bottling up the American navy and merchant marine, but they never sealed off America's coasts or prevented privateers from ravaging British commerce. Dudley thereafter places the War of 1812 in the context of a general study of blockades from the seventeenth century on, emphasizing the Napoleonic era, and concluding that blockades are hardly ever as all-conquering as some previous maritime historians have made them out to be. This dense book, while suited to advanced and scholarly students, is pretty much without peer on its subject." — Booklist

"...an excellent account of Warren's service during the War of 1812." — International Journal of Maritime History

"...successfully challenges Mahan's [wooden wall] assertion by reviewing the historical development of British blockades." — Choice

Product Details

Naval Institute Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.10(w) x 9.54(h) x 0.66(d)
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1 Year

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By Wade G. Dudley


Copyright © 2003
Wade G. Dudley
All right reserved.

ISBN: 155750167X

Chapter One

The Royal Navy and the Practice of Blockade, 1642-1783

Frequent conflict among European nations marred the second half of the seventeenth and all of the eighteenth century. In a commonly perceived zero-sum universe of economics and power, each nation struggled for its share of gold, influence, and glory. Many wars assumed a global nature, following the shipping lanes across the Atlantic basin to the coasts of the Americas, Africa, and beyond. Colonies changed hands, colonials learned the methodology of war, and parent countries, their attention and wealth focused upon the great battlefields of Europe, allowed their administrative leashes to loosen. Somewhere between the neglect of colonial governance and the over-expenditure of fiscal assets, two great revolutions developed. Britain's American colonies initiated a long and bitter struggle for independence. The rebellion soon escalated into a European war as France, followed by Spain and Holland, extended support to the colonials. America won its independence, but Britain's European enemies paid a stiff price. They failed to humble Great Britain and amassed tremendous debts in the attempt. In France, national bankruptcy joined with threads of internal dissent to spark the second great revolution of the late 1700s, ushering in another two decades of intensive conflict. In this arena, encompassing over 150 years of time and all of the world's oceans, England's Navy guarded its shores and constantly growing merchant marine. By 1793, extensive experience and technological advances had allowed the Royal Navy to develop a tactical stratagem, the blockade, into a strategic tool.

England (Great Britain as of 1707) found itself involved in, if not the focal point of, most of the era's conflicts. In addition, the nation suffered periods of internecine readjustment: the civil wars of 1642-51, followed by the Glorious Revolution of 1689-92 and the two Jacobite insurrections in 1715 and 1745. Whether the threat originated externally or internally, however, insular England invariably turned to its Navy as a primary military tool.

With the onset of civil war in 1642, the bulk of the Navy aligned itself with Parliament. That government tasked it with interdicting the Royalist line of communications to the continent, halting the steady flow of military supplies carried in Dutch and French bottoms to Royalist ports. Occasionally, the Navy physically blockaded Royalist harbors; more often, squadrons cruised likely approaches to those harbors or the Channel itself. The Royalists at last managed to organize a squadron from loyal vessels in 1648, placing Prince Rupert in command. The parliamentary Navy promptly blockaded the harbor-a Dutch harbor, Hellevoetsluis-but could not maintain the effort when faced with sickness and a shortage of provisions. Once the blockade lifted, Rupert escaped to sea, raiding his way through the Channel. Entering port in Kingsail, Rupert found himself again blockaded. As parliamentary land forces approached the port, a fortuitous gale drove the blockaders away, allowing Rupert to regain the sea. The Royalist squadron continued taking prizes as it looked southward for a safe haven, welcomed at last by King John IV of Portugal. When news of this event reached Parliament, it dispatched a fleet to destroy the Royalist vessels. Attempting to ascend the Tagus River to attack Rupert at Lisbon, the English vessels came under fire from Portuguese forts. Failing to reach accommodation with John IV, the parliamentary fleet settled into a blockade of Rupert's squadron which lasted from March to September 1650. Only the ability to water and purchase fresh provisions locally made such a lengthy interdiction possible. Still, the English vessels suffered from lack of repairs and fouling of their hulls by marine growths. When the annual Portuguese Brazil convoy appeared in mid-September, the English admiral chose to capture most of its vessels and return home rather than watch his fleet sink under his feet from lack of maintenance. Rupert sailed as soon as the blockade lifted. He continued raiding, for a time in the Mediterranean and then in the West Indies, at last disbanding his squadron at Nantes in 1654.

Three times Rupert found himself blockaded by an equal or superior force. In each instance, he observed the demoralization and deterioration of his crews caused by enforced idleness, diseases inherent in close confinement and proximity to an urban environment, desertion, and the failure to earn much coveted prize money. Twice he feared being forcibly ejected from his anchorage and directly into a battle with readied opponents-once by Cromwell's soldiers at Kingsail and again by possible edict of an irate John IV at Lisbon. Three important lessons regarding the blockade emerge from Rupert's experiences: a port is not a haven but a potential trap; a raiding force at sea is difficult to intercept, much less destroy; and blockades are impossible to sustain indefinitely without a nearby base-weather interfering where the frailty of men and vessels does not. It can be conjectured that Rupert actually took those lessons to heart in later years. After surviving the English Civil War, the prince returned to England during the Restoration. There he served as a flag officer in the second of the Dutch wars and as commander in chief of the fleet during the final months of the third Anglo-Dutch conflict.

As England's senior admiral, Rupert, in conjunction with French allies, attempted to establish a blockade of the Dutch coast in 1673 aimed at denying the United Provinces of the Netherlands' naval assets access to the sea. Rupert's plan included the landing of troops to seize the island of Texel as a local base for the blockaders. Fortunately for the Dutch, Adm. Engel De Ruyter (also spelled De Ruijter) sortied twice (First and Second Schooneveld). These actions, coupled with unusually stormy weather and dwindling food stocks, forced the allies to retire for repairs and provisioning. A repeat of the attempt to establish a blockade resulted in the battle of the Texel, an engagement conclusive in the sense that it prevented interdiction of the Dutch coast by the allies. Regardless of Rupert's lack of success, this remains the first readily identifiable precursor of the national blockades of 1793-1815.

Economic warfare characterized the Anglo-Dutch Wars of 1652-54, 1664-67, and 1670-74. As the belligerents attempted to disrupt or destroy commerce, both turned in varying degrees to the convoy system, with massed escorts (squadrons and even fleets) protecting the unarmed merchantmen. Dutch shipping found itself particularly vulnerable, as all but the Baltic trade had to transit the length of the Channel to reach its destination, while the Baltic fleet was subject to interception as it entered the North Sea and made for Dutch ports.

Historian Richard Harding made several important observations about the Anglo-Dutch Wars in his work on the rise of the battle fleet as the determinant element in sea power. The conflicts saw an increase in the use of privateers as a cost-effective instrument of national policy, especially by the United Provinces. Between 1665 and 1674, Dutch privateers captured 973 of the 1,135 prizes taken from England, France, and the occasional neutral. A dilemma, however, accompanied that success: the availability of seamen to meet the needs of the merchant marine, the state navy, and the popular and profitable private navy. The United Provinces resolved the problem by suspending privateering in favor of the public navy whenever the need arose. English privateers appear to have fared less well than the Dutch, though exact numbers are unavailable (other than a total of 1,022 captures by all parties). Apparently, the stringent Dutch convoy system, necessitated by geography, inhibited English guerre de course.

Here, Harding identifies two additional points, both critical to the development of blockades. Dutch convoys with escorting fleets required the massing of English naval assets even to attempt to assail the merchantmen. Such attempts often involved concentrated fleets of eighty to more than one hundred warships. Even if a successful interception occurred, the size of the opposing forces guaranteed a long and frequently inconclusive battle from which the convoy could steal away. Perhaps more significant than the utility of convoys was the reality of logistical demands. Massed fleets required massed feeding, massed repairs, and a massive treasury. The crews of eighty vessels stripped a port bare of victuals and maritime stores in a few weeks, necessitating relocation or disbandment of the fleet. Logistics, as much as weather, seems to have encouraged the dispersal of vessels during the winter and their reassemblage for summer campaigns. As for repairs, the English dockyards did not possess a single dry dock until after the Third Anglo-Dutch War (the French, in contrast, had dry-dock space for sixty vessels at that time). This series of conflicts served as a spur to the development of the royal dockyards, an investment which would pay handsome dividends by 1793.

War is seldom cost effective. The strictly maritime conflicts of 1662 to 1667 nearly impoverished both nations, even though the Dutch initially were in sounder financial condition. English seamen deserted in droves when not paid in a timely fashion, but more important, fiscal constraints pushed decision making in both countries. Perhaps the outstanding example is the Medway raid of 1666. England's King Charles II, hoping to see the then-Dutch ally, France, pressure the United Provinces to accept a peace accord, fitted out minimal forces for the summer campaign (Charles also lacked the financial assets to do much more than that). Those forces proved incapable of stopping a Dutch fleet from ascending the Thames and Medway, stripping naval stores and victuals in the area, burning vessels, and carrying away several of England's best warships. Two important observations regarding the study of the development of the British blockade relate to the Medway raid. First, fiscal constraints place a cap upon the projection of naval force (accompanying the logistical and manpower stops previously discussed). Every nation has its limits, no matter the breadth of its empire. Second, England is vulnerable even at its heart-what strategy would best relieve that vulnerability? One answer lay a century away.

Historian Peter Woodfine writes that British naval efforts against Spain immediately before the War of the Austrian Succession "sank into partial blockades and intermittently successful patrols." Following the Third Anglo-Dutch War, the same can be said of the concept of a national blockade. Woodfine then clearly defines the problem associated with naval supremacy well into the 1780s: "To build up a reliable ocean-going navy, with efficient communications, and capable of keeping the seas in all weathers throughout the year, was not simply a work of great time and effort: in the 1740s it was impossible." And without such a navy, blockades of the breadth in use after 1793 could not have been successful (this implies that Prince Rupert's attempted blockade would have dissolved without Dutch interference).

The most critical constraints upon any pre-1793 blockade, excluding the rather obvious finance and manpower, were disease, naval infrastructure, and vessel durability. Scurvy, caused by vitamin C deficiency, was the scourge of the Royal Navy, and unsurprisingly so as the standard naval provisions included little of that vitamin. Physician James Lind published A Treatise of the Scurvy in 1753, having discovered by experimentation that fruit and green vegetables, fresh or properly preserved, prevented the disease. The Admiralty ignored the recommendations of Lind and other physicians until 1795. As a result, a six-week cruise of the Channel Fleet in 1780 resulted in 2,400 cases of scurvy, while the sick list for the 100,000 men of the Royal Navy in 1782 featured 23,000 ill. Most suffered from vitamin C deficiency. By 1805, with lime juice and fresh fruit introduced into the standard diet, only 8,000 of 120,000 men appeared on the year's sick rolls. Other improvements in the 1700s-standards of cleanliness, quarantine procedures, proper attire for the men, and more and better doctors on board ships-joined with Lind's work to produce a healthier Navy capable of spending the months at sea required by long blockades.

Daniel A. Baugh, in an article titled "Why Did Britain Lose Command of the Sea during the War for America?" observes that "the skills, facilities and resources that subtended effective and efficient naval power in the eighteenth century had to be built up and nurtured over a long period of time." Penny pinching by the North government, he concludes, ultimately caused the temporary loss of command of the sea, but the Bourbons would have been hard-pressed to overcome the long-term British lead in maritime and naval infrastructure: yards and artificers for rapidly building and repairing vessels, a pool of highly skilled seamen to man an expanding Navy, and an experienced naval bureaucracy to coordinate maritime efforts. Thus Great Britain, between 1672 and 1780, developed a lead in naval infrastructure that could not be easily challenged by other nations. It was that infrastructure, nearing its peak of perfection for the age of sail, which was required to support the logistically demanding blockades of the Napoleonic era.

The greatest problem with the durability of British ships before the late 1770s resided in their wooden bottoms. Wood submerged in warm water was attacked by worms, which could completely destroy it in a few years. In both warm and cold water, barnacles attached themselves to a vessel's bottom, quickly followed by long strands of seaweed. The weed rapidly grew until its drag slowed the ship's movement. More important, this sea life actually forced its way into the seams of a vessel, opening it slowly but surely to the sea. Vessels often accumulated enough growth in less than six weeks at sea to slow movement, and in as little as three months it could become necessary to careen the ship (to tilt it by careening tackle at a dock or at low tide on a sandy beach), scrape its bottom, and recaulk its seams. The invention of coppering at last mitigated the problem. Attaching copper sheathes to ships' bottoms avoided the worm and vastly slowed sea growths, allowing ships to stay at sea without reduced movement for much longer periods of time. It is difficult to conceive of the post-1793 blockades existing without the discovery of coppering.

The limitations imposed by ship durability and disease, as well as the growth of the British naval infrastructure since 1642, are clearly visible in the close blockade of Brest, May to November 1759, conducted by Adm.


Excerpted from SPLINTERING THE WOODEN WALL by Wade G. Dudley
Copyright © 2003 by Wade G. Dudley
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

Meet the Author

Wade G. Dudley holds a Ph.D. in military and naval history from the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and is also the author of a biography on Sir Francis Drake.

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