Two centuries before the daring exploits of Navy SEALs and Marine Raiders captured the public imagination, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps were already engaged in similarly perilous missions: raiding pirate camps, attacking enemy ships in the dark of night, and striking enemy facilities and resources on shore. Even John Paul Jones, father of the American navy, saw such irregular operations as critical to naval warfare. With Jones’s own experience as a starting point, Benjamin Armstrong sets out to take irregular naval warfare out of the shadow of the blue-water battles that dominate naval history. This book, the first historical study of its kind, makes a compelling case for raiding and irregular naval warfare as key elements in the story of American sea power.
Beginning with the Continental Navy, Small Boats and Daring Men traces maritime missions through the wars of the early republic, from the coast of modern-day Libya to the rivers and inlets of the Chesapeake Bay. At the same time, Armstrong examines the era’s conflicts with nonstate enemies and threats to American peacetime interests along Pacific and Caribbean shores. Armstrong brings a uniquely informed perspective to his subject; and his work—with reference to original naval operational reports, sailors’ memoirs and diaries, and officers’ correspondence—is at once an exciting narrative of danger and combat at sea and a thoroughgoing analysis of how these events fit into concepts of American sea power.
Offering a critical new look at the naval history of the Early American era, this book also raises fundamental questions for naval strategy in the twenty-first century.
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JOHN PAUL JONES AND THE BIRTH OF AMERICAN NAVAL IRREGULAR WARFARE
His Majesty's schooner Gaspee jerked to a stop in what Lieutenant William Dudingston thought was clear water. The schooner, on revenue and security patrols in the Narragansett Bay of Rhode Island, was following a suspicious packet sloop named Hanah toward Providence. But Gaspee had not been up the Providence River before, and her sailors and commander did not know the hazards of the sandbar off Namquid Point, a sandbar that Hanah's skipper Thomas Lindsey had purposely sailed close to in the hope that the falling tide might snare the British warship. It was June of 1772, and the relationship between the watermen of Rhode Island and the Royal Navy was at a low point after months of seizures, inspections, and tax collection.
Dudingston and his men tried to break Gaspee free from the sand, but to no avail. With the tide continuing to fall, and the sun setting, it would be hours until the water rose enough to free the schooner. The British sailors estimated that around 0200, in the early morning hours, the ship would lift off the bar. Dudingston ordered his watch to set a lookout and sent the rest of his crew below to get some sleep. He retired to his cabin and changed into his bedshirt to catch some needed rest himself.
Just after midnight, as the crew slept, Seaman Bartholomew Cheever spotted something in the darkness. He first thought he had simply seen the moonlight play off nearby rocks. However, a few moments later he looked again and the rocks appeared to be moving. He shouted a warning but received no response across the water. He hailed a second time, again with no answer. The lone watchstander headed aft and ducked into his skipper's cabin, waking Dudingston and William Dickinson, the midshipman who was Gaspee's second in command. As the seaman went back on deck, the lieutenant grabbed his officer's sword and followed him out into the night in his bedclothes.
Back on deck, the British made out a pair of boats approaching Gaspee from the north, the lead group of what would be a whole swarm. Dudingston shouted toward them, demanding that they identify themselves. A voice rose out of the night from Abraham Whipple, identifying himself as the sheriff of Kent County, Rhode Island, and announced that the boats were approaching to serve a warrant and arrest Dudingston. He was charged with overstepping his authority in pursuit of smugglers along Rhode Island's shores. Dudingston ordered them to depart and to return to discuss their issues at a more appropriate hour. He sent Dickinson to unlock the small-arms locker as more boats appeared and continued to approach Gaspee.
Whipple again shouted his intention to arrest the lieutenant, encouraging the men who rowed the boats to pull on toward the warship. Dudingston ordered Cheever to fire a warning shot with his musket. But the seaman's flint had become wet and the lock snapped without firing. As the boats rushed the final yards toward the sides of the ship, the lieutenant shouted down the hatch to awaken his crew and order them on deck. He rushed for the starboard bow, where the first boat approached, and swung his sword toward the ghostly men who were attempting to board his ship out of the night.
A musket shot rang out from the boats. Dudingston was hit in the left arm, the ball continued and ripped through his groin, and he fell back onto the deck in a pool of his own blood. The boarders swarmed over the schooner's low bulwarks, armed with axe handles and wooden staves, and beat the British crew back below decks, guarding the hatch to ensure they could not come out. The raiders thronged around Dudingston and Dickinson, menacing in the moonlight and threatening to beat them both further unless they begged for their lives. But Abraham Whipple and John Brown stopped them, the ship secured for the moment. Dudingston struck a deal with the colonials, he would order his men to surrender if they promised nobody else would be hurt. The men from Providence agreed.
Eight boats had gathered at Fenner's Wharf in Providence when Hanah arrived, telling the tale of Gaspee's grounding. Whipple, a former privateer skipper in the French and Indian Wars, and Brown had gathered and armed crews with muskets, knives, and clubs. Gaspee had been preying on Rhode Island merchantmen, stopping and delaying their voyages, seizing their cargo with what they considered questionable cause. They had had enough, and the local merchants had sworn out a complaint against Dudingston and a judge issued an arrest warrant. The eight boats had rowed the five miles south to Gaspee to launch their maritime raid.
The British sailors surrendered, under the lieutenant's orders, and the colonials began binding their hands and placing them into the boats. The Rhode Islanders treated Dudingston's wounds and carried him off the ship as well. With the schooner empty, they set combustibles and lit them before scrambling for the boats left alongside. Pulling hard for the shore, the raiders and their captives watched as Gaspee burst into flames, the fire climbing into the rigging and lighting up the night sky. They abandoned the sailors on the shore near Pawtucket, and the boats rowed back north toward home as the British warship burned through the night. Nothing but the hulk below the waterline remained.
American naval and maritime history has included irregular operations from the earliest days of the American Revolution. In the years before the exchange of gunfire at Lexington and Concord, traditionally seen as the start of the armed struggle, the colonists and British authorities had already experienced conflict and violence at sea. With the burning of the revenue privateer Liberty in Newport Harbor in 1769, and then the violent destruction of His Majesty's schooner Gaspee in 1772, American revolutionaries adopted maritime irregular warfare long before the conflict spread ashore.
Following the outbreak of the war on land, irregular warfare continued to play a part in American maritime operations. Most histories of the Continental Navy, however, have tended to focus on conventional blue- water operations like warship duels and attacks on enemy shipping, whether by Continental Navy ships or privateers. Some historians have examined the building and administration of the conventional naval force. Capt. John Paul Jones, held up by Roosevelt as the "father" of the American Navy, offers an example that demonstrates the understudied place of naval irregular warfare in the operational history of American navies. The biographies and histories of Paul Jones focus on the climactic blue-water battle off Flamborough Head between his ship, the East- Indiaman-turned-Continental-frigate Bonhomme Richard, and HMS Serapis. A conventional frigate duel, the violence and glory of that event provide the ultimate example of Paul Jones's naval skill and accomplishment.
That was what Roosevelt targeted when he appropriated Paul Jones's legacy. However, the captain himself appeared to have looked at things differently. In his memoir to King Louis XVI, he spent as much time discussing, and appeared to have taken as much pride in, the maritime raiding operations he conducted as in the blue-water victories. The wider use of raiding and naval irregular warfare in the American Revolution, from the multiple raids on the Bahamas and the whaleboat men of American coastal waters, to the Mississippi River raiding of the Willing Expedition, requires further study. But, because of Roosevelt's focus on Paul Jones, and the general acceptance of his characterization of the Scots- American captain, this chapter will focus explicitly on the raiding and irregular operations conducted by John Paul Jones.
Paul Jones considered irregular operations to be as important a part of naval warfare as conventional sea battles and saw it as a central element of American sea power. He certainly played an influential role in establishing the foundations of early American naval affairs regardless of debate over the "father" label. But, as recounted in the introduction, Paul Jones received an important place in the blue-water culture of the twentieth- century U.S. Navy when President Roosevelt invoked his memory. Because of his importance both in his own era and in later naval affairs, taking a closer look at the operational history of Paul Jones offers a straight-forward, and appropriate, starting point for the examination of the American history of naval irregular warfare in the Age of Sail.
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Born John Paul, the fifth child of a gardener from the Scottish Lowlands, as a young man the future American captain apprenticed to a shipowner in Whitehaven on the Solway Coast. Putting to sea as at a young age, he had risen through the ranks of the merchant trade rather quickly, taking command of his first ship by the age of twenty-one. Trouble with a murder charge in the West Indies contributed to his decision to immigrate to America and join his brother, a tailor in Fredericksburg, Virginia. After settling in as an American, he assumed the new surname "Jones."
When the American Revolution broke out Paul Jones volunteered for the Continental Navy. Surprisingly he turned down command of the 12-gun sloop Providence in order to take a lieutenant's commission on board Alfred. He believed command in the merchant trade, even successful command and skill as a mariner, did not automatically prepare an officer for combat duty in a navy. Sailing in March of 1776 with the squadron under Commo. Esek Hopkins, Alfred participated in the American navy's first offensive action of the war, a raid on New Providence in the Bahamas.
Ignoring his orders to cruise the Chesapeake and the southern coast to defend the rebellious colonies from the Royal Navy, Hopkins instead decided to sail farther south in search of desperately needed military stores. In a stroke of luck, the squadron sailed into the Bahamas after British commanders had removed the company of regulars from the British Army's 14th Regiment and the Royal Navy's patrol ship Savage from Nassau for more pressing orders. Paul Jones, having sailed the Bahamas on a merchantman, helped serve as a pilot for the expedition, and the first American raid on foreign shores landed with almost no resistance. The landing force of sailors and Continental Marines captured both Forts Nassau and Montague without a fight, and they took custody of several dozen cannon and military supplies. But the raid was only a partial success, as local British residents helped an enterprising captain named William Chambers drop his cargo of lumber overboard and carry 162 large barrels of desperately needed gunpowder away in the night before the Americans could capture it.
After the raid on New Providence, the squadron returned north to Rhode Island to deliver the captured ordnance. As they approached Long Island, the ships ran in with the frigate HMS Glasgow, but much to Paul Jones's embarrassment the entire squadron failed to defeat the lone British ship. Paul Jones learned a great deal from this first cruise. He seemed to have a better sense of the military necessities and tactical understanding required for successful raiding, and after seeing how the captains had handled their ships against Glasgow, he gained even more confidence in his own abilities, and doubts about the other officers in the nascent navy. He gladly accepted command when Hopkins offered it following the Nassau raid.
His first ship was the 70-foot sloop of war Providence, in which he sailed on 21 August 1776 for a successful commerce raiding cruise to Canadian waters. He and his crew captured sixteen vessels, destroying half and bringing the others in as prizes. Paul Jones and his men, however, used more than conventional open-water pursuit and blue-water battle to achieve their ends. Even though the ship was small, he sailed with a detachment of thirteen Continental Marines under the command of their captain, Matthew Parke, as well as seventeen soldiers from the Rhode Island Brigade. These thirty extra men offered Paul Jones expanded opportunities to attack British interests. Stopping in Canso Bay, Nova Scotia, to collect water and firewood, they discovered a number of British ships, which they attacked and burned, and a small fast-sailing schooner named Defiance, which they captured and manned as an auxiliary to work in concert with Providence. A few local fishermen came on board and volunteered to join the crew, bringing with them intelligence on British merchant ships and fishermen anchored farther along the coast around Île Madame.
Paul Jones sailed Providence off the harbors of Arichat and Petit de Grat and loaded the new auxiliary and one of his boats with sailors and marines. He sent one raiding party into each harbor on cutting-out expeditions. They caught their targets completely by surprise and in both locations, the British fishermen and merchant sailors surrendered en masse as the Americans swarmed over their sides from the small boats. The operation was such a success that Paul Jones did not have enough men to man the prizes and guard the prisoners at the same time. As a compromise solution, he turned two of the captured vessels into cartels to carry prisoners, all Jersey fishermen, home as parolees. Then he refitted and manned the other four ships as prizes and returned to Narragansett Bay.
After Paul Jones was lauded in the newspapers for his success on board Providence, Commo. Esek Hopkins re-assigned him as the captain of Alfred, the ship in which he served as first lieutenant on his first deployment. He had the brig Hampden and Providence placed under his command and orders for another cruise to Canadian waters. This mission, however, had a new element for Paul Jones. Instead of just attacking the Newfoundland fishery and the ships, which carried coal from Cape Breton Island to the mainland, he was ordered to land on Cape Breton and raid the mines to free American prisoners used as laborers. Commodore Hopkins had intelligence that there were twenty ships in the harbor, part of the fleet that supplied coal to the British forces in New York, as well as one hundred American prisoners in the mines. Protecting these British assets were the Royal Navy sloop Savage and the brig Dawsons, but Hopkins's intelligence indicated only one of them was present at any given time. The interesting and unique orders excited Paul Jones. He wrote to his friend Robert Morris, who was a member of the Marine Committee of the Continental Congress as well as his regular correspondent: "[A]ll my humanity was awakened and called up to action by this laudable proposal." The orders, along with his experience in the assault at New Providence and the cutting-out at Ile Madame, began his early thinking on the strategic and operational aspects of maritime raiding. This included not only a desire to strike at British interests beyond American shores but operations to free British-held prisoners.
The expedition, however, never reached Cape Breton. Paul Jones was unable to man all three ships fully, which led him to delay his departure and forced him to consolidate his manpower. He sailed with only two ships: Alfred and Providence finally departed on 1 November. Because they had not sailed earlier, the Atlantic winter set in and Paul Jones and his ships encountered "contrary winds and stormy weather." Despite this, they still had a productive cruise. After taking several prizes and weathering a gale, which separated Alfred and Providence, Paul Jones found himself again off Canso Bay. He manned his boats and sent a raiding party ashore, which burned a transport full of provisions and torched a warehouse containing the region's whale oil and the fishing equipment in the town. They also captured another small, fast-sailing schooner to use for future raids. Over the next four days, Alfred captured three transports, a merchant ship, and 140 prisoners. The Americans learned from their prisoners that British warships had sailed for the area in search of them. They also learned that the 44-gun British ship Roebuck was anchored in Spanish River on Cape Breton, to defend the harbor, which made any attempt to free the American prisoners almost impossible. Overwhelmed by the need to man his prizes Paul Jones elected to take his small fleet of captured vessels and run for port, reaching Boston on 15 January.
The late departure and winter weather had kept Paul Jones from launching his operations to free the prisoners at Cape Breton, but he had still taken the opportunity to raid ashore. Prior to departing on the cruise, he was already considering the role of far seas raiding for the American cause. In another letter to Robert Morris, he suggested a winter cruise to the coast of Africa with Alfred and two of the smaller Continental ships. He even considered the possibility of attacking and capturing the island of St. Helena to serve as a rendezvous and base of operations from which he would prey on the slavers of the British Africa trade. He pointed out to Morris that the small ships he was requesting did not do well on the American coast in the winter, and African waters would provide ample hunting ground where they would succeed in "not leaving them [the British] a mast standing on that coast."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Small Boats And Daring Men"
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations,
1. John Paul Jones and the Birth of American Naval Irregular Warfare,
2. Wars Done by Halves: Quasi-War Operations,
3. Intrepid and Irregular Warfare on the Barbary Coast,
4. Raiding on the Lakes, 1812–1814,
5. Destructive Machines and Partisan Operations: The Torpedo Act and the War of 1812,
6. Pirates and Privateers: Dawn of the West Indies Squadron,
7. First Sumatra Expedition, 1831–1832,
8. Return to Sumatra: The East India Squadron, 1838–1839,
Conclusion: The Regularity of the Irregular — Raiding and Irregular Warfare in the Age of Sail and Beyond,