Attached below is a fascinating book review by Professor Andrew Lambert describing naval combat in the Chesapeake Bay during the War of 1812 (map). Most people think of the Royal Navy of the Nelson era as one of conducting great sea battles, like the battles of Trafalgar or Cape St. Vincent. But one of the Royal Navy’s great strengths during the Nelson era was creating strategic effects on land and sea by combining blockading with coastal raiding. Admiral George Cockburn's Chesapeake campaign of 1813-14 is a case in point. It had enormous ramifications, the rumblings of which can still be felt insensibly in the halls of the Pentagon.
Note especially Lambert's casual reference to Adm. Cockburn operating inside the Americans' decision cycle. Readers of this blog have seen this phrase many times.
One interesting aspect of this casual reference is that it was written by a British naval historian at King’s College, London; and it is written in a way that assumes the idea of operating inside a decision cycle is common knowledge. The use of the modifier “inside” is clearly an oblique reference to the strategic theories of the American strategist Col. John Boyd, which are centered on his conception of how the Observation - Orientation - Decision - Action (OODA) Loop acts in conflict situations. Of course, Lambert makes no reference to Boyd or his brilliant and original insights regarding the inherent vulnerabilities in everyone's OODA Loop. Nevertheless, Lambert’s examples of American disorientation are consistent with the vulnerabilities predicted by Boyd’s theory. Lambert’s essay is also an excellent albeit inadvertent example illustrating the success of Boyd's goal of infiltrating his ideas into conversations about strategy without publishing those ideas. (Boyd and I often discussed this infiltration strategy to shape one’s Orientation over the years, usually when I pleaded with him to publish his work.)
Professor Lambert's cryptic comment about the legacy of Cockburn’s Chesapeake campaign as creating an American obsession with building immense coastal defense fortifications is insightful and suggests Cockburn’s penetration of the American decision cycle had profound and long lasting effects. Unfortunately, Lambert does not probe the ramifications of this proposition.
That legacy was a 51-year spending spree for the “third system” of 42 fortresses, eventually reaching from Maine to California, to defend American ports from future Cockburns. This program commenced in 1816, shortly after the War of 1812 ended, and lasted until 1867. Construction expenditures (from congressional appropriations) continued until at least 1875, well after the forts were proven to have very limited strategic benefits, to put it charitably. The US Army continued spending money on coastal defense artillery until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and WWII put an end to the foolishness. (These forts were not the only example of the pioneering role that the War of 1812 had in creating military-industrial-congressional boondoggles -- see John Steel Gordon's hilarious account of how the Navy's ships of the line program, started in 1816, also established long lasting pork barreling precedents in American shipbuilding.)
The spending boondoggles on coastal defense can be thought of as a 19th Century equivalent to today's obsession with ballistic missile defense. Like Star Wars (and France's Maginot Line), the shield posed by defensive fortress technologies could not keep up with the sword posed by the evolving offensive technologies, like rapid fire, large caliber, rifled artillery. Nevertheless, like Star Wars, the money kept flowing into these monuments to man’s foolishness.
The Corps of Engineers, for example, even built a second fort in Baltimore harbor, Fort Carroll. Construction began in 1848, and the chief engineer was Robert E. Lee. Ft Carroll is down river from Fort McHenry (which withstood Cockburn’s bombardment) and Fort Carroll still stands, never used in combat, overgrown with weeds, and not worth converting into a monument — even plans to convert Fort Carroll into a casino were scrubbed. A few of these forts saw action in the Civil War but not in the way intended. Most fell easily after being bombarded by land forces: e.g., Fort Sumpter surrendered after 24 hrs of bombardment; Fort Pulaski in Savannah surrendered after only 30 hrs of shore bombardment; and Fort Macon in Beaufort, NC surrendered after only 11 hrs of bombardment. These actions had nothing to do with coastal defense against foreign enemies. Ironclad warships and the far greater lethality of rifled cannon technologies revealed the uselessness of these fortresses in the Civil War, but construction of the forts continued after the Civil War. Even after they fell into disuse, many were re-armed and re-manned to deter the non-existent threat posed by the Spanish Navy during the Spanish-American War.
My favorite is Fort Jefferson in the Dry Tortugas, about 70 miles west of Key West. It the largest of these fortresses. Under construction for nearly thirty years (1846-1875), like Ballistic Missile Defense, it was never finished nor fully armed. Yet to this to this day, the US government claims that Fort Jefferson as a powerful deterrent that protected the peace and prosperity of our young nation. This characterization is utter nonsense: America was indeed young, but it was hardly vulnerable after the Civil War. America emerged from the Civil War as one of, if not the largest industrial power(s) in the World. America also had the world’s most battle hardened and capable leaders, particularly at the operational and strategic level of combat. If the Union army under Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan had opposed the Prussian Army of 1871 in France, it is very unlikely that Grant et al would have allowed the Germans to recover from their initial mistakes at the outset of the Franco-Prussian War. America also evolved some of the world’s most advanced weapons and Naval technologies that made the wooden sailing ships of the Royal Navy obsolete. The idea that Great Britain, Imperial Germany, or Japan could have repeated anything like Admiral Cockburn’s capers in the Chesapeake after the American Civil War is simply inconceivable.
However, Fort Jefferson was not entirely useless. It did make a dandy prison for Union deserters during the Civil War and later for Dr. Samuel Mudd, the physician who treated John Wilkes Booth’s broken leg. Fort Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay also made a dandy prison. And today, Fort Jefferson is a great cruising destination and a useful harbor of refuge for sailors intent on exploring the Gulf of Mexico or the delights of Havana.
Posted on December 1, 2010
Donald G. Shomette, Flotilla: The Patuxent Naval Campaign in the War of 1812, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009. 520 pp., illustrations, maps, line drawings.
Review by Andrew Lambert, International Journal of Naval History
King’s College, London
Originally published in 1981 a revised and enlarged edition of this essential volume will be a major contribution to the bicentenary literature of the War of 1812. From his initial search for the archaeology of an abandoned gunboat flotilla in the shallows of the Patuxent River Donald Shomette has become the historian of Commodore Joshua Barney and his mosquito force.
By 1813 the war with Britain , essayed so lightly only a year earlier, had turned sour. Humiliating defeats on the Canadian border had been temporarily assuaged by stunning naval successes, but as Royal Navy forces on the coast steadily built up Americans came to recognise the reality of taking on the Leviathan of the deep. Although the British were fighting for their very existence against Napoleon they were determined to defend Canada , and the oceanic commerce that funded their war. They had no desire to wage war with America , and had no plans to re-conquer the old colonies. They wanted to secure peace with minimum effort. With the Army tied up in Spain they were unable to provide a significant military force, relying on the Royal Navy to translate sea control into effect on land, to shift from naval to maritime strategy.
With small, agile forces the British would practise intelligence-led warfare, relying on an uncontrolled American print media, and the willingness of many men to take the King’s gold. Already well informed of the bitter sectional divisions between Republican and Federalist politics the British carefully chose targets that would influence the administration. The rich tidewater region of Chesapeake Bay, close to the new national capitol, and the main privateer base at Baltimore , produced the export crops of the very men who had voted for war. By striking here the British hoped to take the pressure off the Canadian frontier. The destruction of public and private buildings in the Canadian towns of York and Dover provided an occasion for punitive measures.
In the summer of 1813, with the Royal Navy running riot along the Maryland tidewater, Barney, a Revolutionary war hero, and a successful privateer skipper, proposed building a flotilla of shallow draft gunboats, 50 or 75 feet long, to exploit local knowledge and challenge the British in areas where heavy sailing ships could not operate. The U.S. Flotilla Service was created to operate these craft, with Barney in command. In 1814 Barney and his men, less than a thousand all told, would be the only effective forces placed between the British and the civilians of the area. When the British landed local gentlemen tried to save their estates, but militia units generally ran away, as did many the slaves. Many former slaves joined the British as ‘Colonial Marines’, proving themselves good soldiers, and local experts. By contrast to the part-time soldiers Barney’s Flotilla attacked the enemy, and when cornered put up a hard fight. Much of the credit must go to Barney, a resourceful, brave and professional leader. The actions of the Flotilla, and of the flotillamen ashore at Bladensburg provided a heroic contrast to the endemic ineptitude of their military counterparts.
Making all allowance for the professed subject, the real hero of this book is Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn. A protégé of the immortal Nelson, and a veteran of twenty years of war at sea and on the littoral, Cockburn combined vast experience with an incisive intellect and a brilliant grasp of the higher direction of war. Without a single soldier his 1814 campaign ripped aside the tissue thin veil of American defence, exposing the Government, capital and army to humiliation. Lacking the resources to tackle the major ports, Baltimore , Norfolk and Annapolis , he relied on a tiny naval raiding force to keep the enemy guessing. The British offensive targeted American weakness, incessant raids kept the militia moving, provided a plentiful supply of fresh food, water, lumber to build a fortified base on Tangier Island , and hogsheads of tobacco to generate the prize money that kept sailors interested. When an army of less than 5,000 men finally arrived, Cockburn cajoled his superior officer and the commanding General into a stunning stroke that left Barney’s gunboats, Washington and the Navy Yard in ashes. His campaign should be taught at every Staff College . There is no better example of maritime strategy at work; flexible, quick, and always operating inside the enemy’s decision-making cycle. Cockburn planned the whole campaign to distract and demoralise the enemy, gather vital navigational intelligence and build up for a dramatic conclusion that would teach the enemy not to attack the British, even when they were at war with Napoleon. The legacy of those campaigns would be the immense stone fortifications that surrounded every significant American port. If vituperation be any measure of a man’s impact on his foes then George Cockburn must have been a titan. No insult was too scurrilous to be published. He took his revenge quietly, his official portrait, reproduced on page 126, shows him ashore, with spurs on his boots, the public buildings of Washington ablaze in the distance. In 1832 Cockburn was sent to command the American station, just as a border dispute threatened the fragile Anglo-American peace. Roger Morriss’s 1997 biography of this amphibious expert would have been a useful addition to the bibliography. At page 232 Cockburn’s Commander in Chief in 1814, Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, is conflated with his more famous nephew, Thomas, Lord Cochrane, the model for every fictional Royal Navy hero of the Nelson era from Marryatt to O’Brien. While he lacked Cockburn’s local expertise Sir Alexander was also an amphibious warfare expert, having overseen assault landing at Aboukir in 1801 and other major disembarkations.
Based on a wealth of primary evidence Flotilla is a delight to read, carefully crafted and nicely paced, mixing telling human interventions from key players with analysis of the unfolding drama. The illustrations, contemporary drawings, portraits and modern maps are ideally placed to illustrate and explain the flotilla craft, personalities and operations. This will be an essential text for students of the war, and of maritime strategy. Barney’s gunboats did well, but they had no answer to Cockburn’s squadron