Saturday, June 2, 2012

Historian Sam Willis at the Massachusetts Historical Society

On May 23, I attended a brown bag lunch at the Massachusetts Historical Society to hear naval historian Sam Willis talk about his work on the maritime history of the American Revolution. It's a subject I'm almost entirely unfamiliar with - my specialty has always been in land action - and I was pleased to be able to walk over from work and listen in.

Willis was an engaging speaker with a good breadth and depth of knowledge, and was very candid about where he was in his research. He has some interesting perspectives on the traditional view of the naval war - namely, that the things we think were important weren't all that, and that the British more or less bungled it from lack of preparation.

I took notes on a few points that I found interesting and perhaps applicable to my own thinking about American military history. In no particular order:

- The existing maritime infrastructure of the American colonies (via trade and fishing) gave them a leg up when it came to mobilizing naval power during the Revolution, particularly in terms of authorizing privateers. (I have been doing some thinking recently about the influence of pre-existing knowledge on military service; in particular, recruits to the cavalry who have some knowledge of horses versus those coming from inner cities.)

- The importance of seapower is sometimes in its very existence; for example, when the (however small) American navy was authorized during the Revolution, it forced Great Britain to spend valuable time building up its forces instead of simply attacking.

- There were no real standout men or battles, despite the traditional view on the period. Willis contends that the overall impression is one of very ordinary men muddling through.

- America's decision to build a naval fleet wasn't as much a military decision as it was a diplomatic one. Having a navy was a sign of an independent nation and signaled to France that America might be a feasible ally. The actual ships themselves - as in, having them finished and out on the seas - were less important than proving you had the capability to build them. It takes a certain level of governmental organization to pull off the planning and implementation of a shipbuilding program, as well as a certain level of trade and supply.

I've seen evidence of the last point in the organization of the dragoons in the 1830s. One of the arguments in congress pursued most ardently by Secretary of War Lewis Cass and Representative (later Vice President) Richard M. Johnson was that adding a mounted force to the American army would put it on a par with other world powers. If adding a navy was a sign of an independent state, then some clearly thought that adding a mounted force was the next step - a sign of a burgeoning imperial power instead of a castoff colony.

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