The Struggle for Sea Power

The Struggle for Sea Power

A Naval History of the American Revolution

Sam Willis

W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 2016, 608 pages

Book Review published on: November 3, 2017

Sam Willis’s The Struggle for Sea Power takes a look at the American Revolutionary War through the lens of sea power. Willis defines sea power broadly, and in so doing, he makes his account of the conflict fresh and provocative. He stakes out a bold claim from the beginning, that the war of the American Revolution was “the greatest war of the age of sail.” Although this is not a comparative work with other contenders in that field—the naval conflicts from 1792 to 1815 to name some—he presents as his proof the idea that this war gave the world the American nation that has, since it gained its liberty, steadily increased in wealth, power, and influence.

Willis also does a fine job of writing what one can label a globally coherent operational and strategic analysis. For example, he demonstrates a smooth talent in connecting events in Gibraltar to those in the Caribbean, and to those of the faraway Chesapeake and Narragansett Bays, to say nothing of the Cape of Good Hope and Indian Ocean in 1780-1781. The narrative starts with a watery Boston Tea Party and concludes with the Battle of Cuddalore in the Bay of Bengal in 1783. This is globalist military and naval history, and it is a gripping narrative in the prose style of a talented English author.

Willis’s definition of sea power is inclusive of everything having to do with water, including the riverine invasion of Canada, Washington’s multiple crossings of the Delaware and Hudson Rivers, and coastal operations. Thus, he is able to bring just about every major campaign in the war into focus through a lens of sea power—through all types of water, as sailors say: green water, brown water, and blue water.

Another theme running throughout Willis’s story is that sea power, like the sea herself, is a very fickle mistress. On this score Willis has a great eye for what I call the apt quotation. Here, he quotes John Adams on the course of the war, although Adams could just as well have been writing about sea power: “You know she is a great Changeling, and frowns upon one, sometimes in half an Hour after having lavished upon him her Smiles and Favours.” Leaders and governments trusting in sea power’s promise were often betrayed by it. In modern parlance, they overvalued sea power. Willis writes, “The Americans, with no naval history behind them and no naval administrators or career naval officers to advise them … heaped expectation upon the French navy … The French—purely because of their navy –were seen as the saviours of the revolution.”

Thus, the story often reads like a close baseball game, with the “lead”—and the confidence—of each side changing in turn as sea power fails to deliver decisive results. Until it does—in a profound combination of circumstances that equate to a million-to-one shot at a Las Vegas gambling establishment. That is the sense Willis brings to the near miraculous turn of events that led to the surrender at Yorktown, which ultimately resulted in American independence. Sea power had finally delivered. Willis’s message for modern audiences, though, is quite different—do not count on sea power overly much to deliver miraculous results in war. Though the Americans won, every other nation, with the possible exception of Spain, lost, including Great Britain, France, and Holland.

One drawback for this reviewer involved the lack of some illustrations, charts, or maps for examination in the pre-publication copy provided in order to assess how well they support the overall text. This was unfortunate, and one hopes the publisher will provide a more complete manuscript to journals for review. However, this is a minor problem solved in the final version. This book is not written for specialists but for a general and popular audience, and this reviewer recommends it highly as it is well-suited to that purpose.

Book Review written by: Cmdr. John T. Kuehn, U.S. Navy, Retired, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas