How Britain’s Royal Navy lost the American Revolutionary War

How Britain’s Royal Navy lost the American Revolutionary War

Larry Holzwarth - October 26, 2019

Great Britain, an island nation, depended on trade to feed its population and fuel its economy. Its colonial empire was built for that purpose. The British Army was too small to control the inhabitants of its colonies around the globe and it relied on locally raised armies, supported by the world’s largest and most powerful navy, to defend its holdings. It was such a tactic applied to suppress the American Revolution, British troops supported by locally raised troops – Loyalists – and hired mercenaries, with the Royal Navy controlling the East Coast of the United States.

How Britain’s Royal Navy lost the American Revolutionary War
The Continental frigate Alliance, which fought alongside Bon Homme Richard at Flamborough Head. Wikimedia

The American patriots had no navy when the Revolutionary War began, and little prospect of creating one which could be effective against the British. The entire American coastline was exposed to the largest navy in the world. Yet in the naval war which was a major factor in the American’s independence, the Americans prevailed, both before and after the French intervened on their behalf. American raids on British shipping raised insurance rates in London to crippling highs. British ships were defeated by American upstarts in sight of British shores. Morale plummeted in England. Here is how Britain’s Royal Navy lost the American Revolutionary War.

How Britain’s Royal Navy lost the American Revolutionary War
Continental Navy ship Columbus, one of the early warships of the American Navy during the Revolutionary War. Wikimedia

1. Critical shortages of gunpowder in the Continental Army led to the first action of the Continental Navy

When George Washington learned of the severity of the powder shortage facing the Continental Army in the summer of 1775, he sat stupefied, unable to speak for nearly thirty minutes. Eight ships of the newly created Continental Navy were dispatched, under Commodore Esek Hopkins, to raid British coastal installations, where naval supplies were stored, up and down the American coastline. Hopkins ordered his captains to rendezvous in the Bahamas, at Grand Abaco Island. In March 1776 the fleet landed in New Providence, with 200 newly created American Marines, and captured Nassau. Within the town were naval stores and cache of weapons and gunpowder.

The American ships returned to port at New London in early April, with badly needed supplies for the American cause. Hopkins was censured by the Continental Congress for his disobeying his orders and leading an assault in the Bahamas, as well as for problems with controlling the fleet, which was inexperienced and shorthanded. Nonetheless, the first serious naval raid of the war was a successful attack on British property carried out by the impudent Americans, leaving the vastly superior British navy embarrassed and humiliated.

How Britain’s Royal Navy lost the American Revolutionary War
After Washington was commissioned to command the Continental Army he lobbied congress to create a Continental Navy. Wikimedia

2. Congress began issuing letters of marque in 1776

Letters of marque were documents issued to privately owned ships designating them as legally able to prey upon the ships of belligerent nations in time of war. The ships, known as privateers, were authorized to capture or destroy enemy shipping. They preferred to capture them, because if they were able to make it to a friendly port the ships and cargoes were sold, with the proceeds being awarded to the privateer’s owners and crews. Fortunes could be made in privateering, and many of the great names of England’s naval history, including Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh, had served as privateers.

The lure of prize money made privateering much more attractive to sailors than service in the Navy, where discipline was tougher, pay lower, and the prospects of doing battle with the Royal Navy more likely. Privateers thus had an advantage when attracting sailors for cruises, and successful captains often reported the amount of prize money earned on earlier cruises. For the most part, privateer captains turned tails when encountering a British warship at sea, and often out-sailed them to safety. When France and later Spain entered the war, they too issued letters of marque, and the British were forced to use more and more ships to escort their merchant fleets.

How Britain’s Royal Navy lost the American Revolutionary War
John Adams took an active role creating the Navy’s regulations and commissioning its officers. Wikimedia

3. The Continental Congress authorized the construction of 13 frigates to form the nucleus of the navy

Congress authorized the construction of 13 frigates, all of which were put under construction, but lack of money and British intervention meant that only eight were completed and put to sea. None of them survived the war in American hands. While they were in service, they had several notable successes against the British in engagements between warships. In June, 1777, the American frigate Hancock captured the British frigate Fox, assisted by another American frigate, Boston. Hancock was later captured by the British, and despite professed British contempt for American-built ships, entered into the Royal Navy as HMS Iris.

Fox was also recaptured by the British, but in 1778 was taken by the French after France’s entry into the war. All along the American coastline, American ships encountering British of equal size gave good accounts of themselves, and the swarms of privateers leaving American ports and hidden anchorages overwhelmed the British Navy’s ability to protect merchant shipping. The Royal Navy was forced to enlarge the squadrons protecting the financially critical sugar plantations in the Caribbean, drawing ships away from blockading ports along the east coast. By the second year of the war, it was apparent that the world’s largest navy was not large enough.

How Britain’s Royal Navy lost the American Revolutionary War
A British caricature of John Paul Jones, entitled “Paul Jones the Pirate”. Wikimedia

4. John Paul Jones and USS Ranger carried the war to British home waters

The American sloop-of-war USS Ranger was built in Kittery, Maine on what is now known as Badger Island, launched on May 10, 1777. In November of that year under the command of John Paul Jones, the ship sailed to France, carrying dispatches notifying the American commissioners there of the fall of Philadelphia and the surrender of the British Army under John Burgoyne at Saratoga. The ship received the second salute rendered to an American ship of war by a foreign power when the French saluted it as it entered Quiberon Bay (the first had been received by the Andrea Doria at St Eustatius, rendered by the Dutch garrison.

Jones then sailed into British waters, captured several prizes, conducted a raid on the port of Whitehaven, eluded the pursuit of several British warships of superior strength, defeated the British brig of war HMS Drake in ship-to-ship combat, took it as a prize, and then returned to Brest. He captured four ships which he brought into Brest with him. British coastal towns and ports were alarmed over the “pirate Jones” and the Royal Navy was excoriated in the press for its failure to defend the home waters from the Yankee captain. Jones left Ranger in Brest, to prepare for a still larger attack on the British home waters, supported by the French.

How Britain’s Royal Navy lost the American Revolutionary War
Benjamin Franklin used his influence within the French Court to gain support for American ships in French ports. Wikimedia

5. American commissioners succeeded in gaining open ports for American ships in France and Spain

Officially France and Spain were neutral in the early years of the Revolutionary War, meaning that although American ships could enter their ports, as could British, neither side should expect favorable treatment in them. One of the earliest acts completed by the American commissioners to Europe was to ensure that American ships could refit in French and Spanish ports, both in Europe and in their overseas possessions. Badly needed ship’s stores; cordage, sails, timbers, spars, and materials to make vessels seaworthy were allowed under international law. Powder and shot were not, yet the Americans found them available surreptitiously.

This allowed Jones and other American commanders to keep their ships at sea for extended periods without having to run the blockade of British ships along the American coast. The Royal Navy simply did not have enough ships to blockade America and maintain effective patrols around the ports of continental Europe, and protect the island colonies of the Caribbean. The French maritime courts also adjudicated prizes, giving the Americans badly needed cash to spend on fitting out additional ships. By 1778, France was actively engaged in supporting the Americans, and Jones and Franklin prepared a plan for launching an invasion of Great Britain with a squadron of ships and 1,500 French troops.

How Britain’s Royal Navy lost the American Revolutionary War
Jones had hoped to carry a French raiding force of 1,500 to Britain when he engaged the Serapis off Flamborough Head. National Archives

6. The Franco-American plan to invade Great Britain in 1779

When France officially entered the war it placed its powerful fleet on the side of the Americans, though at first there was a little discernible benefit. Instead, a squadron of French American ships, led by Jones in Bonhomme Richard, was proposed. Jones wanted to not only prey upon British shipping in its home waters, but to land a force of French troops on Britain’s west coast, to wreak what havoc it could until it was re-embarked on the ships. At first, the French favored the idea, but it rapidly fell apart over issues of overall command (a French force so large could not be commanded by an American) and other squabbles. Instead, the squadron was put to sea to raid shipping in British waters.

The encounter between Jones’ squadron and a British convoy escort, leading to the Battle of Flamborough Head, is a major chapter in US Naval history, though no contemporaneous account of Jones uttering the words, “I have just begun to fight” exists. They entered naval lore many years later. The victory over a British squadron, in full view of the British coastline, stunned the British populace just as the French Navy was preparing to go to war. Rather than a war to suppress the insurrection in North America it had become, for the British, a war to defend their homeland from French invasion. Faith in the Royal Navy ebbed.

How Britain’s Royal Navy lost the American Revolutionary War
British ships in North American waters were supported by the British base at Halifax, Nova Scotia. Wikimedia

7. The British attempted to maintain the fleet in American waters

The British headquarters for naval operations in North American waters was at Halifax, at the Royal Navy Yard. Construction of base facilities for the repair and maintenance of ships there had begun in 1759, during the Seven Years War, and proceeded at a snail’s pace since. The copper sheathing of ship’s hulls to prevent them from becoming riddled with worms was still experimental, and many British officers sniffed at the idea. Ships needing careening (heeling over on their sides to clean their bottoms) had long waits for the needed maintenance. The ships became slower as a result, and handled sluggishly.

Without the proper facilities, supplies, and timbers, the British ships in North American waters lost their combat and sailing efficiency. Long periods at anchor in port at New York, Philadelphia, and other seacoast cities further drained their crews. Desertion became a problem for the British Navy, as pressed sailors decided to take their chances with the colonies fighting to expel Great Britain. Press gangs in occupied American cities or in small coastal towns increased the anger at the British, and those who had theretofore been undecided in the matter tended to side with the Patriots. In some waters, American pilots and fishermen altered channel buoys, leading British ships to run aground in unmarked shoals.

How Britain’s Royal Navy lost the American Revolutionary War
The Battle of Sullivan’s Island, known by a variety of names, was an embarrassing defeat for the Royal Navy. Wikimedia

8. The attack on Charleston, South Carolina, was a defeat for the Royal Navy

In the spring of 1776, British naval and military forces launched an attack on Charleston, then called Charles Towne, after conditions proved unfavorable for a proposed attack on the Cape Fear River in North Carolina. A scouting expedition down the coast revealed Charleston’s defenses were incomplete, and the British shifted the focus of the attack and the establishment of a southern base of operations to that port city. The combined land assault and naval bombardment were intended to capture the Patriot fortifications on Sullivan’s Island, followed by seizure of the city itself. The British troops were commanded by Sir Henry Clinton, its ships by Sir Peter Parker.

The American defenses were commanded by Charles Lee and William Moultrie. The fortifications on Sullivan’s Island were constructed from palmetto logs, reinforced with sand, and the spongy wood and sand proved to be impenetrable, simply absorbing shot from the British ships. Additional Patriot guns were installed on James Island, forcing the British ships to run a gauntlet of heavy fire. In the assault, the British were unable to wade ashore at their designated locations. The nine British ships were heavily battered, and one which ran aground in shoal water was burned by the retreating Royal Navy. Parker and Clinton each blamed the other for the debacle, which ended with the “invincible” Royal Navy suffering an ignominious defeat.

How Britain’s Royal Navy lost the American Revolutionary War
Most of the heavy British warships, such as these in action off Ushant in 1778, were unsuited for the duties they were assigned on the American coast. Wikimedia

9. The British sent the wrong ships to North America

In 1776 the largest fleet yet assembled in North America sailed from Halifax to New York, where it was joined by the ships of the aborted Charleston attack. The British Army, under command of William Howe, landed its troops (including German mercenaries) to engage Washington’s Continental in the New York campaign. The Royal Navy played a role in the campaign, ferrying British troops around the maze of waters between Long Island, Manhattan, and New Jersey. Though the British had sent a large fleet of warships to support the operations, they were the wrong sort of ships. The British sent a fleet to fight, but there was no one to fight them.

That they were the wrong types of ships was evident in the results of the campaign. Defeated on land on Long Island, Washington’s army escaped in one night, via water, in the face of the British fleet. It later escaped again, to New Jersey, the fleet powerless to stop them. Small, handy warships were what was needed; the British had dispatched powerful ships of the line and supporting frigates, in part to overawe the rebellious Americans. Even the British commander of the Royal Navy ships on the North American station recognized that he had too few smaller ships to effectively carry out his mission.

How Britain’s Royal Navy lost the American Revolutionary War
British Admiral Richard Howe complained to the Admiralty about the size and makeup of his forces to no avail. Wikimedia

10. Admiral Richard Howe complained to London over the makeup of his forces

Richard Howe, brother of Sir William Howe, commanded the British fleet in American waters in 1776. The Howes and their commanders in London had a strategy which included the capture of major American cities, followed by a blockade of the entire coast. Following the failure of the attack on Charleston and the escape of Washington’s Army from New York, Richard recognized that he lacked the number and types of ships needed to complete his mission, especially since so many of his ships were needed to protect the transport and supply vessels required to support military operations conducted by his brother and other British commanders.

The following summer Howe’s ships supported the attack on Philadelphia, while privateers and Continental Navy vessels operated with relative impunity from ports in New England and the south. The bulk of Howe’s command, the ships of the line and frigates, had little to do after their convoying and ferrying operations were complete, while American ships raided British merchantmen. Gradually the hidebound Admiralty realized the need for more sloops and brigs in North American waters, by which time the French had joined the war, and there was a need for ships of those types in European waters too.

How Britain’s Royal Navy lost the American Revolutionary War
A Spanish letter of marque, essentially a license to practice limited piracy, from 1779. Wikimedia

11. The Royal Navy blockade of the American coast was a complete failure

During the early years of the Revolutionary War French firms, such as Hortalez et Cie, were created to camouflage the support of the French government for the American cause. Supplies from France, including uniforms, boots and shoes, muskets and flints, gunpowder, field guns, food, and all of the other requirements of an army in the field were supplied by the French, later joined by the Dutch and the Spanish. The supplies did not trickle in, they arrived in ship after ship having successfully run the British blockade. The British did seize many ships, but many more got through.

The failure to establish a successful blockade was the single biggest contribution by the Royal Navy to the defeat of the British in the war. The blockade also failed to contain the raids of the privateers and Continental Navy ships which went to sea and preyed on the vessels sent to resupply British troops in North America. The porous nature of the blockade was wholly avoidable, as later wars would prove, such as during the War of 1812, when the US Navy was effectively blockaded after 1813, and the American Civil War, when blockade running by Confederate ships became a far more hazardous occupation.

How Britain’s Royal Navy lost the American Revolutionary War
The French entry into the war changed the balance of power in North America, though the French had different war aims than the Americans. Wikimedia

12. The French Navy officially entered the war in June, 1778

The French alliance with the United States changed the Revolutionary War from an insurrection in North America to a global war. The holdings of the British East India Company in India and Asia came under immediate pressure from French competitors. Britain had to send ships to protect the valuable colonies in the West Indies and British Honduras (modern day Belize) from French attacks. Privateers from the French Channel ports and in the Mediterranean swarmed forth to attack British trade. The Royal Navy, which had actually been reduced in size during the early phases of the American war due to financial concerns, was short of ships and men to crew them.

Following the Seven Years’ War, which had been a disaster for the French fleets, the navy of Louis XVI had been modernized. The French built ships of the line and frigates which were faster and more heavily armed than their British counterparts. Three years of warfare and the casualties suffered by the treasury through the losses of trade hamstrung the British, who had not enough ships to meet all of their obligations. Meanwhile, large British fleets remained more or less idle on the North American coast, unable to either effectively blockade the American ports or suppress privateering in American waters.

How Britain’s Royal Navy lost the American Revolutionary War
In coastal towns, privateers were feared for the suddenness if which they struck, such as these French privateers on a vessel indentified as Tiger. Wikimedia

13. American privateers raided British settlements in Nova Scotia

Besides attacking British flagged ships at sea, American privateers launched raids on coastal towns and ports in British Canada. These raids began in 1775 and continued throughout the war, despite strenuous efforts by the Royal Navy and Canadian militia to contain them. One such raid was the attack on the British town of Lunenburg, which took place late in the war. Five American privateers, led by Massachusetts seaman Noah Stoddard, landed near the town, captured the blockhouses defending it, burned the homes of the local militia commanders, and looted the town.

The raid took place at a site less than 75 miles from the main British Naval Base in North America at Halifax. The British responded by sending three warships carrying Hessian troops but the Americans escaped to Boston, where they released hostages taken during the attack. The brazen nature of the attack so late in the war and so near the main British naval base is an indication of the relative inefficiency demonstrated by the Royal Navy defending British ships and possessions in North American waters throughout the course of the war.

How Britain’s Royal Navy lost the American Revolutionary War
French frigates attacking Louisbourg in the summer of 1781. Their time in North America was limited each year to a few weeks. Wikimedia

14. The French naval presence in North American waters was limited to the summer months

Once the French entered the war the Americans hoped to obtain the support of their new ally in a joint attack on New York, from which Washington had long hoped to expel the British. The French had other plans. Their intention was to keep the French fleet in the West Indies, protecting their own possessions there and attacking or otherwise threatening those of the British. Only during the hurricane season would the fleet come to North American waters. The French arrived in 1778, in an attempt to blockade the British fleet in the Delaware River, as well as land French troops for a possible coordinated attack with the Americans.

Weather was a problem, just one of many uncertainties which frustrated commanders in the days of sail, and after the French sailed from the Mediterranean port of Toulon the British were dilatory in following them. When the French arrived at Delaware Bay the British fleet was already gone, Philadelphia having been abandoned. The French fleet, commanded by Charles Henri Hector, Comte d’Estaing then sailed to New York preparatory to a proposed landing at Newport, Rhode Island. The British fleet in New York responded but the bad weather and the less-than-seaworthy condition of some of the British ships prevented a major engagement between French and British at sea.

How Britain’s Royal Navy lost the American Revolutionary War
A British fleet followed the withdrawing Comte d’Estaing to Boston, and then failed to attack him there. Wikimedia

15. The British failed to attack the French fleet at Boston following the Newport expedition

When the French fleet abandoned Newport, taking the French troops with them and leaving the Americans besieging the city in a precarious position, it sailed to Boston. Admiral Howe pursued him there, but chose not to attack until reinforced by a British fleet from Gibraltar led by Admiral Byron, who relieved Howe in command on the North American Station, but likewise chose not to attack the French fleet, despite superiority in numbers. Nor could he contain the French in Boston, in September bad weather blew his ships off station and the French fleet got underway, eluded the stronger British force, and sailed to the West Indies.

The first joint operations between the Americans and the French were marked by poor communications, differing objectives, political squabbling among the French officers, and the hesitation of the Royal Navy to attack. It was the best opportunity for the Royal Navy to strike the French and American alliance and deal it a severe blow, and two separate British Admirals hesitated to do so, claiming the French position in Nantasket Roads was too strong to be assaulted, supported by land-based American artillery.

How Britain’s Royal Navy lost the American Revolutionary War
Sir Charles Grey was tasked with destroying ports harboring privateers along the southern New England coast. Wikimedia

16. Long Island Sound was teeming with privateers despite the presence of the Royal Navy at New York

Supply ships dispatched to America to support the British army found the waters of Long Island Sound crawling with privateers. The ships came out of ports such as New London, Fairhaven, Lyme, Niantic, and others. For the British ships trying to blockade the area, it was like playing a game of whack-a-mole. Often the privateers took ships as prizes and other times their cargoes were looted and the ships burned, the smoke visible from British warships and supply vessels at their anchorages. In September 1778 British commander Henry Clinton decided his army would do what the Royal Navy had not.

Clinton dispatched Major General Charles Grey on a raid against the communities of New Bedford, Fairhaven, and Martha’s Vineyard. It was a punitive mission, to chastise the towns for their support of the privateering raids on British shipping. The British burned ships at anchor, docks, private homes and businesses, and churches. It was the first of numerous raids against the American seacoast towns which had frustrated the British navy over the course of the war, and which grew more brutal as the war in the north continued as a stalemate, with the British in New York and the Americans keeping an eye on them from the Hudson Highlands.

How Britain’s Royal Navy lost the American Revolutionary War
The financial losses the war imposed on Britain was especially hard on the shipping industry, as can be seen on the faces of these insurance investors at Lloyds. Wikimedia

17. By 1779 the British could no longer sustain the war financially

By the spring of 1779, as the war was entering its fourth year in North America, the government of British prime minister Lord North had run up 48 million pounds of debt attempting to secure the rebellious American colonies. For their efforts, the British held New York and Savannah. The nation was at war with France, and soon Bourbon Spain. Roughly 2,000 British ships had been taken by American privateers and warships, Americans had raided the coast of England and defeated British warships in sight of British homes. Taxes reached ruinous levels, and there was no end of the war in sight.

The tobacco market had all but dried up with the loss of American tobacco, and the shipment of Turkish tobacco was threatened by the French in the Mediterranean. Nationally in Britain, the average tax burden reached 20%. Markets for exports dropped, and unemployment rose as the British economy, which had not recovered from the Seven Years’ War when the Revolutionary War began, edged towards collapse. Ships rotted at their wharves, their owners unable to pay insurance rates, and unwilling to risk them going to sea anyway, in the dim hope they would be protected by the Royal Navy.

How Britain’s Royal Navy lost the American Revolutionary War
While naval officers were more interested in capturing enemy shipping, Washington wanted to use the French fleet to attack New York. Wikimedia

18. Washington’s desire for a strike on New York relied on the French Navy

George Washington was not trained in military strategy; he was a surveyor by training and a farmer by inclination. But he realized early in his command of the Continental Army that naval activity was critical to the success of the Revolution. It was Washington who importuned congress to create a Navy, and it was he who predicted its best use, that of harassing the long supply lines of the British Armies in North America. He had tried, against his better judgment, to defend New York against a combined military-naval operation and failed. By 1779 his fondest hopes were of a joint French-American attack against New York, supported by the French fleet.

A failed operation by the French and Americans to retake Savannah used up the campaign season for the French fleet that year. The following year the British sent Benedict Arnold to Virginia to raid along the coast and up the James River. Lafayette was dispatched to engage Arnold and a French fleet with additional troops was sent to support him. The fleet arrived and engaged a British fleet at the Battle of Cape Henry. Although the British were forced to withdraw following the naval engagement, it did so up the Chesapeake Bay, a position from which it was still able to support Arnold. The French fleet returned to Newport, and its command was assumed by the Comte de Barras in May 1781.

How Britain’s Royal Navy lost the American Revolutionary War
The Battle of the Virginia Capes kept the British Navy from relieving Cornwallis and all but insured his defeat at Yorktown. US Navy

19. The British fleet failed to relieve the British garrison in Virginia

In 1781, with the knowledge that two French fleets would be available in the late summer, Washington met with the French commander in North America, the Comte de Rochambeau, to plan joint operations. Washington wanted to concentrate on New York, but Rochambeau pointed out that the army under Earl Cornwallis, in Virginia, was vulnerable. Defeat or victory in the upcoming campaign was entirely dependent on the French Navy preventing the Royal Navy from coming to the aid of the Earl’s troops, which had established a base on the tip of the York Peninsula in Virginia. The French and British troops left New York for Yorktown surreptitiously.

Two French fleets, one from Newport under de Barras, the other from the West Indies under the Comte de Grasse, converged on North American waters that summer. British Admiral Thomas Graves, aware of both sailings and of the opinion that the mutual target was the Chesapeake, sailed for those waters, arriving on September 5. De Grasse was already there, and sailed forth to meet the British fleet. De Grasse was aware that de Barras’s fleet was due shortly, carrying with it the siege equipment and heavy artillery for the arriving American and French troops, and fought the upcoming battle accordingly.

How Britain’s Royal Navy lost the American Revolutionary War
Comte de Grasse, the victor of the Battle of the Virginia Capes, both outfought and outsailed the British fleet. Wikimedia

20. The Battle of the Virginia Capes was the decisive battle of the war

Admiral Graves was carrying equipment and supplies for Cornwallis’s army, but the presence of the French Fleet prevented him from landing them until after giving battle. The resultant maneuvering and de Grasse’s tactics drew the British fleet further from the entrance to the Chesapeake Bay – marked by Capes Henry and Charles, and further out to sea as they exchanged fire for more than two hours. The British ships of the fleet’s van – its forward most ships – suffered heavily from the French fire. Following the battle, the fleets continued in the same direction, away from the bay.

After a week of sailing within view of each other de Grasse put about and returned to the Chesapeake, to find de Barras already there. Graves followed until he became aware that both French fleets were in the bay, after which he had no choice but to return to New York, with some of his ships heavily damaged. Graves tried to organize a relief expedition of sufficient strength to engage the combined French fleets, but by the time it was ready to sail Cornwallis had surrendered, and the world had turned upside down. The Battle of the Virginia Capes was the worst debacle suffered by the Royal Navy during the war, at least as far as it meant for the British Empire.

How Britain’s Royal Navy lost the American Revolutionary War
French commander Rochambeau (pointing) and Washington at Yorktown, in 1781. Wikimedia

21. Hostilities in the war did not cease after Yorktown

Following the surrender of the British Army at Yorktown, peace talks in Paris between the American and British commissioners intensified. Great Britain had come to accept that its American colonies were lost, and were concerned with the global extent of the catastrophe which had befallen. The Spanish besieged Gibraltar, a critical outpost which protected British trade in the Mediterranean. French troops fought British colonial interests in India. French fleets threatened the West Indies colonies and other possessions. American independence became a side issue for the French and the Spanish.

France and Spain discussed and began planning for a joint operation to seize the British Colony of Jamaica in 1782. The French fleet which had thwarted the British plans in Virginia returned to the West Indies to take part in operations against the British there. The Windward Islands were targeted, but the real prize was Jamaica, for the value of its sugar plantations, which made it more valuable to the British than the 13 North American colonies combined. The governments of France and Spain agreed on the taking of Jamaica, since the siege of Gibraltar had been a costly drain on resources with little hope of success.

How Britain’s Royal Navy lost the American Revolutionary War
Fleet actions between the British and French continued after the victory at Yorktown ended most fighting in North America. Wikimedia

22. De Grasse began operations against Jamaica by taking St. Kitts in the Windward Isles.

The French fleet in the Caribbean under de Grasse consisted of 35 ships of the line, with expected reinforcements from the Spanish of an additional 12 ships. The British fleet, commanded by George Rodney, sailed in pursuit from St. Lucia in April, 1782. On April 9 the fleets spotted each other and sailed in parallel, carefully remaining out of range of one another. On April 12 the fleets engaged. The British broke through the French battle line, rather than continuing to sail in parallel, the tactic which they had used at the Battle of the Virginia Capes. British casualties were over 1,000 killed and wounded, including two captains killed. French casualties were much higher, and the French plan to capture Jamaica was abandoned.

Rodney’s victory was criticized heavily both by officers who fought in the battle (chiefly Samuel Hood) and others in England. They opined that the victory would have been much greater had Rodney aggressively pursued. But to the public, it was the first good news regarding British arms in general and the Royal Navy in particular for some time. Rodney was widely celebrated at home, granted a peerage by the King, and the British peace commissioners were given greater leverage in Paris.

How Britain’s Royal Navy lost the American Revolutionary War
The Royal Navy adopted new tactics at the Battle of the Saintes in 1782, and won a badly needed victory. Wikimedia

23. The British claimed to have restored their naval dominance after the Battle of the Saintes

Before Rodney’s victory over de Grasse at the Battle of the Saintes, Great Britain had suffered a series of naval defeats between their fleets and those of France and Spain. Several clashes in the Indian Oceans and the waters around the Spice Islands had been British defeats, as well as in the Caribbean, and in North American waters. Privateers continued to venture out of American ports, attacking the ships attempting to supply the British Army occupying New York. The British were forced to retain vessels there which could have been put to better use in the Windward Islands or India.

In June 1783 another British fleet under the command of Admiral Edward Hughes was defeated off Cuddalore, India, by French Admiral Bailli de Suffren. Throughout the year 1782 and the early part of 1783, the European powers maneuvered to gain territory, hoping to retain them at the peace table. The British Navy managed to hold on to Jamaica but lost several other valuable territories, as the war in North America sputtered to an end.

How Britain’s Royal Navy lost the American Revolutionary War
More than ten times as many British sailors died of disease than of battle wounds during the American Revolutionary War. Wikimedia

24. The Royal Navy suffered heavy casualties during the war

During the American Revolutionary War, a little over 170,000 sailors served in the ships of the British Navy, over 40,000 of them pressed against their will into the service of the king. Over 18,000 died of disease or accident, more than ten times the number killed in combat. The Royal Navy counted some deaths from disciplinary actions, such as floggings, as accidents. An idea of the harsh discipline present on British ships can be inferred from the more than 40,000 desertions suffered by the Navy during the war, which spent much of its time idle in ports where the same language was spoken, and to the west of which one could vanish into the country.

Its main goal during the war was to blockade the American ports and prevent the goods needed to fight a war from reaching American hands. A secondary goal was the protection of Britain’s own shipping, both in trade and in the supply of British troops. Estimates are that nearly 3,400 British flagged ships were taken and their cargoes lost during the war, and the financial losses to merchants and insurers were staggering. The British spent more each year of the war than the revenue received from the colonies at their peak. Over 2,200 of the ships lost were seized by American privateers, operating against the Royal Navy.

How Britain’s Royal Navy lost the American Revolutionary War
Two British officers who fought with distinction during the Napoleonic Wars – Cuthbert Collingwood and Horatio Nelson – learned their trade during the Revolutionary War. Wikimedia

25. The Royal Navy was humiliated by the Revolutionary War, and took steps to incorporate lessons learned

In the short span of years between the end of the American Revolution and the beginning of the French Revolutionary Wars, the Royal Navy took steps to correct the mistakes and misjudgments from which it suffered. An increased focus on smaller vessels for operations in coastal waters and estuaries took hold. Concern for the welfare of crews became more of a focus for officers. Conveying techniques were studied and improved. A young officer who served off the Americas during the Revolution – Horatio Nelson – rose in status in the Royal Navy.

Incompetent senior officers and administrators began to be weeded out of the service, and ship design and construction improved. At the same time, many of the experienced officers of the French Navy, descendants of the nobility, found themselves driven into exile or trundled off to the guillotine. When the Royal Navy once again found itself required to participate in a global war to protect British interests, it was much better prepared, and in the end, it performed much better, living up to its reputation as the world’s most powerful navy.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“The US Navy: A History, Third Edition”. Nathan Miller. 2014

“Privateers in the American Revolution”. John Frayler, Stories from the Revolution. National Park Service. Online

“Rebels Under Sail”. William M. Fowler. 1976

“Extracts from the journals of my campaigns”. (John) Paul Jones. 1785.

“France in the American Revolution”. James Breck Perkins. 1911

“Report of John Paul Jones”, John Paul Jones to Benjamin Franklin, October 3, 1779. Online

“Frigates and Foremasts: The North American Squadron in Nova Scotia Waters, 1745 – 1815”. Julian Gwyn. 2004

“Victory on Sullivan’s Island: the British Cape Fear/Charles Towne Expedition of 1776”. David Lee Russell. 2002

“Howe Brothers and the American Revolution”. Ira Gruber. 1975

“Admiral Lord Howe: A Biography”. David Syrett. 2005

“To Shining Sea: A History of the United States Navy, 1775 – 1998”. Steven Howarth. 1999

“The French Navy and American Independence: A Study of Arms and Diplomacy”. Jonathan R. Dull. 1976

“Yes, Privateers Mattered”. Frederick C. Leiner, Naval History Magazine. March, 2014

“American Independence and the Naval Factor”. Sam Willis, Naval History Magazine. October, 2016

“The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660 – 1783”. Alfred Thayer Mahan

“Privateers of the Revolution”. Charles L. Lampson, Massachusetts Society Sons of the Revolution. June 23, 2011. Online

“The Economics of the American Revolutionary War”. Ben Baack, Ohio State University, Economics Online

“General George Washington”. Edward Lengel. 2005

“The Campaign that Won America”. Burke Davis. 2007

“Redcoats and Rebels: The American Revolution Through British Eyes”. Christopher Hibbert. 1990

“The War for America: 1775 – 1783”. Piers Mackesy. 1965

“The Men Who Lost America: British Leadership, the American Revolution, and the Fate of the Empire”. Andrew Jackson O’Shaughnessy. 2014