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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

The Importance of Cruisers and of Strong Fleets in War

By Alfred Thayer Mahan (1840–1914)

From ‘The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783’

THE ENGLISH, notwithstanding their heavy loss in the Four Days’ Battle, were at sea again within two months, much to the surprise of the Dutch; and on the 4th of August another severe fight was fought off the North Foreland, ending in the complete defeat of the latter, who retired to their own coasts. The English followed, and effected an entrance into one of the Dutch harbors, where they destroyed a large fleet of merchantmen as well as a town of some importance. Toward the end of 1666 both sides [England and Holland] were tired of the war, which was doing great harm to trade, and weakening both navies to the advantage of the growing sea power of France. Negotiations looking toward peace were opened; but Charles II., ill disposed to the United Provinces, confident that the growing pretensions of Louis XIV. to the Spanish Netherlands would break up the existing alliance between Holland and France, and relying also upon the severe reverses suffered at sea by the Dutch, was exacting and haughty in his demands. To justify and maintain this line of conduct he should have kept up his fleet, the prestige of which had been so advanced by its victories. Instead of that, poverty, the result of extravagance and of his home policy, led him to permit it to decline; ships in large numbers were laid up; and he readily adopted an opinion which chimed in with his penury, and which, as it has had advocates at all periods of sea history, should be noted and condemned here. This opinion, warmly opposed by Monk, was:—
  • “That as the Dutch were chiefly supported by trade, as the supply of their navy depended upon trade, and as experience showed, nothing provoked the people so much as injuring their trade, his Majesty should therefore apply himself to this, which would effectually humble them, at the same time that it would less exhaust the English than fitting out such mighty fleets as had hitherto kept the sea every summer…. Upon these motives the King took a fatal resolution of laying up his great ships, and keeping only a few frigates on the cruise.”
  • In consequence of this economical theory of carrying on a war, the Grand Pensionary of Holland, De Witt, who had the year before caused soundings of the Thames to be made, sent into the river, under De Ruyter, a force of sixty or seventy ships of the line, which on the 14th of June, 1667, went up as high as Gravesend, destroying ships at Chatham and in the Medway, and taking possession of Sheerness. The light of the fires could be seen from London; and the Dutch fleet remained in possession of the mouth of the river until the end of the month. Under this blow, following as it did upon the great plague and the great fire of London, Charles consented to peace, which was signed July 31st, 1667, and is known as the Peace of Breda. The most lasting result of the war was the transfer of New York and New Jersey to England, thus joining her northern and southern colonies in North America.

    Before going on again with the general course of the history of the times, it will be well to consider for a moment the theory which worked so disastrously for England in 1667; that, namely, of maintaining a sea war mainly by preying upon the enemy’s commerce. This plan, which involves only the maintenance of a few swift cruisers and can be backed by the spirit of greed in a nation, fitting out privateers without direct expense to the State, possesses the specious attractions which economy always presents. The great injury done to the wealth and prosperity of the enemy is also undeniable; and although to some extent his merchant ships can shelter themselves ignobly under a foreign flag while the war lasts, this guerre de course, as the French call it,—this commerce-destroying, to use our own phrase,—must, if in itself successful, greatly embarrass the foreign government and distress its people. Such a war, however, cannot stand alone: it must be supported, to use the military phrase; unsubstantial and evanescent in itself, it cannot reach far from its base. That base must be either home ports or else some solid outpost of the national power on the shore or the sea; a distant dependency or a powerful fleet. Failing such support, the cruiser can only dash out hurriedly a short distance from home; and its blows, though painful, cannot be fatal. It was not the policy of 1667, but Cromwell’s powerful fleets of ships of the line in 1652, that shut the Dutch merchantmen in their ports and caused the grass to grow in the streets of Amsterdam. When, instructed by the suffering of that time, the Dutch kept large fleets afloat through two exhausting wars, though their commerce suffered greatly, they bore up the burden of the strife against England and France united. Forty years later, Louis XIV. was driven by exhaustion to the policy adopted by Charles II. through parsimony. Then were the days of the great French privateers,—Jean Bart, Forbin, Duguay-Trouin, Du Casse, and others. The regular fleets of the French navy were practically withdrawn from the ocean during the great War of the Spanish Succession (1702–1712). The French naval historian says:—

  • “Unable to renew the naval armaments, Louis XIV. increased the number of cruisers upon the more frequented seas, especially the Channel and the German Ocean [not far from home, it will be noticed]. In these different spots the cruisers were always in a position to intercept or hinder the movements of transports laden with troops, and of the numerous convoys carrying supplies of all kinds. In these seas, in the centre of the commercial and political world, there is always work for cruisers. Notwithstanding the difficulties they met, owing to the absence of large friendly fleets, they served advantageously the cause of the two peoples [French and Spanish]. These cruisers, in the face of the Anglo-Dutch power, needed good luck, boldness, and skill. These three conditions were not lacking to our seamen; but then, what chiefs and what captains they had!”
  • The English historian, on the other hand, while admitting how severely the people and commerce of England suffered from the cruisers, bitterly reflecting at times upon the administration, yet refers over and over again to the increasing prosperity of the whole country, and especially of its commercial part. In the preceding war, on the contrary, from 1689 to 1697, when France sent great fleets to sea and disputed the supremacy of the ocean, how different the result! The same English writer says of that time:—

  • “With respect to our trade, it is certain that we suffered infinitely more, not merely than the French, for that was to be expected from the greater number of our merchant ships, but than we ever did in any former war…. This proceeded in great measure from the vigilance of the French, who carried on the war in a piratical way. It is out of all doubt that, taking all together, our traffic suffered excessively; our merchants were many of them ruined.”
  • Macaulay says of this period: “During many months of 1693 the English trade with the Mediterranean had been interrupted almost entirely. There was no chance that a merchantman from London or Amsterdam would, if unprotected, reach the Pillars of Hercules without being boarded by a French privateer; and the protection of armed vessels was not easily obtained.” Why? Because the vessels of England’s navy were occupied watching the French navy, and this diversion of them from the cruisers and privateers constituted the support which a commerce-destroying war must have. A French historian, speaking of the same period in England (1696), says: “The state of the finances was deplorable: money was scarce, maritime insurance thirty per cent., the Navigation Act was virtually suspended, and the English shipping reduced to the necessity of sailing under the Swedish and Danish flags.” Half a century later the French government was again reduced, by long neglect of the navy, to a cruising warfare. With what results? First, the French historian says: “From June 1756 to June 1760, French privateers captured from the English more than twenty-five hundred merchantmen. In 1761, though France had not, so to speak, a single ship of the line at sea, and though the English had taken two hundred and forty of our privateers, their comrades still took eight hundred and twelve vessels. But,” he goes on to say, “the prodigious growth of the English shipping explains the number of these prizes.” In other words, the suffering involved to England in such numerous captures, which must have caused great individual injury and discontent, did not really prevent the growing prosperity of the State and of the community at large. The English naval historian, speaking of the same period, says: “While the commerce of France was nearly destroyed, the trading fleet of England covered the seas. Every year her commerce was increasing; the money which the war carried out was returned by the produce of her industry. Eight thousand merchant vessels were employed by the English merchants.” And again, summing up the results of the war, after stating the immense amount of specie brought into the kingdom by foreign conquests, he says: “The trade of England increased gradually every year; and such a scene of national prosperity, while waging a long, bloody, and costly war, was never before shown by any people in the world.”

    On the other hand, the historian of the French navy, speaking of an earlier phase of the same wars, says: “The English fleets, having nothing to resist them, swept the seas. Our privateers and single cruisers, having no fleet to keep down the abundance of their enemies, ran short careers. Twenty thousand French seamen lay in English prisons. When, on the other hand, in the War of the American Revolution, France resumed the policy of Colbert and of the early reign of Louis XIV., and kept large battle fleets afloat, the same result again followed as in the days of Tourville.” “For the first time,” says the Annual Register, forgetting or ignorant of the experience of 1693, and remembering only the glories of the later wars, “English merchant ships were driven to take refuge under foreign flags.” Finally, in quitting this part of the subject, it may be remarked that in the Island of Martinique the French had a powerful distant dependency upon which to base a cruising warfare; and during the Seven Years’ War, as afterward during the First Empire, it, with Guadaloupe, was the refuge of numerous privateers. “The records of the English admiralty raise the losses of the English in the West Indies during the first years of the Seven Years’ War to fourteen hundred merchantmen taken or destroyed.” The English fleet was therefore directed against the islands, both of which fell, involving a loss to the trade of France greater than all the depredations of her cruisers on the English commerce, besides breaking up the system; but in the war of 1778 the great fleets protected the islands, which were not even threatened at any time.

    So far we have been viewing the effect of a purely cruising warfare, not based upon powerful squadrons, only upon that particular part of the enemy’s strength against which it is theoretically directed,—upon his commerce and general wealth, upon the sinews of war. The evidence seems to show that even for its own special ends such a mode of war is inconclusive,—worrying but not deadly; it might almost be said that it causes needless suffering. What, however, is the effect of this policy upon the general ends of the war, to which it is one of the means and to which it is subsidiary? How, again, does it react upon the people that practice it? As the historical evidences will come up in detail from time to time, it need here only be summarized.

    The result to England in the days of Charles II. has been seen,—her coast insulted, her shipping burned almost within sight of her capital. In the War of the Spanish Succession, when the control of Spain was the military object, while the French depended upon a cruising war against commerce, the navies of England and Holland, unopposed, guarded the coasts of the peninsula, blocked the port of Toulon, forced the French succors to cross the Pyrenees, and by keeping open the sea highway, neutralized the geographical nearness of France to the seat of war. Their fleets seized Gibraltar, Barcelona, and Minorca; and co-operating with the Austrian army, failed by little of reducing Toulon. In the Seven Years’ War the English fleets seized, or aided in seizing, all the most valuable colonies of France and Spain, and made frequent descents on the French coast.

    The War of the American Revolution affords no lesson, the fleets being nearly equal. The next most striking instance to Americans is the War of 1812. Everybody knows how our privateers swarmed over the seas; and that from the smallness of our navy the war was essentially, indeed solely, a cruising war. Except upon the lakes, it is doubtful if more than two of our ships at any time acted together. The injury done to English commerce, thus unexpectedly attacked by a distant foe which had been undervalued, may be fully conceded; but on the one hand, the American cruisers were powerfully supported by the French fleet, which, being assembled in larger or smaller bodies in the many ports under the Emperor’s control from Antwerp to Venice, tied the fleets of England to blockade duty; and on the other hand, when the fall of the Emperor released them, our coasts were insulted in every direction, the Chesapeake entered and controlled, its shores wasted, the Potomac ascended, and Washington burned. The Northern frontier was kept in a state of alarm, though there, squadrons absolutely weak but relatively strong sustained the general defense; while in the South the Mississippi was entered unopposed, and New Orleans barely saved. When negotiations for peace were opened, the bearing of the English toward the American envoys was not that of men who felt their country to be threatened with an unbearable evil.

    The late Civil War, with the cruises of the Alabama and Sumter and their consorts, revived the tradition of commerce-destroying. In so far as this is one means to a general end, and is based upon a navy otherwise powerful, it is well; but we need not expect to see the feats of those ships repeated in the face of a great sea power. In the first place, those cruises were powerfully supported by the determination of the United States to blockade, not only the chief centres of Southern trade, but every inlet of the coast, thus leaving few ships available for pursuit; in the second place, had there been ten of those cruisers where there was one, they would not have stopped the incursion in Southern waters of the Union fleet, which penetrated to every point accessible from the sea; and in the third place, the undeniable injury, direct and indirect, inflicted upon individuals and upon one branch of the nation’s industry (and how high that shipping industry stands in the writer’s estimation need not be repeated), did not in the least influence or retard the event of the war. Such injuries, unaccompanied by others, are more irritating than weakening. On the other hand, will any refuse to admit that the work of the great Union fleets powerfully modified and hastened an end which was probably inevitable in any case? As a sea power the South then occupied the place of France in the wars we have been considering, while the situation of the North resembled that of England; and as in France, the sufferers in the Confederacy were not a class, but the government and the nation at large.

    It is not the taking of individual ships or convoys, be they few or many, that strikes down the money power of a nation: it is the possession of that overbearing power on the sea which drives the enemy’s flag from it, or allows it to appear only as a fugitive; and which, by controlling the great common, closes the highways by which commerce moves to and from the enemy’s shores. This overbearing power can only be exercised by great navies; and by them (on the broad sea) less efficiently now than in the days when the neutral flag had not its present immunity. It is not unlikely that in the event of a war between maritime nations, an attempt may be made by the one having a great sea power, and wishing to break down its enemy’s commerce, to interpret the phrase “effective blockade” in the manner that best suits its interests at the time; to assert that the speed and disposal of its ships make the blockade effective at much greater distances and with fewer ships than formerly. The determination of such a question will depend, not upon the weaker belligerent, but upon neutral powers: it will raise the issue between belligerent and neutral rights; and if the belligerent have a vastly overpowering navy he may carry his point,—just as England, when possessing the mastery of the seas, long refused to admit the doctrine of the neutral flag covering the goods.