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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

A Solution Offered, But Is It Viable?

This is Steven Petrick posting.

When reading history and the analysis of wars and campaigns one can often come across new ideas. At least they seem like new ideas if you have not heard of them previously. They can lead you to wonder why, since they seem obvious, the people back then did not use this obviously superior method of deploying their forces.

One I read just recently postulated that Great Britain could have defeated the American Revolution by simply blockading the colonial port cities and sailing up the various rivers to divide the colonies and starve them into submission.

Okay, maybe others have heard this, but I cannot recall having had this idea put forward previously. There seems, to me, some validity to this both because this was pretty much done to the South by the North in the American Civil War, and because West Point was originally occupied as a means of controlling the river below it.

I am, however, myself primarily a "land" officer. I think of rivers as both a system of "barriers" and as a means of moving supplies (both obstacle and road in effect). I understand the blockade concept for ports. I am obviously, therefore, missing something.

This concept of a naval blockade of the colonies by the British navy seems so obvious (as presented by the author), why was it not done? I have no real answer to this except to note that it was not done in any of the previous colonial wars either. There was no squadron of English ships blockading French access to Canada during the French and Indian War that I am aware of. Nor do I recall the British blockading various Spanish colonial ports when England was at war with Spain. Yes, the British navy did arrive and conquer Niuew Ansterdam (present day New York City), but that was not a blockade.

So, why did not the British blockade the colonies? Is it really possible the Admiralty and government were that inept (the writer certainly believes so). Or was there something else going on? I tend to favor the concept that there was some other factor that the author is not aware of or missing because of his own preconceptions, but since I do not really know for sure I cannot be certain.

The author himself made some mention that the Royal Navy needed to maintain enough ships in "home waters" so that it would not be possible for the French to launch an invasion. Taking advantage of weakness, but he did not seem to consider this as too big a deal.

Now, blockades are "resource intensive." You have to keep ships on station, which means keeping them supplied and having repair capability. (Storms can really mess up blockading ships for example.) So I am driven to wonder about the logistical support for such a blockade. While the Union Blockade of the Confederacy serves as a starting point, it has differences (mainly the need to supply coal to ships moving under steam rather than sail only). So, how many ships would be needed to establish a blockade, and how many garrisons would be needed to hold ports that could be used to shelter ships undergoing refurbishment on station? How many supply ships would need to be used to keep the blockade going, and would these require escorts to keep them from being attacked while making the crossing?

The British had ships operating all around the globe, and had a lot of things to be doing, how many ships could they afford to divert to the blockade mission and not in the course of doing so lose something else (say, India)?

I do not know the answer, but the Union was able to run a blockade of the Confederacy from this side of the Atlantic, how much more difficult would it have been for the British to do so From England as a home base, even if they were establishing supply depots on this side of the Atlantic?

Again, I do not know, but they do not seem to have blockaded the colonial ports of other empires in various wars (nor did the other empires seem to blockade the colonial ports of the English or other empires they were at war with). There has to be a reason this was not done (the norm was to send an expedition to seize the ports rather than blockade them, which is why many of the colonial islands changed hands during the various colonial wars before the American Revolution).

I just have to believe there was something else going on that made such a blockade solution non-viable. The logistics to support such a blockade, and the need to guard the home islands in addition to other operations seems the answer to me. I really do not know, but just saying the British were morons for not adopting the author's brilliant blockade strategy without a solid discussion of how it would have actually been carried out just makes me think the author is blowing smoke. He may believe his concept, but I do not regard the point as valid until I see the math. Just as I question the reasoning of another author who sought to prove the Union blockade failed because the south got roughly the same level of tonnage of supplies as it got before the blockade, a statement that may be true but overlooks the facts that that tonnage cost more and the South needed a lot more tonnage that it could not get because of the blockade.