George Washington's Secret Navy
Wednesday, April 9 2008
For Immediate Release
Press contact: Ann Pryor
GEORGE WASHINGTON’S SECRET NAVY
How the American Revolution Went to Sea
James L. Nelson
Author of Benedict Arnold’s Navy
“James Nelson is a master both of his period and of the English language.”
Patrick O’Brian, author of Master and Commander
George Washington, the first commander-in-chief of the first American army, was committed to the idea of civilian control of the armed forces. But when in the Fall of 1775 he recognized the need for a navy - a navy he knew Congress would never approve -Washington ignored that commitment and created a navy anyway. He just didn’t bother mentioning it to Congress.
Detailing an important but little-known event in American history, George Washington’s Secret Navy (June 2008; Hardcover, $26.95) covers the dramatic early months of the American Revolution, when the British army was held hostage in Boston by an American force that was little more than a disorganized mob, with each side certain the other would attack, each certain that the other was far more powerful. Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, the delegates to the Continental Congress were trying to bring order to the chaos, and trying to decide if the country actually wanted the war that had spontaneously begun.
Into this confused situation rode General George Washington, even then the most famous soldier in America. But Washington had no experience in command of so large an army. His fighting had been on the frontiers, fighting the French and Indians in the kind of forest combat which the Native Americans had perfected. He had little experience with the more traditional open field, European-style combat. And he had no experience with the sea.
Washington began immediately to prepare his men and defenses for an attack by the well-trained British regulars in Boston. Slowly, as his army and fortifications came together, he realized that the British would not attack – and that if he wanted to drive them from Boston, he would have to lay siege to the city and starve them out. But every day he could see ships filled with provisions arriving in Boston’s inner harbor. With the sea lanes open, there was no way the Americans could starve the British out of the city.
And then Washington, who had no interest, love or knowledge of naval affairs, got an idea.
A naval force, patrolling the waters off Boston, could snatch up the heavy-laden merchant ships before they reached the city. This would both deprive the British and their Tory allies of supplies and furnish the ragtag American army with the military stores it lacked. The very idea of a navy was a hot button issue, and Washington knew it. The colonies had always had an army, in the form of local militia. But creating a navy was a tacit declaration of sovereignty at a time when only the most radical in Congress, such as John and Sam Adams, were willing to go that far. Knowing Congress would not approve a navy, and knowing that one was absolutely necessary, Washington ordered ships to be armed and sent out on the high seas. And no one, not even many in his inner circle, knew what he was doing.
George Washington’s Secret Navy looks not just at the political and military drama surrounding Washington’s ships, but also sets his fleet in context, assessing the fighting at sea, including the audacious capture of a British man-of-war by the civilians at Machias, Maine, and the burning of Falmouth (Portland) in response. The book also examines the loud and acrimonious debate in the Continental Congress as to whether there should be a navy at all, a debate that took place even as Washington was fitting out his fleet.
Considerable thought is given to the British perspective as well, the brutal, starving condition of the soldiers and civilians in Boston, the difficulty of determining how vigorously to prosecute the war with little input from London.
Exhaustively researched from letters, diaries, military reports and other primary sources, Nelson provides an immediate, often gritty, almost play-by-play feel as the early skirmishing
erupts into full-on revolution, with Washington at the center of the gathering storm.
The Associated Press said that Nelson writes history “with clarity and literary skill, and with such ease and order that the reader feels he is attending a dissertation on history given by a consummate lecturer.” Nelson’s gifts as a writer shine here, and he brings an immediacy to his descriptions of the ships, the sailors, the soldiers, civilians, and the sea and land that form the basis of this story. He also brings fresh insights to the influential decisions of Washington, John Adams, British General Thomas Gage, as well as King George and his cabinet, the many people, famous or now forgotten, who played a part in the creation of George Washington’s secret navy.
From the burning of the schooner Gaspee, considered by England to be the most outrageous and unforgivable acts committed by the Colonies, to the naval bombardment and resulting total destruction of Falmouth, Massachusetts – to Washington’s repeated pleas to Congress to launch an attack upon the enemy – from the halls of Congress in Philadelphia to the front lines in Boston and the deadly fighting on the high seas, George Washington’s Secret Navy provides an invaluable historical look at a true hero and the men he led.
About the Author:
James L. Nelson is the author of Benedict Arnold’s Navy, as well as eleven novels set during the great Age of Sail. His first work of nonfiction was Reign of Iron: the Story of the First Battling Ironclads (Harper Collins, 2003). His novel Glory in the Name won the American Library Association/William Young Boyd Award, the country’s top award for military fiction.
George Washington’s Secret Navy
Author: James L. Nelson
Hardcover, $26.95/ May, 2008
For author interviews, artwork, or excerpt information, contact: Ann Pryor, Senior Publicity Manager/ 212.904.4078
Questions and Answers with Author James L. Nelson
Q. What do you find most surprising about George Washington’s Secret Navy?
A. The story of George Washington’s first year as commander-in-chief. The book begins with Washington’s arrival at the head of the army and chronicles his learning curve over the first year. He is such a respected and admired figure in this country, and deservedly so, that people forget that he had no experience leading so large a force, no experience in naval matters. For a British officer like Gage in Boston, cooperating with naval forces was a standard part of warfare; Washington, who had fought on the frontier, knew nothing of that. He had to learn it all.
Q. Was Washington’s navy a success?
A. Yes and no. One of the thing that made the book so much fun to write, and I hope fun to read, were the incredible difficulties Washington had getting his fleet together. He was a southern aristocrat and not used to the deeply held sense of democracy that pervaded New England, it drove him nuts. He had some excellent men under his command, but he also had some real incompetents. In the end his fleet managed to make life much harder for the British, and even captured a few prizes that were of incalculable value to the Americans, which gave the army a huge boost at a low point in morale.
Q. What sort of sources did you use in writing the book?
A. The most important were Washington’s Revolutionary War correspondence. He produced an incredible number of letters, not just to Congress and other officers but to friends back in Virginia. Nearly all of them are still available to read. Luckily, 18 th Century New England was a very literate society, so there are quite a few letters, journals and such that cover these events. I looked at newspapers as well, but they can be pretty unreliable.
On the British side, the officers, like Washington, indulged in quite a bit of correspondence, both official and personal. Samuel Graves, the British admiral, wrote a long narrative of his time in Boston, including in it a number of letters and reports, mostly as a defense of his efforts, but it’s a great boon to historians! You can’t write good history unless you go to the primary sources and evaluate them yourself. And frankly, that’s the real joy of it.
Q. Why is the story of Washington’s Navy important?
A. Several reasons. It is one of the most clear examples of Washington’s growing into the job of commander-in-chief and coming to understand larger strategy. It’s a beautiful example of his famous luck, since he could have been cashiered for what he did but, as readers will find he comes out smelling like a rose and looking like a prophetic leader.
Washington’s ships gave his army a major boost when it was most needed and taught the British that the seas would not go uncontested. The fleet represented a huge step forward, not just in naval strategy, but in how the country’s leaders viewed the war and their own concepts of independence.
Q. This history stuff is pretty dull going , isn’t it?
A. It can be, but I feel safe in saying it isn’t here. You would think with two armies facing one another and doing nothing it would be slow going, but it is amazing how much action was taking place. Fighting was going on all along the coast of New England, on land and at sea. Cities were being burned, ships captured, islands raided.
Some of the most fascinating fighting didn’t involve any troops at all. The bickering and backstabbing in Congress, the animosity between the leaders of the British army in Boston, Washington’s struggles with the Yankees who were like aliens to him, it’s all great stuff.
Anyone who enjoyed David McCullough or David Hackett Fischer’s Revolutionary War books (and their name is legion) will love George Washington’s Secret Navy.