CHAPTER XI. MARITIME WAR IN EUROPE, 1779-1782.
2. "A question was very much agitated both in and out of Parliament; namely, Whether the intercepting of the French fleet under the Count de Grasse should not have been the first object of the British fleet under Vice-Admiral Darby, instead of losing time in going to Ireland, by which that opportunity was missed. The defeat of the French fleet would certainly totally have disconcerted the great plans which the enemies had formed in the East and West Indies. It would have insured the safety of the British West India islands; the Cape of Good hope must have fallen into the hands of Britain; and the campaign in North America might have had a very different termination." (Beatson's Memoirs, vol. v. p. 341, where the contrary arguments are also stated.) - -
Gibraltar was indeed a heavy weight upon the English operations, but the national instinct which clung to it was correct. The fault of the English policy was in attempting to hold so many other points of land, while neglecting, by rapidity of concentration, to fall upon any of the detachments of the allied fleets. The key of the situation was upon the ocean; a great victory there would have solved all the other points in dispute. But it was not possible to win a great victory while trying to maintain a show of force everywhere. (1)
- - 1. This is one of the most common and flagrant violations of the principles of war, - stretching a thin line, everywhere inadequate, over an immense frontier. The clamors of trade and local interests make popular governments especially liable to it. - -
North America was a yet heavier clog, and there undoubtedly the feeling of the nation was mistaken; pride, not wisdom, maintained that struggle. Whatever the sympathies of individuals and classes in the allied nations, by their governments American rebellion was valued only as a weakening of England's arm. The operations there depended, as has been shown, upon the control of the sea; and to maintain that, large detachments of English ships were absorbed from the contest with France and Spain. Could a successful war have made America again what it once was, a warmly attached dependency of Great Britain, a firm base for her sea power, it would have been worth much greater sacrifices; but that had become impossible. But although she had lost, by her own mistakes, the affection of the colonists, which would have supported and secured her hold upon their ports and sea-coast, there nevertheless remained to the mother-country, in Halifax, Bermuda, and the West Indies, enough strong military stations, inferior, as naval bases, only to those strong ports which are surrounded by a friendly country, great in its resources and population. The abandonment of the contest in North America would have strengthened England very much more than the allies. As it was, her large naval detachments there were always liable to be overpowered by a sudden move of the enemy from the sea, as happened in 1778 and 1781.
To the abandonment of America as hopelessly lost, because no military subjection could have brought back the old loyalty, should have been added the giving up, for the time, all military occupancy which fettered concentration, while not adding to military strength. Most of the Antilles fell under this head, and the ultimate possession of them would depend upon the naval campaign. Garrisons could have been spared for Barbadoes and Sta. Lucia, for Gibraltar and perhaps for Mahon, that could have effectually maintained them until the empire of the seas was decided; and to them could have been added one or two vital positions in America, like New York and Charleston, to be held only till guarantees were given for such treatment of the loyalists among the inhabitants as good faith required England to exact.
Having thus stripped herself of every weight, rapid concentration with offensive purpose should have followed. Sixty ships-of-the-line on the coast of Europe, half before Cadiz and half before Brest, with a reserve at home to replace injured ships, would not have exhausted by a great deal the roll of the English navy and that such fleets would not have had to fight, may not only be said by us, who have the whole history before us, but might have been inferred by those who had watched the tactics of D'Estaing and De Guichen, and later on of De Grasse. Or, had even so much dispersal been thought unadvisable, forty ships before Brest would have left the sea open to the Spanish fleet to try conclusions with the rest of the English navy when the question of controlling Gibraltar and Mahon came up for decision. Knowing what we do of the efficiency of the two services, there can be little question of the result; and Gibraltar, instead of a weight, would, as often before and since those days, have been an element of strength to Great Britain.
The conclusion continually recurs. Whatever may be the determining factors in strifes between neighboring continental States, when a question arises of control over distant regions, politically weak, - whether they be crumbling empires, anarchical republics, colonies, isolated military posts, or islands below a certain size, - it must ultimately be decided by naval power, by the organized military force afloat, which represents the communications that form so prominent a feature in all strategy. The magnificent defence of Gibraltar hinged upon this; upon this depended the military results of the war in America; upon this the final fate of the West India Islands; upon this certainly the possession of India. Upon this will depend the control of the Central American Isthmus, if that question take a military coloring; and though modified by the continental position and surroundings of Turkey, the same sea power must be a weighty factor in shaping the outcome of the Eastern Question in Europe.