CHAPTER XIV. CRITICAL DISCUSSION OF THE MARITIME WAR OF 1778.
In North America the local bases of the war at its outbreak were New York, Narragansett Bay, and Boston. The two former were then held by the English, and were the most important stations on the continent, from their position, susceptibility of defence, and resources. Boston had passed into the hands of the Americans, and was therefore at the service of the allies. From the direction actually given to the war, by diverting the active English operations to the Southern States in 1779, Boston was thrown outside the principal theatre of operations, and became from its position militarily unimportant; but had the plan been adopted of isolating New England by holding the line of the Hudson and Lake Champlain, and concentrating military effort to the eastward, it will he seen that these three ports would all have been of decisive importance to the issue. South of New York, the Delaware and Chesapeake Bays undoubtedly offered tempting fields for maritime enterprise; but the width of the entrances, the want of suitable and easily defended points for naval stations near the sea, the wide dispersal of the land forces entailed by an attempt to hold so many points, and the sickliness of the locality during a great part of the year, should have excepted them from a principal part in the plan of the first campaigns. It is not necessary to include them among the local bases of the war. To the extreme south the English were drawn by theignis_fatuus of expected support among the people. They failed to consider that even if a majority there preferred quiet to freedom, that very quality would prevent them from rising against the revolutionary government by which, on the English theory, they were oppressed; yet upon such a rising the whole success of this distant and in its end most unfortunate enterprise was staked. The local base of this war apart was Charleston, which passed into the hands of the British in May, 1780, eighteen months after the first expedition had landed in Georgia.
The principal local bases of the war in the West Indies are already known through the previous narrative. They were for the English, Barbadoes, Sta. Lucia, and to a less degree Antigua. A thousand miles to leeward was the large island of Jamaica, with a dock-yard of great natural capabilities at Kingston. The allies held, in the first order of importance, Fort Royal in Martinique, and Havana; in the second order, Guadeloupe and Cap Francais. A controlling feature of the strategic situation in that day, and one which will not be wholly without weight in our own, was the trade-wind, with its accompanying current. A passage to windward against these obstacles was a long and serious undertaking even for single ships, much more for larger bodies. It followed that fleets would go to the western islands only reluctantly, or when assured that the enemy had taken the same direction, as Rodney went to Jamaica after the Battle of the Saints, knowing the French fleet to have gone to Cap Francais. This condition of the wind made the windward, or eastern, islands points on the natural lines of communication between Europe and America, as well as local bases of the naval war, and tied the fleets to them. Hence also it followed that between the two scenes of operations, between the continent and the Lesser Antilles, was interposed a wide central region into which the larger operations of war could not safely be carried except by a belligerent possessed of great naval superiority, or unless a decisive advantage had been gained upon one flank. In 1762, when England held all the Windward Islands, with undisputed superiority at sea, she safely attacked and subdued Havana; but in the years 1779-1782 the French sea power in America and the French tenure of the Windward Islands practically balanced her own, leaving the Spaniards at Havana free to prosecute their designs against Pensacola and the Bahamas, in the central region mentioned. (1)
- - 1. It maybe said here in passing, that the key to the English possessions in what was then called West Florida was at Pensacola and Mobile, which depended upon Jamaica for support; the conditions of the country, of navigation, and of the general continental war forbidding assistance from the Atlantic. The English force, military and naval, at Jamaica was only adequate to the defence of the island and of trade, and could not afford sufficient relief to Florida. The capture of the latter and of the Bahamas was effected with little difficulty by overwhelming Spanish forces, as many as fifteen ships-of-the- line and seven thousand troops having been employed against Pensacola. These events will receive no other mention. Their only bearing upon the general war was the diversion of this imposing force from joint operations with the French, Spain here, as at Gibraltar, pursuing her own aims instead of concentrating upon the common enemy, - a policy as shortsighted as it was selfish. - -