RIVER FIGHTS: The Early Days

The purpose of the United States Navy is to defend America’s shores; the best way of doing that is by prosecuting war in the other fellow’s backyard.  American sea power achieves its greatest advantage by keeping an enemy’s main force away from America’s shore.  Our Navy controls the oceans for America’s use; it denies to our every foe access to the oceans and skies.  The enemy’s coastline is America’s naval frontier.  Our history over the past few hundred years tells us that our Navy’s strategy has worked out quite well for the American people.

The U. S. Navy is no one-trick pony and naval warfare isn’t confined to vast oceans or hostile coastlines.  Whether projecting naval power at sea, in the air, or ashore, the Navy is prepared to employ the full spectrum of its arsenal: surface ships, submarines, amphibious ships, naval guns, sophisticated aircraft, missiles, and shallow draft watercraft.  And then, whenever our enemies need a real ass­-kicking, the Navy asks for a handful of Marines.

Our understanding of the past helps us to better serve the future.  Naval technology in our early days was somewhat limited to ships of the line, cutters, barges, experimental submarines, and small boats (craft suited to rivers and estuaries).  Today we refer to combat operations on rivers as “Riverine Warfare,” and the US Navy has been doing this since the Revolutionary War.  In the modern day, watercraft intended for this purpose is designed and constructed for a specific operational environment.  In earlier times, watercraft used for riverine operations involved whatever was readily available at the time. 

Revolutionary War

The first significant example of riverine operations occurred on Lake Champlain in 1775-76.  Lake Champlain is a 136-mile long lake with connecting waterways north into Canada and southward toward New York City.  They were waterways that offered a prime invasion route to early settlements and colonies and involved a bitter struggle through the end of the War of 1812.  Our revolutionary-period leaders understood that the British would attempt to separate New England from other colonies by controlling Lake Champlain waterways.  Ethan Allen and Benedict Arnold seized Ticonderoga on 19 May 1775 and Crown Point a few days later.  These were audacious operations that provided American patriots with badly needed cannon and munitions.

Arnold made a bold move to control Lake Champlain.  He hastily armed a captured schooner, pressed north to St. John’s on the Richelieu River, and in a pre-dawn riverine raid, surprised the British garrison.  He captured a 70-ton British sloop, seized numerous small boats, and helped himself to military stores, provisions, and arms before returning to Lake Champlain.  In one  stroke, the Americans had gained control of Lake Champlain, which thwarted British plans for their upcoming campaign season.

Arnold’s success at St. John’s was followed up with failure at Quebec, which precipitated the American evacuation of that city.  British and American interests initiated a vigorous ship/boat-building effort on Lake Champlain.  In the British mind, control of Lake Champlain had not been finally settled, but they did look upon Arnold as someone who needed their close attention.  For the British to utilize the Lake Champlain-Lake George-Hudson River highway to split the colonies, they had to first dispose of Arnold’s naval force.

From their base at St. John’s, the British rapidly constructed 29 vessels (some had been built in England and assembled in St. John’s).  The British squadron included Inflexible, Maria, Carleton, Thunderer, Loyal Convert, twenty gunboats, and four long boats.  Under Captain Thomas Pringle, the squadron commander, were 670 well-trained sailors and Marines.  In total, Pringle commanded 89 6-24-pound cannon.

The arms race of 1776 was on.  Spurred by the restless driving force of Benedict Arnold, the Americans sought to keep pace with the British at their Skenesborough shipyard, near the southern end of Lake Champlain.  They worked with scant resources, green timber, and a hastily assembled force of carpenters.  Drawing on his own experience as a sailor and his newly acquired knowledge of the waters in which he would fight, Arnold prepared specifications for a new type of gondola particularly suited to his task.  He wanted a small vessel of light construction that would be fast and agile under sail and oar. He hoped to offset the disadvantages of restricted waters with greater maneuverability against the slow moving, deeper draft British ships whose strength he could not match.

In all, Arnold fought fifteen American vessels, including the sloop Enterprise, the schooners Royal Savage, Revenge, and Liberty, eight of his newly designed gondolas, and three galleys.  He manned his squadron with 500 men from troops made available to him by General Philip Schuyler and from whatever was available from along waterfront taverns. With pitch still oozing out from the planking in his ships, Arnold, now a brigadier general, set a northward course.  On 10 October, Arnold stationed his flotilla west of Valcour Island where the water was deep enough for passage yet narrow enough to limit British access.  Pringle’s main failure was in conducting a proper reconnaissance of the area, so his fleet sailed past Valcour Island under a strong north wind, which required that he return direction from a leeward position.  The battle raged for most of the afternoon.  Arnold expended 75% of his munitions and his ships were badly cut up.  Taking advantage of the north wind and a foggy night, Arnold slipped through the anchored British ships and escaped.  By the 13th, British ships began to overhaul Arnolds fleet, or ran them aground.  Arnold managed to escape to Ticonderoga with six ships and the loss of (an estimated) 80 men.

Having regained control of Lake Champlain, the British quickly seized Crown Point.  General Horatio Gates and Arnold prepared to defend Ticonderoga but the British instead returned to Canada and went into winter quarters.  Circumstantially, Arnold had been thoroughly beaten on the “inland sea” but had scored a strategic victory.  A British advance southward was delayed for another year and the Continental Army had additional time to build its strength.

During the War of 1812, restricted naval warfare was again seen on Lake Erie and Lake Champlain.  This strategy also focused on inland waterways.  Initially, the British controlled the Great Lakes, which facilitated their capture of Detroit and the invasion of Ohio.  In September 1812, Commodore Isaac Chauncey, USN took command of the lakes along the Erie-Ontario frontier in order to thwart a British invasion from that direction.  Both sides strengthened their positions.  Master Commandant Oliver H. Perry, USN assumed command of all naval activity on Lake Erie, under the direction of Commodore Chauncey from Lake Ontario.  Commanding British naval forces was Commodore R. H. Barclay, RN operating on Lake Erie.  Barclay and Perry both began vigorous ship-building programs; neither side could well afford men or supplies, so corners were cut whenever possible.  Barclay had an advantage over Perry in ships, but through remarkable leadership and effort, Perry closed that gap.

On 10 September 1813, Perry joined Barclay in a desperate battle.  Perry had nine ships to Barclay’s six and an advantage in weight of broadside.  Barclay’s guns had a greater range, however, and Perry was always in danger of being destroyed.  In fact, Perry’s star came very close to setting on Lake Erie.  One of his two heavy ships failed to close with the British, rendering Perry’s flagship Lawrence a shamble.  Decks ran red with blood; 80% of his crew became casualties; defeat seemed inevitable—but not to Master Commandant Perry.  Embarking with a courageous boat crew, he rowed across the shot-splashed water, boarded the uninjured Niagara issued his orders, and steered the ship to victory.  Within a few short months, Perry had assembled a fleet, gave the United States control of Lake Erie, the upper lakes, all adjacent territory, and guaranteed to the United States its freedom of movement on these vital waterways.  Through Perry’s efforts, the United States also laid claim to the Northwest Territory.

Commodore Joshua Barney distinguished himself during the War of 1812, as well.  See also: The Intrepid Commodore.

In the defense of New Orleans, Commodore Daniel T. Patterson demonstrated keen insight and raw courage against attacking British ships.  Patterson correctly predicted that the British would assault New Orleans rather than Mobile and further, that their advance would be along the shortest route, through Lake Borgne and Lake Ponchartrain.  He deployed a riverine force of five gunboats, two tenders, and his two largest ships as a means of forcing the British to delay their arrival in New Orleans.  In doing so, he gave General Andrew Jackson time to complete his defensive works in Chalmette.  See also: At Chalmette, 1815.

The shoreline of the modern United States is 12,383 miles.  Even in America’s early days, the US shoreline was a considerable distance to protect and control.  Before and after the War of 1812, buccaneers, filibusters, and other intruders plagued the United States.  Using longboats, the Navy hunted down pirates through coastal estuaries, Caribbean inlets and lagoons, or waging guerrilla war against hostile Indians.  Their mission took sailors and Marines into the dank and dangerous swamps and bayous of Georgia, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana.  Whether employing large ships, ironclads, tin cans, rafts, or canoes, the Navy proved time and again that it had flexibility and adaptability in riverine operations, which has become part of the Navy’s proud heritage. 

The Pirates

Pirates had long infested the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, fueled in no small measure by the rapid growth of American commerce.  In the early 1820s, pirates attacked merchant ships nearly 3,000 times.  The associated financial losses were staggering; murder, arson, and torture were commonly inflicted upon American seamen.  Commodore James Biddle, USN, took on the pirates, filibusters, and free-booters.  In command of the West Indies Squadron, Biddle mounted raids in open longboats, manned by sailors for days at a time in burning sun or raging storm.  He reached into uncharted bays, inlets, and small but treacherous rivers—to locate, close with, and destroy the buccaneer menace.

Biddle utilized his heavy ships as the backbone of his riverine force and as sea-going bases for smaller craft.  This strategy steadily reduced piracy through such stellar efforts of Lieutenant James Ramage, USN and Lieutenant McKeever, who commanded the Navy’s first steamship to see combat action on the high seas, USS Sea Gull.  McKeever levelled the pirate base at Matanzas, Cuba in April 1825.  When buccaneers realized that their occupation was becoming less profitable and increasingly hazardous, they started looking around for other work.

Swamp Wars

Between 1836-42, Seminole and Creek Indian wars in the Florida Everglades produced a conflict uncannily like that waged in Southeast Asia 125 years later.  In 1830[1], the US Congress passed the Indian Removal Act to remove Florida tribes to reservation lands west of the Mississippi River.  Shockingly, many of these Indians refused to cooperate with the Congress.  Unsurprisingly, a band of Seminoles attacked and massacred a US Army detachment under the command of Major Francis Dade.  The event occurred in Tampa in December 1835.  Almost immediately, the US government moved more soldiers into Florida and Commodore A. J. Dallas’ West Indies Squadron landed parties of Marines and seamen to add weight to the military presence there.

The frustration of fighting a shadowy enemy who was completely at home in the swampy wilderness and rivers in West Florida prompted the Army to ask for naval assistance delivering supplies, establishing communications, and mounting operations along the Chattahoochee River.  One of the first naval units assigned was led by Passed Midshipman[2] J. T. McLaughlin.  In addition to his duties, McLaughlin served as Aide-de-Camp to Lieutenant Colonel A. C. W. Fanning.  McLaughlin was seriously wounded by Indians at Fort Mellon in February 1837.

As the pace of war quickened, the Navy’s riverine force grew.  The Navy purchased three small schooners in 1839, which operated in the coastal inlets to chart the water, harass the Indians, and protect civilian settlements.  In addition, McLaughlin, then a lieutenant, commanded many flat-bottomed boats, plantation canoes, and sharp-ended bateaux which he used to penetrate the Everglade Swamps.  In effect, McLaughlin commanded the “mosquito fleet,” a mixture of vessels manned by around 600 sailors, soldiers, and Marines.

Sources:

  1. Affield, W. Muddy Jungle Rivers: A River Assault Boat’s Cox’n’s Memory of Vietnam. Hawthorne Petal Press, 2012.
  2. S. Army Field Manual 31-75: Riverine Warfare. Washington: Headquarters, U. S. Army, 1971
  3. Friedman, N. US Small Combatants.
  4. Fulton, W. B. Vietnam Studies: Riverine Operations, 1966-1969.  Washington: Department of the Army, 1985
  5. Joiner, G. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy: The Mississippi Squadron.  Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.
  6. Marolda, E. J. Riverine Warfare: U. S. Navy Operations on Inland Waters.  Annapolis: Naval History and Heritage Command, 2006
  7. Rowlands, K. Riverine Warfare: Naval War College Review, Vol 71, No. 1. Art. 5., Annapolis: Naval War College, 2018

Endnotes:

[1] In 1830, Democrats controlled the US House of Representatives.  Another shocker.

[2] In the 19th century, this term was used to describe a midshipman who had passed the examination for appointment to ensign but was waiting for a vacancy in that grade.  A passed midshipman was also occasionally referred to as a “sub-lieutenant,” but neither of these were ever official naval ranks.

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Mustang

US Marine (Retired), historian, writer.