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stand the steady charge of regular forces, and are disorded by their maneuvres in the open field; whereas, their fire is more deadly from behind ramparts.
The principles of defence recommended by the board for the maritime frontier of the United States are applicable to the northern or lake frontier and to that of the west. Some few sites are recommended to be occupied by fortifications, both to afford protection to places fast growing up into important cities, and to furnish a refuge and rallying point for our naval and land forces. Very respectfully, your most obedient servant.
J. R. POINSETT. Hon. R. M. T. HUNTER,
Speaker of the House of Representatives.
WASHINGTON, May 10, 1840. Sir: The board of officers to whom the subject of the military defences of the country was committed have the honor to submit the following report, viz:
1st. Report on the defence of the Atlantic frontier, from Passamaquoddy to the Sabine. This is divided into two distinct portions, viz: the coast from Passamaquoddy to Cape Florida, and the coast from Cape Florida to the Sabine bay.
2d. Report on the defence of the northern frontier, from Lake Superior to Passamaquoddy bay.
3d. Report on the western frontier, from the Sabine bay to Lake Superior.
Connected with these reports are tabular statements, showing the “permanent defence commenced, completed, projected, or deemed necessary;" with conjectural estimates of the probable expense of constructing or completing such works as may not yet have been completed or commenced,”
4th. Reports “on the armories, arsenals, magazines, and founderies, either constructed or deemed necessary; with a conjectural estimate of the expense of constructing such of said establishments as may not yet be completed or commenced, but which may be deemed necessary.” Hon. J. R. Poinsett,
Secretary of War.
Report on the defence of the Atlantic frontier, from Passamaquoddy to the
Sabine. So entirely does this board concur in the views presented on several occasions, within the last twenty years, by joint commissions of naval and military officers, by the board of engineers for fortifications, and by individual officers who have at various times been called on to treat the same subject, that in quoting their opinions we should, for the greater part, express our own. But though these reports are, some of them, comprehensive and elaborate, we suppose that an explicit statement of our views, at least as to the great principles on which the system of defence should be erected, is expected from us, especially as the system now in progress has been the subject of a criticism which, considering the high official source whence it emanated, may be supposed to have disturbed the confidence of the public therein.
The nature and source of that criticism, attacking as it does fundamental principles, and inculcating doctrines which we believe to be highly dangerous, will lead us at times into amplifications that we fear may prove tedious. This, however, we must risk, trusting to the importance of the subject for excuse, if not for justification.
The principal errors, as we conceive, in the document* referred to are 1. That for the defence of the coast the chief reliance should be on the navy,
2. That, in preference to fortifications, floating batteries should be introduced wherever they can be used.
3. That we are not in danger from large expeditions; and, consequently,
4. That the system of the board of engineers comprises works which are unnecessarily large for the purposes they have to fulfil.
On these topics, together with other errors of the same nature, we shall feel constrained to enlarge.
The first question that presents itself is this: What, in general terms, shall be the means of defence ?
We have a sea-coast line of more than three thousand miles in extent, along which lie scattered all the great cities, all the depots of commerce, all the establishments of naval construction, outfit, and repair, and towns, villages, and establishments of private enterprise without number. From this line of sea-coast navigable bays, estuaries, and rivers, the shores of which are similarly occupied, penetrate deep into the heart of the country.
How are the important points along this extended line to be secured from hostile expeditions, especially since one of the prominent causes of the prosperity of these various establishments, namely, facility of access from the ocean, is, as regards danger from an enemy, the chief cause of weakness? Shall the defence be by a nary exclusively?
The opinion that the nary is the true defence of the country is so acceptable and popular, and is sustained by such high authority, that it demands a careful examination.
Before going into this examination we will premise that by the term “navy" is here meant, we suppose, line-of-battle-ships, frigates, smaller sailing vessels, and armned steamships, omitting vessels constructed for local uses merely, such as floating batteries.
For the purpose of first considering this proposition in its simplest terms, we will begin by supposing the nation to possess but a single seaport, and that this is to be defended by a fleet alone.
By remaining constantly within this port our fleet would be certain of meeting the enemy, should he assail it. But if inferior to the enemy, there would be no reason to look for a successful defence; and as there could be no escape for the defeated vessels, the presence of the fleet, instead of averting the issue, would only render it the more calamitous.
Should our fleet be equal to the enemy's, the defence might be complete, and it probably would be so. Still, hazard—some of the many mishaps liable to attend contests of this nature-might decide against us; and, in that event, the consequences would be even more disastrous than on the preceding supposition. In this case the chances of victory to the two parties would be equal, but the consequences very unequal. It might be the enemy's fate to lose his whole fleet, but he could lose nothing more; while we, in a similar attempt, would lose not only the whole fleet, but also the object that the fleet was designed to protect.
If superior to the enemy, the defence of the port would in all respects be complete. But, instead of making an attack, the enemy would, in such case, employ himself in cutting up our commerce on the ocean; and nothing could be done to protect this commerce without leaving the port in a condition to be successfully assailed.
In either of the above cases the fleet might await the enemy in front of the harbor, instead of lying within. But no advantage is apparent from such an arrangement, and there would be superadded the risk of being injured by tempests, and thereby disqualified for the duty of defence, or of being driven off the coast by gales of wind; thus, for a time, removing all opposition.
* See Setsate document No. 293, vol. 4, p. 1, 24th Congress, 1st session.
In the same cases, also, especially when equal or superior to the enemy, our flect, depending on having correct and timely notice as to the position and state of preparation of the enemy's forces, might think proper to meet him at the outlet of his own port, or intercept him on the way, instead of awaiting him within or off our own harbor. Here it must be noticed that the enemy, like ourselves, is supposed to possess a single harbor only ; but having protected it by other means, that his navy is disposable for offensive operations. If it were attempted thus to shut him within his own port, he, in any case but that of decided inferiority, would not hesitate to come out and risk a battle; because, if defeated, he could retire, under shelter of his defences, to refit, and, if successful, he could proceed with a small portion of his force-even a single vessel would suffice-to the capture of our port, now defenceless ; while, with the remainder, he would follow up his advantage over our defeated vessels, not failing to pursue them into their harbor, should they return thither.
Actual superiority on our part would keep the enemy from volunteering a battle; but it would be indispensable that the superiority be steadily maintained, and that the superior fleet be constantly present. If driven off by tempests, or absent from any other cause, the blockaded fleet would escape, when it would be necessary for our fleet to fly back to the defence of its own port. Experience abundantly proves, moreover, that it is in vain to attempt to shut a hostile squadron in port for any length of time. It seems, then, that whether we de. fend by remaining at home, or by shutting the enemy's fleet within his own harbor, actual superiorty in vessels is indispensable to the security of our port.
With this superiority the defence will be complete, provided our fleet remain within its harbor. But then all the commerce of the country upon the ocean must be left to its fate; and no attempt can be made to react offensively upon the foe, unless we can control the chances of finding the enemy's fleet within his port, and the still more uncertain chance of keeping him there; the escape of a single vessel being sufficient to cause the loss of our harbor.
Let us next see what will be the state of the question on the supposition of numerous important ports on either side, instead of a single one; relying, on our part, still, exclusively on a navy.
In order to examine this question, we will suppose our adversary to be fortified in all his harbors, and possessed of available naval means equal to our own. This is certainly a fair supposition ; because what is assumed as regards his harbors is true of all maritime nations, except the United States; and as regards naval means, it is elevating our own strength considerably above its present measure, and above that it is likely to attain for years.
Being thus relatively situated, the first difference that strikes us is that the enemy, believing all his ports to be safe, without the presence of his vessels, sets at once about making our seas and shores the theatre of operations, while we are left without choice in the matter; for if he think proper to come, and we are not present, he attains his object without resistance.
The next difference is, that while the enemy (saving only the opposition of Providence) is certain to fall upon the single point, or the many points he may have selected, there will exist no previous indications of his particular choice, and, consequently, no reason for preparing our defence on one point rather than another; so that the chances of not being present and ready on his arrival are directly in proportion to the number of our ports, that is to say, the greater the number of ports the greater the chances that he will meet no opposition whatever.
Another difference is, that the enemy can choose the mode of warfare, as well as the plan of operations, leaving as little option to us in the one case as in the other. It will be necessary for us to act, in the first instance, on the supposition
that an assault will be made with his entire fleet; because, should we act otherwise, his coming in that array would involve both fleet and coast in inevitable defeat and ruin. Being in this state of concentration, then, should the enemy have any apprehensions as to the result of a general engagement; should he be unwilling to put any thing at hazard; or should he, for any other reason, prefer acting by detachments, he can, on approaching the coast, disperse his force into small squadrons and single ships, and make simultaneous attacks on numerous points. These enterprises would be speedily consummated; because, as the single point occupied by our fleet would be avoided, all the detachments would be unopposed; and after a few hours devoted to burning shipping, or public establishments, and taking in spoil, the several expeditions would leave the coast for some convenient rendezvous, whence they might return, either in fleet or in detachments, to visit other portions with the scourge.
Is it insisted that our fleet might, notwithstanding, be go arranged as to meet these enterprises ?
As it cannot be denied that the enemy may select his point of attack out of the whole extent of coast, where is the prescience that can indicate the spot? And if it cannot be foretold, how is that ubiquity to be imparted that shall always place our fleet in the path of the advancing foe? Suppose we attempt to cover the coast by cruising in front of it, shall we sweep its whole length ?a distance scarcely less than that which the enemy must traverse in passing from his coast to ours. Must the Gulf of Mexico be swept, as well as the Atlantic ? or shall we give up the Gulf to the enemy? Shall we cover the southern cities, or give them up also? We must, unquestionably, do one of two things : either relinquish a great extent of coast, confining our cruisers to a small portion only, or include so much that the chances of intercepting an enemy would seem to be out of the question.
On the practicability of covering even a small extent of coast by cruising in front of it-or, in other words, the possibility of anticipating an enemy's operations ; discovering the object of movements of which we get no glimpse, and hear no tidings; and seeing the impress of his footsteps on the surface of the ocean—it may be well to consult experience.
The Toulon fleet, in 1798, consisting of about twenty sail of line-of-battle ships and frigates, about twenty smaller vessels-of-war, and nearly two hundred transports, conveying the army of Egypt, slipped out of port and surprised Malta. It was followed by Nelson, who, thinking correctly that they were bound for Egypt, shaped his course direct for Alexandria.
The French, steering towards Candia, took the more circuitous passage, so that Nelson arrived at Alexandria before them; and, not finding them there, returned, by the way of Caramania and Candia, to Sicily, missing his adversary in both passages. Sailing again for Alexandria, he found the French fleet at anchor in Aboukir bay; and, attacking them, achieved the memorable victory of the Nile.
When we consider the narrowness of this sea; the very numerous vessels in the French fleet; the actual crossing of the two fleets on a certain night; and that Nelson, notwithstanding, could see nothing of the enemy himself, and hear nothing of them from merchant vessels, we may judge of the probability of waylaying our adversary on the broad Atlantic.
The escape of another Toulon fleet in 1805; the long search for them in the Mediterranean by the same able officer ; the pursuit in the West Indies; their evasion of him amongst the islands ; the return to Europe; his vain efforts, subBequently, along the coast of Portugal, in the Bay of Biscay, and off the English channel; and the meeting at last at Trafalgar—brought about only because the combined fleets, trusting to the superiority that the accession of several re-enforcements had given, were willing to try the issue of battle: these are instances
H. Rep. Com. 86-10
of many that might be cited, to show how small is the probability of excountering, on the ocean, an enemy who desires to avoid a meeting; and how little the most untiring zeal, the most restless activity, the most exalted professional skill and judgment, can do to lessen the adverse chances. For more than a year Nelson most closely watched his enemy, who seems to have got out of port as soon as he was fully prepared to do so, and without attracting the notice of any of the blockading squadron. When out, Nelson, perfectly in the dark as to tlie course Villeneuve had taken, sought for him in vain on the coast of Egypt. Scattered by tempests, the French fleet again took refuge in Toulon; whence it again put to sea, when refitted and ready, joining the Spanish fleet at Cadiz.
On the courage, skill, vigilance, and judgment acceded on all hands to belong, in a pre-eminent degree, to the naval profession in this country, this system of defence relies to accomplish, against a string of chances, objects of importance so great that not a doubt or misgiving as to the result is admissible. It demands of the navy to do perfectly, and without fail, that which to do at all seems impossible. The navy is required to know the secret purposes of the enemy, in spite of distance and the broken intercourse of a state of war, even before these purposes are known to the leader who is to execute them; nay, more, before the purpose itself is formed. On an element where man is but the sport of storms, the navy is required to lie in wait for the foe at the exact spot and moment, in spite of weather and seasons; to see him in spite of fogs and darkness. Finally, after all the devices and reliances of the system are satisfactorily accomplished. and all difficulties subdued, it submits to the issue of a single battle, on equal terms, the fate of the war, having no resource or hope beyond.
It may here be alleged that the term navy, as applied to the defence of the country, means more than the sea-going vessels we have enumerated; that it means, also, gunboats, floating batteries, and steam batteries; and that the true system of defence for the coast requires us to provide all our harbors with some or all of these vessels, according to local circumstances; leaving to the sea-going vessels the duty of destroying the enemy's commerce, carrying the war into the enemy's seas, and contending for the mastery of the ocean.
But such a proposition is totally distinct from that we have been considering. This is one that we regard as, in part, perfectly sound; as containing, though not true throughout, the great principle on which the present glory of the navy proper has been built, and its future glory will depend.
We are aware that some of our ships have been blockaded within our harbors, but we are not aware that any of the high distinction achieved by that service has been gained in these blockaded ships.
On the other hand, we know that, instead of lying in harbor and contenting themselves with keeping a few more of the enemy's vessels in watch over them than their own number—instead of leaving the enemy's commerce in undisturbed enjoyment of the sea, and our own commerce without countenance or aid—they scattered themselves over the wide surface of the ocean, penetrated to the most remote seas, everywhere acting with the most brilliant success against the enemy's navigation. And we believe, moreover, that in the amount of enemy's property thus destroyed, of American property protected or recovered, and in the number of hostile ships kept in pursuit of our scattered vessels—ships, evaded if superior, and beaten if equal—they rendered benefits a thousand fold greater, to say nothing of the glory they acquired for the nation and the character they imparted to it, than any that would have resulted from a state of passiveness within the harbors.
Confident that this is the true policy as regards the employment of the navy proper, we doubt not that it will, in the future, be acted on as it has been in the past, and that the results, as regards both honor and advantage, will be expanded commensurately with its own enlargement.
In order, however, that the navy may always assume and maintain that active