« AnteriorContinua »
The French admiral, after deliberating some ten days, finally declined to attack, and on the 22d of July departed on another expedition.
On this occasion there were strong motives for bringing the English feet to action. Their army now occupied no other of the large cities than New York. The recent evacuation of Philadelphia was not calculated to encourage the hopes of the royalists, and if “the men-of-war were defeated at this time, the fleet of transports and victuallers must have been destroyed, and the army of course fallen with them.”—(Eakin, page 77.) The reinforcements, too, arriving to succor the fleet, would have been cut off in detail. The consequence might have been immediately fatal to the hopes of the British, though favorable to the cause of humanity, by terminating a struggle which endured four years subsequently.
The difference in force seemed sufficient to justify an engagement under any circumstances. The French had twelve ships of the line, carrying eight hundred and seventy-six guns. The English only nine ships that could be brought into line, and these mounting five hundred and thirty-four guns. The disparity was even greater than that expressed by these figures, as the French carried their guns in ships far superior in size and strength to those of the British.
The main channel which the French were obliged to make use of was thus defended by Lord Howe: Five ships of fifty-four guns and one of fifty were anchored in line bearing about W.NW. from the easternmost vessel that lay near to a storeship, which was armed with some guns, and anchored close in with the Hook. A battery of two howitzers and another of three 18-pounders were posted on the shore close to the weather-ship to prevent that end from being doubled on, and four regiments landed on the Hook to repel any attempt of the French to disembark troops and destroy the batteries. Three ships were placed near the bar to embarrass the passage, and a sixty-four, with frigates, lay inside of the line to be used as occasion might require.
When the French had passed the bar in sufficient force, the three ships were to retire and take the rear of the line, “which would bring their broadsides to bear upon the direct line of approach in the narrowest part of it, when, by veering again, they would resume their situations, and continue to command the long line of course which the enemy must pursue as he advances, while the smaller vessels were so placed as to harass and distress him from inaccessible positions."-(Eakin, page 86.)
The plan of defence was well conceived, and would no doubt have been carefully executed.
The French admiral declined to attack under these circumstances, and in all probability would have suffered great damage, if not defeat, if he had made the attempt.
The superiority which a naval force derived from its mobility over the strongest works is very apparent in this case.
The French ships could not even pass the bar at leisure; they would have been under fire from the first in venturing to do so, and be exposed to a raking fire in approaching the British line, which they were not even at liberty to pass as they could have done, if threatened by the fire of a fort only, but would have been obliged to engage and to destroy it as an indispensable preliminary to any further operations.
Touching the second proposition, it may be said that there is no doubt now of the time that will be required to carry intelligence from any one point to another, nor of that which may be needed to transfer aid from point to point along the seaboard.
The appearance of an enemy, his force, and movements, may be known at New Orleans almost instantly after it is known at Boston, and at any point between these cities; and whatever steam force may have been posted at the principal entrances can be transferred from one of them to another at a reliabel
Defence of New York harbor, by Lord Howe, ogainst the French flet, July, 1778.
rate of speed. Ten knots per hour is not excessive for a good ocean steamer in any weather in which an enemy would be likely to operate in a matter so delicate as forcing a disputed channel.
The question, therefore, is not whether the inferior force stationed at a port may
be able to make good a final defence against an enemy appearing sudilenly, but whether it may have the power to delay his movements until aid shall arrive from another quarter.
Thus, in thirteen hours after the first sight of an enemy from the Neversink heights, a squadron from the Delaware would be off Sandy Hook; and twentyeight hours would bring up a force from the Chesapeake.
If the hostile feet shall not be able to pass the channel, destroy the squadron that defends it, and still be in a state to attempt the passage of the Narrows in less than thirteen hours, it is very certain that a fresh squadron, even though somewhat inferior, will afford him good reason to look to his own defence, and think of retreating, instead of venturing to prosecute his operations. Finally, the Chesapeake vessels, arriving in fifteen hours after the Delaware steamers, will give more than a chance for capturing at least every steamer of the enemy that has been crippled in the engagement with the New York squadron.
The means requisite, therefore, at each port, are those that will insure the time needed to concentrate the other portions of the home squadron.
The result of the preceding propositions, as announced in the third, has received its practical application in a preceding passage,* thus: "The preparation by the enemy of twenty steam frigates would require the construction of two hundred of equal force on our part, supposing that we design to cover but ten of our principal harbors, leaving all others at his mercy.”
The principal objection to the defensive position thus assumed to be imposed on the two hundred steamers, by the necessities of the first and second propositions, would be the impossibility of carrying it into execution. There is certainly no precedent for such a system of inaction; and if any naval officer were so disposed, it is more than probable that public opinion would hardly permit the precedent to occur here. Novel it would be to see two hundred steamers divided into squadrons at distant points, quietly awaiting the onset of one-tenth their whole number. The enemy himself would probably be alarmed at such a peculiar demonstration, and rather be inclined to look upon it as a trap for his itwenty ships.
Admitting, for an instant, that any necessity could exist for pursuing a plan 80 strictly defensive in its character, would it not be better to send the ships out to sea, where the public attention would not be enforced to the humiliating character of the operation, and cause them to form a cordon along the coast, from Maine to Florida ? This distance of fourteen hundred miles could be easily lined by two hundred ships, seven miles asunder; and being within the notice of any unusual signal from each other, the enemy's twenty ships, in attempting to pass the line, would be seen and overhauled by the ready concentration of an equal number from the cordon, before he could reach the port to be assailed.
Be that as it may, no naval officer can doubt that if the United States had fully available two hundred war-steamers of the largest class, or sailing ships of equal tonnage, the question would be entirely in regard to the character of offensire operations. It would no longer be an object to defend our own ports, but to capture and destroy the enemy's ships in distant seas, while protecting his colonies and trade-to intercept his commerce everywhere—to dispute the command of the high seas with his mightiest fleets, and blockade every naval >station of his island empire.
It is not necessary to prosecute further objections to these propositions. Naval men, with hardly an exception, would take the very converse of the first and second propositions, and utterly protest against the consequent contained in the third. Stronger reasons have yet to be adduced to make good the position that defence by means exclusively naval is impracticable, for the reasons giren in these three propositions.
The practical interpretation of the second query, however, has no reference to the question of an exclusive defence by the forts or ships, so far as the Atlantic coast is conce
cerned, if I understand rightly. The answer must necessarily be based upon the existing state of things; and as a great part of the contemplated system of coast fortification has been completed, the expediency of substituting ships, &c., has reference only to such of the system as remains unfinished.
The works for the protection of Boston and of the navy yard at Norfolk are already completed. At New York, likewise, excepting the fort on Sandy Hook. The approach to Philadelphia, however, and the anchorage at the breakwater are yet undefended, though the works have been planned and perhaps partly appropriated for.
I have no doubt when these places, and some harbor on the southeast coast, have received whatever aid can be furnished by the art of the engineer, that a naval force of no immoderate extent will be fully competent to defend the Atlantic seacoast from any attempts which an enemy would find it advisable to make.
Under no circumstances, except of the most unquestionable superiority at sea, is it presumed that it would be well to resort to a defence exclusively naval.
The ship and the fort have each a particular province in every general system of well regulated national defence, and if these can be agreed on the result will be reliable and economical. I do not mean to apply the latter word to the least possible outlay of means, but to the judicious expenditure of whatever may
be required to effect the end proposed.
It is not needful here to enter into any statement of the part properly allotted to forts; this has been ably and frequently expounded by the chief engineer.
Admitting them fully, and the necessity also for the works in the principal points above alluded to, as the base for the naval operations that are to guard the intermediate points, it may be well to examine whether even the great harbors and watercourses are fully defensible by fortifications, when of the most extensive character.
Let us again revert to the defences of New York.
The first object is to prevent the occupation of the lower harbor by a hostile fleet, for if able to effect this the enemy would obtain the following advantages, according to the report of the board of engineers, (page 54:)
“An enemy's squadron being in the bay, into which entrance is very easy, would set a seal upon this outlet of the harbor. Not a vessel could enter or depart at any season of the year. And it would also intercept the water communication, by way of the Raritan, between New York and Philadelphia.
“ The same squadron could land a force on the beach of Gravesend bay, (the place of the landing of the British, which brought on the battle of Long Island, in the revolutionary war,) within seven miles of the city of Brooklyn, of its commanding heights, and of the navy yard, with no intervening obstacle of any sort.
“This danger is imminent, and it would not fail, in the event of war, to be as fully realized as it was during the last war, when, on the rumor of an expeclition being in preparation in England, 27,000 militia were assembled to cover the city from an attack of this sort. It is apparent that the ences near the city and those of the Narrows, indispensable as they are for other purposes, cannot be made to prevent this enterprise.”
There can be no doubt of the great damage that would be wrought to the revenue of the government, and to the immense interests of various sections, by the presence of an enemy's force in the lower harbor. A heavy expenditure would be well laid out in establishing the means of prevention, and this should certainly be looked to in time.
What fortifications, then, can be applied to the purpose, and how far will they be efficacious in excluding a fleet ?
A glance at the chart will show a wide extent of water between the outer extremes of land that form the harbor from Sandy Hook to Coney island; the distance is about seven miles. Large ships, however, are not at liberty to pass over any part of this entrance. Their course is confined to two channels, the principal one of which is near the Hook, and another somewhat to the northward of it, (the swash.) Line-of-battle ships can use the first only, but the heaviest steam frigate in our service, when loaded for a long cruise, only draws twenty feet, (the Susquehanna,) and therefore has sufficient water to pass in by the swash channel.
According to their report the board of engineers propose to fortify the east branch and middle ground, under the belief that the bottom was sufficiently permanent to receive such works. Recent surveys, however, have so far shaken such opinion as to induce them to forego the project.
The report goes on to state, (page 55:) “This may, however, be said with certainty, namely: that, all other means failing, works may be erected on Sandy Hook which will have a good action upon the channel, and under cover of which bomb ketches or steam batteries, or both, may lie. With such an arrangement there would be little probability of the lower bay being occupied as a blockading station."
I have already endeavored to make it apparent that any works on the Hook would, of themselves, be insufficient to prevent the passage of ships into the lower harbor, and it will be perceived that this is also fairly inferable from the passage just quoted, as it includes other aid in the arrangement designed to prevent the occupation of the lower harbor.
Line-of-battle ships, in taking the main channel, would, however, sustain the fire of a fort without material detriment for the eight or ten minutes required to pass it, with a fair wind and tide; and, if annoyed by the floating batteries and ketches, would not hesitate to run close to them and brush them with a few broadsides, which would probably leave them little more to do than to take care of themselves.
The heaviest steamers, by taking the swash channel, would avoid the fire of the fort and floating batteries altogether, and afterward have leisure to destroy the latter from the anchorage of the lower harbor.
So far, therefore, from believing that, “with such an arrangement, there would be little probability of the lower bay being occupied as a blockading station," it seems conclusive that the occupation of the lower harbor by a naval force would be liable to the least degree of interruption from the defences planned for that purpose. The report itself admits the necessity of using floating batteries and bomb ketches as auxiliaries, which, of all the naval means, are certainly the least worthy of reliance. With the limited preventive powers of a fort, 80 far as passage is concerned, they have in no degree the least of its capacity to endure battering, their material being as vulnerable as that of a ship, without its great advantage of passing from one point to another, whether tar or near. And as for bomb ketches against objects no larger than ships, and those in rapid motion, it may be said that the chances of even a single bomb dropping upon them are too remote to be taken into account as a means of defence in the conditions of this case.
Conceiving, therefore, the entrance of an enemy into the lower harbor to be fairly feasible, the next matter for consideration is the capacity of the inner defences to prevent entrance into the upper harbor and the destruction of such means of war and revenue as may be found in and about the city, such as the vessels-of-war built or building at the navy yard, of the timber, ordnance, and stores, and, above all, of the extensive private establishments for manufacturing steam-engines; a purpose which, if effected, would cripple the nation in every