The Influence of Sea Power Upon the French Revolution

IN The Atlantic for October, 1890, we reviewed Captain Mahan’s Influence of Sea Power upon History ; pointing out the originality and worth of the book, and expressing the hope that it would be received with such favor as to insure a continuation. This continuation has now appeared in the shape of two admirable volumes.1 in which Captain Mahan treats of the effect of the sea power of England upon France under the First Republic and under the great Napoleon. We are glad to see that the author promises further to continue his labor by devoting a special work to the War of 1812. When this is done, it may be treated in connection with his excellent biography of Farragut,2 recently published. We earnestly hope that Captain Mahan will not be content with writing merely of the War of 1812. The effect of the naval power of the Union upon the war with the Confederate States has never been considered from the standpoint assumed by Captain Mahan, and it is probable that in no way could he do as much good to his country as by writing a volume on our civil war. In philosophic spirit and grasp of his subject in its larger aspects, he is not approached by any other naval writer whom we can at the moment recall. Such a work as he could write is especially needed for the civil war, moreover, for it is really curious to see how fundamentally the great body of Americans misconstrue the lessons to be learned from the naval operations of that struggle. Incidentally, cordial praise must be awarded the Naval War College as being entitled to much of the honor of bringing about the production of Captain Mahan’s works.

When a man has written a book of such marked excellence and originality that it takes rank as a classic, we always look forward to the appearance of his next with a certain amount of trepidation. We fear that he may have reached a level on which he cannot stay, or that he may have had but one message to deliver, and that, having delivered it. what else he may say will be surplusage. It is therefore with great pleasure that we recognize in Mahan’s new work a thoroughly fit companion piece for his former book. Of course, in one way his old Work possesses a value which the newer volumes cannot equal. In his first book he covered a wider range than he covers in the present one, and he dealt with the influence of sea power, as such, upon the fate of nations from a standpoint never assumed by any previous writer. He did —what is so very rare — something absolutely original: he wrote with a philosophic comprehension of naval history in its relation to history generally such as no one else has shown. In this work, on the other hand, he deals with a single series of wars, covering but a score of years, and often described by previous writers, and with the feats of a naval hero whose exploits have been a stock theme for every kind of historian, novelist, and poet. However, his work has certainly gained in interest, for he portrays the most striking drama ever played upon the ocean, where the most important naval power the world has ever seen was pitted against one of the world’s two or three consummate military geniuses and conquerors, and where the sea power triumphed, and produced, in the course of the struggle, the greatest of all admirals. Of the hundreds of books which have been written on this same subject, there is but one which can in any way admit of comparison with Captain Mahan’s: this is Admiral Jurien de la Gravière’s Guerres Maritimes. It is rather singular, by the way, that much the best accounts of the deeds of Nelson should have been written, one by a French and one by an American naval officer. However, Gravière’s book is not written from the same standpoint as Mahan’s, and we mention it merely because it is in its own way so excellent.

Captain Mahan’s work begins with the opening of the French Revolution. He sketches very vividly the condition of European countries at that time, especially with reference to their sea power; showing in this sketch, as he always does, the breadth of view which makes his utterances so well worth heeding. One of the curious matters to which he calls attention is the then existing relation between Russia and England, when the tendency was to regard these two powers as natural allies against France and Turkey. He also shows the curious condition of the Low Countries, jealously watched by England, France, and Austria, in part independent and in part held in vassalage to outside powers, and portrays the effects that this anomalous condition of things in the neighborhood of the many mouths of the Rhine had upon the normal development of trade, and of that war power which originally grew up to protect trade.

Our author brings into bold relief the absolute demoralization which swept over the French navy in consequence of the Revolution. There had been great abuses even in the navy, under the old régime, but the folly of the revolutionists, in sweeping away these abuses, swept away every good characteristic likewise. In the navy, the Revolution did far more evil than good,— the direct reverse of what happened in the army. It is a severe commentary upon the ability of a people to recognize even elementary facts that the French should have permitted such outrageous mutiny and insubordination in the navy as they actually did permit. As a consequence, the revolutionary spirit reduced the French navy to absolute incompetence during the earlier years of the revolutionary period. In reading the accounts of the mutinies, the revolts, and the like, one becomes thoroughly convinced that no species of over-severity can be quite as damaging as the silly and bloody anarchy which ruined the fleets of France, and no species of misconduct quite so contemptible as that flabbiness of character which condones and acquiesces in deeds of mob violence, and hesitates to shed blood in putting it down. Fortunately for France, by the time that hostile operations between it and England were fully under way, the revolutionary government had at least come to act with great vigor, and, in the name of the people and the Revolution, to crush out revolutionary and popular excesses directed against itself. This put a little life into the navy, and prevented the absolute breakup which would have occurred had the French fleets met those of England in the early days of their complete disorganization ; but even thus it could not save them from disaster.

In the war of the American Revolution, the French navy had shown itself no unfit match for the British. In but one great battle, that known as Rodney s action, had a French fleet suffered a decisive overthrow, while at least one French admiral, Suffren, had shown fighting ability of the very highest order. In this war, any conflict between the armed vessels of the two countries was sure to be waged on both sides with obstinacy and skill, and success perched alternately on the banners of each. In the war of the French Revolution, all this was changed. The single-ship actions and the fleet actions alike show a monotonous list of English victories ; and this in spite of the fact that, during the early years of the contest, no especial ability was shown by the English commanders, who manœuvred and fought with a rustiness which betrayed the effects of peace. The French fleets had lost the great bulk of their best officers, and there had been a very marked deterioration in discipline and seamanship. The attempt to supply the places of those who had gone by promoting enthusiastic republicans from the ranks, or weather-worn old seamen from the merchant marine, resulted in total failure. In this respect, the contrast between the French army and navy was curiously sharp. On the whole, the Revolution rendered the French army vastly more efficient than it had been; the evils done to discipline and the drivingout of the officers of superior grade being more than offset by the fiery enthusiasm given to the troops, and by the opportunities allowed men of talent, of whatever social standing, to rise immediately to the high positions for which they were fitted. In the navy, however, no amount of fiery enthusiasm or natural talent could take the place of cool, methodical courage, and of the skill acquired in the course of long years employed solely in handling such formidable and delicate engines of war as were the ships even of that day. The United States would do well to take to heart the lesson taught by the French Revolution,— that it is impossible to improvise an efficient navy in the face of a trained, hostile navy of superior force ; and of course it is infinitely more difficult now, in the days of huge steam vessels, and mechanism as delicate and intricate as it is formidable.

During the first years of the war, the English admirals and captains failed to break through the routine in which they had been brought up. They fought their battles and carried on their campaigns according to the respectable old standards, and without any especial energy or audacity. In consequence, though the French were everywhere beaten, nowhere were they decisively overthrown ; the most noted of the English victories being that won by Lord Howe. These constant defeats, however, though not decisive, yet kept down the spirits of the French, and prevented the development of really efficient cruising and fighting fleets until such time as the English began themselves to develop great commanders and to inaugurate a system of close blockade, which not only eventually confined the French fleets to their ports, but literally sapped the life strength of France during the years of Napoleon’s rule.

Easily first among these great commanders, easily first among the great admirals of all time, was Nelson. Captain Mahan goes over the familiar tale of his exploits, through all his cruises and fights, from the day when he gained a renown only second to that of Admiral Jervis in the battle of Cape St. Vincent, through the all-important victory of the Nile and the campaign against Copenhagen, to the crowning glory of Trafalgar. He not only tells the story well, with great clearness and vividness, bringing into marked relief the noteworthy combination of boldness and sagacity which distinguished Nelson’s operations, but he also draws from each of his actions the needed lessons. He shows how carefully Nelson prepared for every contingency ; how wisely he insisted upon the proper combination of strict obedience to orders with liberty of individual action among subordinates ; and how he appreciated the necessity of initiative and self-reliance, whether in his own person when serving under Jervis, or among his comrades when he himself was in command. He also shows that, with Nelson, audacity did not mean foolhardiness, and that, so far from merely dashing at his foes and fighting them anyhow, according to the popular theory of his methods, he, wherever possible, planned the assault so as to bring an overwhelming force upon the portion of the enemy’s line attacked, paying as much heed to manœuvring as to boldness and promptness.

Of even more value than his account of the career of Nelson is Captain Mahan’s estimate of the way in which the whole sea power of England worked throughout the contest against Napoleon. He shows, of course, how it brought about the ruin of Napoleon’s plans in the East, after his successful Egyptian invasion ; and he also brings out, what is perhaps dimly understood, but is rarely clearly expressed, the fact that the Peninsular War was carried to a successful conclusion solely because of the overwhelming advantage given to Wellington’s armies by England’s entire control of the seas. Even occasional interruptions in the hold the British navies had of the waters around the Spanish peninsula would have proved fatal to the English armies, and without these English armies the Spanish uprisings would have amounted to little more than annoyance. Finally, in a succession of masterly chapters, he makes clear how Great Britain’s absolute control of the seas, uncontested after Trafalgar, together with the policy of unremitting hostility to France which her statesmen pursued with characteristic stubbornness of purpose, at last wore out and broke down Napoleon’s strength. It was the influence of the sea power, exerted to its utmost against him in a great contest of endurance, where both sides suffered terribly, but where his side suffered most, which, working silently, and often almost overlooked, forced him, in order to keep up the struggle at all, to go farther and farther in his scheme of uniting all Europe against England, and thus finally to precipitate the struggles which ended in his own downfall. Captain Mahan is the first historian who has fully recognized and given proper prominence to this keystone fact of the Napoleonic wars. It was the sea power of England which was the real cause of the overthrow of the greatest of modern conquerors and commanders.

For Americans, there is special interest in those portions of Captain Mahan’s concluding chapters which deal with the effects upon American commerce of Napoleon’s decrees and the British orders in council. Incidentally, Captain Mahan makes very clear the folly of trying to rely upon privateering or commerce-destroying of any kind as a method for crippling, or even disheartening, a resolute and powerful enemy, and shows that the only way in which to make head against sea power is by sea power itself,— a lesson which the United States should keep in mind until we have a thoroughly first-class navy, able to hold its own with the navy of any European nation. But aside from making clear this point about commerce-destroying. Captain Mahan takes a very healthy view of the attitude of our country, under Jefferson and Madison, toward foreign foes, actual or possible. He shows how contemptible the American policy of that day was in submitting to the wanton aggressions of the European powers, and not making immediate and ample preparations to repel them by force. While the outrages committed by England upon our commerce may not have been defensible, it was much less defensible for us to be in a position where we had to submit to them. We dislike, reprobate, and, if possible, punish the man who strikes another unprovoked; but, after all, in our hearts, we despise him less than we do the timid being who submits to the blow without retaliation.

  1. The Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution. By Captain A. T. MAHAN, U. S. N. Two volumes. Boston: Little, Brown & Co. 1892.
  2. Admiral Farragut. By Captain A, T. MAHAN. U. S. N. New York : D, Appleton & Co. 1893.