From the first time boats took to water, naval intelligence has been a critical factor in the shifting power balance of nations. In this Spy Ships series, Holmes began with the early days of naval espionage, In the Beginning, and continued with The Golden Age of Spy Ships. Today, he takes a look at the role of Spy Ships in the American Revolution and the coming of age of the US Navy.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
image from nps.gov
Spy Ships–The US Navy Comes of Age
Before the first shots of the American Revolution resounded at Lexington and Concord, the Colonies gathered information via American merchant ships and whalers. Ascertaining British naval strength and a general sense of their deployments around the globe was easy enough, but as the Revolution progressed, it became more important to know where British war ships and troop transports were destined.
American spies did their best to obtain this information in the ports of England and in the beds of English leaders. However, British naval officers and the British Admiralty proved to be tough, well-disciplined targets.
A British officer who might be willing to accept the affections of a pretty young stranger would often remain silent about his work. Sometimes, ship fitters and the merchants who supplied them were more lucrative targets.
Vessels returning information to the US had to reach the American colonies faster than the British could. To move information and spies back and forth across the Atlantic, America used a class of ships known as “packet ships,” the earliest examples of which were modeled after small, fast mail ships.
During the American Revolution, packet ships remained an important part of intelligence and communication for and in the American colonies. Moving a piece of information from Charleston to Boston by land took several weeks, but by sea, when the winds were favorable, a message could be moved in a few days.
When British ships anchored in American harbors, Americans kept them under surveillance from land, and innocent looking cargo boats and fisherman could approach them. Since the British had to assume that any given colonist was a loyal British subject until they proved otherwise, they remained vulnerable to close surveillance any time they dropped anchor in an American harbor or tied off at an American dock.
After the American Revolution, the US Navy all but disappeared except on paper. Sadly, we Americans assumed that, given our distance from the centers of European powers, we need not bother to operate a regular intelligence system to keep abreast of foreign developments.
The isolationist attitude generally served us well, but it did nothing to support the US merchant fleet or the sizable whaling fleet. Without those seafaring enterprises, the US economy would have been even more fragile than it was for the first fifty years of its existence.
Also, while most Americans were happy with their new-found independence, that same independence meant that Great Britain and her leading navy no longer protected US ships. In fact, the British Navy now became a menace to US ships.
In the US, whalers and merchant carriers had to care about foreign naval and political developments, as well as pirate operations. Whalers reached further across the oceans in search of the richest hunting areas, and running into the wrong foreign naval ships could mean the loss of their ships and imprisonment or impressment of their crews into foreign service.
Other modern nations maintained no illusions about the importance of naval power and naval intelligence. Those nations maintained standing navies to insure their ability to trade over the seas.
(Piper’s note: Thank you, Holmes, for giving me an excuse to use this fine image of British naval superiority in the 1800s.)
Great Britain, in particular, improved its navy with the quality of its ships and the training of its crews. As part of its efforts, the British maintained a regular structure for collating and disseminating intelligence gathered from all of its ships. This process provided British ships with better information, resulting in lower losses to pirates and foreign navies.
But the US could not stay alone in its corner of the world forever. When its carelessness about intelligence led the Barbary states in North Africa to conclude that US merchant vessels were “easy pickings,” the US quickly built up naval forces. In 1805 and 1815 it mounted successful amphibious operations against the Sultans of North Africa. (See Special Edition Libya: Historical Timeline Part I)
In 1812, the US grew tired of the British Navy’s habit of impounding its merchant ships and impressing US crews into British service. Since Great Britain was busy fighting Napoleon and his allies, the US thought it could mount operations against Great Britain’s Canadian colonies, and that Great Britain would quickly relent.
Unfortunately (for us), by 1815, Great Britain was getting the upper hand over Napoleon’s forces. It responded to the annoying Americans with increasing energy and resources.
Fortunately, though, commerce and profit ruled the day, and the British reminded themselves that sending armies to the US would be expensive. The greatest urgency (for both sides) was to sign a peace treaty and resume trade.
During that conflict, the US made great efforts to man and sail fast ships into British waters and harass unguarded British areas. While doing this, those ships gathered as much intelligence as possible.
The British didn’t bother. They already knew enough about our capabilities to concentrate adequate British naval forces wherever they wanted and seal off any American port that they chose.
After the Treaty of Ghent ended the war of 1812 in February of 1815, the US public returned to its isolationist stance within a short time (probably 10 minutes). But for the merchant class and the government, the war had a huge impact on their outlook. They never wanted the US to be at the mercy of foreign navies again.
The US would forever more operate a navy, and in the 1800s, that navy remained closely allied with the US merchant community. Intelligence began to flow in a more organized fashion to Congress and the Cabinet.
By 1845, the US Navy was a force to be reckoned with. During the Mexican-American War, US merchant vessels and ships under various flags had adequate intelligence about Mexican port defenses during port calls for routine trade.
The US Navy used that intelligence, along with intelligence gathered by agents on land, to take and hold critical Mexican ports. This enabled US Army troops to land at Veracruz, Mexico for an expedition against Mexico City. (See Two Lines in the Sand: The Mexican-American War Part III)
By 1852, most of Congress embraced the notion of US ships spying against foreign nations as a routine matter for any modern nation. In a major break with normal US isolationist foreign policy, based on intelligence gathered by US trade ships, Commodore Mathew Perry received orders to take a fleet of four US war ships to Japan. Perry showed up in the even more isolationist Japan in 1853 and demanded a trade agreement with that country.
With Perry’s arrival in Japan, the US Navy had come of age. Japan was a witness to that, and, in turn, began to question her own isolationist strategy. It started to build its own deep sea navy.
The US Navy has never lost sight of the critical role that intelligence plays in establishing and maintaining US trade with foreign nations. Congress has returned to a far more isolationist stance at times, but no US naval vessel has ever again left port without her captain understanding that intelligence gathering is a basic responsibility of a United States naval ship.
In the next segment, we will look at the importance of naval intelligence during the US Civil War.
If you had been one of those revolutionary Americans, would you have hung out at the docks, spying on the British ships?