Friday, January 1, 2010


When the infant U.S. Navy embarked on its war with France in 1798, it had little more than courage in abundance.  Secretary of the Navy Benjamin Stoddert knew that in order to achieve victories like that of the Constellation over the L'Insurgente, below, the Navy needed an efficient logistical infrastructure.

As French maritime depredations escalated into an undeclared naval war in spring 1798, the United States responded by creating an independent Navy Department to protect commerce off the nation's coasts and throughout the Caribbean.  As the first Secretary of the Navy, Georgetown merchant Benjamin Stodder found himself thrust into a war with few assets, few precedents, and the formidable task of procuring ships, outfitting them, and supporting them beyond home waters.

As the Navy scrambled to create a fleet beyond the original three frigates built by the War Department, it benefitted from administrative changes that streamlined procedures.  Unlike the War Department's ships, which depended upon the unreliable Treasure for genral procurement, this important power now lay within the Navy's hands. The creation of the fleet itself, however, was only the beginning of the Navy's problems.

On the local level, Stoddert continued the War Department's dependence on agents.  Nearly all agents came from a mercantile background and had been recommended by colleagues or revenue collectors in each port.  During the Quasi-War, nearly ever major port city had an agent, but the office varied from being very task-specific (for instance, overseeing the construction or outfitting of a specific vessel) to handling all naval business within a port.  In all, 22 men served as agents in 17 locations.

Agents were the Navy's eyes and ears.  In addition to outfitting and provisioning ships or refitting returning vessels, they investigated local manufactures and entered contracts.  For their efforts, they received no salary, but instead received a 2% commission on all funds that passed through their office.  Later, Stoddert reduced the payroll commission to 0.5%, once he realized that in Boston alone, over $300,000 in wages passed through the agent's hands.

Stoddert and his agents quickly created a fleet to meet congressional guidelines through different means.  For example, of the Navy's 28 warships, both complete or under construction by December 1798, eight had been built under agents' supervision, four by private contract, six purchased outright, nine pledged by coastal communities, and one prize had been brough into American service.  Throughout the war 42 vessels passed through Stoddert's control, and after removing unfit ships from the rolls the Navy reached an operational peak of 32 warships in mid-1800.

In creating this force, Stoddert revealed an extremely decentralized style.  Agents had direct responsibility for procurement rather than operating through the department.  The Navy provided only the copper components, cannon, and military stores, but encouraged agents to find these as well.  Stoddert ignored technical details.  On early ship contacts, he simply stated the number of guns, rough dimensions, and his desire that it be launched quickly.

Initially, the United States faced a cannon shortage, but a sympathetic Britain allowed the United States to purchase weapons-filling in the void between American needs and productive capacities.  Between 1798 and 1801, the U.S. Navy imported between 300 and 400 naval guns, accounting for between one-third and one-half of its naval armament.

But cannon and their accoutrements were just a small portion of the seemingly endless list of goods needed to outfit ships.  Navigation aids, spare stores, cabin furniture and utensils, from serving spoons to chamber pots, tinder boxes to rat traps...all filled the list.

Providing ships with adequate food for extended voyages was also a major task, for unlike an army which could forage off the countryside, a ship at sea had to be self-sufficient.  Daily rations included one pound of bread and a pound of more of salt beef, pork, or fish, rounded out with servings fo beans, peas, rice, cheese, butter, potatoes or turnips, and rum.  In this context, 44-gun frigate's crew consumed more than 50 tons of meat and bread on a six month cruise.

Certain regions developed reputations for better quality goods.  Norfolk became a major center for procuring high-quality bread, and ships from northern ports stocked up en route to their stations.  Similarly, New York developed a reputation for better meats.

Experience showed that food quality and preservation techniques were far from perfect.   Potatoes, fish, butter, and cheese spoiled rapidly in cramped holds and warm climates, forceing agents to make substitutions. Ships' logs recorded barrels short of supplies, "indigestible" bread, and meat "stinking, rotten, and unfit for men to eat."

Ideally, departing vessels carried six month's provisions, but many smaller vessels carried less -- forcing them to shorten their voyages or borrow from the larger vessels. To increase stowage, most captains reduced the amount of water carried to just enough to reach their stations where water was available in British or neutral ports.

On board, many officers shared responsibility for maitaining provisions and stores, but the purser had the greatest responsibilities: keeping the ship's accounts, maintaining muster rolls, issuing provisions and slops, and purchasing extra supplies and fresh provisions in port.  On returning vessels, accurate reports from purser, sailing master, carpenter, and other warrant officers accounted for expended provisions and expedited refitting.

Stoddert figured that a returning vessel could refit, recruit replacements,and make necessary repairs withing two weeks.  As the war progressed, however, he experienced first hand Clausewitzian "friction," the numerous unpredictable difficulties that differentiated war on paper from way in reality.  Ships that returned early or returned to ports other than the ones assigned to them, caught agents unaware.  Quarantines, fevers, slow recruiting and the propensity of captains to make unauthorized repairs and alterations kept the ships in port longer than expected.  During the summer of 1799, Stoddert expected at least a dozen ships at sea when he had only five available.  He forbad unsanctioned repairs and alterations and urges his officers to sail with smaller crews.

One way Stoddert avoided delays was extending the cruise lengths.  Given the one-year enlistments, a ship was lucky to complete two 4- to 6-month cruises, but by lengthening cruises to a full year, he eliminated potentially lengthy turnarounds.  However, he needed to develop the means to keep them resupplied.

Overall, the decentralized system Stoddert created functioned well throughout the conflict.  By eliminating much of the department's oversight function, he streamlined procedures that enabled ships to get to sea quickly.  However, it created an accounting nightmare with literally hundreds of thousands of dollars flowing out to the agents monthly while waiting for them to file prompt, accurate returns.  Only with the appointment of a competent accountant in 1800 would the final element of the system be in place.

The U.S. Navy in the Caribbean, 1798 - 1801.  The Quasi-War was America's first foreign war, and it demanded the creation of an overseas supply network for the Navy.

In planning his deployments, Stoddert knew the Royal Navy kept the French fleet botled up in Europe and has substantial forces in the Caribbean.  American and British forces cooperated throughout the conflict, the British allowing the Americans access to their colonies and bases, sharing intelligence, and convoying merchantmen.

Although often referred to as squadrons, American vessels nevr operated as concentrated units.  Ships arrived and departed at various times, keeping a constant presence, and Stoddert urged even the smallest of American vessels to curise singly.

During the summer of 1798 American ships cruised only along the coasts, for they were few in number.  In home waters logistics were not a problem.  The first trip into the Caribbean came in August when Constellation escorted merchantmen to Havana, which did not tax the frigate's suply capabilities.

By December Stoddert had enough ships as his disposal to maintain a larger, more permanent presence in teh West Indies.  He formed four squadrons, which with some modifications remained the basic deployments throughout the conflict.  He stationed ships off Havana, in the Windward Passage between Santo Domingo and Cuba, around the French island stronghold of Guadeloupe, and along the South American coast.

Havan presented the United States with a delicate diplomatic situation, for France and Spain were allies.  Fortunately, the war's undeclared status and Cuba's dependence upon American trade allowed the American consuls there to ast as de facto agents, providing captains with fresh provisions, intelligence, storing supplies, and sharing knowledge of local customs and regulations.

Although Stoddert initially assigned ships to the Windward Passage, Santo Domingo played an increasingly larger role in American deployments, making it one of the two largest stations.  Anglo-American intervention suppoeting former slave and regel leader Toussaint L'Ouverture opened some of the island's ports.  Americans referred to Santo Domingo as the Cap Francois station.  In March 1799, Stoddert appointed Nathaniel Levy as agent for the squadron, for which he received 5% commission.

Aside from Cap Francois, the St Kitts station became the other major deployment area.  Originally divided into two zones, north and south of the French privater base on Guadeloupe, the two were consolidated by myd-1799.  Stoddert appointed agents on British Dominica, south of Guadeloupe, but the main center of American activity was at St. Christopher's, popularly known as St. Kitts.  Thomas Truxtun, the first station commander, appointed Matthew Clarkson, an American living in St. Kitts port city of Basseterre Roads as his squadron's agent.  Although Stoddert had made his own arrangements for an agent, he accepted Clarkson's appointment, extending him the same terms offered Levy.

By mid-1799 American vessels extended their cruising areas to include sections of the South American coast, sometimes referred to as the Surinam Station.  Never more than a few ships, they drew on the American consuls on the Dutch island colony of Curacao and Parimaribo, Dutch Guyana, but depended on St. Kitts for replenishment.

Although Stoddert hoped his vesels could operate with minimal assistance, he realized that his forces could not maintain a continuous presence without supplementary supplies.  In early 1799, he bagan chartering merchant vessels to transport extra provisions.  The agent withing a particular city received the request with the desired vessel's size, destination, and cargo, and the agents hired the vessel and stocked it with items either on hand, purchased, or transferred from another agent.  Overall, 11 storeships sailed to St. Kitts, Cap Francois, and occasionally Havana.

How ell did the system function?  Although American warships suffered some shortaes, operations were never hindered by supply problems.  To stretch supplies further, returning vessels left surplus provisions on station, an in emergency, ships lived hand to mough off provisions agents provided.

Repairs also created difficulties since the Americans lacked permanent facilities.  Some repairs taxed the squadron's abilities and limited materials on hand.  Although the British opened their bases, one captain found a replaced mast substandard, and the British turned away Truxtun's battle-damaged Constellation after her brush with La Vengeance, forcing her to return to the United States.

Despite these shortcomings, the United States maintained a sizable portion of its fleet as sea throughout the Quasi-War.  Through improvisation and experimentation, Stoddert established a system that would remain the basis for supporting ships on distant stations for decades to come.

While naval historians have focused on the Mahanian aspects within Stoddert's strategic arguments, his attention to the weaknesses in American naval industries reveals a keen understanding of its limitations and the finite nature of shipbuilding resources.  In 1798, the nation would provide for all its naval needs except for canvas, hemp, copper, and cannon, but the secretary felt that "proper public encouragement" and guaranteed markets would make these industries flourish.  While initially costs would be higher than imports, the country would benefit from being freed from unreliable European supplies.

Stoddert achieved some succes with cannon and copper.  After generous advances, American cannon manufactures had perfected boring technology and could meet Navy demands.  With the nation heavily dependent upon Britain for copper bolts, nails, and sheathing, Stoddert encouraged several manufacturers, particularly Boston's Paul Revere, to perfect the necessary technologies.  He made the decision noe too soon, for by 1799 Britain halted copper exports to the United States.

Although the Navy's efforts to develop manufacturing were generally successful, the efforts to encourage hemp production and canvas manufacturing were not.  Stoddert could not overcome bias against American products or persuade a reluctant Congress to fund such ventures.

As the war progressed, Stoddert no longer stressed the value of an existent battle fleet, but upon having the means to rapidly construct one from stockpiled stores - thus eliminating high maintenance costs.  Although he persuaded Congress to allocate funds for purchasing live oak timber reserves, threatened by the Southern cotton boom, Congress balked at stockkpiling additional cut timber.

What most historians view as Stoddert's most far reaching achievement, the acquisition of permanent naval yards, also took place within the context of building the 74s.  As early as September 1798, he considered building a naval yard in the new nation's capital.  By December, however, he advocated yards in "several different places" to access regional recources, provided they were near a "commercial" city, secure from weather and enemy attack.  He also stressed the need for drydocks to simplify repairs. When Congress appropriated mone for the docks, but not the yards, Stoddert proceeded to obtain them anyway, seeing them as a necessity for building the six 74s Congress authorized.  After surveying potential sites, the Navy purchased ground in Gosport, Virginia; Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia; New York; Charlestown, Massachusetts; and Kittery, Maine.  Unfortunately, John Adams; political defeat and news of a preliminary peace with France prevented the full development of any of the yards and postponed the docks, but it presented the incoming Republican administration a fait accompli.