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Britain and the American Revolution now Available in Paperback

JDB Communications LLC is proud to announce the publication of Britain and the American Revolution, another collection of essays by John D. Beatty, author of The Devil’s Own Day: Shiloh and the American Civil War.

Most scholars—especially Americans—when writing about the American Revolution (also called the American War) emphasize the Western Hemisphere when considering the effects.  However, in this scribe’s opinion this view is short-sighted.  Great Britain, after all, is still around, and its Empire indeed flourished a century after it lost its then-largest and most prosperous colonies.  The Empire may have steadily degraded after Victoria’s diamond jubilee gala in 1897, but by the much-ballyhooed “Brexit” from the European Community in 2016, Britain herself was still a force to be reckoned with.

Recent writers, especially Steven Sears in The British Empire, have suggested that the British Empire was really nothing more than a jobs program for the English middle and upper classes.  In some ways, this is arguably true.  However trivial this may seem in the great scheme of things, it was also the largest single influence on human civilization between the fall of Rome and the triumph of the United States and the Soviet Union in 1945.  As these essays argue, this influence was in part because of the sheer genius of hard-pressed Britons to survive on their harsh, rocky islands.

“Changing the Great Game” is an exploration of how the concept of “rights” was grudgingly preserved by dynasty after dynasty ruling the British Isles.  Even if the Scots, Irish and other ethnic groups didn’t recognize it, the rights enjoyed by Englishmen that were unique to their legal system did rub off on them as well, if only in small doses from time to time.  The ancient legends of Arthur, Alfred and the rest of the traditional lawgivers may have been perfected in the 19th century, but their origins are clearly much older.  The legal tradition that no sovereign is above his own laws far predate the Normans.

“Kings, Kin and Killers” is something of an experiment.  Steven Pincus in 1688: The First Modern Revolution talks extensively about the motives of the supporters of the Stuarts and those who…well, did not support the monarch.  They hadn’t yet expressed a desire to throw out the monarchy as they would later, but the non-supporters of the Stuart kings were far more interested in the power of capital than that of land.  Their arguments were eerily similar to those that would take place in America before the shooting started in 1861.  It is almost certain that many of the philosophical animosities in English society between country and town, between farm and workshop, were locked into American society after the Revolution, and hung on in animus for another three generations.

“The Limits of Empire” is explicitly that: an essay into the administrative and technical limitations of imperial administration in the late 18th century.  Law, trade, finance, and community administration all depended on communications, and there was simply no good or reliable way to improve trans-Atlantic communications in the 1770s such that the Revolution, or one like it, could be put down.  Even if India were to become the most prosperous of all of Britain’s imperial properties, it wasn’t yet.  If the Gandhi revolution had come two centuries earlier, by that remove it may have succeeded much faster.

“Copper-Bottomed Wizardry” began as a challenge—a sort of a bet.  This writer was wagered that he could not find enough technological innovation between 1775 and 1805 to explain how Britain defeated France at Trafalgar.  Knowing that coppering became standard by 1783, the research started there and produced this essay.  The carronade, the short-barreled “smasher” that was the terror of small-vessel warfare before the shell gun, was intentionally left out because of other innovations that made British ships not only reliable and easier to handle, but overall better vessels.  Any sailor can tell you that, pound for pound, any well-handled warship in peacetime is worth three that are better gunned.  In wartime, it’s how well the guns are laid and how long they can stay on station, not just how well they can blast a target.

Four essays are hardly a working thesis, but they may point to one: Britain was strengthened by the conflict that resulted in the loss of her thirteen colonies that would eventually become the United States.  Both she and the United States, ultimately, resolved the last of a conflict in Anglo-Saxon society that had raged since the Tudors: Do governments have a right to rule, or a duty?  Is society the master of an economic structure, or a servant or product of it?

Let these essays inform the reader’s viewpoint. Available in paperbound and PDF at The Book Patch. Personally autographed copies will be available at JDBCOM.COM soon.

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Turtle, Little Willie, the Foxbat and the Marne

6 September has three warfighting technologies in common: the first submersible vessel to attack an enemy ship; the first purpose-built armored fighting vehicle; and the surprise discovery that an advanced-technology fighter wasn’t so advanced after all.  All of these are joined by one of the best-remembered counterattacks of WWI.

The idea of submersible vessels had fascinated people for centuries.  Diving bells (tethered air chambers) were described by Aristotle in the 4th century BCE.  Alexander the Great is said to have used one, but the earliest reliable accounts date from the 16th century.  Self-propelled diving submersibles were described as early as 1562, but it wasn’t until the invention of the ballast tank for submersibles in 1747 that they became self-sustaining.  David Bushnell, an American college student at Yale University, built a vessel he called Turtle in Old Saybrook, CT, in 1775.  On 6 September, 1776, with a volunteer operator named Ezra Lee at the controls, Turtle sailed into New York Harbor and tried to attach an explosive charge to HMS Eagle, a 64-gun third-rate ship and Richard Howe’s flagship.  That effort, and several others in successive days failed, and there is some speculation that the whole story was fabricated.  The original Turtle was sunk that October, and though Bushnell claimed to have recovered her, her whereabouts afterwards are unknown.

The idea of submersible vessels had fascinated people for centuries.

On much more solid ground historically, and somewhat less momentous, was the production of the first prototype armored vehicle that could be called a precursor to the modern tank.  Like the submarine, self-propelled armored vehicle designs had abounded since time immemorial, but few had ever been even attempted as practical designs because powerplants were always the biggest problem.  But by 1915, there was a growing demand for a vehicle that could support infantry in the attack in a trench-strewn environment. Variously called a Tritton Tractor (for the designer, William A. Tritton) and Number 1 Lincoln Machine, the vehicle that would later only be known as Little Willie officially rolled out of the William Foster agricultural machinery factory on 6 September, 1915, and began trials on 9 September.  Militarily, Wille was unimpressive: main gun was a 2-pdr pom-pom; weight 16.5 tons, crew six (operationally, but this design never saw a shot fired in anger).  Many larger vehicles followed, and eventually Willie made its way to the tank museum at Bovington.

…by 1915, there was a growing demand for a vehicle that could support infantry in the attack in a trench-strewn environment

Unlike Turtle and Little WIllie, the Foxbat’s (NATO code name for the Soviet-built MiG-25) entry into our story was accidental, or at least was once said to have been. Since its first flight in 1964  and entry into Soviet service in 1970, the record-breaking Foxbat had been an object of interest and dread by the Western air forces, who all insisted that Mikhail Gurevich’s last design was superior to all other Western aircraft: it spurred the development of the F-14 and the F-16.  On 6 September, 1976, Soviet Air Defence Forces Lt. Viktor Belenko landed his MiG-25P (the earliest production version) at Hakodate Airport in  Japan.  Early unofficial reports had Belenko confused as to where he was (the weather over the Sea of Okhotsk is hard to predict, so he may have gotten lost in a sudden overcast or storm), but later it was said that he had wanted to defect.  However it happened, the Japanese invited American and other Western intelligence officials to examine the much-fabled Foxbat, over strenuous Soviet protests.  Close inspection and complete dismantlement followed. It was discovered, among other things, that the airframe was nickel steel, and not titanium as once thought; the aircraft was welded by hand, and rather quickly at that; the acceleration load was rather low (2.2 Gs) with a relatively short operational range; the avionics were based on vacuum tube technology, not solid-state like most of the West.  The Foxbat was nowhere near as formidable as once thought.  The last Foxbat was built in 1984 after several design changes, and it remains in limited service with former Soviet clients.  It remains the second fastest military production aircraft in history, even if the speeds achieved usually destroyed the engines.

…the record-breaking Foxbat had been an object of interest and dread by the Western air forces…

The submarine, the main elements for the tank (the internal combustion engine and the crawler) and the airplane, the major mechanical elements for mechanized industrial warfare were in place when World War I, where all these came together for the first time, had just begun its first major bloodletting in the first full day of the first battle of the Marne on 6 September 1914. Though the war in Europe had been going on for a month and the casualties were already catastrophic by European standards, the French-British counteroffensive shattered all expectations of warfare. A million Germans and a million Englishmen and Frenchmen fought for a week in open country, resulting in a German retreat back towards the Aisne River and a quarter million casualties on each side.  This setback completely upset the German offensive timetable, and there was no real replacement for it, so they hunkered down to hold onto what they had grabbed.  Within a year, all of Europe would be in a state of siege called the Western Front, where fortified lines stretched from the North Sea to the Swiss frontier and future advances were measured in yards per thousand casualties.  The Marne and the ensuing horror was why Little Willie and all that followed him were built, why the Germans in desperation resorted to unrestricted submarine warfare that would lead to the Americans entering the war, and why the war in the air was pushed to the limits of human and machine endurance and imagination that would culminate in the Foxbat and the ultimate-performance aircraft that followed it.

An auspicious day, 6 September.

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13 November: An Admiral and a General and a Civil War

On this day in 1809 and 1814, important leaders in the American Civil War were born in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.  One would be known more for the artillery he made possible, the other for more ignominious things.

On 13 November 1809, John A. Dahlgren was born in Philadelphia to a Swedish merchant and diplomat.  From a very early age he dreamed of a life at sea, and when his father died in 1824 he was free to pursue his goal of joining the US Navy.  In 1826, at age 17 he joined as a midshipman.  At the time this was not unusual, as youngsters had been going to sea at much earlier ages since time immemorial.  He must have shown some knack for mathematics for he was assigned to the coast survey department in 1834.

For centuries ordnance design and its ancillary equipment had been a matter of experimentation, disaster and repeat.  In 1844, an explosion on USS Princeton of the new 12-inch bore banded wrought iron gun dubbed “Peacemaker” said to have been the largest naval gun in the world at the time, only proved that axiom.  The explosion killed six people, including the Secretaries of the Navy and of State.  Congress was aghast, and demanded new quality controls and inspection protocols.  By 1847, Dahlgren was in the Washington Navy Yard organizing the Navy’s first Ordnance Department.  It was there that Dahlgren found his niche, designing a boat howitzer, a percussion lock, and finally the process that manufactured the highly successful smooth bore naval gun that bore his name.  The method of water-cooling the mold while the metal was cast was highly controversial at the time, but it produced weapons of prodigious power: power enough for the Royal Navy to question whether or not they could defeat warships armed with them.  During the Civil War the Dahlgren was the standard broadside gun in the US Navy.  In 1862 he was promoted to rear admiral and sent to command a blockading squadron.  He continued his service in the Navy until his death in 1870.

On 14 November 1814, Joseph Hooker was born in Hadley, Massachusetts to an entirely English-ancestry family.  He graduated from West Point in 1837, branched to the artillery.  He fought Seminoles in Florida, was in staff jobs in Mexico (where he nonetheless won three brevets), but left the Army in 1853 and settled in California.  After the war broke out he finally wrangled a commission a brigadier general of volunteers after the first Bull Run battle, commanding a brigade then a division while training troops around Washington, DC at the Army of the Potomac was building.

In 1862 Hooker was promoted to major general and the command of a corps, then a “grand division” after Antietam, where he was wounded.  After McClellan was sacked and Ambrose Burnside took command of the Army of the Potomac, Hooker’s troops bore the brunt of the bloodletting at Fredricksburg and Hooker was vocal about the tragic and pointless sacrifices made there.  When Burnside told President Lincoln that he wanted to fire several of his generals, including Hooker, Lincoln fired Burnside instead and appointed Hooker to command the Army of the Potomac.  While he was an able administrator who restored the confidence of the troops he lost his nerve at Chancellorsville and nearly had his army destroyed.  Lincoln, desperate to find a general who could fight, fired Hooker three days before the army met Robert E Lee at Gettysburg.

But the Union was still short of reliable generals so Hooker was sent with two corps to meet Grant at Chattanooga, where he performed admirably until a personal dispute got him sent out of the theater after the fall of Atlanta.  Rumors of his wild living, heavy drinking and lax discipline leading to the proliferation of the ladies of negotiable virtue that came to be called “hookers” because of him are unfounded: he was not known to drink heavily, and the term “hooker” was common during the Revolution.  He left the Army in 1868 and died in 1879.

Two Civil War notables sharing a birthday.  Not unusual, but worth noting.

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USS Montezuma

Never heard of USS Montezuma?  You and nearly everyone else.  But a painting by an unknown artist triggered a search.

An acquaintance of mine is an art salvager, discovering treasures in the oddest of places and putting them in the hands of dealers and collectors who might appreciate them.  A 30 x 35 inch oil painting, dirty with age, came into his hands entitled “USS Montezuma,” and he asked me for help identifying it.  The American flagged vessel shown is two-masted and clipper-rigged in some sea fight somewhere, at some time, but these sorts of representations are almost always some flight of the artist’s fancy.

What is mysterious is that no commissioned sailing vessel of that name was ever on US Navy roles.  There is little mention of her in standard references, and only on a handful of Web sites. Apparently she was a Chesapeake-built merchantman purchased into US naval service in 1798 exclusively for the Quasi-war with France (1898-1900) and sold out of service before the conflict was over.  She was probably never enrolled in the Navy ship list because she may never have been serviced by the Navy (entered into a shipyard with a contract to overhaul or repair), so nothing was spent on her other than the original price. She just may not have lasted in service long enough to get into the record.

USS Montezuma was called an 18-gun sloop or a 20-gun brig, and is said to have been  armed with 12 pounder guns.  Given the nature of small warships, she may have been both sloop and brig at different times,  She may not have been a very good warship and given her short service life this seems probable.  “Long nines” (12-pounders) would have been a too heavy for a two-masted vessel.  These weighed more than 6,000 pounds each and required a crew of 12.  This over-arming was typical of American ships of the time, and may have adversely affected her handling and effectiveness.  Clipper rigs were said to be bad station-keepers, straining to run with the wind all the time.  Two-masted clippers were somewhat rare, the traditional “clipper ships” having three or more masts and being built from the 1820s to the end of the 19th century.

Since she was not rated a “ship” (three masts or more) at the time, and the Navy did not contract to build her (as they had the other non-ships in the books), and she was probably never repaired under contract, she was only remembered by a handful of people who served in her.  She may have been “present” when other ships in her squadron took prizes, but that only means she was in sight, within ten miles or so, which was all that was needed at the time to collect on prizes.  The painting itself may have been commissioned or made by an owner or crew member who thought more of her service than the US Navy apparently did.  A yard tender/light tug built in the 1930s was dubbed Montezuma; her fate is unknown.

Of all the different kinds of research done on topics like this, the unexpected is often the most entertaining.