By Lt. j.g. Juan Santibanez, 1st Battalion “A” Company
“In the Hurricane’s Eye” by Nathaniel Philbrick presents a pragmatic, historical narrative that illustrates what great military minds have preached for millennia: naval superiority dictates the actions of land combatants, and logistics is paramount to successful military campaigns. The Battle of Chesapeake Bay compromised the British fleet’s ability to support and reinforce Lord Cornwallis; it is heralded as one of the greatest naval battles in respect to the result: victory over Great Britain.
I selected this book based on the author’s ability to reassemble archived history into an epic of naval triumphs while demonstrating the astronomical difficulties involved in sustained wartime logistics.
The War for Independence began with the ignition of a musket in the fields of Lexington, Massachusetts. The call to action was answered by thousands of citizen soldiers pledging themselves in both life and liberty. Yet, five years of horrific war and ostensible contempt from the Continental Congress had begun to take its toll on the troops. By the fall of 1780, Commander of the Continental Army, General George Washington’s stymied efforts in defense of the British campaign were, in truth, only the beginning of his frustration. His once audacious army was now hampered by mutineers and deserters, and in the absence of naval support, Britain was winning what was proving to be a test of economic and political endurance rather than of military strength. Subsequent pleas for aid from Congress left Washington disappointed and increasingly jaded. Only a decisive victory, catalyzed by naval dominance, could end the war and secure the future of the United States. Washington recognized that naval superiority determined the movement and stationing of troops on land and dictated the flow of supply lines and sustainment thereof. Most importantly, a properly stationed fleet could compliment a surrounding land force and subsequently siege any British garrison into submission. Such a maneuver would require the cooperation of the French navy, the only fleet comparable to the British in the world at the time. Despite declaring war against the British, the French fleet primarily secured the interests of France in the West Indies (Caribbean) or remained docked in Newport, Rhode Island.
The reluctance of French Admiral Comte de Grasse ended with the acceptance of the fleet’s proposed voyage to Chesapeake Bay. Washington convinced the French admiral to deploy his entire fleet of 28 ships to the Chesapeake Bay to support the impending siege of Yorktown, and blockade inevitable British naval support. Correspondence with Admiral de Grasse would, unquestionably, be intercepted by British agents. In anticipation of this, Washington implicated Staten Island as his primary objective. His deception paid dividends when British General Henry Clinton opted to fortify Staten Island, allowing Washington to circumvent British resistance on the road to Yorktown. Likewise, the French fleet would sail to Chesapeake Bay, unbeknownst to the British fleet until eight days after the fact. Upon discovery of Washington’s guise, it became paramount that Clinton coordinate the reinforcement of Cornwallis by 4,000 men via ship transport. However, these relief efforts depended solely on the outcome of a favorable naval engagement with the occupying French fleet. On Sept. 5, 1781, the Battle of Chesapeake Bay began. A myriad of circumstances had squandered the implementation of traditional naval tactics by de Grasse. His battle line was mediocre, and the French vanguard was separated by nearly three nautical miles east of the French fleet. In contrast, British Admiral Graves had already assembled his battle line, and with the wind off his stern, Graves possessed the naval high ground. Rather than capitalize on his opponent’s positioning, he opted to stall until de Grasse would be forced to engage unfavorably. The British vanguard, unable to interpret Graves’ signal flags, were already in pursuit of the displaced French vanguard. Cannon fire commenced, and from afar, the respective rearguards could just barely witness the opposing vessels. Surrounded by a cloud of disorienting fire and smoke, the opposing vessels continued to fiercely exchange for nearly two hours. Meanwhile, a shift in winds had allowed de Grasse to rally his ships to mirror the British line, dissuading either rearguard from pressing an engagement. Admiral Graves was forced to retire from the battle after his vanguard had sustained disproportionate losses. The French opted to return to Chesapeake Bay and were greeted by French naval reinforcements with Washington’s army soon to follow. The British fleet had conceded naval dominance, and with it, Yorktown would fall to Washington.
Relevance to Supply and Logistics
As the world’s premier naval force, the U.S. Navy inherited a ubiquitous strength, free from many of the naval resupply hardships felt by logisticians of wars past; that being, supply lines flow mostly uncontested. This privilege is being challenged with a rise in both subtle and overt means to delay supply operations by potential adversaries. The lineage of American logistical ingenuity, as denoted by Philbrick, is a reminder of the gauntlets overcome. The men charged with Washington’s supply operation faced the daunting task of moving American and French Armies across the country with limited resources, manpower, and lacking higher communications. To accomplish this mission, men rode ahead to prepare logistically by gathering food, repairing roads, furnishing lodging and more. Additionally, this task had to be accomplished not only in secret, but using deliberate counter-intelligence to dissuade British inquiry, and with no more guidance than the Commander’s Intent.
“In the Hurricane’s Eye” was striking in depth of knowledge, rich in narrative fluency, and emboldening for any naval officer. Philbrick caustically analyzed logistical shortfalls of the war and the consequences thereof. To his avail, a theme of tenacity throughout this novel can be directly transferred to our profession; such that, dire circumstances do not preclude the success of Navy logisticians. As Supply Corps officers, it is dutiful to pay homage to the triumphs of our past and to reflect on how our actions enable warfighters. This book holds my highest recommendation in pursuit of that goal. Summer 2019