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Book Review, NRJ 66.1

February 23, 2021 8:50 AM | David Eddy

Small Boats and Daring Men: Maritime Raiding, Irregular Warfare, and the Early American Navy

Benjamin Armstrong

Cutting-out, amphibious raiding, and irregular warfare are firmly cemented in American naval strategy today, and many of the most famous exploits of the modern United States Navy and Marine Corps involve these irregular tactics. The tradition of maritime raiding and irregular warfare is not rooted in twentieth or twenty-first century developments but has its origins in the fledgling American Navy and Marine Corps of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Between the American Revolution and the 1830s, American naval forces experimented with and mastered irregular tactics that allowed their forces to become unpredictable and effectual combat units. In his necessary and insightful work, Small Boats and Daring Men: Maritime Raiding, Irregular Warfare, and the Early American Navy, Benjamin Armstrong illustrates that United States irregular maritime tactics originated in the first decades of the nation’s existence, and that they played an instrumental role in both military and diplomatic relations that shaped the course of the young country. Armstrong’s book is a valuable examination of irregular tactics that are often overshadowed by studies of traditional tactics in United States naval history, but which were instrumental in the nation’s naval development.

Drawing on excellent research compiled from primary sources across the globe, including British, Canadian, and American archives, Armstrong has crafted a work which traces the daring raids of American sailors, marines, and citizens between 1775 and 1840. Armstrong examines “guerre de razzia,” or war by raiding, in a series of case studies of irregular naval actions during the American Revolutionary War, Quasi War, Tripolitan and Barbary Wars, War of 1812, and Sumatran counter-piracy actions of the 1830s (p. 5). By tracing the actions of famous raiders like John Paul Jones and lesser known officers like Stephen Decatur who were equally adept at irregular maritime warfare, Armstrong proves that guerre de razzia deserves to be counted amongst larger fleet actions as a deeply ingrained portion of United States naval strategy.

Armstrong expertly uses case studies to illustrate that technological advancement, civilian-military coordination, and diplomacy were all key elements of early American raiding. His background as a special forces officer gives added insight to his understanding of irregular warfare. He additionally contextualizes his work adequately within existing American naval historiography. Despite a tendency to linger on the minutiae of command structure and diplomatic relations surrounding military actions, Armstrong otherwise uses exciting prose to describe naval raids. The largest shortcoming of Armstrong’s work is that he does little to emphasize that irregular warfare arose out of necessity due to material and manpower shortages within American navies that fought against maritime giants like France and Great Britain, and though it became tradition, it arose from want of proper fleet resources. Despite these minor oversights, Armstrong presents a fine work that is a valuable addition to American naval historiography and which accomplishes his goal of proving that irregular warfare was, and is, a key element of American naval tradition, strategy, and tactics. This work is a valuable addition to the libraries of all those that study the United States Navy or irregular warfare.

  • Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019
  • 6-1/4” x 9-1/4”, hardcover, xi + 264 pages
  • Illustrations, map, notes, bibliography, index. $34.95
  • ISBN: 9780806162829

Reviewed by Andrew Turner, East Carolina University

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