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Tactics in the Age of Sail

Throughout the Age of Sail, boarding was the primary tactical objective at sea. Long after the advent of gunpowder and the broadside cannon, victory at sea was achieved mainly by the boarding of seaborne armies. Well into the nineteenth century the most common weapon for sailors was the sword or cutlass.

Beginning sometime after 1300, rowed galleys were replaced by sailing warships armed with broadside-mounted cannon. It is scarcely possible to overstate the significance of this change. By combining the striking power of massed artillery with the sea-keeping qualities and logistical capacity of cargo ships, the sailing man-of-war eroded a tactical consensus stretching back to antiquity. It also became the means by which European overseas empires were created.

In the Elizabethan era, ships were thought of as little more than transport vehicles for troops. The goal was to latch on to an enemy ship and then storm it. A ship's cannons were intended to repel boarders. Carracks, the immediate predecessor of the galleon in terms of ship design, were the first large square-rigged ships to ply the seas. They were valued for their large capacity for carrying troops or cargo. Carracks were still primarily medieval ships, built with an emphasis on winning a medieval style battle. The design emphasis was not on sailing qualities and artillery capacity, but with building a ship resistant to enemy boarding parties. To repel boarders the aft and forecastles were built up as towering fortresses bristling with archery or gun slits. To a lesser extent this design emphasis was true of the galleon as well, and contributed to its eventual demise as a ship design.

While at sea, a captain in the Age of Sail had the potential to earn spectacular profits through prizes. An added advantage of capturing an enemy naval ship was the building of a reputation which would be rewarded with future lucrative ships and stations. The use of prizes was an essential part of the incentive structure of all navies of the time. A navy created an excess supply of captains, and any captain could be punished by being placed on half-pay on shore awaiting a command at sea that might never come.

With the objective to win an action by successfully boarding the enemy, new tactics had to be developed that would allow ships to use their guns to the best advantage, to overcome enemy fire,and finally board the enemy. But even after the galleon was superseded by the Ship-of-the-Line, the culmination of battle at sea was not sinking an enemy, but rather boarding and capturing the enemy ship as a prize. Not until the emergence of the ironclads in the 1860s did naval warfare take on the modern goal of destruction.

Fighting Instructions & Articles of War

One key to the success of the British Navy during the age of sail was reliance on a set of "no-excuse" rules forcing captains to fight. Under the British Navy's Articles of War, captains must engage the enemy if in the same class -- or die. Indeed, by the end of the age of sail it was expected that a British warship would be victorious, even with uneven odds. British commanders were expected to defeat enemy forces much stronger than their own. In single ship actions, it was reckoned that a British ship had a good chance against an enemy of 50 per cent greater gun power and crew.

Article XII of the 1749 Articles of War read as follows: "Every Person in the Fleet, who through Cowardice, Negligence, or Disaffection, shall in Time of Action withdraw or keep, or not come into the Fight or Engagement, or shall not to do his utmost to take or destroy every Ship which it shall be his Duty to engage, and to assist and relieve all and every of his Majesty's Ships, or those of his Allies, which it shall be his Duty to assist and relieve, every such Person so offending, and being convicted thereof the Sentence of a Court-martial, shall suffer Death." Prior to this time, British Naval officers had frequently shown a tendency to refuse to engage the enemy, despite direct orders from superiors to do so. And under the previous Articles, enacted in 1661, courts martial frequently refused to inflict severe punishment on such officers.

Given that ships were propelled by wind, disasters, losses in battle, and other failures of duty could be blamed on the ill fortunes of nature. Article XII ruled out such excuses. The lieutenant's job was to watch the captain and keep a separate log. He was the watchdog of the navy, and every ship had at least one lieutenant. The incentives to lie were kept in check by having more than one lieutenant, and the master also kept an independent log.

In Voltaire's Candide, the protagonist learns that the English use a remarkable disciplinary practice, based on the British execution of Admiral John Byng in 1756 for failing to relieve Minorca (in the western Mediterranean) from a French siege. It goes without saying that the English are the most enlightened people in the world: "...in this country it is found requisite, now and then, to put an admiral to death, in order to encourage the others ["pour encourager les autres"]..." French Admiral Galissoniere reported that on 19 May the English "seemed unwilling to engage" and that on 20 May, "the English had the advantage of the wind, but still seemed unwilling to fight."

The Captain is responsible -- even if a junior officer runs aground it is the Captain's responsibility. In principle the junior officer's training and capability are the Captain's responsibility to conduct and assess. The junior should not have been in the position to make the mistake if the Captain was in doubt. It is still a long honored military principle of command, part of the pride and prestige of command, and historically Admirals were punished (Admiral Byng's execution in 1756) for failure that was not entirely theirs.

Battle Formation

In advance of a battle, Admirals would determine the battle formation they would use, either line ahead, line abreast or line of bearing, and also sailing order (which ship is first in each line, which is second, etc.). There were variations to the basic formation depending on the enemy's formation. If the enemy fleet formed a single line abreast, the friendly ships could do the same.

The fleet whould try to win the weather gage and then deploy into battle formation. One standard formation called for a vanguard of the largest ships formed into line abreast. It is interesting that some Admirals strictly forbids the line ahead formation, because there would "come great trouble, as only the leading ships can fight," showing, once again that the objective was boarding the enemy's ships.

Raking fire was particularly devastating, since ships of this era were weakest at the bow and the stern. If an attacking ship could manoeuvre to cross the enemy in front or behind then they could fire directly down the length of the ship as the guns came to bear.

The permanent Fighting Instructions of the Royal Navy dictated line to line engagement-the passage of two lines of ships firing at each other-as the preferred method of combat. Breaking, or the crossing a line of battle with a ship or group of ships, was not discovered until Admiral Rodney, by serendipity, crossed the French line of battle in the Caribbean in 1782 at the Battle of the Saints. It gave the decisive victory, but breaking did not alter the permanent Fighting Instructions until after Horatio Nelson used it to such great effect at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent in 1797 and again at Trafalgar in 1805. Nelson seldom fought in a conventional straight line formation. In each of his major battles his tactics varied, and the question of whether or not he fought in a line is debated among historians.

Nelson was careful to point out that something must be left to chance. Nothing is sure in a sea fight beyond all others and he left his captains free from all hampering rules by telling them that "No captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy." Likewise, Nelson's opponent at Trafalgar -- Villeneuve -- left his captains free to act for the best when the battle had begun by telling them that "whoever was not under fire was not at his post."


To "cut out" is to seize and carry off an enemy vessel while she is at anchor or in a harbor. The procedure could be used against a small warship -- brig, sloop, two-master, less than 20 guns -- but it would not be used successfully against a larger naval ship.

A cutting-out party might sneak out in row boats at night and capture a ship. A cutting-out party was always a favorite device with the British seamen of the age of sail. They were accustomed to carry French frigates by boarding, and to capture in their boats the heavy privateers and armed merchantmen, as well as the lighter war-vessels of France and Spain. The British might attempt to get possession of vessel by surprise, sending out boats that would work down near to the target, under pretense of sounding, trying to get close enough to make a rush and board her. The British would have to hack at the boarding-nets to force their way through to the decks of the target vessel, whose crew would stab the assailants with their long pikes and slash at them with their cutlases.

While the American frigate Constitution, under the command of Captain Talbot was cruising in the neighbourhood of St Domingo an Expedition was determined upon, to cut out a French Corvette of l4 Guns then in the harbor of Porta Plate in that Island. For this purpose a small Sloop belonging to Providence R.I. was made use of and the Expedition placed under the direction of Isaac Hull, then first Lieutenant of the Constitution. On 10 May 1800, Hull, with the Officers and men selected, left the Constitution and went on board the Sloop about sun down being at that time a long distance from the land. The Sloop was fired at by a British Frigate and a boat was sent from the Frigate to ascertain the destination of the Sloop. The British officer was much surprised on getting on board the Sloop to find the Hatch ways filled with American Officers and seamen. Lieutenant Hull informed him that under disguise he intended to run into Port Plata and endeavour to cut out the French Corvette there loading with Coffee for France. The British Officer intimated that the British Frigate had been watching the movements of the French Vessel with the same intention. Lieutenant Hull replied that it must be effected before the next morning or the Frigate would be too late, as he (Lt H.) should certainly take her out if he found her there in the morning. The British Officer left the Sloop wishing success to the Expedition.

In the morning, the Sloop was still a long distance from the port, but the sea breeze springing up early, the Sloop succeeded in entering the port about twelve o'clock. The Pilot who was at the helm of the Sloop was directed to lay the Corvette aboard on the Starboard bow, while Lieutenant Hull stood ready to let go an Anchor from the Stern of the Sloop the moment she came in contact with the Corvette. Not a man was to be seen on board the Sloop and the object was not discovered until the pre-concerted signal was given to board. Immediately on the signal being given the men sprang from the hold of the Sloop the Officers from the Cabin, and boarded in handsome style, carrying all before them and taking possession of the Corvette without the loss of a man. Orders had been given to the men to discharge their pistols in the air if but little resistance was offered. All this was done at noon day within musket shot of the fort, the broad side of the Corvette bearing upon the Sloop as she entered the port, and the wind blowing directly into the harbour.

The Corvette was dismantled, having nothing but her lower Masts standing, and not a Rope over the Mast heads. But by sundown she was completely Rigged, sails bent, Royal yards aloft ready for Sea. In the meantime the Guns of the Corvette had been scaled, re-loaded and brought to bear on the Town, the men ready for any emergency. At about twelve o'clock at night the Wind came off the land and the Corvette was got underway and stood out. The most perfect and complete success had attended the Expedition and without the loss of an individual.

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Page last modified: 22-07-2011 17:41:10 ZULU