In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section War at Sea in the Age of Napoleon

  • Introduction
  • Surveys and Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Anthologies
  • Document Collections
  • Naval Strategy
  • National Naval Histories
  • Ships
  • Logistics
  • Medicine
  • Slavery and the Slave Trade
  • Aftermath

Military History War at Sea in the Age of Napoleon
by
Evan Wilson
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2024
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0245

Introduction

There is an irony at the heart of this bibliography on war at sea in the age of Napoleon—Napoleon was famously not a sailor. But it is fair to say that he defined an age, which this bibliography takes to mean the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars of 1792–1815. Many of the works cited below span larger timescales, but nearly all of them deal with those years and those wars in some significant way. Writing the history of war at sea in the age of Napoleon began even before Napoleon’s death, when the British lawyer William James published An Inquiry into the Merits of the Principal Naval Actions between Great Britain and the United States in 1816. By 1824 he had produced a five-volume Naval History of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. His competition came from the British naval officer Edward Pelham Brenton, with his 1823 Naval History of Great Britain from the Year 1783 to 1822. That both of these early works were published by Britons about British naval history should not be surprising. After all, this was the age of Nelson, of the great fleet victories, and of the establishment of British naval supremacy. While the field has diversified substantially in the two centuries since James and Brenton, it is largely still the case that the subject is dominated by histories of the British navy. That is especially true of the underpinnings of naval power, such as logistics, naval medicine, finance, and infrastructure, and it is also true of recent social and cultural histories, albeit to a lesser degree. There is clearly scope for further research on other navies and on the transnational nature of the maritime domain. Some of the most exciting new work does not only that, but also asks novel questions of naval archives. Navies, after all, produced enormous quantities of paperwork about all aspects of life at sea, and the field is ready for a new generation of historians to dive into it.

Surveys and Reference Works

The challenge for a researcher is selecting surveys that do more than simply rehash the progression of great fleet battles, and that do so from a perspective other than the British. The following works deserve a place on the shelf of any historian interested in the age of sail. Glete 1993 is a rare example of a truly transnational history. Rodger 2004 ranges similarly widely, despite his emphasis on the naval history of Britain. Willis 2008 explains the mechanics of seamanship for a lay audience. Lavery 2012 is an encyclopedia for the British navy of the period, while Mikaberidze 2020 provides a global narrative of the Napoleonic Wars (though not specifically from a naval perspective). Harding 2018 describes debates in strategic and operational histories, and is useful for pointing students toward gaps in those areas.

  • Glete, Jan. Navies and Nations: Warships, Navies, and State Building in Europe and America, 1500–1860. 2 vols. Stockholm: Almqvist & Wiksell International, 1993.

    An astonishing archival achievement, Glete provides data on the fleet composition of every major and most minor European and American navies across the entire age of sail. His argument, that sustaining naval force requires binding interest groups together, has been enormously influential.

  • Harding, Richard. Modern Naval History: Debates and Prospects. London: Bloomsbury, 2018.

    Harding narrates the history of the field from its emergence through 2010. He does so from a strategic and operational perspective; social and cultural questions receive a brief mention at the end.

  • Lavery, Brian. Nelson’s Navy: The Ships, Men and Organization, 1793–1815. Revised and updated ed. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2012.

    This book touches on nearly every aspect of the practicalities of the British navy. It was originally conceived as a guide to fans of the Patrick O’Brian novels, which means that it answers questions that scholars familiar with the subject might not have thought to ask.

  • Mikaberidze, Alexander. The Napoleonic Wars: A Global History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2020.

    The author is a military historian interested in armies much more so than navies. Nevertheless, this book provides a useful narrative of the wars and covers far-flung theaters and campaigns that otherwise tend to be overlooked.

  • Rodger, N. A. M. Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649–1815. London: Allen Lane, 2004.

    The second volume of a planned three-volume “naval history of Britain”—note that it is not a history of the Royal Navy. Rodger synthesizes scholarship in at least half a dozen languages and ranges beyond British shores. While the book is beginning to show its age, it remains the standard work on the operations, administration, and social history of the navies of Britain and other countries in the age of sail.

  • Willis, Sam. Fighting at Sea in the Eighteenth Century: The Art of Sailing Warfare. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2008.

    An essential reference work on the practicalities of seamanship and naval warfare written by an experienced sailor and naval historian.

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