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DEFENCELESS CONDITION OF THE SOUTHERN COAST OF
THE UNITED STATES AND GULF OF MEXICO.
THE CHAIRMAN OF THE COMMITTEE ON NAVAL AFFAIRS
House of Representatives, in relation to the defenceless condition of the
Southern coast of the United States and Gulf of Mexico.
To the Chairmun of the Committee on Naval Affairs :
Sir: Having been empowered by the Governor of Florida, under the seal of that Territory, to attend certain claims upon the United States, grounded upon the military disbursements made by the Territorial Government, in its own defence, under the sudden pressure of emergencies, for which the Federal Government had made no adequate provision, my own attention has been urgently called, and I beg leave to invite yours, to the peculiar and most defenceless condition, not of that part alone of the Southern frontier of the United States, but of the entire coast and commerce of the Gulf of Mexico.
While Spain held dominion over more than a thousand miles of the South Atlantic and Golf coast, now constituting the frontier of the United States, comparative security was afforded to the country in its rear by her neutrality, or her imputency; the latter affording the United States safety from her power, and the former from that of other nations, while she maintained her neutrality.
But, since Florida has added to the maritime border of the United States more than one thousand miles, it has opened an inroad to the vitals of the South, of which an enemy would not fail to profit in any future conflict with the United States. Of the probability of an invasion in that quarter, in case of an unfavorable issue of the depending negotiations between the United States and Great Britain, the files of the English news. papers afford abundant and painful evidence.
It is believed, if not'known, that the tables of the British Premier would add largely to that testimony ; though by this suggestion it is not designed to impress you with the idea, nor is it entertained by the writer of this letter, that he exults in the contemplation of a war which would be alike disastrous to both nations.
Florida has been for more than twenty, and Louisiana for more than thirty years a part of the United States of America. . With a view to the defence of the latter, Mr. Jefferson, under whose adıninistration the treaty of Paris annexed it to the United States, labored to establish a direct intercourse with its great commercial emporium, paying out of his private purse, to an eminent civil engineer, for the survey of an improved road to it, a considerable sum, and urging upon Congress, from time to time, further contributions to the same object; nor did he desist, until wearied out by repeated disappointments, aster osten renewed and protracted discussions in the House of Representatives, from a period immediately succeeding the acquisition of Louisiana, until near the close of his eight years' administration.
But, although the long subsequent annexation of Florida multiplied the arguments urged by Mr. Jefferson, in favor of the most prompt reduction of the practical distance between this remote frontier and the seat of the authority to which it must look for its defence, no successful effort has been made to that effect by the General Government; and at this period the mail between Washington and the capitals of Florida and Louisiana fails, once at least, in every week of the winter and the first months of spring, and, sometimes, for many days together.
But this, though a topic of just complaint, not directly referable to the Committee on Naval Affairs, is an inconsiderable evidence of official neg. lect and gross political injustice, compared with that which prompts me to use the freedom of thus addressing you.
I refer to the peculiar provisions of the Navy Department, or rather, of the Executive and Legislative Government of the United States, for the naval defence of the Southern coast of the United States : I should rather say, to the remarkable absence of any provision whatever for that object.
This cannot be ascribed to the inconsiderable value of the interests which it involves; since, independent of any reference to militaryoperations on land, to which a naval force would prove a most important, if not indispensable, auxiliary in that quarter, the commerce of the United States, which finds an outlet through the Gulf of Mexico, for many years past, cannot be computed at an annual export, and a returning import, of less, united together, than $100,000,000. To illustrate this, take the exports of cotton alone for the year 1840, and, comprehending the amount transported coastwise to the North, as well as that consigned directly to a foreign market, you will find that Alabama, through Niobile, and Florida, with part of Georgia, through Pensacola, St. Joseph, Appalachicola, and Port Leon, of Tallahassee, supplied very near, or quite, six hundred thousand bales, averaging in weight more than four hundred pounds each, and worth, at the reduced rates of that period, more than $20,000,000. If to this be added the one thousand bales shipped from New Orleans, and, to all this vast Southern staple, the metals, provisions, sugar, and tobaeco of the South and Northwestern States, you will find, aster computing two-thirds of the outward cargoes, to obtain their returned value, through the same channel, that I have not overrated the annual commerce of the Gulf of Mexico.
If you desire to measure the hazard to which a maritime war with a formidable naval Power would expose this commerce, you have but to consult the testimony of experience.
Rather than incur the hazard, in the last war between the United States
and Great Britain, of shipping the tobacco of James river coastwise to Boston or New York, it was transported over land at a cost, for carriage only, equivalent to its ordinary value of ninety dollars per hogshead, being one hundred per cent. paid, as a substitute for insurance, from Hampton roads, above which the British never ascended, to New York, which they neither regularly attacked, nor blockaded.
Whatever war might add to the ordinary rates of insurance against the risks of the sea, in the intercourse between the Gulf of Mexico and the rest of the world, must be charged upon the insecurity of American commerce, arising from the absence of adequate naval protection. If it be but a moiety of what has been stated, then the annual loss upon a trade of one hundred would be $50,000,000. How much of that cominerce would bear such an additional charge, I have not the means of estimating; but that much of it would not, while rival supplies can be had from other quarters, is very apparent. The American debt, contracted in the war of 1812, though it endured but two years and a half, exceeded $120,000,000; but this sum was not a moiety of the private and personal losses sustained in that war, from the prostration of American commerce and agriculture. And this leads me, sir, to the purpose of this letter, wbich is, to call your attention to the defenceless condition of the coast and commerce of the Gulf of Mexico at the present moment.
Pensacola is the only naval station where an American ship of war, of any description, can seek shelter from a pursuing enemy of superior strength; and Pensacola, not merely the city, but the fleets that might lie in its harbors, are defenceless against a coup de main from the land side, wbile the harbor itself is shut, by the bar at its entrance, against the the admission of a frigate of the second class, in many states of the wind and tide, but is at all times inaccessible to a frigate of the largest dimensions. These facts are disclosed in sundry reports filed amongst the public documents of the two Houses of Congress.
During the administration of Mr. Adams, the subject was presented, with great force, to the consideration of Congress by the able Secretary then at the head of the Navy Department, but without effect. It would be tedious to number the names of the many naval officers who have since been consulted, and have, separately, made reports to the Executive on the same subject.
To refer to one, for all, that of Commodore Stewart, of 1836, demonstrates that, with all that has been supposed to be attained at Pensacola, there is not a port on the Gulf of Mexico where the most humble of all conceivable repairs of a ship, the renewing of the caulking of its bottom, can be effected, the tide rising and falling there less than three feet; so that, by means of it, she cannot be laid low enough on her side. But to your acquaintance with the subject I appeal, to verify the position I here lay down, that it is absolutely absurd to contemplate the repairs of a ship of war where no ship of war has ever been built, or intended to be constructed. Are ship carpenters and naval constructors are all the numerous arts employed in building and equipping a navy, or even a single ship of any magnitude, to be expected to exist where no occupation, but the occasional repair of a vessel once in a year, or in a series of years, is afforded them, by which they can purchase their subsistence, and that of their families ? But what is even more inexcusable, the expense of deepening the entrance of the harbor of Pensacola, so as to admit ships of the
greatest draught of water, has been estimated to cost less than $ 150.000; and, although this estimate has been for many years before Congress, no action upon it has been proposed, either in the shape of an appropriation, or a recommendation by the Executive to Congress.
In the interim, some light has been shed, by American enterprise, on the facility, cheapness, and efficacy of such operations in water; and sufficient time has been allowed, if diligently used, to gather information of more ancient date, from that part of the maritime coast of France, Holland, and England, where dredging has been found essential to the formation of harbors : as, at Dunkirk, Calais, Dover, &c. On the southern shore of the northwestern lakes of the United States, all the harbors have been so formed, of necessity, and under circumstances, apparently, less favorable than those that are presented by the shore of the Gulf of Mexico. Among these, the singular fact is furnished; in consulting Spanish charts, as old as 1709 and 1719, and the British charts of 1763, as well as American surveys of subsequent date, down to those of the last year, that no sensible change has occurred in the depth of water on the bar in the entrance of the harbor of Pensacola in a period of more than one hundred An indication, this, of the permanency of the natural shape or formation of that part of the gulf coast, rendering it probable that, if a new form be given, by deepening it, the change thus effected would not be liable to sudden alteration. Further consideration of the cause of the immobility of the sand on this bar, for it has sand for its upper cover, whatever may be its foundation, which is probably calcareous earth or rotten limestone, would seem to confirm the hope that permanent benefit might result from dredging the present, or opening a new, channel across this bar, for the admission of ships of the line. The breadıb of the bar where the exca. vation might be made, to the extent of affording thirty feet water, is by the chart, in possession of the Navy Board, 1% of a mile. The greatest depth of the excavation measured, at the least depth of the water, in its natural state, would be six feet, or eight at most. Dredging and the removal of earth, even in five and twenty Teet water, is, by the agency of steam, rendered nearly, or quite, as cheap an operation as digging, and the transportation of like quantities of earth, on dry land, at similar depths below its natural surface; and the railroads of the United States, and canals, furnish repeated examples of excavations effected for greater distances, and at greater depths, under circumstances much more unfavorable.
The bay of Pensacola receives, it is possible, some influx of alluvial earth from the river Escamibia. It has the roll of the ocean from the coast of Africa, propelled upon its front by the trade winds, which occasion the gulf stream; but, as has been shown, neither agent has rendered its bar more shoal than it was found and reported to be one hundred and forty years ago. Thus it receives no accumulation of sand, in front or rear; and to guard any increased depth of water that may be given to the entrance of the harbor by excavation, from the lateral pressure of the adjacent sand or other earth, cribbing or walling, as practised in the formation of the lake harbors, might be resorted to with a confidence of success.
As to the expense of the first experiment, or that of its periodical re: newal, should such repetition be found necessary, what comparison can be instituted, of a cost so inconsiderable, with the inappreciable consequence of continued neglect ?
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In a successful naval conflict on that gulf, which floats annually one hundred millions of American property, the immediate fruit of the returned value of American labor and enterprise, what would be the result of the inability of the victor to bring his prizes into port ? What, is obliged to fly from defeat, of his incapacity to find shelter from pursuit, or to refit his dismantled or shattered squadron ? Should he be obliged to double Capes Sable, Florida, and Hatteras, and to navigate the most dangerous coast in the world, to reach Gosport, and there, probably, to be locked up, by a fleet, in Lynhaven bay for the residue of the war, if, indeed, it should let him pass into Hampton roads? Or shall Congress provide by law, as they will make no port on the gull for the reception of ships of the line, that no hostile fleet shall enter its waters with vessels of larger size than frigates of five and forty guns?
A similar suggestion was made by General Washington, while Presi. dent of the Convention which formed the American Constitution, when a member proposed to limit the regular or standing army to three thousand men. He called to him the youngest delegate of the body, a late Gov. ernor of Maryland, and requested him to move a proviso to the proposition, that no foreign enemy should ever invade the United States with more than three thousand men at any one time.
Not only will this theatre of maritime war offer the most powerful attraction to plunder, but the rich commerce of the Antilles, in which every commercial nation of Europe has some interest, would need protection, and offer a like incentive to the American navy, under circumstances most favorable to the exertion of its acknowledged bravery, skill, and enterprise, if provided with proper harbors for preparation, retreat, and attack.
An essential quality of such harbors, for, upon a coast so extended, and for a commerce so important, there should be more than one, should be perfect security from sudden attack, by land or water. And here it must be confessed that Pensacola, in its present state, is liable to great exception, is considered as the only navy yard for the construction and repair of armed vessels, and the sole depot of naval stores and materials, on the gulf.
Surrounded on the land side by a comparatively barren pine forest, it has no local population in its vicinity, to call in to its defence from sudden attack, nor any prompt means of approach, fo: that purpose, from the interior of the adjacent States.
A railroad begun, but abandoned for want of means to complete it, would, if finished, as it should be, supply, in part, this defect; but an extensive commerce is not likely, for many years to come, to supply Pensa. cola itself with an adequate city population for its defence, or a commercial marine capable of furnishing, on short notice, experienced seamen, for the occasional demands of the fleets destined for its protection, and that of the commerce in its vicinity.
Important, therefore, as this, the best natural harbor on the Gulf of Mexico, is to be regarded, it is desirable to find another, at least, which, combining all its natural advantages, may have superadded an extensive commerce, and a ready communication with a dense and efficient population, competent to its defence from sudden invasion.
And, happily, the late reports of many navigators, long familiar with the harbor of St. Joseph, in Florida, and the recent survey of Lieutenant Powell, of the United States navy, discloses the important fact that, with an equal depth of water on the bar at its entrance, that bar is so much narrower