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October 29, 2008

Six Frigates

The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy
Ian W. Toll – ISBN 9780393330328

A wonderful book (presuming you’re interested in Naval History); sweeping in scope, and sufficiently comprehensive for the most discriminating professional, yet quite readable for those of us who dislike textbooks.

There was a rather non-professional navy during the American Revolution, including not a few contractually permitted raiders (better recognized as pirates) who were licensed to stalk British ships. The original six frigates were built in response to American harassment by the Barbary pirates. American shipping had been secure as a part of the British Empire, but that protection was withdrawn (with some glee, by the British) after independence.

Toll outlines the political machinations involved in the decision to build a navy There were those against (principally the Cavaliers in the South) and those in favor (the merchants of the North.) Jefferson was as adamant about not having a navy, as he was obstinate in his disapproval of a standing army. Washington, Adams and Hamilton eventually won over their adversaries as more and more piracy and kidnapping of American crews drove them to the obvious conclusion.

Of the planned six frigates only four were originally built. They were of unique native design. They were particularly effective, being larger than most warships then in existence, and could overpower any ship except the massive British battleships. Indeed, it could give them a pretty good run inasmuch as the American design allowed them to out maneuver the opponent. Structurally, they were fashioned of American live oak which made them sturdier and more durable. The main members were cut using the natural shape of the trees, which presented a monumental problem: these were huge trees in remote places, and whole trunk and branch sections had to be recovered and delivered to the coastal shipyards.

While the primary arguments offered were for protection there was also a certain amount of ego involved. Adams wanted the world to recognize that “we are not a degraded people, humiliated under a colonial spirit of fear and a sense of inferiority, fitted to be the miserable instruments of foreign influence, and regardless of national honor, character, and interest.” This proved particularly cogent in the later War of 1812.

There is a good deal of history/biography involved herein, in explaining the personalities of the principal “founding fathers” and their peculiarities, all of which fed into the political resolution of the various problems attendant approval and construction of these vessels. The history and biography of some of America’s early combat captains are included as well. They performed heroically in both of these early wars. Toll covers these conflicts in some detail. All told, the peripheral history explains the 500 pages of the book.

“What is remembered and cherished about the War of 1812, above all, was the fact that America’s tiny fleet had shocked and humbled the mightiest navy the world had ever known. Decatur, Hull, Bainbridge, Lawrence, Perry and Macdonnough were among the most exalted heroes of 19th century America . . . Towns, cities and counties were named for them. . . . Staffordshire [decorated] ceramic pitchers and plates with scenes of American naval victories . . . Sailors kept fragments of wood said to have come from one of the navy’s victorious ships, as if they were relics of the true cross.” Etcetera!

And it must be emphasized that then, as now, the security of the nation depends mightily upon the dedication and prowess of the Navy. Then, it was primarily to protect shipping against piracy; now to project power and protect against attack, though it certainly discourages piracy, which remains a problem in certain parts of the world.

Overall a good read.

Posted by respeto at October 29, 2008 3:40 PM