I finished this afternoon Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Dounding of the U.S. Navy by Ian W. Toll, a first time author. Looking at the cover, I thought “probably a dry read, but interesting”. I was half right, it was interesting, but not dry. Fortunately, it is a book about an ocean going navy, I would hope it not to be dry.
Toll writes from the formation of the Navy following the seizure of American merchant vessels and men in 1793, through the end of the of the War of 1812. The Naval Act of 1794 authorized six frigates, the USS United States, USS Constellation, USS Constitution (nicknamed Old Ironsides, and still in commissioned service today), USS Chesapeake (the runt of the liter, believed to be unlucky, and eventually captured by the British), USS Congress, and the USS President (also captured by the British). The vessels fought the French in the Quasi War, the Barbary Pirates of North Africa, and the British in the War of 1812. All were based in designs by Joshua Humpherys, with a rating of 44 guns, and heavily outclassed other country’s frigates, so much so that that the British ordered that no Royal Navy frigate could go one on with an American. Indeed, the American frigates defeated 4 British frigates in one and one battle, and only the Chesapeak was lost in such a battle. The President was captured by a squadron of 4 vessels, proving the Royal Navy Admiralty’s judgment correct.
The same cast of characters appears throughout the book. With only a limited number of promotional opportunities, the early navy was full of men looking for glory, prize money, and a chance to shine in the national spotlight. Names like Truxtan, Bainbridge, and Decatur, who destroyed the captured USS Philadelphia in Tripoli Harbor continue to be seen on memorials, streets and other American names. Certain phrases, such as “Don’t give up the ship”, “We have met the enemy, and they are ours” speak to a more romanticized, gallant era when the skills and cunning of the sailors often would turn a loss against a superior foe into a victory.
One thing about this era had confused me. The Royal Navy was the best navy in the world in the late 18th century, and the beginning of the 19th. Certainly the largest, and best trained in the world. Toll argues that after Nelson’s death at the Battle of Trafalgar, the Royal Navy grew arrogant at being the best in the world, and reduced the at sea training that had made their ships more than a match for any other vessel on the water, even a nominally superior foe. That an untested, newly formed navy could contest the veterans of Cadiz, the Nile and Trafalgar confused me. Toll further argues, that the all volunteer US Navy had higher morale and better pay than the impressed sailors onboard British warships; and that the Quasi and Barbary Wars provided a type of training and observations that led to keeping ships at sea, and constantly training, that paid off very well in the opening rounds of the War of 1812.
All in all, Six Frigates is a fun read for anyone interested in the early history the US Navy’s ocean going contingent.