Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Book Review – Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the US Navy by Ian W. Toll

I had some time to kill a few months ago and was stumbling around a local bookstore when this book caught my eye.  I went ahead and bought it and am very glad that I did.

Six Frigates is a fairly long book that takes a deep dive into the origins of the US Navy.  The book is very well written, easy to read, and tells some great stories for those interested in the subject matter.

The book gives in detail how the original six frigates were paid for, why they were conceived, and the associated debates that went along with those appropriations.  Toll blends perfectly in the book a balance of the politics of the day along with the realities of sailing vessels in this era.  It is rare in my experience to find a book that balances these things so well.  It is clear that Toll spent a LOT of time researching the presidential and congressional archives to pick the correspondences and events out that were appropriate for the subject matter of the book.  Toll lets the statesmen of the past speak for themselves during the debates about the original appropriations and also enlightens the reader as to the politics of the day.  Also mentioned are the debates about the continuing maintenance of the frigates.

There is a detailed section about the construction and engineering of the frigates.  Toll explains very well how the boats were made and how the raw materials had to be obtained - again, just enough information for a relative layman such as myself to understand the how's and why's.

Now that the frigates were built, Toll explains how they were used, and again blends in the politics of the day so the reader can understand why the ships were where they were.  Along with this, he recreates many of the battles that the frigates were involved in.  This part was to me the most enlightening.

I have read many times of the famous battles of some of these frigates, the most famous being the Constitution.  However, I never understood how insanely bloody and violent these ship to ship battles were.  Toll goes into full on gore mode, sparing no adjective to make the reader get a feel for how the sailors felt and what actually went on.  This book is extremely bloody so if you can't handle that sort of thing, I would perhaps not recommend it.  But it was a very good dose of reality for me, as I had never fully understood the power of the cannon they used, and how they used it.  Also enlightening were Toll's descriptions of the marine actions during battle.  It was very interesting to hear how each side would use sharpshooters to try to pick off officers on the decks of the ships during battle.

Great detail is given to the first Tripolitan war.  This is a subject that has always interested me, and it was amazing how Toll was able to even blend in the politics of the Tripolitans into his narrative.

Finally, we move to the War of 1812.  Most readers here probably know the basics, but again, Toll is masterful blending in the politics of not only the US, but of Great Britain into the narrative.

The book uses a LOT of sailing terms which I, not being a sailor of any sort, didn't understand.  This was on purpose.  In the beginning of the book, Toll puts out for the reader his reasons for this.  Basically he says that he could explain each term and have the book be twice as long, or let the reader pick and choose what they wanted to research as far as terms went.  I think he took the correct approach.  I have no clue what this sentence from page 348 means:

Constitution stood on to leeward before the freshening northeast breeze, wearing double-reefed topsails and courses, with her royal yards struck down on deck.

However, it is easy to imagine a ball park idea of what Toll is saying in the context of the overall topic - that the Constitution was getting ready, somehow, to engage the HMS Guerrierre in battle.  It was really no big deal after you got used to the flow of the text.  I did look up a few terms along the way, but not many.

It is very clear that Toll spent a long time researching and writing this marvelous book.  It is easily one of the top ten books I have ever read on any subject and I highly recommend it if you have any sort of interest in sailing, or early 19th century politics or even just to get a flavor of those times.  Toll also speaks about the early cities and how they worked to a certain degree although the focus is on the Frigates, their battles, and the politics surrounding them.

Cross posted at ChicagoBoyz.


Gerry from Valpo said...

If this subject is of interest to you there is a board game the bro and I played way way waaaayyy back in the 60's called Broadside by Milton Bradley. After some simple investigation here are the details.


Carl from Chicago said...

I remember the game called "Wooden Ships and Iron Men" from Avalon Hill. I never played that one, but it was a cool title.