Saturday, December 30, 2017

Books: Six Frigates

The hard-working men and women of the U.S. Navy are in the news for being worked too hard, but this is by no means a recent phenomenon. In Six Frigates, Ian Toll's gripping account of the early American navy, the deprivations of life at sea are downright harrowing: brutal discipline and horrid weather, punctuated by moments of sheer terror. Then, as now, there were relatively few souls willing to volunteer for voyages that could span from Spain to Sumatra, and that could end in death, dismemberment - or worse.

But there was an undeniable romance to the Age of Sail. This was an era when ships navigated by the currents and stars, when opposing captains gave and accepted challenges for single combat, where entire countries fought for notions of honor, even in conflict with their own economic interests. The politics of the age were different, too. Personal magnetism and old friendships in Washington, D.C. could withstand even bitter partisan fights over issues that would be quite familiar to us today (taxes, trade, military spending).

Six Frigates (faithfully cobbled together from the records of the Department of the Navy) takes us back to this world, where Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Madison shepherded the original six frigates of the U.S. Navy. Ian Toll takes us from patrolling the Caribbean for privateers to exchanging broadsides with the Royal Navy in the War of 1812. There's quite a bit of Patrick O'Brian in the (nonfiction) narrative, so much so that Toll even quotes a passage from The Fortune of War. If you have even a passing interest in naval warfare, I highly recommend it.


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