History of fledgling U.S. Navy enlightening
Sunday, March 13, 2011PERILOUS FIGHT. By Stephen Budiansky. Knopf. 422 pages. $35.
Nonetheless, it is of much greater historical importance than simply being the source of our national anthem.
Stephen Budiansky, a military historian with a number of books to his credit, has captured this swashbuckling era to perfection. From the elegance of chivalry to the squalor of a sailor's life in the days of sail, he paints all of the pictures from the grand to the gruesome.
The corner of history he describes so completely lasted only three years, 1812-15, but some important milestones and precedences were set. It not only marked the birth of the U.S. Navy, but truly established the United States, for the first time, as an equal player on the world stage. It also was a good example of what we would now call "asymmetric warfare."
The war almost didn't happen. Half the country didn't want it. The Yankee Federalists wanted a navy, but because of more than $100 million in maritime trade, did not want to confront the British. The Jeffersonian Republicans were saber rattlers who railed against lost sovereignty but felt that the new nation couldn't afford the debt required for the establishment of a navy.
Some might consider this conflict to be the last throes of the Revolutionary War, but the Napoleonic Wars between France and England had a greater impact. The competing blockades, the seizing of enemy commerce and the scourge of privateers of all colors turned the Atlantic into a most inhospitable ocean.
It was the British practice of impressing American sailors to man their large fleet, however, that caused the most consternation. Although it had been going on since before the revolution, by the early 1800s, the British held thousands of American prisoners, including those in a prison ship anchored off Fort McHenry.
In 1809, Paul Hamilton of Charleston was appointed secretary of the Navy. Although he was completely inexperienced in affairs of the sea and, in fact, was eventually forced to resign in disgrace, he was one of the earliest proponents of employing our few frigates as lone raiders to harass both the naval and commercial vessels of Britain. It must be remembered that the British of this era considered the Americans on the whole to be an unsophisticated, even vulgar, rabble, and it was an unimaginable insult to lose frigate after frigate to the tiny American Navy.
Today, when we spend billions to maintain command and control of our forces, it is eye-opening to consider the autonomy these ship's captains had. They would go to sea for many months without ever having any connection to a command authority.
They had been provided with the broadest of guidance to hit and run and to avoid combat with clearly superior forces. One of them even wandered the Pacific seizing significant pieces of the British whaling fleet.
This is not a novel; it is a history, and an enlightening one at that. It would take only the smallest of embellishments to turn this into a novel, but it is a thoroughly entertaining read just as it is.
Reviewer Frank L. Cloutier, a retired engineer living in Hanahan
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