Nelson: An Illustrated History
Roger Morriss, Brian Lavery, and Stephen Deuchar. Edited by Pieter van der Merwe. London: Laurence King Publishing (in association with the National Maritime Museum), 1995. Distributed in the United States by Trafalgar Square Publishing, North Pomfret, VT 05053. 176 pp. Illus. Bib. Ind. Notes. Photos. Paper. $22.95 ($20.65).
Reviewed by Rear Admiral Joseph Callo, U.S. Naval Reserve (Retired)
Nelson was labeled—by no less an authority than A. T. Mahan—as the one individual “who in himself summed up and embodied the greatness of the possibilities which Sea Power comprehends—the man for whom genius and opportunity worked together. . . .” There is still much to be learned from that life, even by the most modern navalists, and on this subject so crowded with biography and analysis, Nelson: An Illustrated History fills a niche. It does so by providing a unique blend of the highlights of a life that has attracted the continuing attention of both naval and romantic writers for nearly 200 years. The highlights are covered in the six chapters of text that provides a concise overview of Nelson’s life and times: “The Age of Revolutions,” “Nelson’s Navy,” “Nelson’s Early Career” (1758-94), “The Decade of Victories” (1795-1805), “Nelson’s Character,” and “The Immortal Memory.”
The nitty-gritty is covered with more than 250 well-captioned, full-color illustrations and photos that add human— at times, very personal—substance to the highlights. This unusually rich array of visuals includes a broad spectrum of objects. Some played a dramatic role in Nelson’s life, such as the uniform coat with the small hole left by the bullet that took his life at Trafalgar. Other objects are from the stuff of daily life, such as the washstand from one of Nelson’s sea cabins, and a ring given to him by his lover, Lady Emma Hamilton. This unique assemblage of Nelson-related objects is nicely integrated into the text, and it contributes importantly to a provocative portrait of a personality marked by greatness—and great contradictions.
Richard Ormond, Director of Britain’s National Maritime Museum, establishes both focus and parameters for the book in its foreword. The focus is defined in terms of timing: “. . . this book accompanies the Museum’s latest Nelson gallery. . . . both the gallery and the book mark the first year of the ‘Nelson Decade’ in which the Museum, with other interested parties, will be commemorating the great Nelson bicentenaries, culminating in that of the Battle of Trafalgar in 2005.” The book’s parameters are related to its length: “An illustrated work of this size cannot also be a full biography of Nelson or a detailed account of his naval achievements.”
As the foreword suggests, many of the visuals show specific objects from the National Maritime Museum’s new Nelson Exhibition, and some of the illustrations and photos are a study in themselves. For example, more than 35 portraits of those who played significant roles in Nelson’s life give interesting dimension to his personality. A large cut-away diagram of a ship-of-the- line in Nelson’s time and a number of satirical cartoons and caricatures that were contemporary with his life add to an understanding of the man and his times.
If the book’s format tends to draw attention to its graphic features, however, it also is important to recognize the strength of the writing, which is both authoritative and succinct. For those with naval interest, perhaps Brian Lavery’s chapter, “The Decade of Victories” (1795-1805), is the heart of the matter. During this ten-year span, Nelson achieved his greatest triumphs: Cape St. Vincent, where he risked both his career and life with a bold tactical decision and ferocious hand-to-hand assaults on two of the Spanish ships; the Nile, where he capped an exhausting chase of many months with a victory of major strategic importance in Britain’s struggle with Napoleon; Copenhagen, where his skill as a tough, high-stakes negotiator helped him capitalize on a marginal edge in a bloody conflict; and Trafalgar, where so many of his attributes came together in heroic dimensions.
Mr. Lavery’s description of this period includes a summary—augmented with a few basic diagrams—of the naval tactics of Nelson’s time, something that must be understood for an appreciation of his qualities as a combat leader. There also are reproductions of diagrams of the Battles of Cape St. Vincent and Trafalgar, originally published in 1802 and 1806, respectively.
This chapter also contains many insights into the qualities that made Nelson noteworthy as a combat leader, including his willingness to depart from specific orders to seize an opportunity and to accomplish the basic objectives of the battle. Lavery also includes examples of weaknesses that threatened his career. Perhaps the most thought-provoking observation in Lavery’s chapter on Nelson’s combat successes is his statement that “In some ways the legend of Trafalgar was greater than the reality but its long-term effect on public opinion and on naval tradition was decisive.”
A somewhat surprising shortcoming of the book is its “Further Reading” section. With a subject like Nelson, a fuller list of additional reading is warranted. Among the many worthy Nelson references not included in this section are such basic works as A. T. Mahan’s The Life of Nelson, published by Little, Brown, and Company in 1899, and the recent The Nelson Companion, published by Alan Sutton Publishing Ltd. in Great Britain (in association with Britain’s Royal Naval Museum) and published in the United States by the Naval Institute Press. In a redeeming move, the section refers the reader to the National Maritime Museum’s library for “both a longer and more specialized selection” of references on Nelson.
Over all, this book is an unusually successful blending of the verbal and visual to create a strong-even powerful—communication on an amazing naval leader and his era. It will be coherent instruction for those not familiar with Nelson and an enjoyable refresher for those who know the man well. With its tight prose and functional graphics, Nelson: An Illustrated History is a timely demonstration that sometimes less is more.
They Also Served: American Women in World War II
Olga Gruhzit-Hoyt. New York: Birch Lane Press, 1995. $19.95 ($17.95).
Reviewed by Dr. Judy Barrett Litoff
Over the last decade, the history of military women in the United States has begun to receive the serious attention it deserves. The pioneering work of historians D’Ann Campbell and Susan M. Hartmann, including their excellent studies of servicewomen and World War II, has served as benchmarks for other scholars, including this reviewer. The commemoration of the 50th anniversary has resulted in the publication of dozens of provocative memoirs, letters, and other reminiscences by women who served in the military. In recognition of the important work of World War 11 servicewomen, the National Archives sponsored a major conference, “A Woman’s War Too,” March 1995, which brought together scholars and women war veterans from throughout the United States who explored how the complex issues of gender, race, and ethnicity affected the position of women in the military during the 1940s. The Minerva Center, under the direction of George Washington University history professor Linda Grant De Pauw, has promoted the study of women in the military. In addition, Brigadier General Wilma L. Vaught, U.S. Air Force (Retired), founder and president of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial Foundation, has demonstrated indefatigable energy and spirit in her campaign to pay tribute to women who have served their country.
Unfortunately, however, author Olga Gruhzit-Hoyt makes little use of the findings of these scholars and activists; and she fails to build upon the large body of older, published works about women in the military. Indeed, Gruhzit-Hoyt’s prefatory statement, “I thought it was time these women should have some kind of public recognition” (p. ix), grossly underestimates the significance of the research and studies that preceded the publication of They Also Served. Part memoir and part oral history, this book is based on the first-person accounts of 28 women who served with military or civilian agencies during World War II. The author collected this material by sending requests to veterans’ associations, military department headquarters, military newsletters, various bulletins, newspapers, magazines “and every likely source [she] could think of’ (p. ix). Eventually, states Gruhzit-Hoyt, “the flood gates opened and scores of inquiries and first-hand accounts came in” (p. ix). Readers are left to ponder, however, the exact translation of Gruhzit-Hoyt’s “scores.”
They Also Served focuses primarily on the experiences of servicewomen, but it also includes chapters on women who served in the American Red Cross and who worked for the Office of Strategic Services. Of course, the American Red Cross and the Office of Strategic Services were just two of many civilian agencies that wartime women joined. Herein lies a major problem with this work. Far from providing a comprehensive overview of the experiences of women who served their country by joining military and civilian agencies during World War II, the framework of this book is fairly narrow and relies almost entirely on the information contained in the 28 first-person accounts included in the study. The eight major sections are uneven in length and content, and the author makes only a superficial effort to round out the overall story of women and World War II by supplying the many missing details not included in the first-person accounts.
One of the most frustrating features of the book is Gruhzit-Hoyt’s inability to place the first-person accounts within their larger historical context. She takes most of the interviews at face value, rarely evaluating the accuracy of the statements.
They Also Served is a disappointing book that contains little new knowledge or insights about the wartime experiences of United States women. Gruhzit-Hoyt relies on well-known information about the past. For example, she illustrates how segregation and prejudice dominated military life during the 1940s by retelling the familiar story of Major Charity Adams and her role as commander of the 6888th Central Postal Battalion, the only African American unit of the Women’s Army Corp to be stationed overseas. The information presented in the section on the Women Airforce Service Pilots repeats themes that have appeared in other published sources.
All criticisms aside, the 28 accounts are significant in that they provide further evidence of how the lives of U.S. women were transformed dramatically World War II. As Army Nurse Signe Skott Cooper succinctly observed, “For most of us, the experience of the war benefited us both personally and professionally” (p. 36).
Books of Interest
By Lieutenant Commander Thomas J. Cutler, U.S. Navy (Retired)
Short History of the Civil War
James L. Stokesbury. New York: William Morrow, 1995. 365 pp. Bib. Ind. Maps. $25.00 ($22.50).
Those who have not read any of Professor Stokesbury’s works are missing out on the opportunity to get the essentials of history in a very readable, extremely informative manner. His “short histories of . . are the ideal place to begin if one has little or no knowledge of an American war. They also serve as an excellent refresher and are just plain good reading. Library Journal writes, “Reducing an entire war to manageable length is a highly literary art form, and Professor Stokesbury has mastered it.” Added to his growing list of concise accounts of major wars is this latest volume which covers the Civil War from Lincoln’s election to the surrender of Lee’s army at Appomattox.
The Life and Adventures of James R. Durand
James R. Durand. North Pomfret, VT: Trafalgar Square, 1995. 155 pp. Append. Notes. $9.95 paper.
Reprinted from an original (and currently out-of-print) edition that first appeared in 1926, this firsthand account of life under sail deserves resurrection. Durand served on three American warships, including USS Constitution, was captured by the British and impressed for service in the Royal Navy. His experiences include shipwreck and mutiny, he witnessed the massacre of whites in Haiti, and he was nearly hanged. Such real-life adventures are both exciting and historically revealing.
A Quest for Glory: A Biography of Rear Admiral John A. Dahlgren
Robert John Schneller, Jr. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995. 432 pp. Bib. Ulus. Ind. Notes. Photos. $37.95 ($30.36).
Admiral Dahlgren is remembered as the “father of American naval ordnance” but it was his desire to be remembered as a fighting sailor. Despite his achievements as Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance, he asked friend Abraham Lincoln to give him a sea command. His wish granted, he was destined to preside over one of the Union Navy’s major disappointments, the failure to retake Charleston. Drawing on Dahlgren’s diaries, family papers, and official records, this balanced biography recounts the life of one of the U.S. Navy’s great—if controversial—names.