Damn the Torpedoes: Fighting Words, Rallying Cries, and the Hidden History of Warfare
Brian Burrell. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1999. 218 pp. Appendix. Index. $20.00 ($18.00).
Reviewed by Captain Jim Stavridis, U.S. Navy
This is a wonderful book, full of quick, edgy sketches of great battles and—most important—the words that underlie them.
Brian Burrell seeks to illuminate the relationship of words to deeds in the arena of warfare , and does a brisk, credible job of marching through the most famous phrases in military history. In addition to "Damn the torpedoes" of the title (which has a murky background, to say the least), the reader will find "Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes" (attributed to at least four different actors in several different battles); "I have not yet begun to fight," John Paul Jones's epic quote at the heart of the U.S. Navy's war ethos; and "England expects that every man will do his duty," Admiral Lord Nelson's famous command before the battle of Trafalgar. Each quote, and the other 50 or so additional bon mots discussed by Burrell, has its own unique place in the context of the particular battle, the personality of the speaker, and the larger history of its time.
In addition to the excellent expository history throughout the book, the continuing thematic thread of Damn the Torpedoes is a fairly sophisticated discuss ion of the ageless questions surrounding the actions of warriors in battle. Drawing largely on S.L.A. Marshall's classic Men Against Fire (1947) and the less well-known but likewise relevant works of Charles Ardant du Picq, Burrell sustains a fascinating dialogue concerning how words (and concomitant actions) can influence warriors to give the last full measure and quite literally charge the guns.
Of particular note in this short but dense work is the discuss ion of the battle of Thermopylae. Here the reader will find a sharp and quick summary of the action itself, perhaps the most mythically publicized land battle in history, where 300 Spartan noblemen, their warrior-servant helots, and a small force of allies held off a vastly larger Persian force of more than 100,000 warriors at a narrow pass between mountains and sea in the northern approaches to Greece. The final stand of the Spartans bought time for the Greek city-states to organize themselves for a successful strategic defense, and in the process became the stuff of legend. From it came the immortal stanza by the poet Simon ides commemorating the deed: Go tell the Spartans, stranger passing by; That here, obedient to their laws we lie.
This is a book that will appeal both to the casual reader, approaching the topic from a general interest in the interrelationship of words and war, as well the scholar interested in finding the meaning behind some of the quotes that matter in the history of warfare.
The appendix recommends further reading and includes citations of some other works that treat in greater depth the performance of warriors under fire. One to add to that list is Steven Pressfield's brilliant Gates of Fire (1 998), a study of the battle of Thermopylae that is in every way comparable to Michael Shaara's classic The Killer Angels (1975).
As a companion piece to any study of military history, Brian Burrell's Damn the Torpedoes is both a fin e summer read and something to keep handy as any reader ventures further into the historical fields of fire. It deserves a place in any library of serious military history.
Captain Stavridis is the executive assistant to the Secretary of the Navy.
Before the Wind: The Memoir of an American Sea Captain, 1808-1833
Charles Tyng. Susan Fels, ed. New York: Viking, 1999. 256 pp. Index. $24.95 ($22.45).
Reviewed By Robert C. Jones
Patrick O'Brian, author of the ongoing series of Aubrey/Maturin adventures set during the era of Nelson's navy, readily acknowledges his dependence on the memoirs and letters of seamen for a great deal of the factual information and for much of that "sense of time" recreated so vividly in his novels. Indeed, O'Brian comments in his foreword to The Nutmeg of Consolation, such writings "form a wonderfully rich pasture, and one in which I have grazed with great pleasure this many a year."
Charles Tyng's Before the Wind is a hitherto unexplored part of that same "wonderfully rich pasture." Tyng's story of his eventful life on land and sea, discovered only recently and edited by his great-great-granddaughter, Susan Fels, is one that will enthrall modern-day readers—whether landlubbers or seafarers. Born in 1801, Tyng grew up in Boston, an incipient "black sheep" with no interest in his studies (one of his classmates was Ralph Waldo Emerson), but with a fascination for the sea. He recalls standing on the high rocks above the bay on the afternoon of 1 June 1813, to watch "the old Chesapeake come sailing out under full sail all colours flying" to meet the challenge of the British frigate Shannon, "the cannon roaring, and soon the ships…enshrouded in the smoke."
In May 1815, not quite 14 years old, Tyng finally convinced his father that he would rather go to sea than to Cambridge College. He embarked as a "sailor boy" on the merchant ship Cordelia for a year-and-a-half voyage around the world to China and back.
That first voyage was a turning point in Tyng's life. It was an experience that "even to this day has a sickening effect on my mind," he writes. He was horrified by "the profane language of the sailors, who were under the influence of rum;" he was seasick; he had no appetite to eat the dirty messes; and as smallest and youngest, he was called to all the dirty jobs. If only he could have got back on shore, Tyng remembered, "I never would have gone to sea, but have studied like a good one, and have gone to college, or anywhere else my father wanted me to, but it was too late. My fate was sealed."
Tyng made up his mind to get out of the fo'c'sle as soon as possible—and the only way that could be done "was to be the smartest sailor on board." Over his next several voyages—a return to China on a larger ship, a leaky trip to Havana on the brig Augusta, and in 1819, still another voyage to China—the raw, inexperienced "sailor boy" developed into an enterprising, ambitious, and experienced young seaman determined "to do my duty most thoroughly, so as to gain the good will of the officers of the ship."
By 1833—at which point the memoir (begun shortly before Tyng's death in 1879) breaks off—Charles Tyng had risen through the ranks to become a highly successful captain and ship owner in the tea and sugar trades. Tyng's distinctive voice, at once dramatic, informative, and intensely personal, recreates the world of the early 19th century in a series of fascinating, true-life vignettes: a sighting of the steamship Savannah "moving fast towards the English Channel," though "there was not a breath of wind to move the craft;" a conversation in Leghorn with Lord Byron, of whom Tyng recalls, "I was rather disappointed…He appeared to me as an ordinary Englishman;" taking a bath in Bahia bay with a shark ("I never forgot the horrid feeling of that shark rubbing against me. I pulled myself out of the water quicker than I could have jumped had I been on land"); and looking at "The Wreck of the Medusa" in the Louvre, the figures on the raft in the painting seemingly "life size, and in all states of suffering…dying and dead…the long hair from their heads washing about by the waves."
The book includes an introductory "Family Note" by Susan Fels, a preface by William LaMoy of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, and an afterword by Thomas Philbrick, editor of a critical edition of Richard Henry Dana. But the real authority of the book is the richly wry, perceptive, and sensitive persona of sea captain Charles Tyng, whose adventures even Patrick O'Brian's heroes would find difficult to match.
Dr. Jones is a professor of English and philosophy, emeritus, at Central Missouri State University.
In Irons: Britain's Naval Supremacy and the American Revolutionary Economy
Richard Buel, Jr. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998. 397 pp. Tables. Notes. Bib. Index. $35.00 ($31.50).
Reviewed by Ricardo A. Herrera
It is axiomatic that foreign trade, projecting national power, and navies go hand-in-hand; nations that can protect their overseas trade routes also can cripple hostile countries' economies by blockading their ports and interdicting their merchant fleets. Equally axiomatic is the relationship between political and economic independence; one cannot exist without the other. Richard Buel underscores their centrality in the American Revolution in his latest work, In Irons. Buel contends that the U.S. agricultural sector was one of the major economic keys to victory in the War of Independence. Furthermore, the trade in agricultural surpluses was part of a larger, export-driven, Atlantic-world economy that tied North America to Europe and the Caribbean. Great Britain's ability to interdict trade through cruising and blockading seriously hobbled the U.S. export market, thereby bringing the economy to its knees and putting the war's outcome in question.
According to Buel, U.S. "access to overseas markets was critical to the agricultural sector," and that that in turn affected directly the fiscal solvency and credit of the Revolutionary confederacy. Buel makes it plain that U.S. home industries were not nearly as critical to the Revolution's success as were marketable wheat and flour. Because of the export-driven nature of their economy, Americans were singularly vulnerable to the British fleet.
The U .S. transportation network and geography both helped and hampered Americans and British alike. The U.S. economy's provincial nature dictated that a handful of "gateway ports" dominated local economies as the backcountries' sole links to the Atlantic world. Controlling or sea ling off Boston, New York, Philadelphia, or Charleston disrupted local economies by forcing farmers and merchants to rely on less-developed secondary ports. The long coastline's many inlets and river connect ions sheltered some merchant shipping while stretching British resources thin.
Throughout this work the Royal Navy and its loyalist auxiliaries only rarely take center stage. Analysis of their activities does not go much beyond the nature and effects of Britain's naval supremacy, thus leaving the impress ion that the Admiralty had little interest in shaping its role. But perhaps this was the case. For much of the war, the Navy's traditional cruising and blockading duties were subordinated to supporting ground operations. It was not until later, in 1782, that the Navy could blockade the North American coast closely—by then, it was too late for the Navy to influence the war's outcome.
Buel covers extensively the Continental Congress's attempts to stabilize the Continental currency and give the country's economic system some semblance of order. Without a sufficiently large U.S. Navy or dedicated French force to counteract Britain's control of the sea lanes, the fledgling national economy remained in irons until well after the Revolution. Buel presents the case clearly, and helps the reader make sense of the terrible confusion accompanying the war's financing.
In Irons is a groundbreaking contribution to the historiography of the Revolution. Despite the obvious connections between naval power, trade, and economic independence, this is the first major work to concentrate on the equation. It is recommended reading for Revolutionary, naval, and economic historians.
Dr. Herrera is an assistant professor of history at Texas Lutheran University.