Young Nelsons: Boy Sailors during the Napoleonic Wars
D. A. B. Ronald. Foreword by Alexander Kent. Oxford, UK: Osprey Publishing, 2009. 304 pp. Illus. $25.95.
Reviewed by Roy Adkins
Horatio Nelson joined the Royal Navy in the spring of 1771 at the age of 12. His uncle, Captain Maurice Suckling, asked: "What has poor Horace done, who is so weak, that he above all the rest should be sent to rough it out at sea? But let him come, and the first time we go into action a cannonball may knock off his head and provide for him at once." Suckling had promised to help one of his nephews join the navy, and at least one biographer has suggested that he had in mind one more robust, rather than the sickly Horatio. Not for a moment did Suckling consider Nelson too young.
Young boys might well be thought a nuisance on board a sailing warship, but it was essential to train them from an early age in the skills and discipline required to maneuver a large sailing vessel during battle. This was true not just of boys destined to be officers, but also of those who had specialized skills, such as the topmen who handled the sails on the tallest masts. It is therefore surprising that relatively little has been written about the role of boys in Nelson's era.
This welcome book redresses that deficiency, using secondary sources and a range of firsthand accounts gleaned from the boys' letters, logbooks, and contemporary reports. Young Nelsons is well-written, well-referenced, and packed full of information-an easy and enjoyable read both for the specialist and the popular market.
The author, D. A. B. Ronald, concentrates on the careers of the volunteers, sometimes as young as eight or nine years old, who aspired to become officers. After 1794, when regulations were tightened, boys intended for officer training were supposed to be over the age of 11. Previously, boys only needed to be at sea for three years before being considered for the post of midshipman. Abuses of this law were commonplace. In an era without birth certificates, age was difficult to prove, and at times very young boys were taken to sea if they appeared older. Youngsters' names also were entered on ships' books by compliant captains to imply that they had gained sea experience, when they were actually far too young and were perhaps safely at home in the nursery or at school. Indeed, reflecting back on his life, Nelson considered that he had been too young when he joined the navy.
Along with their fears, Ronald charts the hopes of these boys for promotion, social advancement, and, above all, prize money. The prize-money system paid the officers and seamen for the enemy ships, cargoes, and crews they managed to capture, and the richest of prizes could fulfill a captain's dream of buying a country estate. It is no wonder that so many young boys wanting to be noticed and so climb through the officer ranks were seen to fight "like young Nelsons" in their desperate desire for success and riches. But as the book points out, this label, first used by the schoolmaster on board HMS Mars at the Battle of Trafalgar to describe the ship's brave young fighters, was rather ironic. Although Nelson was not averse to hunting for prizes, he was well known for his disregard of money in the face of a higher duty: to wipe out an enemy threat. No admiral was more famous than Nelson, but there were plenty of much wealthier ones.
To throw these more-privileged boys into sharp relief, Young Nelsons also describes some of the experiences of the lower-deck boys, illegally dragged off the streets by the press gang or provided by the Marine Society, which took in orphans and destitute boys and tried to prepare them for a life at sea. The contrast could not be more marked between a "captain's servant," as the boys training to become officers were known, and the boys of the lower deck, who were true servants, some of whom had to wait on the captain's servants. Only in battle, during which cannon shot and musket balls made no distinctions of class or rank, was there any real equality among them all.
Tinclads in the Civil War: Union Light-Draught Gunboat Operations on Western Waters, 1862-1865
Myron J. Smith Jr. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2010. 431 pp. Softcover. Illus. Maps. Appens. Notes. Bib. Index. $55.
Reviewed by Spencer C. Tucker
Books about the American Civil War have long concentrated on the land war. This has changed somewhat in recent years, with increased attention being paid to the naval side of the conflict. Even so, the role of the U.S. Navy in the Western theater has been largely neglected in favor of Union coastal operations and Confederate commerce raiding. Myron J. Smith Jr. is helping to change this. Smith is the library director and a professor of history at Tusculum College in Greenville, Tennessee. While most of his works are bibliographical studies, he also has written three Civil War naval monographs: a biography of Union gunboat commander Le Roy Fitch, a history of the timberclads on Western waters, and now this book.
A case may be made that the Western theater was the most important of the war. It was certainly the equal of the Eastern theater. The U.S. Navy played a key role in the West, where the great waterways were the chief means of transportation. Union control of such rivers as the Tennessee, Cumberland, and, above all, Mississippi, allowed the Union to secure the region's resources, move its own forces while inhibiting those of the Confederates, and isolate the trans-Mississippi theater from the rest of the Confederacy.
The first Union warships on these rivers were the timberclads-converted river steamboats protected by five inches of oak to defend against at least small-arms fire. They provided highly effective service and were soon followed by purpose-built and converted ironclads. With Union steamers able to proceed almost at will, Confederate irregular forces operated from shore against ships in the rivers. This led to the need for small, light-draft steamers-the tinclads-which could give convoy protection.
As important elements of what came to be known as the "mosquito squadron," tinclads were converted shallow-draft river steamers, some drawing as little as two feet. Both sidewheelers and sternwheelers, they were named for their lightweight armor protection of one-inch-thick metal plates.
Tinclads began to reach Rear Admiral David D. Porter's Mississippi Squadron in the fall of 1862. While they were not sufficiently armored or armed to take on Confederate navy combatants or major shore batteries, they could engage and drive off the occasional Confederate field piece or cavalry effort that formed a key component of the Confederate antishipping campaign. Tinclads convoyed transport and supply vessels; served as light replenishment ships; acted as dispatch boats, towboats, minesweepers, and blockaders; carried out reconnaissance; and simply showed the flag.
The ships' first combat operations were on the Yazoo River during the December 1862 Chickasaw Bayou campaign, and they saw service throughout the remainder of the war, including during the abortive Red River campaign in the spring of 1864. The large tinclad Blackhawk, displacing 962 tons, served as Porter's flagship. More typical, however, was the Fairplay (tinclad No. 17). At 162 tons and nearly 139 feet in length, she was armed with four Dahlgren boat howitzers-two smoothbore and two rifled pieces.
The Union placed in service more than 60 tinclads. Given their relative vulnerability, it is surprising that only 13 were lost during the conflict. Indeed, it is difficult to argue with Smith's conclusion that they were "among the most important Union vessels of the Civil War."
Tinclads in the Civil War is a well-researched, thoroughly documented, comprehensive study of the subject. Not only does Smith discuss the ships and the men who built and operated them, but he has plumbed the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Navies in the War of the Rebellion and archival holdings to provide a detailed history of their myriad operations. His study is so thorough that the story will not need to be told again. The book's only disadvantages are that it is solely published in paperback and carries a $55 price tag.
Captain 'Hell Roaring' Mike Healy: From American Slave to Arctic Hero
Dennis L. Noble and Truman R. Strobridge. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2009. 352 pp. $34.95.
Reviewed by Andrew C. A. Jampoler
In November 1997, the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Healy (WAGB-20) was launched at Avondale Industries' shipyard in New Orleans, Louisiana. Four years later, as a demonstration of prowess during her maiden voyage, the Healy sailed to the North Pole. Today, the vessel is still the Coast Guard's largest and most capable polar icebreaker.
Her namesake and the subject of this book, Captain Michael A. Healy (1839-1904), spent the second half of the 19th century afloat, including ten years in the merchant marine and nearly 40 in the Revenue Cutter Service (the Coast Guard's precursor). After 1880 he was almost continuously in command on Alaskan waters.
In a century of daring explorers, Healy stands out as one of the most experienced and capable polar mariners of the age. Until recently he was best known for his several cruises in the revenue cutter and ex-sealer USRC Bear, famous as the ship that rescued the survivors of the U.S. Army's calamitous Greely expedition on Lady Franklin Bay in 1884.
For 20 years Captain Healy personified the U.S. government in the vast ocean space between San Francisco and Point Barrow, Alaska, enforcing federal law, protecting natural resources (read "fur seals"), suppressing illegal trade, resupplying outposts, and conducting search-and-rescue missions in regions newly part of the American ambit. Obviously he was a man whose historic service at sea merited the special recognition that having a ship named after him represents.
Another reason for this honor, which the Coast Guard press kit concerning the USCGC Healy mentions almost in passing, is that Healy was one of ten children born to a prosperous cotton planter and his wife, "a former slave." In the 19th century, the fair-skinned, blue-eyed Healy would have been deemed black, had the fact been known. Throughout his life he and his siblings (three of his four older brothers rose to important positions in the Roman Catholic Church) successfully concealed their biracial heritage.
This fascinating back story, of a man born to a former slave in pre-Civil War Georgia rising to command U.S. ships deployed to the new Alaskan frontier, barely earns a single sentence in the Coast Guard's biographical sketch, which also ignores two even more astonishing facts:
- Healy was court-martialed, convicted, and removed from command of the Bear in 1890 and 1896 for brutality and drunkenness and reinstated both times.
- In 1900 he attempted suicide several times while in command of the USRC McCulloch, was institutionalized for insanity, released, and again restored to command.
Healy's feet of clay extended past his knees; none of the other namesakes of U.S. commissioned ships has a record remotely like his. Whether other medical conditions underlay Healy's erratic behavior is speculative, but it is clear that one of his demons was alcohol.
Dealing with the question of these extraordinary professional lapses makes writing about Healy difficult, and the story of the Arctic mariner is in danger of being overshadowed by that of the 19th century man coping with his biracial heritage. Authors Dennis Noble, a retired U.S. Coast Guard senior chief and historian; and Truman Strobridge, a former government historian for several commands in Alaska, have collaborated before, in 1999 with Alaska and the U.S. Revenue Cutter Service, 1867-1915. Their new work, while having the vice of being a rather pedestrian, plodding read, is a story told fully and carefully. The authors have addressed the important questions they see posed by the captain's life-race, alcoholism, the courts martial, his mental health-and assessed his reputation in light of these factors. The book is thoroughly researched and annotated and is likely to remain the definitive biography of Healy and his siblings.
Mr. Jampoler, Naval History's 2006 Author of the Year, is the author of three Naval Institute Press books, Adak: The Rescue of Alfa Foxtrot 586 (2003), Sailors in the Holy Land (2005), and The Last Lincoln Conspirator (2008).
WWII in HD
The History Channel/A&E Home Video, 2010. Three discs (455 minutes). Bonus features. Standard DVD ($29.95) or Blu-Ray ($39.95).
Reviewed by Eric Mills
Our mental impressions of old wars are often safely ensconced in a monochromatic past. Black-and-white photography gives us a vaguely comforting sense of distance from the grim realities of the Civil War or World War I. And for those who didn't live through it and thus acquire their own full-color memories, even World War II has become largely a black-and-white war. From old newsreel footage to Casablanca, from Victory at Sea to The World at War, the most cataclysmic conflict in history is coated with the patina that black-and-white imagery imparts.
So it is always something of a shock to view color film footage of World War II. Marines trudging through the hellish Pacific-island jungle suddenly appear more vivid and akin to their later brethren who tramped through Vietnam. Adolf Hitler working his way through the swooning, cheering hordes in living color acquires a disturbing, heightened presence; it can be quite jarring to someone used to seeing der Führer through the gauzy filter of grainy black-and-white film.
The fascinating color footage that has been hunted down and compiled for the History's Channel's WWII in HD is worth a look for anyone interested in the Second World War. But the ten-part series, which first aired in 2009 and is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray, ultimately is an opportunity squandered. The program had the right raw ingredients, but they've been mangled in a weird recipe.
The enterprise is fatally burdened by a superfluity of "concept." Someone decided to marry the treasure trove of color film with the personal stories of 12 World War II veterans, some of them still surviving and participating in the production through interviews. But these stories don't appear to have anything to do with the specific footage that's being shown. It's a bizarre contrivance, leaving the viewer to wonder whether they're looking at the particular B-17 crew the veteran is talking about, or whether this is random B-17 color footage meant to dramatize the story. Is that the actual stretch of beach the veteran is recalling, or just footage of a beach? There's an underlying dishonesty to the approach that's off-putting.
Also problematic is the herky-jerky storytelling style that constantly derails the narrative momentum. We're in the Pacific, the landing craft are heading toward the beach . . . . Bammo-now we're back in Europe for a minute or two. The bombers are in flight . . . . Bammo-now we're back in the Pacific. And so on, ad nauseum, with the choppy globe-hopping exacerbated by an annoying overuse of zoom-in, zoom-out maps.
An impressive array of Hollywood talent was recruited for the show. Gary Sinise makes a fine narrator, and actors such as Ron Livingston, L. L. Cool J, Rob Lowe, Amy Smart, and Steve Zahn provide the voices of the 12 individuals whose stories they recount. But even here, a stylistic conceit is used that quickly becomes grating. A veteran will be on-camera telling his story, then, as his face disappears and old footage appears, his elderly voice shifts awkwardly to the voice of the young actor playing him in narration. It just doesn't work and only adds to the artificiality of the project.
Finally, calling the program WWII in HD is a stretch. Even if the old color film has been meticulously converted to high-definition format, it still looks like what it is: old film. Sunrise Earth it ain't.
The main draw-the only draw-of this series is the opportunity to see how strangely immediate World War II becomes when shown in color. But the viewer would have been better served by a more straightforward documentary presentation of this amazing footage.