The Shining Sea: David Porter and the Epic Voyage of the U.S.S. Essex during the War of 1812
George C. Daughan. New York: Basic Books, 2013. 322 pp. Notes. Biblio. $28.99.
Reviewed by David Curtis Skaggs
This is George Daughan’s third book dealing with the early Navy and its development. The first two, If by Sea: The Forging of the American Navy from the Revolution to the War of 1812 (2008) and 1812: The Navy’s War (2011), emphasize the big picture. The Shining Sea focuses on one vessel and her captain.
This is not a hagiographic study; rather it is a highly critical one. This David Porter “had outsized ambitions that could cloud his judgment.” In a rather speculative psychological analysis, Daughan argues that Porter’s service as the executive officer of the Philadelphia when she ran aground off the Tripoli coast and his subsequent 19-month imprisonment proved a searing experience that “deeply affected [him] in a way that would influence his decisions, particularly in battle, from then on.” David Porter would not give up his ship no matter how overmatched she was.
The Essex was a 32-gun (mostly carronades) frigate that was much smaller than the 44-gun heavy U.S. frigates that achieved notoriety early in the War of 1812. In the summer of 1812 the Essex captured the Alert, a former coal collier converted into a small sloop-of-war, plus a troop ship and several merchantmen. Porter wanted more—more prize money and another opportunity to redeem his reputation as a combat commander. He received an assignment to join a squadron with William Bainbridge in the Constitution and James Lawrence in the Hornet in the South Atlantic; when they didn’t meet, Porter took full advantage of orders to “act according to your best judgment for the good of the service on which we are engaged.” He determined to take the first American warship into the Pacific where he sought fame through destroying the enemy’s whaling fleet—with the chance for considerable prize money—and engaging in one-on-one combat with a Royal Navy frigate.
Some of the best prose in Daughan’s book describes the doubling of Cape Horn with passage through the infamous Strait of Le Maire, around Tierra del Fuego, and up the Chilean coast to Valparaiso. He engagingly recounts the successful search for whalers off the Galapagos Islands, the liaisons between the Essex’s crew and the women of the Marquesas Islands, and the captain’s fear of mutiny when he sought to return the ship to its naval duties. Perhaps Porter’s most extreme act was to annex without any governmental authorization the Marquesas to the United States, which was, writes Daughan, “to say the least, bizarre, embarrassing, and an outrageous display of arrogance.”
Few officers of the early U.S. Navy are more controversial than David Porter. His cruise initially appeared to represent a fulfillment of Secretary of the Navy William Jones’ desire to inflict maximum damage on British commerce with minimum cost to naval ships. Too little attention is paid to the fact that Porter’s attempts to return captured whalers to the United States as prizes both depleted his crew and failed because they were recaptured by the Royal Navy. No prize money there.
Moreover, like too many of his contemporaries, Porter was obsessed with a desire to achieve glory with a victory over a British warship. Consequently, he allowed himself to become engaged with a superior Royal Navy duo outside Valparaiso that resulted in casualties to two-thirds of his crew and the loss of his ship. As Daughan concludes: “Porter had no business bringing the Essex . . . to any Chilean port. He knew that if he waited long enough, a superior British force was bound to trap him.” Nonetheless, he became a hero to many Americans for the gallantry of his ship’s crew during the lopsided battle.
Daughan never fully explains that the parole Porter and his crew received after their defeat ran contrary to the official policy of His Majesty’s Government. Thus, when the blockading force stopped him outside New York Harbor and seemed about to deny safe conduct to the United States, the Royal Navy officers were enforcing standing orders.
The Shining Sea is a revision of David F. Long’s Nothing Too Daring: A Biography of Commodore David Porter (1970), which the Naval Institute Press is reissuing. Daughan cites few unpublished sources while there are numerous ignored ones. For instance, if Navy purser Samuel Hambleton was truly Porter’s “closest friend and confidant,” why did Daughan not consult the Hambleton papers at the Maryland Historical Society? While scholars and naval history enthusiasts will find little that is new here, readers unfamiliar with this episode will find The Shining Sea a delightfully written critical inquiry into a controversial cruise led by a contentious commander.
The Kaiser’s Pirates: Hunting Germany’s Raiding Cruisers 1914−1915
Nick Hewitt. Barnsley, South Yorkshire, UK: Pen & Sword Maritime, 2013. 238 pp. Append. Biblio. Maps. Index. Glossary. $50.
Reviewed by Andrew G. Wilson
When war was declared between Germany and Britain in August 1914, Germany had a modern, wide-flung fleet of cruisers positioned around the globe—with little to no hope of making it home to Germany. Arrayed against them was the world’s most powerful navy—the Royal Navy—as well as those of its allies. The Kaiser’s Pirates is a masterful telling of this brief, dramatic period of the Great War’s naval story, when names such as SMS Emden, SMS Goeben, and HMS Monmouth would become legendary, as would the names of the men and vessels that brought about their end.
A former Imperial War Museum historian, Nick Hewitt draws upon both primary and wide-ranging secondary sources to include official records, diaries, regional press, and even wireless signals transmissions from the opposing fleets themselves—all assembled to tell a group of tales that are simultaneously dramatic, heroic, and tragic. The scope of Hewitt’s work ranges from the birth of the Imperial German Navy to the short-lived, meteoric yet doomed careers of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s “pirates” as they engaged in Kreuzerkrieg—or cruiser warfare—in the first year of the war.
The Kaiser’s Pirates explores many of the difficulties faced by commanders on both sides of the early conflict at sea, including leadership interference, technological change and limitations, and strategic considerations. Between his detailed description of the battles of Coronel (where many of the British shells were so ineffective the Germans called then “jam pots”) and the end of the SMS Königsberg in East Africa, Hewitt outlines the sometimes difficult leadership and command expectations of First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill, the often overlooked role of armed liners in the early war at sea, the limited operational options available to both sides due to the nature of coal-fired naval vessels and attendant coaling stations, as well as the more personal, human side of the conflict. While in the end the kaiser’s raiders were not militarily decisive, they did cause great concern among the allied navies and tied down significant naval resources that were needed elsewhere, in particular to await a sortie by the German High Seas Fleet in the North Sea.
In The Kaiser’s Pirates, Hewitt not only reminds us of the war’s great tragedies and heroism at sea but also vividly describes how officers and men from opposing sides went from sharing wardrooms during social engagements prior to the outbreak of conflict to facing off in hotly contested and dreadful engagements far from their respective home waters. In short, Hewitt ably presents a fine account of the war’s technological advances (and limitations) at sea, alongside what could also be described as the oft-forgotten importance of chivalry at sea, even in an era seemingly dominated by rapid scientific and social change. Along with broader scope works from such writers as Paul G. Halpern, Robert K. Massie, and Geoffrey Bennett, The Kaiser’s Pirates represents a quality addition to any serious naval historian’s library as well as that of the passing Great War enthusiast.
Prisoners of War at Dartmoor: American and French Soldiers and Sailors in an English Prison During the Napoleonic Wars and the War of 1812
Trevor James. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2013. 213 pp. Illus. Appen. Notes. Biblio. Index. $45.
Reviewed by Frederick C. Leiner
Trevor James’ profusely illustrated Prisoners of War at Dartmoor is partly a brief history of, and partly a travel guide for, the notorious prison at Dartmoor, the desolate, windswept, stone “depot” 17 miles north of Plymouth, England. In the early years of the Napoleonic Wars, the British government built Dartmoor to house a burgeoning number of French army and navy prisoners. Deftly and economically, James covers the interesting stories of why and how the British built a prison on a moor, far from supplies, workers, or a thriving market; the prison’s design and construction, including an ingenious open aqueduct system to conduct water; and the interaction of the depot and the local economy. Thousands of French soldiers and sailors occupied Dartmoor; hundreds died of disease. The food was poor and scarcely adequate—though likely better than rations on Napoleon’s warships. The French made the best of the isolated, barren prison on the moor, creating a vibrant world that included lessons in fencing and dancing, an active Masonic lodge, and craftsmen selling to the local market (including bone ship models such as those on display in the U.S. Naval Academy Museum).
After the War of 1812 began, American prisoners started to arrive. Ultimately, all captured American seamen ended up in Dartmoor, some after stays in other prisons or in prison-ship hulks moored in British harbors. Unlike what James characterizes as the “easy-going fatalistic” French, the Americans never accepted their lives in confinement. At Dartmoor, these free-spirited American seamen were subject to overcrowding, inadequate and tasteless food, and (until February 1814) no monetary allowance from their own government. Winters on the moor were cruel—the prisoners lived in unheated blocks, so cold that water froze inside—smallpox and other diseases killed more than 200 during the winter of 1814−15.
Early on, the Americans, mostly ex-privateersmen, democratically organized themselves, promulgated disciplinary rules, and created courts to punish thieves or those who skimmed food. They held church services on Sundays; gambled with dice, cards, and even on racing lice; and drank and caroused once they began to receive money. A bustling community developed in which sailors taught reading and writing to ships’ boys and illiterates, performed theatricals, held boxing matches, and created handicrafts to sell in the prison market. The irrepressible Americans threw stones and hurled derision at their British militia guards, and repeatedly tried to escape, although few succeeded. Men of color comprised 15 percent of the American prison population. According to James, ostensibly because of their unsanitary habits, they were forcibly segregated into their own block (along with criminals, troublemakers, and homosexuals).
The dozens of images in Prisoners of War at Dartmoor dramatically illustrate the depot and prisoners’ lives. The pacing of the book is quick, but James knows the material and has walked the ground. He makes some minor factual errors about the War of 1812 and the politics and geography of the United States. More seriously, Prisoners of War at Dartmoor lacks footnotes indicating its sources, and the index is poor. Yet James has used the accounts and journals of the American prisoners who survived Dartmoor to great effect. In this effort, James followed the path of the late Ira Dye, a retired U.S. Navy captain and Naval Institute author, who gathered materials about Dartmoor for what would have been an authoritative account. James handsomely acknowledges Dye’s effort, but Prisoners of War at Dartmoor cannot be considered authoritative.
James, an Englishman, empathizes with the plight of the Americans and tries to be scrupulously fair in analyzing the causes of the infamous Dartmoor massacre of 6 April 1815, when the British militia guards fired into a crowd of prisoners and charged with the bayonet. At least nine Americans were killed and several dozen were wounded at a time when the two countries were at peace—the Treaty of Ghent had been ratified, and the Americans were waiting to go home. All told, according to James more than 270 Americans died in captivity at Dartmoor. James lists them by name, date of death, and homeport in an appendix. They are the forgotten casualties in what used to be called America’s forgotten war.
British Naval Swords & Swordsmanship
John McGrath & Mark Barton. Barnsley, UK: Seaforth Publishing, Pen & Sword Books Limited, 2013. 144 pp. Illus. Biblio. Notes. Appen. $34.56.
Reviewed by Peter Tuite
The authors of a new naval sword book have meticulously researched their subject and produced a great, informative read. The book provides up-to-date information on some of the subjects covered in earlier works, such as Henry T. A. Bosanquet’s The Naval Officer’s Sword (1955) and W. E. May and P. G. W. Annis’ Swords for Sea Service (1970), both published by Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. The reader’s journey begins with how swords and other edged weapons were typically used and ends with a discussion of how present-day British naval officers continue to use swords for fencing. Along the way the authors explore the types of edged weapons used by naval forces and devote separate chapters to cutlasses, officer’s swords, and dirks.
The chapters on cutlasses and officer’s swords are thorough and informative and take the reader up to the present day. The tabular presentation of the information on officer’s sword scabbards, sword knots, and belts is particularly helpful to collectors. The material on dirks is not as thorough but adequately covers the subject with emphasis on the pattern dirks from 1854 through the present day. Only a few early dirks are shown, which is unfortunate since those worn by British naval officers in the late 18th and early 19th centuries are among the finest in the world.
The authors devote a chapter to the swords worn by other sea-service officers; something done by Robert Rankin for American Navy, Marine, and Coast Guard swords in Small Arms of the Sea Services (N. Flayderman, 1972), but not typically covered for British sea-service swords. Because these are also collected with naval swords this is a nice feature.
The chapter on presentation swords offers a thorough description of those from the City of London and the Patriotic Fund of Lloyd’s, which were presented by the military charity as a reward to those who carried out acts of valor in the early days of the Napoleonic Wars. It even includes a reference to the work of Paul Willcocks, which addresses the current whereabouts of the Lloyd’s swords. The appendix on these swords enhances this chapter’s discussion, making it the most thorough treatment of this subject available to the collector or naval enthusiast.
This reviewer particularly enjoyed the chapter on Lord Nelson’s swords, an unfamiliar subject to American collectors. The authors take great pains to examine the many claims on swords reportedly belonging to or used by Nelson, and rebut or support them. It’s an interesting subject that is well addressed.
Most collectors and those engaged in fencing are generally familiar with some of the earlier works on swordsmanship. The chapter that describes how men were trained to use swords and bayonets brings the reader up to the present. This reviewer was surprised to find how lax swordsmanship or cutlass training was in the Royal Navy, particularly in the early days when it really counted. As in the American Navy, training was primarily left to the officers on each ship, and those who worked at it reaped the rewards in combat. The chapter on how British naval officers continue to engage in “sword fighting” for sport ties it all together. The closing chapter entitled “Your Naval Sword” is a how-to discussion on researching and caring for swords, whether they be the family sword or an entire collection—another subject not usually addressed in sword books.
While the print seems small for this reviewer’s old eyes, this book is well researched and documented and belongs on any shelf with the books mentioned previously on British naval swords. It is a must addition to any edged-weapons collector’s, naval enthusiast’s, or naval historian’s library. The only downside is that the quality of the photography does not match the fine quality of the text.