Give Me a Fast Ship: The Continental Navy and America’s Revolution at Sea
Tim McGrath. New York: NAL Caliber, 2014. 544 pp. Battle maps. Illus. Index. Notes. $26.95.
Reviewed by Lieutenant Andrew Cox, U.S. Navy
In his book Give Me a Fast Ship, Tim McGrath produces a comprehensive and lively history of the Continental Navy during the American Revolution, grappling with complexities that might sink lesser historians. In attempting to develop a definitive one-volume naval history book, he chronologically covers all naval preparations and actions and places them inside the larger political-military context. This in turn includes a large cast of characters and ships that can be difficult to keep track of at times. He also doesn’t shy away from using archaic and unfamiliar naval terms and technology. Thankfully, all of these potential problems are so masterfully handled that the reader can easily stay on top of the story. Blending exhaustive research and rousing storytelling, McGrath has created a distinguished work of scholarship that grabs the reader like a Patrick O’Brian novel.
Naval victories were sometimes the only good news for the rebellion, and McGrath writes excellent battle sequences. He starts every action inside the commanders’ heads and then pulls the reader through every vantage point from up in the fighting tops to the gun crews to the surgeon’s table. His most exciting chapter, the Bonhomme Richard’s famous duel with HMS Serapis, gives proper homage to John Paul Jones for his bravery and tenacity. But it is perhaps more enjoyable to see how McGrath purposefully brings lesser-known Continental naval officers out of Jones’ long shadow. His attention to these other officers—whose names like Barney, Barry, Conyngham, and Whipple have graced our warships—commands our respect for their gallantry and service. They deserve more active consideration on our part, especially since most people who think about the Continental Navy rarely get beyond “I have not yet begun to fight!”
But Fast Ship is much more than gallantry and victory. McGrath takes the shine off our collective historical memory and shows us the “real Navy,” continually on the brink of destruction or disintegration. Budget shortfalls and political bickering consistently interfered with shipbuilding schedules. The Navy was so underfunded at times that captains had to personally purchase their ships’ armament. Often unable to entice enough sailors away from lucrative privateering offers, they signed on invalids and prisoners. Bad weather and a suffocating enemy presence kept both merchant and naval vessels in port. Once at sea they might blunder into epic disaster, such as when the British captured or burned 14 American ships in one day off Penobscot, Maine. It was the biggest naval debacle of the war and nearly bankrupted the state of Massachusetts.
McGrath also turns his critical eye on the characters, all three-dimensional human beings with inherent flaws and checkered relationships. John Paul Jones is inspiringly brave in battle, but despicably vain and petulant almost every other moment. Esek Hopkins displays cunning flexibility at first, but is such a terrible leader that Congress eventually dismisses him. The “pyrate” Gustavus Conyngham consistently takes so many prizes that he earns King George’s personal ire, but his targets cause international consternation and hurt American overtures for alliances. Congress and the states played favorites with Navy captains, who used their political connections to get what they wanted or to backstab their peers. Regularly underpaid sailors sometimes bore up for their country, but others mutinied or threatened to join the British.
Many of these issues stemmed from the young Navy’s troubled relationship with the Continental Congress. McGrath traces the ever-building acrimony between officers and government over the infamous Captain’s List of seniority, orders, commands, armament, manning, regulations and oversight, prize shares, and more. However, the most contentious issue was pay. Congress’ continual lack of funds translated into an unwillingness to pay sailors, even well after the war’s end, and set an unfortunate but enduring precedent that McGrath labels “supporting the troops as long as no taxes were required for weapons, wages, or the care of widows and orphans.”
Overall, McGrath strongly refutes any claim that the Continental Navy was a waste of money and lives. He takes pains to show how the Navy provided badly needed supplies and revenue, facilitated important diplomatic missions to secure France’s alliance, scattered the British fleet’s attention all over the Atlantic, and terrorized the British populace through action just off their shores. The sailors and officers sacrificed much for a country they helped create and protect. This book is a fitting testament to the ideals the navy shared with patriotic minutemen and statesmen, and makes for a well-written, exciting read.
The Great War At Sea: A Naval History of the First World War
Lawrence Sondhaus. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 407 pp. Illus. Index. Map. $35.
Reviewed by Marc Milner
Few subjects in modern naval or military history, and perhaps no subject in the history of World War I, has been in greater need of a solid, modern, scholarly account than the Great War at sea. For decades the subject has been shaped by Anglocentric accounts seemingly mined from the Royal Navy’s official history, the large British memoir literature, and the five volumes of Arthur Marder’s magnum opus, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow. The rest of the war at sea outside the mainstream confrontation between the British and Germans lay in obscurity, scattered in journals and books done by historians who troll the archives of lost empires—the Ottomans, the Romanovs, or the Hapsburgs—in languages inaccessible to Anglophones. Finally, after nearly a century, Lawrence Sondhaus has pulled all those threads together into one masterful account—The Great War At Sea—which will set the standard for decades to come.
The book is actually more than just World War I at sea; it is really about naval power in the Great War era, a topic on which Sondhaus has already published. The author starts well before 1914, with nearly 100 pages devoted to the prelude to war. He rehearses the issues of the naval arms race, the various building programs, and the ultimate failure of Tirpitz Risk Theory and Germany’s “Shining Armor” diplomacy. And he also covers developments in technology very thoroughly, including the problems of naval gunnery (based on the latest scholarship in the debate over battleship fire-control systems), and the role of submarines and torpedoes. The book ends, as it begins, by extending the story beyond the Great War to its final denouements. This includes not only the last events in the Baltic, Adriatic, Mediterranean, and Black Sea, and the revolutions in Russia, Germany, and Austria-Hungry that all began in the fleets, but also the ultimate disposal of the battle fleets of the world, and a short reflection on the impact of the Washington Naval Conference 1921–22 on fleet planning and composition in the interwar period. In between there are fresh, comprehensive accounts of action in almost every imaginable theater—especially those in which a German-speaking navy was involved—and that gives Sondhaus a lot of scope.
The Germans and Austro-Hungarians were fully engaged in the Baltic, Black, Adriatic, North, and Mediterranean seas. Those long familiar with the dominant Anglocentric view of the war will find accounts of actions there fascinating: They reflect Sondhaus’s facility with German but also his own earlier scholarship. The only place where the “now for something different” approach falters is in his handling of the 1917 convoy crisis, which Sondhaus views largely through an American lens, using Admiral William Sims as the focus. That adds some new information but rather obscures the comparative importance of the Royal Navy and U.S. Navy in the crisis. Finally, one assumes that the absence of a detailed accounting in the footnotes and bibliography of the French navy in the Mediterranean, North Atlantic, or abroad simply reflects how little modern scholarship there is on its role in the Great War. In any event, one has to admire the way in which Sondhaus ties it all together into one, quite seamless, account.
Writing one-volume testimonies of anything this complex is not without its pitfalls. To get his story told, Sondhaus has focused on navies (and their technology). This is not, then, a study of the impact of sea power on the course of the Great War, and perhaps for that reason there is little in the bibliography on the blockade. As a result, however, The Great War at Sea is a little less well founded in the war than it might be. The U-boat campaigns, America’s entry into the war, and the larger impact of the Allie’s use of sea power are perhaps more understandable when seen from the perspective of blockade and international law, as evidenced, for example, in Bernard Semmel’s seminal work Liberalism and Naval Strategy (Unwin Hyman, 1986). It says a great deal about how the British viewed the blockade to note that they ran it from the Foreign Office, not the Admiralty.
It is churlish, however, to dwell on what Sondhaus did not write. The Great War at Sea is a superb recasting of the story of naval operations in World War I. In pulling together myriad scholarly sources and writing such a comprehensive and compelling account, Sondhaus has taken us away from the anglocentric view of Great War naval operations that has dominated the English-language literature for a century. This book should be in everyone’s library.
The Civil War Diary of Gideon Welles, Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy (The Original Manuscript Edition)
William E. Gienapp, Erica L. Gienapp, Editors. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2014. 830 pp. Biblio. Illus. Index. Maps. Notes. $45.
Reviewed by Noah Andre Trudeau
Will the real Gideon Welles diary please stand up? Delving into the backstory of this volume, I was reminded of the vintage television show To Tell the Truth. Diary Number One comes from 1911: Retouched by Welles throughout his life and edited by his oldest son, Edgar, it encompasses the Civil War and Reconstruction period, complete with the assurance that the original source “has in no way been mutilated or revised.” Diary Number Two appeared in 1960, edited by scholar Howard K. Beale. Proclaiming that Number One was indeed “mutilated or revised,” Beale interpolates Welles’ original manuscript diary (before retouchings) into the framework of the 1911 edition employing at times a bewildering variety of brackets and other markings to tell one from the other. Diary Number Three, covering just the Civil War years, arrives on the tail end of the sesquicentennial sporting a fresh transcription of the unretouched manuscript devoid of all the Beale trappings, but including many extras.
A big part of the reason for these successive editions is the huge importance the observations and comments of Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy have played in the writing of Civil War and Reconstruction histories. Indeed, it is hard to imagine any Lincoln administration, Civil War military, or Civil War naval studies without Welles’ revelations as an inside man to the workings of a government fighting for its life, or his often pungent and sharp-edged personality clips. Take the politician-turned-general and larger-than-life personality Benjamin F. Butler, whom Welles declared “has inordinate and irrepressible ambition, and would scruple at nothing to gratify it.” (The reworked 1911 edition adds the words “and his avarice” at the end of the sentence.)
Even when it first appeared, the 1911 edition roused the suspicions of some reviewers that text-tinkering had occurred. Still, it wasn’t until Beale produced his edition that the extent of the modifications became apparent. I suspect that Beale felt so strongly on the subject that he went forward with that awkwardly formatted edition so that everyone could see it too. Like Beale, William E. Gienapp believed that having Welles’ observations pure—as he set them down at the time the events were happening—was the gold standard, though he felt that Beale’s zealous overlaying of the two sources unnecessarily obscured the original. So he set out to create an uncluttered version of it, a long-term project ably completed by his wife after his death.
Even this “simple” version faced many challenges. Welles set down his first thoughts on the left-hand page of his diary book, leaving the right side blank. Supplemental information or later thoughts were afterward added on the right side, some within days of the original entries, others years later. (The former would be fair game for this volume, the latter was melded into the 1911 version and off limits here.) Welles would also cross out words or replace some on the left-hand side, without dating the changes, forcing the Gienapps to determine: When did he know this? Welles is occasionally given wrong information, which he faithfully reproduces. In a case cited in the book’s introduction, a description of the action at Second Bull Run mentions “Chain Bridge” when the context indicates that “Chinn Ridge” was meant. And there were the usual suspects of crimped words difficult to decipher, inconsistent and oddly placed capitalizations, plus a generous collection of dashes and ampersands.
The text produced by the Gienapps is an easy read, ample testament to all the hard work invested to wrestle it into that condition. Unlike Beale’s edition, there are many annotations to places, names, and guides to other sources, all helpfully placed as footnotes at the bottom of each page. There are several appendices. One contains a post-1865 Welles essay on events before he began his war diary in August 1862. Another offers daily entries included in the 1911 edition that are not contained in the original manuscript. The editors speculate that these “may have come from a daybook or notes that were contemporaneous with the manuscript diary, but no longer exist.” Still another presents Welles’ letters written at the time of the diary and actually tipped into the earlier editions alongside the appropriate daily entries, but here quarantined at the end.
I was disappointed in the maps. Just three, and each has been given too little space for their content. The illustrations are limited to principals of the time and the Monitor and the Merrimack (ahem). Given the many issues behind this transcription one full-page image showing a typical Welles diary-page pair would have been wonderfully instructive.
Still, this is a valuable publication. For veteran researchers used to deciphering Beale I suspect there’s not much new here, but for future generations this user-friendly volume will be the preferred source for one of the most astute observers and active participants of the Civil War.
The Sea & Civilization: A Maritime History of the World
Lincoln Paine. Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. 744 pp. Biblio. Illus. Index. Notes. Maps. $40.
Reviewed by Virginia Lunsford
While the current leaders of the U.S. Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps realize the tremendous significance (and vulnerability) of the global maritime domain, Lincoln Paine fears that many folks do not. His new book, The Sea & Civilization: A Maritime History of the World, aims to awaken us from our blithe obliviousness. “I want to change the way you see the world,” Paine proclaims in the very first sentence of his substantial tome. He hopes to refocus his readers’ eyes on the 70 percent of the globe that is shaded blue and away from their traditional preoccupation with activities on territorial masses, or rather, he wants his readers to grasp that endeavors on land are actually predicated on the seas. He seeks to reveal that historically (and today), happenings at sea and between seas have made the big events on land possible.
“This book,” Paine explains, “is an attempt to examine how people came into contact with one another by sea and river, and so spread their crops, their manufactures, and their social systems . . . from one place to another.” He goes on to add that as a historian, “I have attempted . . . to show how shifting approaches to maritime systems can be read as indicators of broader changes beyond the sea.” Paine’s approach, then, is something fresh and different in world history. All too often, Paine laments, the sea has functioned merely as an unobtrusive backdrop for “the complex interactions between people of distinct backgrounds and orientations.” Paine’s study aims to turn this type of interpretation on its head, and instead, offers a new perspective by making maritime history the crux of world history.
The Sea & Civilization is novel and different in another fundamental way, too. Paine’s version of maritime history is much more expansive than the field has traditionally been understood. While he certainly includes the Europeans in his account, they represent but one facet of his tale. His interpretation of maritime history is geographically and culturally fuller and more diverse, and thus includes a rich discussion of myriad peoples around the globe and through time; examples include the various civilizations of Asia and the Middle East, and indigenous peoples of Oceania and the Americas. Moreover, Paine stresses that maritime history should not just concentrate on the “blue water” of the oceans; rather, much of what has been crucial in human history has taken place on and by means of the world’s rivers and inland seas.
The result of Paine’s reorientation of world and maritime history, The Sea & Civilization, is a great achievement. It is an expansive yet highly readable and organized narrative history, grounded in impressive and extensive research and accented by a variety of helpful maps and effective illustrations. It is a long book, but never dull or laborious. Beginning in the Bronze Age and concluding with the contemporary era, Paine explores how the sea has fostered connections between the globe’s disparate peoples, and led to the development of various important economic relationships and centers of power. Tracing and connecting the maritime histories of a multitude of peoples—including the ancient Egyptians, the Phoenicians, the Chinese, the Arabs, and the various European societies—Paine succeeds in asserting the primacy of the maritime domain in the unfolding of world affairs.
In his last chapter, “The Maritime World since the 1950s,” the author makes a final argument: The sea still matters. With the rise of the modern container ship and the isolated ports that serve them away from the public eye, and the ever-growing prevalence of “flags of convenience,” most communities have lost their sense of direct connection to merchant shipping. Once upon a time, merchant ships served as emblems of national economic might and graced key ports and population centers, but no longer. Now, Paine explains, merchant shipping, despite its continual growth and central importance to the global and national economies, has been largely forgotten by modern populations. To vacationers taking holidays on cruise ships and to the beach, the sea is important as a playground and pleasant backdrop, but that is all. In contrast, Paine reminds us that the sea still maintains a fundamental role in global politics and economics, as it has throughout world history. Indeed, its role is more important than ever. Readers of Lincoln Paine’s admirable The Sea & Civilization will surely enjoy the book’s detailing and interweaving of diverse maritime activity over time; however, they should come to realize, too, a great and fundamental truth: the essential significance of the maritime domain to global human history and contemporary reality.