Revolution on the Hudson: New York City and the Hudson River Valley in the War of American Independence
George C. Daughan. New York: W. W. Norton, 2016. 432 pp. Intro. Illus. Notes. Biblio. Index. $28.95.
Reviewed by Tim McGrath
George C. Daughan’s work already is familiar among lovers of naval history, beginning with his Samuel Eliot Morison Award–winning If by Sea, and his subsequent 1812: The Navy’s War and The Shining Sea, about the exploits of David Porter and the Essex.
Daughan’s latest, Revolution on the Hudson, is not simply about New York during the Revolutionary War. It is a narrative that intertwines the events and intrigue that occurred there with the story of the war itself. The first half of the book examines how American forces in general (and George Washington in particular) strove to hold on to New York City and the mighty Hudson River against impossible odds. Daughan points out that General Washington possessed the appropriate commanding presence but lacked not only a naval force and seasoned troops but also the strategic foresight to win such an encounter—especially against two experienced, courageous, and brilliant opponents: General William Howe and his brother, the even more formidable Admiral Richard Howe.
Tension builds through the early chapters thanks to Daughan’s development of character as much as to the chain of events. He lays before the reader the strategic importance of the city and the river while painting memorable portraits of the cast of characters the reader meets along the way. Washington’s dignified aura is mixed with his inexperience, and one wonders how Major General Charles Lee’s emaciated frame could contain such condescension and contempt.
The author’s description of the British leaders is equally compelling: how the Howe brothers rose in their respective ranks not by birth but by bravery, and how orders from London by Lord Germain and the Earl of Sandwich for terrorist-like attacks on American coastal towns stemmed as much from their contempt of the American rebels as from their policy decisions.
Daughan chronicles how Brooklyn and Manhattan were lost in part by Washington’s overthinking and indecisiveness, but he also shows the general’s never-say-die orchestration of the retreat from Brooklyn in boats manned by John Glover’s Marbleheaders—that wondrous combination of daring and luck, thanks to Mother Nature if not Providence. Reduced to fire ships and galleys, there aren’t a lot of American heroics on the water (David Bushnell’s submarine, the Turtle, gets a nod), but there are plenty of Royal Navy successes mentioned in the text, and a bit of Daughan wit—as when he describes British warships passing safely by chevaux-de-frise and American batteries “as if they were cobwebs.”
General Howe’s lack of follow-up with each victory (a caution he learned at Bunker Hill) is nicely juxtaposed with his brother’s earnest hope of brokering a peace with the rebels. One highlight is the meeting among the admiral and congressional emissaries John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, and William Rutledge—a Staten Island “summit” so well told it puts the reader in the room with these four very different personalities.
After the loss of New York, Daughan takes his readers from the Continental Army’s retreat through New Jersey, Washington’s stunning victories at Trenton and Princeton, and the loss of Philadelphia, Valley Forge, Monmouth, and Charleston. But all the while, the author returns to events in New York and Washington’s determination to retake the site of his worst defeat. In doing so, Revolution on the Hudson also is a character study. At times, Washington seems as fixated on returning triumphantly to New York as Captain Ahab is to kill Moby Dick. Thankfully, the general (unlike the fictional whaler) learns forbearance, which Daughan subtly points out in the near-misses Washington experiences once the French fleets arrive. Twice, circumstances prevent Washington from getting his chance at vindication, but when the opportunity finally presents itself to wield French sea power with American and French land forces at Yorktown, the general cleverly acquiesces to the change in geography.
Throughout the book, Daughan offers rarely told but fascinating bits of information; favorites include Washington’s plan to capture a midshipman serving with Admiral Robert Digby (who happened to be Prince William Henry, King George III’s son) and a description of the breathtaking estate of General Howe’s mistress, Elizabeth Loring. The author’s account of runaway slaves in New York and the American prisoners finally freed from the prison ship Jersey are both well-told and heartwrenching.
Daughan begins his book with a quote from Edmund Burke: “Magnanimity in politics is not seldom the truest wisdom.” True enough, but at the end of Revolution on the Hudson one remembers another line of Burke’s that Daughan demonstrates Washington learned very well: “Our patience will achieve more than our force.”
The Heroic Age of Diving: America’s Underwater Pioneers and the Great Wrecks of Lake Erie
Jerry Kuntz. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2016. 224 pp. Illus. Notes. Biblio. Index. $19.95.
Reviewed by Robert Neyland
In The Heroic Age of Diving, Jerry Kuntz follows the careers of early 19th-century American divers and innovators who sought to advance diving technology. Their impetus was fueled by the desire to salvage shipwrecks, recover treasure, harvest underwater resources, and clear harbor obstructions to improve navigation. Most of these early pioneers would have been lost to history without a Kuntz to tell their stories. All of these adventurers were looking for sunken profit, and all were resourceful, courageous, egotistical, and in some instances, obsessed.
Kuntz considers William Hannis Taylor to be the father of American diving. Although he failed as a privateer after being accused by a U.S. naval officer of piracy, Taylor cleared himself of the charges. In doing so, however, he lost his livelihood and his ship. He thought he might profit from another risky venture—the pearl-diving industry—if he could develop an assisted-breathing device. Subsequently, in 1837, he patented a diving suit called “submarine armor.” The following year, Taylor founded the New York Submarine Armor Company, whose business plan focused on the practical work of wreck salvage, underwater demolition, and the manufacture and sale of submarine armor to the U.S. Navy.
A common thread running through the careers of these early American divers was the allure of riches. Rather than choose an occupation such as navigation or harbor improvements by clearing obstructions and removing hazards, which would have provided more lasting financial rewards and viable careers, early divers focused on hunting treasure. William H. Taylor temporarily found a partner in George W. Taylor (unrelated), and together the two met their expenses by salvaging cargo from shipwrecks.
They also developed methods of underwater demolition. William Taylor was a credible inventor who developed one of the earliest battery-powered electric motors while testing waterproof fuses and batteries for electric explosive detonation. He also patented a method for the mechanized cutting of steamed wood and a propeller designed to reduce swells. Both Taylors’ careers failed to prosper, in part because of their obsessions with sunken ships and treasure. William failed in an attempt to recover the trove from the French privateer Le Télémaque, and George died dreaming of the payroll on the wreck of HMS Hussar.
Kuntz tells the stories of the many marine engineers who followed the Taylors, including Benjamin Maillefort, who improved navigation through obstruction removal; Edgar W. Forman and Henry Beaufort Sears, inventors of the untethered diving bell “Nautilus”; and Lodner D. Phillips, creator of the “Marine Cigar” submarine. Then came James Eads and Albert D. Bishop, designers of first wrecking steamers equipped with diving bells and derrick barges fabricated to lift heavy loads, and James A. Whipple, who improved the Taylor diving suit. John E. Gowan and Thomas F. Wells contributed to the growing field using newly designed diving suits fashioned after the English model—and clearing the wreck of the U.S. side-wheel frigate Missouri, which had blocked the entrance to Gibraltar.
Individuals who became involved for personal reasons also shaped technological developments related to salvage and diving operations. Daniel R. Stebbins had divers salvage the Lake Erie wreck of the SS G. P. Griffith not only for profit, but also to confirm the cause of the fire that resulted in the ship’s tragic loss. Thus began an early use of diving for forensic purposes. Then there was Daniel D. Chapin, who invented a remote sensing device he called the “marine compass,” which he deployed to locate the wreck of the steamboat Erie.
These 19th-century engineers, divers, and inventors encountered debilitating or fatal health risks while carrying out their work, including “diver squeeze” and “caisson disease,” or “the bends,” which today is known as decompression sickness. Other risks included the entanglement of divers’ hoses and the difficulties involved in air transfer from surface to diver. Kuntz provides examples of a number of fatalities and injuries to early divers.
Interestingly, the history of diving intersects with that of submarine and mine warfare. Experimentation with these underwater technologies was the direct result of a common need to remove or salvage large objects such as wreckage or environmental impediments. Although many of these innovators struggled with matters that were technologically and conceptually ahead of their times, they invented technologies beyond those typically used in diving, such as underwater explosives, purification systems, and remote sensing devices. Many would consider these to be 20th-century technologies.
Regional salvage in Lake Erie seems to be a common factor in many of these early divers’ careers. Steamboat disasters and the resulting salvage attempts also prompted a need for more divers, which led to advances in both diving and salvage technology. The aftermath of the Civil War resulted in even further demand for divers to salvage and remove the many ships sunk in Southern harbors and rivers.
Kuntz’s book is amply illustrated with images of the divers, early diving equipment, and salvage methods, as well as the ship wreckage that challenged the skills of the engineers and divers. The notes and bibliography are quite satisfactory and will be of value to other researchers of the history of diving and the wrecks covered in the book.
Order and Disorder in the British Navy, 1793–1815: Control, Resistance, Flogging and Hanging
Thomas Malcomson. Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK: The Boydell Press, 2016. 239 pp. Intro. Illus. Appen. Notes. Biblio. Index. $55.
Reviewed by Frederick C. Leiner
As First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill supposedly referred to Royal Navy tradition as “nothing but rum, sodomy and the lash.” In Order and Disorder in the British Navy, Thomas Malcomson, a professor at George Brown College in Toronto, comes to grips with the forces of entropy working on the British navy during the War of 1812. He trains a laser-like focus on the internal dynamics of the people manning the British warships arraigned against the United States on the Great Lakes and on both the North Atlantic and West Indies stations. In great detail, Malcomson has taken a fresh look at how discipline was established and enforced.
Malcomson has an eye for the telling anecdote, but Order and Disorder is not a narrative history. Rather, he approaches his topic thematically, concentrating first on the forces of order, transitioning to the forces working to undermine order, and then turning to the systems of discipline (reaction) meant to ensure order. The forces of order ranged from “paper,” such as the Admiralty’s 440-page Rules and Instructions and captains’ order books, to the regimentation on board ship, to diverse factors such as pay, prize money, food, religious services, and language. His forces of disorder range from desertion, resistance, disobedience, and disrespect to nationality, race, alcoholism, “uncleanliness,” and sex. The forces brought to bear in reaction were, of course, floggings and other forms of discipline.
The author has conducted sweeping research, having examined every logbook, court-martial proceeding, muster table, and captain’s log, as well as letters and published accounts. Moreover, his writing is informed by sociological, criminological, and psychological literature. In each section, after laying copious statistics before the reader, Malcomson finds a telling example from a letter or logbook, or tells an interesting, slightly longer story, from which he makes well-grounded conclusions.
He debunks many maritime myths. For instance, although leftist historians Peter Linebaugh and Marcus Rediker asserted in The Many-Headed Hydra that black seamen made up almost 25 percent of the complement of ships in the period, were generally accepted by whites, and formed a radical presence, Malcomson demonstrates that blacks made up 4 to 7 percent of British crews, were less likely than whites to desert, but were subject to vehement racism.
Similarly, although historians recently assert that the frequency and severity of flogging diminished in the Georgian navy, Malcomson studied the 2,697 incidents of summary punishment on board his “target” British warships and determined that floggings grew heavier (the average was 22.4 lashes). Interestingly, despite Churchill’s claim, there were few cases of buggery, although they were punished with great severity; unsurprisingly, drunkenness caused many disciplinary problems.
Order and Disorder is a book that scholars of the War of 1812 will consult for years for its statistical data and fresh conclusions. Malcomson is a fine writer. His work is well organized, convincing, and well written. Not many lay readers, however, will appreciate or understand the many footnote references to quadratic equations, Spearman Rho correlations, and the Time Series analyses or appreciate that all his statistics were run through SPSS 21 (none of which he defines). There are no illustrations, either—another mark of a book not meant for a popular audience.
Some of his characterizations are open to question. First, Malcomson characterizes “ransoming” as a factor buttressing order. Ransoming was illegal under British law but was a widespread practice by the British blockading squadrons, allowing the immediate (not judicially approved) division of money. There is something paradoxical about illegal conduct creating order, and the avarice that ransoming instilled could lead to disruption of the mission. Even more so with “pillaging”—another factor supposedly buttressing order. Pillaging could run amok and allow behaviors that were antithetical not only to order but also to defeating the enemy: The British sackings of Hampton, Virginia, and Havre de Grace, Maryland, arguably stiffened American resolve.
Second, Malcomson’s treatment of sailors’ claims to American citizenship is questionable. Not only does he brandish statistics indicating that fewer Americans served on board British ships than previously thought, but he also asserts uncritically that Americans “had the opportunity to remove themselves” during the war, rather than fight their countrymen. Exactly how many Americans served on board or were impressed into the Royal Navy is a contentious issue, in part arising from the conflict between the British view that a subject had an inalienable loyalty to the king and American laws encouraging naturalized citizens.
Malcomson notes that fewer Americans than expected came forward to remove themselves, implying they acquiesced to serving in the Royal Navy. That seems dubious. Rather, they were caught in a dilemma: To step forward as Americans meant going from the “frying pan” of serving on an enemy warship, hoping not to meet and have to fight American ships, directly into the “fire” of possibly being sent to rot in Melville Island Prison or being held and punished as deserters. What seems remarkable is that even late in the war, Americans continued to come forward, even though few could think that a protection certificate that had provided no protection from impressment would somehow be respected and provide freedom in wartime.
Order and Disorder is a significant scholarly achievement, these minor observations notwithstanding. Using data from the primary sources, Thomas Malcomson makes original contributions that historians of the War of 1812 will draw on for years to come.
The Rogers Collection of Dockyard Models at the U.S. Naval Academy Museum, Volume 1: First and Second Rates
Grant H. Walker. Florence, OR: SeaWatch Books, 2016. 242 pp. Illus. Photos. Append. Index. $85.
Reviewed by R. Michael Wall
The finest examples of traditional ship modeling—the near-priceless British period antique models formerly owned by British royalty, naval officials, and aristocrats—are given worthy treatment in The Rogers Collection, a spectacular publication by noted curator Grant H. Walker. Volume I focuses on seven Royal Navy Dockyard/Admiralty Board models representing first- and second-rate three-decker warships in the collection. It is the first of a series to evaluate more than 50 17th-, 18th, and early 19th-century dockyard models from this amazing museum collection.
This volume also explains the nature and history of the Rogers Collection gift made to the U. S. Naval Academy Museum in 1935. It’s a fascinating story of how a former colonel in the U.S. Army during World War I, Henry Huddleston Rogers, heir to an enormous fortune from the Standard Oil Company, fulfilled his passion for collecting rare and precious models from Great Britain.
The Rogers Collection can be compared with Arnold and Henry Kriegstein’s volume, 17th and 18th Century Ship Models from the Kriegstein Collection (Pier Books/Dupont Communication, 2007) and overlaps with information found in John Franklin’s Navy Board Ship Models 1650-1750, published in 1989 by the Naval Institute Press. Though Walker restates general information on these types of models, it is specifically related to the U.S. Naval Academy Museum’s collection not otherwise formally examined.
Walker’s perspective is refreshing. He has used previously unavailable, state-of-the-art scientific methods of analysis and discusses at length the advantages of inspecting antique models via interior fiber-optic endoscopy exploration, X-ray, and CT scans. He includes numerous photographs in the book to illustrate these processes.
The author lists each vessel’s specifications and gives an almost deck-by-deck description of each type, along with comments on their restoration or conservation and their individual provenance and general history—all of which further extend our knowledge of the uniqueness of these different models and the vessels they depict in the context of maritime history.
Walker’s narrative style is enjoyable, almost novelistic. Sometimes he presents a mystery regarding a model, yet with the subsequent thorough investigation, he leads the reader to a worthy conclusion or postulated resolution. The book’s format and organization are logical, informative, and consistent with each model having several distinct subdivisions. The analysis of ships, via three-dimensional scale objects, is educational as to period shipbuilding techniques and the evolution of naval architecture.
The Britannia model (No. 6), for example, is the first to be discussed as it dated from the mid-1670s and initially was owned by Charles Sergison, Clerk of the Acts to the Navy Board 1689. Its enigmatic history fully engages the reader. Model No. 39, the 100-gun Royal William (1719), is accompanied by an in-depth survey of the model from its masts and yards and rigging materials, to its exterior and interior hull construction and decorative work. Model No. 72, Unidentified British Second Rate Ship c. 1715–1725, describes its history, early curator Henry Culver’s restoration, identification, and description and includes a summary.
It is sometimes difficult to read the photo captions in places where text has been printed on top of particular photographs, and in one instance (the history of Princess Royal, No. 70) text has been repeated. Otherwise, there is hardly a flaw to be found in this publication or its production. The large format is easily handled and provides for generous photographs that permit greater scrutiny of the detailed images.
Readers may indeed become converts or connoisseurs of the ship models presented in this book, and surely will be engaged by Grant Walker’s respect and knowledge of these historically significant surviving artifacts from the Age of Sail. The book also will hopefully encourage would-be visitors to the U.S. Naval Academy Museum at Annapolis to come see this legacy firsthand in the recently redesigned gallery—the Rogers Ship Model Collection.