Prisoners of the Bashaw: The Nineteen-Month Captivity of American Sailors in Tripoli, 1803–1805
Frederick C. Leiner. Yardley, PA: Westholme Publishing, 2022. 311 pp. Notes. Glossary. Index. Maps. Illus. $35.
Reviewed by William J. Prom
The 21st century has seen a renewed interest in the First Barbary War, with many books, of varying scholarship, published in the past two decades. With his latest book, Prisoners of the Bashaw: The Nineteen-Month Captivity of American Sailors in Tripoli, 1803–1805, Frederick C. Leiner offers a unique entry sure to stand out in a crowded field. Rather than delivering another attempt at a comprehensive history of the conflict, Leiner focuses on the crew of the frigate Philadelphia and their captivity in Tripoli from 31 October 1803 to 3 June 1805. This exploration of the First Barbary War through the lens of the imprisoned American sailors and Marines should interest newcomers to the topic and reward scholars of the conflict with a new perspective.
Prisoners of the Bashaw begins with a prologue outlining the Philadelphia’s grounding and capture. After a chapter providing context on Tripolitan history, the other Barbary States, and the outbreak of the First Barbary War, the book provides a chronological account of the experiences of the officers and crew of the Philadelphia from their preparations to deploy to the Mediterranean to their captivity and eventual release. Leiner centers the book on the American captives, but he does not limit the narrative to their point of view. The reader will still learn about Stephen Decatur’s burning of the Philadelphia, Commodore Edward Preble’s gunboat attacks, the reactions to their captivity back in the United States, and more. All these events, however, are discussed in relation to the prisoners’ experience.
Throughout the book, Leiner relies on the Naval Documents Related to the United States Wars with the Barbary Powers, personal papers of U.S. Navy personnel, the published memoirs and correspondence of the Philadelphia’s crew, and contemporary newspaper reports. Leiner is open about the reliability of his sources and makes sound judgments on their dependability. For example, he questions Admiral David Dixon Porter writing about his father, Philadelphia First Officer David Porter; debates inconsistencies between Midshipman James Biddle’s and Purser Keith Spence’s correspondence home; and addresses discrepancies between Marine Private William Ray’s and Surgeon Jonathan Cowdery’s published accounts of their captivity.
Despite a wealth of materials, the available primary sources still leave gaps. Leiner is quite clear in these instances and uses other sources, such as contemporary prisoner-of-war accounts, to make reasonable assumptions and add greater detail. Leiner’s evaluation of sources, detailed notes, and extensive bibliography make Prisoners of the Bashaw an excellent resource for those researching the conflict further.
Despite many recent published works on the First Barbary War, several elements of the conflict are still up for debate. Leiner tackles several of these issues, such as the effectiveness of the U.S. blockade, the effect of William Eaton’s mission, and whether the American captives were prisoners of war or slaves. Throughout Prisoners of the Bashaw, Leiner outlines these different perspectives and argues his stances thoughtfully.
Leiner has built a reputation for scholarly work in the Age of Sail, and Prisoners of the Bashaw lives up to the standard of his previous works, perhaps even surpassing them in narrative style. Focusing firmly on the American captives of the First Barbary War, Prisoners of the Bashaw offers a fresh take on the conflict while also providing a greater understanding of the period, the early 19th-century U.S. Navy, and Age of Sail ship operations.
Mr. Prom graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 2009 and commissioned in the Marine Corps. He now serves as a nonprofit development director and writes on naval history topics. He is the 2022 Naval History Author of the Year. His work has appeared in Naval History and CIMSEC.
To the Uttermost Ends of the Earth: The Epic Hunt for the South’s Most Feared Ship—and the Greatest Sea Battle of the Civil War
Phil Keith and Tom Clavin, Toronto: Hanover Square Press, 2022. 270 pp. Maps. Illus. Biblio. Index. $29.99.
Reviewed by Andrew G. Wilson
Within the span of their book’s 270 pages, authors Phil Keith and Tom Clavin provide readers with a comprehensive and compelling account of the South’s most famous high seas raider—the CSS Alabama—and the U.S. Navy’s far-reaching and laborious hunt to bring the curtain down on the Rebel vessel. Along the way, Keith and Clavin also ensure the reader is aware of the human element behind the story and the close fateful connection between the captains of the opposing vessels in the final drama of this great naval saga.
The story of the hunt for the Alabama ranges from the summer of 1862, when the raider was launched at Birkenhead, England, through June of 1864, when the Confederate sloop-of-war met her end under the guns of the USS Kearsarge off Cherbourg, France. To those acquainted with 19th-century naval warfare and the Civil War, the Alabama’s story is likely well-traveled territory. However, Keith and Clavin humanize the ship and her crew as well as her hunters—John Winslow and the crew of the Kearsarge.
The authors principally draw on secondary sources, as well as contemporary papers and reports from the postwar official records published by the U.S. Government Printing Office in 1896. The selective use of these records supports the book’s narrative by providing contemporary views from such actors as U.S. Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, U.S. diplomat Charles Francis Adams, and Captain Winslow himself. In addition, the writings of the Alabama’s famous captain, Raphael Semmes, also are used to ensure the ship’s full story is revealed.
The Union’s hunt for the Alabama was far-ranging, spanning both the North and South Atlantic Ocean, as well as the Indian Ocean. Although encountered several times by Union vessels, Captain Semmes and the Alabama always managed to escape—until the fateful June day in 1864 when she met the Kearsarge in the English Channel.
The strength of this retelling of the Alabama’s story is in the way the authors have outlined the personal histories and relationship between the two opposing captains. As illustrated in To the Uttermost Ends, the record of interlocking lives and careers of those who fought against one another in the Civil War was all too true, regular, and often tragic. In the case of Semmes and Winslow, they had been cabin mates on board the USS Cumberland off Veracruz during the Mexican War. Their paths would cross again prior to the outbreak of the Civil War when both were assigned to support the Lighthouse Board.
To the Uttermost Ends also details the brief career of Semmes’ first command, the CSS Sumter, along with the effect Confederate raiders had on Union merchant shipping.
When juxtaposed against Confederate defeats at the battles of Vicksburg and Gettysburg at the midpoint of the Alabama’s career, the ship represented a near-singular highpoint amid the South’s war
efforts, especially on the international stage. Unfortunately for both the South and the Alabama and her crew, the Battle of Cherbourg would come to represent yet another sign of the inevitable outcome of their national struggle. The raider’s final engagement—much like the cause she sailed for—would end in defeat.
To the Uttermost Ends of the Earth is an example of readable and enjoyable narrative history. Historians may find fault with the book’s lack of source citations, but when read alongside other popular accounts of the Alabama by such writers as Chester G. Hearn, Ivan Musicant, Jack D. Coombe, and Stephen Fox, To the Uttermost Ends of the Earth will serve effectively as the final link in the story of the Confederate States Navy—essentially, her last gasp at sea.
Mr. Wilson is a graduate of the U.S. Naval War College and an operational representative with the Department of the Navy.
Dünkirchen 1940: The German View of Dunkirk
Robert Kershaw. Oxford/New York: Osprey, 2022. 352 pp. Illus. Maps. Notes. Biblio. Index. $30.
Reviewed by Evan Mawdsley
Many books have been written about the World War II land/sea interface, but mainly about invasions, as armies are transported to a hostile shore and landed there. Dünkirchen 1940: The German View of Dunkirk is about a great evacuation, when ten divisions of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) were evacuated across the English Channel from Dunkirk in late May and early June 1940.
As the title indicates, this is the German perspective on events, and the German version of the port’s name is cleverly used. Of course, the common anglophone term “Dunkirk” is not the actual name either. To be fair, “Dunkerque” might have been an alternative title; throughout, the author recounts how French troops played an important and heroic role in the battle, including covering the final withdrawal.
Dünkirchen is a detailed narrative, well supported by maps of ground fighting on the coast near Dunkirk, including at Boulogne and Calais. Author Robert Kershaw, a retired British Army colonel, brings to his work fluency in German (he was attached for more than two years to the Bundeswehr) and a sound understanding of armies, soldiers, and fighting. As such, his book is a valuable supplement to the common view from the British side, which is centered on the evacuation.
Considerable space also is devoted to the Luftwaffe, including a useful discussion of Hermann Göring’s role and the often-neglected factor of cloudy weather. Aside from a description of a deadly attack by three E-boats on the night of 28–29 May, there is very little on the German Navy. That feature of the text, however, is not unreasonable in view of the limited role of the fleet. Indeed, one of Kershaw’s explanations for the fatal failure of the Germans was their lack of a grasp of the potential of sea power. He cites the British General Edward Spears’ description of the attitude of the French Army at the time: “The sea was much the same thing as an abyss of boiling pitch and brimstone, an insurmountable obstacle no army could venture over.” The same thing, Kershaw suggests, can be said of land-centric Hitler and his generals, and that is a very valuable perception.
Kershaw’s view is that Hitler’s “Halt” order of 24 May was less important than other factors. The German armor, despite the great operational success of the two-week dash to the Channel from the Ardennes, faced significant problems when forced to fight in built-up areas. This happened, first, at Boulogne and Calais, and then on the approaches to Dunkirk. The key port, surrounded by flooded canals, could only be taken by infantry, and it was ferociously defended by the British and French. (As the author points out, the terrain was such that German-held Dunkirk would hold out for nearly eight months until VE Day, although surrounded by Allied forces). It also is true that the armies surrounding Dunkirk in March 1940 came from several directions and were badly coordinated with one another and with the Luftwaffe. And as the Wehrmacht began to prepare for the next stage of the French campaign, across the Somme and toward Paris, much of the armor was being withdrawn from the Dunkirk perimeter.
The Dunkirk evacuation saved a large part of the BEF and what Kershaw aptly describes as the “seedcorn” of the future British Army. Its “success” probably also kept Britain in the war. Kershaw correctly argues that the events of these days “could determine the outcome of World War II.” He does an excellent job both of giving a feel for fighting around Dunkirk and of providing an understanding of why the evacuation turned out as it did.
Mr. Mawdsley is an honorary professorial research fellow in the Department of Humanities at the University of Glasgow and author of The War for the Seas: A Maritime History of World War II (Yale University Press, 2020).
Great Battles: Tsushima
Rotem Kowner. New York: Oxford University Press, 2022. 336 pp. Diagrams. Maps. Photos. Notes. Biblio. Index. $27.95.
Reviewed by Captain Sam J. Tangredi, U.S. Navy (Retired)
Writing from the premise that the naval battle of Tsushima—which effectively ended the Russo-Japanese War (1904–05)—was a more strategically significant and decisive battle than either Trafalgar or Midway, Professor Rotem Kowner of the University of Haifa provides a balanced and well-researched analysis. However, it is one that might satisfy an international relations or strategic studies scholar, but not necessarily a naval enthusiast.
From his perspective, Tsushima (named for the strait separating Japan from Korea) can indeed be considered more decisive; neither Trafalgar nor Midway actually ended the wars in which they were fought. Kowner focuses on the effects of the battle on the subsequent balance of power in Asia; on the navies, governments, and populations of combatants and observers; and on the rise of Japanese militarism and expansion. This is natural since Kowner is primarily a scholar of Japanese history, although he does strive for impartial use of both Japanese and Russian archival primary sources—which he maintains distinguishes his book from prior treatments. Nevertheless, his depiction of the actual events of the battle constitute but 31 of the book’s 336 pages. Clearly this is not an approach similar to, for example, Osprey Publishing’s “Campaign” books.
Tsushima is one of the first volumes of Oxford University Press “Great Battles” series, edited by the British military historian Hew Strachan, each of which is intended as an in-depth scholarly assessment of an individual battle of particular historical significance. As expected of this publisher, it is well written and very well edited—elegant sentences, certainly no typos. The book has a comprehensive discussion of naval theory circa 1890–1920. It also includes four very useful diagrams of the fleet actions in the battle as well as helpful maps. Nevertheless, packing the events of the battle into so few pages makes it very difficult to follow the combat actions. The narrative is just too fast. Russian ships sink after Russian ships sink with no time for the reader to sort out which specific Japanese ships engaged them, how many hits they actually received, or the level of the crew’s determination to fight.
Kowner does capture the general operational decisions of the respective fleet commanders, pointing out that Japanese Admiral Heihachirō Tōgō—deified after death as a Shinto war god—never quite managed to actually “cap the T” on the Russian main column, which is how the battle usually is described in general naval histories. He corrects a few inaccurate past interpretations; however, in attempting to be impartial, he seems to minimize the absolute incompetence of Admiral Zinovil Rozhestvenskii and the subordinate Russian commanders. Kowner is concerned that “Russia’s misfortunes should not conceal its opponent’s [Tōgō’s] achievement.”
In this case, striving for rigorous impartially is a bit misplaced. As Kowner suggests, Rozhestvenskii deserves credit for mastering the overwhelming logistical requirements of steaming a fleet of more than 42 coal-fired warships in the 18,000-nautical-mile voyage from the Baltic port of Kronstadt to (almost) Vladivostok in the Sea of Japan (with most of the ships rounding Cape Horn). Rozhestvenskii was brilliant at chartering multinational colliers and dealing with not-particularly friendly ports, but arrived with no battle plan, no intelligence of the enemy’s tactics and disposition, and no trust between him and his commander. As Kowner admits, the Russians failed—or perhaps we should say achieved—“all three basic categories of military failures proposed by [Eliot] Cohen and John Gooch in their analytical study Military Misfortunes” (failure to learn, failure to anticipate, failure to adapt).
The book does have a fine chapter on subsequent global developments in naval technology and doctrine, and a section on why Tōgō won and Rozhestvenskii lost that includes analysis of armament, armor, speed, preparedness, and other factors. However, there is a glaring omission: damage control. The term is mentioned in passing but once in the book. This is an important factor because, as Kowner notes, stricken Russian battleships capsized because they had no means of counter-flooding to maintain stability if hits on one side flooded compartments below the waterlines. Perhaps some could have survived if they had damage control capabilities.
A surprising aspect of postbattle events that Kowner identifies is that, unlike in World War II, the Japanese treated the Russian sailors who became prisoners of war humanely. Tōgō visited a wounded and captured Rozhestvenskii to tell him, “Defeat is an accident to all fighting men and there is no occasion to be cast down if we have done our duty.” Perhaps that was a piece of political theater, but one wonders how the Japanese attitude toward prisoners of war changed so drastically for the very worse in the intervening 35 years.
It may be unfair to criticize Kowner for the lack of patient detail of the actual battle actions, because clearly that is not the book he intended to write. A helpful and simple improvement to his account would be including a timeline of the individual ship engagements. Nevertheless, readers should approach this book with the realization that a more accurate title would be Strategic and Political Effects of the Battle of Tsushima.
CAPT Tangredi, who is an international relations and strategic studies scholar, holds the Leidos Chair of Future Warfare Studies at the U.S. Naval War College. As a midshipman (many years ago), he researched and drafted a course thesis on the voyage of the Russian fleet to Tsushima.