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Six frigates : the epic history of the…

Six frigates : the epic history of the founding of the U.S. Navy (2006)

by Ian W. Toll

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The subtitle, "The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy" is a misnomer. The Continental Navy established during the American Revolution gets short shrift. Toll in a few lines disposes of sad tale of 13 frigates, 11 of which were destroyed or captured by the British in the course of the Revolutionary War. American Revolutionary naval hero John Paul Jones ("I have not yet begun to fight!") gets 19 lines--British Napoleonic War admiral Horatio Nelson and the Battle of Trafalgar gets much more space. Rather, the "six frigates" of the title refer to the ships authorized by a 1794 bill to fight the Barbary pirates that would form the nucleus of the infant navy. The United States, the "Old Wagon," was the first--Herman Melville of Moby Dick fame would serve on it. The Constellation won distinction in the "Quasi-War" against France. The Constitution, the celebrated "Old Ironsides," is the oldest commissioned ship in the U.S. Navy today. The "unlucky" Chesapeake, the "runt of the litter," would have its own storied history. The President was the speediest, and the Congress would serve as a teaching ship--in essence the first American naval academy.

It was in focusing closely on the stories of these ships and their men that Toll was at his best. Judging from his biography Toll can't boast a military or maritime background, nor can he sport credentials as a historian. He had worked as a financial analyst on Wall Street and as a political operative. He is good at detailing some of the economic and political forces that form the context for the story of the United States Navy, but those parts of his tale come across as rather superficial. Many people split contemporary histories into the "popular" versus the "scholarly" but I don't think Toll embodies the strengths of either side of the divide. He doesn't have the kind of evocative prose nor narrative drive of the popular David McCullough or Stephen Ambrose. Nor is there the kind of close analysis or sweeping themes of academic historians David Hackett Fischer or Bernard Bailyn. His acknowledgements,"Debt of Gratitude" implies Toll relied heavily on secondary sources; (he mentions McCullough's John Adams in particular) and Six Frigates reads that way. It doesn't have the depth of something written by someone who has immersed himself in primary material and has thought through and argued the issues. Much of the framing material struck me as dull, because I'd read so much of that story before.

But ah, it was a different case when he focused on the ships, men and battles of the young United States Navy from 1794 to 1815 from "the shores of Tripoli" to the "perilous fight" of the War of 1812. Maybe it's been told better somewhere else. I don't know. I picked up this book because it was recommended in The Ultimate Reading List. But those parts did sparkle. How could I, Star Trek fan that I am, not be entertained reading of dashing naval hero Stephen Decauter, commander of the USS Enterprise, who would cause women to swoon by entering a room? How could I not be enthralled by the story of his fellow officers who when not killing each other in duels would indulge in "single-ship" duels between them and the British in the War of 1812? Toll's accounts of naval battles read like something out of CS Forester or Patrick O'Brien and indeed at one point he quotes from Fortune of War O'Brien's fictionalized account of a battle between a British ship and the USS Constitution. Really, if I hadn't been spoiled by some outstanding works of history these past months by the likes of Bernard Bailyn, David Hackett Fisher, David McCullough and Nathaniel Philbrick, I would have rated this higher. Because yes, I was very much entertained while getting an eduction about naval warfare, American style, in the Age of Sail. ( )
  LisaMaria_C | Jan 20, 2013 |
If ever a reader wanted to be thrown into the depths of history, Six Frigates is the book that will do it. This is a wonderful, in-depth look at the founding of the American Navy as well as the historical tale of the various adversaries that first crossed the path of the original ships, their Captains, and their crews.

Readers should ignore the book's size and dive right in because there is no worry for being lost in drab facts and recitations here. It is all too easy to be pulled in to the various battles, experience what life in America was like under the first Presidents, or imagine the sights of these first ships being cheered and celebrated on their return to their home ports. The text is engaging and the storytelling is in a factual style, but with emotion and some humor thrown in for excellent balance with fact and quote.

This is a book that will make many want to run out and experience life on these ships first hand, and is a must-read for anyone wishing to visit one of the remaining historical ships. The words within will make certain the experience on board is truly appreciated and that the ship itself is properly absorbed as as the important monument that it is.. ( )
  mirrani | Jul 16, 2012 |
A good popular account of the United States Navy in the early republic, with almost as much emphasis on the political context that the force was embedded in as on the naval action. If there was one particular section that interested me above the others it was the combat actions of the Quasi-War with France, mostly due to my relative ignorance. ( )
  Shrike58 | May 5, 2011 |
Excellent book, very readable but also very informative. It describes the history of the United States Navy from just after the War For Independence through the War of 1812, with an epilogue taking the story up through Teddy Roosevelt. Covers not just naval actions but also the politics and national controversies over the creation and maintaining of a naval force. ( )
  jztemple | Nov 24, 2010 |
Read after visiting Old Ironsides USS Constitution in Boston on Thanksgiving. Enjoyed history of Navy at beginning of 19th century and also hearing about growing US trade and 1812 war with England ( )
  mk885 | Apr 15, 2010 |
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On October 21, 1805, an English fleet commanded by Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson hunted down and annihilated the combined fleets of France and Spain in an immense sea battle off Cape Trafalgar, near the Spanish coast.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0393058476, Hardcover)

How "a handful of bastards and outlaws fighting under a piece of striped bunting" humbled the omnipotent British Navy.

Before the ink was dry on the U.S. Constitution, the establishment of a permanent military had become the most divisive issue facing the new government. Would a standing army be the thin end of dictatorship? Would a navy protect American commerce against the Mediterranean pirates, or drain the treasury and provoke hostilities with the great powers? The founders—particularly Jefferson, Madison, and Adams—debated these questions fiercely and switched sides more than once. How much of a navy would suffice? Britain alone had hundreds of powerful warships.

From the decision to build six heavy frigates, through the cliffhanger campaign against Tripoli, to the war that shook the world in 1812, Ian W. Toll tells this grand tale with the political insight of Founding Brothers and a narrative flair worthy of Patrick O'Brian. According to Henry Adams, the 1812 encounter between USS Constitution and HMS Guerriere "raised the United States in one half hour to the rank of a first class power in the world." 16 pages of illustrations; 8 pages of color.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:46:55 -0400)

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Describes the origins and early history of the American Navy, discussing the debates by the founding fathers over the need for a permanent military, the decision to construct six heavy frigates, the campaign against Tripoli, and the War of 1812.

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