Thursday, August 23, 2018

Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy, by Ian W. Toll

Today I'm looking at a history of the United States Navy in its earliest era from its founding during George Washington's administration through the War of 1812. For much of this period the existence of the navy was very much in doubt. The early United States had a strong distaste for standing military forces, and this included naval forces. In addition to the great expense involved in maintaining a naval force, many Americans believed a navy would only lead to further conflicts with European powers. Some Americans much preferred the use of privateers, much like the American militia system, to meet America's security needs than a large standing army.

The need for an American navy became apparent, however, due to conflict with the Barbary States and the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars in Europe. The conflict with the Barbary states is gone into much greater detail in another book I read, Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates. While this book spends at least a decent portion talking about the Barbary States since it's an examination of the Navy as a whole it also explores the Quasi-war and the War of 1812 which further emphasized the need for a navy.

From the beginning the leaders of the United States realized that a large navy with ships of the line modeled along European lines would not be sustainable with the resources that the United States possessed. The initial plan in 1794 called for six frigates, four heavy and two light, constructed at six different shipyards through the United States. The main designer Joshua Humphreys, planned the frigates on designs that would make them heavier, stronger, and better-armed than British and French frigates, but also make them fast enough to still evade ships of the line against which the frigate would be hopelessly outmatched. The result, proved eventually in the War of 1812, was that the American frigates could go toe-to-toe (or more accurately yardarm-to-yardarm) with British frigates and in many cases still win.

The amazing thing is that the Navy managed to survive despite almost being dissolved numerous times. It seems to be a consistent policy that when war is looming, the United States went through a flurry of trying to get ships together and ready to fight, but once a treaty has been made and peace declared the United States decides to mothball its frigates and furlough its officers, squandering valuable institutional experience in the interim. Only to have to bring the ships back up to fighting trim when the next round of hostilities opened. In some ways it's amazing that the navy managed to survive until the War of 1812.

If the War of 1812 did anything, it proved that the navy was a necessary element for national defense and that the United States could, and would, stand up against British naval power and win. Compared to the debacles of the various attempted invasions of Canada and the disgrace of Washington D. C. being burned by redcoats, the multiple victories at sea against the best navy in the world dramatically boosted American morale. Naval commanders such as Stephen Decatur and Oliver Hazard Perry became household names and lithographs of the nation's frigates became popular decorations. After the war ended, support and funding for the navy remained strong and the United States navy continued to grow.

Overall I thought this book was interesting, if fairly brief. It's at best a brief overview of the history of the U.S. navy for its first twenty years of its existence. Because I did a report on the Battle of Lake Erie in seventh grade, I did a ton of research on the early navy so I vaguely remembered quite a few of the events described in this book. But if you're looking for a brief history this is definitely a good choice and worth the effort.

- Kalpar

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