I have long been interested in the history of the U.S. Navy, but have never read that much about the early history of the service. After reading Ian W. Toll’s excellent Pacific Crucible: War at Sea in the Pacific 1941-1942 I noticed that he also wrote a history of the early days of the Navy: Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy. I soon added it to my reading list and I’m quite glad that I did.
Six Frigates is a wonderful account of the U.S. Navy from it’s founding in the years following the Revolutionary War through the War of 1812, including operations in the Caribbean Sea. and the Mediterranean Sea. It isn’t just an account of the wars the Navy fought in and battles between ships. Toll tells the story of the politics surrounding the founding of the Navy and the battles between the Federalists and Republicans on the number and types of ships to be built. He delves into building of those first six frigates, looking at the personalities and ideas that made them essentially a new class of warship. The book explores the foreign policy that the six frigates became the point of, involving the British, French, and Barbary pirates. Best of all, Toll puts develops the personalities of the early Navy commanders and Naval Secretaries, showing how they developed the future officer corps of the Navy. He puts us in the heads of the early young naval officers and midshipmen and also tells the story of sailors whose exertions brought the officers glory and without whom the ships couldn’t function.
Perhaps it’s because of my background in History (I majored in U.S. History in college), I particularly enjoyed the closing section of the book in which Toll looks at the Historiography (essentially the history of the study of history) of the subject. I’ve seen other reviews which disapprove of the section, but I think it adds to the book and gives the reader an idea of how early days of the Navy were viewed through the years.
I do think the book falls short in two areas. The first area it falls short in is the heavy use of nautical and period terminology which most readers (including myself) aren’t familiar with. Early on, Toll indicates that won’t be explaining most of the terminology, in the belief that it would slow the narrative down. It slowed the narrative down anyway, because I found myself pausing my reading to look the terms up. I think that he could have easily worked explanations into the narrative that wouldn’t have caused the interruption that stopping to look up terms would have. The second area maps; there is an absolute absence of maps in Six Frigates. Numerous ship versus ship battles are described along with the maneuvers they used, but no diagrams of those battles are used. Attacks of harbors are described, including defenses and obstructions both man made and natural but there are no maps to illustrate them. Maps would have made it much easier to understand the maneuvers used and the dangers faced.
Despite those two shortcomings, I thoroughly enjoyed reading Six Frigates and learned quite a lot about the early history of the United States Navy. Because of the inclusion of domestic politics and foreign policy as well as military operations, this book is well worth the read for anyone interested in United States History, not just those interested in military or naval history. I give it four stars simply because of the combination of the terminology and lack of maps; had it been just one or the other I could have given the book five stars. Regardless, Six Frigates is well worth the read.