Six Frigates: How Piracy, War and British Supremacy at Sea Gave Birth to the World's Most Powerful Navy
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.