- Six Frigates: The Epic History of the Founding of the U.S. Navy
Ian W. Toll's Six Frigates relates the story of the early American Navy largely through the histories of the first six frigates built by the United States, among which were the illustrious Constitution and the ill-fated Chesapeake. He takes these ships from their conception and construction to their actions during the Quasi War with France, the early operations against the Barbary Pirates, the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair, and on to the end of the War of 1812.
Although he breaks no new ground in regards to sources, Toll comes to the task of telling this oft-told tale with a strong narrative style, a firm command of available material, and an obvious love of the subject. Except when he inexplicably cedes the story of the Constitution's magnificent action against HMS Java to the novelist Patrick O'Brian, he confidently handles all aspects of this stirring story, from ship-to-ship actions to political machinations.
Toll has a sure grasp of the personalities of the men who were involved in the life of these frigates, including their designers, the Navy's political heads, and the officers who commanded the ships, strove for glory, and fought for preferment during the Navy's early years. Commendably, his pen portraits of the likes of Thomas Truxtun, William Bainbridge, and Stephen Decatur fully examine their subjects, illustrating, among other things, their considerable touchiness in matters regarding rank, seniority, and honor, which characterized many Navy officers of the time. His description of the naval architect Josiah Humphreys's conception and construction of the 44-gun frigates is enlightening. Most admirably, the author places the development of the U.S. Navy in the context of the politics and diplomacy of the Early Republic. For example, Toll adeptly shows that the government's decisions as to where to build the six frigates turned on more than a little pork-barrel politics.
Alas, Six Frigates could have been a better book. Its beginning is marred [End Page 1236] by a meandering first chapter, which includes a meditation on Nelson and Trafalgar that is discordant in a history of the early American navy. The book closes with an epilogue that largely focuses on the historiography of the "Frigate Navy," especially Theodore Roosevelt's The Naval War of 1812, and a chronology concerning the ships post-1815. Together or separately, they add little to the book. Toll uses nautical terminology extensively, but provides neither a glossary nor a diagram of a representative frigate to make any of it more understandable to nonspecialist readers. Even more vexing is the complete absence of maps (even on the endpapers) as well as any diagrams of ship-to-ship actions, both of which would have helped general readers grasp the details of the campaigns and battles described without turning to other publications.
On the whole, however, Six Frigates is an engaging, if somewhat flawed, account of the early U.S. Navy in which specialist and general readers alike should find much to appreciate. I am hopeful that, after digesting all constructive criticism, Toll will use his considerable skills to tackle another important period in American naval history.